Many people hear useful information each day and later when it might be relevant (such as in a discussion with a political opponent) they might have forgotten that piece of information which might have allowed them to deliver a devastating riposte!
Yes, that used to happen to me until I started using my iPhone to its full capabilities. No, when I hear a useful tidbit I just pull out the phone and make a note of it. The notes are synchronised automatically to my computer and I just do a “tidy up” every now and then and file all the facts away in a file based on the subject area involved.
But many of these little gems have never been used, so I thought why not share them here with my blog readers? And why not start with something moderately controversial like environmentalism? So here they are, some of the contents of my “Environmentalism Random Facts” file which show that what many people believe isn’t necessarily true!
Fact number 1: The energy content of a fabric shopping bag is 130 times greater than that of a plastic supermarket bag. (source: unknown)
Commentary on fact 1: Many people think they are doing the environment a favour by using reusable fabric shopping bags, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A fabric bag involves (in manufacturing, transport, etc) 130 times more energy than a plastic single-use bag. So, if you shop once a week, you would need to have the fabric bag last almost 3 years to make it worthwhile.
Judging by how many of the fabric bags we use break, I’m not sure that many would attain this lifespan. Also, this assumes that the plastic bags aren’t re-used. We re-use ours for rubbish, etc, so that gives them a second life.
I’m not saying that plastic bags are more environmentally friendly that fabric but I am suggesting that the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as many people think.
Fact number 2: Within 50 to 100 years of the Maori (native New Zealanders) arriving in New Zealand the moa (a large flightless bird) was extinct. (source: RNZ podcast, Moa Flourished Through… 2012-08-08)
Fact number 3: The Pacific rat, which was introduced by Maori, caused more extinctions than any other mammal species. (source RNZ podcast, Part 2 the next extinction?)
Fact number 4: In New Zealand 34 species were made extinct by Maori, and just 15 by Europeans. Originally there where were 245 species, of which 174 were endemic. (source RNZ podcast, Part 2 the next extinction?)
Commentary on facts 2 to 4: Many people think that the arrival of Europeans was the greatest factor causing the extinction of native species. These facts show that (at least in New Zealand, but I expect also elsewhere) it is humans in general which are the problem.
Contrary to politically correct belief there is good reason to think that native human populations are no more “in touch with the land” or “integrated with nature” than anyone else.
Fact number 5: Less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected, and just 13% of the land area. (source: RNZ podcast, Managing Our Oceans, approx 2013-01-25)
Commentary on fact 5: Many people who are opposed to conservation claim that industries which exploit the environment (fishing, forestry, etc) are being blocked by excessive environmental protection and regulation. But the facts are that very little of the total area of the planet is fully protected.
Fact number 6: In the US acid rain was stopped by a government cap and trade scheme on sulphur dioxide emissions. Emissions are now 50% below what they were in 1980.
Commentary on fact 6: I often hear conservatives and libertarians claiming that government imposed cap and trade schemes can never work. If that is the case then how do they explain the apparent success of this one?
Note that I am not necessarily a proponent of these schemes myself – just look at the rather dismal failure of the current carbon trading scheme to see why – because they can often be easily manipulated by the exact people they are designed to control. But clearly they can work if they are set up correctly.
I think that any scheme is potentially open to abuse but I also think a carbon (or other pollutant) tax is a better choice. Whatever scheme is put in place the governments involved need to be committed to it and be prepared to stop cynical manipulation by those who will sacrifice the greater good of the planet for their own monetary profit.
Fact number 7: Over half of New Zealand’s recreational rivers are unsafe due to pollution. 52% of those monitored were rated poor or very poor and unsuitable swimming. This was mainly due to farming discharge. (RNZ Podcast 2012-10-17)
Fact number 8: In New Zealand 18,000 to 30,000 people per year contract water borne diseases. These are almost entirely related to pollution from dairy farming. (RNZ Podcast 2012-10-17)
Commentary on facts 7 and 8: There are two common myths which these facts contradict: first, that New Zealand is a “clean and green” country; and second, that farming is a safe and natural activity.
Many parts of New Zealand are clean and green, and some farmers are quite responsible about their farm’s effects on the environment. But as these figures show, neither of those statements are true in general. Dairying is the biggest source of pollution in New Zealand, and the country isn’t particularly clean or green in many places.
Farming is just another exploitative industry but obviously we need it. But it should be much more closely controlled to prevent farmers from destroying the environment just for their own profit. If farming can’t be carried out in an environmentally responsible way then it shouldn’t be carried out at all.
And the myth of our country being clean and green is both a carryover from the past and an invention of the tourism industry. Tourists can certainly visit many parts of the country and not see many signs of pollution, but they would need to stay away from intensive farming areas.
So those are some of my “random fact” highlights. The key feature of many of the facts I gather is that they show things are rarely as they seem, both because of political correctness and the propaganda power of the rich and powerful. I rarely believe what is presented on mainstream media so when I do hear more credible facts from experts I make sure I keep them somewhere safe!
Many of my political opponents – mainly consisting of conservatives and extreme libertarians – like to rant about how evil or incompetent those more on the left of politics are. And because they are so extreme in their views they see even moderate philosophies as being the opposite of their own beliefs, so even centrists to them appear “far left”.
Now I will be the first to admit that I have been known to indulge in the occasional rant myself, but at least I recognise that and I even have a tag “rant” which I use on the WordPress version of this blog and a rating system on my OJB blog with red indicating that the post tends towards controversial ranting!
But in future I am going to try to limit my use of rants to special occasions and therefore make the times I do use that rhetorical technique even more rewarding!
So I am not going to rant about the New Zealand government’s latest budget, even though it is basically hopeless as far as I am concerned. In fact I am going to avoid ranting about our right-leaning parties at all, useless they particularly deserve it of course!
Why? Because I look at the mindless rants of my opposition and I don’t see why I should bring myself down to their level. They rant on about the Labour (left-leaning) Party being hopeless financial managers even though I can show them figures which prove this simply isn’t true. They rant about left-wing conspiracies and communist influences even though the true left and communist supporters would be horrified at how far towards the center-right Labour (and even the Greens) have moved.
So my opponents look pretty stupid (is this starting to sound like a bit of a rant on my part now?) when they take extreme positions. Now I am going to evaluate the current New Zealand (center-right) government, especially in terms of their just released budget, without ranting or making silly, extreme statements!
For a start, the current government isn’t extreme right, but neither is the opposition extreme left – not even the Greens, despite my opponents’ assertions to that effect. An extreme right government would never have passed the marriage equality law and they would have fully privatised our assets instead of just selling 49%, for example.
But a true far-left opposition would have announced they would nationalise those assets when they returned to power, instead of just saying they will create a mechanism to try to control prices in the electricity market the right have created.
So the National Party aren’t evil or incompetent, they just follow a philosophy which I disagree with. Primarily this involves a naive belief in the powers of the market and in private enterprise, and a refusal to use government powers directly to achieve political outcomes.
The Labour Party – at least as it is evolving now, because in the past 30 years it has really just been a clone of National – are prepared to intervene when they think it is necessary. Sure, government intervention sometimes produces unintended consequences and occasionally is poorly considered, but I would say that the risk of a poor intervention to correct market failures is better than not even trying.
And anybody who says anything like “markets never fail if they are left alone to work the way they are supposed to” should have a think about the logic of that statement. How do they define market success? Usually it’s achieving what the market wants. So they are really defining market success using a circular argument: market success is defined as the market doing what it wants, and doing what it wants leads to success.
I say we should allow markets to operate (they will anyway) but to shape them and limit them for the greater good. How do we know what that greater good should be and therefore in what direction markets should be lead? I think we all know the answer to that…
If we see a tiny fraction of people becoming incredibly rich while an increasing proportion of the population can barely survive, then I think we have a market failure. If people can’t afford to buy milk, even though we are the biggest producer in the world, but can afford as much Coca Cola as they want, then I think we have a market failure. If the price of electricity rises several times faster than anything else, despite the fact we have a high proportion of cheap hydro power, then I think we have a market failure. The list of failures could go on for pages.
People who deny the reality of these failures aren’t really evil or incompetent – at least not in most cases – they are just wrong. They are wrong because they have let their minds be trapped by the ideology of the market. They will probably never escape this trap because, like most ideologies: political, religious, or philosophical, there are built-in excuses for when the ideology fails.
Pointing out the deficiencies of mindless rants about these problems by so-called left-oriented people like me is just one of the ways the market ideology tries to hide its failures. So what’s the point? Maybe I should be more positive. As I said above: at least we have a government which isn’t actually evil or incompetent… they’re just wrong!
A friend recently sent me one of those amusing emails pointing out the farcical nature of many of the things in our daily lives. I’m sure we all get them occasionally and might wonder at the ineptitude of some decisions, or the bizarre nature of language, or whatever else might be involved in the particular item.
But, of course, I just cannot take things at face value and wondered what would happen if I actually took the idea seriously and answered the questions. Here’s what I came up with…
Question: Why do supermarkets make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front?
Answer: None of the supermarkets I know of have a prescription dispensing area at the back although I agree many have tobacco at the front. So the first part of the question makes no sense (maybe it does in the US or wherever this email originated). Regarding the second part: I guess it’s because tobacco is a controlled product which is particularly susceptible to both theft and purchase by under-age people, so having it at the front makes sense.
Question: Why do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries, and a diet coke?
Answer: Do they? In the fast food joints I go to if you “up-size” one item you upsize the lot and (just my anecdote) I don’t see a lot of people getting the least healthy food and the sugar-free drink option. But even if they did, maybe they want to avoid sugar but aren’t so concerned about fat.
Question: Why don’t you ever see the headline ‘Psychic Wins Lottery’?
Answer: Because psychics have no special abilities apart from a few basic tricks that anybody can learn fairly easily. Unfortunately these tricks involve how to fool people into thinking that there are special abilities involved and in no way help winning a lottery. A better question might be: why would anyone take psychics seriously?
Question: Why didn’t Noah swat those two mosquitoes?
Answer: Because Noah, along with most of the other characters in the Old Testament, never existed. There never were just two of any species and there never was a global flood. It’s just a myth and one which sends extremely mixed messages about God’s characteristics.
Question: If flying is so safe, why do they call the airport the terminal?
Answer: Because it is the end-point of the journey. Terminal means end and this should not be construed as meaning any permanent termination of the traveller!
Question: Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?
Answer: Because the word is derived from old French “broceur” (small trader), of uncertain origin, but possibly from Old French “brocheor” (wine retailer), which comes from the verb “brochier” (to broach a keg) (source: Wikipedia).
Question: You know that indestructible black box that is used on airplanes? Why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?
Answer: Because the black box (which is actually orange, maybe that anomaly would have been a better question) is made from multiple thick layers of aluminium, stainless steel, and titanium. This is both very expensive and very heavy. You could probably make a plane out of these materials but: it would be too heavy to get off the ground, it would cost so much that no one could afford to buy one, and even if it survived a crash the passengers wouldn’t!
Question: Why do they sterilise the needle for lethal injections?
Answer: I have seen several possible answers to this question, including that if the victim of the execution survives they are pardoned and getting hepatitis at that point would be annoying, or that last second pardons sometimes happen and an antidote might be used. However I think the most likely explanation is that the needles used are the same used in medical procedures and are pre-sterilised. It would cost more to supply needles specifically for executions which weren’t.
Question: Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavouring, and dish washing liquid made with real lemons?
Answer: In many cases they aren’t. There are artificial lemon drinks and there are drinks with real lemon too, just like there are dish washing liquids with both real and artificial components. Of course, many product ingredients are there primarily for marketing reasons. Maybe the demographic who still wash dishes by hand value natural ingredients where those who drink soft drinks don’t care so much.
Question: Ever wonder why the sun lightens our hair, but darkens our skin?
Answer: Yes, I did wonder. Here’s the answer I thought of: The ultraviolet light in sunlight has a bleaching effect on most substances. However humans have evolved a protective mechanism on their skin which darkens when exposed to sunlight. The mechanism involves cells called melanocytes which produce a dark brown protective pigment called melanin.
Question: Why can’t women put on mascara with their mouth closed?
Answer: Because women can’t do anything with their mouth closed. If there mouth was closed how would they boss men around, question their partner’s decisions, and bitch about their friends? (Sorry, just couldn’t resist that one!)
So there you go. Next time you receive one of these “cute” emails why not just spend a little bit of extra time and actually find out the answers? It’s fun!
I haven’t done an entry on my favourite things for a while. If you haven’t read one yet, these posts are about cool (usually geeky) things I think are really amazing and worth talking about. So far I have done the Voyager spacecraft, the iPhone, the Hubble Space Telescope, the McLaren F1, and the SR-71 Blackbird. So what is as cool as these? How about the Large Hadron Collider?
In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard of the LHC or that you want to know a little bit about what it does, I should briefly say what it is. Let’s look at the name: the Large Hadron Collider, and break it down a bit.
First, it’s large. I like the understatement of that word. This thing is huge. Depending on your definition it is the single biggest machine ever built. It is a ring controlled by cooled superconducting magnets 27 kilometers in circumference buried up to 175 metres deep on the border of France and Switzerland near Geneva.
So moving on to “Hadron”. A hadron is a particle made of quarks. The most well-known (if you have done even basic science at school) are the proton and the neutron. The LHC moves protons around its 27 kilometer ring very fast, giving them huge amounts of energy.
Finally there’s “Collider”. After the protons are spun quickly (99.9999991% of the speed of light) around the ring – one beam in one direction and one in the other – they are brought together and collide. The energy is great enough to completely destroy the particles and cause them, and their energy, to transform into a complex shower of exotic particles, including some which might never have been seen before.
So that’s it. It sounds simple doesn’t it? A big ring which spins protons around quickly and crashes them into each other. What’s the point?
Physicists have a model of how the particles in the universe work and there was one element of this model which seemed to be missing. It was a field which gave particles some of their mass (or gave things “weight” if you want to be a bit less technical). There should be a particle associated with this field called the Higgs Boson.
Right, time to explain that. Let’s look at the name again: Higgs Boson. The “Higgs” part refers to Peter Higgs, who is one of the physicists who theorised that the particle should exist in 1964. And “Boson”? A boson is a class of particle and the most important type carry forces. So when a magnet attracts a piece of metal it is because of a stream of bosons called photons.
So a Higgs Boson is just a particle which gives other particles mass (just some of it, not all). Because the Higgs has a high mass it was hard to create in a low energy particle accelerator. Remember that, according to Einstein, mass and energy are related through the famous equation E=mc^2. The LHC is the only accelerator (more or less) with enough energy to make a Higgs.
And the discovery of the Higgs has been tentatively confirmed. In fact that uncertainty is just scientists being cautious because they have found something and, if it isn’t the Higgs, it’s certainly something that is very like one!
Of course the LHC will be used for many other experiments apart from the discovery of the Higgs. Many experiments in particle physics use accelerators to perform collisions and the LHC hasn’t even been run at anywhere near its maximum power yet. There will surely be many more great discoveries made with it.
So now I want to discuss some amazing facts and figures about the LHC. These have been sourced from various web sites but I want o get all the best stuff together in one place here.
1. When the tunnel containing the LHC was dug, after 27 kilometers of digging the two ends met within an accuracy of one centimeter.
2. The cables used at the LHC contain 6000-9000 threads of superconducting niobium–titanium, each one 10 times thinner than a human hair. If you added all the filaments together they would stretch to the Sun and back over six times (about 2 billion kilometers).
3. The particle beams in the LHC only contain 2 nanograms (2 billionths of a gram, or about 10,000 times less than a grain of sand) per day, yet those contain more energy than a 400 tonne train travelling at 150 km/h, and could melt half a tonne of copper.
4. The protons make a complete circuit of the 27 kilometer ring 11,245 times per second. Each beam can circulate for up to 10 hours and travel 10 billion kilometres (equivalent to over 300,000 times around the Earth) in that time.
5. When the experiments are running at the LHC, the four detectors generate 15 million gigabytes of data every year, that is equivalent to one thousand times the information printed in the form of books annually.
6. When the two beams collide they will generate temperatures more than 100,000 times
hotter than the center of the Sun (the highest temperature in the Solar System) but the cooling system that circulates superfluid helium around the LHC keeps it at minus 271.3 degrees Celsius (the lowest temperature in the Solar System).
I often hear people say something like “Why spend tens of billions on the LHC? What practical benefit is there?” I answer that in several ways: first, why must everything have some practical benefit? Some things are just worth doing for themselves. Second, over the time period the cost wasn’t very much, less than what Coca Cola spent on advertising in a similar time. And third, it is impossible to say what unpredicted benefits might come from both the fundamental research from the LHC, and the awesome engineering which went into building it. I’m sure it will repay its cost easily.
Many people think the LHC is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. I agree.
I think there is little doubt that the corporate world is out of control. They are drunk on their own power and they are arrogant enough to use that power in the most cynical and self-serving ways. And even after they complete their immoral activities they still expect the rest of the world to admire them for their cleverness.
I’m not denying that many corporations have some positive aspects as well as negative. But the same could be said about any group or organisation. I could make a case for some positive aspects of Nazi Germany (they created a great rocket program used by both the US and USSR after the war) or Stalinist Russia (Stalin was a strong leader which made the defeat of Germany possible), for example. It is the balance which really matters.
For example, take one of the most admired big corporates in the world: Google. I think Google’s search engine is brilliant. I use it in preference to all others. And while I cannot get enthusiastic about their Android platform (I am an iPhone and iPad user) I still recognise it as a valuable basic operating system, especially for cheap devices. And Google Glass shows some promise although I think it is so far from being genuinely usable that it’s future is very uncertain.
But that’s where it ends: an excellent search engine, an adequate operating system, and a new technology with some potential. But what is my complaint? Well the main one (but certainly not the only one) would be that, like all big corporates (as far as I know), Google is very good at avoiding their tax responsibilities. Not only do they use every dirty trick imaginable to avoid paying tax but they are proud of their achievements in that area.
At the end of last year the Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, defended their tax avoidance strategy and said he was proud of the steps they had taken to cut their tax bill, and that it was just “good capitalism”.
In the UK (the country this particular story applied to, although similar strategies are used everywhere) Google generated 2.5 billion pounds in sales but paid only 6 million pounds in corporate tax. That is a tax rate of 0.24% which is practically zero.
I understand that many people don’t like tax and don’t like the way the tax they do pay is used, but that’s not really the point. Those of use who can’t afford to pay experts to help us avoid tax still pay it, and at a rate a hundred times higher than Google. And quite honestly, even if I could afford to avoid it I wouldn’t because, even though I know the tax system has a lot of faults, it is still the best system we have to fund many essential services.
But when I see Google not paying their fair share I do feel a lot more resentful about paying tax myself. Google have more money than they could ever use, and certainly a lot more than they deserve for what they do, yet they fail to participate in a system the rest of us do contribute to.
And yes, I now that technically their avoidance practices are legal, but it is also legal not not hide profits in Bermuda and to pay the full tax which you know you are responsible for. And which is moral? Schmidt trots out the same old tired excuse: that they are responsible to their shareholders, but that is just a feeble justification and a way to shift the blame to someone else.
He also says “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Well if he is proud of a system which is so deeply flawed and unfair then maybe it’s the system we should be trying to change, not those who exploit it. And of course that is the answer: capitalism in it’s current form simply doesn’t work and we need either a better version or an entirely new system. Since I’m not sure what that new system would be I guess I have to regretfully recommend a new form of capitalism!
Remember that I am only using Google as an example here and I know that other corporates, including Apple, are just as bad. But I think Google deserves a little bit of extra criticism because of their arrogance in saying “no, we don’t pay tax and we’re proud of it” especially after their original catchphrase which was “don’t be evil”.
Well I’m sorry but refusing to participate fairly in a society which can only operate the way it does because of the tax the rest of us pay, and which has made you very rich, is evil!
I recently listened to an item which featured Steve Job’s first boss, from the company Atari. He thought that Jobs was an unusual and difficult person to work with, and that he might have a lot of trouble even getting a job in the modern work environment. He thinks most employers reject individuality and difficult and critical personalities in favour people who are easier to get on with and more compliant.
Clearly Jobs was an awkward person and it’s easy to see why he might have been seen as difficult to manage, so there is an obvious reason why he might have had trouble being hired, but whose fault is that really? Sure Jobs was difficult but he was also brilliant. It seems to me that most modern personnel management policies favour people who will fit in a mould rather than do genuinely brilliant work.
Of course having an awkward personality in no way guarantees that a person is brilliant but there does seem to be a correlation between the two. It seems to make sense that people who are going to be able to make a genuinely unique contribution to a company are likely to “think different” from the rest and those people are unlikely to fit in with the standard profile most managers are looking for.
There is also the possibility, which I have discussed in the past, that managers might feel threatened by someone who would be employed in a position below themselves but might be far more capable than they are.
The ultimate example of the failure of a conventional mediocre leadership was the “bad times” at Apple. During the time when Jobs wasn’t there and the “suits” controlled the company they almost destroyed it. Apple is an exceptional case and relies on constant innovation and cutting edge design but it does make me wonder whether every company being run by suits (that is, almost all of them) is achieving well below its potential and could do so much more if they were just prepared to take on an exceptional person instead of just another one from the same old mould.
In my experience I have seen this phenomenon a lot. I see very mediocre people with no innovative ideas at all in senior roles and far more capable and original people being controlled by them. So the less brilliant people are not only enjoying the benefits of seniority themselves but they are also holding back those below them who might otherwise really achieve something.
I do recognise, especially in large organisations, that creative people do present a risk because while they might be theoretically capable of excellent original work, that might not fit in with the “bigger picture”. I also recognise that most bigger companies are very risk averse, and would generally prefer to sacrifice the possibility of a very positive new innovation if there is also a chance it could go wrong.
This problem (if it really is a problem) extends to all levels of human organisation: from national politics all the way down to small groups. Despite the claims to the contrary there is generally very little chance of anything genuinely innovative coming out of a typically organised company or other institution.
It’s difficult to say where the cause of the problem lies. It could be, as I have suggested above, that innovative people are blocked from advancement because they are seen as a risk or a threat. It could be that innovative people do get promotions but they are forced to become part of the “machine” once they do gain senior status so their ideas are wasted. And it could be that creative people just aren’t interested in politics or management. I suspect it is all three.
There is no obvious answer to the problem because the people who need to make the changes are exactly the ones who can’t see that there is a problem which needs to be solved. The best we can realistically hope for is that the power of big corporations and senior business and political leaders is kept under control. But how realistic that is, I really don’t know.
Maybe we’re all doomed to living in a world of increasing mediocrity, where people like Steve Jobs are often wasted. It certainly seems that way to me.
For the last 30 years New Zealand, along with most of the rest of the world, has been run according to a classic neo-liberal agenda. I use that word quite a lot so let me explain my interpretation of it. To me it means free markets uncontrolled by governments, all major assets in private hands, the smallest possible sized government, and increased trade and production efficiency.
These policies have been followed by parties traditionally from both the left and right, and the reality is that there has been little choice for anyone who disagrees with the whole idea. But who would disagree anyway? The aims I listed above all sound fantastic, don’t they? I mean, who doesn’t want freer markets, smaller government, greater freedom for business, more trade, and greater efficiency?
If it was as simple as that we all should want to pursue these aims but unfortunately only presenting a positive spin on them is misleading. The reality is that there are many negative aspects to these policies which their supporters fail to tell us about.
The key concept in neo-liberalism is letting the markets work to produce the best outcome, so the critical point is do they? Well of course they do. Free markets produce the best outcomes for the free markets, and many people also do very well when free market economics is in force, but the vast majority of people actually lose.
So when politicians, economists, and business leaders say we must look after the markets I want to know why. What have the markets ever done for us? I’ll tell you what they have done: they have caused many industries to fail, they have taken jobs from one economy and replaced them with workers from lower paid workforces, they have made a small minority of people really rich while making the majority poor, they have pushed wages and conditions down, and they have increased the freedom of the rich and powerful while decreasing it for the rest.
So I can’t see why markets should get any special consideration, which brings me (finally) to the point of this entry…
We finally have a significant divergence in policies for the two major parties here in New Zealand. The (vaguely conservative and neo-liberal) National Party wants to sell shares in the previously state owned power companies and the (vaguely left-wing) Labour and Green Parties disagree and want to control power prices at a government level.
Of course government control is a complete anathema to the neo-liberals, and the value of power companies has dived significantly after the power price control policy was announced, robbing hundreds of millions from the potential value of the companies. Naturally groups who support free markets (investment companies, share brokers, big business) are predicting the end of the world, and maybe they’re right.
It is sort of like the end of the world to those who hope to make personal gains by exploiting the need for an essential commodity by those who already barely survive. It is like the end of the world to those whose whole worldview is based around free markets and to whom government control is the ultimate evil. It is like the end of the world to those who have got used to getting everything their own way just because they benefit from the market system.
But who (apart from the small minority those groups represent) cares? It’s time to look at where the markets have really got us. Has the electricity market worked, for example? Well no, in many ways it hasn’t. It has generated huge profits for the shareholders (the government up until now which at least meant the money went back to the people). It has pushed prices up at a rate many times greater than inflation. It has resulted in the loss of many skilled technicians while creating huge management and marketing bureaucracies.
The market has failed, and in reality almost every other market also fails to live up to the high ideals promised by the neo-liberals. And the pathetic excuse by market proponents that we haven’t given it enough time should really be treated with the contempt it deserves. The market has been given a fair chance and has failed miserably. It’s time to apply those neo-liberal ideals to the market itself: we need something more efficient and the “free market” of ideas should be able to give us something better.
It may seem like a backward step returning to policies we had before the neo-liberal revolution but should that even be a consideration? We should look at all possibilities, including those which have been out of favour, those which are scorned for no good reason, and those which disturb the currently accepted wisdom.
If the current system isn’t working well for the majority then we should look at alternatives, even if those alternatives are branded a backward step by certain groups in society. And when people predict disaster look at why they might say that. Are they exploiting the free market for their own benefit? Are they ideologically attached to free markets and blinded to the possible alternatives? Have they committed to free markets politically and are they unprepared to accept the political damage of having to make a change?
I would suggest the vast majority of free market supporters are in those categories, or maybe in one other: the category of people who have never heard anything else for 30 years except the pro-market propaganda that the rich, the powerful, and the single-minded ideologs have fed them.
Well, according to Lincoln (or at least attributed to him): you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. The lie we have all been told about the magic of markets is becoming apparent. The fact that a significant number of people see a lot of merit in what many see as quite a radical proposal (but in fact isn’t radical at all) should tell us that all of the people aren’t being fooled any more!
OK, before I go any further I have to admit that the title of this entry is probably a bit unfair because it is a bit extreme and deliberately confrontational. The two people I am going to discuss clearly aren’t really complete morons, they just act that way sometimes. In reality at least one of them is very intelligent most of the time, but just acts like a moron occasionally. The other seems to act like a moron almost all the time, so maybe he more clearly deserves the label.
And yes, I know the original meaning of the word was for someone with a mental age between 8 and 12, but I’m sure we all know by now that it has changed to be a general term of disrespect for someone who shows a lack of mental acuity.
Anyway, who are the two people in question and under what circumstances are they morons?
The first is our old friend, Christopher Monckton and his area of moronity (yes, I believe that really is a word) is global warming denial (note that I use the word “denial” here, in preference to “skepticism”, quite deliberately).
The second is a well-known defender of Christianity who I haven’t ranted about before (yes, I was surprised too). His name is John Lennox and he is a British mathematician and philosopher of science who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. You would have to assume this guy is pretty smart in general (how else would he attain those lofty heights in academia – by the way that isn’t sarcasm) but when defending his Christian beliefs he really does sound like a moron.
The phenomenon of being really brilliant in one area and totally hopeless in another is quite common. I have already discussed it in relation to Francis Collins in a blog entry titled “Brilliant Stupidity” on 2009-09-22 and John E Hare in “Religious Intellectuals” posted on 2011-08-14.
So let’s look at some of the claims these clowns (I love that word in this context) have made in recent interviews on Radio NZ. Let’s start with Monckton…
First, he claims to be a mathematician and consistently implies he is an expert in the area of climate change. This is simply not true. He has no advanced formal training in maths or science, he has published no scientific papers in reputable journals, and he has done no original research in the area. If he genuinely believes these claims he is deluded. If he knows they are false yet makes them anyway then he is a liar.
If you read his biography on a neutral source such as Wikipedia it quickly becomes obvious that he has a fantasy-prone personality having made many fanciful and false claims about many aspects of his life. Clearly we should be highly skeptical (I use that word in the real sense) of his opinion based on this alone.
So clearly Monckton has a person has no credibility at all but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. What about some of the “facts” he quotes? Well he’s not wrong about everything and he does make some reasonable points, for example regarding the safety record of nuclear power and how many people from the “Green” side of politics have an illogical dislike of it, but that doesn’t detract from the numerous false and misleading statements he makes about climate change.
Just as an example he makes the false claim that there has been no warming since 1998. All real statisticians know that a single data point like that cannot be used when trying to establish a trend. If Monckton really was an expert he would know that too. Maybe he does.
The numbers he quotes regarding the costs and benefits of global warming reduction interventions are just about as far from reality as you can get. Maybe he sourced them from somewhere with credibility, I really don’t know since he didn’t say, but at the very least he’s taken the most extreme numbers from any source and used them in a misleading way.
And so it goes on for point after point. The interviewer, Bryan Crump, generally has a rather neutral (often to the point of vapidity) style, but you could tell from his responses that he knew he was being scammed by Monckton. Dishonesty of that sort is hard to hide.
So let’s move on to the second interview of John Lennox done by Kim Hill. Kim certainly has a reputation for not putting up with too much nonsense and, while she didn’t exactly outright challenge Lennox as being deliberately deceptive, you could see that she also knew she was being scammed.
As I said, unlike Monckton I have no complaints about the academic standards of Lennox but he is a Christian apologist and I’m sorry but in my experience if someone can be labelled that way (and it certainly applies to him) then they simply have to misrepresent the truth, you simply have no alternative because your worldview, when examined logically, simply cannot withstand any scrutiny. So even people who use the most rigorous techniques and critical self-examination in other areas of their life just demand a “free pass” to repeat unsupported nonsense when defending their religion.
So let’s look at some examples…
He claims the new atheists aren’t driven by scientific thinking and are confused about the nature of both science and god. OK, some of them aren’t science oriented – Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris would probably be more seen as having a political or philosophical approach – but surely others, such as Richard Dawkins, are very much science oriented and understand what it is.
As to what the nature of god is, well who knows? Every believer seems to have a slightly different idea and even Lennox seems to change his definition to fit the particular point he wants to make. So if the new atheists are confused about what god is then so is everyone else. Why? Because god doesn’t exist except int he mind of the believers. Is it surprising the idea of god has no consistent meaning?
He claims science and god are compatible and also claims his religious views are evidence based. But later in the interview he makes morality based decisions simply because that’s what is attributed to Jesus in the Bible instead of what makes sense. Clearly evidence and logic don’t matter to him that much, unless they fit in with what he wants to believe, of course!
He uses the tired old argument about how great contributors to science, like Newton, were also religious. That really doesn’t work though because at the time people almost had to be religious, and it was a requirement for the post that Newton held. Also, Newton was also an alchemist. Does that mean that science and alchemy are also compatible? It just doesn’t make sense and surely Lennox knows this. But because he has to defend a false belief he is obliged to use weak arguments like this one.
He cherry-picks the most ridiculous statements from the Bible in an attempt to validate his beliefs. Accepting the idea that the words “in the beginning” from the Bible vaguely agree with the Big Bang theory while ignoring a dozen other errors on the same page is deeply dishonest.
He also defends Christianity with the old “no true Scotsman” fallacy. According to him anyone who acts badly because of their beliefs isn’t a true Christian but anyone who acts in a good way is. Well you really can’t do that. If people act badly because of their religion then their religion is to blame.
And of you think the problem is one of interpretation then God should have made his message a bit clearer instead of disguising it in a confusing, contradictory, obscure, outdated text like the Bible. Buy any reasonable analysis Lennox loses on this point.
That’s enough. As I write this I’m listening to the interview again and I can’t take any more. It’s not nice being lied to and mislead. In the case of Monckton it’s not so bad because he’s just a joke, but in Lennox’s case it somehow seems more egregious because he is an intelligent person who is prepared to use any means to advance his point.
Maybe I should correct my original title. In the case of these two people, only one is clearly a moron, but the other is much worse!
The biggest local story here in New Zealand over the last few days has been the passing of same-sex marriage legislation, making us the 13th country in the world, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region, to legalise same-sex marriage. Considering we have a conservative government this is quite an impressive achievement and shows what happens when MPs are allowed to vote based on their conscience instead of voting for what their party tells them to.
Surely all votes should work this way. Apart from the dictatorial NZ First party all the others have members who voted for the legislation even when you might not expect it (Act and United Future for example). You have to ask if these votes are “conscience votes”, does that mean that the others require some MPs to vote against their conscience? Is that really OK?
Anyway the vote was fairly comprehensive in the end – 77 for and 44 against – which is considerably better than the more common 61 to 60 votes we get when people vote based on their party’s orders rather than what they think is right.
Of course the more conservative (and nutty) parts of society are already predicting disaster just like they did when other controversial social laws were passed.
When homosexuality was made legal, when prostitution was made legal, and when the anti-smacking law was passed the more extreme conservatives predicted disaster but of course nothing happened.
Let’s look at some of the ignorant, bigoted comments about similar changes in the past.
When the homosexual law reform bill was passed in 1986 some politicians predicted that it would cause a decline in morality, that homosexuals would come to New Zealand in their thousands, and that the country would be a Mecca for homosexuality and sodomy. I see no signs that this has happened.
When the civil union legislation was passed the Destiny Church suggested that we should not forget the name of Lord God Almighty (what is that exactly?) and organised a march of 5000 people against it. They predicted legalised child sex and bigamy would be next. Again, I see no signs that this has happened.
When the prostitution law reform law (decriminalising prostitution) was passed in 2003 there were predictions it would lead to more prostitutes. A later review showed no signs that this has happened.
When the ani-smacking law was passed there were dire predictions that innocent people would be prosecuted for reasonable discipline of their children. Since 2007 there have been 8 prosecutions for smacking, and the police (hardly a source of liberal propaganda) say the guidelines are working fine. So yet again there are no signs that the bad predicted outcomes are real.
So what predictions are we getting this time?
Family First predicts marriage celebrants will be bullied into performing same-sex marriages against their will. This right is specifically protected in the law and who would want a ceremony to be performed by someone who doesn’t want to do it anyway? It’s just silly, bigoted nonsense.
The National Marriage Coalition says it will be an open door to group relationships and incest type marriages. This is the old slippery slope argument. Another good one is the prediction that people will be able to marry animals in the future. There is a general trend to liberalisation of laws and who knows, maybe one day group marriages will be OK, after all many respected characters in the Bible had multiple wives, so it must be OK!
The Catholic Bishop of Auckland tried really hard to sound reasonable and to not admit that his objections were based on the intolerant ideas promoted by his belief system. But you could see they were, and it was hard to listen to a member of the Catholic Church lecture the rest of us on the topic of sexual morality. Is it possible to think of anyone with less credibility on the subject?
He made a few vague references to it being a sad day for New Zealand, and to re-defining the meaning of marriage being bizarre, and not being sure what the implications might be for the future (presumably his god will take a terrible revenge on us after he has dealt with the other 12 countries who have already taken this step).
After all of this mindless drivel it was refreshing to hear from a supporter of the bill who treated the subject with intelligence and humour. He described how he had received messages from Christians threatening eternal torment in Hell. He replied that he had calculated the thermodynamics of burning in Hell and it would take only a few seconds for him to be consumed: a sacrifice he was prepared to risk! Ridicule of primitive superstition is great!
But the way so many believers react so badly in these situations is bizarre. They are always so intolerant and unforgiving. Didn’t they listen to what Jesus told them? As I always say: if you really want to see an example of true evil have a look at religion!
Many people ask me why I care. Well that’s the whole point, I shouldn’t. I’m not gay, and I don’t know any gay people who want to get married, so why should I care? It’s just a matter of fairness. The people who object to this law might find gay and lesbian lifestyles unpleasant, and it’s their choice to feel that way, but what real difference does it make to them if same-sex marriage is allowed or not?
Some people say it discredits the “real” meaning of marriage. I would say that there are plenty of heterosexual couples who have done a good job of that already. Celebrity marriages which last a few days, people who marry multiple times and split up seemingly at a whim, married couples where the relationship is maintained through violence and intimidation. What else could possibly make it worse than it already is?
Another argument is that marriage is primarily to produce children and gays can’t do that. Well neither can post-menopausal women or people with various medical disorders. Should that be a pre-requisite for being allowed to marry as well?
In reality there is no good reason not to allow same-sex marriage. There is really only one (bad) reason to reject it in the final analysis: that the objector is uncomfortable with same-sex relationships. Well they are a fact and it’s time to grow up and accept them even if you don’t like them. Progress is inevitable and by trying to halt it, especially by presenting dishonest objections which disguise your real opinions, you just look like a fool.
And just like with past changes of this sort, in a few years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
If I get a bit bored and there’s nothing to watch on TV (that is, most of he time) I often go on a trolling expedition on YouTube. I like to find a controversial video and leave some comments there to deliberately aggravate my philosophical opponents, such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives.
Some of the best places to find sources for these “debates” are YouTube videos involving Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have read this blog in the past you will know I am a great fan of “the Hitch” and have commented on his vicious and unstoppable wit on many occasions (most recently in an entry titled “Thank You Hitch” from 2012-01-06 shortly after his death from cancer).
The latest video I watched was “Hitchens versus Hitchens” where Christopher Hitchens (aka “the Hitch” – there was only one *the* Hitch) debated his brother Peter Hitchens who is also a well-known essayist and commentator but with a very different perspective on politics and religion.
Initially I thought Peter Hitchens was a fairly intelligent, reasonable person but as the debate progressed he became more and more desperate to score any points and it became obvious that a lot of his opinions are in fact just as nutty as most other political and religious conservatives. For example, he denies global warming and supports intelligent design without having any apparent knowledge of either.
So it soon became obvious that this was yet another debate where the Hitch was giving his opposition a good old fashioned thrashing, maybe the best since another recent video I watched where Hitchens and Stephen Fry destroyed a Catholic bishop and conservative politician by swinging the vote from 678 for 1102 against, to 268 for 1876 against (they were debating against the proposition that the Catholic Church is a force for good – yeah I know – too easy!)
The Hitchens versus Hitchens debate included many topics, but the section on religion was the most interesting I think. The Hitch didn’t spend a lot of time on the idea of whether Christianity was true and whether there is any evidence supporting it (which is an interesting subject in itself but not one which either side was focussing on this time). Instead he concentrated on the philosophical aspects of belief, especially relating to morality.
This is a more interesting subject in many ways because really the truth of Christian belief and the evidence for God is fairly well settled (most Christian beliefs are myths and there is no evidence for a god) whereas the moral aspects of religion (especially Christianity) are a bit more open to debate.
So here are some of the Hitch’s points (along with my interpretation and commentary on them)…
He sees religion as a form of slavery or totalitarianism, and uses North Korea as a comparison. But religion is much worse because God knows more about you than any despot can ever know, and you cannot even escape his influence after death because that’s when he really gets judgmental!
I’m sure there are many moderate Christians who don’t see it this way, but by doing that they are rejecting the essential doctrine of their belief: that God knows all of your actions and thoughts, and judges you accordingly. Hitchens (and I) would suggest this whole idea is quite malicious.
Christianity claims Jesus was sent to save us. But from what? And he supposedly takes the blame for our sins, and we are all sinners and born into sin. Does this not sound like a form of mind control where the victims are told they are lacking in some way but if you just do what you are told everything will be OK? Obviously this is also hideously hurtful and manipulative.
Many believers think morality is impossible without a religious belief. Hitchens obviously rejects this whole notion. I would take it further and say the opposite: you can’t be moral if your source your morality from a religious belief. Why? Because morality cannot be just lifted from an old book written by a particular group of people with a particular personal perspective in the past, it has to be carefully considered and arrived at by the individual. And I know that not everyone will get to exactly the same place but most sane, sensible people do agree on what is moral to a remarkable degree.
Not every religious person just takes their entire morality from their holy book. Many pick and choose what to accept. But if they do that then surely they are rejecting one of the most important aspects of their belief system and are no longer getting their ultimate moral rules from their religion. Anyone who creates a personal morality by parroting something from an old book is lazy, ignorant and often immoral.
In the past religion was a best attempt at explaining the world and creating rules for living. It turns out that it wasn’t at all successful with the first aim and only slightly better with the second. We now have other tools to tackle these issues: science to explain the world, and philosophy to deal with morality and other less well defined issues.
It might be that these tools are in turn replaced with something even better in the future, but at the moment they are the best we have. Anyone who insists on continuing to use religion to explain the reality of the world (such as insisting that creationism is an explanation for life on Earth) or to provide moral answers (such as saying homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so) are being wilfully ignorant and usually bigoted as well.
Hitchens used to ask his opponents and audiences a question to make these points on morality a bit less abstract. He would ask people to name a good or moral statement or action which can only be made by those who believe in a god, then to name a stupid or evil action which only believers could make. Few people could come up with anything very convincing to answer the first question but everyone could immediately think of examples of the second.
As an example of a bad action which requires religious belief consider this obvious example: only people who think they will get a reward in the next life will sacrifice their lives by joining a crusade or becoming a suicide bomber. That’s not the sort of behaviour a non-believer is likely to indulge in.
But answers to the first challenge are a lot more difficult to find. A common one was exorcism. Only believers can perform this rite. But surely this cannot be counted as a good action, and the fact that some believers dared to even suggest the idea shows how out of touch they really are.
Another answer was a lot better though. One person suggested that great poetry and other art was created by believers. That is a good point. There is a lot of great art, music, architecture, and poetry which was created directly because of religious belief.
There is a counter to this argument though. A lot of great art hasn’t been inspired by religion too, and some which seems like it might be in fact wasn’t. For example, Verdi wrote his Requiem even though he was an atheist (or agnostic if you prefer that). At the very least you would have to say that people are inspired by many things, including religion, so if this is the only positive it hardly seems worth it!
The Hitch was a great debater and extremely knowledgable about most of his topic areas (he certainly knew his religion, history and politics but was weak on science and technology and sometimes didn’t respond to questions around areas such as cosmology and biology very well) but maybe his greatest advantage was just that he was right.
As I have said in the past to people who have complimented me on my debating skills: it’s a lot easier when the facts are on your side!