Archive for September, 2011

Random Comments 8

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

It has been about a year since I last made a “random comments” entry but fear not! Here is my latest effort…

Another New Zealand SAS soldier has been killed in Afghanistan. The government seems to be changing it’s official line on this. Originally they insisted the unit was there to help train the Afghan security forces but now are saying they are there to take part in combat. Does this mean they admit they were lying previously?

Most people would accept this casualty as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of a just and worthwhile war, but is that really the case here? There are so many questions about the legitimacy of the conflicts the US is currently involved in that sustaining losses like these in a small country like ours should raise a lot of questions.

Of course the prime minister says we must remain courageous and fight on! Well that’s easy for him to say from his safe and comfortable office in Wellington. Another of my favourite quotes: nothing’s too hard for the person who doesn’t have to do it himself!

To make matters worse there have been questions recently about the justification for the raid. Was this really a mistaken attack on an innocent group which turned ugly? Are we now going to be associated with the US and its unfortunate international reputation for shooting first and asking questions later?

My second comment is a bit closer to home. About a week ago the prime minister was speaking in glowing terms about how well our economy is going. He was congratulating himself (who else would) on what a great job he is doing and how well managed our economy really is.

A couple of days later the minister of finance contradicted a lot of what the PM said and commented that it would be unlikely we would meet most of the targets the government has set itself. Today the country’s credit rating has been downgraded. If this is an example of good financial management I would hate to see an example of bad!

Finally I must mention the nuttiest political party of all. The rabid libertarian Act party seems to be self-destructing. In fact this phenomenon has been going on for a year or two now and it looks like it’s only through the use of dirty tricks that the party will survive. That is, of course, if you think there even is a party. Isn’t Don Brash the only one left? All the rest have deserted him. Even the crazies who were in the party in the past don’t want to be associated with someone as nutty as Don. Who can blame them?

So the political right gets a big fail mark from me. I don’t really know whether Labour would have done any better but their general policies of intervening where it is necessary, doing what is right rather than what will make our political and economic partners happy, and not pulling dirty political tricks to get an unpopular and dangerous party into power make me think that they would be the preferred option.

But the prime minister is a skilled politician if he is anything and he seems to have fooled a lot of the population of the country at this point, so I suspect New Zealand will continue its downward slide because National are likely to win the upcoming election. That’s rather unfortunate really.


Free Markets at Work

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Most of us barely notice what a pathetic, immoral, and inefficient economic system we live under. We are so used to the “system” not working properly, and we are so inundated with propaganda supporting it, that we just think it’s obvious inadequacies are normal. But occasionally it becomes more obvious that in fact free-market capitalism doesn’t work and it should be then that people push for change.

I should first talk about what I mean by “work” in this context. Many conservatives and libertarians like to define work as what successful business does and then go on to define success in terms of whether the business works or not. It’s a circular argument and that argument is one thing that definitely doesn’t work.

I’ll give an example. New Zealand has very expensive phone, internet, and other communications despite having two large multinationals allegedly competing with each other. When I talk to people about this many say the prices are fair because that’s what the companies can charge and that’s just the normal operation of successful business.

There’s never any discussion on the quality of service, or the prices compared with other countries, or how the practices of the two companies affect the country as a whole. It’s just simply that they get away with it so it’s OK.

As I said above, sometimes extreme situations can make these deficiencies more obvious. The Christchurch earthquakes started almost a year ago now but the re-building of the city doesn’t seem to be going far. Why? Because insurance companies are slow paying out on damage and they aren’t insuring new buildings, and property developers are restricting land for building to keep the prices high. I’m sure there are many other factors, including on-going minor quakes, but they are less significant.

The current government is sticking with its standard laissez faire economic approach. Not interfering with the market is more important to them than helping the victims of the disaster. In contrast the opposition has said they would interfere by buying and re-selling property to bring prices down and by intervening in the insurance market if necessary.

Of course the government ridicules the idea without really saying why because there is no reason except it’s against their pernicious political principles to interfere in free markets even when they don’t work. But there’s that word “work” again. According to the government the system is working because they define that as doing whatever the market wants to. After all, it is “free”.

A similar problem exists in other parts of the world. The US has a hopelessly inefficient health system largely because of the insurance companies operating there. Shut down all of them and the problem would be largely solved. But even the so-called socialist Obama wouldn’t do that because he also has faith in the free market to solve all the world’s problems.

Well it won’t. In fact the free market is the source of many of the world’s problems. Wasn’t that obvious after the banking debacle and the ongoing financial predicament many countries are in?

I’m not advocating moving everything to a government controlled fully socialist system. There are many places where the private sector works adequately. But if it is going to be allowed into essential areas like health, insurance and banking it must be very carefully monitored and controlled. Being allowed to operate in those areas is a privilege and if the companies involved make a mess of it and then are disadvantaged by government intervention then that’s their fault for not getting it right to start with.

I’m not a raving lefty, or an advocate for total government control, or a communist, or even an extreme socialist. I just want people to admit that free markets really deliver only one thing: maximum profit to shareholders who don’t really care about the side effects of their investments. If that’s the system “working” then I think we need to look at a new definition of that word.

Something Incredible

September 23, 2011 2 comments

The world is sinking further into a major financial crisis but who cares because there’s a possibility that neutrinos might travel faster than light. The US is approaching a major political and economic disaster but does it really matter because Einstein might be wrong. Fundamentalist Islam is gaining power and threatens world peace but so what? CERN might have discovered something really amazing.

In the rhetorical rant above I’m trying to portray my thoughts for what’s important and what isn’t. I see the global financial, banking, and economic system as a silly exercise in futility where greedy people compete to see who can pull off the dirtiest tricks. But what really matters gets little publicity: fundamental discoveries in science which might truly revolutionise the world.

I know that financial markets have a greater immediate direct influence on most people than discoveries in physics but the key words here are “immediate” and “direct” because I think quantum physics (I use that as an example of something most people see as esoteric and theoretical) has had a greater effect on the world than every financial institution that ever existed.

I won’t justify that opinion in this blog entry (although I could) because I want to go on to say a little bit about how incredible this discovery potentially is. But first I need to emphasise this is preliminary and unconfirmed, although an earlier but far less precise experiment at FermiLab found a similar result.

So the observation is that neutrinos produced in an experiment being run by the European physics organisation CERN have been observed to arrive at their destination a few billionths of a second earlier than expected. And that earlier arrival means they would be travelling faster than light would. It probably sounds unremarkable to the average person but to a science geek it is just stunning.

The speed of light being a limit to everything in this universe is such a fundamental part of modern science that the possibility that it isn’t true is genuinely astonishing. And there’s the point that objects travelling faster than light might have bizarre and useful properties which we might only be able to guess at now.

An alternative explanation is even more amazing. That is that there are extra dimensions involved which allow the neutrinos to take shortcuts which bypass the usual dimensions of our universe. In other words it might be possible to take a path shorter than a straight line between two objects.

Both of these hypotheses aren’t entirely new: tachyons (particles which travel faster than light) and extra dimensions (7 extra according to some theories) are already a part of the more speculative parts of physics. But finding evidence that these might be real is something else again.

But how would a neutrino travelling faster than light or an extra dimension really affect the average person on the street? We don’t know, but judging from the results of theoretical physics discoveries in the past I would say the potential practical applications would be significant.

Just a few of the discoveries coming from quantum physics have lead to the computer revolution and the information age. That revolution is the most significant for centuries and has changed the world more than any economic or financial intervention.

So yes, I think this could be big but we might not know how big for another 50 years. That’s the way truly fundamental scientific research works and it’s why it doesn’t fit into many of the simple-minded business or political models some people try to force onto it.

And even there does turn out to be a prosaic explanation for these observations I think my thoughts are still relevant because there will be other amazing discoveries out there. As Carl Sagan said: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Emotional Atheism

September 20, 2011 4 comments

There’s a rather clever statement I’ve heard a few times on atheist and skeptical web sites and podcasts. It’s that there is no point in reasoning with fundamentalist religious people because if they responded to reason they wouldn’t be fundamentalists to start with. It’s a good point and equally applies to extremely political, or sincerely credulous individuals.

There is also the fact that, according to all reasonable measures of reason, religion should be dead, yet it isn’t and has actually enjoyed a revival in some parts of the world. Whether this revival is just a last desperate attempt to revive religion’s “glorious” past is hard to ascertain at this point, but it does seem real.

So hundreds of years of solid science and the irrefutable logic of atheists hasn’t really made a lot of difference because, as I said above, the people who are the targets of these methods of persuasion aren’t actually persuaded by them. But what’s the alternative?

Actually, before I discuss that I perhaps should ask whether it’s a good idea to try to persuade believers that they are wrong. I think it is. It’s a good idea for two reasons. First, intellectual debate should occur on every subject and religion should be no exception. Presenting your ideas and examining other people’s is just inherently a good idea. And second, people should be given the opportunity to correct false beliefs. I know that not many people will actually follow through with the correction but at least they should be given the opportunity.

So if rational debate and presentation of facts won’t work what will? Again I must interrupt myself and say that there are occasions when the facts will work. I have encountered several cases in my discussions on the internet and through email where I have given a believer something new to think about. There was one person who had genuinely never heard about the evidence for evolution for example. When I showed him the huge list of transitional fossils which support evolution he was amazed. I’m sure that after that he was far less certain about the accuracy of creationism. Maybe he realised he had been lied to all those years by people who wanted him to believe in fake Christian pseudoscience.

So finally to answer the question: what alternatives are there to logic and facts? Well there’s emotion, and there’s a good story, and there’s social support, and there’s non-confrontational attitude change.

For example, many religious people think atheists are cold, uncaring, and immoral. By arguing from the perspective of simple facts that opinion can be reinforced. Atheists should point out that they are just as committed to emotional experiences, friendship, and doing the right thing as anyone else. They just don’t want a church or an old book telling them how they should do that. So emphasising the freedom of being an atheists is a positive point which can be made. And highlighting the fact that atheists are good because they want to be instead of being good because they’re scared of God’s punishment I think shows where the real morality lies.

By a “good story” I mean that the truth uncovered by science, when presented in an entertaining way, is much more compelling and awe inspiring than any religious story. Compare the scientific history of the universe with the rather lame and insipid Biblical version and you’ll see what I mean. The real story of the universe is far more spectacular than any old myth.

Social support is a more difficult one. Many people use their church as a social center for their lives. They meet their friends there and they might have very little in their lives without it. If that is the case then I think it’s unfair to try to dissuade anyone from continuing to make use of that support. There are alternatives of course, and being an atheist doesn’t mean you instantly become an outcast from society. Maybe all the believers need is to be reminded of that.

Finally there’s non-confrontational change of attitudes. Anyone who reads my blog will realise this isn’t my usual approach! I tend to like to use a more straightforward, aggressive style. But that’s because I’m not really trying to convert people, I’m just trying to present my opinions and challenge them. But reminding people that it is possible to believe in God and evolution at the same time could be more influential than saying that evolution really makes the Christian myth redundant.

There’s one last topic I would like to mention too. That’s spirituality. The word can mean many different things but in one context at least I think that science enthusiasts are more spiritual than religious people. I’m sure that I feel it as much as anyone when I look at the of the splendour of the night sky from a really dark place. Knowing what I’m looking at makes all the difference. I can easily find the closest galaxy and know that its light has taken thirty times longer to reach the Earth than the whole age of creation according to Christians. Yes, that’s the closest galaxy. What can believers have which could possibly stand up to the astounding facts we know about the real world?

So yes, atheism can be emotional, but only when it makes sense to be!

Reflections on 9/11

September 14, 2011 1 comment

It has been a couple of days since the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the US and we have just been subjected to the expected outpouring of emotion and political rhetoric on the subject. To be honest, on the other side of the world here in New Zealand, it was fairly moderate and could be avoided if you wanted to (especially since the Rugby World Cup was much bigger news), but it was certainly present.

I’m not saying that the attacks weren’t a terrible thing: I’m against the use of violence for political or religious purposes in almost every case, but there are a lot bigger problems in the world and a lot worse atrocities we should be worrying about.

For example, look at the quite understandable grief amongst the friends and families of the 9/11 victims. It’s terrible to watch and clearly shows the consequences of violent political and terrorist acts, but we should apply the same standards to everyone.

If the loss of 3000 people in the US has caused so much grief how much has been caused by the slaughter of many times that number of innocent civilians in the unjust wars the US and its partners have engaged in since?

And who is really the most cowardly: a terrorist who takes his own life to attack who he perceives as his enemy, or a modern jet pilot bombing someone who he has been told is his enemy in a residential area in Baghdad?

This isn’t really an anti-US rant. The US reacted as any dominant world power would react in a similar situation and it responded in the only way it really could, but who has really caused the greater amount of death, destruction, and misery? I think it’s very clear what the answer to that question is.

I felt sickened listening to Bush and Obama speaking at the ceremony marking the anniversary of 9/11. It was pure, unadulterated propaganda. The sort that any dictator would be proud of. There were constant references to working for the will of God, to fighting for freedom, and other truly ridiculous statements.

If the US leadership really believes that the wars it has started were to fulfill the wishes of their god then I think they had better find another one. I wouldn’t recommend that alternative supernatural tyrant that the other side follows either! Actually, anyone who believes in a superstition like Christianity or Islam has no right to be leading a powerful, modern country in the first place.

Maybe Obama doesn’t really believe that stuff, who really knows. Because the US is so deeply superstitious no one can lead it without at least pretending to believe in Christian mythology and it would be political suicide to admit to not believing in God at all and almost as bad to suggest that God isn’t on the US’s side in the righteous wars it engages in.

So I would have liked to have seen a lot less rhetoric and a lot more moderation in the commemoration of the attacks. They were an act of evil against the US I agree, but there’s been a lot worse done both before and after.

Advice to Conservatives

September 7, 2011 4 comments

I’m really sick of conservatives. Not all conservatives of course, but the individuals who are most outrageously offensive to thinking people. In fact, on reconsidering the issue, I probably am sick of them all because even the ones who keep their opinions to themselves still mess the world up when they vote and when they influence the world in other ways.

Yeah sure, people are entitled to believe weird things if they want to. They can believe all people who vote towards the left are lazy and unrealistic, or that global warming is a vast conspiracy to raise taxes, or that liberalism has destroyed the morals that an old fashioned Christian upbringing gave people.

And they can continue to believe that sort of thing, even when good evidence is given to the contrary, if they want to. All that does is confirm that they are what most of the rest of us have suspected all along: unthinking and uncaring idiots.

But as I said above, this simple-minded, arrogant, and obstinate attitude does have significant dangers. People act based on their ideas and sometimes it seems that the more they are demonstrated to be wrong the more determined the person becomes to act unreasonably in defence of their discredited beliefs.

That’s why evolution deniers are determined to have their superstition taught in schools, and why global warming deniers are insistent on having no laws in place to reduce the problem, and why conservative Christians want the ten commandments prominently displayed even though they often don’t even know what they are and anyone can see that those commandments are either just common sense or ridiculous superstitious dogma anyway.

Conservatism is quite successful at the moment and I think that is because it offers a simple message which people can easily relate to. The fact that the message is so simple that it can never possibly work and the fact that a lot of the message is based on demonstrable fiction doesn’t matter because they have struck a winning formula where reality is largely irrelevant.

But there are problems. Obviously there are problems for thinking moderates and liberals, but there will also be problems for the conservatives in the end as well. Most of the conservative policies are counter-productive, so the more success they have the less successful they are.

For example, reducing taxes in the US and spending less on science will just hasten that country’s demise, not prevent it. And failing to act on the threat of global warming will affect the rich nations which caused it as well as poor island nations who are the innocent victims. And disguising the fact of evolution by teaching fiction like creationism will just result in a lower standard of medicine and biological sciences in the countries stupid enough to allow it.

So finally I get to my advice to conservatives. There are some things central to your belief systems which are untrue. When the evidence shows these things are untrue don’t invent a vast global conspiracy, or refuse to acknowledge any sources of information other than people engaged in the same delusion, or get involved in other behaviours which disguise the truth. Just move on instead.

And if you insist on maintaining your conservative world view you should still be able to do that to some extent. For example, admit global warming is real, admit humans contribute significantly to it, but debate what the response should be. That is where genuine debate is possible and if you do that you will gain the respect of your opponents as well as advancing the state of world knowledge instead of inhibiting it.

You don’t need to stop being a conservative but you do have to stop being a brainless conservative idiot. Stop sourcing all of your information from far-right blogs, listen to what science is really saying, genuinely think about whether what you believe agrees with what the experts are saying, and be skeptical of your leaders: they are deceiving their followers as much as they are deceiving their opponents.

That is all. Good luck with achieving a new brand of positive and realistic conservatism!