Archive for June, 2015

Islam Again

June 29, 2015 13 comments

On occasions in the past I have defended Islam against attacks from Christians because I considered it was hypocritical criticising one religion when the religion of the critic is, or has been, just as bad. There is no doubt that Christianity has been responsible in the past for atrocities which were just as bad as anything done in the name of Islam today (look at my blog post “You Want Immortality?” from 2010-01-25). But that was in the past and maybe it’s time to forget about that and look at the facts of the present.

So here’s fact one: whenever I see a headline announcing a violent atrocity I assume it was some Islamic group or individual which was responsible and in just about every case I am right.

Here’s another: every time I hear of an example of denial of basic rights, extreme misogyny, or a primitive and draconian political or legal system I assume an Islamic state is involved and I am almost always right.

And what about this: when I hear of a group demanding that it be treated with respect or that it should be given special rights for no good reason I think there’s a good chance that is an Islamic group and I am rarely wrong.

There are exceptions, I know, but the trend is clear. It is Islam which is the cause of many of the world’s biggest problems today. It’s totally true that Christianity was in exactly the same position hundreds of years ago (violent atrocities, stifling freedom, demanding special rights) but that ended when the church’s power was broken and its influence has declined ever since.

So the defence that other religions are as bad is clearly untrue and the related excuse, that they were as bad in the past, is mostly irrelevant. But what about the excuse that Islam is fundamentally good and a religion of peace and that all the bad examples are just where people have misinterpreted the religion’s real meaning? And related to this, what about the excuse that extremist groups are fundamentally motivated by politics, not religion?

Well these claims have some validity but they don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. There are clear messages in both the Koran and Hadith which incite violence and repression. Not everyone chooses to interpret these messages literally, or act on them, but many do. And those who take the messages seriously could be considered more genuine followers than those who conveniently ignore them. And the connection between religion and politics in Islam is impossible to ignore. Sure, politics is involved, but it is politics based on the teachings of the religion.

While researching this blog post I came across a web site called The Religion of Peace ( – an ironic name, I think) which lists atrocities linked with Islam since the attacks of 9/11. In total there are 26,796 attacks involving 174,806 deaths and 249,731 injuries. I checked a few and they seem to be genuine, and the site claims that the list has been checked by the BBC and found to be underestimating the truth by a significant amount.

So let’s have a look at some of the “highlights” from just the first page of this list…

Syria, 2015-05-29: A captive is forced to dig his own grave before being beheaded to shouts of ‘Allah Akbar’. By any reasonable standard this is disgusting and evil. And how can anyone claim there is no link to Islam when the phrase Allah Akbar is used (from what I understand it should be “Allahu Akbar”, meaning “our god is greater” or something similar).

Nigeria, 2015-06-23: Boko Haram burn homes, shoot children and cut the throats of women in a night-long rampage across two villages that leaves forty dead. What possible process could lead someone to shoot children? Clearly only sociopathy, or the certainty given by an extreme religious/political ideology could lead to anything so hideous.

Iraq, 2015-06-26: A physician is dragged from his hospital and executed by religious radicals. It doesn’t matter how good a person’s intentions might be or how much they make an effort to help the community, they are all fair targets to a group with irrational beliefs.

Kuwait, 2015-06-26: Sunni radicals stage a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque, calling it the ‘temple of the rejectionists’ and leave over two dozen dead (27 dead, 227 injured). Is it better or worse when people start murdering members of their own religion who just happen to have some minor differences in belief? I know that this is a partly political thing and that Christians were also involved in similar activities not that long ago (Ireland, for example) but does that really mean that Islam isn’t the primary cause?

OK, that’s 4 down, 26,792 to go, but if you aren’t sickened by this already then there is little point in continuing.

A question to Muslims: if Islam is a religion of peace and these attacks are against its teaching why hasn’t Allah intervened? For example, why hasn’t he sent someone to clarify the message in the Koran? Oh, I forgot, Mohammed was the final prophet – well that hasn’t worked out too well, has it?

If moderate Muslims don’t want to be labelled along with these extremists there is a very simple answer. Give up Islam! It’s not that hard. By following a more moderate form of the religion they effectively support the extremists.

Looking at the main page of the BBC news web site I see two major recent atrocities listed, and guess who was responsible for both? No surprises, it was Islam again!

Fund Quickly, Fail Quickly

June 24, 2015 1 comment

I don’t think there is much doubt that the major contributing factor to the quality of our modern lifestyle (life span, physical goods, health, access to basic essentials, etc) is science and technology. Some might claim that it is contemporary political systems, especially democracy; or efficient economic systems, especially free-market capitalism, which are the main contributors, but in many ways these are just mechanisms for delivering sci-tech’s benefits.

You might say there is a chain of activity, with science first providing the fundamental information about how the world works, then technology taking that information and utilising it by creating real solutions, then business providing a way to distribute the results. Additionally you might include politics which coordinates the whole process and philosophy which provides the fundamental basis for everything but the more cynical amongst us might suggest that those two are more hindrance than help!

In case you were wondering, there is a reason for this rather theoretical introduction, and that is a discussion of the achievements of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is an agency of the US Department of Defense created (as ARPA) in the 1950s and which is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.

While its official purpose is to create military technologies those same technologies have become important in the world as a whole. The two best examples of significant, every day developments are the internet and GSM, but there are others as well.

The predecessor to the internet was Arpanet which had the first host-to-host connection on a fully operational packet-switching network in 1969. Later that year a four-node network was in use and the first email was sent across it in 1972. The name “internet” was first used in 1973.

The GPS project started in 1973 and was originally intended to be only used by the US military but is now available for free to all users, probably because there is no way to stop it being used and because the Russians have an alternative anyway.

Other important technologies which started partly or wholly as DARPA projects include the predecessor to the Unix operating system which in turn became systems used on the vast majority of the computing devices today: OSX, iOS, Linux, and Android (that’s right, Windows doesn’t really matter).

And voice recognition systems, like Siri, also started there as a project to create a system for use by soldiers in the field.

I could go on, but there are plenty of web sites with details, so now is time to get to my real point. That is firstly, is this good value considering DARPA’s budget is (in 2012) $2.8 billion annually; and secondly, how did an organisation like this manage to do so many truly innovative and brilliant things?

On the first point, $2.8 billion sounds like a lot (and it is) but it’s less than what Coca Cola spends on advertising (in 2010 that was $2.9 billion). What positive outcomes have we got from years of Coke advertising? Absolutely nothing, in fact there would be a good case to say it has caused a lot of harm. So in many ways the DARPA budget is great value.

What about the second point? Well, a catch-phrase I have heard relating to DARPA is “fund quickly, fail quickly”. That might sound like the worst possible thing but maybe not. It’s difficult to make progress if there is a constant fear of failure, and not generating good value for money (or what is deemed good value by funders and managers) is a fear many other researchers have.

Amongst the well known successes there have no doubt been many failures but it seems that the military have always been less accountable for their vast budget and that extends to DARPA too. I think that overbearing accountability from management and accounting (who I like to say know the price of everything and the value of nothing) is the number one reason for mediocrity in the world today and that might explain why true innovation so rarely comes from private companies.

of course, there are counter-examples of that, such as IBM’s research division and Xerox PARC which are well known sources of new technology from the not too distant past, but they were operated semi-autonomously and avoided the usual smothering oversight from traditional business management.

I’m not saying scientists and engineers should be left on their own without any “adult supervision” at all… actually I am, because there are numerous instances where this has worked and it’s only when the fear of failure is eliminated, and the courage to attempt the impossible (another principle at DARPA) is encouraged that real progress can be made. That’s what we need more of: fund quickly, fail quickly.


June 8, 2015 Leave a comment

As a skeptic, and someone dedicated to establishing the objective truth of various phenomena, I sometimes feel quite depressed when I see how many forms of pseudo-scientific, semi-intellectual, superstitious, and new-age beliefs are still quite popular.

But then there are times when it seems that some progress is being made too. For example, recently Australian doctors have been told to not prescribe homeopathic remedies, and pharmacists have been asked to strip them from their shelves. This has come from the official body for Austrialian GPs which has concluded that homeopathic products have no health benefits above placebo.

Before I go any further I should tell you exactly what homeopathy is. This is the dictionary definition: “a system of complementary medicine in which ailments are treated by minute doses of natural substances that in larger amounts would produce symptoms of the ailment”. For example, a homeopath might suggest a small dose of caffeine to cure poor sleep.

When I say small doses I really do mean small. In classic homeopathy the dose is usually so small that there is literally nothing left of the actual “active” ingredient and all that actually exists in the product is water (or filler if the remedy is in solid form).

Some forms of homeopathy have real doses of herbs and other naturally sourced components. In this case it really isn’t homeopathy any more, it’s herbal medicine, and the efficacy of that is another subject entirely (I would say the vast majority of herbal remedies do nothing, some might help a bit, and others will make things worse). I’m really talking about classic homeopathy (which was really invented in the early 1800s) here.

Here’s some of the nonsensical bullshit describing homeopathy I found on one of their more lucid web sites: “Today, homeopathic medicines are safe for all to use. They are dispensed as highly dilute, sub-molecular remedies that are free of the chemical side effects associated with other medicines.”

Well yes, that’s probably true. Since they do nothing they are relatively safe apart from possibly being used instead of a real drug which might help. And because they have nothing in them (apart from water or filler) then they are free from side-effects. In fact they are free from all effects!

Here’s some more: “The nature of potentisation is the mystery of homeopathy. What is understood is that the potentisation process imprints energetic information from the original substance onto the diluting liquid during the stages of succussion.”

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand this because there is actually nothing to understand. It’s pure gibberish, including words that homeopaths made up to describe processes which don’t exist. Note this phrase “imprints energetic information” which is a classic in many forms of pseudoscience. When you see that you know you’re dealing with pure gobbledegook!

Finally, there is this: “This liquid is then prescribed according to the law of similars as either drops or medicated pilules to the unwell person. They carry the energetic information into the body to trigger a self healing reaction that moves the person back to a state of health.”

Pure drivel, and there’s that “energetic information” again!

I have never heard of a New Zealand doctor (I mean a real doctor here, not a naturopath, homeopath, or other quack) prescribing homeopathic remedies, although I have heard indirectly that some do. I do often see homeopathic products for sale in pharmacies though, which is disappointing but not surprising because pharmacies have commercial as much as medical priorities. So selling what people want – whether it works or not – just to make money is to be expected.

And that does bring up an interesting question. Should people have the freedom to buy products which don’t work if they want to? Well, maybe, but there a few reasons I would question this right.

First, it is against the Consumer Guarantees Act (part of New Zealand consumer legislation) to sell something you know doesn’t work, and after years of professional training all pharmacists should know that homeopathy doesn’t work.

Second, medical professionals are committed to serving the best interests of their patients, not providing them with something which won’t work and might be used instead of something which would be effective.

Third, the patient/medical professional relationship is an imbalanced one and it should be up to the expert, who has the greater authority, to guide the decision making process appropriately. If the patient really wants to use a useless or even dangerous remedy then the doctor or pharmacist probably can’t stop them (there are plenty of suspect internet sites which sell this stuff) but at least they shouldn’t be making it too easy.

So-called supplements and complementary and alternative medicine (please note the acronym SCAM is purely coincidental) have not been held to the scrutiny they should have been. Even though they are treated as medicines by some they are not tested or regulated to the same extent. The quality control in many cases is really poor, and they sometimes don’t even contain what the packaging says.

Also note that the argument that it’s better to use SCAM rather than conventional medicine because that way you avoid paying the big pharmaceutical companies doesn’t really work any more because those same big companies produce a lot of the alternative medicine. And yes, they must know that most of them don’t work!

Still, as I said at the start, there is hope because homeopathy is gradually being discredited and eliminated from sources which would normally have some credibility (like pharmacies). Maybe other ineffective or unproved alternative medical systems like naturopathy and acupuncture will be next. I’m optimistic that the world is becoming more rational and eliminating homeopathy is a good next step in that direction.


June 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Recently I decided to “re-read” some classic science fiction books. Because I don’t have a lot of spare time to actually read I usually now listen to audiobooks instead because I can do this while driving, walking from place to place at work, etc. In fact the first book I listened to took up a bit more than a journey to Wanaka (about 3 hours) and back for some computer work I did there.

So what was the first book? Well why not start with one of the true classics from the golden age of science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I listened to the first book in the trilogy a few weeks ago and just finished the second, “Foundation and Empire” yesterday. Well, that’s nice, you might say, but what’s the point? Yes, I do have one…

There were a few things that stood out about the books: first, the anachronisms which are probably inevitable in a book which is 60 years old (the first book was published in 1952), no matter how forward-thinking the author was; and second, how relevant the story is in a political, social, and economic sense.

It’s even more interesting to observe the modern political relevance when you consider the book was based on ideas from “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, a book written in the 1700s about events from years before that. Maybe the basics of human nature never change even though the technology does.

So let me get the anachronisms out of the way first. Because I am interested in technology I found these rather disconcerting although they didn’t really spoil the story and deeper message of the book.

Here’s an example: messages were sent in small metal containers and secured using a physical lock mechanism, and information was stored physically on some sort of film. We have already moved on from that!

Also, smoking was a normal part of most of the characters’ life. We have moved on from that as well.

And finally there was a vague feeling of sexism because the female characters (with one possible exception) were not treated with much respect. I’m not one to get too worried about political correctness but this was too obvious to ignore.

In fact, like many science fiction stories, the characterisation was a bit weak in places. But that isn’t necessarily as bad as it might seem because science fiction is often more primarily involved with ideas, speculation, and technology rather than characters.

So to move on to the areas where the story is still very relevant. I continually found myself comparing the political and social events in the story with what was happening in the world today, especially in relation to dominant civilisations becoming “old” and “tired”.

In the fictional world of “Foundation” the old Empire became bureaucratic, undemocratic, conservative, and un-innovative. In the real world the Romans became complacent and inwards looking and their empire fell, so did the British, and now the American (economic) empire is looking insecure. The parallels are obvious.

But in the second book, “Foundation and Empire”, the Foundation itself becomes what the Empire was. It also becomes undemocratic and authoritarian. And even if the original plan works the ultimate aim is to create a new Empire to replace the old. Why an Empire? That mode of government had already failed and would fail again. Why not explore better forms of organisation? Again the failure of imagination regretfully matches the real world.

An interesting minor theme I noticed in the second book is how incompetent leaders distrust competence in their underlings. The emperor effectively ensures his own defeat because of his paranoia about a successful general. Of course, his paranoia is in some ways justified because previous emperors had been assassinated by senior military figures! But in the real world similar events happen. Even if there is no conscious effort to stifle the innovative efforts of a leader’s subordinates it often works out that way effectively because of excessive use of authority, indecision, and bureaucracy.

In authoritarian regimes treason becomes the most serious crime possible. And in many cases treason is defined as not doing what the supreme leader wants. But in the book one character questions this view and states he serves his society, not its leader. It is like one of my favourite quotes from American essayist Edward Abbey: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government”. Again, the relevance to the real world is uncomfortably obvious.

Finally there is is the issue of faith. Religion seems to be a thing of the past in this universe. As an exclamation of surprise or frustration the characters say “Galaxy!” instead of “God!”. But there is faith, especially in Hari Seldon (the orignal scientist responsible for the plan to recover from the inevitable collapse of the empire) and that almost leads to disaster when people rely on their “saviour” instead of thinking for themselves. The relevance to the real world? Well, I think further comment is unnecessary.

I will complete the original Foundation Trilogy when I listen to the third book soon. After the original books Asimov wrote sequels and prequels and I may or may not listen to those. There are interesting comparisons which can be made between the Foundation series and the Star Wars movies. Except Star Wars doesn’t really invoke any sense of surprise in its plot twists, and while both Foundation and Star Wars can be a bit weak in their character development at least Foundation has that deeper level of political relevance. Maybe the difference between the two in itself indicates the dumbing down of our society (or empire if you wish) and heralds its inevitable demise.

But if the Empire will fail, where’s our Foundation?