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Democracy Fails Again

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, the New Zealand general election is over and, as expected, the center-right National party has been easily returned to lead the new government. That was no surprise to anyone but it was perhaps the only result which wasn’t surprising because there were a lot of other unexpected outcomes.

New Zealand First provided the biggest surprise by getting 6.8% of the vote. So Winston Peters has done it again despite John Key’s best efforts to discredit him. And it’s good to see Winston back in parliament. No matter what else you think of him, he is a real character, plus he actually has some quite worthwhile policies.

Act failed miserably. Despite gaining one seat through the rather unsavoury agreement between them and National, which effectively meant Act only existed because National let them. The Act leader, Don Brash, resigned as leader and perhaps this time he might finally realise that not only is he just not the right type of person for politics but his far right policies are just not wanted by the voting public.

The Greens exceeded their target of 10% (compare that with the opposite extreme of the political spectrum where Act aimed at 10 and got 1) and it looks like they might become a genuine long-term option in the future.

The Maori Party suffered the almost inevitable fate of small parties who get too friendly with a bigger one and lost a lot of support. Why they would ever have entertained the idea of teaming up with National is beyond me. Do they really want to commit political suicide?

So National superficially seem to have a mandate for their agenda of right wing privatisations and nasty social changes. But they don’t really. Many polls show the people of New Zealand don’t want asset sales, and the pathetic turnout (for New Zealand) of under 70% of eligible voters hardly represents a real mandate.

It’s rather depressing that so many people didn’t vote (over one million which is a lot for a small country) even though I can see why. Many on the right would have assumed a victory so perhaps not voting seemed OK. And the left equally assumed a defeat and might not have voted for that reason. But under MMP no battle is ever lost and everyone should have voted. If everyone had voted the right would probably not have the power they do now.

It seems to me that people didn’t vote for National or for right oriented policies, they voted for John Key. For some reason people really like him. Actually I did when he first became our prime minister too but I was astute enough to soon realise that appearances can be deceptive.

Phil Goff in comparison just didn’t really connect with the public and it didn’t really matter who had the better policies because that’s just not what people were voting on.

National also had the advantage of experiencing some bad luck during their time in power. First there was the continuing global financial crisis then the Christchurch earthquakes. Even though they were average at best in how they handled those that was enough.

So we had a low turnout and even the people who did vote probably voted for poor reasons. It looks like democracy fails again!

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More Thought, Less Dogma

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I have heard that foreign share and currency traders are getting a bit nervous about the political situation in New Zealand. Up until recently it looked like the existing government would be re-elected comfortably but now it seems that the center-left coalition has a chance of winning.

Is this a good reason to vote for the right? Some people think so but I would encourage the opposite. If greedy, corrupt foreign traders want National to win then I would say they should lose. Not only are these people just intrinsically immoral but their incompetence was a major factor in the failure of various economies around the world.

I find it really disturbing that some people would consider changing their vote based on what some foreign trader wants. People should do what they consider is the right thing of course, and they might consider these traders are an important part of our economy, but I say we need to set up an economy which doesn’t rely on immoral behaviour.

New Zealand took the moral high ground when the Labour government of the 80s stopped visits by American nuclear ships. Many were concerned there would be economic repercussions but I don’t think there is any real evidence that happened. So doing the right thing is possible and the threats of dire consequences are usually exaggerated.

A similar idea applies to so-called free trade agreements. Many people just assume that all agreements of this type are good. But the much bigger economies we are negotiating with aren’t doing it because of their high ethical principles. The secret negotiations this country is currently involved in for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are unlikely to result in a truly positive outcome for the majority. And if these deals are so great why are they negotiated in secret?

If anyone wants to invest in or trade with our country we should be suspicious. They want to deal with us because they think they can make money that way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it should be regarded with some suspicion and it certainly shouldn’t be automatically considered as a good thing.

Global trade can be a good thing but the ultimate aim of completely free trade with no control is just another neo-liberal ideology and I don’t think we should have anything to do with it despite the fact that New Zealand has been a leader in the area.

I think a more considered approach is required. The great global free economy is failing. We need more controls and direction, not less. We need more thought and less dogma. And we sure as hell don’t need to consider the opinions of people whose sole purpose is to exploit our country for their own greedy purposes.

A Nice Cup of Tea!

November 16, 2011 Leave a comment

They say that if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen. Politicians are the ultimate seekers of easy publicity and you would think that a well publicised public meeting would be likely to attract a lot of attention. If that’s the case why would those same politicians then be concerned or offended that people took a interest in what they said?

I am of course speaking of the infamous “tea pot tapes”, a recorded conversation between prime minister John Key and Act candidate John Banks. The recording was made without the politicians’ knowledge, accidentally according to the person who was responsible, but now the PM seems to want to take legal action over the recording even though he claims there was nothing of any importance said at the time.

Meanwhile people are becoming almost paranoid wondering what the tapes (whether they actually are old technology like a tape I’m not sure but I’ll stick with that description) really contain. Key and Banks won’t give permission to allow the material to be released because they claim that would encourage secret recording in the future, but that has just fueled speculation even more.

The fact is the meeting was in a public place, it was well publicised ahead of time, it was an obvious ploy to garner political publicity, it was of unmistakable relevance to the voters of this country, and (if the journalist’s story is true) the recording was only made through an error and as a result of intimidation by the extensive security personnel the PM employs. I say release the conversation whether Banks and Key like it or not.

And the symbolism of the meeting over tea is also interesting. In the US the “Tea Party” is a collection of far right political nutters, rabid libertarians, and some other more moderate (mostly) right wingers. Does this sound familiar? Maybe the choice of meeting over a cup of tea was more than just coincidental!

A second political issue where the government seem to be over-reacting is over the so-called vandalism of their political hoardings. A group changed the messages on National’s billboards by adding what they say are more realistic comments such as “The Rich Deserve More” and “Drill it! Mine It! Sell it!”. It later turned out that the “attack” had been coordinated by a member of the Green Party, but wasn’t officially endorsed by them.

In fact the Greens have also over-reacted on this issue and have fired a staff member involved as well as exposing another person responsible. I guess the Greens are trying to gain a more mainstream and respectful image but surely this is unnecessary.

The changes were made with removable stickers and they seem to be very much a reasonable form of political commentary. Any threat by the National Party over this just shows them for what they really are: a petty bunch of hypocrites totally lacking in any real ideas.

National is very much about making the rich even richer and exploiting our resources and selling our assets without much appraisal of the consequences. Drawing these obvious facts to people’s attention seems perfectly reasonable.

Interestingly, as the election approaches, it actually seems possible that National might really lose it. Yes, they really might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sure, National are still by far the most widely supported single party but their coalition partners are disappearing fast and a collection of more left oriented parties, especially Labour and the Greens, looks increasingly viable.

National would still have to be clear favourites to win but if Key continues to be so incompetent who knows what might happen? He really might throw it all away! When it comes to asset sales when will he understand: no means no!

I certainly hope that a miracle happens and National are defeated, because the last thing we need now is more of the inept, unimaginative, unfair policies they have already introduced and are promising to give us much worse of in their next term – if we are stupid enough to let them!

What a Deal!

November 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Here in New Zealand we are preparing for a general election (in about a week and a half) and it looks at this point that the current National (conservative) government should be re-elected fairly comfortably. It’s interesting really because if people voted in a logical way they should be thrown out in a landslide.

The key factor (if you’ll excuse the pun) in National’s favour seems to be their leader, our current Prime Minister John Key. Key is by far the most popular leader and it seems that many people want to vote for National just because he is there. The leader of the main opposition party, Phil Goff, is far less favoured as a leader and although he is gradually gaining a bit more support, he is far behind Key in the current polls.

I must admit that when National first took office about 3 years ago I was fairly positive about them, although they wouldn’t have been my usual preferred choice. But as time goes by it has become apparent that they really just represent the same old right-wing unthinking nonsensical policies of the past.

So why is Key so popular? I think he’s just like a slick life insurance salesman. He ends up selling you something you don’t really want or need but he does it in such a clever way that you don’t even notice you’ve been ripped off! It does make sense because, as I said above even I was fooled initially.

It is unfortunate that people vote for emotional reasons rather than actually looking at what the parties really stand for. Surely the vast majority of New Zealanders would be far better off under a Labour government than they would under National. Even if the election promises (also known as bribes) offered by both parties were discounted it’s still obvious that Labour has a far fairer and more reasonable political philosophy than National.

National have already driven our economy down by giving the rich huge tax cuts. This has resulted in the need for increased borrowing and has made refusal to fund worthwhile projects so much easier. The economy is a mess because of National’s incompetence therefore we must reduce the minimum wage, sell off assets, and cut funding for useful projects. And yes, I know there have been events beyond the government’s control (the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquake being the most obvious) but these are even better reasons not to give tax cuts to a sector of the population who most definitely don’t need them.

John Key has been caught lying on several occasions, including over significant points such as increasing GST and the country’s credit rating. He clearly cannot be trusted and people must realise that anything he says should be viewed with great suspicion. Yet, just like the devious insurance salesman people seem to go along with what he says anyway.

New Zealand still has a few worthwhile assets left, even after the loathsome asset sales of the 80s and 90s (ironically started by a Labour government). One reason we still own anything is that people realised asset sales were a really bad idea so the government stopped them. The other is that many of the companies sold were such a disaster under private ownership that the government had to buy them back at a huge loss. Yet these despicable clowns in National want to start the whole sorry process again. They’re either morons or just so intent on following their discredited ideology that they are blind to the facts. Either way, why would any sensible person vote for them?

I’ve often said that I become quite despondent when I see how poorly democracy really works. John Key with his failure to debate the facts, insistence on repeating carefully designed catch phrases, and just general lack of honesty and integrity really is a poor example of they type of leader we need. Still, if people want a smug, dishonest, sleazy insurance salesman as their leader I guess that’s their choice!

Relevant Quotes

November 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Many famous figures have made statements that people like to quote to prove their points. It’s a waste of time really because a quote from a great leader, or scientist, or artist, or anything else, is no more a source of real proof than a random statement from anyone else.

But I do think quotes can be a good starting point for pursuing an idea and can be a clear way to express a concept, assuming the quote is supported by the facts of course.

So after that introduction explaining that quotes must be treated with great suspicion I am now going to present some quotes which I think support a theme I want to develop in this entry.

My first quote is this: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This quote is from legendary science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov.

I have often commented on the threat that the voting power of ignorant groups presents to the modern world. It’s entirely possible that through valid democratic processes there will be no action on climate change for example, simply because various groups in society vote based on the ideological premise that climate change is some kind of vast left-wing conspiracy.

Climate change deniers are both ignorant and anti-intellectual. A friend of mine, when challenged over why he believes the opinions of a journalist but rejects that of the vast majority of climate experts, said he doesn’t trust scientists and thinks expertise based on “common sense” is more important. What he really meant to say was that he would prefer to believe anyone who supported his ignorant political belief that climate change cannot be true.

My second quote is this: “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. This well known quote is from the German philosopher, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

This does seem to be depressingly true. People seem to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe this is a further side effect of the anti-intellectualism I mentioned above. People don’t want to listen to historians and other experts because what the experts say often contradicts what they desperately want to believe.

This related quote is from Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This seems to get to the core of the world’s problems today. The big problems we have: environmental disasters, unstable political systems, dysfunctional economics, and others, are all caused by an economic system which just doesn’t work. It relies on constant growth which cannot continue, cheap energy which is running out, and unfair distribution of wealth which is becoming unacceptable.

But the answer most people give is more of the same, sometimes in an even purer form. They say we need even more growth, cheaper energy, and greater redistribution of wealth. It’s obvious that this cannot work and we are now seeing the beginning of a revolution which our leaders don’t seem to have noticed. Einstein and Hegel were both right: more of the same will not work and we can see from history that is a fact.

I’m not sure what will work better but the first step to improving the current system is to admit that it needs to change. I don’t mean we have to fine tune the current system, I mean we have to replace it. And I’m not advocating communism or a return to a pre-technological simpler time. That would also be ignoring the lessons of history.

What we do need to do is decide what we want to achieve and design a system to make that happen. And I’m fairly sure that won’t involve rescuing big banks, giving corrupt corporate leaders even more money, or reducing taxes for large multinationals which actually contribute very little.

That is one quote which I think really is true: we can’t solve the problems of the world by using the same tactics that caused them in the first place.

That’s Blasphemy!

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

A podcast I listened to recently discussed the idea and relevance of blasphemy. Even a country like New Zealand, where religion is largely irrelevant to the majority, has blasphemy laws and it’s technically illegal to say something like this: “Jesus was a cynical invention of the evil leaders of the early church”, even if there might be good reason to say that it’s true. OK, I’m waiting to be arrested for stating that blasphemous idea in public.

Of course no one has ever been convicted because of an act of blasphemy here and there has only been one court case, many years ago, which failed. So the whole thing is a bit of a joke really, like a lot of laws of this type.

You could say these laws were originally more relevant because at the time they were formulated society took religion a lot more seriously and it was an important part of life in that era. But like many other laws, time has made what might have been a reasonable idea obsolete and irrelevant. But the law is so silly and trivial now that’s it’s not even really worth removing.

A case could be made to say that some people would be offended by blasphemous statements and should be protected. But should they? Isn’t it a problem for the person who was offended, not the person who made the statement? If I say “Christianity is silly and based on ridiculous superstition” an appropriate response by someone who disagrees is to show how I am wrong through the presentation of facts. Relying on laws specifically designed to protect a belief system instead of presenting evidence to support it just shows that I am probably right in criticising it to start with!

The same applies to other organisations. An employee of Apple was recently fired for criticising the company on his Facebook page. So what? If he was wrong in his criticism why didn’t someone correct him, and if he was right Apple should do something about it. Individuals, organisations, and companies should welcome criticism. Otherwise how will they know when they need to improve something?

I should say here that I don’t know what the specific criticism of Apple was, and I do agree that there are some opinions which shouldn’t be allowed. If a person is inciting violence, hatred or other socially unacceptable responses then they should be stopped in some way.

But if they are just saying something like “the historical evidence for Jesus is very weak” or “Apple uses cheap labour in China to keep its costs down” then sure, that’s fine. If the statements are true then they should be made public, if they’re not then someone should refute them.

Religion has been given a “free pass” on so many things in the past, and continues to enjoy special treatment even today. If a religion is real and true and if a religious figure (Jesus, Allah, or whatever) is so powerful and great then surely they should be able to defend themselves. Why would they need a law which most people would consider a joke? That just makes the religion look even sillier than it did to start with!

IT Support Fun

November 4, 2011 2 comments

Being a computer consultant and programmer provides its fair share of challenges. First, there is the temperamental nature of some computers, then there is the constantly changing nature of the IT world, and then there is the ultimate challenge: the users!

I work almost entirely with Macs so I’m not exposed to the same level of troublesome behaviour that my PC colleagues have to put up with. I’m not necessarily saying Macs are totally free from odd and unexplained problems (they certainly aren’t) but Apple’s control over the hardware, operating system, and some of the software means that most Mac systems suffer less from bizarre behaviour than Windows PCs.

The constant change in the computer world can be seen as both its greatest challenge and as its greatest attraction. Having new technologies appearing so quickly does make working in IT interesting but it also makes it hard to keep up. Supporting whole new technology areas, such as iPads and the extremely capable smart phones we now have, is a challenge but would we really want to do without these cool new toys?

And then there’s the users. Few people realise how difficult it can be to support some computer users. It’s not so bad if you have direct access to the computer in need of your intervention, or even if you have screen sharing or terminal access to it, but trying to support computer users by “remote control” over the phone is probably the ultimate exercise in frustration!

It’s not just computers where this happens, because other forms of technology can suffer from similar problems. A friend recently described an experience she had trying to describe how to change the settings on a new TV over the phone for example. And it’s probably significant that TVs (along with almost everything else) are actually controlled by small computers and their on-screen control systems suffer from similar issues to conventional computers.

Ironically it was easier in the “old days” where the primary way to control a computer was through a command-line interface. Asking someone to type a command like “cd /” is often easier than asking them to find the icon for the hard disk and double-click on it. Issues with the “visual” approach include: is the HD icon visible? what does it look like? what is it called? can the user double-click at the correct speed? what display mode is the hard disk window set to display? (and, no doubt, many more) And yes, I know you can control modern computers through a command-line (I love the Mac terminal) but explaining how to launch that can be a major process in itself!

I sometimes wonder what users are thinking. These aren’t stupid people but when it comes to working on their computer they can do some odd things. Here’s a few examples which illustrate the problem…

First there’s the phenomenon of inappropriate use of terminology. A user I was trying to help once told me something like “I pointed my font at the box and clicked but the mouse didn’t appear.” Say what? I recognise all of those words but I have no idea what they mean in that context!

Then there’s the users who just can’t respond appropriately when asked a question. I once asked a user “Is the Finder at the front? You can tell that because the first menu at the top-left (next to the Apple) is called Finder.” I was assured it is so it was then safe to say “go to the Go menu and choose Connect to Server”. But there was no Go menu. That was odd. So I tried a new approach. I said “press command-K” and was informed “it just beeped”. Stranger! Anyway after a while I said: look at the top-left of the screen and read out what it says. The response was “an Apple symbol, then Mail, then…” What? Did you say the second word was Mail? I thought it said Finder? Who knows what the explanation for that slight inconsistency was. It’s still a mystery!

Many users can’t describe real physical objects much better. Recently I was trying to find out what type of computer a person had. She said it was something like a Mac 72. A Mac 72? What is that? The closest thing I could think of was a Power Mac 7200 but that was from the distant past. Anyway it turned out it had a built-in screen, was quite heavy, and didn’t have a CD drive. That didn’t seem to fit anything either but then the name “eMac” was recalled. So I showed this person an old eMac waiting to be recycled and I was assured it was like that except blue and with no CD drive. When I finally saw the computer it was a white iMac with a CD drive. And one other thing: the person wanted to replace the old machine because it had no ethernet to connect to a broadband router. Except, of course, all iMacs have ethernet built-in! Another mystery!

So, as you can see, working with users is a real treat. It’s like a game where they try to deceive you as much as possible and it’s your job to help them despite their best efforts to stop you from doing so. It’s great fun and I really enjoy it when I finally see through the deception and the truth is fully revealed!