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What’s the Point?

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

What’s the point in having a competitive, efficient economy if most of the people working in that economy are unhappy? Should workers have to put up with having no power, getting paid less in real terms than in the past, and having far less favourable work conditions just to create an economy more able to compete in the global marketplace?

And even if that objective of greater competitiveness is achieved isn’t the first response of the competing countries or companies going to be to do exactly the same thing and to degrade their worker’s lives even more? Isn’t this a classic “race to the bottom” situation?

In recent times there have been a lot of examples of this exact failing even here in New Zealand. For example, there have been stories of petrol station and supermarket employees having money deducted from their pay to cover losses due to theft that they couldn’t reasonably be blamed for. One was offered the option of having her pay docked or resigning. She resigned but the employer docked her pay anyway. She was being paid $13.75 per hour. What kind of inhuman monster acts that way to another human being?

And that callous and indifferent attitude is also demonstrated by big US corporations, such as the recent example of Walmart. They pay their workers wages inadequate for a reasonable life but don’t worry, they ask for donations to help those people – from other low paid workers! Meanwhile the piece of scum who inherited this evil empire (Alice Walton) lives in a $25 million Manhattan condo and is “worth” 35 billion dollars.

Unfortunately this is becoming a more common phenomenon. Before the power of unions was broken the employee had some level of protection but now there is nothing. Note that I’m not advocating a return to the “bad old days” where some unions had too much power and exercised it in irresponsible ways, but I think there is a need for the power balance to become a bit more equal.

I think the problem gets back to a sense of entitlement and a general arrogant attitude held by many managers and other employers who believe they can do almost anything because people are desperate for work and just have to put up with whatever suits the employers whim at any particular time. And the legality of many of these actions doesn’t seem to be much of an issue to many.

This arrogant attitude comes from several sources: first, the general zeitgeist that private enterprise is the answer to every problem; second, specific ideas instilled in managers through management training and reinforcement from people further up the hierarchy; and third, the mind-numbing adherence to rules and best practice principles which many people use instead of actually thinking.

Of course I am mainly referring to the situation in larger organisations here because most of these deficiencies are hardly likely to exist in the people running your local corner shop or other small business.

And that leads to an interesting observation people working in large organisations often make. The management, especially those involved with staff, are like a different species. It’s like they have a rule book instead of a brain. They refuse to think and apply reasonable common sense to a situation, instead they quote rules and regulations that no reasonable person would even know exist, and certainly wouldn’t care about.

I think it’s becoming apparent that we do need a change of direction, otherwise we will end up with the most efficient economy where the top 1% get all the benefits and the rest of us are little better than slaves.

The Nuremberg Defence

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The Nuremberg Defence, also known as Superior Orders or the German term “Befehl ist Befehl” (orders are orders), is a legal defence involving whether a person can be held guilty for their actions when those actions were ordered by a superior officer, official, or manager of some kind.

I like to extend the idea to those people who claim that they are doing something which might seem to be unfair, or excessively bureaucratic, or pedantic, or immoral in some way because they are “just doing their job”.

I personally have come across a couple of instances of this recently but one I can’t talk about at this time. The other was a rather trivial example but it illustrates the problem of people “just doing their job” in a way that most people have some familiarity with.

The trivial example involves the actions of a parking officer (or what we often refer to in rather derogatory terms as a “meter beater”). When I leave work at the end of the day I stop at my wife and daughter’s cafe to help them clean up. The cafe is in the middle of town and parking is difficult so I quite often park in a paved area which isn’t strictly a car park but which I have used for 6 months with no complaints or problems.

Yesterday a meter beater, in this case a particularly annoying one who my my father-in-law would refer to in rather quaint and amusing terms as “one of those little three foot square sheilas” (translation: she’s short and fat and the word “sheila” just refers to a woman), gave me a $40 ticket for parking on a footpath.

When I saw her arrive on her ridiculous little scooter I sprinted out and asked if it was too late to move the car. She said “you should move it, but you’ll get a ticket anyway”. When I commented that that seemed rather harsh she said “just doing my job”. In that situation I thought mentioning the Nuremberg Defence would have probably gone over head (both metaphorically and literally considering her stature) so I just let it go.

As I drove up the street looking for another park I was very tempted just to nudge her bike on the way past but of course I would never really do that. And after driving around for a while I gave up on trying to find anywhere else and just went home, so my family had to finish cleaning up the cafe by themselves. When I got home I played a bit of “Clash of Clans” on the iPad and grabbed a beer so it wasn’t all bad!

The point is though: what was really achieved by this? Has the world ended, has anyone even been moderately inconvenienced by my parking in that area the previous 100 times? I don’t think so. The owner of the shop I park next to sees me do it and has never indicated that he has a problem with it.

The parking officer was just “doing her job” but the degree to which people do their jobs is at least partly up to them, surely. She could have just pretended that I wasn’t there. If she had received a complaint, could see that I was causing a hazard, or noticed I was parked there for long periods of time then fine, maybe I deserve a fine. But this just seemed too much a case of strictly following the rules rather than following common sense.

Most people get into situations where they might feel the need to invoke the Nuremberg Defence but it rarely happens to me. It’s not that I ignore the instructions of my “superiors” (surely that must be the worst possible description for them) because I am happy to use their opinions as guidelines, but I never follow any rules or regulations to the letter like my scooter-riding friend did.

Indeed, I think its unfortunate that more people don’t have the moral fortitude to use my strategy.

Influential People

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent episode of the excellent podcast Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe presented the following Skeptical Quote of the Week: “Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all.”

The quote is by Martin Gardner (1914-2010), a mathematician and writer who had a prominent place in the skeptical community. It’s quite a strong statement and I think it makes a fair point, but just how accurate and justified is it?

First I should look at whether history classes (and by extension our society in general) really do concentrate on political and military leaders. I found an interesting list of important figures at Time magazine where they used a computational process to analyse credible sources, including scanned historial books, to establish a list of the most influential people in history. This isn’t really what the original quote was about but I think it is still worth commenting on.

Here’s how Time described their process: “we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.” and “By analyzing traces left in millions of scanned books, we can measure just how fast this decay occurs, and correct for it.”

Anyway, here’s the list…

1 Jesus
2 Napoleon
3 Muhammad
4 William Shakespeare
5 Abraham Lincoln
6 George Washington
7 Adolf Hitler
8 Aristotle
9 Alexander the Great
10 Thomas Jefferson
11 Henry VIII of England
12 Charles Darwin
13 Elizabeth I of England
14 Karl Marx
15 Julius Caesar
16 Queen Victoria
17 Martin Luther
18 Joseph Stalin
19 Albert Einstein
20 Christopher Columbus
21 Isaac Newton
22 Charlemagne
23 Theodore Roosevelt
24 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
25 Plato
26 Louis XIV of France
27 Ludwig van Beethoven
28 Ulysses S. Grant
29 Leonardo da Vinci
30 Augustus
31 Carl Linnaeus
32 Ronald Reagan
33 Charles Dickens
34 Paul the Apostle
35 Benjamin Franklin
36 George W. Bush
37 Winston Churchill
38 Genghis Khan
39 Charles I of England
40 Thomas Edison
41 James I of England
42 Friedrich Nietzsche
43 Franklin D. Roosevelt
44 Sigmund Freud
45 Alexander Hamilton
46 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
47 Woodrow Wilson
48 Johann Sebastian Bach
49 Galileo Galilei
50 Oliver Cromwell
51 James Madison
52 Gautama Buddha
53 Mark Twain
54 Edgar Allan Poe
55 Joseph Smith, Jr.
56 Adam Smith
57 David, King of Israel
58 George III of the United Kingdom
59 Immanuel Kant
60 James Cook
61 John Adams
62 Richard Wagner
63 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
64 Voltaire
65 Saint Peter
66 Andrew Jackson
67 Constantine the Great
68 Socrates
69 Elvis Presley
70 William the Conqueror
71 John F. Kennedy
72 Augustine of Hippo
73 Vincent van Gogh
74 Nicolaus Copernicus
75 Vladimir Lenin
76 Robert E. Lee
77 Oscar Wilde
78 Charles II of England
79 Cicero
80 Jean-Jacques Rousseau
81 Francis Bacon
82 Richard Nixon
83 Louis XVI of France
84 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
85 King Arthur
86 Michelangelo
87 Philip II of Spain
88 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89 Ali, founder of Sufism
90 Thomas Aquinas
91 Pope John Paul II
92 René Descartes
93 Nikola Tesla
94 Harry S. Truman
95 Joan of Arc
96 Dante Alighieri
97 Otto von Bismarck
98 Grover Cleveland
99 John Calvin
100 John Locke

It’s easy to point out how bizarre some of this list is and plenty of people did that in the comments. Of course it wouldn’t make any difference who was in the list and in what order because someone would find it strange. But I will make a few points about the list and quote a few of the better judgements made by commenters…

While there is good reason to believe Jesus didn’t even exist I think the (probably fictitious) character should be near the top because there is no doubt that the religion his followers founded has been incredibly influential: in both good and bad ways. The same applies to Muhammad.

Similar points were made by commenters, such as this one: “There’s zero [I disagree with the word zero here] evidence that Jesus ever actually existed, therefore he should not be included in this list. If you’re going to include Jesus then you may as well also include Superman and Batman.”

A similar point might be made about King David (position 57) and King Arthur (who is almost certainly a fictitious figure) at position 85. And what about Socrates (at position 68)? There’s some question regarding whether he really existed as well. Still, you could make an argument to say that idealised characters can be even more influential than real people.

The list is clearly western (and especially American) focussed, including George Bush at 36? Really? The inclusion of so many other American presidents in general is totally ridiculous. To the world as a whole most of these people were completely irrelevant.

Here’s a comment about Bush I liked: “If you guys believe that G W Bush belongs in such a list of greats then you should be fair and give a shot to Homer Simpson and Sponge Bob!”

As well as being very western-centric the list is also very male-centric. You might say that until recently women have had little chance to make big contributions but surely we could at least have had Marie Curie who is usually listed amongst top scientists.

And then the women rulers who are there (Elizabeth I of England at 13, Queen Victoria at 16) are absurdly listed ahead of the greatest scientist ever, Isaac Newton (at 21). Are they for real? Political leaders might have had a lot of influence at the time they were in power but in the long term scientific progress is far more important.

In fact I find the lack of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers bizarre. Does anyone really believe that Richard Nixon (at 82) was more important than people like Turing, Euler, or Maxwell (who aren’t even on the list)? Surely not! And what about King Henry VIII at 11? A fat buffoon who started a series of pointless wars, murdered his wives and political opponents, and created a religion for his own benefit is important but the originator of quantum theory isn’t?

Maybe the most ironic thing of all is that none of the inventors of the computer which made the creation and distribution of the list possible are actually on it.

A commenter said: “A pretty weak list all around. Not enough scientists/inventors (Pasteur, James Watt, Faraday, Maxwell, Clausius, Lavoisier, Kepler, Hutton, Heisenberg, for starters). Way too many presidents and heads of state who didn’t do anything unique.”

I hope the algorithm used to create the list was faulty, because if these really are the most important people to our society then there really is no hope!

Maybe Martin Gardner really did have a point, after all.

Batshit Crazy

November 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Politics isn’t fair and nobody should be naive enough to think it is. Different parties have different agendas and it makes sense that they will be treated differently – maybe not even deliberately – based on those agendas and on stereotypes which aren’t generally fair or accurate. For example I have no doubt that the media in New Zealand give the National Party, and especially the prime minister, a free pass on many things that they would criticise others for.

The New Zealand media is now almost entirely controlled by big business so it would be surprising if they weren’t somehow biased towards a party (that is National) dedicated to increasing the privileges that big business already has.

But everyone should understand this fact which means that the other parties really do have to be a lot more careful about giving the media an opportunity to ridicule them. So Green Party MP, Steffan Browning supporting homeopathy as a treatment for Ebola is so obviously stupid that you’ve really got to wonder what was he thinking (or if he is even capable of rational thought).

Unfortunately many people associate environmentalism with fringe beliefs and historically (and to a lesser extent now) I think there has been a link between them. But looking after the environment has now become a more mainstream idea and the need to do more to prevent global warming, water pollution, and depletion of resources is well supported by science. And that’s the type of idea the Greens have been trying to move towards.

But now this clown comes out and gives the enemies of his own party plenty of ammunition to use against them. WhaleOil and all of his rabid buddies have had a field day, and fair enough too, why wouldn’t they? Most people aren’t genuinely interested in discussing policies and ideas, they are simply interested in tagging their opponents with labels like “the Green Taliban” and “batshit crazy and dangerous”.

This is nonsense of course, but 90% of the far right’s ranting is nonsense. The Greens are now remarkably mainstream, maybe too much so in my opinion. And every party has its embarrassing members which the leadership probably wish would just go away. On the opposite side of the political spectrum the Act Party are are least as batshit crazy as the Greens. But I don’t say that because of one small indiscretion by one member (such as the Act leader suggesting that incest is OK) but because their core policies are dangerous.

There is one point I should have perhaps made earlier: homeopathy is nonsense, and potentially dangerous nonsense too. Not only is the prior probability of it being real practically zero because there is no mechanism through which it could possibly work, but every well designed study evaluating it has found its effects are at placebo levels.

So yes, the risk of using homeopathy instead of real treatments and of potential contamination in homeopathic products is probably greater than any placebo effect it might have, and suggesting it as a treatment for something as serious as Ebola really is dangerous. But that doesn’t mean that the whole Green Party or environmental movement in general are wrong. Making that sort of unfounded generalisation really is batshit crazy!