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Archive for December, 2010

Forget the Star!

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Every year at this time it happens: people start theorising on what the Star of Bethlehem was. These aren’t religious nutters either: they are often astronomers, historians, and other credible people. But why do they bother? If you are going to try to explain the star then you have to take the Bible seriously. If you take it seriously you have to admit all sorts of supernatural events really happened. So why does there have to be a natural explanation of the star? And if you don’t take the Bible seriously (and no one should) then why try to explain something that very likely never happened?

The whole exercise is pointless really but it’s turned into a sort of game for some people. It’s like they’re saying: I’ll take your mythology seriously enough to accept that an event happened but I’m not prepared to take it seriously enough to accept that an event happened with no natural explanation.

The fact is there is nothing to explain. The star is only mentioned in one gospel (Matthew). Why? Was it not an important and spectacular event? Surely it was worthy enough to be mentioned in the other three gospels the church arbitrarily chose to be its official doctrine (don’t even get me started on the dozens of others it conveniently ignored). Obviously Matthew (or whoever wrote that book because no one actually knows) thought it sounded good so he just made it up.

But most of the Bible is just made up. What about the crazy stuff in John? That makes a star appearing unexpectedly look pretty normal in comparison. The Bible has some interesting stories and the occasional bit of positive philosophy but anyone who really takes it literally is crazy. No one who really looks at the subject honestly could ever do that. The people who do take it literally are being dishonest, mainly to themselves.

Maybe if credible people stopped speculating on made up fairy stories like the star instead of taking them seriously it might help fundamentalist Christians escape from the prison of lies they find themselves in. Actually that probably wouldn’t happen. Like a prisoner who has been locked up for so long he can no longer function in the real world the fundamentalist Christian doesn’t want to be free. The prison of his faith is so much more comfortable than reality.

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Merry Christmas?

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

There are various topics which the more conservative members of society like to spend time complaining about. Some of them are genuine issues and others are primarily invented issues which seem to be designed just to provide an excuse to cause trouble.

Around this time of year there is one which is almost certain to appear in conservative emails lists and discussion forums. It’s the old issue of what the name of the celebration which occurs at this time should be. Traditionally it has been called Christmas, of course, and that is the name most people use, but the conservatives seem to be under the illusion that there is a conspiracy to remove Christmas from our modern vocabulary, presumably to deny the Christian element associated with it.

So there are stories circulating saying that the US president has demanded that traditional Christmas symbols should be banned from the White House (untrue) or that liberal politicians are working secretly to remove Christmas as an official holiday (untrue) or that various other seemingly outrageous acts are happening (all of which are untrue as far as I know).

And these same people seem to get extremely upset if other people use alternative greetings such as “happy holidays” instead of the traditional greeting “Merry Christmas”. But I have never yet come across anyone with more liberal attitudes who really cares. For example, I use several different versions of the greeting and I accept them all from others without any problems. So it’s only the conservatives who seem to be even making a fuss about this!

The fact is that the word Christmas has clear Christian connections but the actual event has lost that meaning in many places and for many people so that it has become a more generic holiday. Surveys have indicated that people see Christmas as a time to take a break from work, or to eat and drink a lot, or to spend time with friends and family, but far fewer think of it primarily in the religious sense.

And as I have pointed out on many occasions, the celebration of Christmas comes originally from solstice celebrations and the Christian meaning was just used in place of much older pagan ones. So whether this time of year represents a celebration of mid (southern) summer, or the end of the year, or of the alleged birth of some religious figure it doesn’t really matter.

While I would prefer to use the term “solstice” instead of Christmas I understand that most people wouldn’t know what I’m talking about and I am happy to continue using the traditional word instead because let’s get real and admit that Christianity was a very important part of the history of western civilisation.

So use merry Christmas, or happy holidays, or sunny solstice or whatever. It’s all fine with me. And to all of those grumpy old conservatives out there: get over it!

Classy Management

December 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The true contempt with which I hold a lot of managers is no secret. I have made it clear on many occasions that I despise the majority of the managers I have ever met and I think the profession itself is probably the greatest threat to progress and wellbeing the world currently has. Maybe it’s not the managers who are the problem – many of them are great people when they are out of their professional roles – it’s more the way management itself, as a profession, works.

So it’s not that the idea of a coordinator or administrator or even a leader of a group of people is necessarily a bad thing, it’s more the place management finds itself in in the modern world. And I’m sure there are some good managers out there too. I have even met a few, at least some people who started off quite well until they were inevitably either ground down to the uniform mediocrity of their colleagues or who were moved out of the way through various devious antics by their seniors.

Let me give you a few examples of why I dislike management so much. The following three news stories were all in New Zealand papers over the last few days…

The government has cut jobs at the Inland Revenue Department in Greymouth. Just to add a real element of class to the process they have done it a week before Christmas and shortly after about 100 people lost their jobs because of the Pike River Mine disaster. To add insult to injury senior managers made it sound like they were doing the workers a favour because apparently the redundant workers wanted the changes to go ahead and wanted the certainty of knowing the future as soon as possible. Yeah sure, I can just imagine them pleading: “please make us redundant just before Christmas!”

Management at the North Island freezing works, Silver Fern Farms Te Aroha, cut the pay of their workers after they stopped work to observe a two minute silence for the men killed in the Pike River Mine disaster. The request for the silence had been made by the prime minister. Classy! That really has to be the meanest, most despicable behaviour I’ve heard of for a long time. Sure, the money involved was minimal and I wouldn’t be surprised if processing the change didn’t cost more than any money saved. What idiots!

The CEO of New Zealand’s state owned rail company, KiwiRail, won’t even let his own company take on the work of building new engines and other rolling stock for a new Auckland line. He prefers to let the work go to China instead. The man’s got real class! If he looked at the big picture instead of just a single number he would be able to make a more reasonable decision on this which looks to the future of the company and the country. Instead he pursued this simple-minded, short-sighted strategy. What a genius!

It seems to me that most managers follow simple-minded rules when they make decisions. Despite what they say, they don’t see the big picture. And sure, I know being a manager isn’t easy, but most jobs I know of aren’t easy.

My job isn’t easy either: I have to keep up with the latest technology, juggle my time to do multiple tasks simultaneously, try to provide good service to my clients despite management decisions which make that difficult, and work in multiple areas of the fastest moving profession (IT) on the planet. And I don’t even get paid the big salaries the managers do!

So don’t give me the sad story about how hard management is. I’ve seen managers at work and I wouldn’t mind taking on the challenge of being one. It would be a lot easier than what I’m doing now. Except of course, I couldn’t do that, for two reasons: first, I have too much professional pride and moral sense to become a manager; and second, I would have to work with other managers and attend meetings with them. I can’t imagine anything worse!

So I would encourage workers to reject the idea that management are their friends and that the best and most professional approach is to cooperate with them. Sure, give your managers a chance and if they play fair then they deserve your respect and cooperation but also be prepared to treat them as the enemy because in so many cases that’s exactly what they are!

The World is Changing

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

The world is changing. Actually the world has always changed – it is said that the only constant is change – but it’s the rate of change which has become more significant recently. One of the greatest areas of recent change is in the media: for example we constantly hear about how the conventional media are dying because of the internet.

That is true to an extent. There’s no reason why conventional media (newspapers, magazines, music publishers, movie studios, etc) should die because the new distribution systems offered by the internet should make their work easier, not more difficult. But it’s the same old story: the traditional business people who control the conventional media know they have got a good system going (good in terms of maximum profit for minimum effort) and they don’t want that to change. Why would they?

When we look back in history at groups like the Luddites their actions now seem ridiculous. But many of the big news companies and movie studios are no better today and the final outcome is no less certain.

A few recent news items have emphasised these ongoing changes. The two major TV news networks here in New Zealand have both laid off senior investigative journalists. It has become obvious recently that there’s very little real investigation going on anyway, but this will just make things worse.

Radio is almost as bad. Even National Radio (in New Zealand) – the only station I know of aimed at people with intelligence and maturity greater than a 10 year old – lost one of its best interviewers recently.

Newspapers and magazines are a bit more varied. There is still some moderately good material in them but there’s a lot of inaccurate, over-simplified, and biased material too.

Of course I’m not saying that the “new media” sources such as blogs, podcasts, and web based news sites are any better. Blogs are notorious for being biased (believe it or not I make a greater effort than most to look at all sides of an argument and to base my thoughts on facts rather than pure opinion) so things are possibly even worse from that perspective.

But the big advantage of the internet is the pure amount of material and how easily accessible it is. It is possible to look at practically any subject to almost any degree of detail you want. It’s also possible to look at all sides of most subjects. Unfortunately it’s really up to the person to do that and it is just away too easy to look at a subject very superficially or (even worse) look at it in detail but from only one biased perspective.

So critics of the internet who say that it provides simplified, lightweight treatment of news or only provides a biased and unrealistic perspective aren’t really right. It is possible for anyone to get deep and balanced information on any subject but it’s up to the individual to do that. Anyone who wants only minimal detail or who only wants to be informed (or misinformed) from just one perspective can get that easily by choosing which blogs to read, which web sites to visit, and which news sources to use.

Another trend which has become very obvious is the process of leaking information on the internet. Wikileaks is the most obvious example but now that organisation is splitting and Openleaks has been formed. And I saw today a leaks site in Indonesia, IndoLeaks, also exists although it couldn’t be contacted when I tried.

It looks like leaks sites are proliferating now and surely that is a good thing. As I have said in previous podcasts, I think distribution of information is important, and information that the power elite want to hide is far more important than the stuff they want to tell us about. Conventional media can’t perform this role as easily or as completely as informal or unofficial web based systems can, so that’s another big change thanks to the internet.

I recently saw a survey showing that few younger people get their news through newspapers, TV, or radio any more. Some will say they don’t get news at all: I recently asked some teenagers about their attitude to Wikileaks and they had never heard of it! Whether that change in sources is good or bad isn’t the point though: the important point is that it’s happening.

I still get some news from radio and if there’s a newspaper handy I will flick through it but I don’t trust TV news any more and I am suspicious of most other sources. I prefer to use the internet but I always make sure I get opinions from all sides and check against multiple sources. it’s actually not that hard to do but so many people don’t (or refuse to) do it.

The big message of this blog entry is this: people who are getting biased, irrelevant or shallow information from the internet are getting that because they either aren’t making the effort to look at enough sources or consciously want to look at only one perspective (this might be because of a political or religious bias for example). No matter how good the source of information is someone will find a way to misuse it!

Religion Just Sucks

December 12, 2010 Leave a comment

I often defend other religions against the attacks of Christian zealots. I try to point out that there is good and bad in every religion, including those closely associated with terrorism, and that it’s unfair to criticise them based on specific incidents. But that’s not really true. Religion is just indefensible. Sure, Christianity sucks and is a major force for evil in the world, but Islam is at least as bad, and after doing a bit of research I have found that other religions, such as Hinduism, are also basically evil. So religion is just embarrassing, and evil, and stupid, and outdated, and… hey, religion just sucks!

Yeah sure, you can point out some of the good things associated with religion. Some charities have religious connections, many churches provide a useful social focus for their members, and religion provides a fascinating history and mythology that we all should appreciate. But how does that stack up against the bad? Does the good really overcome the religiously motived murder, suicide attacks, wars, child abuse, intolerance of alternative lifestyles, opposition to scientific progress, and really just the embarrassing stupidity of religious belief?

I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think it even comes close. Pointing out a few good points in anything doesn’t automatically overcome the inherent evil associated with that same phenomenon. I am going to succumb to the temptation and be guilty of fulfilling Godwin’s Law here. Yes, I can find good points in Naziism. In fact many of them would be similar to the good points I listed for churches above: it certainly created a sense of community for example. Sure that was based on fear in many cases but are you going to tell me that fear isn’t one major factor keeping people in their religions?

You might think I’m being a hypocrite here. I criticise religious people for being intolerant but I demonstrate intolerance of religion myself. Mea culpa? I love that phrase which originates in the Catholic church of course. It was originally part of the confession – that evil tradition of invoking guilt the church uses to enslave its members – but in reality it’s the church itself which should be using it: mea maxima culpa!

But I think my intolerance of religion is different. I don’t criticise religion just because it follows a different philosophy from mine. I don’t condemn it because I feel threatened by its power. I criticise it because it has a track record covering thousands of years which is overwhelmingly evil. Notice that I keep using that word which the church prefers to use to describe its real and imaginary opponents but really applies more to itself than anyone else!

There are three main defences religion commonly uses to evade criticism such as mine. The first is that religious people do bad things but not because of their religion, in fact if they followed the religion properly they would specifically not have done that thing. The second is that the people doing the bad things aren’t religious because if they were they wouldn’t be doing those things. And the third is non-religious people do things which are as bad as (or worse than) what religious people do.

Let’s look at these defences in detail. Are the bad things religious people do never related to their religion? Is killing your daughter because she has contradicted your holy book by having a boy friend not religiously motivated? Is flying a plane into a building because of your antipathy to the politico-religious community it represents not religiously motivated? Is sexually abusing little boys because your church protects you from the consequences not connected with religion? Is burning someone alive, or stoning someone, or imprisoning someone for years, just because they differed on some minor point of interpretation of a religious text not primarily a religious act?

There are usually other factors involved as well because nothing is ever caused by just one thing. There may be social or political or psychiatric issues as well as religious ones but religion is the primary cause of many of the atrocities we see today. Religion is evil.

The defence that the people who do bad things aren’t really religious doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. As I have shown above these acts are specifically caused by the way these people interpret a religious text or a tradition or the instructions of a religious leader. If the religion is sufficiently unclear that it can be interpreted as condoning that sort of behaviour then it must be held to blame. Saying religion can’t be evil because if an evil act is committed it isn’t religious is just circular logic – the sort of logic the religious use in many circumstances!

The third defence: that non-religious people do evil things too is also very weak. Even if it was true (which it isn’t) that would mean non-religious people are no better or worse than the religious. I would ask what is the advantage of religion then? But it’s not true anyway. How many people have used the “teachings” of atheism to blow people up because they disagree with them? How many atheists have beheaded their wife because she has some small point of difference in her world view? How many murders are caused by atheist doctrine? None. I agree that some atrocities have been done by people with no (obvious) religion but there acts were motivated by politics or other beliefs not by lack of belief in a religion.

Finally there’s the point I have made before: religion is just stupid. It’s an embarrassment to the human race. If our planet was visited by an advanced alien race and they saw people performing primitive religious rituals how would any sensible person feel? Embarrassed! If that same alien race examined our knowledge of science and philosophy and religion what would they think? Would they think the religious thought was created by children, or an ignorant tribe, or by people with mental retardation? They should because most religion is no better than the random murmurings of an idiot.

I have often criticised the pathetically naive beliefs of Christians in the past but I now must extend that to Islam as well. I listened to an interview with a devout Muslim recently and he was saying that after pointing out the scientific evidence supporting Islam most atheists are convinced. I doubt it. I’ve looked at that evidence and it’s pathetic. There is nothing supporting the truth of Islam that I have ever seen. The evidence just doesn’t exist.

The logical conclusion is that religion makes no sense and has an overwhelmingly negative influence on the world. The senior Christian cleric who said that atheists are less than human was wrong. Totally wrong. Seeking the truth, being tolerant where tolerance is deserved, and avoiding being forced into doing evil because of a totalitarian regime isn’t less than human. Christians (and others) should examine their conscience and see who is really the most human amongst us!

iDevice Update

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

I like to occasionally update the status of my iDevices. I use that word to mean Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and iPad, in other words the devices which run the iOS. So what’s the latest? Well, since last time I posted a major status update I have updated my phone to an iPhone 4, various operating system updates have appeared, and many new apps have been created. So things have changed quite significantly really.

I was initially a bit worried about the iPhone 4 because of the reports of signal loss and the possible problems with the glass back breaking or being scratched. The signal issue is confusing because the cell network is so bad here anyway that it’s hard to tell where problems are Apple’s fault and where they are Vodafone’s. Judging by the issues I see on other phones it seems that I get about the same number of problems on the iPhone 4 as I would expect on any other device so I primarily blame Vodafone for any problems I do experience.

I am amazed at how resistant to damage the new phone is. It stays in my pocket with no protection and it has been dropped from a moderate height twice. Not only has nothing broken but there are not even any signs of scratches: it’s practically as good as new. Whatever glass material Apple is using it is certainly very resilient although apparently it does shatter if it lands at the wrong angle when dropped on a hard surface.

The biggest recent bonus is multitasking on the iPad. The recent release of iOS 4.2 for the iPad has finally given us that ability which has been absent for so long. As well as that we get an integrated email inbox, wireless printing (although very few printers are currently supported), wireless music through Airports to stereo systems, folders, and a few other features. The update went fine for me: all my apps still run and the device doesn’t seemed to have slowed down, so it’s a very worthwhile upgrade.

So that’s the new hardware and the new operating system out of the way. What about new apps? What are my current favorites? I run apps on the two devices designed specifically for them (with a few exceptions) so the pad and the phone tend to do slightly different things. The pad is more for presenting information, typing up short documents, surfing the internet, and handling email. The phone is my mobile communications system: it does GPS, Facebook and Twitter updates, podcasts, and photos. Of course, most functions are available on both and I have my phone with me everywhere so it’s really my “do everything” device. Oh, and there’s games too of course, which are better on the pad because of the bigger screen but are also common on the phone.

Now to get to the major purpose of this blog entry: which apps are actually useful? I have 7 pages of apps on each device classified as Apple, general, utilities, reference, news and books, games, and simulations. Each page also has a folder with extra apps of the appropriate type which I use less often.

The apple bundled apps I use are calendar, camera, phone, messages, Mail, and Safari. There’s nothing too unusual there. On the iPad I also have the iLife apps but I only use Pages regularly although Keynote and Numbers are solid, useful programs too. The other Apple app I use more than any other but often forget about is iPod because I listen to hours of podcasts most days.

What about general purpose programs are useful? Well heaps actually. There’s Evernote, Facebook, Genius Scan, GoodReader, Tom Tom, PriceMe, Solar Walk, Starmap, and Tweetie; plus PCalc and Friendly (an alternative to Facebook) on the iPad.

I’ve talked about Evernote before. I use it for storage of notes and photos (often of text from newspapers, etc) for later reference. If I see something on paper I want to refer to later (for example to comment on in my blog) I take a photo and have Evernote sync it to my computer and iPad.

Facebook, Friendly, and Tweetie allow me to interact with Social networks. I also have Sociable which adds Digg, Flickr, and Redit support as well as Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook app on the iPhone is particularly nice: it makes posting photos really quick and easy.

One of the reasons I use the iPad a lot is to avoid paper. I’m aiming for a paperless office so I need a way to get the occasional piece of paper I do receive into an electronic form by taking a photo of it. In the past I have used Evernote but I now use Genius Scan because it has better tools for cropping photos and correcting perspective errors. Of course this only works on the phone since the current iPad doesn’t have a camera.

GoodReader is a very useful program for displaying documents of various types. I use it mainly to store documentation and the notes I use for work. Even 3000 page PDFs like the PHP manual are easy to browse and search in GoodReader.

I recently bought one of the more expensive programs on the app store: the Tom Tom GPS app. It works really well on the iPhone (and on the iPad although it is an iPhone app) but it uses the Tom Tom UI. As far as standalone GPS user interfaces are concerned the Tom Tom is good but a real iPhone UI would be better still. It is nice the way it multitasks though. I can leave it in the background and use the phone for other things (such as listening to podcasts) and the GPS voice just interrupts when it needs to give me the next instruction. It does use up the battery fairly quickly though. I can listen to podcasts and get directions from the GPS for 5 or 6 hours though, which is actually quite impressive.

The average person probably doesn’t need many utilities but as an IT consultant and programmer I have a few I find useful. Dropbox would be one of the more useful ones for many users because it allows easy transfer of files between different devices. Basic amounts of storage is free and extra storage is fairly cheap. Obviously the Mac (or PC) version needs to be installed on the computer as well.

If you are a technical person there is one program which is really useful. That is iSSH. It provides both SSH and VNC access to computers. SSH gives access to the terminal command line on the target computer which is really useful for monitoring and configuring systems. VNC let’s the iPad or iPhone take control the screen of the target computer. While that is a little bit awkward because of the difference between the UI on a computer and an iDevice it’s really just so cool that you can do it at all!

I have only covered the first three screens of apps on my devices so far but I think I will have to leave the rest for another blog entry. One more thing: this entry (and many others) was written in Pages on my iPad!

Logic 101

December 7, 2010 10 comments

I have recently realised what’s wrong with many people and why their skills at establishing the truth and debating are so poor. It’s the lack of knowledge of the laws of logic. I don’t mean the technical laws covering formal logic and Boolean algebra. It’s more the informal logical fallacies people should be aware of – so that they can recognise them in other people’s arguments, and more importantly avoid using them themselves.

I have no formal training in this area. As a computer programmer I understand the more technical part of logic, like how to evaluate equations involving logical operators such as conjunction and negation, but I have only picked up the informal stuff through my more recent interest in skepticism.

So let’s go through some of the more common logical fallacies people use in their arguments and, just to make it all very clear, I’ll provide some real examples from recent discussions I have been involved with.

The first is “begging the question” and closely related errors such as “circular reasoning” and “special pleading”. When people argue this way they seek to prove an argument by assuming that it’s already self-evidently true, or by using a particular point to re-establish that same point, or to insist that certain subjects deserve special treatment (maybe a lower standard of proof) than others. So here’s an example…

God must exist because he is the first cause of everything in the universe and because the universe exists it proves there must have been a creator: god. He cannot be studied by science because he is beyond the ability of science to explain.

How many questions are begged in that little argument then? Well first there is the assertion that everything must be created. We are asked to accept that without further proof even though there is good reason to believe that certain phenomena actually do happen without a cause. Then there is the idea that god is beyond the ability of science to explain. Is he? How do we know this? How would we know the difference between a god which we cannot study and explain and one that doesn’t exist at all?

Claiming god cannot be explained by science is also a form of special pleading. If a scientist wanted the world to accept a new theory of gravitation he would have to provide scientific evidence and experimental proof of that theory. But the argument above claims that we don’t need to do that for god because he is beyond science. Effectively we resort to a faith based approach meaning the standard of proof is not only less than that needed for other phenomena, it is effectively zero!

How do we know which subjects require a high standard of proof and which can be given the special privilege of not requiring such a standard? Are unicorns and fairies also beyond science’s ability to explain? I guess they must be since science has failed to find any evidence of their existence!

Finally there is a circular argument there. How do we know god created everything? Because he is the ultimate creator. How do we know that? Just look around and you will see his creation everywhere. So god is the creator because of his creation and his creation exists because he’s the creator. A magnificently fatuous argument, isn’t it?

When people become trapped inside a belief system they do tend to take things for granted which means that begging the question is easy. They make certain assumptions but they never really question why and they cannot understand when other people don’t accept the same assumptions as they do. But what’s the best way to stop ourselves from using the same logical errors? It’s actually quite easy…

To tell whether your belief system makes sense and whether you have unfortunately succumbed to the (all too easy) error of indulging in one of the fallacies I mentioned above just substitute a similar subject into the statement and make sure it’s something you don’t have a particular attachment to.

For example, if you use the fallacies mentioned above to support a belief in god then try something like the following: the Flying Spaghetti Monster must exist because his followers believe he is the first cause of everything and if he didn’t exist then nothing would exist. Because he is supernatural and exists in a different dimension to ours the FSM is beyond what science can prove.

None of what I have said is internally inconsistent but it relies on the same logical fallacies that I used in the original argument. I don’t think many people would take the argument about the FSM very seriously yet they take a basically identical argument about more traditional gods seriously. They shouldn’t. If it’s necessary to indulge in arguments which have been rejected for several thousand years by the best philosophers and logicians then there’s clearly something wrong. Effectively these people are saying “we believe this just because we want to”. But if that’s the truth then why can’t they just be honest enough to admit it?