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A Man is Lost…

April 30, 2010 Leave a comment

A man in a hot air balloon is lost.

He goes lower and sees a woman walking down a road and calls to her: “I promised some friends of mine to bring them somewhere within an hour, but I haven’t got the faintest idea where I am”.

The woman shouts back: “You are in a balloon some 30ft from the ground. You are located between 51 and 52 degrees north and between 5 and 6 degrees west”.

“You work in information technology,” says the man.

“Indeed, how do you know this?” asks the woman.

“Well,” says the man, “you have given me a technically perfect explanation, but I don’t know what I have to do with this information and still haven’t got a clue where I am. In all honesty, you didn’t help me a lot and moreover, you made me lose valuable time.”

“And you are a manager, I suppose?” answers the woman.

“Right, how do you know that?”

“Well, you don’t know where you are, nor where you have to go. A big mass of air has led you where you are now. You made a promise, of which you didn’t know how to maintain, and you expect that people who stand below you to resolve your problems. The fact is, that you are in the same position as you were five minutes ago, but suddenly it is all my fault”.

It’s an old joke I know, but, like many humorous stories, it holds an element of truth in my opinion. It’s just too easy to stereotype different professional groups but I do think there is reason to believe that, because certain personality types are attracted to different areas of expertise, there are some general trends which are valid.

The IT expert mentioned in the story does fit the description of many I have come across. As an IT expert myself I avoid this behaviour and try to give information which might be useful to the person asking. But I also find myself often launching into a technical explanation before delivering the final piece of information which is actually useful. In the example above I might conclude with something like “so you are about 5 kilometers west of Timbuktu (or whatever). I might also add the observation that a GPS unit might be useful in the future and offer some possible models which I prefer.

So if the person didn’t get too bored with the preamble (or drift away in the breeze) they would get a technical summary, useful advice to solve the immediate problem, and advice to make a similar situation unlikely in the future! Now that’s real service!

Of course, it’s the behaviour of managers that I’m more interested in. The manager in the example above does fit in with my experiences with many of them.

First, he’s drifting around in a balloon entertaining some friends instead of doing any real work. I’ve never found a manager yet who does much work. Sure they go to lots of meetings and generate a few reports here and there but’s not real work. If they stopped doing it tomorrow the only group who would really suffer are other managers because they wouldn’t have anyone to have meetings with!

Then there’s the observation that the person got to his lofty (literally and metaphorically) position using good old-fashioned hot air. The most common attribute of managers I have found is the ability to inflate their own importance and constantly communicate just on the very edge of truthfulness. Not all managers got there that way – some were genuinely good at “lesser” jobs and just got promoted into a position where their talents are wasted – but generally they are simply good liars.

Finally there’s the expectation that when things go wrong (which is most of the time) there will be someone there to rescue them. The fact that someone else did all the real work is rarely mentioned. The balloonist in the story above would report back to headquarters with news of a successful flight and no mention of the IT person who rescued him.

So you can see that I’m fairly cynical about management in general really. It’s not necessarily the managers themselves but more the process they participate in which is totally corrupt and inefficient. Unfortunately they only people who can fix the problem are (you guessed it) managers, and why would they want to change anything? After all being a manager certainly beats working!

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New MacBook Pro

April 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday I bought a new computer: an Apple MacBook Pro laptop. It’s a custom model with the high resolution 1680 x 1050 anti-glare screen, the high performance (for a laptop) 7200 rpm 500G hard disk, and the Intel i7 processor running at 2.66 GHz.

The new computer has a smaller screen that the last 3 laptops I have used (which were all 17″ models) but has the same number of pixels. I wanted a smaller, lighter computer because I have found that I take it with me everywhere and weight and size have become an issue.

So after a whole day of use how is the new machine going? Well first I have to say that it has been absolutely thrashed already. It now has about 500 applications installed, hundreds of thousands (or millions) of files (I haven’t actually counted), and several Unix utilities such as MySQL. Many of these items were just copied from the previous machine but it’s pretty impressive that all of that could be set up in a few hours – try doing all that on a PC!

Because the new screen is a bit smaller than the previous one you might think that it would be a harder to read some small text on but the clarity is very good so that hasn’t been a major issue. The colour and brightness is great – just as good as the recent glossy LED backlit screens on other computers but with a lot less reflection. Photos really do look spectacular – you almost think you can reach out and touch them!

As you would expect with Intel’s latest processor and a faster hard disk than that used in most laptops performance is impressive. Programs launch in less that half the time than the previous computer I used (a Core 2 Duo 2.33 GHz MacBook Pro). This could be partly due to the fact that the other machine was bogged down with piles of extra “useful” stuff but since I have already moved most of that onto the new one I don’t expect that made too much difference.

Battery life seems very good for such a high powered machine. I’ve been using it all day on battery (it’s now 3 pm) and the battery is still showing 2 to 3 hours left. So it looks like I will be able to use it all day on battery unless I have a really long day or do a lot of work which drains the battery more (for example working on large graphics in Photoshop or playing really intense games).

This isn’t a cheap computer – with the extra options I ordered it came to almost NZ$4000 but you really get what you pay for and I think this machine is worth every cent. And it’s actually the cheapest laptop I’ve ever owned. It’s scary to lok back and see that the first PowerPC desktop Mac I got new (a Power Mac 8100/80av) cost NZ$13,000!

One day isn’t a log time to be using a computer before writing an opinion like this on it but early impressions are important and so far I think this machine was a very good choice!

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Theological Answers

April 25, 2010 3 comments

I have received some answers to my theological questions (the ones I talked about in my previous blog entry) but I really feel that I don’t know a lot more than I did before! Nothing in theology, especially in the area of history, is simple. There is no black and white, everything is shades of grey. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this but perhaps since I work with computers I have got too used to things being predictable and positively defined.

Have a look at my previous blog entry and you will see the questions I asked in relation to the historicity of Jesus. The good news is it seems the questions I asked were quite good. My theologian friend said “Firstly, blimmin excellent questions – and ones I wish more church-goers would actually either even think of, or have the courage to ask and find out about!”. A fairly casual appraisal but at least I have no reason to believe my questions were too trivial or mundane!

So what is my conclusion regarding the questions after receiving this reply? I think I’m slightly more positive about the idea that Jesus existed but I see no reason to put any credence at all on the actual stories we have about his life.

So the people who say Jesus didn’t exist at all are probably wrong but the people who say we have great evidence he existed and the stories are well verified are definitely wrong. Unless some extraordinary new evidence is discovered regarding what really happened 2000 years ago my current conclusion would be that someone existed which the Jesus story is based on but the story has been distorted so much that it’s basically fiction. Also, we are never likely to know what really happened, or what parts of the story are true, or what Jesus really said (assuming he did exist).

My advice to anyone who cares about the subject is to treat the words of Jesus like the words of Socrates (another famous figure whose existence is uncertain). Appreciate them for their philosophical wisdom but don’t take them too seriously and realise they are just one set of ideas and should only be considered in the greater context of the sum of human philosophical, theological, and moral knowledge.

Theological Questions

April 21, 2010 9 comments

In my last blog entry I talked about how confused I was after listening to two theologians debate an obscure point on a podcast. Yesterday I was doing some work for the theology department at the university I work for and I thought why not ask a theologian to explain some of the more basic aspects of the subject, to get some answers about things I have wondered about, but also to see the way theologians think.

A topic I have debated a bit recently is the historicity of Jesus so I thought why not choose that as a subject to ask questions about. It’s a simple, relevant, and practical problem and it should have real importance to everyone.

If Jesus really existed and did all the things the Bible claims then that changes everything for people like me who reject religion. And if he didn’t exist or only existed in a form which is totally different from what the Bible describes then that changes everything for believers – at least it does for the world’s biggest religion, Christianity.

So I decided to ask some basic questions about the historical evidence for Jesus. I sent them by email this morning and haven’t got a reply yet but I will report back when I do get something. These are the questions…

1. Do most theologians think Jesus really existed in a form recognisable as the character described in the Bible?

2. Do they think the supernatural events really happened or do they just start with the assumption they did (do theologians usually have a world view which includes the supernatural?)

3. Regarding the New Testament. Most of the writers are unknown, right. And even when some writing is attributed it’s often doubtful (eg Paul is attributed 13 epistles but 6 are doubtful, right?). Were there any writers at all who wrote from first hand experience having met Jesus?

4. Regarding the gospels. Do the canonical gospels have any true merit beyond all the others which the early church decided not to include?

5. All the gospels were written by unknown people at least 60 CE, right? So none are eye witness accounts, except they are based on Q but we know nothing about that do we? Could Q be written by a real witness?

6. Is there any credible material outside the Bible describing Jesus? I know about Tacitus but that seems rather indirect and uncertain. Also Josephus, but the big one there is a forgery, right? And the lesser reference is rather vague, agreed?

7. Is it reasonable to expect that if someone like Jesus was wandering around attracting a lot of attention, crowds, performing miracles, etc that there would be some reference to him in Roman, Jewish, etc written material of the day? Should we expect to find any of that?

8. Why did none of Jesus’ followers write about him? Did they think the world was going to end soon anyway? Is the famous reference in Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32 really a prediction of the end of the world, second coming, etc?

9. There are a few people who oppose the conventional views and who say they are theologians, Bob Price would be one. Do these people have and academic credibility?

I’m not sure what my theologian friend will think of these questions. Maybe they are too mundane to really be considered serious theology but I think it’s important to get the simple stuff out of the way before moving on to more complex and esoteric subjects.

If I do get a response (and she doesn’t find this process too annoying) I also have some questions regarding the Old Testament to ask as well as a few general theological issues which I find confusing. It could be quite interesting and I will report what I learn here.

Theological Confusion

April 19, 2010 2 comments

In a recent interview Richard Dawkins defended his foray into religious criticism by claiming that theology is an invalid form of intellectual pursuit. Or that’s what he meant I guess because he said something like theology is a discipline which doesn’t really exist or something like that. It sounded like it was a bit extreme at the time but now I’m wondering whether he’s got a point.

The reason I say that is I listened to a podcast today which mainly consisted of a discussion between two theologians and it just made no sense to me. That could be because I’m not smart enough to understand but I don’t think so. I listen to podcasts about quantum physics, philosophy, and other complex subjects and while I don’t claim to understand everything at least most of it makes sense and I can follow the arguments involved. So I think a more likely explanation is that theology really does just consist of a load of meaningless noise about nothing.

The dictionary defines theology as “the study of the nature of God and religious belief”. If you follow any reasonable chain of logic you will conclude that god doesn’t exist so what’s the point in studying his nature? OK, so the study of religious belief is a valid subject for study but I think that’s done well enough by anthropologists and psychologists. So that really means that theologians have no real subject matter to study. It’s no wonder the results of their study are so lacking.

Of course it’s not really fair to form a conclusion on whole area of scholarship from just one discussion. And while I really respect Richard Dawkins I don’t really think a single “throw away” comment should be taken too seriously either.

So I guess I should listen to some more podcasts about theology to give it a reasonable chance. That could be really interesting or it could just involve me getting more confused trying to extract meaning where there might be none.

I Have Nothing to Say

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

I have been writing this blog for a long time – since before most people even knew what a blog is in fact. My first blog entry was written over 7 years ago in April 2003. Since then I have written well over 1000 entries which are the equivalent of about 900 A4 pages of text. Then there’s all the comments: over 2600 on my main blog (which I wrote about half of) plus many more on other blogging sites I publish the same information on.

So writing blog entries is a big commitment and one that I can’t keep up with at all times. There are so many interesting issues I want to comment on: from new discoveries that our universe might be part of a multiverse to the (inaccurately reported) news that Richard Dawkins wants to arrest the Pope!

But I have been blogging less recently and that will probably continue for a while because I have so many other commitments which I need to use my spare time pursuing. I’m afraid that most of them are work related: web sites, databases, and other geeky computer stuff, but hopefully that will lessen as time passes and I might get back to the “glory days” of mid 2008 when I wrote something almost every day.

So really it’s not that I’ve got nothing to say but more that I don’t have time to say it. Or at least not in a reasonably lucid form which has been reasonably thoroughly checked and is backed up with at least a basic amount of research. So I’ll get on with that work now and get back to the Pope being arrested later – hopefully in the near future.

Creationists Aren’t Stupid

April 7, 2010 29 comments

I often wonder what the problem is with various groups in society, especially deeply religious people, creationists, global warming deniers, and believers in alternative medicine and other new age nonsense.

Is is because they are stupid? I mean anyone who believes the world is only 6000 years old has got to be really stupid, haven’t they? I’m sure many really are lacking in intelligence but that’s certainly not the whole story. I know some people who are quite intelligent and capable when it comes to other subjects but who still believe in really crazy things, so simple stupidity doesn’t explain the phenomenon in most cases.

I guess it’s also possible that they are ignorant. Maybe they just don’t know about the overwhelming evidence which shows the real age of the Earth, for example. But that seems unlikely considering the number of sources that sort of information is available from. And I have shown some of these people evidence which they have agreed is credible and it makes no difference. Still, there must be a certain number who are genuinely ignorant about these issues.

The attitude I think is responsible in many cases is an anti-intellectual and anti-science bias. This seems to be particularly common for the political extremes. The far right are threatened by intellectuals because they threaten their religious and economic beliefs. And the far left often have tendencies towards relativism and postmodernism and think any random weird and unsupported view is as good as one supported by years of hard evidence.

I have experienced many cases of people who refuse to believe well established truths and I think the three reasons I have outlined above cover their motivations fairly well.

I have debated with people who are obviously stupid. Some extremely religious people from the US would fit this category (note that I’m not saying all religious people in the US are stupid). The standard of their argument is really nothing better than what I would hear from a child and when they are proven wrong they resort to temper tantrums. It’s just pathetic. But lacking intelligence is something the person can’t really help, except by not engaging in debates. I guess that was these people’s big mistake.

Then there’s the ignorant. These are the ones who can be helped and I did at least partly convert one person who rejected evolution by showing him the evidence. He genuinely thought there were no transitional fossils and was astounded when I showed him an extensive list. He wasn’t stupid so he understood what I showed him and he wasn’t anti-intellectual so he was prepared to accept it. This person was just ignorant and it was great when he reacted rationally when his ignorance was corrected.

Finally there’s the anti-intellectual group. These are really the most dishonest types with no good excuses. They aren’t so stupid that they can’t understand the truth and they aren’t so ignorant that they don’t have the facts. There’s really no excuse except they have decided to reject rationality for political, religious, or some sort of bizarre pseudo-philosophical reasons.

For example, I know one person who won’t accept anything from the Guardian newspaper because he claims it’s too far left to be reliable. Yet he’ll use opinions from far-right blogs as if they were indisputable. And another who thinks all scientists are part of a huge global conspiracy to suppress the truth on the origin of the world. He claims the theory of evolution has been disproved by Christian “scientists” but the bulk of scientists can’t accept they are wrong.

Clearly there’s small elements of stupidity and ignorance there as well but I think rejection of science and intellectualism is the basic cause of this nonsense. I see the same sort of thing in followers of some politicians (Sarah Palin begin an obvious example). Some of these people are proud that they don’t understand science and know nothing about the factual basis of reality. It’s quite disturbing.

What hope does the world have if a significant part of the population reject the whole process of establishing the truth using valid, intellectual processes? Not a lot in my opinion so I hope this is a trend which doesn’t last.