Archive for November, 2013

Part of the Picture

November 29, 2013 Leave a comment

I appreciate people who admit their mistakes. I mean, it would be better if they didn’t make the mistake in the first place, but if they have do so at least admit it so something can be done. Most people can tell when a person or organisation is in denial about a mistake and I think we see a really obvious example of this with education in New Zealand.

In the last 3 days there have been 3 significant reports indicating that our government’s education policies (especially the new national standards) are a miserable failure. First there was a report from the ministry showing at year 8 that most students are below the standard for writing and science. Then there as a report by Waikato University showing that the national standards have done more harm than good. Now there is a survey showing the model has more bad than good points. And as if all of this wasn’t bad enough there is another report from the OECD due out next week which is expected to show education standards here are slipping.

You might think at this point that the person in charge of this disaster might resign, or at the very least admit that they have made a mistake and consider reversing the whole thing. After all, practically every expert warned them exactly this would happen before they even started.

But no, National Party education ministers never admit their errors. If they did, the would be very busy, I think! And their ministry officials always back them up, even though they really must realise personally that they are defending bad policies.

A ministry official who was interviewed on the topic seemed to be very good at picking out the few positive aspects of the reports while ignoring the vast bulk of bad news. She said she was encouraged by the reported outcomes. Wow, what an eternal optimist. I wonder what she would need to see to discourage her!

And just to add insult to injury she concluded the interview with the usual dishonest, meaningless weasel words. Something like: “at the end of the day it’s all part of the picture and we will continue to listen”. What a joke. She will listen to what the incompetent minister tells her and she in turn will listen to the ideologically driven nonsense which comes from her political masters.

While all this is going on our education standards, which were quite good before National started to interfere, will continue to slip. All we can hope for is to vote these bunch of clowns out at the next election. But that’s OK for them, I guess. It’s all just part of the big picture.

Law vs Morality

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Some people are quite surprised at my attitude towards the law. Most of us are taught to respect the law and never question it, but that seems to contradict the other common attitude we are often presented with: disrespect for politicians. Think about it. Who makes the laws: politicians!

So it seems to me that there is no need to have automatic respect for laws at all. I think it’s only sensible to carefully consider their merits because we as individuals do have to live in a society with other people so we do need rules. Plus there is the “small annoyance” that the police tend to take a rather dim view of people who break laws and it’s often just not worth the possible issues which might result!

But there are several types of laws which I think we should be suspicious of. Here’s a few examples…

There are laws which are just arbitrary. For example, New Zealand Police are about to embark on a revenue gathering campaign where they will strictly enforce driving just 4 kilometers per hour over the speed limit (the usual tolerance is 10). Why 4? It’s completely ridiculous and clearly a silly attempt by some bureaucrat in Wellington to either raise some more money in fines or increase safety in a way which will never work.

How many people have accidents because they are travelling 4% too fast? I would say basically about the same number as those travelling 4% too slow (and maybe less). And how many cars have speedometers which are off by 4%? Probably most. Obviously anyone who refuses to obey such a stupid law is not a criminal, and any reasonable cop who sees someone travelling just 4% over the speed limit would just pretend it didn’t happen if he had any decency at all.

And there are laws designed to give an unfair advantage to the rich and powerful. Any law which is grossly unfair in this way deserves no respect. For example, if a group wants to protest foreign companies exploring for oil in potentially dangerous areas of our oceans why should an unfair law stop them?

Finally, what about the ridiculous copyright laws we already have (not to even mention those which might result after the TPP negotiation is complete). Again these are designed to give corrupt corporations lots of money which they have done nothing to deserve. Anyone who breaks these laws is doing no harm so what’s the problem?

So those are a few examples. I’m not suggesting we should all go out and start breaking those sorts of laws even if we don’t agree with them, because that has consequences, but I am saying that what is legal and what is morally right are two different things.

A New iPad

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

I was one of the first people in New Zealand to get an iPad because I bought one from Australia before they were even available here. It was the original iPad with 64G of storage and the 3G cell function. I have used it for many years and it has been very reliable and useful but recently it has become obvious that the older devices just can’t do everything I want anymore.

For example my old iPad won’t run the latest version of iOS, or even the version before that! It doesn’t run a lot of the latest software and some of the newer software which it does run is a bit slow. And it doesn’t even have a camera.

So it was clearly time to get a new iPad and I considered the iPad Mini which I decided I really do like after using one for a day. But it has a smaller screen and I already have an iPhone 5 with a small screen so the iPad Air seemed to make more sense, and that’s what I now have.

So what are my initial impressions after using it for about 12 hours?

Well, it’s light and compact. It’s not as light as a Mini but definitely easier to hold than the original iPad which starts feeling rather heavy after a while. The screen is the same size as other full-size iPads but the device itself is not as wide and a lot thinner.

The screen is very nice. It’s a high-resolution retina display and it’s very detailed and has plenty of brightness. The brightness changes slightly when viewed off-center but it’s really hardly noticeable.

And it’s fast. Everything launches quickly, the graphics in games is super fast, and it seems that nothing takes any time at all.

I haven’t had much of a chance to evaluate the camera but I would most likely use the iPhone camera or my SLR anyway so just the fact that it has one at all is useful.

It’s taking me a long time to get this device set up the way I like because instead of just moving everything from the old device I’m setting this one up again from scratch. This should give me a chance to throw out old stuff I don’t use any more.

So I have a couple of hundred apps to sort through, a whole pile of on-line services to configure, and lots of media to shift across. It will take a few days to get things fully operational and a few more to get a real idea of how useful this new device is.

So maybe in a week I might post a full review. But what’s the point really? I know I’m going to love this thing. It’s brilliant!

Science isn’t the Enemy

November 23, 2013 22 comments

I recently listened to a podcast where a professional astronomer was lamenting the current lack of respect given to her profession and to science in general. I think there are two elements to this point which I need to mention. First, the level of respect varies from one country to another and between groups within a country. And second, where it does exist it is more an anti-intellectual bias rather than one against astronomy (or any other less “practical” sciences) or science in particular.

I’m sure we have all come across the people who are actually proud of their ignorance. Sometimes I talk about how amazing the work being done at CERN is and a person might respond with “oh, I don’t know anything about that” with a sort of self-satisfied expression as if that made them better in some way. Or I might mention how incredibly useful modern smartphones like the iPhone are and they will reply “I would never use something like that” even though they might have just been talking about a situation where GPS or some other technology would have helped them.

So astronomers shouldn’t take the lack of respect for them as anything personal. I work with technology in a university and I often get the impression people see that as inferior in some way to managing a shop, or being an accountant, for example. And I have often come across the situation where people assume my colleagues working in the more esoteric fields such as quantum physics or organic chemistry are just viewed as boffins working on their own pet projects and as being of no real use to society.

It hasn’t always been like this. In the past scientists and technology professionals were often viewed in a similar way to pop music performers or movie stars today. They toured and gave lectures to packed halls, they demonstrated new inventions and discoveries, and their contributions were seen as a way to achieve a better future.

I think there are several factors which have contributed to the decline of these attitudes. First, neo-liberalism (you didn’t think I’d get through a blog post without mentioning that, did you?) has emphasised the alleged value of commerce over other activities. Second, science has challenged many established views (evolution and cosmology challenge religion, and climate science challenges some established conservative dogma, for example) so some groups have attempted to discredit it as a result. And third, the rise of environmentalism – which I agree has a lot of positive points – has often had an anti-progress aspect as well, such as begin against nuclear power and genetic engineering.

None of these are good reasons to be anti-science. If science disproves your religious beliefs then change them or do better science to show the original stuff is wrong. If science shows your political ideas won’t work then you should be able to change those views to fit without abandoning your core ideals. And if new technology doesn’t fit in with your environmental philosophy then maybe it is time to have a more pragmatic approach to your cause.

Whatever the case, science and technology are not the enemy of any reasonable and rational group. If you find yourself opposed to them then I think there’s a very good chance that it is you who has got it wrong.

A Dinosaur Theme Park

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

As you, my valued readers, probably know, I work as an IT consultant/programmer, so I often have to solve problems and fix issues related to the programs my clients use. There are various techniques I use to solve problems: just use my experience from similar problems in the past; apply updates, re-install, delete preference files and other more generic solutions; and maybe eventually contact the developer for help.

It’s the last process I want to talk about here. When contacting a company or individual for help on a problem with software I get a wide variety of different responses. Sometimes the experience is very positive and the problem is quickly solved, but other times the opposite is true and I end up in a frustrating dead end or maze of conflicting actions.

The interesting thing is that it is usually the smaller companies and individual programmers who provide the best service and the big corporations which give either no help at all or such poor help that you are better off not even attempting to access it.

Recently I discovered that an astronomy program I bought a few years ago now, called “Starry Night” had stopped downloading comet orbit updates and other information and that the updaters on-line didn’t work. This program wasn’t really over-priced but it wasn’t cheap either so I thought “OK, let’s see what the support is like” half expecting to be told that the version I had was obsolete and I would need to buy a new one.

So I left a request on the on-line help system and within a few hours had a reply requesting extra information which I supplied and a few minutes later was downloading a new version which worked perfectly. So that was a positive experience, although I do think that when the old version stopped working I should have received an automated email telling me about the new version with a download link.

I have had similar fast and useful exchanges with other smaller developers too. I use a backup and synchronisation program called “ChronoSync” and have emailed their support staff on several occasions and got helpful responses, including having suggestions of new features treated seriously (although not actually implemented yet!)

But what about some of the bigger, more prominent companies? Yes, that is quite a different story. Try getting meaningful support from Adobe, or Microsoft, or Hewlett Packard, or even Apple and you will probably be disappointed. Occasionally I get reasonable results from them, but usually it takes a lot longer and is far less positive overall than with the smaller companies.

And I think I know why.

It’s because of their “corporate mindset”. This affliction is common in large organisations and it always involves having overly complicated procedures, precisely formulated responses, and a low level of personal responsibility and freedom to offer creative solutions.

So after contacting a large organisation you will often be processed by an automated system, followed by a helpdesk, followed by an “expert” chosen from a large group. If you do talk to a real person it wil often be obvious that they are following a script and might not even have ever used the product. And even if you tell them what they need to do to fix the problem they won’t do it unless it’s on their list of pre-defined “solutions”.

I fully understand that a large company processing thousands of requests a day can’t use the same system as a smaller one with much smaller load can but I can’t accept that they can’t create something better than what we usually get.

Over they years I have rejected the products of one big company after another. First it was Microsoft, then HP, and most recently it was Adobe. I now use alternatives from smaller companies (or Apple which is the only big organisation I still like, although it certainly has its problems). I have never regretted doing this. Not only do I get better, cheaper products with great support, but I am also supporting smaller, more innovative companies instead of the big dinosaurs.

That reminds me of a joke: What’s the difference between IBM and Jurassic Park? Answer: One’s a theme park full of old dinosaurs and the other’s a movie! Yeah, that could apply to Microsoft or Adobe sometimes too!

A Bit Nutty

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment

You’ve got to love New Zealand. In many other “first world” countries (OK, let’s admit it, I mean the US) if a politician was asked about his religion and he didn’t say he was a Christian he should probably just give up all political ambitions on the spot. Here when Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, was asked and he admitted he was a Christian, and went on to say he prayed regularly, the implication was that he was a bit nutty (which of course, he is).

I’m not saying that anyone who is religious shouldn’t be involved in politics. Just about everyone has a few crazy ideas (for example, our prime minsiter has a fanatical and entirely misplaced confidence in the free market which borders on a religion) and the important thing is to get a good mix so that one particular crazy ideology doesn’t dominate (as neo-liberalism has for the last 30 years). So fair enough, in some ways it’s quite good that we have a Christian Conservative party here now.

In fact looking through Craig’s policies (because, let’s be honest here, Colin Craig is the Conservative Party) I see a lot I agree with, because while he has socially conservative policies (which I would tend to reject) he is also economically conservative and has many ideas contrary to many of those held by his natural political partners in the National Party (which in the past has been the closest thing we had to a conservative party).

Unless things change greatly in the next year the current senior government party, National, will need the Conservatives to form a government after the elections next year. Given the differences between those two parties I can see there being at least as much conflict as there would be between the two parties which would form an alternative center-left government: the Greens and Labour.

And I haven’t even mentioned the quite amusing likelihood of Winston Peters having some influence on the whole scenario. Yes, whichever major bloc wins (left, or right) things look like they could get interesting!

Naturally Better

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

If something is natural then it has to be good, right? Well maybe… or maybe not. When I hear an attempt at justifying this argument it usually takes the form of a circular argument or a classic case of “begging the question”. So to the person makes the argument that natural is just naturally good and there’s no need to justify it.

Maybe the most common area where this fallacy is employed is in natural (sometimes known as “alternative”) medicine. Many people believe that natural remedies are better than those produced by conventional medicine and that because they are natural they are safer and better.

There are some well known example. Most people know that the analgesic aspirin was originally sourced from willow bark and that chewing willow bark was a natural remedy for many traditional people. So if willow bark is natural and the modern synthetic drug aspirin is artificial (it is now synthesised through a chemical process) surely the bark is the better choice? Well, no.

There are many reasons that modern “artificial” drugs are better than traditional “natural” remedies. First, they generally contain just the active ingredient and not anything else which might have unexpected side effects. Second, they don’t contain contaminants which might be harmful. Third, the mechanism of action is usually understood so potential problems are more likely to be controlled. Fourth, they are made in standard strengths and doses, so accidental overdoses are unlikely. Fifth, they come with instructions including recommended and maximum doses. Sixth, drug manufacturers and retailers tend to be much more tightly regulated. And finally, they are more convenient in pill form than the original form (such as a chunk of willow bark).

And these problems aren’t just theoretical. There are many cases of natural remedies having massively different strengths, being contaminated with dangerous material, not being regulated properly, being sold by people with no knowledge of the side effects, and having many other problems.

Another point I often hear made is that medicines are made by big corporations who are only really interested in profit. Yes, this is true. But often the natural remedies are made by the same big corporations. Why wouldn’t they? That they can sell a product which is often made from cheap ingredients with few regulations and controls at even greater profits. The fact that most of them do nothing is irrelevant.

So natural things aren’t just obviously better at all. Generally (and I will admit there are rare exceptions) synthetic drugs really are just “naturally better”.