Archive for July, 2009

Rich and Poor

July 31, 2009 Leave a comment

Today I have been involved in a “discussion” with a more right-oriented friend. Actually, it might have got a little bit beyond a discussion but it hasn’t quite got to the point of being an argument yet. Maybe debate would be a better word.

Anyway the debate was over a story which has been circulating on the internet for several years. It tells of an economics professor who offers to average the marks of his class and pass or fail them all as a group. He had never failed anyone in the past but when that experiment was done the whole class failed. It was supposed to illustrate that the competitive, commercial model is best and we shouldn’t be wasting resources on “freeloaders” as all the socialists want us to.

Its all garbage, of course – as all right-wing propaganda is. The first problem is that the story wasn’t real – it is an urban myth. When I pointed this out the friend said it was an allegory. But he only said this after I showed him it wasn’t true. Its too easy to present something as if it is true, then when it is discovered to be a lie just to say it was an allegory all along. That’s quite dishonest!

The second problem is that the whole issue isn’t presented in a realistic way. No one is saying that everyone should be treated the same no matter what their contribution to society is. What I am saying (and what most people with a political tendency to the left are saying) is that we should have some minimum standard for everyone and we should be more thoughtful about what type of behaviour we reward.

The right tend to indicate they want a totally free system where people are able to work towards greater rewards (to them that is always money) for themselves. They say this is fair and often even go as far as saying its best for everyone. Well if we had a “free for all” society we would have murderers and despots in the top level of our society. After all, isn’t that the ultimate response to a competitive system?

So we do work in an essentially arbitrary system where some people are rewarded more than others. And despite what the right say, it has little to do with how hard people work. Sure, I agree that hard workers will probably do better on average but that’s a minor factor really. For example a lazy banker will get paid a lot more than a hard working rubbish collector but I would debate which makes the greater contribution to society!

So we do have basically random rules which dictate who gets the most and who gets the least and all we are really arguing about is how those rules should be fine tuned. How much is enough for someone who makes a great contribution and how much is enough for someone who makes very little? And how do we decide what is a genuine contribution and what isn’t?

One thing I can say for sure: the pure, free market capitalist system doesn’t create an environment where the best people can thrive. Instead it creates one where the most ruthless, greedy and self-centered do well and almost completely ignores the role of the people making genuine long-term contributions.

To mention my old example again (I’ve never been given a good answer to this): why do executives selling sugar water (Coke for example) get paid a fortune when cancer researchers are often not funded adequately? Clearly capitalism doesn’t work.

So the political right should think a little bit more carefully about their very superficial ideas. If we followed those disaster would inevitably follow.

Go to War?

July 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Should New Zealand get more involved in the war in Afghanistan? The US has recently made a few “subtle hints” that it would like to see more involvement although it would be mainly symbolic since New Zealand’s small armed forces are unlikely to make any real difference. But the symbolism is important, of course, because the US needs international support to make its activities in Afghanistan more acceptable. Of course Iraq is another matter. I don’t think they will ever gain widespread acceptance for that!

The hints I mentioned above included the comment that if New Zealand ever expected help from the US military in the event of any future problems its only fair that New Zealand should help the US in this time of need. Fair enough too, although its hard to imagine a situation where New Zealand would need any military help – not because we can look after ourselves (we can’t) but because no one is likely to want to start a war against us, first because we are so isolated, and second because New Zealand is fairly well respected and liked internationally.

No matter what we think of some sections of the US population and some of its less likable leaders it is still our ally and I think we should contribute to its military efforts if they have some justification, such as Afghanistan, but I think we should be careful what role we have in those efforts. Peace keeping, reconstruction, engineering and training is one thing but being on the front line calling in US air strikes which kill hundreds of innocent civilians is not something I think we should be involved with.

So I think we should say to the US that we will contribute to its efforts in Afghanistan but on our terms: that is in positive roles rather than traditional combat (which might not be very effective anyway as well as causing many casualties on both sides and often increasing resentment against the US and its allies).

If we can stick to a role which both sides respect then we will have fulfilled our obligations and also done the right thing. How often is that a consideration in modern diplomacy? Practically never I would say!

The Voting Age

July 28, 2009 Leave a comment

A recent news report discussed the idea being looked at by the Rudd government in Australia regarding whether the voting age should be reduced to 16. The current age there is 18 which was set in 1973.

The justification for the idea is that younger people have little interest in the political system and making them eligible to vote might increase that interest. And since its compulsory to vote in Australia I guess they would really be forced to have a certain amount of increased interest.

Supporters of the idea have pointed out that people of that age can work, pay taxes, drive a car, and decide whether to stay at school or not. If they are able to do all this surely they are capable of voting as well. Opponents counter this by saying that 16 year olds have no interest in politics and are unlikely to make an informed decision.

If one of the reasons for the idea is to reduce apathy towards politics then I guess you can’t deny the possibility of uninformed decisions being made, but it would be interesting to survey political knowledge of people at different ages. Based on the result of surveys I have seen in the past I think many older people would also be ignorant of a lot of political issues.

It only seems fair that if a person can work and pay tax that they should have some input in to how those taxes are spent so I think younger people should get the vote no matter how poor their political knowledge might be. After all the idea of democracy is that everyone gets to decide on a county’s leadership, not just those who can pass some minimum standard. Of course the next question would be: should the age be even younger than 16 and what justification is there to have any age limit?

Another point is compulsory voting. We don’t have that in New Zealand and I don’t think its a good idea. If a person is insufficiently motivated to vote then their opinion is unlikely to be particularly valuable anyway so maybe them not voting is actually for the best. If the age was reduced to 16 and compulsory voting was scrapped then the overall standard might actually improve.

There’s another issue as well. Older people often have fixed ideas which they are very inflexible about. Often change only occurs because older people are replaced by younger. Maybe having younger people vote might produce some original thinking and some flexibility instead of just recycling the same old ideas over and over.

Finally, like most countries the realistic party alternatives in Australia don’t exactly offer anything too radical so even if younger people did start voting in odd ways its unlikely to make a lot of difference. So it seems to me the idea is a good one which other countries might also want to look at.

Stupid, Fanatical, Corrupt!

July 27, 2009 Leave a comment

I listened to another episode of the always thoughtful and well researched podcast Skeptoid today titled “Sarah Palin is not Stupid”. Its basic message was that its too easy to dismiss people you disagree with as stupid or corrupt or fanatical instead of looking more deeply at what they are saying and understanding their perspective better.

The podcast made a good point and I have been guilty of this myself on occasions, but I think it perhaps did go a bit too far. Words like “stupid” and “fanatical” are often subjective and depend on the worldview of the person making them but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate in some situations.

For example, the podcast claimed that stupid people don’t attract supporters of different kinds, and stupid people wouldn’t be re-elected as major of a US city. If this is true then Sarah Palin can’t be stupid, but is it true? Isn’t it just an assumption that stupid people can’t be elected to important positions? It seems to me that elections are often based more on personality than real substance so a stupid person being successful in an election certainly wouldn’t seem to be impossible.

The podcast made the point that the usual criticisms of Sarah Palin are her robotic, uncritical acceptance of Republican policies, her disdain for science, and her extreme religious beliefs. None of these necessarily relate to stupidity and it is more productive to criticise her as ignorant of science or too dedicated to fundamentalist religion rather than making the simple sweeping (and possibly untrue) claim that she’s stupid.

So an ad hominem attack shouldn’t be total extent of criticism of someone. Its important to be more accurate and specific about criticisms of people if you want to maintain a certain level of credibility.

Many people who seem stupid, fanatical or corrupt are not really like that if you look at their world view. If you genuinely believe that the Bible is true for example then many other attitudes, such as being against abortion, homosexuality, or atheism make sense. The point is does taking the Bible literally make sense or do you have to be stupid to do that? Superficially I would say you do but I know some intelligent people who do believe the Bible so clearly stupidity isn’t a prerequisite, although it surely helps!

What about even more controversial figures, such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Is he stupid, or corrupt or fanatical? I really don’t think so. His bio on Wikipedia clearly shows he’s actually very intelligent and within the Islamic belief system his ideas aren’t necessarily that outrageous, at least no more so than some of George Bush’ ideas looked at within the context of his belief system.

So yes, the podcast had a point. Its important not to just dismiss someone by calling them stupid but I think there are situations where the label is deserved, and the same applies to fanatical and corrupt as well!

Computing Nirvana!

July 26, 2009 Leave a comment

There was a real chance that today would have been the third day in a row that I hadn’t written a blog entry! I try to miss only one day maximum, after two days I start to get a bit anxious. Three days without blogging would be a disaster!

So what has lead to this most unexpected lack of dedication on my part? Actually I have been involved with a couple of interesting projects recently which have used up so much time that I’ve not had a chance to write a blog entry.

The first was a programming project I am working on (in fact one I have been doing parts of here and there for about 6 months now). I got to the point in this project (which is a complex client/server web-based database system) where I needed to create graphs of the data so I decided to write a graphing module which uses Javascript and works in web browsers.

Making graphs is fun because they look pretty and users tend to react positively to them because of that. Its also a good demonstration of how its possible to do almost anything in a web browser now – things which could only be done in “real” programs in the past.

The other big thing which has been using up time is a science fair project I have been helping my son with (well actually I’m more than just helping but that’s common enough with these things). The project is to test the power output and economy of batteries.

I set up a cool experimental system with a webcam capturing a time-lapse movie to monitor some torches we set up. Four torches used four different types of battery and we monitored them for several days to day how long they would last.

I thought maybe 2 or 3 days would be enough so I set the time lapse to do a frame every 5 minutes for 5 days. After 5 days even the cheap batteries were still going strong so I had to start another set of 5 days. Eventually the torches went for more than a week. Its amazing how long even AAA batteries will power those high efficiency LEDs.

The second experiment was to test batteries in a high drain device. I thought a model RC car would be good for this so we decided to run one (an Aston Martin DB9 – you might as well have some class) around a 40 meter track I set up. The first batteries did about 25 laps and I thought the alkaline batteries might double that. Well the car took off like a rocket – twice as fast – and was still going 200 laps later. The more expensive alkalines powered the car for over 11 kilometers which took almost 2 hours to complete!

I stored the results, did the analysis, and drew the graphs using Numbers – Apple’s new spreadsheet program – and it was so nice. So much easier to use than Excel although it still lacks some of Excel’s advanced features. So I now use Pages instead of Word, KeyNote instead of PowerPoint, and Numbers insetad of Excel. So I’m completely free of badly designed Microsoft software. That’s computing nirvana!

Don’t Drive That Car!

July 23, 2009 Leave a comment

A couple of recent news items and podcasts have got me thinking about the future of cars and driving. The first was a report on the probable introduction in the near future of laws against using a mobile phone while driving. The second was a discussion of automation technologies where vehicles can drive themselves.

I think making laws against using mobile phones in cars is a good idea. Don’t get me wrong: I intend to continue using mine but if less others do it then the roads have got to be safer. Of course the problem will be the same one we always have with laws of this sort: the people who follow the law will probably be responsible and sensible and less likely to cause accidents anyway. The people who cause most of the accidents (whether they are using a mobile or not) won’t take a lot of notice.

I said I’d ignore the law but I want to emphasise that I do use my cell phone fairly responsibly. I have a hands-free system and I can operate the phone from the headset. It is an iPhone and there is no need to stop concentrating on driving while answering a call. I know that just talking with someone on a phone also increases the risk but so do lots of other things so I’m prepared to take that risk.

But the whole problem will go away eventually because in the future people will be astounded to hear that we were actually allowed to control our own cars. Systems are being developed which will allow the car to drive itself from one point to another completely automatically. High precision GPS, on-board sensors, and a central control system will make this possible.

I’m not sure how far in the future this system might be. We already have automated aircraft – the pilot is almost surplus to requirements today – but our roads are a far more complex and busy environment than the sky, although in some areas the sky is also quite crowded.

Another factor might be the reduction in the amount of actual travel. Many jobs could already be done from home and its just old-fashioned ideas which stop that happening. As the roads get busier and the cost of transport goes up working over high speed internet links should become far more common.

I know that a large part of my job could be done remotely. Remote access systems like SSH and screen control systems like VNC allow me to control any computer from anywhere. Programming, database design, and web design can be done anywhere too. And as more people get used to on-line shopping the need for physical retail premises will reduce.

I’m not advocating a society portrayed in some science fiction stories where the person lives their whole life “virtually” by never moving from one spot but interacting with others and the world through ultra-realistic virtual reality systems but I think there is a place where that sort of thing could work and that would solve many of our current problems.

We look back at the risky lives of people in the past and laugh. I’m sure the same will happen in 50 years time when people look back and say “they were crazy back in the 20th and 21st century – they actually controlled their own cars!”

Holy or Holey?

July 21, 2009 Leave a comment

I was amused to see a recent story at the BBC web site which said that senior members of the church were recommending that holy water should be removed from churches in Britain to help prevent the spread of swine flu. Apparently there was a chance that people dipping their fingers in the water to make the sign of the cross could spread infections to others.

It really makes me wonder about what’s so holy about this water then. Surely if it is blessed or has some sort of divine magical properties it would be immune from spreading infections, I mean why would God let infections spread between his worshippers through something like holy water?

I don’t know how many people genuinely believe this water has some sort of special properties. I guess it would be like a lot of Christian beliefs: its either to be taken literally and seriously, or to be interpreted figuratively, or is just a non-factual part of the tradition, depending on what’s convenient in the current circumstances.

The same applies to the communion wine. According to advice anyone with flu-like symptoms shouldn’t drink from the chalice. I always thought the wine was also magical, being either literally or figuratively (again depending on the circumstances) the blood of Christ. Well I guess even he can get the flu!

And just to make the whole thing totally farcical, a chaplain discouraged pastoral visits and said if a visit was necessary priests should wear sterile gloves, an apron and a face mask. Its like a scene from a Monty Python comedy sketch, but a lot of religion is like that, I suppose.

Really, when I look at these primitive Christian rituals I can’t see much difference between that and a primitive tribesman doing a black magic ceremony of some sort. Its all just so pathetic. When I have to attend a Christian ceremony of some sort I find it hard not to laugh as I watch the believers automatically muttering their silly incantations like a flock of lost sheep.

In reality the whole Christian belief system is full of holes. In fact you could say the holy water story is more holey than holy!