Archive for April, 2013

Geek Jokes, Part 2

April 29, 2013 Leave a comment

One of the most viewed blog posts I have ever done (at least on the WordPress version of my blog) is one titled “Geek Jokes” from 2011-05-12. It was a collection of jokes about science, engineering, and programming, and included an explanation of some of them.

So because that was so popular, and because I have been a big negative in recent posts (Market Schmarket, Two Complete Morons, etc) I thought it was time for something a bit lighter but also very cool (well cool in a geeky way, at least). So here is Geek Jokes, Part 2…

Joke 1

Heisenberg and Shrodinger get pulled over for speeding.
The cop asks, “do you know how fast you were going?”
Heisenberg replies, “no, but I know were I am.”
The cop thinks this is a strange reply and calls for a search and opens the trunk.
The cop says, “do you know you have a dead cat in your trunk?”
Shrodinger says, “well, I do now!”

Analysis of Joke 1

Many of these jokes seem to derive their humour from a sense of superiority the geek might gain from understanding the joke when others wouldn’t. Of course, many would say that geeks actually are naturally superior and deserve to be just a little bit smug as a consequence, however I couldn’t possibly comment on the idea.

Anyway, Heisenberg and Shrodinger were two famous physicist who were involved in important work and discoveries in the early days of quantum physics.

Heisenberg is most well known for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which states that it is impossible to know both the location and momentum of an object. The more accurately the position is known, the less well known the momentum (and therefore the speed) *can* be known. This isn’t just a failure in the measuring technique, it’s a fundamental property of the quantum world.

Shrodinger used a “thought experiment” involving a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison which could be released based on a truly quantum event (such as radioactive decay). Because it could not be known whether the event occurred or not it could also not be known if the cat was alive or dead. But again, the truth (or at least one interpretation of the meaning of the phenomenon) is far more subtle. According to one interpretation of quantum physics the cat isn’t just in an unknown state (dead or alive) it is actually simultaneously in both states until the box is opened.

So understanding that the joke is now obvious, right? In fact this is an enhanced version of the orignal which only mentioned Heisenberg. Shrodinger was added to double the geeky goodness of the joke a bit later.

Joke 2

How do you recognize a field service engineer on the side of the road with a flat tire?
He’s changing each tire to see which one is flat.
And the related problem:
How do you recognize a field service engineer on the side of the road who has run out of gas?
He’s changing each tire to see which one is flat.

Analysis of Joke 2

A field engineer is a person who is sent into the field (the client’s workplace usually) to solve problems. This joke seems to fit best with software engineers and related helpdesk and support staff so I’m going to analyse the joke based on that. Part of my job involves this sort of work so I particularly identify with this. I’m not saying I’m guilty of doing it, but I do see it a lot in other people!

Many “lesser” support staff try to solve all problems in pretty much the same way. They might either have a list of instructions they have to go through that they have been given as part of their job, or they might have limited experience and only know a few possible responses to all problems. They also go from one step to the next even when it should be possible to go directly to the source of the problem.

So naturally when your computer has a problem they ask you to restart it, or re-install the operating system, or reset the parameter RAM, or one of a few other common actions. These are real solutions to particular problems but they are often used in situations which are completely inappropriate.

So the analogy with fixing a flat tire is obvious. Anyone with a bit of real knowledge (and the permission from his company to use it) can just be a bit smart about it and analyse the problem and change the correct tire immediately. But that’s not the way most people work.

Maybe this is humorous because it is a situation many people find themselves participating in as the owner of the computer (or car in the joke) and maybe it’s even more humorous for superior software engineers like myself who actually analyse the problem and often come up with the correct solution first time as a result!

Joke 3

Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.

Analysis of Joke 3

Bandwidth is a term used to describe the speed which data can be transmitted at. If your internet connection works at 10 Megabits per second for example, it can transmit about a million characters (single letters or digits) in a second (note that it takes 8 bits to make a single byte – the most common way to represent a character – plus a bit of overhead for control, so the number reduces by a factor of 10.)

But electronic transmission isn’t the only thing which the concept of bandwidth can be applied to. A pigeon which takes an hour to deliver a 100 word written message has a bandwidth of 100 words per hour, for example. And a computer technician who takes 5 minutes to deliver a 16G flash drive by carrying it to the required destination (sometimes known as sneaker-net) has a bandwidth of about 530 Megabits per second.

Of course those two solutions do vary in speed depending on the distance they must cover, plus there is a second concept which comes into play: latency. That is the time spent waiting for the transmission to begin. In the case of the flash drive the data comes in quite quickly but it takes 5 minutes to start!

So the joke is that sometimes the old way is best (in general, as well as in the specific case of data transmission). It might be possible to fit a thousand 100 Megabyte tapes into a station wagon and even if it takes an hour to reach its destination that is still a bandwidth of 300 Megabits per second. That might be faster than sending the data down a high speed data link!

Joke 4

There are 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary, those who don’t,
and those who knew we were using ternary.

Analysis of Joke 4

This is an extension of the classic joke I mentioned in the previous geek jokes post. I didn’t explain it there so I will here, including the added extra component, of course.

Initially it looks like the claim is that there are ten types of people in the world because that’s usually what “10” means. But if you are working in a different base then 10 means something quite different. In fact in every case it means the number of the base. So in base ten (our usual base) it means ten. But in base two it means two and is more properly called “one zero” rather than ten or two.

Computers work in base two at the most basic level because it it easiest to handle signals which are either off (0) or on (1) very quickly. Most programming can be done in base ten, our normal base, because the computer (or more correctly a program called the compiler or interpreter) does the conversion to binary. But in many cases it is useful to undertand binary and any half decent programmer can work in binary with some proficiency.

But just to fool anyone who thinks they are smart enough to make the assumption the number is binary the joke goes on to make the claim it could be ternary (base 3) in which case the number is 3. Of course, that is unlikely because ternary isn’t used in computing applications, at least not as far as I am aware!

Finally, on a similar theme I present joke 5, which is in the form of a geek love poem…

Joke 5

Roses are #ff0000
Violets are #0000ff
All my base
Are belong to you!

Analysis of Joke 5

Base 2 can be quite clumsy to use because it involves long sequences of zeros and ones (for example one thousand in base 2 is 1111101000) so it’s usually best to use higher bases. But ten isn’t suitable because ten isn’t a power of two, and 8 bits (known as a byte) is a common unit meaning base sixteen (where two digits make a byte) is more useful. Because base sixteen requires more than the ten digits, 0 to 9, we usually use it extends these to the letters A to F. So fifteen is F, sixteen is 10, and two hundred and fifty five (the biggest number which can be stored in a byte) is FF.

When we represent colour on a computer (or any other device for that matter) we usually make use of the fact that the human eye has three colour sensors: for red, green, and blue light. By mixing different amounts of these three “primary” colours any other colour can be created. For example red and green make yellow and all three colours make white.

Note that devices which use ink instead of light use a different set of primary colours – cyan, magenta and yellow – which are the secondary colours of light. Also note that your printer uses a fourth colour, black, but it doesn’t strictly need it because theoretically black can be made from cyan, magenta and yellow mixed. However in real life that usually looks more like a muddy brown, plus it uses a lot of ink to produce the most common colour.

So light producing devices, such as computer displays and TVs, use RGB (red green blue) colour, and ink devices such as printers use CMYK (cyan magenta yellow black – black is K because B was already used for blue).

If we want to specify a colour for the screen we just use three numbers for the amount of red green and blue, and because we usually use use a byte (a number from 0 to 255) for each colour a two character base sixteen number makes sense. So ff0000 means 255 (maximum) red, no green, no blue (pure red) and 0000ff means no red, no green and 255 blue (pure blue). Any my favourite colour? That would be #3797ff, a rather nice sky blue.

That explains the first two lines (roses are red, violets are blue) but the other two are a bit more involved! Well, not really.

In 1989 a Japanese video game called “Zero Wing” was released in English. If the game beat you an evil character appeared announcing that he had taken over all of your bases. The translation was a bit odd though and came out as “All your base are belong to us”. For some reason this phrase sort of caught on in the geek world and that is the origin of the final two lines.

A true geek would understand all the jokes without any effort at all. I wrote these explanations entirely without reference to other sources, and I seem to have spent far more time discussing geeky tech stuff than the actual jokes, so I claim uber-geek status based on that. And finally, I would like to add my two bits to this whole discussion: 1 0. Thank you.

Market Schmarket

April 23, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last 30 years New Zealand, along with most of the rest of the world, has been run according to a classic neo-liberal agenda. I use that word quite a lot so let me explain my interpretation of it. To me it means free markets uncontrolled by governments, all major assets in private hands, the smallest possible sized government, and increased trade and production efficiency.

These policies have been followed by parties traditionally from both the left and right, and the reality is that there has been little choice for anyone who disagrees with the whole idea. But who would disagree anyway? The aims I listed above all sound fantastic, don’t they? I mean, who doesn’t want freer markets, smaller government, greater freedom for business, more trade, and greater efficiency?

If it was as simple as that we all should want to pursue these aims but unfortunately only presenting a positive spin on them is misleading. The reality is that there are many negative aspects to these policies which their supporters fail to tell us about.

The key concept in neo-liberalism is letting the markets work to produce the best outcome, so the critical point is do they? Well of course they do. Free markets produce the best outcomes for the free markets, and many people also do very well when free market economics is in force, but the vast majority of people actually lose.

So when politicians, economists, and business leaders say we must look after the markets I want to know why. What have the markets ever done for us? I’ll tell you what they have done: they have caused many industries to fail, they have taken jobs from one economy and replaced them with workers from lower paid workforces, they have made a small minority of people really rich while making the majority poor, they have pushed wages and conditions down, and they have increased the freedom of the rich and powerful while decreasing it for the rest.

So I can’t see why markets should get any special consideration, which brings me (finally) to the point of this entry…

We finally have a significant divergence in policies for the two major parties here in New Zealand. The (vaguely conservative and neo-liberal) National Party wants to sell shares in the previously state owned power companies and the (vaguely left-wing) Labour and Green Parties disagree and want to control power prices at a government level.

Of course government control is a complete anathema to the neo-liberals, and the value of power companies has dived significantly after the power price control policy was announced, robbing hundreds of millions from the potential value of the companies. Naturally groups who support free markets (investment companies, share brokers, big business) are predicting the end of the world, and maybe they’re right.

It is sort of like the end of the world to those who hope to make personal gains by exploiting the need for an essential commodity by those who already barely survive. It is like the end of the world to those whose whole worldview is based around free markets and to whom government control is the ultimate evil. It is like the end of the world to those who have got used to getting everything their own way just because they benefit from the market system.

But who (apart from the small minority those groups represent) cares? It’s time to look at where the markets have really got us. Has the electricity market worked, for example? Well no, in many ways it hasn’t. It has generated huge profits for the shareholders (the government up until now which at least meant the money went back to the people). It has pushed prices up at a rate many times greater than inflation. It has resulted in the loss of many skilled technicians while creating huge management and marketing bureaucracies.

The market has failed, and in reality almost every other market also fails to live up to the high ideals promised by the neo-liberals. And the pathetic excuse by market proponents that we haven’t given it enough time should really be treated with the contempt it deserves. The market has been given a fair chance and has failed miserably. It’s time to apply those neo-liberal ideals to the market itself: we need something more efficient and the “free market” of ideas should be able to give us something better.

It may seem like a backward step returning to policies we had before the neo-liberal revolution but should that even be a consideration? We should look at all possibilities, including those which have been out of favour, those which are scorned for no good reason, and those which disturb the currently accepted wisdom.

If the current system isn’t working well for the majority then we should look at alternatives, even if those alternatives are branded a backward step by certain groups in society. And when people predict disaster look at why they might say that. Are they exploiting the free market for their own benefit? Are they ideologically attached to free markets and blinded to the possible alternatives? Have they committed to free markets politically and are they unprepared to accept the political damage of having to make a change?

I would suggest the vast majority of free market supporters are in those categories, or maybe in one other: the category of people who have never heard anything else for 30 years except the pro-market propaganda that the rich, the powerful, and the single-minded ideologs have fed them.

Well, according to Lincoln (or at least attributed to him): you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. The lie we have all been told about the magic of markets is becoming apparent. The fact that a significant number of people see a lot of merit in what many see as quite a radical proposal (but in fact isn’t radical at all) should tell us that all of the people aren’t being fooled any more!

Two Complete Morons

April 22, 2013 Leave a comment

OK, before I go any further I have to admit that the title of this entry is probably a bit unfair because it is a bit extreme and deliberately confrontational. The two people I am going to discuss clearly aren’t really complete morons, they just act that way sometimes. In reality at least one of them is very intelligent most of the time, but just acts like a moron occasionally. The other seems to act like a moron almost all the time, so maybe he more clearly deserves the label.

And yes, I know the original meaning of the word was for someone with a mental age between 8 and 12, but I’m sure we all know by now that it has changed to be a general term of disrespect for someone who shows a lack of mental acuity.

Anyway, who are the two people in question and under what circumstances are they morons?

The first is our old friend, Christopher Monckton and his area of moronity (yes, I believe that really is a word) is global warming denial (note that I use the word “denial” here, in preference to “skepticism”, quite deliberately).

The second is a well-known defender of Christianity who I haven’t ranted about before (yes, I was surprised too). His name is John Lennox and he is a British mathematician and philosopher of science who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. You would have to assume this guy is pretty smart in general (how else would he attain those lofty heights in academia – by the way that isn’t sarcasm) but when defending his Christian beliefs he really does sound like a moron.

The phenomenon of being really brilliant in one area and totally hopeless in another is quite common. I have already discussed it in relation to Francis Collins in a blog entry titled “Brilliant Stupidity” on 2009-09-22 and John E Hare in “Religious Intellectuals” posted on 2011-08-14.

So let’s look at some of the claims these clowns (I love that word in this context) have made in recent interviews on Radio NZ. Let’s start with Monckton…

First, he claims to be a mathematician and consistently implies he is an expert in the area of climate change. This is simply not true. He has no advanced formal training in maths or science, he has published no scientific papers in reputable journals, and he has done no original research in the area. If he genuinely believes these claims he is deluded. If he knows they are false yet makes them anyway then he is a liar.

If you read his biography on a neutral source such as Wikipedia it quickly becomes obvious that he has a fantasy-prone personality having made many fanciful and false claims about many aspects of his life. Clearly we should be highly skeptical (I use that word in the real sense) of his opinion based on this alone.

So clearly Monckton has a person has no credibility at all but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. What about some of the “facts” he quotes? Well he’s not wrong about everything and he does make some reasonable points, for example regarding the safety record of nuclear power and how many people from the “Green” side of politics have an illogical dislike of it, but that doesn’t detract from the numerous false and misleading statements he makes about climate change.

Just as an example he makes the false claim that there has been no warming since 1998. All real statisticians know that a single data point like that cannot be used when trying to establish a trend. If Monckton really was an expert he would know that too. Maybe he does.

The numbers he quotes regarding the costs and benefits of global warming reduction interventions are just about as far from reality as you can get. Maybe he sourced them from somewhere with credibility, I really don’t know since he didn’t say, but at the very least he’s taken the most extreme numbers from any source and used them in a misleading way.

And so it goes on for point after point. The interviewer, Bryan Crump, generally has a rather neutral (often to the point of vapidity) style, but you could tell from his responses that he knew he was being scammed by Monckton. Dishonesty of that sort is hard to hide.

So let’s move on to the second interview of John Lennox done by Kim Hill. Kim certainly has a reputation for not putting up with too much nonsense and, while she didn’t exactly outright challenge Lennox as being deliberately deceptive, you could see that she also knew she was being scammed.

As I said, unlike Monckton I have no complaints about the academic standards of Lennox but he is a Christian apologist and I’m sorry but in my experience if someone can be labelled that way (and it certainly applies to him) then they simply have to misrepresent the truth, you simply have no alternative because your worldview, when examined logically, simply cannot withstand any scrutiny. So even people who use the most rigorous techniques and critical self-examination in other areas of their life just demand a “free pass” to repeat unsupported nonsense when defending their religion.

So let’s look at some examples…

He claims the new atheists aren’t driven by scientific thinking and are confused about the nature of both science and god. OK, some of them aren’t science oriented – Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris would probably be more seen as having a political or philosophical approach – but surely others, such as Richard Dawkins, are very much science oriented and understand what it is.

As to what the nature of god is, well who knows? Every believer seems to have a slightly different idea and even Lennox seems to change his definition to fit the particular point he wants to make. So if the new atheists are confused about what god is then so is everyone else. Why? Because god doesn’t exist except int he mind of the believers. Is it surprising the idea of god has no consistent meaning?

He claims science and god are compatible and also claims his religious views are evidence based. But later in the interview he makes morality based decisions simply because that’s what is attributed to Jesus in the Bible instead of what makes sense. Clearly evidence and logic don’t matter to him that much, unless they fit in with what he wants to believe, of course!

He uses the tired old argument about how great contributors to science, like Newton, were also religious. That really doesn’t work though because at the time people almost had to be religious, and it was a requirement for the post that Newton held. Also, Newton was also an alchemist. Does that mean that science and alchemy are also compatible? It just doesn’t make sense and surely Lennox knows this. But because he has to defend a false belief he is obliged to use weak arguments like this one.

He cherry-picks the most ridiculous statements from the Bible in an attempt to validate his beliefs. Accepting the idea that the words “in the beginning” from the Bible vaguely agree with the Big Bang theory while ignoring a dozen other errors on the same page is deeply dishonest.

He also defends Christianity with the old “no true Scotsman” fallacy. According to him anyone who acts badly because of their beliefs isn’t a true Christian but anyone who acts in a good way is. Well you really can’t do that. If people act badly because of their religion then their religion is to blame.

And of you think the problem is one of interpretation then God should have made his message a bit clearer instead of disguising it in a confusing, contradictory, obscure, outdated text like the Bible. Buy any reasonable analysis Lennox loses on this point.

That’s enough. As I write this I’m listening to the interview again and I can’t take any more. It’s not nice being lied to and mislead. In the case of Monckton it’s not so bad because he’s just a joke, but in Lennox’s case it somehow seems more egregious because he is an intelligent person who is prepared to use any means to advance his point.

Maybe I should correct my original title. In the case of these two people, only one is clearly a moron, but the other is much worse!

The Meaning of Marriage

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

The biggest local story here in New Zealand over the last few days has been the passing of same-sex marriage legislation, making us the 13th country in the world, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region, to legalise same-sex marriage. Considering we have a conservative government this is quite an impressive achievement and shows what happens when MPs are allowed to vote based on their conscience instead of voting for what their party tells them to.

Surely all votes should work this way. Apart from the dictatorial NZ First party all the others have members who voted for the legislation even when you might not expect it (Act and United Future for example). You have to ask if these votes are “conscience votes”, does that mean that the others require some MPs to vote against their conscience? Is that really OK?

Anyway the vote was fairly comprehensive in the end – 77 for and 44 against – which is considerably better than the more common 61 to 60 votes we get when people vote based on their party’s orders rather than what they think is right.

Of course the more conservative (and nutty) parts of society are already predicting disaster just like they did when other controversial social laws were passed.

When homosexuality was made legal, when prostitution was made legal, and when the anti-smacking law was passed the more extreme conservatives predicted disaster but of course nothing happened.

Let’s look at some of the ignorant, bigoted comments about similar changes in the past.

When the homosexual law reform bill was passed in 1986 some politicians predicted that it would cause a decline in morality, that homosexuals would come to New Zealand in their thousands, and that the country would be a Mecca for homosexuality and sodomy. I see no signs that this has happened.

When the civil union legislation was passed the Destiny Church suggested that we should not forget the name of Lord God Almighty (what is that exactly?) and organised a march of 5000 people against it. They predicted legalised child sex and bigamy would be next. Again, I see no signs that this has happened.

When the prostitution law reform law (decriminalising prostitution) was passed in 2003 there were predictions it would lead to more prostitutes. A later review showed no signs that this has happened.

When the ani-smacking law was passed there were dire predictions that innocent people would be prosecuted for reasonable discipline of their children. Since 2007 there have been 8 prosecutions for smacking, and the police (hardly a source of liberal propaganda) say the guidelines are working fine. So yet again there are no signs that the bad predicted outcomes are real.

So what predictions are we getting this time?

Family First predicts marriage celebrants will be bullied into performing same-sex marriages against their will. This right is specifically protected in the law and who would want a ceremony to be performed by someone who doesn’t want to do it anyway? It’s just silly, bigoted nonsense.

The National Marriage Coalition says it will be an open door to group relationships and incest type marriages. This is the old slippery slope argument. Another good one is the prediction that people will be able to marry animals in the future. There is a general trend to liberalisation of laws and who knows, maybe one day group marriages will be OK, after all many respected characters in the Bible had multiple wives, so it must be OK!

The Catholic Bishop of Auckland tried really hard to sound reasonable and to not admit that his objections were based on the intolerant ideas promoted by his belief system. But you could see they were, and it was hard to listen to a member of the Catholic Church lecture the rest of us on the topic of sexual morality. Is it possible to think of anyone with less credibility on the subject?

He made a few vague references to it being a sad day for New Zealand, and to re-defining the meaning of marriage being bizarre, and not being sure what the implications might be for the future (presumably his god will take a terrible revenge on us after he has dealt with the other 12 countries who have already taken this step).

After all of this mindless drivel it was refreshing to hear from a supporter of the bill who treated the subject with intelligence and humour. He described how he had received messages from Christians threatening eternal torment in Hell. He replied that he had calculated the thermodynamics of burning in Hell and it would take only a few seconds for him to be consumed: a sacrifice he was prepared to risk! Ridicule of primitive superstition is great!

But the way so many believers react so badly in these situations is bizarre. They are always so intolerant and unforgiving. Didn’t they listen to what Jesus told them? As I always say: if you really want to see an example of true evil have a look at religion!

Many people ask me why I care. Well that’s the whole point, I shouldn’t. I’m not gay, and I don’t know any gay people who want to get married, so why should I care? It’s just a matter of fairness. The people who object to this law might find gay and lesbian lifestyles unpleasant, and it’s their choice to feel that way, but what real difference does it make to them if same-sex marriage is allowed or not?

Some people say it discredits the “real” meaning of marriage. I would say that there are plenty of heterosexual couples who have done a good job of that already. Celebrity marriages which last a few days, people who marry multiple times and split up seemingly at a whim, married couples where the relationship is maintained through violence and intimidation. What else could possibly make it worse than it already is?

Another argument is that marriage is primarily to produce children and gays can’t do that. Well neither can post-menopausal women or people with various medical disorders. Should that be a pre-requisite for being allowed to marry as well?

In reality there is no good reason not to allow same-sex marriage. There is really only one (bad) reason to reject it in the final analysis: that the objector is uncomfortable with same-sex relationships. Well they are a fact and it’s time to grow up and accept them even if you don’t like them. Progress is inevitable and by trying to halt it, especially by presenting dishonest objections which disguise your real opinions, you just look like a fool.

And just like with past changes of this sort, in a few years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Listening to Hitchens Again

April 15, 2013 Leave a comment

If I get a bit bored and there’s nothing to watch on TV (that is, most of he time) I often go on a trolling expedition on YouTube. I like to find a controversial video and leave some comments there to deliberately aggravate my philosophical opponents, such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives.

Some of the best places to find sources for these “debates” are YouTube videos involving Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have read this blog in the past you will know I am a great fan of “the Hitch” and have commented on his vicious and unstoppable wit on many occasions (most recently in an entry titled “Thank You Hitch” from 2012-01-06 shortly after his death from cancer).

The latest video I watched was “Hitchens versus Hitchens” where Christopher Hitchens (aka “the Hitch” – there was only one *the* Hitch) debated his brother Peter Hitchens who is also a well-known essayist and commentator but with a very different perspective on politics and religion.

Initially I thought Peter Hitchens was a fairly intelligent, reasonable person but as the debate progressed he became more and more desperate to score any points and it became obvious that a lot of his opinions are in fact just as nutty as most other political and religious conservatives. For example, he denies global warming and supports intelligent design without having any apparent knowledge of either.

So it soon became obvious that this was yet another debate where the Hitch was giving his opposition a good old fashioned thrashing, maybe the best since another recent video I watched where Hitchens and Stephen Fry destroyed a Catholic bishop and conservative politician by swinging the vote from 678 for 1102 against, to 268 for 1876 against (they were debating against the proposition that the Catholic Church is a force for good – yeah I know – too easy!)

The Hitchens versus Hitchens debate included many topics, but the section on religion was the most interesting I think. The Hitch didn’t spend a lot of time on the idea of whether Christianity was true and whether there is any evidence supporting it (which is an interesting subject in itself but not one which either side was focussing on this time). Instead he concentrated on the philosophical aspects of belief, especially relating to morality.

This is a more interesting subject in many ways because really the truth of Christian belief and the evidence for God is fairly well settled (most Christian beliefs are myths and there is no evidence for a god) whereas the moral aspects of religion (especially Christianity) are a bit more open to debate.

So here are some of the Hitch’s points (along with my interpretation and commentary on them)…

He sees religion as a form of slavery or totalitarianism, and uses North Korea as a comparison. But religion is much worse because God knows more about you than any despot can ever know, and you cannot even escape his influence after death because that’s when he really gets judgmental!

I’m sure there are many moderate Christians who don’t see it this way, but by doing that they are rejecting the essential doctrine of their belief: that God knows all of your actions and thoughts, and judges you accordingly. Hitchens (and I) would suggest this whole idea is quite malicious.

Christianity claims Jesus was sent to save us. But from what? And he supposedly takes the blame for our sins, and we are all sinners and born into sin. Does this not sound like a form of mind control where the victims are told they are lacking in some way but if you just do what you are told everything will be OK? Obviously this is also hideously hurtful and manipulative.

Many believers think morality is impossible without a religious belief. Hitchens obviously rejects this whole notion. I would take it further and say the opposite: you can’t be moral if your source your morality from a religious belief. Why? Because morality cannot be just lifted from an old book written by a particular group of people with a particular personal perspective in the past, it has to be carefully considered and arrived at by the individual. And I know that not everyone will get to exactly the same place but most sane, sensible people do agree on what is moral to a remarkable degree.

Not every religious person just takes their entire morality from their holy book. Many pick and choose what to accept. But if they do that then surely they are rejecting one of the most important aspects of their belief system and are no longer getting their ultimate moral rules from their religion. Anyone who creates a personal morality by parroting something from an old book is lazy, ignorant and often immoral.

In the past religion was a best attempt at explaining the world and creating rules for living. It turns out that it wasn’t at all successful with the first aim and only slightly better with the second. We now have other tools to tackle these issues: science to explain the world, and philosophy to deal with morality and other less well defined issues.

It might be that these tools are in turn replaced with something even better in the future, but at the moment they are the best we have. Anyone who insists on continuing to use religion to explain the reality of the world (such as insisting that creationism is an explanation for life on Earth) or to provide moral answers (such as saying homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so) are being wilfully ignorant and usually bigoted as well.

Hitchens used to ask his opponents and audiences a question to make these points on morality a bit less abstract. He would ask people to name a good or moral statement or action which can only be made by those who believe in a god, then to name a stupid or evil action which only believers could make. Few people could come up with anything very convincing to answer the first question but everyone could immediately think of examples of the second.

As an example of a bad action which requires religious belief consider this obvious example: only people who think they will get a reward in the next life will sacrifice their lives by joining a crusade or becoming a suicide bomber. That’s not the sort of behaviour a non-believer is likely to indulge in.

But answers to the first challenge are a lot more difficult to find. A common one was exorcism. Only believers can perform this rite. But surely this cannot be counted as a good action, and the fact that some believers dared to even suggest the idea shows how out of touch they really are.

Another answer was a lot better though. One person suggested that great poetry and other art was created by believers. That is a good point. There is a lot of great art, music, architecture, and poetry which was created directly because of religious belief.

There is a counter to this argument though. A lot of great art hasn’t been inspired by religion too, and some which seems like it might be in fact wasn’t. For example, Verdi wrote his Requiem even though he was an atheist (or agnostic if you prefer that). At the very least you would have to say that people are inspired by many things, including religion, so if this is the only positive it hardly seems worth it!

The Hitch was a great debater and extremely knowledgable about most of his topic areas (he certainly knew his religion, history and politics but was weak on science and technology and sometimes didn’t respond to questions around areas such as cosmology and biology very well) but maybe his greatest advantage was just that he was right.

As I have said in the past to people who have complimented me on my debating skills: it’s a lot easier when the facts are on your side!


April 12, 2013 Leave a comment

The way that different ideas become established at different times in history is interesting. It seems that often an idea reaches a point where it becomes inevitable and nothing can really stop it from taking over the mindset of the leaders and people of the time.

The original reason I cam up with this topic was the recent death of the ex-prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher. She is well known, of course, for introducing a radical form of neo-liberal economics to the country and, depending on who you listen to, either saving it from inevitable decline or destroying a lot of the existing positive aspects of British society.

Thatcher was extraordinarily good at pushing through these “reforms” because she had a strong personality and – right or wrong – was single minded in achieving her aims. She is admired by many for her strength and that is fair enough. Whether the direction she took the country in was good or bad was much more open to question.

But it probably didn’t matter because, as I intimated in the opening to this entry, the neo-liberal revolution was probably inevitable and would have happened anyway. Thatcher was lucky because the UK entered a war with Argentina over the Falklands which gained her a lot of patriotic support, plus oil was discovered during her time in power giving her a financial bonus as well. Note that neither of these events could be attributed to her and were more a matter of luck than anything else.

But during roughly the same period of time similar policies were being pushed through in many other countries. Reagan was doing it in the US, and a bit later here in New Zealand we had one of the most radical and “pure” forms of neo-liberalism forced onto us by the 1984 Labour government (who were totally hijacked by a libertarian wing lead by Roger Douglas). Labour would not be traditionally associated with these types of policies but maybe this was an idea whose time had come, even here in distant New Zealand.

There is also the fact that after the governments who initially set up these changes were replaced with their opponents the policies continued without major changes. In the UK the conservatives were replaced by Tony Blair’s Labour which was intent on continuation of the new agenda. And here in New Zealand the opposite happened: the Labour Party was replaced by the conservative National Party and again things just continued on their course.

So even a complete change (theoretically at least) in political perspective didn’t change much. It really does seem that the idea was inevitable and couldn’t be stopped. I do have to say though, that just because an idea is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s right!

I basically reject neo-liberal economics, as will be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. I’m not much of a fan of extreme left-wing economic dogma either but I really think we have gone too far in the direction of classic free-market libertarian politics. And a correction back to more moderate economic policies does seem to be the new zeitgeist, at least I hope so.

By almost any standard the great libertarian experiment has failed.

Economic turmoil has been constant since the 1980s because banks and other private financial institutions have been given great freedom. They have taken advantage of that privilege for their own benefit but the vast majority of people have suffered as a result. The problems with financial institutions over the last few years are a clear result of the policies of the the 1970s and 1980s.

Whatever income equality previously existed has been totally destroyed by the reforms. In every country the rich are becoming overwhelmingly richer, and the poor are worse off in real terms in almost every case. I discussed this and showed how incredibly unbalanced wealth distribution in the US is in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes” on 13 March.

I haven’t looked at recent figures for other countries but I know that if you look at the numbers for New Zealand it soon becomes apparent that since the economic revolution here almost every indicator has become worse. Unemployment is greater, total foreign debt (including private debt) is greater, we have less democracy, we have less control of our own resources, we have more income inequality, and we have a lot less economic certainty.

So what has really been achieved? For the top 5% the revolution has been great. Big corporations and foreign banks can demand freedom from government intervention so they can do what they want (of course they don’t get total freedom but get a lot more than they should). But when things go wrong it’s time for government handouts they are the first in the queue.

And as I said in anther recent blog entry (“Personal Responsibility” on 4 April) the new aristocracy are given huge salaries and complete respect (and agan plenty of free handouts) even though their competence is highly debatable.

But if the revolution only favoured 5% of the population why do the other 95% continue to vote for these policies? Well in many cases their is really no alternative. Both major parties in the US are very pro-big business and very much accept the existing economic ideology. The same has been true in the UK and New Zealand where the traditionally left-wing Labour parties have embraced the new ideas as much as anyone.

But there is also the idea I started with. These ideas’ time had come and people were swept along on a tide of change without really understanding why. There are definite signs that this is finally starting to change. The “left” is in power in the US and demographics have weakened the Republican party there. The Tory government in the UK is unpopular. And even our current conservative government in New Zealand has backed away from the extreme policies of the past. Sure they still want to sell off assets but only 49% instead of the lot like they would have done in the past.

There are signs that the new zeitgeist is more moderate than that of the past. I just hope that it is real and can be as irresistible as the last one which has turned out so badly.

What to be Scared Of

April 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Every year, the online magazine Edge (allegedly the smartest website in the world) asks a series of “smart people” (scientists, technology experts, writers, etc) what we should be most afraid of, in an effort to establish what issues should cause the most concern. Their responses are interesting in some cases, but rather innocuous and superficial in many others, so let’s have a look at some of the answers.

Many of them sounded a little bit fatuous. In some cases they sounded like the same sort of things that your elderly parent or grandparent might mention. Obviously I found these very disappointing. Others were extremely thoughtful and presented intriguing ideas. I must admit I haven’t had time to read through the details of every idea so I apologise in advance if I have underestimated any of the ideas here. Anyway, here is a selected list of some of the answers (remember these are answers to the question “What should we be worried about?”)…

First there were the “clever” answers, like: “That we worry too much – Joel Gold, psychiatrist.” and “That this year’s Edge topic has been poorly chosen – Kai Krause, software pioneer”. Many people tried to “get cute” about the question and gave answers like this. This is pretty disappointing for a group which are supposed to be the smartest in the world. I doubt whether this is really the type of answer anyone would give after giving the idea any reasonable amount of consideration.

Then there were the “technophobic” answers, such as: “That the internet is ruining writing – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist” and “That digital technologies are sapping our patience and changing our perception of time – Nicholas G. Carr, author” and “That we will spend too much time on social media – Marcel Kinsbourne, neurologist”. These all sound like people who just don’t get it, and they sound like similar warnings which have appeared in history every time a new technology appears. I think these are hardly worth commenting on.

On a similar theme there is: “Augmented reality – William Poundstone, journalist.” Really? That’s your biggest concern? Surely there are bigger issues than this to worry about. I’m not even sure which aspects of AR this person is specifically concerned about, although he talks about AR users being too easily distracted in his comments. That doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

And then there were the really general answers with no obvious meaning: “Humanity’s unmitigated arrogance. – Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology”. Is this true? Even if it is true what specific issues are the source of the concern? Apparently she thinks there is an increase in lying and cheating in various human domains. I really don’t see that and even if it was true I can’t see it being such a big concern.

There’s this one: “An underpopulation bomb – Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large, Wired.” What evidence is there that this is likely? Actually, what is an “underpopulation bomb” anyway? It seems that his main concern is an ageing population not being able to be supported by the smaller numbers of young people when the global population peak is passed and the population starts declining. I think long term forecasts like this are very doubtful but I also think we will need to redesign society to fit the new profile. It’s a concern but is it really the biggest problem we face?

This one could belong in the inane or bizarre category depending on your preference: “Men – Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist”. Interesting. Apparently she is suggesting that men are misunderstood and are actually far more sensitive and complex than the stereotypes tell us. Maybe she has a point to some extent, but I’m not sure how this can be seen as a major worry.

This one is enigmatic: “The coming fight between engineers and druids. – Paul Saffo, technology forecaster”. Here he is referring to the battle between those who favour sticking with the past because it was “good” (druids) and those who prefer to move ahead to something which is (supposedly) even better (engineers). So the idea is quite simple despite the interesting way of stating it. I think he does have a good point, especially when you look at the divisions between conservatives and liberals in countries like the US.

Here is one which I think is a genuine worry: “The diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism may trigger a Dark Age – Frank Wilczek, MIT physicist”. This is starting to get into the area of genuine concern. More and more it seems that two big negative factors are holding back progress: the first is rampant capitalist environmental and social exploitation, and the second is increasingly desperate fundamentalist religion. Wilczek thinks the triumph of barbarism and religion, and rising fundamentalism has triggered a Dark Age before, and could do so again.

On a similar them is this: “The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress. We’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together – Tim O’Reilly, CEO and founder of O’Reilly Media”. Again the theme of conservatism and backward ignorance standing in the way of progress. Some sections of society see scientific progress and liberalism as a threat rather than a way ahead. Look at the incredible stupidity of the far right in the US. This is a very concerning trend because as backward beliefs like religion become more marginalised they become more desperate to survive at any cost.

And again on that theme: “The growing gap between the scientific elite and the vast scientifically challenged majority – Leo M. Chalupa, ophthalmologist and neurobiologist” and “That the gap between news and understanding is widening. – Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist” When people don’t understand something they tend to reject it. Maybe that’s why there is so much science denial (for example, against global warming, evolution, and genetic modification) around the world today.

And partly for that reason we have this concern: “That Idiocracy is looming. – Douglas T. Kenrick, psychology professor”. Kenrick is concerned about populations of lower intelligence reproducing in greater numbers and pushing the average IQ down. It’s difficult to dispute the idea in general although it does sound rather elitist. Still, it’s the intellectual elite who have given everyone the advantages they have today, so this is a genuine problem.

And here’s the real problem with the world today in one sentence: “That smart people – like those who contribute to Edge – won’t do politics – Brian Eno, musician.” I would take this further and say smart people tend to stay out of many positions of power, not just politics. I also see few smart people in management and other areas which have greater influence. There really is a trend towards stupid, immoral, and ignorant people making a lot of the big decisions for everyone else.

So after looking through all the concerns expressed in this article I have to say that I think the biggest potential source of disaster is a new Dark Age brought on by a reaction against progress and rationality by those who have worldviews contrary to that supported by progressive liberals and rationalists.

As religion becomes more irrelevant we should expect those who still choose to accept it to employ increasingly extreme and dishonest measures to protect their dying worldview. This is most obvious in some western countries where fundamentalists are trying to sneak ridiculous nonsense like creationism into science classes, and in the fundamentalist Islamic world where violence is used in an attempt to stifle anything contrary to their backward ideas.

And conservatives of all sorts will continue to fight against progressive issues such as equality, free speech, diversity, and technological progress. There is no real justification in their attempts to halt these moves forward because the changes have no real direct effect on the detractors, but conservatives not only want to live in the past themselves, they want the rest of us to share their miserable and pathetic outlook as well.

Yes, these are real concerns. They are more harmful even than excessive use of Facebook!