Archive for June, 2012

Godwin’s Law

June 28, 2012 Leave a comment

There is a well known “law” which is often mentioned in Internet discussion forums called “Godwin’s Law”. It is the humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1989 which states: “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (The number 1 here is a more technically correct term for 100%)

The law is also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies and is sometimes extended with the rule that anyone daring to mention the Nazis automatically loses the argument he is involved in.

For me there are times when the temptation to include a Nazi analogy is just too strong and if you search this blog for terms like “Nazi” you will find many posts. More recently I have at least made an effort to note that those statements possibly contravene Godwin’s Law!

I am not an absolutist when it comes to following laws, and that includes both real laws and humorous observations which have been called laws such as Godwin’s. I think it is useful to be aware that by making analogies with Nazism you might be reaching a point where you could be accused of hyperbole or making an appeal to an inappropriately emotional statement instead of facts, but I also think Nazi analogies are sometimes useful.

So it’s important to think about Godwin’s law when you are writing or otherwise communicating on a subject. I wonder if New Zealand Labour politician, Megan Woods, knows about it. She recently tweeted the following message: “Hitler had a pretty clear manifesto that he campaigned and won on … does this make what he did OK?”. This was in relation to the National government’s habit of using the fact that it won the last election as an excuse to carry out any policy it wants, no matter how unpopular that policy might be (specifically related to partial asset sales in this case).

In fact, despite the possible contravention of Godwin’s Law I think this message has a lot of merit. She actually makes a good point and I think her subsequent apology was totally unnecessary. Of course from a political perspective it is often useful to not say what you really think even when that opinion can be successfully defended. And sometimes it’s just better not to mention subjects such as Naziism!

But getting back to the underlying question: does a victory in a democratic election give a government the right to carry out unpopular policies, especially if those policies were well indicated in the campaign? I think there would be a case to say the answer is yes: the Nats have a perfect right to carry out the sales because that is effectively what people voted for.

But on the other hand people vote in elections for many different reasons and, probably of more relevance in this case, they fail to vote for different reasons as well. National’s victory at the last election was more the result of apathy from the left than enthusiasm from the right. So there is also a good case to say that there is no good mandate for the sales.

Whatever your opinion on the subject the comparison that Woods made between asset sales and invading Poland clearly involves a huge escalation in the severity of the action being considered. But sometimes an extreme example makes the underlying principle more clear and I think there was nothing at all wrong with the tweet. Woods also tweeted: “Point is that simply stating something before an election does not make it right! Example is extreme but exposes logic”. Exactly.

In fact if you look at the wording there is no suggestion that the Nats are acting like Nazis so the complaints that many people have against it are ridiculous. But as I said above, references to the Nazis do seem to unleash criticism based more on emotion than rationality so for that reason alone it might have been best to avoid it.

In some ways I think the asset sales might be quite a good thing. Despite the fact that National itself has good voter support all of its support parties are dead or dying (and rightly so because they are universally awful). National will almost certainly lose the next election because of its arrogance on subjects such as asset sales and it is unlikely to get back into power quickly because of its lack of partners.

If we can survive to the next election with out the Nats messing the country up too much we should be able to expect 9 years of decent center-left governments. I agree that long term predictions like this are fraught with difficulties and who knows what international or local political disasters might interfere with that simplistic prediction but I still think it is a point worth reflecting on.

And now just to finish off this discussion I want to violate Godwin’s Law by making another observation: there are similarities between prime minister John Key and Hitler. Both were good at manipulating the population into believing their ideas even though they had little real merit. Both used the dire condition of their respective country’s economies as an excuse to introduce ultimately counter-productive policies. And both used harsh actions against unpopular minorities as a tool to gain endorsement from their more totalitarian base of supporters. Yes, I think Megan Woods had more of a point than even she realised!


Give Up on Global Warming

June 27, 2012 Leave a comment

The title of this blog entry might be surprising to my regular followers (all two of you!) I have commented on many occasions on the reality of global warming and how it is likely to lead to major problems for the world if it isn’t minimised through action now, so what has changed?

Maybe it’s already too late because the political will to really do anything worthwhile doesn’t seem to be growing. If anything the opposite seems to be true. Of course, the apathy the subject invokes in our leaders in no way means it is any less serious, but maybe it’s time to give up on prevention and move to a new approach.

There are many possible responses (apart from prevention) but they all have their own difficulties and potential side effects. But since the idea of prevention seems to have been abandoned maybe it’s time to evaluate those difficulties and see if they are worth the risk.

Specifically I recommend looking at large-scale geo-engineering projects such as the Hall Weather Machine. This proposal has been around for a few years now and has been found to be feasible by serious engineers. It involves floating many tiny (about 1 mm to 1 cm in diameter) hot air balloons to extremely high altitudes (about 30,000 meters) and controlling them to change the weather.

I haven’t heard exactly how many of these devices would be needed but the inventor says their total weight would be 10 million tons so I’m guessing there would be hundreds of billions or even trillions of them! Obviously advanced nano-technology processes would be required.

The balloons would have a mirror or other surface inside them and depending on its orientation it would reflect incoming sunlight or radiated heat from the Earth. So it could produce an artificial and controllable global warming or cooling effect.

Variations on the basic idea could be used for different levels of control: from a coverage of 0.1% being sufficient to negate global warming effects, to 1% to allow controlling regional climates, to 10% allowing very tight control of the weather.

But, as I intimated above, there are potential problems. Like most of the world’s problems these would be more related to politics and business rather than science and engineering (isn’t that always the sad truth – when will we realise that the wrong people are in charge of the world).

Assuming the technology to build this system could be created (and as I said above, it has been deemed feasible by experts) then the money and resources have to come from somewhere. But let’s move on from those minor organisational considerations and look at the big problems which might result from its use.

Weather is an important thing to every country so anyone who could alter another country’s weather would have a huge amount of power available to them. And it wouldn’t need to be a malicious action deliberately aimed at a specific area, it could just as easily be a side effect of “fixing” the weather in one place making it worse somewhere else. Plus there is the unfortunate fact that many previous attempts at changing the way the natural world works have not been conspicuously successful!

But despite these real potential issues the benefits might outweigh the problems. After all, can things really get much worse than the projections for the next 50 to 100 years if we do nothing? It does seem unlikely.

Another issue I haven’t seen discussed is the possibility of a self-destruct mechanism in these devices. Surely that would be easy enough, and that would mean that if things went horribly wrong that the whole system could be disabled quickly.

But there is another more sinister aspect to this technology. The inventor has said he thinks there’s a good chance it might be built because of the military applications. The country which controls the technology would have a lot of power over the rest of the world and this more subtle form of control would appeal to many of the world’s leading powers – and especially to one in particular which already dominates the world through its immoral political and economic tricks as much as its military power.

I think this type of technology, if used properly, would be very valuable even if global warming wasn’t a problem to be solved. But that phrase above “if used properly” is the key thing. Would it be used properly? I hope that the most modest proposal – the one with 0.1% coverage – would be safer because it has insufficient capability to do much more than “just” solve the problem of global warming. But if it did work that way I’m sure things would be taken further and the “total weather control” scenario would follow. Then the situation would get more interesting.

No matter what happens and which solution to global warming is ultimately used there will be big problems. But that gets back to the one phrase in this post which is the key to all of our difficulties: “the wrong people are in charge of the world”.

More Austerity

June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Continuing with the theme of austerity I want to make another point which I didn’t emphasise much last time. In fact this point goes beyond periods of time where austerity is a popular option and is common at all times, whether financial conditions are difficult or not.

My point is that even at times when money is being saved by cutting services, reducing pay, and introducing other interventions allegedly designed to improve the economy, there is always plenty of funding available for projects which the ruling elite feel they want to go ahead.

I’ve noticed this in companies and organisations I have been involved with: management will cut funding for services which don’t currently interest them for some reason but it will become apparent later that at the same time they have spent heaps on something else (often a service with far less real value than the one suffering the cuts).

It’s most apparent in governments, of course, because they have the biggest budgets and are under the most critical examination. They will cut costs extensively in one area but despite pleading poverty will always find plenty of cash for their pet projects which might fit in best with their political ideology.

Naturally I have a specific example. In this case it is a visit from some members of the British (and officially New Zealand) royal family later this year. Apparently the Department of Internal Affairs is refusing to release figures regarding the cost of this visit, even to parliament who are ultimately responsible for the payment for the event.

According to a Stuff poll 80% of New Zealanders don’t want to pay for this visit. I think that number is probably a bit higher than it would have been if the visitors had been more popular members of the British royalty but in this case it is probably the two biggest jokes from this anachronistic dynasty: Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

Really this is probably the best thing that could be done to help the republican movement in New Zealand. I know there are some royalists who will just think it’s “lovely” to see anyone like this visit but to most of us it’s just an insult. If you do want to send any of the useless parasites over at least send someone who deserves a small amount of respect, like the Queen herself!

But apparently New Zealand doesn’t rate highly enough to be worthy of her attention: she’s probably too busy walking the corgis or preparing inane and insulting speeches for her loyal subjects.

The cost of having the buffoon Charlie and his hideous wife here is likely to be quite high too. The prince doesn’t take commercial flights like us commoners. Oh no, he demands a personal aircraft to ensure he receives the appropriate level of exclusive comfort!

But as I have said in the past, austerity measures are never evenly applied. One of the main reasons they exist at all is that the ruling class of thieves (corporate heads, royalty, the rich in general) demand to maintain their lavish lifestyles even though it’s them who have caused the problems we currently face.

And that has to be financed some way, doesn’t it? I’m sure the rest of us are happy to make a sacrifice like that for such a good cause!

Most Annoying Ideas

June 22, 2012 Leave a comment

There are a number of odd ideas and statements which I hear over and over again and which get really annoying after a while. They get annoying because they have been shown beyond any reasonable doubt to be untrue – and often the person supporting them knows that – yet we keep hearing them anyway.

I can understand people not knowing a particular fact or being misinformed on a particular subject, but I can’t understand or forgive someone making the same mistake many times after being corrected, especially when they are being deliberately ignorant or misleading.

I’m going to mention a few of my favourites here and explain why I should never hear these opinions being offered again!

First, there’s the statement that some well established scientific principle is only a theory. Of course this is most often used in conjunction with evolution. How often do I hear that “evolution is only a theory”. I always correct the person making that statement when I can because, as I said above, I can excuse the initial ignorance, but after that there is no excuse for ever making that statement again!

So why is it so untrue? There are three reasons.

First, a theory in the scientific context is an extremely well proven and accepted set of hypotheses and explanations which go far beyond the use of the word in common speech. Something can’t be describes as “just” a theory because the word “just” implies something far less that what a scientific theory actually represents.

Second, evolution is fact and the theory of evolution is something which explains that fact. So evolution is both a fact and a theory. The evidence that evolution has occurred is so overwhelming that no knowledgeable, sensible, or fair person would deny it. It’s as undeniable as the fact that the Earth is “round” (it’s actually closer to an oblate spheroid) or that it orbits the Sun.

Third, the theory of evolution is extremely well accepted and backed up by threads of evidence from multiple areas of science. The theory of evolution explains the mechanisms behind the fact of evolution and there is no other alternative which makes sense. So even if you want to reject the theory you will not find an alternative which makes any sense.

Right, so I have explained why “evolution is only a theory” is a combination of words which should never occur again, what else is annoying in a similar way?

Well there’s a related statement which goes something like “we don’t have to prove this because it is beyond the reach of science and cannot be explained so easily”. This is often used to excuse religious superstition or belief in magical pseudoscience such as alternative medicine or other quackery.

I reject this concept. Either something exists in some way or it doesn’t. If the phenomenon exists in a more subtle way than a physical object then it must have some interaction with the physical world. If it doesn’t then it just doesn’t exist. So anything which is beyond the reach of science is automatically untrue.

What I said above is a rather bold statement and quite a complex idea so let me give some examples.

Let’s use one of the classic subjects for this statement: god. Some people will say that god exists but he cannot be examined by science. Maybe he exists in a different dimension or has no interaction with our universe. Let’s assume these statements are true (or even make sense). If god never interacts with our reality then he doesn’t exist. Just like Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings don’t really exist except as an imagined concept.

Or what about this: “homeopathy works but it’s efficacy can never be examined by science”. Well if it works then there must be some real outcome from that process. The person the homeopathy is being used on must have changed in some way and that is a physical phenomenon which science can examine. If there is no change which can be detected then in what way has it worked? Clearly it hasn’t.

Science has proved the existence of some really subtle things. Things which can never be seen visually or even detected in a direct way. Things like neutrinos and virtual particles. These are surely at least as difficult to detect as the influence of a god or the effect of a homeopathic treatment. But science has no trouble accepting them.

So even if some things are even more subtle than virtual particles I still think the statement that science can’t detect them is flawed. You might say that science hasn’t detected them yet but to say it never will or can’t is meaningless.

Well I have ranted on about those two points so much that I might have to leave other annoying ideas for another blog post. There are some really good ones in the realm of politics for example, but I’ll tackle those some other day.

Efficiency and Austerity

June 21, 2012 Leave a comment

We are told New Zealand (and I’m sure the message is delivered in most other countries as well) must become more efficient. No one quite says what this efficiency actually is, or how it can realistically be achieved, but in the end it usually comes down to lower wages and less favourable work conditions for the majority. But the top income earners seem to be immune. Apparently paying them vastly more every year is just part of the process.

In a simplistic world it might seem that it just makes sense to let the country which is most “efficient” handle certain tasks. For example in China it has worked well (supposedly) because we have a lot of cheap manufactured goods which could never be made at the same price in other countries.

But what is the real price of this approach? Some people in China are getting jobs in manufacturing where they might not have had worked in agriculture or not had a job at all in the past, but those workers have taken jobs from other countries – the US being a classic example.

Why is China more efficient? Because its workforce will work for pay and in conditions that would not be tolerated in most other countries. So the “efficiency” is just a result of poor pay and conditions. Is this the same efficiency we are being asked to support in New Zealand? It certainly seems that way.

As China’s standard of living improves its workers will probably demand better conditions. Then who will be the next to provide the “efficiency” big corporations demand? Someone will probably step in just like China took so much manufacturing from Japan which was an earlier source of “efficiency”.

So efficiency should be seen for what it really is: a race to the bottom. A competition to see who is prepared to work for the least and in the worst conditions. A situation where the vast majority are one step up from slaves for the benefit of the rich and for greater profits for multinational corporations.

When workers are asked to be more efficient they should insist on greater honesty. Instead of efficiency it should be made clear that what is really being asked for is a “market” with the aim of producing a slave economy. That’s the way all large empires have worked in the past and it’s what many leaders want again today.

What about the other great buzz-word today, austerity? This is clearly all part of the plan (I may sound a bit like I’m supporting a conspiracy here but I don’t think it’s as deliberate as that, although the end effect is similar). The modern global economy, insufficient tax on large corporations, and corporate bail-outs have resulted in near economic ruin for many countries. But the ruling elite don’t want to fix the source of the problem, they want to accelerate the race to the bottom by introducing austerity measures.

Austerity measures will almost inevitably make the crises worse and they will also introduce the opportunity to introduce working conditions involving low wages and poor conditions. If people are sufficiently desperate for jobs they will accept any circumstances which they have to just to survive. And at the same time the corporate parasites will just keep making more.

There are signs of hope. The new socialist government in France is making some very positive moves and I will be interested to see what the end result of that is. And Greece has narrowly avoided an extreme left-wing government (and even I don’t advocate extreme socialism) but the austerity measures demanded there are unlikely to be fully followed by the more moderate socialist part of the new government. Plus right-wing governments in Germany and Britain seem to be suffering a significant loss of popularity. Maybe people are finally seeing that they have been tricked into following policies which can only make their lives much worse.

Recently journalists in New Zealand celebrated some newspaper sub-editing jobs moving from Australia to here. Was that because we have better editors? Or a better economy? Or anything else positive? No, it was because we are more “efficient”. The 60 Australian jobs with salaries of around $120,000 have become 40 New Zealand jobs at around $70,000 each.

But I don’t think the celebrations around this marvel of modern neo-liberal economics should last too long. How long will it be before the 40 New Zealand jobs become 20 in India, each being paid $10,000 or less? It’s only a matter of time before that “efficiency” occurs. And as our economy fails as a result of this phenomenon we will have to introduce austerity measures to compensate.

So let’s all join the race to the bottom. Or we can wake up and see that efficiency and austerity are just words being used against us for the good of the 1% – the most immoral and evil people on the planet. If you want to achieve greater efficiency and austerity for them then I wish you good luck. Don’t blame me when you we become the most efficient, austere slaves in history!

Success and Failure

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Why do some companies succeed and others fail? In reality there’s no simple answer, of course, but that isn’t going to stop me from offering an opinion which might explain many cases of failure. Because I work in computing I am going to concentrate on that but I suspect this could apply in other areas as well.

So what’s the big secret? It’s caring about your product or service rather than simple profit. Yeah, it doesn’t seem like such a big revelation does it, but clearly many major companies don’t get it.

Compare two technology giants: Apple and Hewlett Packard. In the early days of Silicon Valley HP was truly innovative and put a lot of effort into engineering to create excellent new products. But what have they done more recently? Just push out cheap copies of what everyone else is already doing.

Looking at their products it’s clear that they just don’t care any more. Just recently they laid off 37,000 workers. Is their concentration on producing “me too” products and downsizing the business just a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Everyone knows that Apple is an extremely profitable company but unlike so many others their prime motivation isn’t making money, it’s making the best products in the world. They do price these products at the high end of the market and they do make big profits for them but those are side effects of creating great technology rather than the primary driving force.

Apple could easily have gone the same way as HP. After Steve Jobs left (or was removed) John Sculley did a fair job of keeping the company innovative but after that they just produced fairly generic boxes and could easily have failed. It was only the return of Jobs and the change back to a perfectionist, product focussed culture that saved them.

There are plenty of other examples of the same phenomenon. The social network MySpace was successful until it was assimilated into a huge corporation. Then it didn’t care any more and died horribly. Google have produced some great services: search and maps being the most obvious, but when they decided to take the “me too” route with their email/chat system (which I have even forgotten the name of) and their social network, Google+, they failed. In fact Google+ still exists but it has gained no real traction against Facebook.

While we are on the subject of Facebook I really need to say something else about it. I’m not as impressed by Facebook as many people are. It was just another network and a copy of existing similar services. But Zuckerberg did care about it (rather than caring about the money it would make) and it succeeded where others failed.

It will be interesting to see if Facebook continues to thrive after the IPO (which itself was a miserable failure). But IPOs are all about greed and ignorance rather than innovation and sincerity so I would expect that Facebook will begin to fail soon. It might be saved by it’s overwhelming popularity because it’s the type of service which is used by more people because it is already in use by many people. That can be hard to compete against whatever your motivation.

I have one final example of a company concentrating on the wrong thing. I use Vodafone as my cell phone network and they have always been fairly average (in terms of coverage, speed, service, and value) so I have taken the opportunity on several occasions to participate in surveys about their service.

But it was just a waste of time. The last two surveys have asked me which of several irrelevant and confusing plans and incentives I would prefer to have. I don’t care. Cell phone plans seem to be designed to confuse the customer and produce maximum profit for the company. I just filled in “none of the above” for all their silly options and in the comments field put something like “just give us better coverage and faster data instead of messing around with different ways to confuse and extract money from your customers”.

I will be looking carefully at my options when I change my phone later this year. I know that he alternatives to Vodafone aren’t exactly inspiring themselves and that might be what saves them for me. But it doesn’t really say much about the competitive nature of big business does it. Why did I choose Vodafone: because they are fairly useless but so are all the rest. Yeah, that’s a real recommendation!

Defend What’s Important

June 14, 2012 Leave a comment

According to American author and essayist, Edward Abbey “a patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” It’s one of my favourite quotes and one which I have mentioned in this blog before. I have also mentioned the idea of extending it to include defence from other power structures.

For example I would say that every employee should be prepared to defend his clients against his corporation (or company or organisation). Or every doctor should be prepared to defend his patients against his hospital or health authority.

A recent case in the news here in New Zealand is a good example. A doctor from the far north of New Zealand has resigned because of a disagreement with the authority which runs the practice he worked in. The disagreement was mainly about the doctor treating people for free when they couldn’t pay. A specific example involved him giving advice to one person who was accompanying another person he was treating.

This doctor is very highly regarded and has had very positive, effective ideas in the past yet he was forced to leave because he didn’t fit in with the accounting requirements of the organisation. That’s disgusting. Not only was the management prepared to stop people being treated and potentially suffering a worse outcome (possibly death) in the future, but they also ignored the distinct possibility that a $50 value of free treatment early could save $5000 of intervention in the future.

Plus they ignored the moral requirements of the Hippocratic Oath, but of course managers and accountants aren’t bound by moral rules. If they were moral they probably wouldn’t be managers or accountants!

I realise that there is a possibility that giving free treatment is a privilege which might be abused. The person getting the treatment might have enough to pay but just be too greedy to, or they might spend the money they saved on medical treatment on cigarettes or alcohol instead. But I don’t think that possibility should be used as an excuse. The advantages of treatment for those who genuinely can’t afford it surely outweigh the disadvantages of possible abuse.

My thought on the subject is get rid of some of the bureaucrats who forced the doctor out and use the money saved by not paying them to fund some free treatment. Seems like a good idea to me! In fact I suspect that if all the layers of mindless bureaucracy were stripped away from the health system that medical treatment could be made much cheaper and that the occasional free consultation would be perfectly viable.

It’s not only in the area of health that this sort of thing happens. In my own job (IT support and programming) I was forced into a “cost recovery” system many years ago and since then some people would contend that the organisation I work for has become increasingly bureaucratic and out of touch with what our clients really need. So the option then naturally arises of bypassing procedures and using “creative record keeping” when it is necessary to do the best job for clients.

The same issue has recently been discussed in relation to New Zealand’s ACC system. There has been discussion over what should be the main priority for its employees: customer service, following the specifics of the law, or following the dictates of management. The answer seemed to be a balance of all of those things which I entirely agree with.

Of course for many the standard answer would be that an employee’s obligation is to do what management wants him to do. It should be up to management to make sure that those instructions automatically lead to the best legal and service outcomes. But few people would see this as being anything but a convenient fantasy. And the equally unrealistic fantasy that problems of that sort can be solved through standard management procedures can also be rejected.

So yes, everyone should be prepared to stand up to authority to ensure he is really doing what’s right. I would go further and say that unless a person finds himself in trouble for that sort of behaviour occasionally he probably isn’t doing his job very well – unless he is very skilled at subterfuge, of course!

So continuing my theme from a few blog entries back (Who Are the Heroes? on 2012-05-31) I would say that this is another example of how the best people are the ones who refuse to play the corrupt games they find themselves involved with. If the game is unfair then just make up your own rules!

So in summary what I think is this: if you are a moral and competent person it is up to you to defend what’s important from the forces of orthodoxy, mediocrity, immorality and corruption.