Archive for April, 2014

The Libertarian Dream

April 25, 2014 1 comment

Ayn woke at the usual time and started her preparation for the day. It was a cold morning but heating her cubicle wasn’t an option with her income. But she wasn’t resentful about this small inconvenience because the efficiency imposed by the market (all hail the fountainhead of all freedom) in these matters was irrefutable.

She daydreamed briefly about how lucky she was to live in a society which gave its participants such freedom to live such productive lives as hers, but quickly snapped out of her reverie when she realised there was a chance she might be late. She started work at exactly 07:15:30 and – as was perfectly fair under the circumstances – would be severely penalised if she was late.

If she missed her starting time by even a few seconds the efficiency of the whole system might be disturbed because her co-worker, whom she only knew by the name “Ron 07:15:45”, would have his work interrupted by her untimely entrance.

Ayn seemed to be a model citizen and superficially enjoyed the freedom of the bold modern society of the 21st century. But she had a secret. Secretly she read the writings of earlier philosophers, politicians, and intellectuals from the years before the efficient era. It was hard to believe but in 90 BEE there was a president who actually espoused socialism. His name was Obama and luckily most of his destructive ideas were blocked by the courageous efforts of early efficiency campaigners like the “Tea Party”.

When she first read of these corrupt ideas she was naturally appalled at them, and forced herself (although the pleasure of reading such inspiring thoughts hardly required force) to read a few hundred pages of her namesake’s great treatise, Atlas Shrugged. John Galt’s speech was her favourite. She could read that 100 pages of pure truth many times in succession. But despite that, the ideas of the opponents of the new order just wouldn’t go away.

Outside a storm was raging but that was of no concern to her. After the climate became more extreme – for reasons no one could quite identify – storms were common, but living in the same building as you worked in meant that being exposed to the elements was unnecessary. It still amazed her that in the past people used to live and work in different places. It was all just so inefficient.

Her reading from the past contained the ridiculous notion that the new climate was the result of something they called “global warming” or “climate change” which was caused by excessive industrial use of fossil fuels. Incredibly, the writers didn’t even consider the obvious fact that market forces (all hail the market, our saviour) would stop such an anomaly from happening because as soon as consumers realised corporations were harming the world they would switch to alternatives. It was so obvious she couldn’t believe that they hadn’t seen it.

It was time to get to work, and she had to take the stairs (she had run out of elevator tokens which had got too expensive after the world electricity supply had been cut so much) from level 4 (the second floor above the new sea level) to level 13. She knew that would take 5 minutes and 15 seconds and she couldn’t rush because she had to maintain her energy for work.

As she walked past the elevator she remembered another news item from the past. Scientists (that had been an occupation dedicated to discovering things with little commercial value) had been working on a technology called “hydrogen fusion” which they claimed would have provided unlimited power. But when the old inefficient world had been finally eliminated the financial return on this work was insufficient for it to continue. Clearly these “scientists” must have been some sort of clever but ignorant pressure group because they always seemed to have been working on discoveries which were never quite ready to be used by the real commercial world. What possible use could they have been? Ayn was glad they no longer existed.

The market (all hail its glorious efficiency) handled all of those issues now. If electricity was in short supply the prices simply went up, but those who were truly deserving could still afford to use it. She felt a surge of pride when she thought of the elite in her society who could afford to use as much electricity as they wanted. What role models they were! She knew they deserved what they had because if they weren’t deserving how else would they have got to where they were?

Again she thought of those old, deluded writings. In that time people were controlled by a criminal organisation called a “government”. A government was an organisation dedicated to its own advancement which used violence, extortion, and theft to control the people. To justify this evil system there was an exercise called an “election” where the people could choose which criminal government they wanted. It was so much easier now that corporate leaders competed in the free market (all hail its beautiful fairness) to control society.

Ayn eventually arrived on the 13th floor and passed a co-worker leaving her 12 hour shift of work. She recognised the person whom she thought was called “Ayn 19:15:15” (Ayn was a popular name in this era) but she didn’t speak to her while in her work space, of course.

As she sat at the production line Ayn thought about her part in the great enterprise she was part of. Other countries without such progressive economies might use machines for this work but there was almost full employment here because people were prepared to accept payment which was competitive in the global employment market (all hail its blessed productivity). Some might complain that it was difficult to live with such low rates of pay but how could anything ever improve unless productivity was increased? It was just common sense.

And the alternative was just too terrible to even think about. Ayn had heard of those who didn’t enter into the job market (all hail the one true way) by negotiating a fair contract with an employer. They turned to crime and were usually quickly and efficiently corrected by the hugely effective private crime elimination corporation, CopCorp. No one quite knew what happened to the criminals but that wasn’t surprising since the operations of CopCorp were protected by commercial sensitivity, as they should be.

It was 07:15:30 and Ayn eliminated all irrelevant thoughts from her mind as she started work. Those labels wouldn’t get stuck to Coke bottles by themselves and the the new level determined by the consultants to be sufficient to meet new productivity targets had just been increased from 30 to 35 per minute. She was determined to do her part to make the corporation more efficient.

With the immortal words of Ayn Rand on her mind she began work: “your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human” and “There is no such thing as a lousy job – only lousy men who don’t care to do it.” Hallelujah!


Capitalism Sucks

April 22, 2014 36 comments

When I look at the problems we are facing in modern western societies today they seem to often result from an unhealthy faith in capitalism. If you listen to many people who support the “common wisdom” you might think that there is no question about it: capitalism is the only economic system which works and if you don’t like it you must be a communist who wants to live in a Soviet style socialist dictatorship. Actually, no.

Not many people would want to live in a type of society like that from the Soviet era. But many would say that the society we live in now – where wealth inequality is out of control and the planet’s resources and environment are being thoughtlessly exploited for the benefit of big corporations – also has significant problems.

The problem is that the issue is presented as a false dichotomy: just because a person recognises problems with capitalism doesn’t mean they want to live in a Soviet (or Chinese, or North Korean) style of state instead.

To see why capitalism fails look at the definition of what it actually is. Here are the first few paragraphs from Wikipedia, along with my comments on them…

Quote: Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry, and the means of production are controlled by private owners with the goal of making profits in a market economy.

Comment: And that is the problem. If the primary aim is just making profits then “higher” goals are forgotten. The environment is ignored, social injustice is justified, and longer term research and progress which doesn’t fit in with a short term profit-making strategy is forgotten.

Quote: Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labor. In a capitalist economy, the parties to a transaction typically determine the prices at which assets, goods, and services are exchanged.

Comment: That phrase “capital accumulation” is one of the sources of the problem. In most countries wealth (and consequently power) is concentrated in certain groups who have accumulated money in the past, often through quite questionable means. Once the accumulation starts it continues without necessarily providing any benefit beyond making that group richer.

Quote: The degree of competition, role of intervention and regulation, and scope of public ownership varies across different models of capitalism. Economists, political economists, and historians have taken different perspectives in their analysis of capitalism and recognized various forms of it in practice. These include laissez-faire capitalism, welfare capitalism and state capitalism; each highlighting varying degrees of dependency on markets, public ownership, and inclusion of social policies. The extent to which different markets are free, as well as the rules defining private property, is a matter of politics and policy.

Comment: So the type of capitalism which a country has is just a result of the political regulations in force. There is little about capitalism which is natural or inevitable. It’s a system which maintains itself because those who get rich through capitalism use the resulting power to reinforce the system which made them rich. In many ways it is just as corrupt as the Soviet socialist system it despises.

Final quote: Many states have what are termed capitalist mixed economies, referring to a mix between planned and market-driven elements. Crony capitalism, is a state of affairs in which insider corruption, nepotism and cartels dominate the system. In Marxian economics this is considered to be the normal state of mature capitalism, while in anarcho-capitalist theory it is considered a political distortion of capital and markets.

Comment: I know that quoting Marx immediately opens you to being labelled a far-left nutter but that’s really just a way to easily dismiss any good points he might have made – and he did make plenty! It seems to me that he is absolutely right: capitalism has clearly reached a point where “insider corruption, nepotism and cartels dominate the system”. Would anyone really deny this?

So while the world has mainly moved to a capitalist economic system and that has resulted in a lot of good (although I would debate how much of that results from economics and business, and how much comes from science and technology) we need to be very aware of the problems inherent in that same system. We can do a lot better but the blind faith that capitalism is the only system worth considering has to go.

I am pleased to say that more people seem to be seeing things the same way as me too. For example, economist Thomas Piketty has mined 200 years worth of data to support the theory that capitalism doesn’t work. Well obviously… that’s what I’ve been saying for years. Capitalism sucks!

Business Bureaucracy

April 20, 2014 Leave a comment

About three weeks ago my wife and daughter started a business partnership when they bought a cafe and are now owner/managers of it. It has been an interesting process because, while I only help by working there casually, it has shown me the pressures of being a small business owner.

Of course, I should emphasise that almost everyone suffers pressures of different types so I’m not trying to make a case that small business owners are a special case or are even particularly disadvantaged. For example I remember a senior bureaucrat in a large organisation lamenting the long hours he had to work. Yeah life’s tough: he worked 70 hour weeks but so do a lot of us, but we don’t get paid $400,000 per year as compensation!

Considering there is so much said about how small business is allegedly so essential to our economy I’m surprised that there isn’t more done to make running a small business easier. The amount of paperwork my wife has had to do to get things set up, the amount she has had to pay various organisations for services of dubious value, and the number of regulations and business laws she has had to learn are truly scary!

Then there are meaningless rules such as Easter trading restrictions which make running a small business even more difficult. If people want to open during Easter why not let them? What relevance has some ancient festival celebrating spring and then assimilated by Christians for even more dubious purposes got to do with our modern society? Very little as far as I can see.

I have said in the past that business needs to be controlled so my dislike of regulations might seem to be hypocritical here. There are two points I should make about this. First, the major damage caused by commerce comes from big multinationals, not small or medium sized businesses. And second, if government (national and local) is going to require compliance with so many regulations they should offer free expert services to set them up for new small businesses. Inland Revenue does this to some extent already but it needs to be considerably extended.

I have considered becoming self-employed myself on several occasions but I’ve got to say what I have seen really puts me off. It’s not that anything is necessarily extremely difficult, the problem is just the pure volume and the mind-numbing mediocrity of it all! I really just couldn’t be bothered with it.

More Commitment

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

I recently listened to a podcast in the interesting “Philosophy Now” series which discussed commitment. You might think that commitment has got to be a good thing, but like many superficial analyses, this is not necessarily true.

For a start, what is commitment? It’s the tendency to have loyalty to a view or activity, or to have allegiance to a group to a greater extent than would normally be the case. I think when put in such matter of fact terms it doesn’t sound quite so attractive.

Clearly this is all about balance. There are appropriate levels of dedication to a view, then there is lack of perseverance at one end and stubborn refusal to change at the other end of the spectrum.

There are plenty of examples where an individual has persisted against prevailing views and even against the preponderance of evidence and has ultimately been proved right. But there are far more examples of the opposite: where a view against the evidence and majority opinion has just turned out to be wrong.

So maybe commitment is good or bad depending on the reason for the commitment. If a person is committed to a view because it fits with their political or religious ideology and for no other reason, then that is probably bad. Note that their beliefs may actually be right but even if they are it would be more through luck than knowledge, logic, or skill. And in general they are far more likely to be wrong.

On the other hand, if a person has a commitment to an idea because they have looked at the evidence in a different (and more accurate) way, or they have found new evidence, or have developed new techniques which aren’t yet widely supported, then commitment to the idea against the mainstream is probably a good thing.

Of course there are many examples which fairly clearly fall into those two categories but there are others where a person’s motivations aren’t quite as clear, and that’s where things get tricky.

So now I want to list a few examples of commitment of the different types I have listed above. First, what about bad commitment? I see a lot of this. Some people have commitment based on political or religious ideals.

For example many religious people have an unrealistic and harmful commitment to their holy book. They believe evolution can’t be true because it contradicts Genesis, or that gay people are evil because the Bible says so, or that we don’t need to be concerned with the environment because their god will look after it.

Others might have commitment to a political cause or group. They believe Obama is a socialist because a conservative politician has said so, or that global warming is fake because that’s the prevailing view in a particular political clique they identify with, or that allowing a free market is the only good way to have the economy work efficiently because some ideologs on the particular TV channels they watch said that.

Note that those things aren’t necessarily false (although most of them clearly are according to all good evidence, but I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which) but even if they are true the supporter has arrived at the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

What about examples where a person’s commitment has been for the right reasons?

Copernicus was convinced the Sun was the center of the universe (actually this isn’t true, but it is the center of the Solar System) because it just made more sense when the conventional ideology was removed from the equation. He was committed to that idea and finally saw his ideas in print on the day he died. He was right, and was committed to the idea for good reason.

Fred Hoyle was a great astrophysicist who was well known for his support of the Steady State Theory of the Universe. He supported this idea well past the point where any reasonable person would have given up, mainly because it just seemed more philosophically elegant. He was committed to that theory for a bad reason – and he was wrong.

String theorists are convinced their ideas are true even though there is little, if any, empirical evidence supporting them. From a mathematical perspective string theory is very compelling (from what I am told because I have never tried to understand the maths) but is that enough to commit your professional life to an idea? I don’t know. This is genuinely a situation where the appropriate level of commitment is unclear.

So in summary: commitment is fine but you choose your causes carefully. Being committed to the wrong thing just makes you an inflexible idiot, or worse: a dangerous ideolog.

In Defence of SETI

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment

I was surprised recently when I looked back through my records and realised that I have participated in the SETI at Home project for about 15 years now. If you haven’t heard of this project, let me explain: SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and the project uses many ordinary computers to analyse enormous amounts of radio telescope data looking for signals of intelligent life.

It becomes quite competitive and some people use large numbers of computers to try to analyse more data (or “blocks” of data) than anyone else. I have used varying numbers with varying power to process data in the past but am currently just running a few.

I have been criticised on occasions because people see this project as a waste of time, internet bandwidth, or computer power; or as a frivolous extravagance; or even as a pseudoscientific pursuit with no basis in reality.

I disagree, and this blog entry is primarily to defend the SETI project and maybe the more controversial and quirky scientific projects in general.

For a start, this is a real science project and many other real science projects are being conducted this way today. Volunteers like me make our computers available to analyse data which would normally require expensive supercomputers. The data is generated as a side-effect of other science projects and is managed by Berkeley University, so any claim that this is pseudo-scientific is definitely untrue.

What about the claim of frivolity? Is it silly to look for “little green men” or other intelligent alien life? Unfortunately the real science has been confused with the pseudo-science of UFOlogy and other claims and conspiracies in this case. But the two aren’t the same. SETI projects are a genuine attempt to look for intelligence using techniques which might get negative or positive results. There is no initial assumption that aliens exist. Most pseudo-scientific UFO “researchers” already “know” that aliens exist and pick and choose their evidence accordingly.

Finally, is this a waste of time, bandwidth, or computing power? In most cases these resources weren’t originally purchased to run distributed experiments like SETI but there is very little loss involved and the potential gain is significant. Would the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe not be the greatest discovery of all time? How cool would it be if it was one of my computers which discovered the signal!

I have commented in the past how puzzling the lack of signs of intelligent life is, for example in a post titled “Science and Fiction” from 2013-01-15 where I discussed the Fermi Paradox: the fact that informal estimates indicate there should be plenty of life elsewhere in the universe, yet we see none.

This is surely one of the great mysteries of the universe. If we are the only intelligent life (and maybe the only life of any type) in the whole universe that would be totally astonishing, yet the opposite idea, that life is everywhere, is equally amazing.

Surely supporting the SETI projects by doing something as simple as installing the SETI at Home software and paying for a little bit of extra electricity and internet bandwidth is worth it. This is arguably the most awesome experiment the human race has ever attempted, and a lot of it is being performed on a bunch of ordinary computers around the world, including mine. The only criticism should be of those who don’t participate!

Trolling for Big Pharma

April 7, 2014 Leave a comment

I have occasionally been accused of being a bit of an internet “troll”. In case you don’t know, that is a person who frequents discussion forums on the internet deliberately causing trouble by arguing with people who have firmly held views on a particular (usually controversial) topic.

Common targets for trolling are places such as religious forums (a few years back I was kicked off a religious video site called “GodTube” for telling them the truth about evolution), and right-wing political forums (I was banned from one after arguing for tighter gun control in the US), and groups involved in other generally nutty beliefs such as global warming denial and anti-vaccination.

Sometimes discussions can get a bit heated and on many occasions I have been quite pleased that I live on the other side of the world to most of these nutters because I really think some of them would be capable of actually carrying out the threats they make. But at the same time many of their rants are so ridiculous that I can’t help but laugh.

Have a look at this one for example, from a participant (called “IHateOJBArgusJimBob” – that personal touch is so nice!) on an anti-vaccination web site where I (along with a couple of allies known as Argus and JimBob) presented some actual facts about vaccination (I apologise for the crude expressions in the following)…

IHateOJBArgusJimBob (Guest): OJB, you are an idiot. I have a mental disability but I have enough sense to know how stupid you are. Which pharmaceutical company’s pole are you smoking on? Why do you smoke pharma-pole? Why are you a liar? Why are you so mean to other people? Since you are so hateful, why not chat with me? I’m hateful to people like you and your butt-dart buddies Argus and JimBob. No one trusts the CDC anymore except for those who have not the power to think for themselves. But seriously, why are you so stupid? Did yo’ momma not feed you from the teet? Too much Thimerisol [sic] on the brain? I’m doing what you do to others. I’m not gonna prove anything or give any facts. My job is to focus on you, JimBob, and Argus. I will just sit here on this website and “troll” trolls like y’all. This is gonna be fun. I don’t need scientific facts (you don’t provide any) to prove anything, I am only here to talk crap to you and those other idiots. Do y’all just sit next to each other and smoke pharma-pole together? I wish we could meet in person so I could kick you in the nuts just for shits-n-giggles. Where you at? Remember I have a disability so please type slowly. Everyone else, please ignore me and realize that this is necessary. Sorry to sound childish but these idiots do so I will too.

Honestly, no matter how many times I read this magnificent rant I still have to laugh. This guy is like a parody of himself, he’s so great! I mean stuff like “do you smoke pharma-pole”, “Did yo’ momma…”, “trolls like y’all”, and “I have a disability so please type slowly” sounds like a comedy routine but I think this guy was serious (apart from maybe the last comment about typing slowly).

Many of the participants in the discussion seemed fairly certain that the only explanation for my incredible denial of what they thought were clear facts was that I was being paid off my the pharmaceutical industry. For example: “Why do you smoke pharma-pole? I want scientific facts as to why you, OJB, smoke pharma-pole? Please, I need to know this.” and “You are very stupid for a government spy.” and “you are either a dumb sheeple or a big pharma troll” and “BTW, who is paying you?”

Unfortunately I’m not being paid by big pharma, because I could use the extra cash. In fact I am very aware of the problems with big corporations who abuse their positions of power, but this in no way makes the use of vaccines any more likely to be some vast conspiracy as these people seem to think.

The real reason I do this because I know there are some people on these sites who aren’t just raving lunatics and who might be persuaded by reasoned discussion. Plus, I must admit, it is kind of fun just winding up the nutters – from that perspective I suppose I really am a troll!

Just Won’t Go Away

April 4, 2014 Leave a comment

The subject of religious instruction in schools has been discussed on several occasions in the past in this blog, but it just won’t go away. That might be because it is an interesting moral and social dilemma with no obvious answer, or it could be that it is a subject where my opinion is changing, or maybe it’s because of the shifting attitude of society in general. In fact, a recent interview on the subject from Australia was the reason I started this post, but maybe I’ll post something on that specifically in the future.

My original post on the subject was titled “Bible in Schools” and it was written way back in 2005. In that I said “…surprisingly to many people who know me as an opinionated atheist, I actually support Bible in schools.”

The next major post on the subject was from 2010 and was titled “Bible in Schools Revisited”. In that I said: “My thoughts on this subject have hardened somewhat. In fact I don’t think the Bible should be taught in schools any longer.”

Most recently, in 2013 in a post “More Bible in Schools” I said: “…religion has clearly showed us that it cannot be trusted to act reasonably. In previous blog entries I have argued for allowing religion in schools because I thought kids would be able to disentangle fact from fiction. But I’m beginning to change my mind. Religion is totally oriented towards propagandising the masses, especially the young and impressionable.”

It seems that the change in my attitude is obvious: I am realising that religion in schools isn’t an honest attempt at introducing an interesting belief system to people, along with its well recognised positive philosophical points. In fact (with some possible exceptions, although I’ve never heard of any) it is a dishonest and cynical attempt at capturing the minds of young people through insidious propaganda.

I think it has always been well known that capturing a person’s mind while they are young is an effective way to control them for life. Vladimir Lenin said “give me a child for the first 5 years of his life and he will be mine forever.” It seems to me that this is nothing new because surely this is a principle the churches have known for thousands of years!

Admittedly indoctrinating kids at school is leaving it a little bit late according to Lenin, but as they say: better late than never.

The supporters of religious teaching would probably counter my arguments by saying that Christianity has been (and some will say still is) an important part of our culture. It’s impossible to deny that it has been important in the past although I would say that significance has had both positive and negative aspects. And it does still have some limited significance today as well, but that can be taught in a neutral and factual way in history and social studies classes so no special “instruction” is needed.

Another argument might be that it’s important to introduce the ideas of religion to kids so they can make their own decisions. Again, that is fair enough, but indoctrination in just one possible option doesn’t really encourage good decision making. If you really want to encourage kids to make good decisions then give them all the facts and not just one version of the fiction.

So it is an interesting question and one where my opinion is becoming more hardened against religion (surprisingly to some, it has moderated in many other areas). But society does seem to be turning against religious indoctrination so maybe I’m just reflecting what society is already thinking.