Archive for April, 2011

A Brash Act

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I always experience a certain amount of schadenfreude when political nutters suffer misfortune and there is nothing better than seeing the far-right crazies in the Act party suffering because of their own ineptitude.

If there was one person in the country who is even more scary than the current supporters and members of the Act party (such as Roger Douglas) it is Don Brash. His political ideology is even more off the scale than theirs and all I can say is “God Defend New Zealand” (and yes, I’m an atheist) if he ever gets any real political power.

So Don Brash, ex National PM, is going to take control of Act, even though he isn’t even a current member of that party. In an act of unbelievable arrogance he claims he is the only person who can pull that party back from oblivion.

Clearly Act are in trouble. The only way they can return to a position of influence in New Zealand politics is if they gain at least 5% of the total vote (and they are currently on about 1%) or if a party member wins an electorate (and many people think that is unlikely). I actually think those restrictions are unfair and if a party gets enough of the vote to be allocated a seat in the MMP system then they should get it.

Brash really is a scary individual. Just the fact that he refers to Act as center-right (when they are clearly right or even far right) should be enough to worry anyone. What would a party have to do to be labelled “right” or “far right” in his view? I don’t even want to think about that!

Today Rodney Hide resigned as Act party leader so it does look like Brash could gain more influence. Or maybe Act really is dead because Brash himself is despised by many New Zealanders so there is some doubt whether he would be successful anyway.

So it’s all a bit of a mess for the rabid right, hence the schadenfreude I mentioned above. Unfortunately there won’t be a second far right party to compete with the existing one because that would probably lead to the failure of both. And if the center-right (National) rely on support from a far-right party maybe it could lead to their downfall as well through association with economic extremists.

Of course there’s a lot of speculation in the scenario above and predicting the outcome of elections is difficult at any time, especially when power structures are changing. National must be a bit worried though because their other coalition partner, the Maori Party, are likely to face competition from a second similar party in the future.

The real problem for Act is that the original reason the party was were formed: to push neoliberal economic measures, is no longer a viable option. Most people have realised that those policies are a disaster. Asset sales, privatisation, tough social policies, and the other dogma they hold dear have failed. They just don’t work.

Of course dragging the New Zealand economy down to that level will suit some sections of society. Big business and foreign corporations would love to get their greedy hands on the country’s assets and if wages and conditions can be forced down that would also be good for them. So I can understand those sections of the community being pleased to see Don Brash making a comeback in New Zealand politics but surely the majority can’t still believe those ideas will work for them. Can they really be that naive?

Opinions on the situation I have heard from the Epsom electorate varied, some saying they would vote for Brash and another saying just the idea of him “brings terror”.

Some of the current government’s partners had some interesting comments too. For example United Future say Brash is backed by “arrogant old men desperate to impose their extreme ideology on the country”. How very perceptive of them. I would love to know who is paying for this push for power but whoever it is I can guarantee it’s not someone with the best interests of the average New Zealander foremost in their minds.

Good old Winston Peters is similarly on the mark in his appraisal. He says the challenge by Brash is farcical and probably a “jack up” by National (I’m not sure about that). He also says the appeal of Brash is limited to those who share his extreme views and that his ideas are untried in other countries and have failed here (so true).

They say people get the politicians they deserve but how could anyone deserve someone as nasty and self-centered as Brash? It’s just not right!


I Forgot to Mention

April 25, 2011 1 comment

I recently spent a short time (5 days) in Brisbane, Australia. Even though I wrote two blog entries while I was there (or flying to/from there) I didn’t say much about the journey itself, so now a week later, I thought I’d better do that.

I went to Brisbane for a three day iPhone programming course (which I have written a blog entry about, but haven’t posted yet) and only had half a day free at the end to look around. Unfortunately it rained heavily that morning (the rest of the time the weather was good) so I didn’t get to do much. Still, it had been many years since I had been there so it was nice to at least have an hour or two each day after the course to take a few photos.

In the short time I was there I grew to like Brisbane. It seems safe but is still lively, it is big enough (population 2 million) without being too big, and the climate is very nice (apart from the occasional tropical storm or flood). I like other Australian cities too: I have spent short periods in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide (but not Perth yet unfortunately), but places always seem better when you visit them, and what New Zealander hasn’t at least considered moving to Australia?

I got some quite nice photos of the city lights at night reflected in the water of the Brisbane River with the Victoria Bridge in the foreground. I have included a small version of one here (if you are on my main blog) and I’ll try to find the time to put some in the photo section of my web site in the future.

I got quite short notice of the trip and I found my passport had expired, and a new one only turned up a day or two before I left which caused a certain amount of consternation. But apart from that it all went well. The new passorts with electronic identification can make checking through customs quite a bit faster and I didn’t have much waiting in queues at either the New Zealand or Australian airports.

The iPad helped a lot. It is just the right size to use while flying (I find the laptop just a bit too big). I watched movies on it and wrote some blog entries. I also revised some basic programming courses (although you can only actually write programs for the iPhone and iPad on a Mac).

I had to resort to reading a real paper magazine during take-off and landing though because of the odd civil aviation requirement of turning electronic devices off at those times. I’m sure there is no real risk on a modern aircraft and I suspect the rule is either left over from older navigation systems or is designed to maintain the passengers’ attention if there was an emergency.

So that was my time in Brisbane. Most of it was spent in that rather intense course but that was also worthwhile so I guess not having much free time didn’t matter that much.

Old Books

April 22, 2011 1 comment

Over the years I have bought a lot of computer books. I’ve bought books about programming and other practical technical subjects, textbooks I used when I was a computer science student, and lots of magazines and other material about general computer subjects. They have been sitting on a bookshelf in our spare room and I haven’t used any of them for years.

Today we needed to clear some space and I went through the books and realised that they were almost all useless. The hardware, the programming languages, the application programs, and most of the techniques have changed so much that practically none of the books were relevant any more.

Not only that but I don’t use traditional books any more. All of my technical documentation, my reference material, and my user manuals are stored on my computer as PDFs and other formats. And my fiction books and magazines are on my iPad in electronic formats like EPUB. I really do seem to have made significant progress towards achieving a paperless life.

Some simple calculations show just how efficient computer storage really is. A 1 terabyte drive (not huge by modern standards) can store 1 million average size books. Sure, I agree that is just text (based on 2K per page and 500 pages per book) and graphics would require significantly more storage, but the basic principle is clear: one drive can store a lot more than the total knowledge of the ancient world found at the Great Library of Alexandria – and I currently have 10 drives!

When I was looking through the old material I realised that things have progressed greatly in most ways but I also realised there was a lot of older stuff which was actually really good and is either no longer available or has become unfashionable in some way.

One example is Hypercard, Apple’s program which was extremely popular for making “stacks” which performed many varied tasks. Hypercard was a great fast development environment with a scripting language which was both easy to use and powerful. And while I’m on the subject of programming languages, I still think Pascal is better than C! But I never liked some of the other older languages much so the three programming manuals for COBOL I had never got much use!

I’m not sure whether electronic books are better than paper books from an environmental or sustainability perspective. I’m not sure whether ebooks are more natural or pleasant to use than paper books. But I am certain that ebooks are a lot easier to search and a lot easier to keep up to date. And they are certainly a lot easier to store!

Distrust of Experts

April 17, 2011 2 comments

Why do people distrust experts so much? That’s a question I have been asking myself for a while. But first, is it true? I couldn’t find any real stats on the subject but there seem to be many examples of this phenomenon out there.

For example there are numerous conspiracy theories, including: JFK was assassinated by US government agents, the 9/11 attacks on the US could have been stopped or were even planned by the US government, scientists know global warming isn’t real but they continue to say it is to ensure they are funded, the military have proof that UFOs exist but they hide it from everyone else… Well, you get the idea. There are so many that they are impossible to list.

Then there are theories which aren’t necessarily conspiracies but still require the mainstream view to be wrong and an alternative view, which has officially been rejected, to be true. Creationism is probably the most well known example of this but global warming denial also fits well. There are also theories based on “ancient wisdom” which fit here: the prophecies of Nostradamus for example, or the cycles in the Mayan calendar which lead to the end of the world.

These theories are all nonsense of course, and it’s fairly clear that they are if a reasonable examination of the total evidence is done. So why do people still believe the alternatives? I guess it’s because many of them have an intense distrust of authority, and in many ways that is quite reasonable.

I partly agree with this distrust but it doesn’t extend to a distrust of science and it only partly extends to a distrust of other experts. The reason I have greater (but not total) trust in science is that the scientific process is more open and more subject to criticism than others.

If a politician decides on following a certain policy he probably won’t have reached that decision based on an open and peer reviewed process. More likely he will have based his decision on personal biases, ideological concepts, or on political expediency. For example he might want to decrease taxes on the rich because he is funded by big business.

And business people clearly act the same way and are possibly even worse. How many times do I hear the excuse of “commercial sensitivity” being offered as a reason not to disclose some inconvenient information? It has become so common that most people seeking information don’t even pursue the question once that excuse is offered. And I’m sure that in most cases it is pure nonsense. The business person just doesn’t want to tell you their dirty secrets. It’s as simple as that.

So those two categories of “expert”: politicians and business people do deserve great distrust and disrespect. I know there are exceptions but in general distrust is a valid reaction, I think.

But what about the expert biologists who tell is that evolution is a fact and literal creationism has been disproved beyond reasonable doubt? What about the astronomers who assure us that the Earth won’t be destroyed in 2012 just because it is on the galactic plane? What about the historians who tell us the prophecies of Nostradamus are just vague ramblings and have no predictive power?

These I trust, for two reasons. First, I do some fact checking (I don’t have complete trust) and the credible sources of evidence all (or almost all) agree. And second, they have a good track record. Sure, I know experts have got things wrong in the past but errors have been corrected when they are discovered. Error correction is perhaps the most critical part of real science and other academic pursuits.

For example, when Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe the theory then favored by astronomers (the Steady State) was replaced with a new one (the Big Bang). Sure there were a few who refused to change (Fred Hoyle for example) but the consensus theory changed anyway, especially as new supporting evidence was discovered.

But when was the last time an oil company executive changed his mind about using fossil fuels and started a wind energy company instead? There might be a few exceptional cases where people have changed, but the usual reaction is to try to discredit information which is inconvenient for their existing model. Large conventional energy companies are a significant factor behind the global warming denial movement, for example.

And how many neoliberal politicians say something like “well that hasn’t worked, I think we should pursue a more moderate policy and control the excesses of business instead”? None that I know of have changed their mind, because their opinions are based on dogma, not fact.

Of course, I don’t even need to discuss religion here. That is the ultimate example of dogma overcoming truth!

The ultimate conclusion is that we should have a degree of distrust of everyone, especially authority figures, but that should be moderated greatly for certain types of expert. Any scientist who follows a dogma instead of following the facts will soon be discredited. Fred Hoyle made some great contributions to astronomy but he should not have let his irrational preference for the Steady State blind him to the advantages of the Big Bang (ironically he invented that name, and originally it was intended as a derogatory description but it just stuck!)

So I am distrustful of anyone peddling extreme neoliberal or extreme socialist economics. I am distrustful of any politician no matter what they say. I am intensely distrustful of people who work in the business world. And I simply experience pleasant surprise when a person from the world of religion says something which is even worth listening to. I don’t totally ignore these groups because occasionally they get it right. But that’s the exception, not the rule!

Lucky Earth or Doom Soon?

April 14, 2011 2 comments

As I write this blog entry I am flying at over 10,000 meters on my way to Brisbane for an iPhone/iPad programming workshop. The flight to Australia is only 3 to 4 hours but it’s a good opportunity to catch up on some reading. Of course I am reading an ebook on my iPad, specifically a book about astronomers’ failure to find extraterrestrial intelligence called “the Eerie Silence”. Yes, this is the same book I blogged about a while ago – I read several books simultaneously and have only just got back to this one.

Currently the book is discussing the famous Drake Equation. This is an idea more than a formal equation which can be used to estimate how many intelligent civilisations there might be in our galaxy. Unfortunately many of the factors in the equation are rather poorly known (actually, let’s be honest: they aren’t known at all) so the final number can vary from 1 (us) to hundreds of millions.

So there is a lot of conjecture involved in estimating how common intelligence actually is. But there is also some real empirical evidence. We have been deliberately looking for intelligent life for many years now and there are also ways that observations intended for other purposes might reveal intelligent life’s existence.

But that evidence is famously absent. The universe is eerily silent (hence the name of the book). Why?

There seem to be several possibilities. First, we might be looking for the wrong thing. Most attempts at detecting extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) concentrate on detecting radio transmissions. But strong, undirected radio is a poor technology for most purposes and is declining even now on Earth. We now use more optical fibres, directional radio beams, and shorter range radio cells. So the period that our technological civilisation would be detectable by its radio signals is quite small.

But it’s reasonable to think that other anomalies would become apparent where an advanced technology is present. Yet we don’t see them, or at least we don’t recognize them. It’s possible that as a technology becomes very advanced it might not even be recognisable as technology. As science fiction author Arthur C Clarke said: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

But if the number of planets with intelligence is towards the high end of the estimate we might expect, just by luck, to detect something which we recognise. Yet we don’t, so again I ask, why not?

There seem to be two good possible reasons: the “lucky Earth” and the “doom soon” scenarios.

The first states that the Earth has been extremely lucky. First life arose quite quickly, then it evolved without becoming totally extinct and passed through several difficult transitions (the appearance of photosynthesis, multicellular life, etc), then advanced intelligence arose (by that we mean intelligence capable of producing a technology which can communicate with ETI on other planets). Maybe all of this happening within the window of opportunity which the life of a typical star creates is unlikely. Maybe we really are here just through luck. Maybe there is no other ETI in the whole observable universe just because no other planet has been lucky enough.

That’s an intriguing thought in itself. Being the only intelligent life is even more surprising than actually finding ETI.

But what about the second idea: doom soon? This posits the theory that intelligence does arise fairly commonly but it doesn’t last for long. There could be many reasons why a technological civilization might disappear: environmental destruction, conflict, various global natural disasters, or just social and political instability. If intelligent life doesn’t last long then it might have arisen many times but we just haven’t been looking at the right time. In the almost 14 billion year age of the universe we have only been looking for about 50 years. That’s just 0.0000004% of the universe’s age.

So both of these theories are a mixture of good and bad. The lucky Earth means we will probably survive as a species a lot longer (perhaps indefinitely in some form) but we will probably never find any other intelligence in the whole universe. But the doom soon theory suggests we might meet an unfortunate end in the relatively near future, but on the other hand there could be many other intelligent civilizations we could meet before then.

There really is no way to pick between these (and other ideas as well) until we get some real empirical evidence. The radio-based SETI program has failed – at least it has failed to find positive evidence which is an important finding in itself – but what other options are there?

The current most relevant program is the Kepler mission. I have discussed this in the past. It is an extremely interesting and precise mission which has detected many planets orbiting other stars. Because of the way it works Kepler has mainly found very big planets orbiting their stars in very short periods but as time passes it should return data on a wider range of planets.

That mission is designed to find planets, not intelligent life, but it might be able to detect some of those interesting anomalies I mentioned earlier. Just finding one other example of life (preferably intelligent life) would give us so much more data. Currently we are trying to make probability-based predictions based on a sample size of one. It might be more honest not to even try!

Slave Labour Economy

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised with our Minister of Finance’s latest comments about New Zealand’s competitive advantages over Australia.

First his party changed their mind about increasing GST. Before the election: we will not increase GST, we are a low tax party; after the election: we are increasing GST. Now they reveal their true thoughts regarding the New Zealand labour force: after claiming they wanted our pay rates to match Australia’s they now say low wages in New Zealand are a good thing.

OK, fine. If they really think that low wages, which can be exploited by overseas companies, are a good idea then they are entitled to believe that. But why pretend they are trying to increase wages here? That’s dishonest. If low wages are an advantage to the New Zealand economy how can aiming for wage equality with Australia still be an advantage? They can’t have it both ways.

But it does reveal how dishonest and deeply cynical this government really is. They couldn’t care less about the average New Zealander except as a source of easily exploitable labour. All they want is for their rich buddies to get richer at whatever cost is necessary to the rest of us.

Why would anyone vote for these people? Except for the rich elite of course. I can see why they were voted in at the last election: people were just sick of Labour, but why has National’s popularity stayed reasonably high?

Maybe it’s partly because of the uneven treatment the New Zealand media give the parties. Every trivial little problem in the Labour Party is blown out of proportion with endless uninformed opinion by every commentator who is prepared to say what the media want to hear. But National seem to be able to get away with almost anything.

For example, when I researched the news item above – one which seems to be important to most New Zealanders – I found one reference to it, and even that was a defence of the original statement by the Prime Minister. But there were at least 5 references to the latest dispute in the Labour Party. One which was clearly motivated by a procedural disagreement with no real bearing on the big picture.

But the media is controlled by big business and the National Party is clearly a party which favours the interests of business (and that includes large foreign corporations) over those of the majority of citizens. Who knows, maybe they really still believe in the “trickle down” theory even though it has never worked in the past.

If they do believe that then they are deluded, but if they don’t they are dishonest. So which is it? Actually, I think I prefer lying politicians (it’s what we expect anyway) to ideologically deluded ones (yes, I know, that’s common enough as well) but either way the situation isn’t great.

According to the Prime Minister it is a “statement of fact” that New Zealand is “slightly cheaper in terms of its wage rates than Australia”. Slightly cheaper? Really? Is that why New Zealanders who can’t afford to live here are constantly heading off to Australia? Maybe that’s why National are so popular. Most of the people disadvantaged by their policies don’t live here any more!

Well at least we have a clear choice now: if you want to be part of a slave labour economy set up for the benefit of overseas corporations then re-elect National!

Giant Plastic Waka

April 8, 2011 Leave a comment

What could represent modern Maori culture better than a giant plastic waka? (an explanation for non-New Zealanders: the Maori are the native people of New Zealand and a waka is a canoe) Normally we could probably suggest many things would be a better match, but in the modern era perhaps something big and fake is entirely appropriate!

Labour spokesperson Shane Jones certainly thinks so. He was quite scathing of the whole idea saying it’s a “blow up [actually it isn’t] waka from a plastic party [the Maori party]”, that it is a “last minute panic-stricken stunt”, a “shallow, costly idea”, that “Maori will have a plastic identity”, and that because of this there will be “no money for more genuine cultural events.”

He has a point. It does seem like a fake, artificial attempt at keeping Maori interests happy and there are some indications that it has just been added on as an afterthought to the Rugby World Cup circus.

Actually I’m beginning to think that the World Cup itself has become a fake, meaningless marketing exercise more than a genuine sporting event, so maybe a gesture like this – lacking entirely in authenticity and integrity – is just about what we should expect.

Many aspects of life in New Zealand have been affected by this event. School terms have been rearranged, other sporting and cultural events have been cancelled or changed, and everything else seems to have become subservient to the chance of making a few quick dollars on what will be the biggest international event ever in this country.

While I occasionally enjoy watching rugby and go to some local games, I won’t be participating in any way in the World Cup. It’s a totally shallow, corrupt business opportunity and the only winners will be big business and possibly the Rugby Union. An example of my objections: our local stadium gets nothing from the ticket sales of games played there. Remind me why we are doing this again.

I don’t object to the $2 million spent on the waka, at least no more than I object to the hundreds of millions spent on the event in general. I do think there is a certain element of racism here too. Why hasn’t the $6 million spent on the giant rugby ball also been criticised, for example? So I don’t object to the money, but I would have liked to have seen something far more tasteful and authentic, even if it did cost a bit more.

So it’s a waka, it is giant (60 meters long), and it is plastic. On the surface it seems like a fake and disingenuous effort at representing Maori but to be fair, it is just a location for (supposedly) genuine Maori cultural and business activities which it will house.

But I know that if I visited another country and wanted to experience some of it’s indigenous culture I wouldn’t be looking inside a giant plastic object of any type. I would expect to see some sort of cheap, tawdry imitation of real culture in a place like that. And I’m fairly sure that’s what will happen here too. But won’t that fit in well with the rest of the World Cup which is just a cheesy imitation of real sport?