Archive for May, 2009

Intolerant and Offensive

May 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I love it when the truth comes out ahead of political correctness. Considering how many people despise PC I always find it surprising how widespread it is. Why would politicians and other public figures be so dedicated to PC when they know the vast majority of people are opposed to it?

The specific example I read about on this occasion was the case of a nutrition expert, John Birkbeck, who says it is your own fault if you’re a “fatty”. He says anti-obesity efforts won’t work until society refuses to accept being overweight as normal and makes it a negative thing like it has for smoking.

Of course all of the politically correct people have come out and condemned the idea. The coordinator of the Eating Difficulties Education Network, Maree Burns, said the comments were “flagrant”, “inappropriate”, “intolerant” and “offensive” (I’m not sure if she’s a “fatty” herself or just making the criticisms on behalf of others).

She went on to say “Shaming and blaming people has never been effective. This is the worst example of fat phobia and doesn’t achieve anything except building discrimination.” and “People that are bigger already experience profound levels of discrimination and feel like health pariahs and social outcasts without these kinds of attitudes. With comments like that I am glad he’s retiring.” And, no surprises, she was particularly upset by his race-based comments.

So obviously some people are offended by the comments, but are they true? And if they are true is it still OK to make them if they are offensive to some people?

Birkbeck points out that obesity basically results from eating more calories than you expend. Since people can have control over both of those things its really up to them if they consume a surplus of calories. While some people do have a genetic propensity for getting overweight that doesn’t change the basic facts.

Just to stir trouble up even more, he also said “over-fatness” was a bigger problem for Maori and Pacific Islanders than Europeans as well as being an emerging issue with Asian migrants. Wow, talk about living dangerously! Its never been safe to make comments which could be construed as being critical to minority groups. Again, the truth seems to be of only secondary importance.

I don’t know enough about nutrition to know for sure whether he’s right or wrong, but I suspect after 50 years as an academic in the area he’d know a lot more than the people who have objected to his comments.

So maybe to some people his comments were intolerant, offensive,flagrant and inappropriate but I think he was right to make them anyway. I think someone who is an expert in the field and who genuinely has something to say which is potentially important should say it even if it might be offensive to some who are overly sensitive on the issue.

I don’t know if Birbeck’s comments will actually make any difference to the obesity problem we have in New Zealand (which is probably less of an issue than in other countries like the US, but still significant, especially with those minority groups!) but I always say that the first step to solving a problem is accepting it exists, and the second is being honest about it by rejecting political correctness!


The Unbudget

May 29, 2009 Leave a comment

What is the best financial approach to take during a recession? Is it best to play safe and try to save money and minimise debt, or is it better to act positively and try to improve the situation? Well it seems that the New Zealand government has taken the former course because the budget they just released is extremely yawn-worthy.

To be fair they have produced a fairly well balanced budget which doesn’t penalise or advantage any particular groups. No one should be too upset about it, but then again no one will probably be celebrating either.

Of course, there is a case to say this is the best approach. At least we aren’t handing out free money to dead people as part of a stimulus package like the Australians. Maybe they think they will stimulate the dead back into life!

But you would think that to recover from a bad financial situation you would need to do something. Just waiting around and doing as little as possible while the rest of the world tries to solve the problem doesn’t really seem like the sort of thing we should be too impressed by.

One opportunity we might be able to take advantage of during the recession is the increased number of people who participate in tertiary education programs while jobs are harder to get. But there is no money in the budget for this. In fact, given the increased number of students likely to arrive, tertiary education institutions are likely to be a lot worse off. And I’m not just saying that because I work at a University!

Anyway I guess I should be happy that the budget hasn’t been the type that takes an axe to anything that’s still moving. It probably won’t do any harm but it seems unlikely that it will do any good either.

Is He Worth It?

May 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Many people around the country, and around the world, are having to survive on lower incomes, often as a result of voluntary pay reductions to help the company they work for survive. This makes excessive payments to government advisors even more controversial than usual.

So should the New Zealand government be spending up to $2000 a day for a “private purchase adviser” (I don’t know what that is but it sounds ominous) working for finance minister Bill English? Is the fact that he was a member of one of the government’s minority parties relevant? And does the claim that up to three times as much is spent on lawyers make the whole situation better or worse?

Prime minister John Key has said that he doesn’t think it’s excessive in the sense that the advisor has got a lot of responsibility in terms of giving good quality advice. Oh really? And will he refund the fee if his advice turns out to be faulty? No, I don’t think so. He’ll just take the money for giving out his opinion and say “thanks suckers”.

And I think we have a good idea of what sort of political bias a previous member of the ACT party might have. I think I would be prepared to pay $2000 a day for him to stay away and not give us his advice!

But isn’t it worth the cost to get good information which could be used to save many times more than what is spent? I don’t think so. First, I think in this particular case the person is hopelessly politically compromised. What’s the point in a right-wing party getting advice from a former right-wing party member? They’re not likely to get a fresh perspective on whatever problem they are studying.

Also, I don’t trust anyone who is primarily motivated by money. I’m sure there are some extremely skilled, and far less biased people in places like universities who would offer expert advice for far less. So why not use these people? Probably because the politicians might not get the answers they want.

The other point is that even if paying this sort of rate is usually justifiable, and even if it can be justified now from a practical perspective, shouldn’t our leaders be setting some sort of example of how to achieve more while spending less?

As for those $6000 a day lawyers. If we have got to the point where getting legal advice costs that much then I think its time we backed away from having so many complex laws. Its not so much that we spend too much money for expert information, its more that we spend it on the wrong people: you will never make any progress by listening to lawyers, accountants, and financial advisors who are only prepared to help the country if you pay them enough!

You might have noted that I haven’t commented on the real big news of the day: the budget. I think I’ll leave that until tomorrow, although I would have to say its barely even worth commenting on.

Why is the Sky Blue?

May 27, 2009 Leave a comment

Why is the sky blue? Why is the Earth hotter during summer than it is during winter? These are two basic science questions that many intelligent, educated people can’t answer.

The subject arose as part of a discussion in a science podcast related to the gap between the arts and science but I think it is equally applicable to the gap between people who are scientists, technologists, or just scientifically literate for some other reason, and everyone else.

According to the program, when the entire graduating class of Harvard University was asked why the Earth is hotter in summer only a few gave the right answer. Not only is does this show a huge failure to know some basic facts (this is usually taught in school at around age 13, I think) but the answer most people give makes no sense if you think about it a bit.

The most common answer is that the Earth is closer to the Sun during summer. This seems reasonable until you realise that during the northern summer the southern hemisphere has its winter. Since both hemispheres are part of the same planet how can one be closer and experience summer while the other is more distant and be experiencing winter?

If Harvard graduates (who most people would say are fairly intelligent) can’t even see this simple problem with their answer then what chance does everyone else have?

By the way, the correct answer is that its the direction of tilt of the Earth which changes. The Earth is tilted at about 23 degrees in relation to the Sun and the direction the Earth points stays the same as the Earth orbits the Sun.

So when the Earth is on one side of its orbit and the northern hemisphere is pointing more towards the Sun during December and January it is hotter but six months later on the other side of the orbit when it is pointing more away it is colder. Of course when the northern hemisphere is pointing away the southern is pointing towards the Sun (and vice versa) so its seasons are opposite. That’s not too hard, is it?

If people can’t even handle that concept then what chance do they have with more subtle and abstract ideas, like quantum physics, evolution, and cosmological theories? And what about complex and contentious ideas like global warming?

Does this all really matter though? Well yes, because people would be called ignorant if they didn’t know a few basic facts about literature (some lines from Shakespeare maybe) or some simple geography (the capital of major countries) or some history (approximate dates of the world wars) but most people don’t seem to worry as much about scientific ignorance even though it is of greater practical importance.

Actually, looking at the paragraph above I’m not so sure I’m right because I suspect a lot of people wouldn’t have any clues about those non-science questions either. In fact I seem to remember a survey which showed many people didn’t even know which century World War I was in! So maybe I shouldn’t re railing against scientific ignorance as much as pure, generic ignorance!

Oh yes, I haven’t told you why the sky is blue yet, have I? The molecules in air scatter shorter (bluer) wavelengths of light more than longer (redder) so they get diverted down from the sky to where we see them. The red stuff goes right through. At sunset the sky seems redder for the same reason: the blue is being diverted away and the red is coming through in a straight line.

But that explanation is really too complex. Exactly the same effect occurs in a tank of coloured liquid or gas and we don’t engage in complex explanations for that. So really the reason the sky is blue is simply because air is blue!

Reverse Racism?

May 26, 2009 1 comment

According to Winston Churchill democracy is the worst form of government… apart from all the rest! In other words, despite its problems we don’t have anything better. So if most people agree that democracy is the ideal to aim for shouldn’t we be upholding its principles as much as possible?

It seems to me that one of the major principles of democracy is equality. Everyone should get a say in electing their government. Of course, that doesn’t happen: for example people younger than a certain age can’t vote. Is that undemocratic? It would be worse though if some members of society were given a greater say in the democratic process than others. For example, if a certain group were given a special voting category or even had representatives appointed instead of elected.

No one would put up with this in general but its exactly what certain Maori (for foreign readers, Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand) groups want in the new authority if the Auckland “supercity” goes ahead. Now for many people the issue becomes different. Because its now an issue of race the extreme opinions come out on both sides.

On one side we get the opinion that Maori are “tangata whenua” (a conveniently vague term that seems to imply anyone labelling themselves as such should get special privileges) and of course they should have guaranteed representation. On the other we have the opinion that Maori should get nothing more than anyone else. There are also more extreme opinions saying they should get less but I’ll ignore these because they can’t really be justified.

While I am usually labelled a liberal I do take a more conservative (sorry to stereotype the two sides of the argument like that) view here. If we are going to have a democracy then let’s have one. No one should have special privileges or guaranteed representation. Apparently most people agree with me because the Herald poll showed over 80% of participants disagreed with the idea of special Maori rights.

Special rights are wrong for both sides. Not only is it insulting to non-Maori because it effectively says they aren’t as important, but its also insulting to Maori because it suggests they need special help to participate in the political system instead if relying on their own merit.

OK, it would be unfortunate if there was no Maori representatives on the new council but that problem can easily be solved. Just make sure there is a person running for election who has strong views regarding Maori issues and get the 11% (or whatever it is) of Maori to vote for him/her. If no one is prepared to stand for election and insufficient people are prepared to vote then there probably shouldn’t be that representation there anyway.

Also, there are the legal processes which guarantee Maori have a say in most new planning and building projects. Yes, I know many people would say those are also racist but let’s not go there at this point!

I don’t really have a firm opinion either for or against the so-called supercity. I live near the opposite end of the country so I really don’t care (I reject the claim that Auckland is the “engine room” of the economy or that for New Zealand to thrive Auckland must be looked after). I have heard reasons for the change ranging from making Auckland a lot more efficient to creating an environment where its assets can be sold off to foreign owners. I certainly hope the government isn’t embarking on the disastrous path of foreign asset sales again, even if it is just Auckland!

So its the Maori representation issue which is more interesting to me. Many people think we should eliminate the Maori seats in the national electoral system as well. I agree they do make the process less democratic and with a proportional representation system they are unnecessary so I would like to see them go. But with the Maori Party being a partner in the current government that might not be easy.

So I think these extra privileges Maori are given are undemocratic and are racist as well. The question is are those negative aspects balanced or exceeded by the positive aspects? With the current political environment here I don’t think so. Reverse racism is still racism and it would take a lot to justify that!

Landmark Experiments

May 25, 2009 Leave a comment

It is now 100 years since the British scientist Arthur Eddington performed one of the most important experiments in modern physics which confirmed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. He observed a total solar eclipse from the island of Principe, off the west African coast. Basically this confirmed that space (and time) really are bent by mass (in this case, the Sun) as Einstein predicted.

The reason we don’t usually see this effect is that it is very small. Even a large mass like the Sun only distorts space a small amount so it was necessary to observe stars which were really close to the Sun (or appeared to be close because they were in line). Usually these stars aren’t visible because the light the Sun is so much greater than the distant stars (even though the stars could easily be intrinsically brighter) so the eclipse was used to block the Sun’s light.

OK, so there’s my little history, physics and astronomy lesson but what is the point of all this? Well there are certain experiments, observations and theories which just keep coming up in discussions of science. These experiments are so revolutionary and far reaching that, even years after they were carried out, they still get mentioned in discussions of the relevant fields of science. So I started thinking about what other experiments might be in that category.

The first one I thought of, and another one which is very topical (because of the 150th anniversary of its publication), is the Theory of Evolution. This wasn’t really the result of an experiment, it was more about careful and meticulous observation and recording, but I still think it ranks as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs ever.

Another one which comes up a lot in physics and cosmology is the Michelson-Morley experiment. It was performed in 1887 by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It was designed to detect the ether, which physicists at the time hypothesised the existence of because they needed a medium for wave phenomena, such as light, to travel through. The experiment showed the ether didn’t exist, although this was so unexpected to some physicists that there were various attempts to rationalise the result.

A more modern example (and those are difficult because great experiments usually only become obvious after their influence has lasted many years) is the observations of the cosmic microwave background by various satellite observatories, especially the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). This mission was launched on 30 June 2001 and helped establish many important characteristics of the Universe, including its age to an accuracy of 1%. WMAP is still working and recent observations of anomalous areas of low temperature could be very significant in the future.

Another older result would be Hubble’s (I mean the astronomer, not the telescope which was named after him) observations which showed the Universe was expanding. I do seem to be mainly concentrating on physics and cosmology here but that has always been one of my major interests so I guess that’s inevitable. Hubble performed some remarkable precision measurements of galaxies which showed they were all (or almost all) racing away from us. This showed the Universe was expanding which was contrary to what most people thought at the time (including Einstein).

I’ve got to mention one last experiment which is one of my favourites of all time. And it is related to quantum physics, of course! Its the infamous double slit experiment which demonstrates: how particles are waves and waves are particles, but maybe they’re neither or both depending on the conditions; how one particle can be in two places at the same time; and how particles change their behaviour depending on whether they are being “watched” or not.

This experiment is still a mystery: not only can’t we explain it but I don’t think we even know what it means! Richard Feynman (one of the greatest quantum physicists) often said that all of quantum mechanics can be gleaned from carefully thinking through the implications of this single experiment.

Unfortunately, even though its been thought about a lot, quantum mechanics is not only the most successful theory but also the hardest to believe! It seems that reality at its deepest level seems totally unreal to humans who are used to thinking at the macroscopic level.

Finally, what will be the next great experiment? I think we need to know two things (again I’m sticking to the big picture – which is cosmology). First, what is dark matter and dark energy, and second (and most impotrant of all) how do we devise a theory which incorporates both quantum theory and relativity? Yes, its the old theory of everything again. We need an experiment to establish whether string theory or other alternatives can be used for the “theory of everything”. There’s no sign of that happening yet but one day it will.

Possum Skins

May 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Everyone is looking for a way to escape the current financial crisis. Its clear to me that the best long term answer is to build a new financial system which doesn’t put greedy, mediocre fools in charge, but its unrealistic to expect that to happen immediately, so what can be done now?

A team of “high-flying entrepreneurs” gathered together in Auckland today to try to find some ways that New Zealand can lift itself out of the recession. So what did they come up with?

Well it seems the top idea was: “Give it a go, bro” a proposed marketing and educational campaign to change attitudes. They say the “number 8 wire mentality” (the ability to do things ourselves with low-tech solutions) is being lost and we need to regain a more positive outlook on things.

Number two was a “KiwiCard”. The idea is to offer free return airfares to tourists who buy a $10,000 debit card that can be used only while they are in New Zealand.

Third was “Harness the Possum”. Presumably this involves using the glut of possums, which are a noxious pest in New Zealand, in some commercial venture. The details of how this would work or how it would differ from past efforts doesn’t seem to have been explained.

Fourth was the “Flying Kiwi Fund”, the idea to create a venture capital fund to help new businesses to grow. Maybe there are more details somewhere but I doubt whether there’s anything involved which thousands of people haven’t already thought of.

Finally was the idea of better co-ordinating the $760 million available for research and development and making research institutes’ intellectual property available to entrepreneurs.

So that’s it apparently. I’m so underwhelmed. If this is the best this pack of self-righteous, egotistic idiots can come up with then I’m not surprised our country, and the whole of western civilisation, is sinking into the mire.

The photo associated with the story shows a few of the entrepreneurs, obviously overwhelmed with their own self-importance gesturing and basically ignoring each other.

According to the article “this group of blue sky thinkers may not have saved the world yesterday, but you’ve got to admire their outlook on life”. Well I wouldn’t. The people I admire are those who make genuine, long term contributions to society instead of running hair dressing salons, for example, like one of these geniuses does.

But its easy to criticise, what about a positive suggestion myself? OK, I suggest this: we introduce a Kiwicard to give free flights to people who will come to New Zealand and put $10,000 into an investment fund which can be used to research new ways for New Zealanders who have positive attitudes to set up businesses to export possum skins!