Archive for March, 2012

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide

March 30, 2012 Leave a comment

I think I can see why neo-liberal politicians (and their supporters) are so out of touch. They take their wonderful elegant theories much too seriously and ignore the evidence of cold, hard reality.

It’s a bit like the early days of cosmology where the beauty of the steady state theory enticed some astronomers into supporting it even though the facts supported the much less tidy and elegant big bang theory instead. The difference between cosmology and economics though is that cosmology is a science and economics is… well, I really don’t know what it is, but it certainly doesn’t fit well with my perception of science!

So most cosmologists quite quickly had to change their allegiance because the facts simply didn’t support the steady state, irrespective of how elegant it was. In science the facts are the ultimate judge of truth. In other areas I’m afraid that certainly isn’t the case. It obviously isn’t in religion and politics and, as I said above, I have major doubts about economics too!

A lot of modern economic theory traces its origins back to Adam Smith’s book, the Wealth of Nations, which many people see as the “gospel” of modern free market economic theory. At this stage I should confess that I haven’t read the book but I have read material discussing and summarising it so I apologise in advance if I have missed many of the nuances!

The original reason for this blog post was an interview I recently heard with a New Zealand ex-politician (recently ejected from the libertarian party he previously lead) who is often seen as one of the leaders of neo-liberal theory here. His name is Rodney Hide and he sort of has a Jekyll and Hyde (excuse the pun) personality: reasonable on the surface but a rabid fanatic when it comes to economic theory.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the theory espoused by Hide is the idea that self-interest produces the best outcomes through the invisible hand (also know as the magical effects) of the Market. Yes, I write the word market with a capital “M” in this case because it’s like the mystical supreme power for people of this belief system, sort of like God is to people with more conventional religious beliefs.

There is no doubt that markets can produce efficient outcomes but only in a very restricted and short-sighted way. The problem is that they don’t produce good outcomes long term and they entirely ignore phenomena which are not amenable to having a financial value placed on them.

The total failure of markets to produce the best outcome long term is apparent when you look at phenomena such as climate change. It’s not just coincidental that many libertarians reject the facts of climate change because it is the most obvious case where their theories fail completely. And instead of accepting that their theories are incomplete or trying to improve them they just ignore or reject the evidence that any reasonable person should accept.

In the past, Act (the party which Hide was leader of) actually rejected climate change and it seemed that it was only through persuasion of its coalition partner (itself a conservative party but one which at least accepted the facts of this issue) that it changed this view. Except I doubt whether it really did because it seemed that it just stopped talking abut the subject instead of actively trying to fix it.

So in a simple system which doesn’t require planning too far ahead and doesn’t need to account for non-monetary costs such as environmental and social damage, neo-liberal free market libertarianism is fine. But that simple system doesn’t exist in the real world. In the end reality has this annoying habit of catching up with ideologues and showing that their theories aren’t quite as great as they thought they were.

Until recently we have been able to ignore the long term effects of our current oil-based economy. Global warming wasn’t as well understood in the past and oil was still plentiful and easy to extract. Now we see that it was all an illusion because that unthinking greed and short term thinking has now lead to a situation where the real price of that economy (which was there all along but ignored by the Market) has become apparent.

And that’s just the environmental cost. Another effect which is becoming increasingly obvious is the social damage of neo-liberalism. The gross unfairness of a tiny fraction of people owning most of the wealth is leading to a lot of social unrest, most obviously seen in the Occupy Movement protests. That is just the beginning of the war though and it will become a lot worse unless our political and economic system is changed significantly.

But people like Hide still ignore the signs. They want to hang on to their pretty little theory despite the facts, just like the steady state proponents wanted to last century. Politics and economics aren’t as good at self-correction as science is unfortunately so it will be far too late before the last of the deniers realise their position in untenable. Until then we will just let the Market blindly lead us along the path to disaster!


Bring On Anarchy!

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Nick Smith did the right thing by resigning from his position in this incompetent government New Zealand is currently afflicted with, so now how about the rest of the National Party doing what’s best for the country for a change and resigning en masse? Sure I agree the Labour opposition doesn’t exactly inspire great confidence but they couldn’t possibly be worse than this lot who are really just a bunch of worthless idiots. In fact it’s really hard not to reach the conclusion that we would be better off with no one. Bring on anarchy!

The latest embarrassment (and I mean embarrassment to the people of New Zealand who have to admit that they voted for these clowns) is Gerry Brownlee’s mindless rant against Finland. Even if what he said was true (and most of it isn’t) why would he do that? I’ve always considered him to be one of the worst in his party, especially after his gross incompetence in handling the Christchurch Earthquake recovery, but this is a new low!

And to be one of the worst in a party filled with such ideologically driven, narrow minded, mediocre fools really takes some skill (or lack of) so I really must admire him for pure buffoonery! So for making New Zealand look so stupid he should resign effective immediately. I’m sure all the people unfortunate enough to be relying on him to do anything worthwhile (which is he totally incapable of) will be quite relieved.

At one time New Zealand was respected around the world for its moral stance on nuclear weapons, social justice, etc, but since the Tories have taken over we have predictably slipped into the mire of serving big corporations and making the rich even richer while ignoring what is the morally right thing to do.

On the other hand, in many ways its even more of a condemnation of the Labour Party that they aren’t more popular because you would imagine that most people would be starting to get fairly serious about looking for alternatives to this current crowd of right-wing nutters.

Many people say that democracy doesn’t work and looking at governments like this it’s hard not to agree. I know there is no real alternative but there must be something that could be done to improve the standard of representation we get. I have a few ideas on this subject in fact (and no, I’m not really serious about anarchy), but that’s a topic for a future blog entry.

Well You’re an Idiot Then

March 25, 2012 1 comment

Occasionally I go back through my old email messages and archive them into mailboxes based on their subject. It’s a bit of a waste of time really because they come in a lot faster than I can process them, so my incoming messages mailbox, which I wanted to keep to about 20 messages this year, now has over 13,000 messages in it.

But the good thing is I sometimes find one of my classic emails, usually in reply to some nutter’s opinion on religion, politics, global warming, etc. The one I have included below is a classic. The person who sent it to me is a total right-wing nutter but has never shown any signs of being particularly religious, still he felt the need to send me this tripe. My comments are in square brackets, [like this].

Anyway, here’s the story (which seems to be some sort of religious propaganda aimed at children) he sent me with my added comments…

“One of God’s main jobs is making people.

[Well it’s a pity he’s made so many of them because now a lot of them die of hunger because of overpopulation.]

He makes them to replace the ones that die, so there will be enough people to take care of things on earth.

[Yeah they’ve done a great job of that! Maybe he should re-think that strategy.]

He doesn’t make grownups, just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make.

[Well even God has his limits, I guess!]

That way he doesn’t have to take up his valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that to mothers and fathers.

[Good plan, abandon his responsibilities.]

God’s second most important job is listening to prayers.

[Doesn’t do much about them, does he?]

An awful lot of this goes on, since some people, like preachers and things, pray at times beside bedtime. God doesn’t have time to listen to the radio or TV because of this. Because he hears everything, there must be a terrible lot of noise in his ears, unless he has thought of a way to turn it off.

[He must have switched everything off – I can’t remember the last time he actually answered a prayer.]

God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere which keeps Him pretty busy.

[Yeah, I saw him at McDonalds just yesterday!]

So you shouldn’t go wasting his time by going over your mom and dad’s head asking for something they said you couldn’t have.

[Good advice.]

Atheists are people who don’t believe in God. I don’t think there are any in Chula Vista. At least there aren’t any who come to our church.

[Some people are out getting things done, others are sitting around in church like a bunch of morons.]

Jesus is God’s Son. He used to do all the hard work, like walking on water and performing miracles and trying to teach the people who didn’t want to learn about God.

[Except no one saw him do it, or bothered to write about it. You don’t suppose it was all just made up, do you?]

They finally got tired of him preaching to them and they crucified him

[Good thing too. He was so annoying!]

But he was good and kind, like his father, and he told his father that they didn’t know what they were doing and to forgive them and God said OK.

[Interesting logic. Didn’t God send him to be killed for our benefit? And this is supposed to make sense?]

His dad (God) appreciated everything that he had done and all his hard work on earth so he told him he didn’t have to go out on the road anymore. He could stay in heaven.

[Actually he said he’d be back in just a few years, but now it’s 2000 years later and there’s still no sign of him.]

So he did. And now he helps his dad out by listening to prayers and seeing things which are important for God to take care of and which ones he can take care of himself without having to bother God. Like a secretary, only more important.

[Yeah, he does a great job of that too!]

You can pray anytime you want and they are sure to help you because they got it worked out so one of them is on duty all the time.’

[Yeah lots of people in Haiti prayed to him. They all died horribly anyway. Nice guy, this God.]

You should always go to church on Sabbath because it makes God happy,

[And it also makes your church rich.]

and if there’s anybody you want to make happy, it’s God!

[Yeah because if you don’t do what you’re told he might smite you.]

Don’t skip church to do something you think will be more fun like going to the beach. This is wrong. And besides the sun doesn’t come out at the beach until noon anyway.

[Really. That’s a new bit of meteorology I hadn’t heard of before.]

If you don’t believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can’t go everywhere with you, like to camp, but God can.

[Doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem for any the atheists I know.]

It is good to know He’s around you when you’re scared, in the dark or when you can’t swim and you get thrown into real deep water by big kids.

[Yeah, he’s always helping, just like with those people in Haiti.]

But… you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you. I figure God put me here and he can take me back anytime he pleases.

[But he’ll torture you a bit first, like with earthquakes, tsunamis, cancer, and lot’s of other nice stuff. Nice guy that God chap.]

And… that’s why I believe in God.

[Well you’re an idiot then.]

If you believe in God, please pass this on, and may God bless you too. Have an awesome day, and know that someone has thought about you!

[And if you don’t believe in a god, send this back to the moron who sent it to you.]”

This email must have been sent just after the Haiti earthquake because I reference it a couple of times there. Also, I should disclose that I fixed a couple of typos and made a couple of the points a bit clearer so it’s not 100% the same as the actual email. And I’m not sure what the original sender thought of my reply because he never emailed me back on the subject. Odd that!

Real Miracles

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

A while back I listened to a podcast which was critical of religious miracle claims and of religion in general. One of the points it made was that what was seen as a miracle at the time the common holy books were written has now been far surpassed by science, and that is partly thanks to the abandonment of reliance on faith.

So even if the religious miracle claims are true (an idea which is very unlikely) they aren’t that great because we can do far better today using science and technology, plus modern “miracles” have the additional advantage that we know they are true!

So on to some examples…

In the New Testament Jesus is reported as having fed a large number of people using a small amount of food. These events are referred to as “feeding the multitude”. On one occasion 5000 were fed from five loaves and two fish, and on the other 4000 were fed from seven loaves and fish.

Of course the historical accuracy of these events is highly doubtful, especially since the second event is only reported in 2 out of the 4 gospels, but let’s just leave that and compare them with modern efforts.

Thanks to science resulting in technologies such as synthetic fertilisers, high yield crops, pesticides, and mechanisation an estimated one billion people have been saved from starvation. The improvements to agriculture occurred mainly from the 1940s to 1970s and Norman Borlaug is acknowledged as the leader of what is often known as the “green revolution”.

So it’s Jesus 9000 (possibly) and Norman Borlaug (representing science) one billion (approximately). Which is the greater miracle?

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival celebrating an alleged miracle during the re-dedication of the second temple. The story says that where there was only enough oil to light a lamp for one night but it managed to burn for 8.

It’s a cute story, but modern technology is more impressive, I think. Long life bulbs and super-efficient LEDs make oil lamps burning for 8 days look fairly unimpressive. Another win for technology over mythology.

There are a few interesting miracles which come from Islam as well. They speak of holy men who help barren women to conceive (I really don’t want to know the details of this one) and of miraculous transportation and communications over great distances.

But do these stories measure up to modern medical interventions such as IVF, high speed air and land transport, and the great array of near instantaneous communications we now have? Even if the miracles were true I still don’t think they are quite in the same league.

I think that anyone transported to today from the primitive times when these miracles allegedly occurred would think that everyday life now is far more miraculous than anything described in the holy books.

My iPhone is more miraculous than anything they could have imagined. The fact that I can take a plane to the other side of the world and be anywhere in a single day is a great miracle. Modern building, communications, computing, transport, medicine, and many other things make God’s efforts look pretty mediocre.

Arthur C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. He was right. Some people claim that the miracle stories of the Bible are evidence that aliens with advanced technology were present at the time, but I don’t think so. The miracles are too lame to be the result of advanced alien technology, but they are just lame enough that they could have been made up by people trying to make their god look good.

I’m often asked if I believe in miracles. Sure, yes. I experience technological miracles every day and they are far better than what my religious friends imagine happened.

One final point. You will have noticed that I have criticised all 3 major Abrahamic religions in this entry. I am an equal opportunity critic of religion. I think all three are ridiculous and would hate to be accused of favouring one over the others, although I certainly enjoy criticising the current dominant religion more than the others!

The Apple Report

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

How is Apple going after the unfortunate loss of Steve Jobs about 6 months ago now? Well by all indicators I have seen, it seems to be coping really well. I’m not trying to diminish the lasting legacy of Jobs in any way but it does seem that maybe this time Apple can transcend the loss of its inspirational leader and move on without losing its own special culture.

We should remember that a lot of what is happening now (the new iPad, improvements to laptops making them lighter and faster, better integration between iDevices and Macs) was planned by Jobs in the past. Apple do plan a long way ahead so it might be more reasonable to evaluate their progress without Jobs in another year or two.

Andrew Grove said that “only the paranoid survive”. I think he could be right but I don’t know whether paranoia is really the state of mind that describes the situation at Apple. Paranoia usually refers to persecution from the outside or to an exaggerated sense of your own importance. I don’t think Apple suffer from that. They are very aware that the greatest danger comes from within and I’m sure that after the disaster of the 90s they are very aware of the company’s potential for total failure.

This danger from within could take several forms…

First, Apple could become another Microsoft and settle into a state of protecting its existing assets without doing anything genuinely innovative. Sure, we all know Microsoft claim they are innovating but do they really? (there are exceptions: the new Windows Phone OS is quite good and their Kinect technology is impressive but they bought that from another company). Apple really do innovate and aren’t scared to threaten an existing product by introducing a new one (notice how the iPod is in decline after the introduction of the iPhone, for example).

Another problem could be Apple becoming another IBM. It could become excessively corporatised and lose the unique culture which has made it so successful. I’m not saying IBM hasn’t done great things, it clearly has, but I get the impression its bureaucracy prevents it from really using some of the brilliant things its research division produces.

And we also don’t want them to become like companies which rely too much on focus groups (I couldn’t find a specific example, probably because no one wanted to admit to it!) Apple have always “told people what they want” instead of reacting to what the user thinks they want. How could any company produce innovative products by listening to users? As I have said before, if Henry Ford had done that he would have made a faster horse!

Finally Apple could become more like Google and try to do too much. Of course Google does great things, but it has had a lot of failures too, maybe because it tries to do too much. Apple are heading that way too, although currently all of their product lines are successful. It might be difficult in future to be a technology leader in computers, phones, tablets, cloud services, media sales, app distribution, software, operating systems, and retail stores. When you consider what they are currently doing so well it really is quite amazing that they are at or near the front in all of these areas.

Tim Cook seems to be a good CEO. The best CEOs are either those with genuine vision who can really inspire talented people to make brilliant products, or good administrators who can provide an environment where those with real talent can excel. Jobs was probably the first type and Cook the second. Either way Apple should avoid the error of having a CEO who mistakenly believes he has any real talent in the areas the company is working in. That is a guaranteed disaster just waiting to happen.

So things look good for Apple at this point. I hope they do succeed, not just because I am an Apple consultant and programmer but because there aren’t a lot of other companies working in the computing field which are doing anything useful. Everyone needs Apple to succeed, even if they don’t even use their products.

Think Tanks Don’t

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

What’s the purpose of think tanks? Some of them claim to be places where research is done on important subjects. Others say they distribute critical information on political, economic, and scientific issues. And others claim to be a place where ideas can be examined and debated.

In my experience none of these are true. Who knows, maybe there are real think tanks out there which do fulfil a genuine role of the type they purport to have, but in most cases think tanks are propaganda sources, usually with a right wing conservative or neo-liberal agenda.

That’s not to say they are necessarily wrong, although they usually are. It’s more that despite their names and stated missions they are really involved with quite the opposite of doing genuine research, distributing factual information, or encouraging reasoned debate. In fact they are more likely to spend most of their time and money on lobbying and pushing propaganda rather than doing research, to ensuring that a single opinion or pure misinformation is distributed, and to creating unnecessary debates which present only one side in a positive way.

This is nothing new. In the past where there has been scientific evidence against the best interests of powerful groups in society these “think tanks” have appeared and tried to disguise the truth through their standard political trickery. A classic example would be the organisations supporting the tobacco industry. They systematically disguised the facts and tried to discredit the science which showed how dangerous smoking is. And they indirectly caused more deaths than any terrorist organisation.

Today the tobacco industry supporters have moved on to trying to discredit the harm of second hand smoke rather than the direct effects of smoking. Again they are obfuscating the truth to support rich tobacco companies who support them through donations.

Of course there are also other areas where these organisations are active. Religiously motivated organisations are common. These distribute lies and misinformation about evolution and try to prevent science they disapprove of being taught in schools. Conservative political organisations try to stop liberalisation of laws and other social changes. And organisations representing big corporations try to disguise the reality of science such as global warming.

Now I will mention some specific examples. The first is an organisation known as the “Heartland Institute” which describes its purpose like this: “The mission of the Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” So at least they are up front and say that they support a free-market neo-liberal agenda. So their credibility is gone already because of that blatant political bias.

It’s almost inevitable that an organisation of this type will reject the scientific facts which disagree with their warped political ideology. They seem to think that the tobacco industry should have the freedom to deliberately increase levels of addictive substances, that the oil industry should have the freedom to make more profit while destroying the environment for future generations, and that business should have the freedom to treat workers like its personal slaves.

That’s the sort of freedom libertarians want. It’s just the illusion of freedom for the majority. Sure their agenda includes less government control but that control is simply transferred to an even less scrupulous place: big business.

Recent events have shown that the Heartland Institute is funded by large corporations, including an oil conglomerate, and has been given free software (which is effectively a donation) by Microsoft even though Microsoft’s official line on global warming is that it is real and almost certainly caused by human activity. Of course that is just the way large corporations work: lying is just second nature to them.

So Heartland is just a propaganda source although I should give them credit for at least stating that they only consider free-market solutions. At least we know what type of solutions they will offer and that it won’t matter whether they work or not as long as they are “free market”.

Another “think tank” which I occasionally visit is a New Zealand one called the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. They state their mission as: “The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues.”

This really isn’t quite true. The NZCPR does no real research, it just picks up news items and distorts them to its own political biases. And yes, this is another right-wing organisation although it is more conservative than neo-liberal. In my opinion NZCPR would better stand for “New Zealand conservative propaganda rants”.

Again, I’m not saying everything they believe is wrong and I occasionally find myself agreeing with some of their points, but the vast majority of their material is very biased and therefore hardly worth even looking at.

There are some left-leaning think tanks as well, but they tend to work a bit differently because they don’t generally have a lot of rich corporate sponsorship. You could put organisations like Greenpeace in this category, I think. As I have said in the past, I agree with quite a lot of what Greenpeace says but I do think it has a biased and unscientific dogmatic opinion on some subjects, such as genetic engineering, so I certainly can’t fully support it.

But the problem with most of these think tanks is that they don’t (think). They also don’t do any real research, they don’t distribute fair and unbiased information, and they don’t encourage reasoned and fair debate. As soon as you see the label “think tank” be skeptical, because there’s probably not a lot of thinking going on there!

We Don’t Need Efficiency

March 13, 2012 1 comment

Unsurprisingly industrial relations in New Zealand seems to be heading into chaos. Various major disputes are currently active and we seem to have more employment related strife than we have for many years. As I said, this isn’t surprising, because the combination neo-liberal/conservative agenda of the current government should be obvious to everyone. And that type of government is always against the workers.

These disputes all seem relatively justified because they involve either resistance to the erosion of existing pay and conditions (the Ports of Auckland workers and the Affco meat workers) or the employers failure to compensate workers adequately in the first place (the Oceania Group rest home staff).

The counter-argument is that in the current global financial position we all have to make sacrifices and it is important for New Zealand companies to be competitive.

I don’t think this is true.

For a start the people asking for sacrifices aren’t making any themselves. Top pay rates continue to climb while the rest of us have to survive on less (effectively). So the morality of management asking staff to accept cuts while they just get more themselves is extremely problematic.

The next question is can we really be significantly more productive and competitive? New Zealand workers are already very productive, according to global surveys, and a recent survey showed the majority of them do work at home for free. What more do employers want?

Finally there is the question of whether we really want to get caught up in a global competition to be “efficient” when this efficiency takes the form of being paid less and having much poorer work conditions. If that is efficiency do we really want it? Why not introduce the ultimate efficiency and make slavery legal? That last point is rhetorical and an example of a “slippery slope” fallacy but I think it demonstrates the point I am trying to make.

If we make the Ports of Aukland (for example) more efficient isn’t that just going to encourage its competitors to also become more efficient, which will then bounce back to Auckland again, and so on? Where will it end? There has to be a point where “efficiency” (and what efficiency is can be debated) is given a lower priority and fairness and long-term stability are considered as well.

I think shipping companies will use Auckland in preference to other ports if they know the workforce is there and happy to work. After all, it costs extra to transport from other ports (Tauranga, Wellington) to Auckland anyway so where is the advantage in going elsewhere even if it is slightly more expensive?

Many people look at these disputes and don’t care. They tend to react based on political lines: the right just see useless workers failing to cooperate with the reasonable innovations introduced by management, and the left see evil managers forcing their once loyal workforce into a desperate situation to save their employment conditions.

As you might have guessed, I tend to favour the second interpretation and I think other people should too. Even if you think port workers are over-paid or if you think they should be more flexible in their work conditions (neither of which I agree with) there is still good reason to support them.

That reason is (assuming you are like the vast majority of people and are paid a wage or salary and are not one of the ruling elite) that once pay and conditions start coming down in one area they are likely to follow in others. First, employers will see that they can get away with the dirty tricks which were blatantly used at the port and will use them in other places. And second, it will seem only fair (sometimes even to the victims) that if one group has sacrificed their conditions then others should too.

I know this sounds like another slippery slope argument but I think it has some merit. Sometimes the slope really is slippery.

Remember what Martin Niemoller famously said: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I’m not saying the government and employers are like Nazi Germany (that would be a real example of Godwin’s Law) – well, not exactly anyway – but they cannot be trusted and it will be easier to stop them now rather than later. The easiest way to get Ports of Auckland running again would be to fire the immoral and incompetent CEO. But it goes a long way beyond that because this sort of behaviour is encouraged by the type of government we currently have.

We need to vote these despicable scum (see my previous blog entry) out of office as soon as we can but until then we need to support the workers who are standing up to them. The Ports of Auckland, Affco, and Oceania Group workers who are striking are doing the right thing. If you don’t think so then think again when you’re the next victim of this so-called efficiency!