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Archive for October, 2010

Race to the Bottom

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m getting pretty sick of the government we currently have here in New Zealand. When they were first elected I was actually fairly positive about them. I really was – check back through my blog and you will see it’s true! But now they just seem to be getting worse and worse and indulging in more typical conservative right wing actions.

The latest, of course, is this shambles involving the making of the movie “The Hobbit”. The prime minister personally negotiated with a team from the movie studio and finally managed to persuade them to make the movie here. But it’s cost the country tens of millions, plus some sort of dodgy deal regarding employment law, and a clear signal that New Zealand is prepared to back down if enough money is involved.

It’s disgusting. New Zealand has had a proud reputation of standing up to bullies in the past but now we seem to take orders from people like Warners and the hideous Peter Jackson. What happened to our brave stand against US arrogance when we refused to allow them to bring potentially nuclear powered ships into our ports? Back then we had some pride and morality. Now that seems to take secondary importance to making a few bucks.

In fact it doesn’t even look like New Zealand will come out ahead on the deal anyway because the tax and marketing hand outs (and it is just corporate welfare) our government has agreed to will probably add up to more than any income coming back to the film industry.

But shouldn’t the PM be applauded for making this deal which has brought work for the people in our film industry? Not really. First, there is the theory that Warners were always going to make the movie here and have just made the threat to leave so they could get better control of negotiations. It’s hard to say whether that is true or not but it seems to make a lot of sense to me.

Second there is the morality of the situation. Should the leader of our country be making cheap deals like this anyway? It’s really quite embarrassing, especially when he was obviously outwitted by the scumbags Warners sent over. And it doesn’t do out country’s reputation much good. Anyone seeing the movie will be reminded about how low New Zealand has sunk rather than what a great tourist destination it is.

Finally there is the message the deal sends. An employment lawyer interviewed on the topic put it rather well when he called it a “race to the bottom”. Instead of New Zealand being a good place to make movies because of the expertise available here, or the scenery, or anything else, it’s because we’re cheap. Just like a third world or ex-Soviet country. Thanks a lot Mr Key. Just what we need!

OK, I agree the unions have made a mistake and have been out-maneuvered on all fronts during this debacle. But I think their rather ill-considered actions have just been used as an excuse by both the movie studio and the government to drive down already poor conditions here.

Sure we might have go the Hobbit movie but I think if we look at the big picture this will be just another ignorant and unimaginative move by a government with no real ideas at all.

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Maori Hobbit Relationships

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Today was another day where various interesting issues were being discussed around the country (New Zealand in my case). They ranged from the future of the Maori language, to whether we want to produce the movie “The Hobbit” here, to what sort of relationships are appropriate between university staff and students. So let’s get started…

The Maori language has been a source of anguish for many years now. For those who support it the concern has originated from its diminishing use and lessening relevance and for many others the distress has originated from politically motivated attempts at making people use it more.

The leader of the Maori party is concerned that, despite the fact that there are numerous programs designed to encourage its use, the language is dying out as one which is used as an important means of communication and has become something which is used more by non-Maori as a source of short phases and the occasional word or two. In other words people are happy to learn “kia ora” as a greeting but often don’t know much beyond that!

I’m not being critical of people who don’t use it because I have no interest in it myself. In fact, often when people greet me with “kia ora” I reply with “bonjour”! There’s nothing wrong with learning Maori but it’s just not something I have the time or inclination to be involved with and I suspect a lot of other people who are forced into using Maori phrases by policy would agree.

So Maori is dying and successive governments putting it on “life support” isn’t likely to change that. In my opinion we would be better to let nature take its course and allow a language with little relevance in the modern world to naturally merge into New Zealand English. I would like to see some Maori being a natural part of our local dialect of English and I think that if the stigma of political correctness was removed from it a lot more people would be happy to cooperate.

So what about The Hobbit? The Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand of course, and it has done a lot for our local movie industry as well as increasing the country’s profile overseas. So clearly filming quality, high budget movies here is a good thing in many ways.

But how far should we go to encourage huge foreign companies to work here? Should we be prepared to offer favourable work regulations for the big companies, should we offer them tax incentives, how far should we go to make them welcome?

Considering that incentives are generally disapproved of by so many people now, especially those of the political right, it’s ironic that they are being so seriously considered in this case. Why should one industry or even one part of that industry get favourable treatment? Doesn’t this create (gasp! oh the evil of it!) an uneven playing field?

And should a huge overseas company refuse to negotiate with local technicians and actors regarding pay and conditions? Of course not. Playing political games is totally inappropriate and Peter Jackson should be ashamed of himself for treating his fellow New Zealanders this way. Maybe success and excessive exposure to Hollywood has made him forget about the traditional New Zealand attributes of fairness and tolerance.

It seems to me that the whole sorry situation is a deliberate ploy by the production company to get the best possible deal from New Zealand’s workers and government (who are already talking about changing employment regulations). It’s a pretty dirty way of working and the unions have unfortunately been rather cleverly manipulated into making themselves look like the bad guys.

Finally relationships between staff and students of universities. Although I work in a university that wasn’t the motivation for writing this. It was more about the more general subject of what rights an employer should have to control its employees. Even if two people are both part of an organisation in different roles I can’t see how that organisation has any right to say what they do in their own time.

The specific event which lead to this case was a relationship between a lecturer and a student but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the lecturer was a homicidal lunatic and needed psychiatric help. The problem was also that his violent behaviour was ignored and he didn’t get that help until the worst happened. Maybe the university should have a policy of not employing murderers instead!

If a company or other organisation employs someone and pays them for a specific job I can’t see how they can claim the right to control what they do in their own time. The university’s decision to officially disapprove of these relationships without trying to specifically ban them is surely the correct approach.

So yes, for a small country, we have lot’s of interesting things going on here at the moment. There’s always plenty of subject material to comment on, especially regarding the political machinations of society in general!

Management Fail

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Why is modern management such a failure? Why do most large organisations produce such mediocre outcomes and why do so many smaller companies and organisations with atypical structures produce the real innovations?

These questions assume that organisations with modern management are more mediocre, and I haven’t produced any real proof of that but I think there are some reasons to accept the idea. There are many anecdotal cases where bureaucracy as suppressed creativity and many new ideas arise in small organisations or from individuals and are often assimilated into bigger companies through acquisition.

So I just want to accept the idea that traditional hierarchies are inefficient and move on from there. The question is, why are they inefficient. In the past I have blamed management. My personal experience is that the vast majority of managers are mediocre and inadequate in every way. No doubt there are exceptions but I’m talking in generalities here. Up until now I have had no reason to believe this theory beyond my own observations and personal biases. But now I have…

You might have heard of the Nobel Prize. Of course you have. Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize (or prizes because they are awarded in multiple categories). But have you heard of the Ig Nobel prize? This prize is run each year and highlights real research but that research must have a humorous or bizarre twist.

For example, this year the engineering prize was awarded to a team for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter. The medicine prize was for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller coaster ride. The peace prize was for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. The public health prize was awarded for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists. The biology prize was awarded for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats.

And (the point of this whole blog entry) the management prize was awarded to Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, for
demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Yes, if a an organisation promoted people randomly it would work better than choosing those to promote using the criteria which are used now. This means that exactly the wrong selection mechanism is currently used and this surely explains why we have such poor management.

It’s easy to see why this happens. Many managers are promoted through the “Peter Principle”. That is they rise to a position where they are no longer competent and stay there. These are the same people who make decisions on who to promote in future. Given that they are already incompetent, how likely is it that they will make sensible promotion decisions? That’s right, either through pure incompetence or a conscious or subconscious wish to avoid other managers being more competent than they are, they will promote more incompetent people – possibly people even less competent than themselves. So it’s almost certain that the whole mechanism is self-perpetuating.

So there’s an explanation of why things in general today are such a mess. Don’t ask me what the answer is. All I’ll say is that I reject the whole idea of hierarchical management and the idea that to be promoted a person must move into management. But the first step is always to admit that the current system doesn’t work. But one study can’t really prove that – even if it did win the Ig Nobel prize!

Should I Give Up?

October 19, 2010 41 comments

A recent theme of my posts seems to be surrender, or when to give up a belief. This time I am wondering when it’s appropriate to give up a debate with someone who is clearly so dedicated to a particular ideology that the facts, no matter how clear, have no effect on him at all. Actually I’m thinking of two separate debates here but the more immediate one which lead to this entry was with a right wing nutter. Another long-term debate with a fundamentalist Christian nutter belongs in the same category I guess, but that has been inactive recently so the immediacy isn’t there.

In reality debating with these people probably is a waste of time. Their debating technique is so poor that they have to look up the meaning of various logical fallacies before they even comment on them. If someone hasn’t even heard of a straw man fallacy (for example) then how can they be aware of the fact that it isn’t considered a valid way to make a point?

The other error these people often make is to ignore their opposition. The right winger constantly repeats conservative catch phrases which might be supported by others with the same general political opinions as him but just makes him look nutty to anyone who looks at his claims objectively.

Here’s an example of the debate I’m involved with. He says: “the right makes the place tick economically – then the left comes along and blows everything”. I counter by quoting statistics which show common economic indicators don’t show any strong correlation with the type of government in power. He ignores my comment and changes the subject. And so his delusion is maintained. If someone wants to be ignorant and deliberately ignores the facts just to maintain his ideology then there really is no hope, is there?

So should I give up debating with this person? I suppose I really should but I still find it interesting and it does help me understand the ridiculous mindset the far right crazies actually follow.

In fact that reminds me of another part of this person’s delusion. Although he constantly distributes right wing propaganda he claims that he’s actually centrist. So I challenged him to take a political quiz to establish where he stands on the spectrum. He did that but then claimed (without giving me the results) that the survey was a childish and invalid way to decide anything. So I found another one which had some academic backing. He did it and came back saying he got a score of exactly center. But I asked him to answer some questions from that quiz and then plugged those in which lead to a result of him being extreme right! What’s going on there? Is he lying to me or to himself? It’s always so hard to tell with that sort of person.

So again I ask, should I give up on him? Probably. But what about the creationist…

Oddly enough the creationist in some ways is actually more convincing than the right winger (Although the creationist is also a conservative and I’m sure his political views are also crazy. But I haven’t debated him on those much – except for global warming – but I really shouldn’t start on that now!)

Creationists often use slightly different tactics than the political right do. Sure they share a lot of the standard logical fallacies: the ad hominem, the straw man, poisoning the well, all the old classics, but they do use one more often than the others. They find one small factoid amongst a mass of data and pretend that overrides the mass of data which disagrees with them. For example, they will find a quote from a scientist which seems to dismiss evolution but conveniently ignore thousands of quotes which support it. And as soon as you point out the mass of opposition to their ideas they resort to the classic strategy for all those who have crazy beliefs: the conspiracy theory!

Yes, the good old conspiracy theory is a hard one to argue against because the weaker the evidence is for the conspiracy the stronger the conspiracy gets. After all, the first thing the conspirators want to do is destroy all the evidence which reveals that the conspiracy exists. So the more that evidence is lacking the more successful the conspiracy has been! It’s a brilliant strategy because it’s totally impossible to refute (as long as you use the illogical arguments of the nutters and ignore common sense and the principles of reasoned debate established thousands of years ago).

So should I give up on the creationist as well? Of course I should, but I’m not going to because, although I know it’s a debate I will never win, it’s still sort of fun and you never know what sort of outrageous nonsense your opponents will come up with next. Sometimes they resort to techniques which are even more crazy than what I’ve seen before and that really makes the whole thing worthwhile!

Religion is Pointless

October 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Continuing on from my blog entry from 2010-10-01, “Time to Give Up”, I need to comment on a really annoying phenomenon I hear often from believers of different world views and groups whose ideas might not be quite as well supported by the facts as mine. To translate that: I’m sick of religious idiots and politically inspired morons disagreeing with me!

That little tirade was inspired by several recent events. Actually, there were two in particular which were the worst. First, a person I was debating with using the idea that “atheism is a religion” in an attempt to discredit my arguments. And second the tedious old claim that religion is separate field of knowledge from science and that the two shouldn’t intersect.

So first, to look at the idea that atheism is a religion. The word “religion” has two main meanings: first, a system of belief based around a supernatural entity; and second, a belief system which is taken extremely seriously or given great importance. It’s fairly clear that, when discussing conventional religion (such as Christianity) that the first definition is the most logical one to use. The second one is really a more general derivation and really has little specific meaning.

Using the first definition it’s 100% obvious that atheism isn’t a religion. In fact atheism is basically the exact opposite of a religion – it’s the view that there is no good reason to believe in the supernatural. If atheism rejects the supernatural how can it be a religion which specifically requires the supernatural? It’s a very obvious and really undebatable point so why do so many believers like to make it? Maybe because they have completely run out of real objections to atheism so they have to start creating blatantly false ones.

But even if atheism was a religion why would that matter? After all, the reason the debate is occurring is because my opponents follow a religion. They must think religions are good so how does accusing your opponent of following a similar way of thinking constitute a reason to reject the idea? Again, it just doesn’t make sense.

But what about the second definition? Is atheism a strong belief system which its followers attribute supreme importance to? Maybe in some cases this is true but in most it makes no sense. Atheism isn’t a belief system at all: it’s the rejection of a belief system (the rejection of belief based on the supernatural, superstition, and blind faith). How can rejection of a belief be a religious belief? It can’t, so again the argument fails spectacularly.

Maybe what believers really mean is that atheism is based on untested and unsupported facts just as much as religion. Well first, if they mean that why not say so, instead of using a convenient (and untrue) sound bite like “atheism is a religion”. But it isn’t true anyway. Atheists overwhelmingly rely on scientific findings for their justification for disbelief and science is as dedicated to objective fact finding, repeatable experimentation, and openness in methodology as most religions are dedicated to reliance on faith and belief in unsubstantiated authority. Finally, even if science did rely on faith how is that bad, especially considering how much importance religious people attach to it? It’s like they take everything that they consider good in their own world views and somehow use it as points against their opposition.

So I hope I have disposed of the rather silly idea that atheism is a religion. What about the second source of annoyance, that religion and science don’t overlap?

This claim has been made by scientists as well as religious people for many years and it is partly true. In some formulations it’s stated something like “science tells us what and religion tells us why” or “religion fills in the blanks where science has no answers”. Both of these ideas have some merit but they don’t necessarily lead to the conclusions the believers want.

If religion explains why then what is it actually telling us? That the universe exists because god wants it to? That we should be moral because that’s what god wants? How are those explanations? They are simple-minded statements of nothing because they are really just re-stating the question and providing no new information at all. It’s like summarising all of religion with a single sentence: “god did it” or maybe “god said so”. It’s childish and pathetic and really just a simple minded cop-out from doing real research.

What about the second idea, that religion explains the areas science cannot. Unfortunately (for believers) this is an even worse option because this really just reverts back to the old “god of the gaps” idea. As science fills in more of the blanks the need for god becomes less and less. Maybe it’s true that science won’t ever know everything so there might be some small gap where religion can still have some purpose, but that’s not much to aspire to really, is it? Reducing god to some phenomenon to explain areas which science just hasn’t got around to examining yet doesn’t seem like the inspirational idea most believers would aspire to.

So in some ways science and religion do cover different areas. Science covers reality and religion covers mythology. If we need a separate system of thought to cover the more abstract areas of human endeavour then I would suggest philosophy might be better suited to the task. Religion has no purpose, it has no point, and weak arguments trying to dismiss atheism in the way I’ve mentioned above just make this fact obvious to everybody.

Random Comments 7

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I want to comment on a variety of unrelated things today. First there is a series of interesting comments from New Zealand’s ex-prime minister, Jim Bolger. He said that the sale of Telecom in 1990 was a mistake and even added that “New Zealand Governments have generally proved themselves inept at privatisation”. Since he was in charge during the period when a lot of that happened it really is a surprising admission. Sure, it was Labour who sold Telecom and that should never be forgotten (and Labour voters should be cautious of infiltration by similar elements in the future) but his government continued the process and privatisation is a policy which the right is generally supportive of.

He went on to say that “Sir Roger Douglas was worse than hopeless at privatising, to be honest.” Well Roger Douglas, as I have mentioned on occasions, is a despicable human being and not much good at anything, but it’s interesting to see a past politician like Bolger, who naturally aligns with the right, agreeing with our current center-right prime minister in dismissing Douglas. Maybe finally people of all political persuasions are seeing that what I have been saying for years is actually correct!

But people are very easy to fool and rarely make any effort to establish what’s really true and what isn’t. I’ve made my thoughts on this very clear in the past where I have dismissed the pathetically naive way that some groups support their belief systems. The religious would be the prime examples here but many political and other beliefs are almost as bad.

I often see more trivial examples of this in the way people forward email messages about various “amazing facts” that they think I should know. Often these “facts” look very suspicious and a small amount of research soon reveals them to be untrue. The case today involved the fact that October 2010 contains 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and the claim that this is amazing because it only happens every 823 years.

Many people would just accept this and pass the message on, but how much effort is involved in checking it? A Google search reveals several blogs just repeating the message without checking it, but further down the page is someone who has totally debunked it. But it doesn’t really involve too much work to do that. All that is really required is a little bit of logical thought (another thing people are often rather lacking in).

There are 31 days in October, aren’t there? That means there must be 4 weeks of seven days with 3 days left over. So the last three days need to be added to the end meaning that 3 days will occur 5 times instead of 4. If that sequence of 3 days starts on Friday then there will be 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, just like the message describes. Because there are 365 days in a year (which is 52 weeks plus one day) each year (and therefore each month) starts one day further forward each year. So if New Year’s Day was Friday this year it will be Saturday next. So every 7 years it will cycle back again which means that the 5 Friday, Saturday, Sunday phenomenon must happen every 7 years.

Leap years do make the day jump two days instead of one every 4 years (that’s sort of true, because it is a bit more complex than that) but that doesn’t change the big picture much. The pattern happens this year, it last happened six years ago in 2004, and it will happen again in 11 years in 2021. That’s not very rare and it doesn’t happen every 823 years at all! Wasn’t that fun!

On a totally different topic, things are looking great for Apple. Their share price today hit US$300 for the first time which must further reinforce Apple’s place as the biggest (and most important) computer company in the world. Sales of all their major platforms have been strong: iPad (of course), iPhone, and Mac have all been selling in great numbers (the iPad in “stellar” numbers according the the report I read).

Why? Why do Apple products sell so well even though they are expensive and, on paper, don’t necessarily have a better feature set than competitors’ efforts? There are two reasons that the iPhone is better than Android and Windows 7 based phones, that the iPad is better than any PC tablet ever made, and that the Mac beats any Linux or Windows PC. First, Apple have style. They know what to leave out as well as what to put in, and they know how to create a total synergistic experience because they make the hardware, OS, and some of the software. And second, it’s about attention to detail. There’s a famous story about how Steve Jobs insisted that the inside of the Mac should be designed in a particularly aesthetic way even though no one was ever supposed to get inside it! I agree that sometimes this can go too far (there are examples of Apple letting style overwhelm functionality) but overall it works well for them.

So yes, on these three widely divergent subjects I’m right and most other people are wrong (just like I have always said). Privatisation and right wing politics is all about incompetence and immorality. Most people are too stupid to tell truth from fiction. And Apple is great and everyone else sucks. QED. Thank you!

Ditch the Ideology

October 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Let’s ditch the ideology. That was the title of an opinion piece I recently read in our local newspaper. It discussed how people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the conventional economic and political wisdom that free markets and unrestrained capitalism are the best way to achieve prosperity for everyone. It listed the respected groups in New Zealand society currently either striking or considering the option: radiographers, teachers, doctors. These are the sort of people we should be rewarding and encouraging to work here, not insulting with poor pay and conditions.

And it listed the assumptions – all of which are totally unproven – that the neo-classical economic ideologues would try to make us think are true: that private enterprise is always better than the public sector, that markets will always work in favour of the consumer, that regulation is bad, the list goes on.

It seems to me that recent (and not so recent) events show all of those ideas to be untrue. I think the people who espouse them genuinely believe they are right but any impartial examination of the facts will show they are basing their opinions on some non-existent ideal world rather than the real one.

New Zealand suffered from this scourge more than most when a vicious regime took over in 1984. Ironically it was New Zealand’s party of the center-left which was involved after they were hijacked buy the economic liberals lead by the dreadful Roger Douglas. The same Roger Douglas who is so despised that the current (center-right) prime minister here would refuse to work with him as leader of a coalition partner even though their political views would normally be viewed as quite compatible.

Now the whole world is suffering because of the incompetence, greed, and pure evil of the economic “geniuses” of the major banks. The people who are the victims of this dishonest and almost criminal group are asked to accept lower wages, poor conditions, and generally worse living conditions while billions (and trillions) are paid out to save the institutions whose incredible negligence caused the problems in the first place. It should be obvious to everyone: pure capitalism just doesn’t work. It should also be obvious that the bankers and financiers might be smart but they are also corrupt and uncaring. They deserve no respect at all.

And the idea that the best way out of the financial crisis is to cut back on spending doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Australia is one country which seems to have been affected least and it has a Labour (center-left) government and a broad policy of not to cut back. Sure there are other factors involved, but I think the “austerity” approach to economic recovery is another convenient lie the world of politics and economics has fed us.

It clearly hasn’t worked here in New Zealand. We are struggling to recover under the fairly inept and totally unimaginative leadership of the center-right. Of course, their supporters always have a way to excuse that. In their fantasy world the problems were all caused by the previous leftist government (even though we were doing really well until the global crisis) and the new right wing government just hasn’t had a chance to fix their mistakes yet. So if we succeed it’s because of the right and if we fail it’s the fault of the left apparently. How would these people ever know if they were wrong? They have a fantasy to cover every possibility!

And they even have a fantasy to excuse the crisis. The libertarians are particularly wacky when it comes to this one. According to them the problem wasn’t caused by too little regulation. It was caused by too much including Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the two institutions set up by the government in the US. The fact that no serious economist attaches much of the blame to them and the fact that they are both private institutions driven by the same greed and focus on short term profits as everyone else is conveniently forgotten by the libertarian faithful.

The facts, while interesting, have no bearing on what these people believe. Well let’s get real people. It’s time to focus on political and economic pragmatism. And it’s time to ditch the ideology!