Archive for July, 2012

Mountain Lion Day 3

July 31, 2012 Leave a comment

I installed Apple’s latest operating system as soon as it was available. Yes that was on my main work computer – that was how confident I was that Apple would not release a buggy and incompatible operating system, and it seems I was right.

Compatibility is very good. I have about 300 applications installed on my machine and only one (Parallels) needed upgrading before it would run. I do spend time almost every day updating software and trying out new versions though, so I am probably not a typical user.

Reliability is also impressive. I have had absolutely no issues with crashes, hangs, or failures of any other kind so far, at least nothing beyond the minor issues you might get from some programs anyway. I do have some complex and extensive setups with calendars, email, and other Mac and Unix stuff, so if anyone was going to get problems it should be me. On the other hand I don’t use any Microsoft products (although Office is installed) so I do have an advantage over many others because of that!

Performance is a difficult thing to measure but I do get the impression that things might be a little bit speedier in places. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was totally subjective though so I would need to wait for benchmarks to know for sure. On the other hand things certainly don’t seem any slower.

The new features of Mountain Lion aren’t overwhelming. This is an incremental improvement rather than a revolutionary change. I guess that is the main reason that the compatibility is so good. But while many changes are subtle they are still very worthwhile. The way I measure how useful an update is is by how much I miss it when I go back to an earlier system. When I go back to 10.7 Lion there are already Mountain Lion features I miss.

So let’s have a look at some of them. For many years I have had a system called “Growl” installed in my Mac. It sends notifications (calendar events, new email, etc) to the user via a small, floating window. With Mountain Lion’s notification center I don’t need Growl any more. I do admit Growl covered a much wider range of events but the new implementation of notifications is very elegant so I think it will become more useful over time.

A major improvement for Mac users who also have iPads or iPhones is iCloud integration. This allows email, calendars, notes, and documents to be synchronised between multiple devices. In the earlier OS this worked OK for everything except documents but now certain programs can directly open and save documents into the cloud. Save a Mac Pages document to iCloud and you can open it shortly afterwards in Pages on an iPad, for example. The key point here is the phrase “certain programs” because this is not widely supported. For people who use non-Apple software Dropbox or a similar sharing program might be a better choice.

Apple have implemented a security model similar to the iOS devices. A Mac can be set up to only install and run programs from the app store, or only from registered developers, or from anyone. The last option is what happened previously and is the one power users like me will use, but the extra security of the other two might be useful for many users. This model has worked well on the iPhone where there are far less malware threats than on the more open Android platform.

There are other, more minor improvements everywhere. The layout of Calendars (which was previously called iCal) and Contacts (previously Address Book) has changed just enough to make them far easier to use. They still look like their iPad equivalents, and many people don’t like that, but at least the sources (calendar list or address sources and distribution lists) are much easier to manage now (more like they were before the changes in Lion). Safari has a unified search bar (especially useful for Chrome users like me who were inclined to type Google searches in the URL area). And Preview fills out forms and has other enhancements.

Many of the new programs have a “share” feature which allows you to quickly email a link, send a file over AirDrop, post a tweet, or in the near future make a Facebook post directly from the program such as Safari or Preview.

The Finder behaves better too. Positioning icons when moving from one view to another is more predictable, and destination icons for files being copied show a progress bar and a small cross to cancel the copy – that’s cool.

There are plenty of feature lists out there so there’s probably not much point in continuing to list the new features here. All I will say in conclusion is that if you have a reasonably new and decently specced Mac (mine is a MacBook Pro i7 with 8G of RAM) you would probably not regret the US$20 upgrade to Mountain Lion.


Scientific Faith?

July 27, 2012 4 comments

I have just noticed that it has been a while since I wrote a blog entry about religion. In the past that has been one of my most controversial topics so it’s time to restore the balance and toss in a religious post amongst all the recent politics.

This post is going to be about how many people don’t really understand science or rationality in general. I recently listened to a podcast where an obviously religious person challenged a group of scientists in a way which made it obvious that he didn’t really understand the issues involved. And I have heard similar arguments from many others so this is my attempt at explaining the difference in the scientific and religious view on poorly understood phenomena.

The common argument I hear goes something like this: “religious people believe in a god even though they can’t see him, but scientists want us to believe in dark matter (or atoms, or black holes, or something similar) which we also can’t see. What is the difference? Scientists rely on faith just as much as believers.”

Superficially they seem to have a point, but it doesn’t take too much thought to realise the argument is fallacious. There are many ways other than seeing something to conclude it exists. Sometimes this will involve another sense and others it might require a far less direct detection. But whatever the method is it must be able to be precisely described and used by someone else to confirm that the phenomenon is true (or possibly not true if the replicated experiment fails).

Scientists haven’t seen dark matter but they have seen its indirect influence and have deduced its existence through other observations. The same applies to atoms and to every other scientific phenomenon which has wide acceptance. I agree that there are some phenomena (the strings of string theory for example) which have no empirical evidence at all (their predicted existence is purely the result of a mathematical theory) but that uncertainty is well accepted and no scientists claims that strings definitely exist.

Some believers will say that they have direct or indirect evidence of god too, but there is a difference. They can’t describe the experiment that anyone can perform to replicate that evidence. They haven’t published a methodology which another person can follow to support their belief. In science that is always possible (assuming the limitations of equipment and expertise can be overcome).

So it’s the objectivity which is important here. Believing in dark matter is not the same as believing in a god, at least it isn’t as far as I am aware. If anyone knows of a repeatable experiment I can try to test for the existence of a god then I’m happy to take a look at it.

There are two ways that believers try to overcome this objection. First they say that the existence of god isn’t amenable to conventional experiments. Well OK, the existence of the Higgs boson wasn’t amenable to existing experiments either, so scientists created a new way to look for them (and the evidence is extremely indirect too). It’s time for believers create a new experimental methodology to support their beliefs. But remember it needs to be repeatable and work for people who maybe don’t already believe in one particular preferred outcome!

The second method believers use is to say that the experiments have been done and the results are positive. Well as I said above, if you can show me the experimental protocol that anyone can follow to support your conclusion then let’s try it. But if I follow the instructions I should get a similar result whether I want to believe in the hypothesis or not. As far as I am aware, after thousands of years of religious belief, no one has yet established a protocol of the sort I have suggested.

So anyone who says that evolution, or the Big Bang, or quantum theory, or any other scientific theory is as much a result of faith as belief in god is clearly doesn’t really understand the scientific method (or the religious “method” for that matter). That statement is simply wrong and it is easy to show why.

Willful Ignorance

July 25, 2012 Leave a comment

America confuses me. It’s like a country with two different populations. On one hand there are brilliant, innovative, and generally very friendly and interesting people; and on the other hand there are many mindless morons, unthinking, inflexible and unpleasant throwbacks to what would be considered the distant past in most developed nations.

I’m sure it takes little imagination to realise that when I refer to the “mindless morons” I am referring to ultra-conservatives, believers in extreme literal Christianity, and the totally inflexible and bigoted population who are most numerous in the southern states.

Of course politicians realise that there are many of these people who vote and they are a great way to gain power. The Republican Party has been very effective in telling this population what they want to hear to ensure they get their votes. The fact that these strategies rely on simple lies and gross oversimplifications of reality should be no surprise to anyone.

I recently heard an example of these outrageous tactics. In a political platform statement they released for Texas there is a phrase something like this: “We oppose the teaching of higher order thinking skills, critical thinking skills, and similar programs that are simply a re-labelling of outcome based education, which focus on behaviour modification and have the purpose of challenging the students’ fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Basically they are saying they want students to stop thinking. Of course they do because the modern conservative agenda could only appeal to someone whose thought processes have stopped, or to someone who realises the agenda has no real merit but is just a cynical way to gain power.

Please note that many people with extreme views on any subject and with any political agenda are likely to have stopped thinking and to be relying on a received ideology instead. But it’s never as overt as this. Only this group actively revels in being ignorant. It’s like a badge of honour to them.

What is so appealing about ignorance? Well the truth can be painful. Why would anyone want to accept the truth of evolution when there is the pleasant myth of creation instead? Why would they want to accept the harsh truths of history (such as separation of church and state) when an alternative history suits what they want to believe instead? Why would they want to be forced into accepting the need to move from a petroleum-based energy system to a renewable one when their state produces so much oil?

To these people the facts just aren’t convenient so they prefer to live a fantasy world where their God still exists, where there is unlimited oil with no consequences to its use, and where history agrees with their bigoted opinions.

That is bad enough but they take things a lot further. Not only do they want to remain ignorant themselves but they want to make sure that future generations are as ignorant as they are. So they don’t want evolution, climate change, certain real history, or some other true but inconvenient science taught in schools; and they don’t want students to be encouraged to think for themselves.

That’s why they oppose critical thinking. They think that it will lead to the imposition of a “liberal agenda”. Well if liberal agenda means teaching the truth instead of their brainless fantasy then yes, they are right, because knowing the facts will inevitably lead people away from ultraconservatism. It has nothing to do with liberalism, just accepting reality. If they equate thinking liberally with thinking logically then that is quite a compliment for liberalism, I would say.

Another of their strange beliefs involves morality. Where would they get the idea that morality has anything to do with blind belief in an old book? Some of the most dedicated believers are some of the most intolerant, inflexible, violent, unforgiving, uncaring people around. Do they really think that that is a good source of morality? Actually that question is meaningless because they just don’t think at all.

Ultraconservatives also have some odd thoughts about authoritarianism. They seem to reject it superficially, especially in regard to what they see as too much government control, but they think it’s OK for a church or a parent to act as an unquestionable authority. Apparently they cannot see the flaw in the argument that some things should be open to question but others not. Is it OK to question which things should be open to question?

The world has always changed and it always will. No one can stop the march of progress because as soon as one group stifles positive change someone else will come along and take over. It has happened to many civilisations in the past and it always will. I’m sure the last thing the American Christian Conservative movement wants is to sacrifice their country’s preeminent position in the world. But that’s exactly what they are doing.

Increasingly Unconvincing

July 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Our PM (prime minister of New Zealand) really seems to be losing his touch. He’s looking increasingly unconvincing regarding his party’s policy on asset sales. When being interviewed recently he has been conspicuously lacking in the answers I would normally expect him to have.

He has used phrases like “I think so … to the best of my knowledge they have” when asked if loyalty bonus schemes have worked for share sales in other countries. It really sounds as if he hasn’t bothered to check. Really? Does he not think that might have been a good idea considering the amount of public money involved?

Then he used the phrases “firstly, no guarantee you’ll get 5% … I haven’t looked” and “If you say so … look you might do” when answering questions about interest rates for term deposits. As it happens you probably wouldn’t get 5% for a term deposit but shouldn’t he have known that?

Then regarding the reward scheme he said “if the entire float earned $5 billion and 20% of investors were mum and dads, the total cost would be $60m based on an Australian model”. So 80% won’t be mum and dads? That seems contrary to what we have been hearing up until now.

The reality is the asset sales program is a shambles and any reasonable party would put it on hold until the issues could be thoroughly checked and a fair outcome could be assured with some degree of certainty.

Let’s look at what’s happening. The government is taking assets owned by the New Zealand public and selling them partly back to the original owners but more to large investors. They are then giving away some of those assets owned by the public to the small minority of people who can actually afford them. They make a short term profit which they can use to invest in the areas that they would be able to fund anyway if they hadn’t already given the richest people in society a tax cut, and give up the ongoing profits from the assets.

So they are stealing from us all and giving the items they have stolen to the rich. Gee, thanks. I’ll remember that at the next election, and so should the vast majority of New Zealanders. And yes, I know Labour have done similar things in the past but at least they learned from the ensuing shambles what a big mistake that was.

I do have to say that I agree in principle with some of the government’s policies though. The idea of cutting administrative (what they call “back office”) staff to invest more in the staff who perform the core functions (“so-called “front-line” staff) of public services is theoretically a good idea.

There are far too many bureaucrats in the public service (and I suspect in many private companies as well) and any reduction in their number is welcome. But we do have to be careful here. Why are there so many bureaucrats and administrators? Because there is a lot of bureaucracy and administration. If the number of this type of staff is to be reduced then we need to make sure that the meaningless paper work they usually handle is also reduced, otherwise it will just be passed on to previously productive “front-line” people instead.

So it’s not so much bureaucrats I dislike, it’s bureaucracy. If we are going to continue to have a lot of meaningless paperwork and other “administrivia” then I would prefer to have the bureaucrats handle that even though they are a waste of space. At least the productive staff won’t need to waste their time on it instead.

The other misgiving I have is whether these cuts in “back office” staff are genuinely that. No one wants to hear about cuts to the more respected professions such as police but no one cares too much about a few petty middle managers being cut. But is that really what it is all about?

And a large fraction of the pointless administrative burden I see comes from government so, if we are going to see a reduction in wasteful staff positions, we should see a reduction in wasteful activities first. Many of these activities involve producing reports, so-called accountability, and mindless marketing and corporate spin. Who (apart from the bureaucrats who lose their jobs) doesn’t want to see a reduction in that? Strangely enough I suspect the same government trying to eliminate wasteful practices might find it doesn’t really want to see them go.

So even when they get things right I think this government might get them wrong in the end. I would be happy to be proven wrong on this because I really would like to see a reduction in wasteful administration and bureaucratic tasks. But I suspect this, like the asset sales, is just looking increasingly unconvincing.

Bring On the Revolution!

July 23, 2012 Leave a comment

When the world becomes grossly unjust and the vast majority of people are exploited by a tiny fraction of the richest in society there will always be change. It has happened many times in the past: sometimes the outcome has been good and sometimes the new political system has been hardly better than the one it replaced. That’s what history tells us, but many people ignore history, thinking that things will be somehow different “this time”. But, of course, it never is.

As I said, in the past a major cause of revolution has been a tiny corrupt minority controlling the lives of the majority. Doesn’t that sound very familiar? Doesn’t it remind you of the 1% of the most immoral, greedy, uncaring people on the planet who currently own almost all the wealth and have most of the political control, yet make no real positive contribution to society as a whole?

A recent report found that the top 1% have 20 to 30 trillion dollars stashed away in foreign tax havens. That is a huge amount of money: equal to the combined economies of the US and several other leading countries. That’s enough to easily solve all the world’s problems with hunger. That’s enough to invest in all the new advances we need to move away from the dangerous and inefficient technologies we currently have. That’s enough to solve all the banking crises currently happening around the world today. And it’s enough to benefit just about any other problem you care to name.

Yet even while this vast wealth exists the rest of us are being asked to economise for the “good of the economy” or for the “benefit of our country”. It’s all lies. There is no financial crisis, just a poor distribution of existing finance. The world is in trouble because the most corrupt people (generally those who end up with the most money) don’t care if their actions result in death and misery around the world, they just want more money even though they couldn’t possibly use what they already have.

So in most cases the capitalist system results in the worst type of people doing well. It actively encourages greed, immorality, and conceit. Even people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett who do have a philanthropic angle to their activities can barely be excused. They gained those riches through dishonest means and giving a small part of that wealth away hardly improves their overall impact on the world.

Things are unlikely to improve through the usual political process so I think a revolution is the only likely outcome. I’m not sure what form that will take but it will happen. We know that from history. Would the former Soviet world have known it was about to collapse so totally? Would the Arab world have predicted the “Arab Spring” before it started? In general they wouldn’t, and the western capitalist world won’t see its downfall until it is too late either.

But there is an easy answer to the problem. All the richest people have to do is give up all their wealth apart from a few million for living expenses. Surely that should be enough, shouldn’t it? Distributing the wealth would be difficult, of course, but whatever happens to it it couldn’t possibly be worse than where it is now.

I would suggest a few trillion going to university research projects, a few trillion more going to famine relief projects, and a few trillion being used to help balance the budgets of countries who have been brought to ruin by the system which created the hidden wealth in the first place.

The rest could be invested in a new bank which would be based on honesty and moral principles (in other words, not any of the banks we already have) to provide a continuing source of income to the projects I mentioned above.

There you go, problem solved without the tedious need for any bloodshed, executions or anything else. Yeah I know, a lot of people would just love to mow down the world’s bankers with a machine gun, but that’s not nice! We need to try to hold the revolutionaries to a higher standard than those they take over from. The current world elite are responsible for most of the world’s misery and death. The revolutionaries must do better. Bring on the revolution!


July 18, 2012 Leave a comment

We can never know anything for certain so no controversy can ever be fully resolved. If someone wishes to take a particular view on a subject they will always be able to find some way to support their opinion or, more likely, cast doubt (deserved or otherwise) on the opinion of their opponents.

But no one really lives in a way that reflects this uncertainty. Everyone has a working hypothesis which they think reflects reality. For example, people work on the assumption that the sun will rise tomorrow because they plan their day based on that. And they work on the assumption that gravity won’t do anything strange: for example, they would never jump off a tall building just because they think there’s a chance that gravity will have reversed its action.

So whatever they tell you, and however open-minded someone wants to be, people do make assumptions and they do reject hypotheses which have an extremely low chance of being correct.

What I’m saying is that various groups in society who reject well accepted ideas just because there’s a small theoretical chance they are incorrect are being dishonest. There’s a small chance that the theory of gravity is wrong but they still wouldn’t jump off that tall building, would they?

So now I am finally getting to the subject of this post. We should be careful of controversies which don’t really exist. There are several areas where these manufactured controversies, or “manufactroversies”, exist. Some of the more conspicuous would be in the topic areas of evolution, global warming, the reality of religious beliefs, and various alternative medical beliefs.

Creationists are the master of this phenomenon, of course, and have been using the technique for many years. The catch-phrase of many creationist groups, when they work against evolution being taught in science, is “teach the controversy”. But to use this phrase there must be a controversy and in reality there isn’t. What they should be saying is “teach the manufactroversy” but that doesn’t sounds so good and people would also quite rightly ask why.

Why should we teach something which has a practically zero chance of being true? Why should we teach that there is genuine debate about the reality of evolution in science when there is no debate? As I said above, there is always a fantastically small chance that evolution isn’t true at all, and there is a slightly greater one that major details of the process are badly misunderstood but, just like the idea that gravity might reverse itself, we really should work on the idea that evolution is real.

What about the other manufactroversies I mentioned above? A very similar conclusion can be reached regarding them. There is almost no real debate amongst climate scientists that global warming is real. There is no serious suggestion from rational experts that any of the world’s major religions are literally true. And there is no serious debate amongst medical experts that most quack medical beliefs make no sense. For example, the alleged debate that vaccines cause autism has been rejected, and most sensible people have moved on.

I myself am undoubtedly an argumentative person and I don’t believe anything unless there is good reason to. I doubt a lot of what I hear from politicians and economists for example. I doubt the accuracy of a lot of what I see in the news media and in advertising. And I am even skeptical of the opinions of many experts.

But I am not doubtful of well-established ideas which I have researched through multiple sources. I accept that the science I have mentioned above could be wrong in some way but it’s unrealistic to think it is and it’s even counterproductive to even think of a controversy really existing. Manufactroversies are just a waste of time which would be better spent on the genuinely controversial topics.

Just an Opinion

July 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Recently a friend who works for a large organisation has been telling me about the experiences he has had in his workplace. He has had a few disagreements with the bureaucrats he works with and seems to have found the experience quite annoying and even upsetting.

I guess these issues can be seen from many points of view, and I haven’t got all the facts, but the friend seems to be quite dedicated to offering the best service he can for his clients. Unfortunately that sometimes involves doing things in a way which is unprofessional in the opinion of some of the managers he works with.

It is just one opinion against another, but managers don’t have to be right, they just have to force their opinion on others through seniority.

Of course many people have similar experiences in their place of work and it’s easy to rant about these things in places like this blog. But I think we should look at it in perspective. I watched a news report on the situation in Syria today. Anyone who thinks a disagreement with some frivolous administrator is important in the least way when there are so many atrocities going on around the world has got his perspectives terribly messed up.

My advice to the friend was to continue to try to do his best for his clients but to at least appear to be doing things the way the bureaucrats want. If he really expects much sympathy from the rest of us after watching the reports on the violence in Syria (or the reports on famine in Western Africa; or floods, earthquakes, fires, and other disasters in various places) then, as I said above, he needs to get some perspective.

Naturally the world would be a far better place if brainless bureaucrats didn’t stifle the genuine efforts of the people who actually do the work, but in the greater scheme of things it’s really not that important. Everyone should get some perspective.