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 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.
One of the most viewed blog posts I have ever done (at least on the WordPress version of my blog) is one titled “Geek Jokes” from 2011-05-12. It was a collection of jokes about science, engineering, and programming, and included an explanation of some of them.
So because that was so popular, and because I have been a big negative in recent posts (Market Schmarket, Two Complete Morons, etc) I thought it was time for something a bit lighter but also very cool (well cool in a geeky way, at least). So here is Geek Jokes, Part 2…
Heisenberg and Shrodinger get pulled over for speeding.
The cop asks, “do you know how fast you were going?”
Heisenberg replies, “no, but I know were I am.”
The cop thinks this is a strange reply and calls for a search and opens the trunk.
The cop says, “do you know you have a dead cat in your trunk?”
Shrodinger says, “well, I do now!”
Analysis of Joke 1
Many of these jokes seem to derive their humour from a sense of superiority the geek might gain from understanding the joke when others wouldn’t. Of course, many would say that geeks actually are naturally superior and deserve to be just a little bit smug as a consequence, however I couldn’t possibly comment on the idea.
Anyway, Heisenberg and Shrodinger were two famous physicist who were involved in important work and discoveries in the early days of quantum physics.
Heisenberg is most well known for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which states that it is impossible to know both the location and momentum of an object. The more accurately the position is known, the less well known the momentum (and therefore the speed) *can* be known. This isn’t just a failure in the measuring technique, it’s a fundamental property of the quantum world.
Shrodinger used a “thought experiment” involving a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison which could be released based on a truly quantum event (such as radioactive decay). Because it could not be known whether the event occurred or not it could also not be known if the cat was alive or dead. But again, the truth (or at least one interpretation of the meaning of the phenomenon) is far more subtle. According to one interpretation of quantum physics the cat isn’t just in an unknown state (dead or alive) it is actually simultaneously in both states until the box is opened.
So understanding that the joke is now obvious, right? In fact this is an enhanced version of the orignal which only mentioned Heisenberg. Shrodinger was added to double the geeky goodness of the joke a bit later.
How do you recognize a field service engineer on the side of the road with a flat tire?
He’s changing each tire to see which one is flat.
And the related problem:
How do you recognize a field service engineer on the side of the road who has run out of gas?
He’s changing each tire to see which one is flat.
Analysis of Joke 2
A field engineer is a person who is sent into the field (the client’s workplace usually) to solve problems. This joke seems to fit best with software engineers and related helpdesk and support staff so I’m going to analyse the joke based on that. Part of my job involves this sort of work so I particularly identify with this. I’m not saying I’m guilty of doing it, but I do see it a lot in other people!
Many “lesser” support staff try to solve all problems in pretty much the same way. They might either have a list of instructions they have to go through that they have been given as part of their job, or they might have limited experience and only know a few possible responses to all problems. They also go from one step to the next even when it should be possible to go directly to the source of the problem.
So naturally when your computer has a problem they ask you to restart it, or re-install the operating system, or reset the parameter RAM, or one of a few other common actions. These are real solutions to particular problems but they are often used in situations which are completely inappropriate.
So the analogy with fixing a flat tire is obvious. Anyone with a bit of real knowledge (and the permission from his company to use it) can just be a bit smart about it and analyse the problem and change the correct tire immediately. But that’s not the way most people work.
Maybe this is humorous because it is a situation many people find themselves participating in as the owner of the computer (or car in the joke) and maybe it’s even more humorous for superior software engineers like myself who actually analyse the problem and often come up with the correct solution first time as a result!
Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.
Analysis of Joke 3
Bandwidth is a term used to describe the speed which data can be transmitted at. If your internet connection works at 10 Megabits per second for example, it can transmit about a million characters (single letters or digits) in a second (note that it takes 8 bits to make a single byte – the most common way to represent a character – plus a bit of overhead for control, so the number reduces by a factor of 10.)
But electronic transmission isn’t the only thing which the concept of bandwidth can be applied to. A pigeon which takes an hour to deliver a 100 word written message has a bandwidth of 100 words per hour, for example. And a computer technician who takes 5 minutes to deliver a 16G flash drive by carrying it to the required destination (sometimes known as sneaker-net) has a bandwidth of about 530 Megabits per second.
Of course those two solutions do vary in speed depending on the distance they must cover, plus there is a second concept which comes into play: latency. That is the time spent waiting for the transmission to begin. In the case of the flash drive the data comes in quite quickly but it takes 5 minutes to start!
So the joke is that sometimes the old way is best (in general, as well as in the specific case of data transmission). It might be possible to fit a thousand 100 Megabyte tapes into a station wagon and even if it takes an hour to reach its destination that is still a bandwidth of 300 Megabits per second. That might be faster than sending the data down a high speed data link!
There are 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary, those who don’t,
and those who knew we were using ternary.
Analysis of Joke 4
This is an extension of the classic joke I mentioned in the previous geek jokes post. I didn’t explain it there so I will here, including the added extra component, of course.
Initially it looks like the claim is that there are ten types of people in the world because that’s usually what “10″ means. But if you are working in a different base then 10 means something quite different. In fact in every case it means the number of the base. So in base ten (our usual base) it means ten. But in base two it means two and is more properly called “one zero” rather than ten or two.
Computers work in base two at the most basic level because it it easiest to handle signals which are either off (0) or on (1) very quickly. Most programming can be done in base ten, our normal base, because the computer (or more correctly a program called the compiler or interpreter) does the conversion to binary. But in many cases it is useful to undertand binary and any half decent programmer can work in binary with some proficiency.
But just to fool anyone who thinks they are smart enough to make the assumption the number is binary the joke goes on to make the claim it could be ternary (base 3) in which case the number is 3. Of course, that is unlikely because ternary isn’t used in computing applications, at least not as far as I am aware!
Finally, on a similar theme I present joke 5, which is in the form of a geek love poem…
Roses are #ff0000
Violets are #0000ff
All my base
Are belong to you!
Analysis of Joke 5
Base 2 can be quite clumsy to use because it involves long sequences of zeros and ones (for example one thousand in base 2 is 1111101000) so it’s usually best to use higher bases. But ten isn’t suitable because ten isn’t a power of two, and 8 bits (known as a byte) is a common unit meaning base sixteen (where two digits make a byte) is more useful. Because base sixteen requires more than the ten digits, 0 to 9, we usually use it extends these to the letters A to F. So fifteen is F, sixteen is 10, and two hundred and fifty five (the biggest number which can be stored in a byte) is FF.
When we represent colour on a computer (or any other device for that matter) we usually make use of the fact that the human eye has three colour sensors: for red, green, and blue light. By mixing different amounts of these three “primary” colours any other colour can be created. For example red and green make yellow and all three colours make white.
Note that devices which use ink instead of light use a different set of primary colours – cyan, magenta and yellow – which are the secondary colours of light. Also note that your printer uses a fourth colour, black, but it doesn’t strictly need it because theoretically black can be made from cyan, magenta and yellow mixed. However in real life that usually looks more like a muddy brown, plus it uses a lot of ink to produce the most common colour.
So light producing devices, such as computer displays and TVs, use RGB (red green blue) colour, and ink devices such as printers use CMYK (cyan magenta yellow black – black is K because B was already used for blue).
If we want to specify a colour for the screen we just use three numbers for the amount of red green and blue, and because we usually use use a byte (a number from 0 to 255) for each colour a two character base sixteen number makes sense. So ff0000 means 255 (maximum) red, no green, no blue (pure red) and 0000ff means no red, no green and 255 blue (pure blue). Any my favourite colour? That would be #3797ff, a rather nice sky blue.
That explains the first two lines (roses are red, violets are blue) but the other two are a bit more involved! Well, not really.
In 1989 a Japanese video game called “Zero Wing” was released in English. If the game beat you an evil character appeared announcing that he had taken over all of your bases. The translation was a bit odd though and came out as “All your base are belong to us”. For some reason this phrase sort of caught on in the geek world and that is the origin of the final two lines.
A true geek would understand all the jokes without any effort at all. I wrote these explanations entirely without reference to other sources, and I seem to have spent far more time discussing geeky tech stuff than the actual jokes, so I claim uber-geek status based on that. And finally, I would like to add my two bits to this whole discussion: 1 0. Thank you.
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.
The way that different ideas become established at different times in history is interesting. It seems that often an idea reaches a point where it becomes inevitable and nothing can really stop it from taking over the mindset of the leaders and people of the time.
The original reason I cam up with this topic was the recent death of the ex-prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher. She is well known, of course, for introducing a radical form of neo-liberal economics to the country and, depending on who you listen to, either saving it from inevitable decline or destroying a lot of the existing positive aspects of British society.
Thatcher was extraordinarily good at pushing through these “reforms” because she had a strong personality and – right or wrong – was single minded in achieving her aims. She is admired by many for her strength and that is fair enough. Whether the direction she took the country in was good or bad was much more open to question.
But it probably didn’t matter because, as I intimated in the opening to this entry, the neo-liberal revolution was probably inevitable and would have happened anyway. Thatcher was lucky because the UK entered a war with Argentina over the Falklands which gained her a lot of patriotic support, plus oil was discovered during her time in power giving her a financial bonus as well. Note that neither of these events could be attributed to her and were more a matter of luck than anything else.
But during roughly the same period of time similar policies were being pushed through in many other countries. Reagan was doing it in the US, and a bit later here in New Zealand we had one of the most radical and “pure” forms of neo-liberalism forced onto us by the 1984 Labour government (who were totally hijacked by a libertarian wing lead by Roger Douglas). Labour would not be traditionally associated with these types of policies but maybe this was an idea whose time had come, even here in distant New Zealand.
There is also the fact that after the governments who initially set up these changes were replaced with their opponents the policies continued without major changes. In the UK the conservatives were replaced by Tony Blair’s Labour which was intent on continuation of the new agenda. And here in New Zealand the opposite happened: the Labour Party was replaced by the conservative National Party and again things just continued on their course.
So even a complete change (theoretically at least) in political perspective didn’t change much. It really does seem that the idea was inevitable and couldn’t be stopped. I do have to say though, that just because an idea is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s right!
I basically reject neo-liberal economics, as will be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. I’m not much of a fan of extreme left-wing economic dogma either but I really think we have gone too far in the direction of classic free-market libertarian politics. And a correction back to more moderate economic policies does seem to be the new zeitgeist, at least I hope so.
By almost any standard the great libertarian experiment has failed.
Economic turmoil has been constant since the 1980s because banks and other private financial institutions have been given great freedom. They have taken advantage of that privilege for their own benefit but the vast majority of people have suffered as a result. The problems with financial institutions over the last few years are a clear result of the policies of the the 1970s and 1980s.
Whatever income equality previously existed has been totally destroyed by the reforms. In every country the rich are becoming overwhelmingly richer, and the poor are worse off in real terms in almost every case. I discussed this and showed how incredibly unbalanced wealth distribution in the US is in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes” on 13 March.
I haven’t looked at recent figures for other countries but I know that if you look at the numbers for New Zealand it soon becomes apparent that since the economic revolution here almost every indicator has become worse. Unemployment is greater, total foreign debt (including private debt) is greater, we have less democracy, we have less control of our own resources, we have more income inequality, and we have a lot less economic certainty.
So what has really been achieved? For the top 5% the revolution has been great. Big corporations and foreign banks can demand freedom from government intervention so they can do what they want (of course they don’t get total freedom but get a lot more than they should). But when things go wrong it’s time for government handouts they are the first in the queue.
And as I said in anther recent blog entry (“Personal Responsibility” on 4 April) the new aristocracy are given huge salaries and complete respect (and agan plenty of free handouts) even though their competence is highly debatable.
But if the revolution only favoured 5% of the population why do the other 95% continue to vote for these policies? Well in many cases their is really no alternative. Both major parties in the US are very pro-big business and very much accept the existing economic ideology. The same has been true in the UK and New Zealand where the traditionally left-wing Labour parties have embraced the new ideas as much as anyone.
But there is also the idea I started with. These ideas’ time had come and people were swept along on a tide of change without really understanding why. There are definite signs that this is finally starting to change. The “left” is in power in the US and demographics have weakened the Republican party there. The Tory government in the UK is unpopular. And even our current conservative government in New Zealand has backed away from the extreme policies of the past. Sure they still want to sell off assets but only 49% instead of the lot like they would have done in the past.
There are signs that the new zeitgeist is more moderate than that of the past. I just hope that it is real and can be as irresistible as the last one which has turned out so badly.
Every year, the online magazine Edge (allegedly the smartest website in the world) asks a series of “smart people” (scientists, technology experts, writers, etc) what we should be most afraid of, in an effort to establish what issues should cause the most concern. Their responses are interesting in some cases, but rather innocuous and superficial in many others, so let’s have a look at some of the answers.
Many of them sounded a little bit fatuous. In some cases they sounded like the same sort of things that your elderly parent or grandparent might mention. Obviously I found these very disappointing. Others were extremely thoughtful and presented intriguing ideas. I must admit I haven’t had time to read through the details of every idea so I apologise in advance if I have underestimated any of the ideas here. Anyway, here is a selected list of some of the answers (remember these are answers to the question “What should we be worried about?”)…
First there were the “clever” answers, like: “That we worry too much – Joel Gold, psychiatrist.” and “That this year’s Edge topic has been poorly chosen – Kai Krause, software pioneer”. Many people tried to “get cute” about the question and gave answers like this. This is pretty disappointing for a group which are supposed to be the smartest in the world. I doubt whether this is really the type of answer anyone would give after giving the idea any reasonable amount of consideration.
Then there were the “technophobic” answers, such as: “That the internet is ruining writing – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist” and “That digital technologies are sapping our patience and changing our perception of time – Nicholas G. Carr, author” and “That we will spend too much time on social media – Marcel Kinsbourne, neurologist”. These all sound like people who just don’t get it, and they sound like similar warnings which have appeared in history every time a new technology appears. I think these are hardly worth commenting on.
On a similar theme there is: “Augmented reality – William Poundstone, journalist.” Really? That’s your biggest concern? Surely there are bigger issues than this to worry about. I’m not even sure which aspects of AR this person is specifically concerned about, although he talks about AR users being too easily distracted in his comments. That doesn’t sound all that bad to me.
And then there were the really general answers with no obvious meaning: “Humanity’s unmitigated arrogance. – Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology”. Is this true? Even if it is true what specific issues are the source of the concern? Apparently she thinks there is an increase in lying and cheating in various human domains. I really don’t see that and even if it was true I can’t see it being such a big concern.
There’s this one: “An underpopulation bomb – Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large, Wired.” What evidence is there that this is likely? Actually, what is an “underpopulation bomb” anyway? It seems that his main concern is an ageing population not being able to be supported by the smaller numbers of young people when the global population peak is passed and the population starts declining. I think long term forecasts like this are very doubtful but I also think we will need to redesign society to fit the new profile. It’s a concern but is it really the biggest problem we face?
This one could belong in the inane or bizarre category depending on your preference: “Men – Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist”. Interesting. Apparently she is suggesting that men are misunderstood and are actually far more sensitive and complex than the stereotypes tell us. Maybe she has a point to some extent, but I’m not sure how this can be seen as a major worry.
This one is enigmatic: “The coming fight between engineers and druids. – Paul Saffo, technology forecaster”. Here he is referring to the battle between those who favour sticking with the past because it was “good” (druids) and those who prefer to move ahead to something which is (supposedly) even better (engineers). So the idea is quite simple despite the interesting way of stating it. I think he does have a good point, especially when you look at the divisions between conservatives and liberals in countries like the US.
Here is one which I think is a genuine worry: “The diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism may trigger a Dark Age – Frank Wilczek, MIT physicist”. This is starting to get into the area of genuine concern. More and more it seems that two big negative factors are holding back progress: the first is rampant capitalist environmental and social exploitation, and the second is increasingly desperate fundamentalist religion. Wilczek thinks the triumph of barbarism and religion, and rising fundamentalism has triggered a Dark Age before, and could do so again.
On a similar them is this: “The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress. We’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together – Tim O’Reilly, CEO and founder of O’Reilly Media”. Again the theme of conservatism and backward ignorance standing in the way of progress. Some sections of society see scientific progress and liberalism as a threat rather than a way ahead. Look at the incredible stupidity of the far right in the US. This is a very concerning trend because as backward beliefs like religion become more marginalised they become more desperate to survive at any cost.
And again on that theme: “The growing gap between the scientific elite and the vast scientifically challenged majority – Leo M. Chalupa, ophthalmologist and neurobiologist” and “That the gap between news and understanding is widening. – Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist” When people don’t understand something they tend to reject it. Maybe that’s why there is so much science denial (for example, against global warming, evolution, and genetic modification) around the world today.
And partly for that reason we have this concern: “That Idiocracy is looming. – Douglas T. Kenrick, psychology professor”. Kenrick is concerned about populations of lower intelligence reproducing in greater numbers and pushing the average IQ down. It’s difficult to dispute the idea in general although it does sound rather elitist. Still, it’s the intellectual elite who have given everyone the advantages they have today, so this is a genuine problem.
And here’s the real problem with the world today in one sentence: “That smart people – like those who contribute to Edge – won’t do politics – Brian Eno, musician.” I would take this further and say smart people tend to stay out of many positions of power, not just politics. I also see few smart people in management and other areas which have greater influence. There really is a trend towards stupid, immoral, and ignorant people making a lot of the big decisions for everyone else.
So after looking through all the concerns expressed in this article I have to say that I think the biggest potential source of disaster is a new Dark Age brought on by a reaction against progress and rationality by those who have worldviews contrary to that supported by progressive liberals and rationalists.
As religion becomes more irrelevant we should expect those who still choose to accept it to employ increasingly extreme and dishonest measures to protect their dying worldview. This is most obvious in some western countries where fundamentalists are trying to sneak ridiculous nonsense like creationism into science classes, and in the fundamentalist Islamic world where violence is used in an attempt to stifle anything contrary to their backward ideas.
And conservatives of all sorts will continue to fight against progressive issues such as equality, free speech, diversity, and technological progress. There is no real justification in their attempts to halt these moves forward because the changes have no real direct effect on the detractors, but conservatives not only want to live in the past themselves, they want the rest of us to share their miserable and pathetic outlook as well.
Yes, these are real concerns. They are more harmful even than excessive use of Facebook!
There seems to be no end to the silly, frivolous things people today get upset and offended about. Surely there are serious issues which we should all be concerned about and wasting time on trivia just seems to be counter-productive. One of the more common trivial problems is that one group is “offended” by what another group or individual says.
Well OK, so they’re offended. So what? I would suggest two possible responses: first, show why the comment or action they are offended about is untrue or harmful in some way; or second, don’t get offended so easily. In other words: get over it!
There have been a few issues recently where people have become offended for various reasons and instead of reacting in one of the two way I mentioned above, they have chosen a third alternative: threaten and abuse the person who offended them. In other words, act in an even more offensive way than the original!
First, there is very odd case of St Matthews in the City church selling a billboard “skin” depicting a gay baby Jesus which has gained a lot of interest on the on-line auction site TradeMe. The billboard was used for publicity at Christmas and depicts a baby Jesus with a rainbow halo and the words “It’s Christmas. Time for Jesus to come out.”
Last time I heard the auction had reached $855 and had 29,000 views, although I can’t find it on the site now. The ad agency involved, “Einstein’s Hairdresser” (honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up), added many humorous and frivolous comments in response to questions about the auction.
It all sounds like a bit of fun and some great free publicity for both the church and the advertising agency, but many people have taken it away too seriously and sent quite bitter and vitriolic comments to both the church (such as that they are surely going to Hell, which means nothing to an atheist like me but is presumably a bit disturbing to a believer) and to the comment system on TradeMe.
The same church has done other similar advertising stunts in the past, some of which have been quote amusing, so presumably the risk of eternal damnation hasn’t concerned them too much. One thing they will be happy about though is all the free media attention they have got as a result of all the complaints!
A second issue was possibly a but less frivolous. It involved the comments made by a visiting Danish far-right politician who called a powhiri (a traditional Maori “welcoming” ceremony) an “uncivilised ritual”. She was shocked to be welcomed by “dancing half-naked men” instead of with handshakes or salutes as she expected.
She received many emails criticising her and some advising her never to return to New Zealand. But why? She only expressed an opinion. The artistry, appropriateness, and sophistication of various social and cultural activities is surely a matter of opinion and why shouldn’t she express hers instead of (as many people do) being disgusted or amused at the spectacle and keeping it to herself.
Of course the freedom to criticise this sort of stuff should apply to all cultures. If anyone doesn’t like the Maori hongi (touching nose and forehead with the person you are greeting) for example they shouldn’t object to others rejecting a handshake. People should also consider whether it is really worth making a big point out of something which is generally fairly innocuous and should maybe just go along with the social norms.
But the main point here is that if someone does feel uncomfortable in participating in a foreign cultural activity they really should be able to say so. It’s not like the politician said “Maori are disgusting sub-humans and I don’t want to have anything to do with their customs” (that would be genuinely racist) it was just one rather intimidating ceremony which she didn’t enjoy. Fair enough, I wouldn’t either.
The final issue involves a comment so extreme and bizarre that it does start reaching the point where genuine offense might be reasonable. A city councillor from New Zealand city Palmerston North has suggested Maori women should be sterilised to prevent them smoking in front of their children. Wow. What a comment. What can you say about that?
For a start this is crazy stuff, and making any sort of comment which is so out of touch with reality should cause concern whether it has a cultural offence component or not. The problem is more that saying something like this in a public meeting is just bizarre rather than being racist or offensive in some other way.
The councillor has apologised unreservedly and said he only made the comment out of frustration because no other actions seem to have worked. He has said he instantly regretted making it. I guess it is possible to say things you regret later in those situations and maybe the apology should have marked the place where things should have ended.
But again people are taking great offence and demanding that he should retire from office. It seems to me that the councillor is the person to have really been insulted here – by himself! I really don’t think there is any need for further efforts to inflict more damage on him as a result of any real or contrived offence.
So my point here is really that people who make what could be seen as offensive comments tend to be offering an opinion which might be seen as wrong by many, but which they should still be able to make. If it is so wrong then it should be easy to show that error, but just demanding that these opinions are never made because certain other people find them offensive is just hiding the phenomenon.
And for those who make comments which really are edging towards being offensive, they tend to do themselves more harm than good. Is it not better to know what they are thinking rather than have them them secretly acting on their strange ideas? As far as I am concerned all but the most extreme opinions should be welcome. And the most important point is this: anyone who does say something which is totally outrageous should be prepared to be criticised themselves.
But to those who hear something they don’t like and just expect it to go away because they are offended I say: grow up, and get over it!
Yes, it’s Easter and who does care? Actually, despite the title, by the time I post this it won’t be Easter any longer, but give me a little bit of poetic license here, OK?
My point is that the primary meaning or Easter is supposed to be a religious one, marking the alleged crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Christ, and before that a pagan celebration of Spring (which explains many of the symbols of Easter, such as eggs and bunnies) but all that now seems lost and it has reverted to what all holidays have become: some time off work with some sort of commercial angle overlaid.
I agree that if you look you can find a few of the religious elements still there, for example some members of certain churches re-enact Christ dragging his cross to the place of the crucifixion. Naturally, I don’t take this seriously (see later) but it is an interesting ritual which I think adds a certain amount of cultural colour to what is otherwise just another long weekend.
Apart from some photos of that event in the local newspaper, a couple of days with most shops closed, and a slight change in programming on the radio station I usually listen to, you would barely know Easter had any significance, in a similar way to Christmas as I have mentioned in previous blog entries.
But I will ignore the modern interpretation of the Eater season and move on to critique the original Christian story associated with it. Did the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ even happen, does the story even make any sense, and should we care?
Well for a start I have to say that I remain skeptical even about the existence of Jesus. I think the most likely truth is that the stories we know about him originated from a real person, or several people, but they have been grossly exaggerated and enhanced in the re-telling. I also think there is a fair chance the stories are essentially entirely fictitious but I have moved more towards the “fiction based on fact” hypothesis recently.
Why am I skeptical of the whole thing? The only extensive stories about Jesus come from the gospels and various other religious writing, such as the letters of Paul. Oddly many Christians don’t realise that the four canonical gospels of the Bible were chosen essentially randomly from a much greater number, some of which are barely recognisable as the same story. There is even extensive variation amongst the four which survived. For example the “guiding star” story only appears in 1 (Matthew) out of 4 of them. Either 3 didn’t think it was important enough (really?) or Matthew just made the whole thing up!
Actually, that’s another point I need to make. No one knows who wrote the gospels, so Matthew didn’t actually write Matthew. No one seems to know who did or when. But we do know that they were all written many years after the events they allegedly describe and were unlikely to have been written by witnesses (if the events happened at all).
There are mentions of Jesus outside the Biblical writings (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) but they are all very weak and the passage which might be seen as most convincing (from Josephus) is generally regarded as a fake added by later Christians. If the story was so great and made such an impact then why did they feel the need to do this?
So the descriptions we do have are of a religious nature so are hardly going to be accurate. They were often written by unknown authors at unknown times. They copied off each other and (in theory) off currently unknown other documents. They were written by people who never met Jesus (believe it or not, Paul never met him). The evidence outside of the Christian writers (Josephus, etc) is second and third hand, written years after the alleged events, and very weak in every case. And finally important events which could be used to confirm the stories (the star, the eclipse, the dead rising from their graves) are never mentioned anywhere else.
When you think about it the whole story really sucks. You would have to be crazy to believe it! And yes, I know that many historical figures have very little good evidence supporting their existence, but when there are obvious exaggerations in stories about other figures we are at least very skeptical about them which is all I am suggesting should be the case here as well.
But let’s forget all of those points and accept the story at face value. The essential message of Christianity is that Jesus was sent to save us and died to achieve that purpose. Not only that, but many people believe Jesus was God – maybe a sort of avatar (they are common in other religions). Does this make sense?
The story is essentially this: God created humans as sinners and knew they would sin (he is supposed to be omniscient) then sent a version of himself so that he could die to save humans from sin (didn’t he try that previously with the Flood?) which he himself created (he created us in his image). And things are exactly the same before and after this event (there was crime, violence, disease, and early death both before and after Jesus). Huh? This is supposed to make sense how exactly?
Christianity is very good at using fear and guilt as tools of oppression. People are supposed to accept Jesus or they will go to Hell. And just in case that threat doesn’t work they should accept him through guilt because he died for our sins. The whole thing is totally absurd and anyone who really believes this crap is bonkers!
Maybe a person roughly recognisable as Jesus really existed, and maybe he was crucified. But we don’t owe him anything. Many people were crucified at that time and we have forgotten all of them. Most likely the whole story is entirely fictitious of a greatly embellished version of a real story. Either way, who really cares?
Apparently I’m a racist, at least according to some people. Why? Because I question the wisdom of giving some groups (let’s be specific: Maori, the original inhabitats of New Zealand) extra privileges based on their race, and because I dare to criticise some religions (again let’s be clear: I’m talking about Muslims) for their poor behaviour. By the way, I know race is a vague concept with little scientific validity, but we all know what these “racial” groups are – even if their origin is cultural more than biological – so the whole issue is still valid.
It seems strange to me that saying that certain racial (and cultural) groups shouldn’t be given special privileges is racist when the definition seems to suggest the exact opposite. Here’s the definition: “having or showing the belief that a particular race is superior to another”. I would have thought that if you think one group deserves extra privileges then you are strongly suggesting they are superior in some way, and of you suggest a group needs extra help you are suggesting they are inferior. Either way, those opinons (totally contrary to mine) seem racist.
Compare that with my view that every race should be treated the same and race based privileges and policies should be avoided. Surely it is my critics who are the racists, isn’t it?
A similar argument applies to my criticism of religion, because some religions are associated with certain racial groups. So my negative comments about religion are also sometimes criticised as being racist. But I criticise people based on many criteria: their politics, their philosophical perspectives, their moral standards, but never their race. And it seems fair to criticise them based on their damaging belief in superstition as well. If I don’t I’m effective giving that particular group (which might be associated with a racial group) a free pass. Isn’t that more racist than treating everyone equally?
I realise that the argument I am making is not a new one. I also realise that some people who actually are a bit racist use it, including some fairly extreme right wingers who are my usual opponents in political discussion. But in this blog I like to express my opinion clearly and directly, and if it fits with a particular ideology or not doesn’t really matter. It’s the logic and truth of the points which are important.
I think that is one of the reasons some people find my attitude in this area so disconcerting: I have traditional left wing views in other areas but this is seen as more reminiscent of the right. Generally the left are very politically correct around the subject so it seems more significant when I don’t follow the usual pattern. Of course, I have always said I reject these labels and if I did need to use a label I would see myself more as a rationalist rather than a leftist.
There is a current political event which has lead to this particular subject. It is the appointment of a new Race Relations Commissioner, Susan Devoy. Her opinions on the subject have caused a lot of consternation to many people and her apparent lack of relevant knowledge is also a concern.
Here’s what she said about Waitangi Day which is (in theory) our national day: “Waitangi has been hijacked and if it can never be really seen as a day of national celebration then perhaps the time has come to choose another true New Zealand day. … A recent poll showed more than 70 per cent of New Zealanders were in favour of a new holiday. This would leave Waitangi Day to be the day that recognises the importance of Maori, but the door open for a day that we don’t feel ashamed to be a New Zealander…”
I agree. I feel no connection with Waitangi Day at all and, according to many polls, neither do the majority of other New Zealanders. Waitangi Day has really turned into “Maori Day” which is fine for those who are interested in Maori culture and history (and a lot of that alleged history is very doubtful). But I have no interest in that area at all. Maori culture can be OK in small doses (some of the legends are quite cool) but in general I find it boring.
Many people would see that last statement as racist, but is it? Should I pretend to be interested in something just to be politically correct? I don’t think so. There are many other subjects and cultures I am also not that interested in but that doesn’t mean I think they are inferior, I’m simply just not interested!
Race relations in New Zealand is in a fairly healthy state but I think that is despite the modern trend of forcing people to participate in Maori culture rather than because of it. I have absolutely no problem with Maori culture being part of our society as long as people with no interest in it aren’t forced to participate. That really does create resentment.
The other thing that causes a lot of negativity is the seemingly constant hand-outs to Maori groups for some real and some imagined grievances. People quite rightly get annoyed when one group is given extra privileges (and money) for highly doubtful reasons. If you really want different groups to get on then treat them all fairly. That’s how to get real racial harmony.
So Susan Devoy might or might not be a wise choice for this role but in some ways it might be quite a good thing that we have someone who (at least in the past) has been prepared to stand up for the majority view. Maybe, just maybe, we might make some real progress towards equality and harmony now instead of the false situation we have now where resentment and indignation seem to be barely held in check.
In general tolerance is a good thing. I know I have ranted on many occasions against various groups in society in this blog but in general I am not absolutist about it.
For example, I think that big business is extremely dangerous but I still want corporations to exist, just with tight controls on the excesses of their behaviour. Without big corporations we wouldn’t have many of the valuable products and services we depend on. However they do have too much freedom and influence in politics, none of them pay their fair share of tax, and they should be forced to follow environmental and social objectives as well as the financial ones.
And I find the ignorance and arrogance of many religious people almost unbelievable, but I don’t want to eradicate religion. That’s because it is socially valuable to some people, it has many interesting stories and customs, and it is an alternative world view from mine and I celebrate diversity rather than trying to eliminate it. I do however want religion controlled. Creationists have no right to have their beliefs taught in a science class for example, and I reserve the right to debate and ridicule anyone who believes in nonsense.
That’s my customary introduction, so what is the actual rant… I mean topic of discussion… going to be today? It’s about when there is too much tolerance.
In the past I have defended Islam against many of its attackers. A rather nutty right-wing friend of mine sends out a lot of anti-Islam material and I often reply pointing out that it is usually inaccurate and exaggerated. That is still true, but taking the opposite view – that Islam is basically reasonable and benign – is not correct either.
One of my many sources of news and information is the BBC world service. In a recent podcast they reported on several issues affecting the world and a pattern I immediately noticed was the negative effects of religion, and Islam in particular.
The first item was from Iraq. It reported that religiously motivated violence there in recent days resulted in the deaths of at least 50 innocent people after bomb attacks. While the death rate is well below its peak in the year 2006 it is still running at about 300 per month.
There is a political element to this clearly but fundamentally this is a religious problem, and it’s not even Islam against another religion, it is one sect of Islam against another! Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad, especially places where innocent people meet such as bus stations and restaurants, are being targeted by Sunni radicals. How can anyone really claim this is a religion of peace?
I do need to point out here that the most significant contributor to the current political instability in Iraq is the American invasion of 10 years ago and that was partly motivated by ridiculous Christian religious beliefs of the president at the time. I also have to point out that the Muslim versus Muslim violence in Iraq has parallels with the Christian versus Christian violence in Ireland not that long ago. So Christians shouldn’t feel to smug when they see Muslims acting this way.
The second story was about sectarian violence in Pakistan. In this case it was Muslims murdering members of a slightly different sect to their own again but here they have gone one step further and are terrorising Christians as well. A crowd of Muslims rioted and destroyed 100 homes in a Christian area because of some perceived insult to their beliefs.
But these devoutly religious people don’t stop there. They also do targeted killings of high profile people who belong to a different branch of Islam. A Shiite eye surgeon and his 11 year old son were shot and killed. I guess that’s just what the extremists’ faith told them they should do. Praise be to Allah!
This extreme behaviour in Pakistan is being more tolerated by moderate believers so in many ways it is them who are to blame. Anyone who is a Muslim and doesn’t accept part of the blame for the actions of the more extreme elements in their religion is just denying the facts. It’s the religion itself which is to blame. It is fundamentally intolerant. Anyone who denies this should be asked “what is the official Islamic punishment for apostasy?” (in case you don’t know, it’s death).
The saddest thing I heard was the tortured question of a relative of one of the victims when he asked “can God accept that?” Even after everything going so wrong and there being zero sign of help from his imagined deity he still believes. Well if faith is all about killing people who just happen to have a slightly different interpretation of an idiotic belief than you, and then wondering why your god didn’t help you, then you can keep it. Give me rationality over faith any day!