Archive for March, 2014

Tell a lie…

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

They say that if you tell a lie often enough then it becomes the truth. That’s a quote attributed to Paul Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany. He didn’t quite put it that way and in fact he probably didn’t say anything like that at all, but it’s a good quote anyway.

In fact it might be more revealing to look at the original wording of the quote, which is this: “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.”

That idea that people can start believing their own propaganda is interesting and will be more relevant later in this blog.

But let’s look at the real quote all of this stuff came from. It’s not from Goebbels but from Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf: “But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.”

Clearly Hitler understood this principle and so do many current political parties and other organisations. Let me give a few examples of repeated lies (or beliefs and opinions based on little evidence) today: “the free market is the best way to manage an economy”, “global warming is a left-wing myth and has been proven to be untrue”, “Obama is a socialist”, “the rich deserve all the money they make because they work hard”, and “Jesus saves”.

Is there any good evidence supporting any of these contentions? I don’t think so. Do we hear these ideas over and over, almost every day? Yes. Are they lies being repeated for some ideological reason? Apparently. So are the perpetrators of these myths (either knowingly or unknowingly) following a Nazi “mind-control” technique? It does seem so, although the idea probably pre-dates the Nazis by millennia.

As I intimated above, the idea of repetition of propaganda is even more dangerous because the originator of the propaganda comes to believe it themselves.

I’m sure that most right-wing politicians genuinely do believe that a free market is always the best solution, even though common logic and simple observation of the facts shows clearly that it isn’t. But it’s hard to abandon a basic tenet of ideology when you are propagandising yourself as well as everyone else.

And I’m quite sure that most Christians really do believe that Jesus lives and is helping them in their lives, even though it should be totally clear to anyone that it’s all a silly myth. If anyone else had made up a story like: “this wise man lived thousands of years ago but he died to save us, then came back, and he lives, although you can’t see him, and he’ll help you if you ask, but not always”, we would laugh at them, right? But the Christian lie has been told for 2000 years and now even the liars believe it.

I have presented cases with an obvious rationalist/left-wing bias here so should I be equally suspicious of lies which support my worldview? Of course. In fact, if I really want to believe a lie I should be even more suspicious of it.

So what lies should I be suspicious of? Anything involving the naturalistic fallacy is popular amongst some who lean to the left politically. So I don’t believe that genetic modification is bad, or that nuclear energy should be abandoned, or that natural medicines are better, even though those lies are frequently repeated.

But I do believe the often repeated message that global warming is real. Why? Because every time that statement is made it comes from new evidence which has been discovered, not just from simple, mindless repetition. That’s the difference between propaganda and increasingly certain conclusions based on facts. If anyone hears the same message over and over they should ask if it being repeated for a good reason, or is it just the old “tell a lie often enough” trick again!


Go Tim!

March 26, 2014 Leave a comment

In my last blog entry I criticised Apple – and specifically mentioned CEO Tim Cook – for the company’s actions regarding tax avoidance. But I believe nothing is ever black and white, because there are always two sides to a story, and good and bad in every person and organisation.

So today I want to congratulate the same company – and especially Tim Cook himself – for acting in the complete opposite way by specifically rejecting the “profit at all costs” mentality.

If you follow technology or business news you will probably have realised by now that I am referring to the recent well known incident where Cook completely rejected the policies of the National Center for Public Policy Research in a recent investor meeting. The NCPPR suggested that Apple should maximise return to its shareholders above all else and that it should provide costings for its activities with environmental and social elements, with the added implication that they were unacceptable because they reduced return on investment.

If you read this blog you will be very aware of my opinions of the “greed is good” philosophy. No, greed isn’t good in general, and is rarely good even for the greedy individual. These same people want less government intervention in business yet they encourage the exact behaviour which makes intervention necessary. Well they can’t have everything!

The NCPPR is a right-wing “think tank” based in the US. I really object to this term “think tank” because it seems to imply that deep research and philosophical thought is happening there where really all most of them do is work on ways to produce propaganda to progress their ideology and find ways to influence the political process in their favour.

The NCPPR, like almost every right-wing organisation, is deeply deluded and has little grasp of reality, and is also challenged in the area of morality. They think climate change is a myth invented by “Al gore” and they think companies shouldn’t concern themselves about the environment because their entire focus should be on ROI.

It’s an interesting philosophy and one shared with extreme libertarian dogmatists. The idea is that a company can do whatever they want to maximise profits, but if they do anything too bad their customers or shareholders will react against them reducing their profits and forcing a change in behaviour. So the pursuit of profit itself becomes a factor leading to the environmental (and social, etc) policies the customers want.

Of course it sounds fine in principle and no doubt it works in Cloud Cuckoo Land or wherever else conservatives and libertarians live. But in reality it is a total disaster and every person who works in the real world with all it’s inconvenient truths (and I deliberately used of that phrase) will realise this.

Tim Cook certainly did. His usual calm demeanour seemed to disappear and he gave quite an emotional response to the statement from the NCPPR.

So here’s the sort of thing they said: “…an area of concern to all shareholders: Company affiliations that may primarily advance social or environmental causes rather than promoting shareholder value.” and “…finding that dubbed carbon dioxide as a pollutant that is now driving much of the corporate climate change hysteria.” and “…we object to increased government control over Company products and operations, and likewise mandatory environmental standards.”

So it’s the old standard conservative/libertarian agenda: deny climate change, demand total freedom for corporations to do whatever they want, and make the governments look bad when they are just trying to control the excesses of corporations.

What would most CEOs have said? Maybe they would have agreed with a lot of this stuff, or maybe they would have just pretended to agree so that the shareholder was happy. But no, Cook did the right thing and said “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI” and then “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.” Go Tim!

If only we had more people like this in charge of big corporations. But now Tim, how about doing something about those dodgy tax deals?

More Tax Scams

March 22, 2014 Leave a comment

In a recent podcast I heard the news (well it shouldn’t really be news because it’s what I’ve come to expect from big corporations) that Apple in Australia has been up to its old tricks again and has hidden profits in overseas (Irish in this case) subsidiaries to avoid paying tax.

Of course all large corporations do this to some extent (Apple and Google do something very similar here in New Zealand) so I aren’t really picking on Apple except to say that, while it is a company I admire for its products, I definitely don’t approve of its business practices which are often (but not always) fairly heinous!

The strategies these companies use aren’t illegal, of course, but a more interesting question is: are they moral, or even reasonable? Another interesting question might be: is tax evasion something that everyone does and therefore something that evens out for everybody in the end?

So let’s start by asking if this behaviour is reasonable. If you ascribe to the classic neo-liberal “greed is good” philosophy (wow, I almost typed “greed is god” there by mistake, and maybe given the almost religious fervour its proponents have for it that might have been more accurate!) then of course it is. In fact, under that philosophy, reducing tax and maximising profits by any means (in extreme cases even illegal means) is actively encouraged.

Luckily few people continue to hold these views and I get the impression that pure libertarianism and extreme neo-liberalism is declining around the world.

So how reasonable this tax avoidance is would depend partly on opinion, but I think it would be quite difficult to defend a system where huge corporations which make massive profits pay almost no tax where small companies and individuals effectively subsidise them by paying at the prescribed rate.

So the next question is whether everyone can avoid paying tax or would avoid it if they could.

Some people do minimise their tax to a small extent but many have no options at all. So the first part of the question is clear: few people or companies can avoid paying tax, but would they if they had the chance?

I think many would make some effort but few would have the resources to set up the elaborate schemes the big corporations can. And I think a lot would pay tax at a rate they considered fair without putting too much effort into avoiding it.

You might say these people are “suckers” or just too lazy to do what they should, but I don’t think so. I think they are being reasonable and I’m afraid that Apple (whatever I think of its products) is immoral and (yes, if you like) evil for taking tax avoidance to such extremes.

So I’ve got to say it: “you suck Apple”. Right, now that I’ve heard the podcast on my Apple iPhone and written this on my Apple MacBook Pro I will post it to my Apple server and test it on my Apple iPad! Yes, I’ve contributed a lot to Apple’s vast coffers and I really would like to see a little bit more of that coming back to our local communities. Tim Cook, are you listening?

An Optimistic Message

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

As I said in a previous blog post, I have been challenged to try to be more positive and comment on something good instead of constantly whining about the poor state of the world! OK, here goes….

In his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, Canadian experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science author (according to his Wikipedia profile) Steven Pinker claims that the world is getting less violent and fairer, although he concedes there is no guarantee this will continue in future.

So that’s got to be good news, hasn’t it? Before I go any further I must admit I haven’t read the book, although I have read quite a bit about it. At 800 pages it is a rather weighty tome and I just haven’t found the time so far, but minor considerations like not having read the book I am commenting on have never stopped be in the past so I will continue regardless!

The facts, figures, and statistics Pinker presents seem convincing and I find the arguments of his critics equally unconvincing so I think I agree: the world is becoming less violent.

You might think that looking at the situation in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Ukraine that violence is still a problem, and it is, but compared with the past I think things have improved. There has been no direct conflict between major powers since World War 2 and the number of casualties of war as a percentage of the total world population has definitely declined.

So the trend seems real. A more interesting question might be not what but why. Pinker lists the following reasons: modern states and judicial systems, technological and commercial progress, greater equality for women, greater literacy and global communications, and an increased emphasis on knowledge and rationality.

Again it’s hard to disagree – but you would have to be fairly courageous to disagree with someone as intelligent and knowledgeable as Pinker of course!

Few people would suggest that our government and legal systems are perfect because they clearly aren’t, but they are fairly good in most cases (even governments whose policies I disagree with) and work well enough in most cases. Of course there is a danger that increasing inequality will overcome whatever benefits reasonable governance has given us, but that issue hasn’t reached a tipping point yet.

I would say that technology is the major contributor towards better, more peaceful societies. And whatever criticisms I have of capitalism there is no doubt that in most cases it delivers the benefits of science and technology to the majority of the population. Technology has given everyone (even the majority in the third world, at least most of the time) more reliable food supplies, greater health, and better education. All of those must contribute to greater peace.

While I am suspicious of many arguments advanced by feminists I think the evidence is clear that when women have a greater role in society that it leads to substantial benefits. Of course there are many cases where women are just as violent, unfair, and ignorant as any man, but on balance feminisation has been a positive force.

Global communications, such as TV, cell phones, and the internet seem to have made the world more like one big community. When different countries and cultures can share their experiences through these media it must make conflict between them less likely.

There is still plenty of irrationality in the world (the two most obvious examples being Islamic extremism and conservative ignorance) but the trend does seem to be a slow but sure one towards greater rationality. Religion is gradually losing its hold on power and other forms of superstition are also slowly declining. I know there are plenty of examples where ignorance remains but at least the trend seems to be in the right direction.

So there is reason to be optimistic. Despite the numerous examples of stupidity we see every day the world is getting better. What an optimistic message!

Fairly Useless

March 12, 2014 Leave a comment

I know I said that this post would be a positive one about something good, but that will have to wait because I am feeling negative again! (gee, that doesn’t happen much, does it). So here’s my negative rant, again…

My personal issue is with internet services in New Zealand. I use Telecom, Vodafone, and Orcon (three of the major providers here) for various services and I’ve got to say they’re all fairly useless. I say “fairly useless” as opposed to “totally useless” or “abysmal” or “atrocious” because it’s really more about many minor annoyances than a total lack of service.

I use Orcon for my broadband at home and about half the time it is OK, at the low end of what is acceptable, but still acceptable. But the other half it is slow and glitchy. I have talked to their helpdesk but they are almost useless. Their next level of support is a lot better but I still don’t have the service I really want.

I tried calling Telecom tonight, to see if they could offer better service. I was told I would need to wait in the helpdesk phone queue for about 3 minutes. After 20 minutes of waiting I just gave up.

I use Telecom and Vodafone for cellular services on my iPad and iPhone. I would describe their services are “patchy”. Sometimes the data rate is quite good but at other times it’s fairly bad. And, of course, their helpdesks are almost useless (pretty much par for the course for helpdesks, I’m afraid). And they both have weird ways to charge for usage which their helpdesk staff seem as confused about as I am.

And it’s not just me. My wife is currently setting up a small business and has had to deal with many bureaucrats in different organisations, such as Inland Revenue, the local council, banks, etc. Her conclusion is they are all “fairly useless” as well.

Actually, judging by the amount of nonsense required to set up a business I am surprised anyone ever gets one off the ground! I’m actually quite persuaded by some of the arguments politicians make about reducing bureaucracy for business. In fact, as you will already know, I hate bureaucracy, so I didn’t need too much persuasion!

But now I should try to add a small amount of that positivity I mentioned earlier. Occasionally you do strike someone who is both competent and dedicated to doing their job properly. Even in isolation this is a great experience, but when compared with all the usual incompetence out there it looks even better!

I have made some contacts in some of the companies I mentioned above who have used their own skills and intelligence to solve some problems for me. I really appreciated that but the next time something went wrong it was back to the helpdesk. And my wife has found our lawyer extremely helpful, but at his charge-out rate I guess you might expect a bit of special treatment!

Science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, once formulated a law known as “Sturgeon’s First Law” which states that “90% of everything is crap”. Crap is probably a bit strong, I think I would just stick with “fairly useless!”

Computer Problems Solved

March 10, 2014 1 comment

Before I resume my usual series of rants I must do two things which are both more positive: first I must report on the state of personal computing, based on my experience with my latest laptop; and second I must write a positive post being nice about something (as recommended by a regular reader).

So I will take the easy option first and talk about computers and leave the more general positive post until next time…

I think several problems in personal computing have been more-or-less solved. First, computers are now fast enough for any reasonable user. Not only is the processing ability of my new computer truly amazing (I know this by looking at the activity graphs for the 8 CPUs which rarely go much above zero) but my previous machine with only 4 cores (2 hardware, 2 virtual) was also fast enough almost all of the time.

But some people still get frustrated waiting for their computers to work. Why? Almsot certainly not because of the CPUs. In my experience it is almost always because of the hard disk, and this issue is also solved by a feature of my current and previous machines: a fast solid state drive. Sometimes performance problems are caused by lack of memory too, but memory is cheap so that shouldn’t be an excuse.

Finally there are software issues. Some people use inefficient systems and badly written software. Some have poorly designed anti-virus software, some have badly configured proxies and firewalls, and some just have bad networking.

These last points have definitely not been fixed. Poor software is depressingly common and its inefficiency can be disguised to some extent by our super-fast processors, but sometimes even they can’t cope with the hideous coding out there. And piling on layers of security in an effort to fix a poorly designed system is also common, especially in the Windows world. Finally, at least here in New Zealand, we have terrible internet connectivity, but at least that might be improved when the new ultra-fast fibre becomes widely available.

So speed should be a non-issue, as long as a few basic requirements are met and some basic configuration is done properly. What other problems have been solved?

I think portability is pretty good too. My current laptop isn’t super-compact and light like a MacBook Air might be, but it is light enough considering the functions it has. And the battery life is fairly impressive. Depending on the type of work I am doing I might reasonably expect to get a full 8 hour working day of life from the battery (it’s now 1.30 pm and the battery says it has 6 hours of life left).

I am also impressed with connectivity. The new wifi spec 802.11ac is fast enough for almost anything (as long as you can find a wifi area which supports it). And USB3 is fast enough for most purposes, plus there is always the super-fast Thunderbolt, at least on Apple laptops, for anything beyond that.

Sure things could be even better still. If we had even faster CPUs or more cores that would be great (assuming it didn’t adversely affect other areas, such as battery life). If we had lighter and smaller laptops with even better battery life that would also be helpful. And if we had even faster, longer range networking, and faster and more peripheral connections, that would also be nice (again all under the proviso that other functions weren’t sacrificed) but I think we have reached a point where other priorities should be pursued.

Maybe I’ll look back at this post in 10 years and laugh about how naive I was. By then we might have 32 cores running at 5 GHz, 256G of RAM and 100T SSDs, but I’m not so sure. Maybe computers will go the same way as other new technologies and reach a point where more subtle aims, such as ease of use, reliability, and security will be considered. At least, I hope so.

Sheer Hypocrisy

March 5, 2014 2 comments

When the US invaded Iraq back in 2003 the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said “You just don’t invade another country on a phony pretext in order to assert your interests. This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behaviour in the 21st century.” Oh wait! I got that wrong. That’s what Putin easily could have said about Iraq, but in fact that is actually what US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said recently about Russia’s so-called invasion of Ukraine.

Many people have, like me, marvelled at the sheer hypocrisy of the statement. Surely his speech writers (because very few of these political statements are ever genuine, they are usually carefully crafted by spin doctors to achieve a particular purpose) saw how it would be taken? Maybe they just didn’t care or maybe this was just another deliberate way to say “look, we are the US, we can invade, spy on, murder, or sabotage anyone we like, but if any other country does it we will act all morally outraged.

There is no doubt which of the two is the greater evil. The US had no right to invade Iraq and it was done clearly on false pretences and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Russia has a clear interest in Ukraine, it hasn’t even really invaded in the usual sense, and there have been (so far) no deaths as a direct result.

If we ever needed proof of how utterly corrupt the US has become this is surely it. And yes, I am criticising a so-called left-leaning (Democratic) president. I think Obama is a terrible leader, but he’s still the best president they have had for decades. Not that I am a great supporter of Putin, of course. But the US should be fair about this and make sure that they maintain their own moral standards before they go around criticising anyone else.

It will be interesting to watch how the situation develops in the future, especially with how the US makes use of it for their own benefit. But judging from the reaction to this one statement: from outright amusement at the complete temerity of it, to disgust at its hypocrisy, I think they might need to just back off a little bit from the fantasy notion that they occupy the moral high ground. That is far from true!