Archive for February, 2009

Jesus was Fat

February 28, 2009 1 comment

I noticed in the news today that the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has issued an official apology for a comedy skit on a TV program which caused outrage among the Christian community, especially in Israel.

Private broadcaster Channel 10 aired a show featuring Israeli comedian, Lior Shlein, who mocked Christian beliefs, including the myths that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus walked on water. Instead he depicted the Virgin Mary as a pregnant teenager and Jesus as being too fat to walk on water. In the show, Mary become pregnant at 15, thanks to a schoolmate and Jesus could never have walked on water because “he was so fat he was ashamed to leave the house, let alone go to the Sea of Galilee with a bathing suit”.

I often find this sort of humour quite hilarious, partly because it is so daring in lampooning a subject which is often considered to be off limits. Of course, a lot of the humour in a comedy act is in the delivery so its hard to say how funny this would be in real life.

Just to make things more complicated there was a political aspect to this as well. It was intended to criticise Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunication of British bishop Richard Williamson, who has said that no Jews had been gassed during the Holocaust and that only 200,000 or 300,000 had been killed.

The Vatican said the show had ridiculed Mary and Jesus with “blasphemous words and images” that amounted to a “vulgar and offensive act of intolerance”. There are two claims here. First, that the act was blasphemous. I guess that’s true, but blasphemy is only a problem to people who take their religious beliefs too seriously, so it is rather subjective. And I think compared to some modern comedy the level of vulgarity and intolerance seems fairly mild.

So my advice to the Vatican would be to get real and worry about things that really matter instead of reinforcing the common idea that it is a antiquated institution which is out of touch with reality.


Browser War II

February 27, 2009 Leave a comment

Today I read a blog entry on ZDNet which briefly discussed whether the latest browser war – let’s call it BWII because the original browser war (BWI) was won my Internet Explorer – is good for users. The conclusion seemed to be that it wasn’t because its hard to choose, and maintaining multiple browsers is too difficult. But the blogger then said he preferred Firefox which is the major cause of the latest browser war, so I can’t really make much sense out of that. Still, the standard of editorial comment at ZDNet isn’t exactly the best!

Of course you will want to now what my opinion on the subject is and I will offer it here. One thing that most experts agree on is that the most widely used browser, Internet Explorer, is also the worst (at least its the worst of the common and popular browsers). It seems to me then that any challenge to that horrible product’s dominance must be a good thing so that would mean that BWII is also a good thing.

Unlike most computer geeks I don’t actually like Firefox that much. Sure, its a good browser, but I would only rank it third behind Safari and OmniWeb. Of course, I’m a Mac user so I’m not necessarily a good example of a typical user.

I also disagree that maintaining multiple browsers is too hard, but again I’m a Mac user so the issue isn’t as critical to me. I don’t have to worry about IE for example, except when I start up Parallels and run Windows (which I do very rarely) then I usually have a pile of updates to install. But that’s just another cost of using Windows, isn’t it?

I do use multiple browsers but they are assigned to specific tasks so there is minimal confusion. I use OmniWeb as my main browser because I like the extra functionality it has, especially the way tabs are displayed down the side of the window which makes having 30 different web sites open easy.

And for the last few days I have been using the Safari 4 beta as my programming browser. That is the browser I use for testing web sites and web databases I am creating. I use it for that because it has good standards compliance, it is the browser most of the users of my programs (Mac users) will probably be using, and it has good debugging tools built in. I use a lot of Javascript so the fast engine in Safari 4 is very welcome!

I do use IE occasionally to test if my sites work properly on what is still (regrettably) the most widely used browser in the world. But I shut it down again quickly after testing because it really is hideous! A PC user was using one of my databases and complaining it was slow. I knew it wasn’t so I had a look at her computer and discovered she was using IE. I installed Safari instead and now the database is 10 times faster. Its also more reliable and looks better.

If it takes a browser war to remove IE from its position of dominance, to introduce some better browsers, and to move the whole web environment ahead I say: let the war begin!

Informed Debate

February 26, 2009 Leave a comment

The new government in New Zealand has been pushing the idea of investing in building a faster broadband network by taking fibre to the home of most New Zealanders. They are considering spending about NZ$1.5 billion on the project and you would think that the major internet service providers would be quite excited by the idea, but apparently they aren’t.

In a report created for the three biggest providers: Telecom, Vodafone and Telstra, serious doubt over the wisdom of this plan is expressed. The report agrees that a New Zealand Institute study which estimates $2 to $4 billion of benefits per year is correct, but questions the “social benefit”. Just what this lack of social benefit really means wasn’t explained in the news item I heard.

If you have read some of my past blog entries you will know that I am not a great fan of Telecom. In fact I think they are one of the most incompetent and corrupt companies in New Zealand. Vodafone are hardly better and, although I don’t deal with Testra myself, I have heard a lot of bad stories about them and very few good ones. Also, these companies are supposed to be competing, why would they collude on the production of this report?

Its fairly clear to everyone that the telecom companies just don’t want this technology to go ahead and most people would see through their weak reasoning in explaining why not. Its not because of their concern over social benefits, its the threat to their profits which they currently make through provision of poor and overpriced services that they are really concerned about.

The report claims that New Zealanders don’t want high speed networking. It says that New Zealand has a high use of dial-up and that this shows fast internet would be wasted here. Do they really think anyone would use dial-up if the alternative was reasonably priced? Its because they keep the price of broadband artificially high that people are forced into using an antiquated system like dial-up. Or in some cases its the fact that broadband isn’t even available in some more remote centers, again because of the telcos’ greed.

There is a good chance that power companies could provide the cable more cheaply than the existing telecommunication companies and its this that really worries them, I’m sure. That would really kill off their cash cow. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to provide such a huge profit to their foreign shareholders then. How sad would that be!

Local councils don’t trust these companies either. They say that high speed internet access is a core infrastructure that the telcos are holding back, and they want public-private partnerships set up to make sure that things progress.

So this is really just another example of where the free market fails abysmally. Really it seems that if you want any progress to be made at all you have to bypass the private sector and use a model which takes the big picture into account instead of just how much money can be returned to the shareholders at the end of the current financial year.

The public relations people (also known as professional liars) for these big companies say that the report is just designed to introduce some informed debate into the subject. Who do they think they are kidding? Even the spin doctors can’t make that lie stick. This report obviously has nothing to do with informed debate and everything to do with transparent propaganda which is designed to confuse what is actually a really simple issue rather than actually inform anyone.

So the best outcome would be the government sets up a state owned enterprise to manage the new cabling, they install it by using the access of existing power suppliers, and the big telcos we have now are made irrelevant, not just as ISPs but also as phone, cable TV, and other service providers. Not having to deal with these corrupt overseas multinationals would be the best thing we could ever do for the New Zealand telecom user.

Forget About PC!

February 25, 2009 Leave a comment

Political correctness can be a bit annoying. First because its a big time and money waster when people debate, study, and implement policies designed to correct a problem which doesn’t really exist; and second, I just find it tedious watching the false and insincere behaviour of many people who seem to enjoy partaking in a bit of PC.

There are many issues in New Zealand related to PC but the most numerous and most wearisome usually relate to the real or perceived rights of Maori, the original inhabitants of New Zealand.

Many people are scared to even discuss the issue because they are immediately branded as racist. To be honest, there are many people who are against Maori rights issues because they are racist, but its unfair to make the automatic charge of racism just because someone disagrees with policies which give indigenous people special rights.

I encountered a similar issue recently when I debated the situation in Gaza with some people who were from a bit more to the right of the political spectrum. In that situation I was accused of being anti-Semitic. That was a totally untrue accusation but it served to divert the argument from the real issue which was did Israel behave in a reasonable and proportionate way when it invaded Gaza. I wasn’t saying the Palestinians were the good guys and the Israelis the bad, or vice versa. I was saying both were to blame. Apparently even that is seen as anti-Semitic to some people!

Anyway, getting back to the Maori political correctness issues. There were two stories recently which I thought were interesting. First, the Royal Shakespeare Company was accused of showing contempt for traditional Maori culture by performing a dance which was inspired by the “Ka Mate” haka. The stage version ends with the dropping of the trousers and the audience being mooned. This is Shakespeare?

So whatever the literary merits of this play the question that arose was is this insulting to Maori culture? Well maybe it is but who cares? Art is sometimes about insulting people and groups and using shock value to make a point. I haven’t seen the performance so I don’t know for sure but maybe this action imparted something particularly meaningful to it.

Free expression is important and, unless there is a specific call to violence against a group of people, I think this sort of action is quite reasonable. The same applied to recent satirising of Catholics, and to the anti-Islam cartoons. People really just need to get over it and take themselves a bit less seriously!

The second issue was a debate over the spelling of the name of a New Zealand city, Wanganui. According to a group of local Maori the correct spelling is Whanganui. Again I say, so what? Place names change all the time. They evolve, often as a result of misspelling. Why not just stick with the name that everyone is used to using? If the name was an English one I doubt whether the call for a correction would be given any consideration at all, as it happens the idea had to be rejected after a meeting of the local council. What a waste of time!

A quick search of the internet revealed many places whose names arose from a misspelling earlier in their history. People get used to the new (incorrect) spelling and that becomes the new name. Is this so bad? I think we should concentrate on the important matters that really make a difference to people’s lives and forget about PC!

Dumb Objectivity

February 23, 2009 1 comment

I recently listened to another controversial podcast. It was an interview with Susan Jacoby from the Center for Inquiry which discussed her new book, The Age of American Unreason. The book’s subject is the abysmal lack of critical thinking (or apparently any thinking at all) displayed by a large part of the American population. While this book is specifically about America I think similar criticisms would apply to most other countries, expect for the seemingly greater support for silly religious beliefs in the US.

So what are these silly beliefs? Well various polls have discovered the following beliefs amongst Americans: 50% believe in ghosts, 33% in astrology, 75% in angels, and 80% in miracles. Over 50% don’t believe evolution, and 67% want creationism to be taught alongside evolution in schools. A Gallup poll showed 30% believe the Bible is literally true, but 50% don’t even know that Genesis is first book in the Bible.

So what does this mean? Well I don’t think it simply means that people believe in things which have no real proof. I think it shows a total lack of knowledge and ability to think logically at all. If 67% want creation taught but 50% don’t even know anything about the book in the Bible which mainly deals with that myth then any credibility their opinion might have had seems to disappear.

Its like Jacoby said about the way these people must think: “I don’t know what Genesis is, but I believe it anyway.” America is one of the most religious countries in the western world and half its population don’t even know what the first book of their religious book is? Unbelievable!

You really have to wonder what most Americans do in school (I must emphasise here that the same applies to may other countries and many brilliant people do result from the American education system, I am talking about the majority though) because another survey found that 20% of people think the Sun revolves around Earth!

Jacoby emphasises that anti-rationalism isn’t limited to people of one political persuasion. It occurs in the left and the right. She says Bush was not the problem, the ignorance of citizens who voted for him and allowed him to lie to them is. Of course, it is easy to lie to a population that is so ignorant that only 23% of graduates and 6% of the rest could even find the major countries in the Middle East on a map with the boundaries already marked out! (and yes, I just tested myself – I got them all right!)

One of the causes of this problem is something Jacoby calls “dumb objectivity”. Its often claimed that America is a very fair country. They insist that everyone should get an equal opportunity. That isn’t necessarily the reality, of course, but it is the perception. That fairness extends to the media (newspapers, tv, magazines, the internet) giving equal time to well supported scientific ideas and to alternative ideas which might have very little real supporting evidence.

An example she gave was a cover story in Time magazine regarding end of world scenarios, such as the Rapture, as it they were reasonable. Another would be the idea that creationism should be given equal time in schools with evolution. But if fairness was that important wouldn’t every other creation myth need to be covered as well? Apparently they want to be fair, but not that fair!

Objectivity is great but if a source purports to represent reality then the ideas it includes should be based on reality, not fantasy. Its like saying a course on mythology would probably not need to include a scientific discussion of evolution. Let’s stick with objectivity and fairness but don’t extend it to the point that it achieves the complete opposite of what was intended!

Ways of Thinking

February 21, 2009 2 comments

I have recently been involved in a rather heated discussion with a friend over a controversial political issue. How many times do I start a blog entry with a statement like that! This time its the merits of a New Zealand politician, specifically ex-prime minister Helen Clarke and her possible involvement with the UN organisation, the UNRWA.

I often find myself getting nowhere with this person and I presumed it was just because of our different political affiliations: he is fairly well to the right and I tend to the left, but now I’m not sure if there isn’t more to it than that. I think its more about our different ways of thinking.

My new hypothesis is that it is more about educational background. I have noticed that the people I associate with who can present a reasonable and fair argument tend to have a background in science. Those who are most clueless tend to be from the area of business. Those from the arts or humanities tend to be a mixture: some are just off in pure fantasy land and others can debate quite sensibly.

This is not an absolute rule, of course. I know one person who has a science background who believes in young Earth creationism, for example, and there’s nothing much more silly than that! Also, this is just a preliminary idea or hypothesis. I have no real evidence to support it yet. Maybe I’ll do a bit of research and see if anyone has examined this idea before.

So what are these debating techniques which I disapprove of? Well, presenting an unsupported opinion and expecting other people to accept it as some sort of truth is one. Here’s an example from my most recent discussion: “The UN’s track record of recent years has been abysmal”. Well I’m sure some of the UN’s enemies would agree, but where is the supporting evidence? Do we have any surveys, commentary from experts, anything? No, just a statement of opinion. At least it could be prefixed with “in my opinion…” or something similar.

Here’s another one. If I quote a source of material supporting my view (something he almost never does) it will be rejected without even reading it. Here’s an example: “Wikipedia is a notoriously left-inclined reference source – you should be aware of its reputation.” Another unsupported opinion. I know there are some issues with Wikipedia’s neutrality but that applies to almost any source. Wikipedia entries which are seen as controversial are clearly marked that way (the one I used wasn’t) and the only actual study I know (yes, I have evidence supporting me) showed the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica are comparable.

What else? Another annoying habit is to make sweeping generalised statements based on single examples. Here’s an example: “If someone with such a flexible morality was ever well suited to such a job, this must be it”. He cites a trivial example which could be construed as being mildly dishonest and comes up with the statement that she has “flexible morality”.

Finally is the most annoying habit of all: cherry picking. Give me the option of choosing the information that suits me and ignoring the rest and I can prove anything. I have done this in the past proving the Earth is flat, for example. Deciding the answer you want and looking for supporting evidence is very common. Here’s an example: “UNRWA officials accused the Israeli army of killing up to forty people … it later came to light that the Israeli army had not attacked the school”. Yes, that is true, but that is a single example of an error. What about the positive statements about this organisation, including some from Israel? Choosing a single error and ignoring everything else is totally misleading.

One of the core principles of science is establishing the objective truth and one of the major techniques used to achieve that is the elimination of self deception. That’s why scientific experiments must be set up so that empirical, objective measurements are made, using double-blinding and other techniques. And that’s why scientific research is subject to severe criticism through peer review. I don’t see that same level of rigour in other areas, especially not in most business related disciplines.

So my friend is probably doomed to self deception and ignorance and there’s probably nothing that can be done to help him at his stage of life. Of course, he won’t care about that because he doesn’t have the underlying philosophy of seeking the objective truth instead of just propping up his existing personal biases.

Ideology Before Reality

February 19, 2009 Leave a comment

How bad do things have to get before certain people understand that free market ideology doesn’t work? I know that there was more than one cause for the current world economic disaster but most people now realise that a large part of the cause was an uncontrolled free market system getting out of control.

So when one of the great supporters of the free market pokes is head up and suggests we should let important New Zealand businesses fail because that’s the way the market works I’m afraid I find it hard to take him seriously. The person I am referring to here is none other than our old friend, Roger Kerr, executive director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable. I have mentioned him in this blog on several occasions in the past – and generally in not too complimentary terms!

The company currently in trouble is Fisher and Paykel, an iconic New Zealand appliance manufacturer which I discussed in a blog entry titled “Social Responsibility” from 2008-04-18 because at that time they had decided to move manufacturing overseas to reduce costs. Well maybe that didn’t work.

Kerr insists the economic crisis is not the result of greed and stupidity in the private sector – he would never admit that possibility no matter what the circumstances were because ideologues always live in a fantasy world where their simple minded ideas always work. Well the real world is more complicated than that.

So maybe the government should bail out F&P, just like they have had to do with all the other failings of the private sector: our national airline, rail system, the list goes on. If they do help there should be significant strings attached. The company should be forced to make a commitment to New Zealand, the upper echelons of management should restrict their salaries significantly, etc. That seems fair. If they were bailed out by another private company through investment I’m sure there would be conditions too.

One thing we certainly don’t want to do is listen to people like Roger Kerr who still follow the discredited ideologies of the past. We tried his ideas and they didn’t work. Thanks for your opinion Roger but please keep it to yourself in future. Your credibility, if it ever existed, is gone!