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Random Clicking

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Nowadays, most people need to access information through computers, especially through web sites. Many people find the process involved with this quite challenging, and this isn’t necessarily restricted to older people who aren’t “digital natives”, or to people with no interest in, or predisposition towards technology.

In fact, I have found that many young people find some web interfaces bizarre and unintuitive. For example, my daughter (in her early 20s) thinks Facebook is badly designed and often navigates using “random clicking”. And I am a computer programmer with decades of experience but even I find some programs and some web sites completely devoid of any logical design, and I sometimes revert to the good old “random clicking” too!

For example, I received an email notification from Inland Revenue last week and was asked to look at a document on their web site. It should have taken 30 seconds but it took closer to 30 minutes and I only found the document using RC (random clicking).

Before I go further, let me describe RC. You might be presented with a web site or program/app interface and you want to do something. There might be no obvious way to get to where you want to go, or you might take the obvious route only to find it doesn’t go where you expected. Or, of course, you might get random error message like “page not available” or “internal server error” or even the dreaded “this app has quit unexpectedly” or the blue screen of death or spinning activity wheel.

So to make progress it is necessary just to do some RC on different elements, even if they make no sense, until you find what you are looking for. Or in more extreme cases you might even need to “hack” the system by entering deliberately fake information, changing a URL, etc.

What’s going on here? Surely the people involved with creating major web sites and widely used apps know what they are doing, don’t they? After all, many of these are the creations of large corporations with virtually unlimited resources and budgets. Why are there so many problems?

Well, there are two explanations: first, that errors do happen occasionally, no matter how competent the organisation involved is, and because we use these major sites and apps so often we will tend to see the errors more often too; and second, large corporations create stuff through a highly bureaucratic and obscure process and consistency and attention to detail is difficult to attain under such a scheme.

When I encounter errors, especially on web sites, I like to keep a record of it by taking a screenshot. I keep this in a folder to make me feel better if I make an error on any of my own projects, because it reminds me that sites created by organisations with a hundred programmers and huge budgets often have more problems those created by a single programmer with no budget.

So here are some of the sites I currently have in my errors folder…

APN (couldn’t complete your request due to an unexpected error – they’re the worst type!)
Apple (oops! an error occurred – helpful)
Audible (we see you are going to x, would you rather go to x?)
Aurora (trying to get an aurora prediction, just got a “cannot connect to database”)
BankLink (page not found, oh well I didn’t really want to do my tax return anyway)
BBC (the world’s most trusted news source, but not the most trusted site)
CNet (one of the leading computer news sources, until it fails)
DCC (local body sites can be useful – when they work)
Facebook (a diabolical nightmare of bad design, slowness, and bugginess)
Herald (NZ’s major newspaper, but their site generates lots of errors)
InternetNZ (even Internet NZ has errors on their site)
IRD (Inland Revenue has a few good features, but their web site is terrible overall)
Medtech (yeah, good luck getting essential medical information from here)
Mercury (the messenger of the gods dropped his message)
Microsoft (I get errors here too many times to mention)
Fast Net (not so fast when it doesn’t work)
Origin (not sure what the origin of this error was)
Porsche (great cars, web site not so great)
State Insurance (state, the obvious choice for a buggy web site)
Ticketmaster (I don’t have permission for the section of the site needed to buy tickets)
TradeMe (NZ’s equivalent of eBay is poorly designed and quite buggy)
Vodafone (another ISP with web site errors)
WordPress (the world’s leading blogging platform, really?)
YesThereIsAGod (well if there is a god, he needs to hire better web designers)

Note that I also have a huge pile of errors generated by sites at my workplace. Also, I haven’t even bothered storing examples of bad design, or of problems with apps.

As I said, there are two types of errors, and those caused by temporary outages are annoying but not disastrous. The much bigger problem is the sites and apps which are just inherently bad. The two most prominent examples are Facebook and Microsoft Word. Yes, those are probably the most widely used web site and most widely used app in the world. If they are so bad why are they so popular?

Well, popularity can mean two things: first, something is very widely used, even if it is not necessarily very well appreciated; and second, something which is well-liked by users and is utilised because people like it. So you could say tax or work is popular because almost everyone participates in them, but that drinking alcohol, or smoking dope, or sex, or eating burgers is popular because everyone likes them!

Facebook and Word are popular but most people think they could be made so much better. Also many people realise there are far better alternatives but they just cannot be used because of reasons not associated with quality. For example, people use Facebook because everyone else does, and if you want to interact with other people you all need to use the same site. And Word is widely used because that is what many workplaces demand, and many people aren’t even aware there are alternatives.

The whole thing is a bit grim, isn’t it? But there is one small thing I would suggest which could make things better: if you are a developer with a product which has a bad interface, and you can’t be almost certain that you can improve it significantly, don’t bother trying. People can get used to badly designed software, but coping with changes to an equally bad but different interface in a new version is annoying.

The classic example is how Microsoft has changed the interface between Office 2011 and Office 2016 (these are the Mac versions, but the same issue exists on Windows). The older version has a terrible, primitive user interface but after many years people have learned to cope with it. The newer version has an equally bad interface (maybe worse) and users have to re-learn it for no benefit at all.

So, Microsoft, please just stop trying. You have a captive audience for your horrible software so just leave it there. Bring out a new version so you can steal more money from the suckers who use it, but don’t try to improve the user interface. Your users will thank you for it.

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Trust Experts

January 8, 2018 5 comments

I recently listened to a podcast which discussed the trust (or lack of trust) we have in experts, and how that might have become a more significant issue in recent years. Many people interpret the election of Trump as a rejection of the “elite experts” in society, for example. Trump represents the average person – he was not a politician – but Clinton represented an experienced politician who had spent most of her life as part of the “political machine”, and she was rejected.

Experts which are usually trusted include doctors, scientists, and (dare I mention) computer professionals. In most cases people will trust what these people say. For example, the majority of people go to a doctor and trust the treatment they are recommended. But there are a significant number who don’t have such a high level of trust and prefer to be diagnosed by “Doctor Google” or be treated by a local practitioner of some form of alternative medicine which often has limited credibility (homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, etc).

In general it is best to trust the opinion of experts, and in most cases people do. But everyone has their weaknesses and there might be times when anyone would reject expert opinion or advice. So I started wondering which experts I might have trouble accepting and I think I have thought of a couple.

In fact, anyone who reads this blog should already know the areas of expertise I have the most problems with. The first is management, and the second is economics.

So am I just as bad as the person who ignores the facts presented by experts about global warming? Or am I just like the creationist who ignores the conclusions of experts in biology and evolution? Or am I just another conspiracy theorist who ignores the opinion of experts and thinks the WTC could not have been destroyed by an aircraft collision?

In some ways, yes, but there is one critical difference. Look at the example I gave in paragraph two where some people prefer to trust a homeopath instead of a conventional doctor. Is that person really rejecting expert opinion? Maybe not. Maybe they are accepting the opinion of one expert (the homeopath is presumably an expert in homeopathy) and rejecting that of a different expert (the doctor).

So this isn’t so much a rejection of expertise per se, it is more choosing which expert to accept as better.

And this gets to my three main points regarding trust in experts: first, not all experts are equal; second, not all fields of expertise are equal; and third, even the greatest expert in the most credible field can make mistakes and everyone should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism.

So accepting the expert homeopath’s opinion should be rejected based on point 2, above. That is, while it is true that homeopathy is a field of expertise, it is not one which can be taken seriously because homeopathy has been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be ineffective.

The other points might also have occasions when they are important. For example, there is a geologist (who is presumably an expert) who thinks the Earth is only 6000 years old even though he knows all the evidence shows it isn’t. His opinion is clearly warped by religious faith so, even though he is an expert, he does not have the same status as experts with no bias. And there have been many occasions where the greatest experts failed to assimilate new evidence and rejected new theories which later turned out to be true, so no expert is infallible.

But the main point of this post is to discuss point 2, the fact that some areas of expertise have less validity than others making rejecting opinions of experts in that area more reasonable.

The big problem is trying to establish which areas are trustworthy and which aren’t How would we know? Should we ask an expert? That sort of just gets back to the same problem we had at the start!

I think there are various, fairly unbiased, ways we can evaluate different areas of expertise. These include their philosophical framework (are they based on empiricism, logic, faith, etc), has scientific research on the subject shown it to be viable, and a general evaluation of its practical contribution to society.

So with homeopathy I would say its background is highly questionable. There has been little positive empirical research, there is almost no logic in it, and the whole proposed mechanism for its action is nonsense. And research on homeopathy shows almost no positive results above placebo level which is exactly what we would expect if it was fake. Finally, using homeopathy has some significant negative consequences, including people wasting their money on remedies which don’t work, and using homeopathic remedies instead of real ones which leads to worse health outcomes.

Because of this, I think it is clear that a homeopath, no matter how expert he or she is on the subject, should not be taken seriously because the subject itself lacks any credibility.

But how does this apply to my two areas of skepticism: management and economics?

Well, I would say neither of those are totally based on a firm philosophical basis. I do have to say that some forms of economics, especially behavioural economics which uses a lot of psychology, do have a quite high degree of credibility, but economics in general not so much. And I’m fairly sure there has been a certain amount of empirical research applied to management practices but in general they seem to be uniformly corrupt, both morally and intellectually.

So I think I have some rationale in being doubtful about the opinions of many economists and managers. Sure, they are experts in their respective fields but those fields have limited credibility. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are always wrong and can safely be ignored, but it does mean that the default position should be neutral or even negative rather than being positive as it would be with other experts.

If a doctor recommends a certain treatment I would normally accept that unless I have good reason not to. I might have already tried it without success, or I might think it is bogus in some way for example (some doctors recommend alternative medicine which has poor scientific support).

But it a manager recommends a particular action I would be very doubtful from the beginning. In fact, I would begin with the assumption that it is a bad idea. Of course, I should also try to look at the idea fairly and accept it if it turns out to be the exception to the rule.

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and expertise to research all the knowledge we needed for ourselves, but that is totally impractical, so we do need to trust experts to some extent. And that trust should be moderated by some doubt. And that doubt should be apportioned according to the validity of the field of knowledge under consideration.

Everyone’s estimation of this validity will vary but there should be certain areas which are always out in front and some lagging far behind. Here’s an example of some fields of knowledge rated from highest to lowest: maths, physics, chemistry, biology, climate science, medicine, psychology, general social science, philosophy, economics, business, management, politics, marketing, alternative medicine, mysticism, religion.

Note that I’m not saying the stuff near the end of my list is less valuable or less interesting, just that it is less trustworthy.

In summary: you can trust experts, but trust some a lot more than others!

Introduction to the Elements

December 29, 2017 Leave a comment

The Greek philosophers were incredibly smart people, but they didn’t necessarily know much. By this I mean that they were thinking about the right things in very intelligent and perceptive ways, but some of the conclusions they reached weren’t necessarily true, simply because they didn’t have the best tools to investigate reality.

Today we know a lot more, and even the most basic school science course will impart far more real knowledge to the average school student than what even the greatest philosophers, like Aristotle, could have known.

I have often thought about what it would be like to talk to one of the ancient Greeks about what they thought about the universe and what we have found out since, including how we know what we know. Coincidentally, this might also serve as a good overview of our current knowledge to any interested non-experts today.

Of course, modern technology would be like total magic to any ancient civilisation. In fact, it would seem that way to a person from just 100 years ago. But in this post I want to get to more fundamental concepts than just technology, mostly the ancient and modern ideas about the elements, so let’s go…

The Greeks, as well as several other ancient cultures, had arrived at the concept of there being elements, which were fundamental substances which everything else was made from. The classic 4 elements were fire, air, water, and earth. In addition, a fifth element, aether, was added to account for the non-material and heavenly realm.

This sort of made sense because you might imagine that those components resulted when something changed form. So burning wood releases fire and air (smoke) and some earth (ash) which seemed to indicate that they were original parts of the wood. And sure, smoke isn’t really like air but maybe that’s because it was made mainly from air, with a little bit of earth in it too, or something similar.

So I would say to a philosopher visiting from over 2000 years ago that they were on the right track – especially the atomists – but things aren’t quite the way they thought.

Sure, there are elements, but none of the original 4 are elements by the modern definition. In fact, those elements aren’t even the same type of thing. Fire is a chemical reaction, air is a mixture of gases, water is a molecule, and earth is a mixture of fine solids. The ancient elements correspond more to modern states of matter, maybe matching quite well with plasma, gas, liquid and solid.

The modern concept of elements is a bit more complicated. There are 92 of them occurring naturally, and they are the basic components of all of the common materials we see, although not everything in the universe as a whole is made of elements. The elements can occur by themselves or, much more commonly, combine with other elements to make molecules.

The elements are all atoms, but despite the name, these are not the smallest indivisible particles, because atoms are in turn made from electrons, protons, and neutrons, and then the protons and neutrons are made of quarks. As far as we know, these cannot be divided any further. But to complicate matters a bit more there are many other indivisible particles. The most well known of these from every day life is the photon, which makes up light.

Different atoms all have the same structure: classically thought of as a nucleus containing a certain number of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. There are the same number of protons (which have a positive charge) and electrons (which have a negative charge) in all neutral atoms. It is the number of protons which determines which atom (or element) is which. So one proton means hydrogen, 2 helium, etc, up to uranium with 92. That number is called the “atomic number”.

The number of neutrons (which have no charge) varies, and the same element can have different forms because they have a different number of neutrons. When this happens the different forms are called isotopes.

Protons and neutrons are big and heavy and electrons are light, so the mass of an atom is made up almost entirely of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. The electrons are low mass and “orbit” the nucleus at a great distance compared with the size of the nucleus itself, so a hydrogen atom (for example, but this applies to all atoms and therefore everything made of atoms, which is basically everything) is 99.9999999999996% empty space!

When I say protons are big and heavy I mean this only relatively, because there are 50 million trillion atoms in a single grain of sand (which means a lot more protons because silicon and oxygen, the two main elements in sand, both have multiple protons per atom).

When atoms combine we describe it using chemistry. This involves the electrons near the edge of an atom (the electrons form distinct “shells” around the nucleus) combining with another atom’s outer electrons. How atoms react is determined by the number of electrons in the outer shell. Atoms “try” to fill this shell and when they do they are most stable. The easiest way to fill a shell is to borrow and share electrons with other atoms.

Atoms with one electron in the outer shell or with just one missing are very close to being stable and are very reactive (examples: sodium, potassium, fluorine, chlorine). Atoms with that shell full don’t react much at all (examples: helium, neon).

There are far more energetic reactions which atoms can also participate in, when the nucleus splits or combines instead of the electrons. We call these nuclear reactions and they are much harder to start or maintain but generate huge amounts of energy. There are to types: fusion where small atoms combine to make bigger ones, and fission where big atoms break apart. The Sun is powered by fusion, and current nuclear power plants by fission.

After the splitting or combining the resulting atom(s) has less mass/energy (they are the same thing, but that’s another story) than the original atom(s) and that extra energy is released according to a formula E=mc^2 discovered by Einstein. This means you can calculate how much energy (E) comes from a certain amount of mass (m) by multiplying by the speed of light squared (90 thousand trillion). This number is very high which means that a small amount of mass creates a huge amount of energy.

Most reactions involve a bit of initial energy to start it, then they will release energy as the reaction proceeds. That’s why lighting a match next to some fuel starts a reaction which makes a lot more energy.

So water is a molecule made from one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. But gold is an element all by itself and doesn’t bond well with others. And when two elements bind and form a molecule they are totally different from a simple mixture of the two elements. Take some hydrogen and oxygen and mix them and you don’t get water. But light a match and you get a spectacular result, because the hydrogen burns in the oxygen forming water in the process. The energy content of water is lower than the two constituent gases which explains all that extra energy escaping as fire. But the fire wasn’t an elementary part of the original gases and neither was the water. You can see how the Greeks might have reached that conclusion though.

Basic classical physics and chemistry like this make a certain amount of intuitive sense, and the visting philosopher would probably understand how it works fairly quickly. But then I would need to reveal that it is all really just an approximation to what reality is really like.

There would be a couple of experiments I could mention which would be very puzzling and almost impossible to explain based on the classical models. One would be the Michelson–Morley experiment, and the other would be the infamous double-slit experiment. These lead to the inevitable conclusion that the universe is far stranger than we imagined, and new theories – in this case relativity and quantum theory – must be used.

Whether our philosopher friend could ever gain the maths skills necessary to fully understand these would be difficult to know. Consider that the Greeks didn’t really accept the idea of zero and you can see that they would have a long way to go before they could use algebra and calculus with any competence.

But maybe ideas like time and space being dynamic, gravity being a phenomenon caused by warped space-time, particles behaving like waves and waves behaving like particles depending on the experiment being performed on them, single particles being in multiple places at the same time, and particles becoming entangled, might be comprehensible without the math. After all, I have a basic understanding of all these things and I only use maths like algebra and calculus at a simple level.

It would be fun to list some of the great results of the last couple of hundred years of experimental science and ask for an explanation. For example, the observations made by Edwin Hubble showing the red-shifts of galaxies would be interesting to interpret. Knowing what galaxies actually are, what spectra represent, and how galactic distances can be estimated, would seem to lead to only one reasonable conclusion, but it would be interesting to see what an intelligent person with no pre-conceived ideas might think.

As I wrote this post I realised just how much background knowledge is necessary as a prerequisite to understanding our current knowledge of the universe. I think it would be cool to discuss it all with a Greek philosopher, like Aristotle, or my favourite Eratosthenes. And it would be nice to point out where they were almost right, like Eratosthenes’ remarkable attempt at calculating the size of the Earth, but it would also be interesting to see their reaction to where they got things badly wrong!

Is Apple Doomed?

December 20, 2017 5 comments

I’m a big Apple fanboy. As I sit here writing this blog post (flying at 10,000 meters on my way to Auckland, because I always write blog posts when I fly) I am actively using 4 Apple products: a MacBook Pro computer, an iPad Pro tablet, an iPhone 6S Plus smartphone, and an Apple Watch. At home I have many Apple computers, phones, and other devices. I also have one Windows PC but I very rarely use that.

So the general state of Apple’s “empire” is pretty important to me. Many of the skills I have (such as general trouble-shooting, web programming, scripting, configuration, and general software use) could be transferred to Windows, but I just don’t want to. I really like the elegance of Apple’s devices on the surface, combined with the power of Unix in the background.

But despite my enthusiasm for their products I have developed an increasing air of concern with Apple’s direction. There is the indistinct idea that they have stopped innovating to the extent they did in the past. Then there is the observation that the quality control of both hardware and software isn’t what it was. Then there is just a general perception that Apple are getting too greedy by selling products at too high a price and not offering adequate support for the users of their products.

These opinions are nothing new, but what is new is that people who both know a lot about the subject, and would normally be more positive about Apple, are starting to join in the criticism. Sometimes this is through a slight sense of general concern, and other times through quite strident direct criticism.

I would belong to the former class of critics. I think I have noticed an increase in the number of errors Apple is making, at the same time as I notice an apparent general decrease in the overall reliability of their products, and to make matters worse, these are accompanied by what seems to be higher prices.

You will notice I used a lot of qualifiers in the sentence above. I did this deliberately because I have no real data or objective statistics to demonstrate any of these trends. They might not be real because it is very easy to start seeing problems when you look for them, and negative events often “clump” into groups. Sometimes there might be a series of bad things which happen after a long period with no problems, but that doesn’t mean there is any general trend involved.

But now is the time for anecdotes! These don’t mean much, of course, but I want to list a few just to give an idea of where my concern is coming from.

Recently I set up two new Mac laptop computers in a department where there was a certain amount of pressure from management to switch to Microsoft Surface laptops. The Surface has a really poor reputation for reliability and is quite expensive, so it shouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate the superiority of Apple products in this area, right?

Well, no. Wrong, actually. At least in this case. Both laptops had to go for service twice within the first few weeks. I have worked with Apple hardware for decades and have never seen anything remotely as bad as this. And the fact that it was in a situation where Apple was under increased scrutiny didn’t help!

In addition, the laptops had inadequate storage, because even though these are marketed as “pro” devices the basic model still has only 128G of SSD storage. That wasn’t Apple’s fault, because the person doing the purchasing should have got it right, but it didn’t help!

Also recently Apple has suffered from some really embarrassing security flaws. One allowed root access to a Mac without a password, and the other allowed malicious control of automated home-control devices. There were also a few other lesser issues in the same time period. As far as I now none of these were exploited to any great extent, but it is still a bad look.

Another issue which seems to be becoming more prominent recently is their repair and replacement service. In general I have had fairly good service from Apple repair centers, but I have heard of several people who aren’t as happy.

When you buy a premium device at the premium price Apple demands I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect a little bit of extra help if things go wrong. So unless there is clear evidence of fraud, repairs and replacements should be done without the customer having to resort to threats and demands for the intervention of higher levels of staff.

And even if a device only has one year of official warranty (which seems ridiculous to begin with), Apple should offer a similar level of support for a reasonable period without the customer having to resort to quoting consumer law.

Even if Apple wasn’t interested in doing what was morally right they should be able to see that providing superior service for what they claim is a superior product at a superior price is just good business because it maintains a positive relationship with the customer.

My final complaint regards Apple’s design direction. This is critical because whatever else they stand for, surely good design is their primary advantage over the opposition. But some Apple software recently has been obscure at best and incomprehensibly bizarre at worst, and iTunes has become a “gold standard” for cluttered, confusing user interfaces.

When I started programming Macs in the 1980s there was a large section in the programming documentation about user interface design. The rules were really strict, but resulted in consistent and clear software which came from many different developers, including Apple. I don’t do that sort of programming any more but if a similar section exists in current programming manuals there is little sign that people – even Apple themselves – are taking much notice!

So is Apple doomed? Well probably not. They are (by some measures) the world’s biggest, richest, and most innovative company. They are vying with a few others to become the first trillion dollar company. And, in many ways they still define the standard against which all others are judged. For example, every new smart phone which appears on the market is framed by some people as an “iPhone killer”. They never are, but the fact that products aspire to be that, instead of a Samsung or Huawei killer says a lot about the iPhone.

But despite the fact that Apple isn’t likely to disappear in the immediate future, I still think they need to be more aware of their real and perceived weaknesses. If they aren’t there is likely to be an extended period of slow decline and reduced relevance. And a slow slide into mediocrity is, in many ways, worse than a sudden collapse.

So, Tim Cook, if you are reading this blog post (and why wouldn’t you), please take notice. Here’s just one suggestion: when your company releases a new laptop with connections that are unusable without dongles, throw a few in with the computer, and keep the price the same as the model it replaces, and please, try to make them reliable, and if they aren’t, make sure the service and replacement process is quick and easy.

It’s really not that hard to avoid doom.

Management of Change

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

My friend Fred (not his real name), who works in a similar organisation and role to me, recently regaled me with a tale of woe regarding the “restructuring” his organisation is going through (I use the word “organisation” here because I would prefer not to say what it is and whether it is a private company or a public institution, but it really doesn’t make any difference to the core message of this post).

One of the farcical aspects of this process is something called “management of change” which basically involves a propaganda campaign which attempts to persuade the participants what a good idea it all is, and to dispose of those who cannot be persuaded as quickly and quietly as possible.

A common complaint made by the perpetrators of these misdeeds against their unwilling victims is that they are resistant to change. That is, they just don’t like new ideas or new ways of doing things, and if they would just be a bit more open-minded and accepting they woud see that the new ideas are good and everything would be OK.

Of course, if the victims really were resistant to change in general then this would be a good point, but Fred always mentions one very pertinent point: that is that it is not change in general that he is resistant to, it is just the type of change which usually occurs.

The managers might say something like “But you don’t like any of the changes we want to make.” and Fred would respond “Exactly. You seem to be incapable of making fair and reasonable decisions, and everything you do is grossly flawed. If you started implementing changes that we actually wanted then we would be fully supportive. Until then, we will resist and sabotage your efforts as much as possible. You are grossly incompetent and we have no confidence in your decisions.”

I can see his point exactly, although he could be said to have a slight tendency towards ranting. I sometimes wonder about Fred’s ranting because it often tends towards the extreme, and having that degree of cynicism and distrust seems a bit unhealthy in some ways.

But here are sorts of changes Fred almost always sees and doesn’t like: more bureaucracy, paperwork, timesheets, accounting records, and other mindless time wasting; more control by management and less self-sufficiency for the actual professionals doing the work; budgets cuts making it harder to get the equipment necessary to work efficiently, to attent conferences, and to get training, at the same time as the organisation wastes huge amounts on pointless projects; and more extreme control and micro-management by managers even though they have no idea what is really required.

And here are the sorts of changes he would fully support: reducing paper-work so that the professionals could actually do the work they are both good at and are ultimately paid to do; letting the workers make decisions based on their expertise and experience instead of following dysfunctional policies devised by people entirely ignorant of the real requirements of the job; diverting some of the funds going to wasteful management projects and using it for basic equipment and training for the people actually carrying out the organisation’s core tasks; and giving the staff the freedom to work the way that works best for them and their clients.

If more (or any) changes came from the second list and not the first then Fred assures me he would be fully supportive of them.

But the saddest thing about these “management mongrels” (Fred’s words) is their total ignorance of how much their staff actually despise them. I mean, Fred often speaks with an air of genuine hatred towards these “worthless scum” (his words again) and he’s not the sort of person to be so negative in general.

He recounts an incident where he was treated with total disdain by the HR department of his organisation, including threats to possibly involve the police, and it was only the intervention of his lawyer which made them back off (and pay him a moderate sum for the stress they caused, because they were obviously wrong). Yet a week after that a senior HR staff member who had been responsible for his persecution casually greeted him on the street as if they were the best of friends.

It’s as if these people are sub-human monsters (his words) and cannot connect with real people. They like to think they are all part of the same team, all working towards the same greater goal, and all good friends, but the complete opposite is true. In fact, they are the enemy and must always be treated as such.

Thomas Paine said that “the duty of a patriot is to protect his country from his government.” Fred would say that it is the duty of every worker to protect his company, institution, etc from its management.

Racist Misogynist Xenophobe

December 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Apparently, according to some people, I am a racist and/or a misogynist and/or a xenophobe, plus there might be a few other vague insults I can’t recall right now. The people making these opinions known don’t really know me at all, and the opinions are generally based on single comments I have made on discussion forums, so I don’t take them too seriously.

I know I have discussed this issue before, that is, the ease with which these generic (and I would say ultimately meaningless) insults are used today, but I think it is one of the defining issues of the modern era, so I want to say some more about it here.

So first, what are some of the comments I have made to incur the wrath of these critics?

Well, one example might be recently where I said I didn’t like the religion Islam. Apparently, according to some people at least, that is racist, even though Islam is a religious and political idea rather than a race.

I also said I had no real interest in learning the Maori language simply because I have other things which I personally think are more valuable for me to spend my time on. And that is also racist, according to some, even though I’m not trying to stop anyone else learning Maori if they want to.

Plus there have been occasions when I said I was not impressed with the performance of certain female public figures, and (as you might be able to predict by now) that was labelled sexist, even though I make similar criticism of male figures without receiving any opprobrium at all.

Finally, if I mention various ways I disagree with some forms of overseas investment and excessive migration to New Zealand then I am also xenophobic, even when it is only when that criticism involves certain countries and when equally critical points are made about others it is considered OK.

It’s really quite disturbing what a terrible person I must be. I really had no idea!

But here are a few points which I really must make in defence of my comments, which I believe reveal a deeper understanding of my perspective…

First, I criticise ideas, not people. I have never said that I don’t like Muslims, for example. It’s Islam that I don’t like, and I know and like some Muslims, despite the fact that I don’t agree with their religion.

And I have nothing against the Race Relations Commissioner of New Zealand. I don’t criticise some of her statements because of who she is, or because she is a woman, it’s because I disagree with both her apparent underlying philosophy and many of her specific pronouncements.

And I don’t criticise some Chinese investments in New Zealand because of their country of origin. It’s because I think they are exploitative and not good for the country overall, and I also criticise many similar investments from the US and Australia.

Second, I don’t judge people based on one aspect of their personality. Sure, if a person is seriously religious (especially Muslim) it will make it harder for me to like them, but there are many parts which make up a person’s overall values, and everyone has positives and negatives. In fact, I welcome differences in opinion because that gives me an interesting basis for meaningful debate.

Third, I try to be consistent. So I think Islam is responsible for most of the terrorism in the world today and I condemn it on that basis. But I equally condemn Christianity for some of the atrocities it has been responsible for in the past. And the same applies to non-religious ideas such as Stalinism.

Fourth, I try to avoid trendy catch-phrases and ideas based on what is currently fashionable. So I try to avoid the unthinking condemnation of Donald Trump, even though I disagree with a lot of what he does. And I don’t use silly words like “mansplaining” or “white privilege”. These are often used in the wrong context and as a way to reject a person’s opinion without having to come up with any genuine objection.

Fifth, I try to offer some balance in a discussion I think is too one sided. So if I see a discussion where Islam is being excused of any blame for terrorism I will point out that it must accept some degree of responsibility because of the way its written material can be quite reasonably interpreted as being a call for violence. But I will also defend Islam if I think it is being excessively blamed, because there are equally parts of that material which are moderately tolerant and peaceful.

There’s a fine line between this and just being a troll, and it is easy to just cause trouble rather than offering a genuine alternative opinion, but it’s just something I do.

Sixth, I try to offer a nuanced view which avoids one extreme or the other. Nothing is totally good or bad so it is sensible to argue based on that perspective. For example, I might say that immigration is causing a lot of social problems here, but I don’t think it is totally bad and I don’t think we should shut it down completely.

Or I might disagree with many of the economic principles of libertarianism while agreeing with its emphasis on maximum individual freedom. The world is complicated and it’s too easy to over-simplify it.

Seventh, I enjoy debating for its own sake, and I enjoy being in the minority and being controversial. Sometimes this leads me to taking a side I am not totally committed to and sometimes this means my arguments are shown to be deficient. And this leads to my final point…

Finally, I do try to admit when I’m wrong, and when other people make good arguments, and when an issue is ultimately a matter of opinion. This does happen occasionally and I try to look at it as if I don’t correct my view on some issues then I am not really improving my overall philosophical perspective. If I still believed exactly the same things today as I did a few years ago then it would be disappointing in many ways, so being wrong about some things should be welcomed – as long as it doesn’t happen too often!

And sometimes a debate just has to end with a comment like: “well that’s your opinion, which I can appreciate, but I think mine is more reasonable. However, since we are both really just offering opinions on a matter which cannot be resolved through logic or facts I think we need to agree to differ on this issue and leave it there.”

If, after all of this, someone still wants to use an ad hominem against me then in many ways I welcome that. It’s almost like an admission on their part that they are wrong and are out of ideas. If they want to call me racist then fine, I embrace that label if it means I am being more honest and realistic.

I’m sure that is anyone examines my record of debating on Facebook, on YouTube, and in this blog, amongst others, they will find times when I have failed to live up to the high standards I presented here. But I do make the effort at least, and I do think that I am at least aware of these as being worthy of aspiring to.

If other people would just think about these (especially number 4) before they write a comment I think the general standard of debate would be higher. Then we would have less debates with meaningless words like “racist”, “mansplaining”, “white privilege”, “xenophobe”, and all that other stuff which is so over-used that it has lost any value it might have had.

So hopefully I will never again be accused of being a privileged, chauvinistic, close-minded, misogynistic, deluded, elitist, imperialistic, ethno-centric, fat-shaming, hate-mongering, heteronormative, hyper-masculine, Islamophobic, mansplaining, middle-class, straight, narrow-minded, nationalistic, heterosexual, nativist, Eurocentric, alt-right, oppressive, patriarchal, hateful, racist, transphobic, woman-hating traditionalist! (thanks to the SJW insult generator for this list of meaningless insults)

Cosmological Musings

November 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently I have listened to a few podcasts featuring some of the most well known scientists of today. Specifically, I mean Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. These aren’t general scientists obviously, since they all specialise in physics and cosmology, but that’s the area I want to concentrate on in this post.

I admire these three in particular for a number of reasons: first, they are clearly brilliant and highly intelligent people, or they wouldn’t have got to the positions they have; second, they are good public communicators of the often difficult subjects they specialise in; and third, they aren’t scared to call out BS where they see it, and Carroll and Krauss in particular are very critical of religion and other forms of irrationality.

But it isn’t the politically or socially controversial topics I want to cover here, it is the scientifically contentious or speculative stuff instead. So let’s get started talking about some of the more speculative ideas I have heard discussed recently. Note that these aren’t necessarily directly attributable to the people I mentioned above, and they represent my interpretation of what I have heard, and I am not an expert in this subject. But that has never stopped me before, so let’s go!

The origin, and underlying nature of the universe is not well understood. This has been a problem for a while, because the actual point where the Big Bang started is hidden in a singularity of infinite density. Physics breaks down there, just like it does in a black hole, so nothing much can be said about it with any certainty. It is possible to use existing theories to get really close to time zero – a tiny fraction of second – but beyond that is inaccessible to current theories.

And the best direct evidence we have comes from the light of early galaxies and the cosmic microwave background (CMB). But even the CMB only formed after 300,000 years, which is s small fraction of the age of the universe (13.7 billion years) but still not as early as we would like.

So clearly this is a difficult subject, but here are a few observations and speculations about the universe which might assist in understanding what is going on…

The first point is that the total energy of the universe might be zero. This seems totally absurd on the surface, because of all the obvious energy sources we see, like stars, and all the mass which we know is the equivalent of energy through the famous equation E=mc^2. But that’s where a convention in physics makes the reality quite different from what most people intuitively believe.

Gravitational energy has always been thought of as negative. This is nothing to do with the Big Bang or cosmology, it is just a natural consequence of the maths. If we accept this it turns out that the gravitational energy of the universe cancels the other energy exactly. So the universe has zero energy which means that any process making a universe can do so easily, meaning there could quite conceivably be an infinite number of them.

While some people dismiss this as a “trick” it really isn’t. If cosmologists had said something like “we need to get the total energy to zero so let’s just say gravity is negative and voila!” then that would be a trick. But this was an established fact long before the total energy of the universe was being considered and this gives it far more credibility.

And while we thinking about the idea of more than one universe, what about the idea that there could be many universes – each with slightly different properties – which might explain why many of the properties of our universe seem to be quite well tuned for the existence of life?

What I am saying here is that various constants seem to have values which make chemistry possible and that, in turn, makes life possible. But there seems to be no reason why the constants could not have totally different values and this could lead to a universe where stars could not form, and no stars means no energy source for life.

And the old argument about life which is entirely different from the type we see now doesn’t really save us because any form of life needs both energy and heavy atoms, and stars are the only likely source for these.

But if there are an infinite, or very large, number of universes, with different constants, then it is inevitable that some will have the values which make life possible. In fact, it’s possible to imagine a universe which is even better than ours for life, so there could be many which have life. In fact, if there are an infinite number of universes, there will be an infinite number with life as well!

A concept I have sometimes heard in both pop science and science fiction is the idea that at very large scales and very small scales there might be other universes hidden. For example, an atom could be a universe made of its own tiny atoms which in turn could be universes, etc. And going the other way, our universe could be an atom in a bigger universe above ours, ad infinitum. This idea might arise from the popular notion that an atom is like a miniature solar system (which it isn’t).

It’s a cute idea, but unfortunately it can be ruled out by applying the laws of physics. Sub-atomic particles have no details and no uniqueness. For example, every electron is a single point (or “cloud” of probability) with no structure and which is completely indistinguishable from every other electron. This doesn’t seem like a good candidate for a whole universe!

What about the “oscillating universe” or “big crunch” theory? This is the idea that the universe expands but the expansion slows down until it stops at a certain point, then it starts contracting again, reaches a singularity, and is “reborn” in a new Big Bang. At this point any vestige of the old universe is erased and all the energy is replenished. This would be a process which recurs infinitely in both the future and past.

This is quite an appealing notion, because it tells us what was before the current Big Bang, and previously it was thought that gravity might have been slowing the rate of expansion. Unfortunately for this theory new evidence shows us that the rate of expansion is actually increasing, because of dark energy, so the contraction and “Big Crunch” can never happen.

There’s nothing fundamental in physics which seems to stop processes running backwards in time. I have heard an idea that maybe the universe was created as a result of a signal sent backward from a future form of the universe itself. This removes the need for an initial cause which in turn might need a cause, leading to an infinite regress of causes.

Signals going back in time should be considered somewhat controversial, of course, because of the principles of causality, so I would be hesitant to take this too seriously unless some clarification on the exact mechanism arose.

Here’s another one: new universes appear inside black holes created in existing universes. These universes all have slightly different attributes than the universe they came from, but inherit the starting parameters from them.

This is nice because it sets up an “evolution” model where “the survival of the fittest” applies to whole universes! Only universes which can make black holes will create new universes. To create a black hole the universe needs to have a fairly long life, a way to concentrate matter, a way to allow matter to “condense” out of energy, etc. These attributes also lead to laws and constants suitable for the development of life.

Clearly this is difficult to evaluate because we don’t know what happens inside black holes, because as I said above, the infinite density of matter causes current theories to break down. There is no compelling reason to think universes are formed from black holes so it’s probably best to disregard this idea unless some new, relevant information becomes available.

Finally, how about the idea that the purpose of a universe is to allow intelligent life to form which, in turn advances to the point where it figures out how to make universes?

This also sets up a potential evolutionary scenario, but we have no idea whether any intelligent life form, no matter how advanced, could create a universe, so again this seems to be somewhat unworthy of spending too much time speculating about at this stage.

Well, wasn’t that fun! Obviously we don’t know the truth about the origin or fundamental nature of the universe, not because we have no ideas, but because we have too many! I’m fairly sure that when real theories are created to explain these phenomena that none of what I have said here will be the real explanation, but it’s still fun to speculate!