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Archive for February, 2015

Just Give it Away!

February 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Much debate has resulted from the recent increase to our politicians’ salaries. While a few people have defended the higher pay, most have been quite disgusted by it. Here are a few comments on the subject: “other areas need to be addressed before pay rises are given to politicians” and “politicians are generally hard working [and therefore deserve the increase]” and “they already get paid enough” and “they get enough” and “we should give it to people who need it.”

So the general consensus seems to be that politicians are paid too much. Here’s what the actual increases were (in thousands of NZ dollars): the prime minister’s pay increased from 428 to 452, a senior minister from 268 to 283, and an MP from 148 to 156. While those are fairly generous salaries they really don’t seem grossly excessive to me. Compare this with the pay given to senior business leaders: Theo Spierings, CEO of Fonterra gets over $3 million; the CEOs of the NZ branches of major Australian banks get more; many CEOs of companies such as Chorus, NZ Post, etc get well over a million.

If anyone really thinks that idiot in charge of Fonterra deserves that then I would like to know their justification. And as far as the banks are concerned – well I guess if stealing as much as possible from the citizens of New Zealand, and shipping the profits off to Australia while downsizing the workforce and cutting services is a good thing then fine, otherwise how is this performance good? And let’s look at some of the others: Solid Energy is a disaster, Chorus seem to be incompetent, etc, etc. It just goes on and on.

So if these bunch of immoral half-criminals get paid millions then surely the PM – whatever you think of him (and I’m no great fan) – deserves $450 thousand. After all, he is responsible for the whole country, not just one small aspect of it.

The problem is not so much what politicians are paid, it’s the whole system of pay we have, a system which increasingly pays the top earners a lot more while effectively cutting pay to the majority. And don’t give me that nonsense about these business leaders providing jobs and having so much responsibility that they are worth all they are paid.

Do they really provide jobs? No, because every large company replaces several smaller, less efficient ones which would normally have more staff (which is one reason they are less efficient) and large companies tend to sacrifice good service by operating with minimum staff (hence the wait to contact help lines, have repairs done, etc).

Are the CEOs really responsible? How many problems does the NZ dairy industry have to encounter before the competence of the CEO of the export monopoly is questioned? How bad does the situation at Solid Energy need to get before we start considering that maybe the management isn’t so great? How much more incompetence managing the fibre installation do we need to see from Chorus before we question their ability? I don’t see much responsibility at all.

I can’t see why anyone should get paid more than the person in charge of the whole country (remember the PM is only paid $452K). I also can’t see why anyone should get paid less than a fair living wage (about $19 per hour according to many estimates). If this misdistribution can’t be fixed by voluntary means then maybe a tax regime could do it. I would suggest a 90% tax rate for those making more than $200K per year.

But putting all of this aside, let’s get back to the problem of politicians being paid more than they actually want. After all, the PM asked the Remuneration Authority not to allocate an increase this year. All they need to do is donate all of it to a charity. It’s that simple.

I heard two politicians (John Key and Russell Norman) asked what they would do with their increases. Neither really gave a straight answer but said something like they would accept the increase but reminded us that they do donate to charity. Sorry, but that’s not good enough. We all donate to charity and many of us can’t afford it as much as they can.

How about an assurance that all of the increase will go to charity? It’s so easy to do and it redistributes the wealth in a good way. Also, it’s just the right thing to do. So, here’s a challenge to all New Zealand politicians: just give it away!

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Should We Join the War?

February 25, 2015 Leave a comment

So the NZ government’s worst kept secret has finally been confirmed and it turns out that New Zealand is going to war. Well, maybe technically we aren’t, if you trust the prime minister – but does anyone still trust him after his extensive history of being economical with the truth?

We are sending 106 (or 104 in some reports) troops of which 16 will be there for the stated mission: training the Iraqi military. But is this a good idea? According to a Herald poll just under half of respondents think it is, 20% think we should be there but in a humanitarian role, almost 40% think it’s a bad idea, and just 1% aren’t sure.

You might be surprised to hear that I am a part of the 1%.

Why? Because I think we need to stand up to groups who threaten the good aspects of our society (relative freedom of speech, freedom from religious extremism, freedom from violence, etc) so fighting against ISIS seems to be an unfortunate necessity (more moderate solutions are unlikely to work with such a barbaric and extreme group). But at the same time we are participating in a process which caused the problem in the first place because without the original Iraq war which the US started for completely false and illegal reasons, the Middle East would not be in the situation it is in today.

The PM, who said his party would not become arrogant and would seek consensus where it could, totally failed in both of these objectives by committing New Zealand to participating in this conflict without putting it to a proper vote. Even his closest partner party Act doesn’t agree with the action but because they have to do what they’re told (they only exist because National lets them) they can do nothing about this.

And despite the PM’s assurances, it seems to me that at least in the short term this will make the world a less safe place for the people of New Zealand. By participating in this military action we could easily become a target for extremism. And if you think that is unlikely ask Japan and Canada how unlikely they initially thought it was.

On the other hand a small majority of New Zealander’s do want this to go ahead (if you can believe the Herald poll which is undoubtedly biased). And should we not do our part by participating in international actions against groups like ISIS? And shouldn’t we support our allies, like the US, when they want our support? And shouldn’t we do what seems right, even when it involves the regrettable need for violence and some potential risk?

Of course, if the US hadn’t bumbled into Iraq all those years ago and completely destroyed the tenuous stability the country already had things wouldn’t be so bad today. I totally agree that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator but was Iraq really worse then that it has become today? And what about Libya and Afghanistan? Do we begin to see a pattern here?

You could say the US and its allies caused this situation so they need to now fix it. Or you could say that based on past experience they will just make things worse so they should keep out. Either way, do we want New Zealand to be seen as an ally of the US after it has made such a mess of this?

And there is one other point which needs to be made here: that is that on some ways the current decision is the worst one possible. We have contributed 16 personnel to train the Iraqi military. Clearly this is a waste of time from a practical perspective. So we make ourselves a target for criticism and possible violence while making no useful contribution, other than a political or diplomatic one. How is this a good idea?

The people who are so certain of the correct action here maybe just haven’t given it enough thought. And that includes the PM, especially after his perfromance in parliament yesterday. Surely he deserves an award for best acting of outrage and moral superiority, a position he most definitely doesn’t deserve.

After all of this, you can see why I am one of the uncertain 1% in the Herald poll. There doesn’t seem to be a good option in this situation, only a series of bad ones.

Favourite Philosopher

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Everyone has a favourite philosopher, right? Well maybe not, especially since very few people (me included) know much about the subject, but actually I do have my favourites and one of those would certainly be Betrand Russell.

He was such a character and I think that was shown especially in his later years with his slightly dishevelled hair, the suit and tie, and of course, his pipe! But it was the way he thought about and described things that I liked the most, especially his often dismissive remarks about religion.

But instead of bashing religion yet again (and that is so easy that it often feels like picking on the poor retarded kid in the class who can’t fight back) I want to talk about some more general points he made which I find interesting, specifically his “Ten Commandments.”

So, here they are, including my commentary after each one…

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

That’s got to be good advice because it is often the people who are most certain of their beliefs (I know that psychic could read my mind, I know I saw a UFO, I know that I can talk to my god) who are really the most deluded and out of touch with reality. That doesn’t mean that when I say that I am 99% certain evolution is true that I am deluded of course because I can justify that number plus it does indicate some lack of certainty, even if it is only 1%.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

Evidence would normally only be concealed if the person concealing it wanted to be dishonest in some way. In an ideal world all debate and discussion would proceed with every party knowing about and giving appropriate credibility to every piece of relevant information. I do have to say that sometimes it is tempting to hide certain information when you know your opposition is going to misuse it, but I agree that in general it’s a bad idea.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

There’s a common criticism of our education system which says it discourages thinking. I think it’s hard to disagree with this in general although there are a few exceptions. Most people are too lazy to think too much whether they are encouraged to or not, but surely actively discouraging it can’t be good.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

I totally, absolutely agree. Anyone who works or participates in any hierarchical organisation (which is basically them all) will probably understand what I mean here. If someone is ordered to do something there should be a good reason why, and “because I want you to” or “because that is appropriate” are not reasons, they are examples of commandment 3, the failure to think!

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

This one can be a bit dangerous because I think we should give more credibility to experts than non-experts. That’s not to say for a second that experts are always right, but the fact is that no one has the time to fully research every fact themselves so we all must rely on experts to some extent. However we should remember to keep some room for healthy skepticism too.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

I think all opinions should be considered. Unless they are examined how do we know whether they’re wrong or harmful? And if they are harmful then countering them with a better argument is better than just hiding them which might lead to the criticism that they are being hidden because they cannot be easily countered.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

Again this can be a bit dangerous because you could look at the idea of continental drift about 100 years ago and say it was eccentric even though it turned out to be right. Unfortunately you could also look at the theory that all the world leaders are really reptiles from outer space in disguise as an eccentric theory and I suspect the chances of that being true are somewhat less! Still, it’s a good idea in theory, at least.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

I don’t agree with the idea of argument for its own sake… well maybe sometimes I do, and I often like to play devil’s advocate because that can be useful to explore issues. I do welcome debate and that’s one of the reasons I write this blog. If there was more genuine debate in this world instead of people just taking a conforming view for political (in the broad sense) purposes we would be a lot better off.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

This is similar to 2. It is best to deal with the truth, but I do have to say that when people misuse the truth it is tempting to twist it slightly. For example, to say there is no debate about evolution isn’t strictly 100% true but it so close to being the truth that to say scientists are 97% sure evolution is true just invites people to attach too much credibility to the remaining 3% (who are generally the nutty fringe, not to be confused with the eccentric minority in point 7).

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

I have often heard that the penalty for being intelligent and rational is often unhappiness. There is some evidence that this is true and that people who live in a fantasy world (for example, highly religious people) are more happy. Still, this evidence is unclear and a lot of the studies involve self-reporting. Whatever the facts though I don’t think any rational, intelligent person feels envious of someone living in a fantasy world. We tend to feel more pity (and a certain amount of irritation) than envy.

So there are his Ten Commandments. I think they are a bit limited in scope because they seem to apply more to intellectual discussion and philosophy (no surprises) than to the more mundane stuff the original Commandments covered, but they’re still interesting and worth thinking about.

Another Corporate Con

February 15, 2015 1 comment

For a group who ostensibly support self-sufficiency, financial prudence, and economic fairness the current New Zealand government sure seems to have double-standards when it suits them. They cut back on social programs helping the poor but that same policy just doesn’t seem to apply to big corporations.

I’m talking about the possible hand-outs to Sky City, of course (although I could have been talking about other similar issues in the past, such as the Warner Brothers movie deal). And I know that nothing has been decided yet but it’s very clear from what various government ministers are saying that they are very prepared to proceed with the contribution of possibly more than $100 million if they need to.

This is a rare case where both the left and the far-right are united against an idea that the center-right National Party supports. And the average citizen isn’t exactly enthusiastic either. A text poll by Campbell Live (yes, I know it’s not scientifically credible) found 97% of respondents were against the possible deal. Reaction to requests for contributions on the street (again, I know it was just a stunt) was equally clear where comments included: “selling us down the river to corporate business who are cynical about life”, “disgusting, isn’t it… obscene”, “not a hope in hell” and “you’ve got to be joking” (well yes, they were).

Not only is Skycity a typical greedy, self-serving private corporation (like many others) but I think it is certainly more evil than most, especially in the way it preys on the weak and poor who are addicted to its gambling machines. And yes, I know people should have the self-control to not allow themsleves to be hooked on gambling, but the fact is that many don’t.

Like all corporations Skycity isn’t all bad. They do provide some services that the country needs and they do provide jobs for a reasonable number of people, so that is good. But they do cause a lot of harm as well and on balance I think we would be better off without them. If they want to operate here then that is fine (well not really fine but I can reluctantly accept it) but they shouldn’t be getting hand-outs from the tax-payer via this government.

We are assured by some people, especially the prime minister, that the convention center would have significant benefits for the country. But no one has ever done any real analysis to prove this (in fact the PM cancelled an analysis being prepared by MBIE) and surely the PM’s credibility must be in tatters by now. How many lies and deliberate exaggerations must he be involved in before people see him for what he really is?

So John Key’s assurances that the new convention center would not cost the tax-payer a cent must be looking about as credible as his assurances that his party would not raise taxes when they were first elected (GST is a tax). Is it incompetence? Is it corruption? You be the judge, but an article in the NBR (which is presumably usually a fairly pro-business, conservative publication) titled “Close to Corruption” is an interesting read (and sure it is by Matthew Hooton who is prone to hyperbole, but he is also a well known National supporter).

John Key said that when his party easily won the last election (and I must congratulate them on managing to con the voting public for so long, although the lack of enthusiasm for the opposition was probably more important than anything else) that he would not allow them to become arrogant. Well that’s happening already, but at least now people will hopefully see him for what he is: a skilled con artist primarily interested in helping his rich, powerful and very corrupt corporate friends.

Right to be Wrong

February 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Do people have the right to be wrong? Do they have the right to anything? Do rights even exist? I guess it all comes back to definitions again, as is often the case. Some people will equate rights back to objective morality and therefore claim the requirement for a “moral source” (which is usually whatever their personal interpretation of god might be) but I tend to be a little bit more flexible and rational about it.

A right is an entitlement granted by society which a person (or other conscious entity) has which any reasonable person would consider to be essential to being able to live a full and productive life (here I use the word “productive” in the general sense, not just meaning economic productivity).

Clearly there is room for disagreement on what rights of this type should be but that is the case whatever your source. If you want to believe rights are bestowed by a god then there are problems in choosing the correct god and in interpreting that god’s true meaning. We see this all the time, and I would say that is because gods don’t really exist and people are trying to interpret something created by humans with no deeper meaning.

I often get involved in discussions where my opponent is supporting something which any reasonable person would see is wrong. For example, I have pointed out that some people argue based on an urban myth which has been revealed to be untrue, or a scientific study which has been discredited, or an alternative therapy which has been shown not to work. But they often say “well even if it isn’t true it’s still interesting or meaningful or has a deeper truth”. Yeah, right.

Another thing I hear is that they demand the right to be wrong and resent people like me pointing the problems with their beliefs. Or sometimes they say that their truth is a different type of truth than mine. Yeah, it’s the sort of truth which isn’t actually true, apparently!

So these people are wrong and some of them are idiots but it’s a free world (well, maybe) so don’t they have the right to be wrong? Before I answer let’s look at example…

There is a case in New Zealand at the moment where a father is refusing to treat his son for HIV because he doesn’t believe the diagnosis, doesn’t believe that HIV causes AIDS, and thinks it the treatment which makes people sick rather than the disease itself. His basis for these beliefs is material he read on the internet which he prefers to believe in preference to the health professionals working on the case.

The District Health Board involved has taken legal action to gain the ability to treat the boy directly instead of relying on the father who has either not given him the medication at all or who has given it intermittently (which is even worse).

So it seems that on the balance of evidence this person is wrong because he’s going against the advice of experts and seems to have sourced information from a crazy AIDS-denial web site. Does he have the right to be wrong?

No. No one has the right to believe and act on something that they should know is wrong. Deliberately ignoring experts and the vast weight of credible opinion and believing a nonsensical fringe group for some obscure reason is not a right anyone should have. And when that irrational belief harms and potentially causes the death of another person then it is even less a right.

And yes, the same applies to irrational religious and political beliefs. No one has the right to believe the world is 6000 years old. No one has the right to believe climate change is a left-wing conspiracy. No one has those rights because no one has the right to act like a moron when they (in most cases) aren’t actually that stupid.

I welcome new ideas and different perspectives and everyone does have the right to present new thoughts for our consideration. But there does come a point where continuing to support an idea which is obviously wrong is no longer a good thing. That’s when people should exercise their right to change their mind or their even more valuable right to shut the hell up!

Our Silicon Overlords

February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

A recent report predicts that one in three jobs could be taken over by a computer or a robot in the next 20 years. Already computers are doing a lot of the work that humans would have done in the past. Now these tasks have started to encroach into the areas where humans might have previously thought that a lot of skill which only they possess was needed.

For example, in some law firms, junior lawyers are being replaced by programs that can quickly scan documents in search of evidence, and in hospitals some pharmacists’ work is being taken over by drug-dispensing robots. Plus several teams are working on self-driving cars and in at least one case that is ultimately intended to replace taxis and other commercial vehicles driven by humans.

Many people think this trend signals the end of civilisation as we know it. Well yes, it does; but I, for one, welcome our new silicon overlords.

You see, despite what many people believe, the current arrangement we have where people have formal work is not a natural or inevitable consequence of human societal evolution. Work is in many ways an invention of the agricultural, and then the industrial revolutions. During those two huge changes in human history society changed despite what a lot of people wanted (and these people, such as the Luddites, had a point). Now we just have to accept that it’s going to happen again. We must un-invent work.

I don’t want to suggest that everyone should just sit around all day chatting on Facebook or watching YouTube movies – although many might want to. I think everyone has something they would prefer to do if they could and in the wider meaning of the word that could be classified as work. Some people might like writing, others might like gardening, or building stuff in their workshop, or reading, or performing music. When the machines do all the tedious stuff this is what humans should be doing instead.

People with no imagination will say “but who will pay you for doing that?” That’s the problem though, people have been brainwashed into thinking that the current economic system has some inherent inevitability. But it hasn’t, because it’s just something that has been inflicted on the world as a result of those revolutions I mentioned above (especially the industrial revolution of the late 1700s) and then taken up as the Protestant work ethic.

If machines can do most of the work humans do now and if that then means humans are free to do the type of activities which might now be seen as recreational, does that not indicate that the social and economic systems we currently now have should change to accomodate this new reality? Why should we try to adjust the effects of the next great revolution (which we are already in and could be called the information or automation revolution) to fit in with the outdated economic system we currently work under.

Critics of this idea will accuse me of being lazy and just wanting to live in a society where I get everything for nothing, but that isn’t true at all. In my spare time I do productive stuff – often more useful stuff than I do at work – such as writing programs, sharing interesting information on the web, setting up computers for people, and many other things. And I know plenty of other people who do a lot of really useful stuff in their spare time too. Work often just gets in the way of these more useful activities.

In many cases we are trying to make the old system work by just creating new, meaningless work. In my experience about half the people I know perform no useful function at all. They just have jobs which seem to exist because other useless people have created them. The world would be a better place if these people did actually just spend their life pursuing their hobbies instead. And this situation will get worse before it gets better – in fact it will never get better.

We live in a time of change but we should welcome this change rather than trying to stop it. Machines are better than us at doing many things already, and in the future they will be better at doing everything. Why fight against the inevitable?