Archive for January, 2010


January 29, 2010 Leave a comment

How hard can it be to implement a telecommunications technology which has been developed and fine-tuned in numerous other countries overseas and to get it working in New Zealand where a similar network is already operating? And the fact that a significant budget is available due to excessive profits squeezed from users through monopolistic tactics would make it easier. And when the successive CEOs have been paid a huge salary you would think they would make sure they got it right, really. Wouldn’t you?

If you are not from New Zealand you probably don’t have the slightest idea what I’m talking about, although I’m sure every country has its own examples of gross corporate incompetence. If you are from New Zealand you will no doubt recognise Telecom as the target of this tirade!

Telecom originally used the wrong technology (CDMA) for their cell network and have finally decided to follow (most of) the rest of the world and introduce a GSM network (more correctly 3G UMTS) like (almost) everyone else.

Their advertising made it look like the greatest network anywhere but after continual outages, poor performance, and other issues, I’m not seeing a lot of advertising any more. Maybe if they had spent more money on the network and less on lying to the public they might have got a system which works more reliably!

I have often ranted in the past about previous Telecom CEO, Theresa Gattung, and what a low life deceitful piece of scum she was. It seems like the current CEO, Paul Reynolds, is just as useless but maybe a bit better at hiding the dirty tricks his company engages in. Is that better? Its so hard to say with these people.

I know some of my critics will say that its not fair to blame the CEO for technical failures of the equipment his company runs, but he gets paid a lot to run the company and when its successful he takes the credit. He should also take the blame when things go pear shaped as they have done with monotonous regularity recently.

I have no reason to be too concerned about Telecom because I don’t use any of their services directly (although I’m sure that some of my internet traffic traverses their network and I have had a few failures related to that on occasions). I use Vodafone as my cell network and yes, I know they are also a large corporation who don’t really care about anything except their profits, but at least they operate a reasonably reliable service.

As I have said in the past: Vodafone isn’t really a great company, it provides mediocre services at a quite inflated price, but its a lot better than Telecom! That’s what you get in this wonderful market-driven, pure capitalist system: the ability to make a choice. Choice one: a pretty average, over-priced service provided by a big corporation which doesn’t really care. Choice two: a below average, over-priced service provided by a big corporation which doesn’t really care.

Isn’t the free market wonderful?

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iYawn or iCool?

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The problem with the amount of hype that the release of a new Apple product creates is that it almost inevitably results in disappointment when the product itself is revealed. The hype machine (or reality distortion field) has been in overdrive recently regarding the new Apple tablet device which we now know is called the iPad. So does it live up to the hype?

Yes and no. There’s another one of my helpful answers which I can justify…

When I first saw the early commentary this morning and read through the specs I wasn’t hugely impressed. Some people were expecting a real innovation in the user interface hardware (maybe some sort of tactile feedback or proximity sensing) which we didn’t get. Others were expecting a built-in data projector and all sorts of other cool stuff which we also didn’t get (and realistically shouldn’t have expected) so I don’t think the hardware is truly revolutionary.

There isn’t even a camera (as far as I can see) and what’s the excuse for that? My Mac laptop has a camera, my iPhone has a camera, everything has a camera now. Why not the iPad too? Its just unbelievable!

But let’s get over that and see what it does have, instead of what it doesn’t. It is a light, thin, beautifully designed tablet computer running the finest touch operating system and incorporating a lot of very good quality (if conventional) hardware. There is also some very nice software (iWorks looks great) plus a huge library of existing iPhone apps. That’s impressive enough.

The thing that changed my mind was watching someone using the iPad. Like all Apple products the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There’s a synergy between the components that no one else can copy. So despite the device’s limitations its still a beautiful device and, even though I already have an Apple MacBook Pro 17 and an iPhone 3G I want an iPad too!

I might not get one straight away though, because there are some improvements I would like to see. First, I need that (forward facing) camera for video chat, etc. And second, I want multi-tasking! The current iPhone OS (3.1 on the phone and 3.2 on the iPad) only allows one program to run at a time (that’s not strictly true, but it looks that way to the user) and that is a limitation other phones don’t have. Its not a huge problem most of the time but it is a limitation I would like to see removed. But that will probably need to wait for iPhone OS 4.0.

Before I decide whether I think the iPad is a success or failure I will need to see how many are sold. No, I don’t really mean that, because that’s cheating. What I really want to do is use one to make sure that the user experience is as good as it looks in the videos. I suspect it will be and I suspect I’ll never buy another physical book. I also suspect Amazon might be a bit concerned about the future of the Kindle!

Back to Basics

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Maybe the biggest problem I have with debating ideologically driven people (you know the ones I mean: creationists, global warming deniers, believers in the paranormal, extreme conservatives, etc) is that they think about things in a different way from me.

They will probably accept this as a fact but claim that their way of thinking is at least equal and probably better than mine. Needless to say, I would disagree.

So the question is, what is the best way to analyse a subject, to think about it, and to draw conclusions which might have some merit beyond that given to an opinion or an anecdote? Well this requires going back to the basics of your world view and of your general philosophy. I think that my epistemological philosophy is hard to fault so I’ll go through it here and refer my detractors to it with the challenge of finding a better one!

Step 1. First we have to admit that logically there is no way to ever know what is real and what isn’t with absolute certainty. This is an old theme in philosophy, most famously advanced by Rene Descartes with his famous phrase “cogito ero sum” (I think therefore I am). He was saying that the only thing a person can be sure of is that he, himself, exists. All the rest could be a delusion.

Descartes also included the existence of God as a prerequisite but that was an arbitrary inclusion and shows how even great philosophers can be badly influenced by the prevailing religious dogma of the time.

Since then other philosophers have claimed that we can’t even know for sure that we exist (and pointed out that the claim of the existence of god as a first principle is bogus). I agree this is ultimately true but also useless. Its far more useful to accept that what can be objectively demonstrated as very likely can be said to be true (this is probably most like philosophical pragmatism).

Step 2. Given that we need to find an objective, unbiased way to establish the truth we need to look for a method which would allow this.

It should be obvious that revealed truth and truth through authority aren’t valid because there are multiple sources for revealed and authoritative truth and no way to establish which is best. So saying something is true because it came from a holy book is useless because another “truth” could easily be contradictory and also come from a (different or even the same) holy book. The same applies to truth derived from gods, mystics and prophets.

A similar argument applies to truth from individual, subjective experience. It doesn’t matter how strongly an individual feels something is true they could still easily be wrong. This can easily be demonstrated by showing that religious zealots will perform suicidal acts for their belief yet anyone outside that religious group will very likely say they are still wrong.

So ideally truth should never come from sources that rely on poorly established authority, or on an experience that is only available to certain groups, or on any other source with poorly defined provenance.

Its also important to avoid a biased world view or a set of unsubstantiated premises. Many religious people start with the requirement that their god exists. And contrary to what many of them say, the rational worldview doesn’t start with the idea that god doesn’t exist, it starts with the idea that we should look at the evidence before we decide. There is no good evidence to support the existence of a god so that idea is rejected, but this is not done as a premise, that’s the critical difference.

The answer in my opinion is empiricism. The particular definition I’m referring to is the idea of a cycle of hypothesising, testing and observing, which is a major component of the modern scientific method.

If anyone doubts this idea I would ask this: if something really is true (even if it is originally derived from a revealed or subjective source) then shouldn’t there be some way to test it through experiment and observation? Some people will say “no” (God can’t be measured, my belief is spiritual, etc) but I would then ask them if their belief has any effect on the physical world. If it does then it can be tested, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t exist (even a spiritual experience affects the subject’s brain in some way).

Step 3. If we accept that an experiment can be performed to support or to reject a hypothesis we also need to accept that there could be other observations which disagree. This is because some experiments are badly designed or badly executed, sometimes the people doing them might have a bias, and sometimes the phenomenon being studied gives variable results because of statistical variations (maybe an experiment just happened by chance to measure something when it was particularly high or low).

So its necessary to look at the big picture. For example, someone determined to believe faith healing works can find studies showing its efficacy, but the overall experimental literature shows no good evidence that it works at all.

So experiments need to be repeatable. It would be preferable if anyone could repeat them, but given that many require expert knowledge or specialised equipment its acceptable if any other expert in the area can. This means that individual bias can be eliminated – even if it still doesn’t negate vast global conspiracies!

Step 4. We need to accept that no one, no matter how intelligent or well informed, can be an expert on any more than one or two subjects. That’s because we have advanced so far, especially in science, that its just impossible to keep up with the skills and knowledge necessary to be an expert.

So its necessary to accept the consensus of experts in most cases. I don’t necessarily think we should blindly believe everything experts tell us for two reasons: first, experts are sometimes wrong or even biased in some way; and second, its sometimes hard to tell who the real experts are.

There are plenty of good tools on the internet (and elsewhere) which allow study of every side of any issue. Anyone can use these to look at the facts. I do agree that the scientific consensus shouldn’t just be followed blindly buit should be given greater credibility than most other sources because it does reflect the majority view of experts.

So let’s use this methodology to examine a contentious issue. Let’s choose… creationism! Creationists (or at least the literal creationists do) claim the universe is about 6000 years old. Let’s see how that theory survives a critical examination by applying the steps above…

Step 1. The origin of the universe is in the past and we can never be 100% sure about what happened but let’s just look at the best evidence and take that as the (interim) truth on the subject.

Step 2. Reading the Bible will tell us how old the universe is according to its authors (whoever they were) but we could choose a different book and get a different answer. We also shouldn’t trust a book with an unknown provenance. So its more sensible to observe and test to see what answer we get for this question.

Step 3. So let’s do the tests. For hundreds of years the results have been accumulating from many areas of knowledge. Without exception they show an old Earth. There’s one experiment anyone can do if they have a little bit of equipment – at least in theory. That’s determining the speed of light and the distance to stars (demonstrating the light has travelled for far longer than creationism allows). I don’t have the space to list the steps here but that might be the subject for a future blog entry.

Step 4. If we can’t do the tests (and most people can’t) we should accept the expert consensus. Its so overwhelming that its stupid (yes, I stand by that word) to believe otherwise. Every branch of science agrees. It would take a conspiracy of far greater in scope than one involving all evolutionist or even all scientists to maintain it. The world is much older than 6000 years. There is no (reasonable) doubt.

So creationism has been rejected. The “controversy” the creationists have tried to create doesn’t exist because, although we should never accept anything completely, the age of the universe being much more than 6000 years is so close to an undeniable fact that it might as well be one.

Taken back to basics crazy beliefs like creationism all just self-destruct!

Battle Lost?

January 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The facts haven’t changed and the evidence seems to be getting more compelling but I think the battle to have serious action taken to prevent significant climate change has been lost. Public and political opinion often isn’t based on facts and the facts of climate science are particularly subtle because they involve many statistical phenomena, complex interrelationships between causes and effects, and very little certainty.

Yes, even the experts cannot be completely certain about the models, the theories, or the likely pace and exact direction of climate change. Plus there are the embarrassing errors and less than ideal behaviour of some climate scientists (I’m talking about the IPCC’s incorrect claim that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 and the rather naive and unfortunate emails hacked at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia).

None of this affects the big picture of climate change and the sensible option is still to try to minimise the production of gases which cause warming, but these problems have given the warming deniers the material they need to push their political agenda on a public who were already uncertain about the process.

I debate with several people who are global warming deniers (I refuse to call them skeptics because they don’t share any of the characteristics of the skeptical groups I am involved with) and none of them have a good case to support their beliefs. The material they produce is inconsistent, unsupported, and (worst of all) politically motivated.

One of my opponents is a supporter of the prominent GW denier, Christopher Monckton. Monckton would have little credibility amongst most groups because he has no expertise in climate science or in science at all, and has a clear political bias. He is a former journalist and a political adviser to British ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Many on the right admire Thatcher while most on the left despise her, but whatever your opinion her political adviser would have been very conservative and not exactly science oriented.

But if a person is determined to listen to someone, even if they have almost no credibility, then there’s not a lot you can do about it. I can quote scientific reports from the world’s leading experts backed up by real data and my opposition prefers to believe a PowerPoint presentation with cherry-picked data, invalid political conclusions, and false accusations which have been disproved years ago.

As is often the case in these situations, the more ignorant your opposition is the harder it is to debate with them. Its like trying to debate the merits of string theory with a 4 year old at a kindergarten: they just don’t know enough to realise they’re wrong.

Of course, no rant against my ignorant opponents would be complete without a mention of creationism. All the above also applies to creationism (and other forms of absurd religious belief). They are also motivated by a philosophy which often specifically avoids pursuing the truth: religion (instead of politics which is usually the underlying problem with GW). And they also debate at a ridiculously childish and illogical level which is harder to argue against than someone debating at a similar level to myself.

If global warming does result in the disasters which have been predicted (and I hope it doesn’t although most of the evidence indicates it will) then all the deniers will know they’re wrong. But then it will be too late – maybe it is already. Self-interest and greed have always beaten doing what’s right. Its sad but true.

You Want Immortality?

January 25, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the main reasons believers tell me they believe their religion is true is because of the promise of an afterlife. They say something like they would prefer to go to heaven and enjoy eternal life rather than die and meet oblivion (as most atheists believe). Of course its an absurd argument: just because something is more attractive doesn’t make it more likely to be true.

There is a chance of having eternal (or close to eternal) life but its not by believing some silly bronze-age myths – its through science. I am often disgusted at how the progress of science was held back by Christianity, and I wonder where we would be today if that hadn’t happened. Already human life spans have been enhanced greatly by the application of science. What would we have now if science hadn’t been stifled for a thousand years by superstition?

So the irony is that Christians could have had eternal life if Christianity had never existed. In a desperate attempt at creating a pretty fairy tale to ensure an afterlife the Christians have ensured that they won’t have one.

Of course, if we were a thousand years more advanced in science we would also be colonising other planets, have unlimited energy sources, be visting other stars, and be so far progressed in other areas that technology would be totally beyond the imagination of just about anyone around to day. What an opportunity has been missed.

One of the most egregious example of Christian evil of this sort is the story of Hypatia of Alexandria. I first heard this story in an Infidel Guy podcast and have researched it a bit more recently.

From Wikipedia: “Hypatia of Alexandria was a Greek scholar from Alexandria in Egypt, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy. She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Christian mob who falsely blamed her for religious turmoil.”

Christians are such wonderful people. Here’s one report of how they killed her: “… waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.”

And this is just a single example of the despicable arrogance and cruelty of Christians. Do some research and you’ll find thousands of similar stories. I think a case could be made to say that Christianity is the greatest disaster which has even happened in the history of the world.

There are many reasons to despise Christianity but I think the way it has destroyed progress by suppressing its opponents is one of the most compelling. So thanks a lot you bunch of mindless, superstitious fools. The past can’t be changed but let’s try to get things right now. Face reality and try to make it better through application of logic and facts. Forget about your primitive myths. This is 2010. Its time to move on!

Why Does He Do It?

January 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I read an interesting article at the BBC web site recently. It was titled “Why does God allow natural disasters?” and was provoked by the natural disaster in Haiti. Its a good question really, isn’t it? Why does god (assuming a god even exists) allow natural disasters to happen?

Well there are several possible answers…

The first is the most obvious and the one which is true in my opinion: there is no god. If there was no god then we would expect natural disasters to occur occasionally simply because of the laws of physics. That is what happens and it all seems to fit but it isn’t the only possible answer.

Another possibility is that god exists but he doesn’t care about what happens on Earth, at least he doesn’t care about issues on the scale of a single natural disaster. This contradicts the beliefs of just about every religion but I’m confident that if there is a god he bears no resemblance to the one described by religions anyway, so that’s not necessarily a problem.

Maybe god exists and cares but can’t do anything about it. Maybe he doesn’t have infinite powers (like many religions claim) and is just as distressed as the rest of us when these things happen. If he can’t help out with these disasters even though he wants to then he’s not much of a god though, is he? I tend to reject this idea.

Its not like god hasn’t been asked to help. The majority of people in Haiti are religious and millions around the world have been praying for the survivors. So what has happened? Another earthquake hit today. Surely god would have heard the prayers for help and at least stopped that from happening. Apparently not.

So maybe god exists, cares, can help but doesn’t because he’s evil. Certainly most descriptions of the god of the main religions (Christianity, etc) do make him look evil. So sending another earthquake after his followers were praying for help seems like just the sort of thing an evil, sadistic bully would do. That does make sense.

An excuse often used by Christians is that God gives us free will so he cannot interfere with natural events like earthquakes. That’s like letting your child be crushed by an out of control bulldozer because you want to give them some freedom. There is a point where any responsible entity will intervene even if he does rate freedom highly.

And these are the same people who pray for God’s help a lot and believe God intervened in creating the universe and guiding events on the Earth for thousands of years so their theory has about as much credibility as the other nonsense Christians come up with: approximately zero.

The final possibility, and one which Christians also often favour, is that God is making a point. Maybe there was some behaviour going on in Haiti which he disapproved of. Many Haitians practice Voodoo and other non-Christian superstitions, so God might be jealous (he is certainly portrayed as being jealous in the Old Testament).

If he was making a point why not kill all the people doing the things he doesn’t like and leave the babies, children, and other innocents alone? Apparently he doesn’t work that way (even in the OT myths he was rather non-selective about who he slaughtered which gets back to the evil god theory again).

There is one other possibility I didn’t consider until now. That is that god is doing something which makes perfect sense in the “larger picture” but that we can’t understand it. Maybe the people he killed will have a great time in the afterlife. This is really one of the most despicable lies Christians follow (and they follow plenty of others).

If we cannot understand god then all bets are off. Its a total appeal to ignorance and we might as well just admit we are no better than superstitious savages. We surely expect his actions to make sense in some way: why have a baby born then kill it (possibly slowly and in great pain) so that it can have a good life in heaven? What a load of dishonest nonsense!

The church leaders have no answers either. From the BBC: Faced with this question, Archbishop of York John Sentamu said he had “nothing to say to make sense of this horror”, while another clergyman, Canon Giles Fraser, preferred to respond “not with clever argument but with prayer”.

I have had several people email me appeals to offer prayers for Haiti. I emailed them back and told them to get some morality. The first thing I did was donate money (to a non-religious charity). That’s actually helping. I have nothing but contempt for the pathetic Christian scum who think praying (or worse: the ultimate insult of sending the Haitians Bibles) is OK and excuses them from doing anything useful like parting with the cash that many of them value so much.

And yes, I do accept that there are some Christian organisations who genuinely help but I do think that if everyone was an atheist the help for Haiti would be far greater after it was stripped of useless gestures like prayer and copies of the Bible.

I read this in an Associated Press article: “Sunday night, as downtown residents began burning some of the bodies that have been rotting on the streets for five days, a woman walking by in an orange dress pulled out a copy of the Bible. She flung it into the fire.” The best thing for it!

A Painful Debate

January 19, 2010 2 comments

I have just watched a rather disturbing video where Richard Dawkins interviewed a creationist, Wendy Wright. The reason I watched it is that a friend, who is also a creationist, challenged me regarding why Dawkins wouldn’t debate creationists at a recent convention.

Why was it disturbing? Well it was largely because of the disgusting, blatant lies and avoidance of the real issues shown by the creationist. She did this so obviously that I had to conclude that she knew she was lying and just stuck to a formula in the form: when these facts are mentioned just change the subject to this or say these words.

For example, when evolution was mentioned she would demand to see the evidence. When she was told where it existed she would demand to see it again, as if nothing had been said. When it was pointed out that evidence had been offered she would say that its not enough (even though she didn’t even know what it was). When it was pointed out that there is a huge amount of fossil evidence available now she would change the subject to Stalin or Hitler.

The way she spoke gave me the impression she had memorised a series of “sound bites” which should be used in particular situations. I don’t think she even really understood what she was saying a lot of the time.

Even though these are simple tactics they are surprisingly effective and on at least one occasion Dawkins admitted to being frustrated by her continual use of them. I’m sure this sort of approach is one of the reasons his policy is to not debate creationists. Why would anyone enter a debate when the other side has no intention of engaging in a genuine, honest exchange of ideas?

One issue (amongst many) Wright didn’t seem to quite understand is that just because scientists think that evolution is how the various species we have today got here they don’t think that similar ideas should be carried over into how human society and political systems operate.

Wright said on numerous occasions that she couldn’t believe evolution because it lead to misuse such as the actions of Hitler (who I would remind her was a Christian). Its obvious to most people that just because a theory can be misused by people with an extreme political agenda doesn’t mean that theory is untrue. It would be like saying Christianity isn’t true because of witch burnings and the numerous other disasters Christians have unleashed on the world (note that Christianity actually isn’t true, but not for that reason).

Interestingly Dawkins pointed out that political conservatives should support a society based on evolution because that is similar to a traditional competitive, free market system which would be likely to be attractive to conservatives. Oddly she didn’t see the irony in this, in fact she didn’t really respond at all – maybe its not one of the “key themes” she has an automatic response for!

Wendy Wright is more than just a creationist, she is head of “Concerned Women for America”, a conservative political organisation whose mission is to advance a conservative political and religious agenda in the US. Their mission statement states: “The mission of CWA is to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens – first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society – thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

She seems determined to believe that fixed moral laws exist, and are best for everyone. Those laws must come from a higher law-giver of course and naturally she chooses the Bible as her source. She has no justification for that apart from believing her God is real and his laws must be obeyed (including the laws about obeying him). This seems like a very circular argument and one that cannot really be tested. How do we know these laws are the best if we don’t test them?

Anyway, it was very painful but I eventually managed to watch the entire interview (which lasted well over an hour). I don’t think either side changed the thoughts of the other side too much, mainly because Dawkins was only interested in facts and Wright had none, and Wright was just reciting creationist dogma and not even considering the possibility that she might be wrong.

Still at least its a debate Dawkins has been involved in (although it was presented as an interview rather than a debate) and its one where the creationist didn’t look too good. So next time anyone criticises Dawkins for refusing to debate I can give them this as an example. I’m sure it will make lots of difference… not!