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Nonsense is Nonsense

July 28, 2015 Leave a comment

There are many times when I have to check the date to see what century we are living in. Generally these occasions relate to crazy and antiquated beliefs, most often associated with religion and other forms of superstition. It’s difficult to believe that the outdated and ridiculous ideas often reported in the news can persist into an age where we should all know better.

So what’s the latest example of this phenomenon? Believe ot or not, it’s witch doctors operating in New Zealand’s biggest city, especially in the Indian community.

Of course, just about everyone is completely ridiculing the whole idea that witch doctor’s have any place in modern society but I couldn’t help but notice that other, very similar, forms of superstition are still accepted by most people.

For example, the claim that the witch doctors’ “patients” might be possessed by demons is (quite rightly) ridiculed, but if a similar claim is made by a person in a similar position in the Christian church it is taken far more seriously (although you do often notice an edge in those stories where it is implied, but not stated, that demonic possession is just silly).

So when one of the witch doctor’s victims says in horror: “He wasn’t a priest, he was a witch doctor!” I would wonder whether she was really all that much worse off.

Clearly from the point of view of getting a cure for whatever problem the person is seeking help for they are no better off with either practitioner, but I do have to admit that at least most priests don’t engage in such predatory charging regimes as the witch doctors do.

But what about other alternative medical practices which might not be quite so obviously false but might involve similar substantial fees for something which doesn’t work (beyond placebo effect, of course). What about our old friend homeopathy, for example?

Let’s compare witch doctors and homeopaths: they are both engaged with a superstitious worldview which has been discredited many years ago, they both promote medical techniques which have no credibility and have been shown not to work, they both accept substantial fees for the provision of these services, and they both exist in an unregulated environment where “anything goes”.

You might say that the patients (or victims if you prefer) who engage the services of these people are doing it as a result of a freely made decision and yes, I can see the merit in that point, so maybe we should be doing more (as a society) to point out how ridiculous these ideas are.

But that doesn’t just mean we should continue to ridicule witch doctors. Let’s extend that and also deride any belief in demonic possession, any idea that “vibrations” remain and have a medical effect even after all the original substance is gone, any belief that crystals have some mysterious healing energy, and all other support for potentially harmful superstitious beliefs.

And let’s extend that to a lesser extent to other therapies too. For example, there is little chance that acupuncture and chiropractic have any merit, at least in their pure forms. These aren’t as silly as demonic possession, of course, but they still deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.

In summary, I think it’s quite unfair to just pick on the Indian witch doctors (has anyone noticed a potentially racist element here?). If we are going to criticise dishonest, superstitious forms of healing let’s look at them all, including those with a certain amount of support in the mainstream.

After all, nonsense is nonsense, no matter what it’s origin.

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No More Privatisation!

July 24, 2015 2 comments

It’s always disappointing – although perhaps not very surprising – when people, especially politicians, act based on ideology rather than practicality. The current New Zealand government has certainly moderated this behaviour quite considerably but the old neoliberal agenda we have all suffered from since 1984 is still a factor, although it has to be admitted it is a far weaker factor than it has been in the past.

One of the key articles of faith of neoliberalism is that privatisation is a great thing and will ensure better, cheaper, more flexible, and more innovative services. Well I call bullshit on this because the evidence seems to indicate the exact opposite.

The latest example of privatisation gone wrong is prison operator Serco who have made a total mess of running the Mount Eden facility, but I could have told them this would turn out badly before they even started.

How? Well let’s look at the record of privatisation in New Zealand…

Railways was sold to overseas owners who ran it into the ground, did no maintenance, and almost destroyed the whole system, then accepted a payment far more than what it was worth (the government’s fault for offering it, I agree) to sell it back to the state so that it could be rescued. Assessment of this privatisation: a total disaster.

Air New Zealand, our state airline, was privatised and run so incompetently had it had to be re-nationalised, because if it hadn’t the company would have been bankrupt. After this rescue it has done quite well but that didn’t stop the current government from selling part of it’s share again. Luckily this time they are a little bit more sensible and still own more than 50%. Assessment: utter incompetence.

Telecom was privatised after a huge amount was spent on modernising our national telecommunications system so it could be sold for a fraction of what it was worth. Since then it has provided a mediocre service at best. Our broadband is terrible by international standards and the duopoly with Vodafone continues to rip-off every mobile phone user in the country. Assessment: a blatant rip-off.

And so it goes on for case after case. There are problems with government ownership for sure – I am not a rabid socialist who wants everything under state control – but privatisation is not the answer. In every case the average citizen has been hugely worse off as a result. But, of course the rich robber barons of this country – people who are probably great friends with the prime minster – love it because they can exploit our resources for their own greedy needs.

So given that sort of result what chance was there that private prisons would have worked? About zero, I would say, and now we see that is true. The utter nonsense of the reports which rated the new prison management highly now becomes clear. Those reports must have been based on either bureaucratic meaningless nonsense or on a series of lies by management – most likely both.

But what sort of piece of scum would you have to be to want to run a prison anyway? Why would you want to make money out of taking away another person’s liberty? I know there are a lot of extremely unpleasant and dangerous people in prisons and they probably deserve just abut everything they get, but there are also a proportion (probably about 5% to 10%) of inmates who are innocent and another significant percentage who are there for essentially arbitrary reasons.

So I’m sorry if I sound like a “bleeding-heart liberal” when I defend prisoners, but not caring about them because “they deserve whatever they get” just doesn’t match reality. There are probably some who have done such heinous things that they almost do deserve anything bad that happens to them, but that doesn’t apply to the majority.

The government can’t admit that private prisons are just fundamentally a bad idea of course, but they can’t ignore the facts any more either, so something will have to happen. Unfortunately the only real answer is to send Serco back to where they came from. In what wild fantasy world would anybody even entertain the notion that a company like that is the right choice to run a prison here? Only on Planet Key, I guess.

But the PM is increasingly being exposed as being totally out of touch with reality, and as the country sinks, Titanic-like, beneath the waves of economic disaster John (I’m right mate, I’m rich) Key, Stephen (Mr F***-It) Joyce, Billy (Country Bumpkin) English, and all the other sorry misfits will still be telling us how great everything is, from the safety of the fancy life-boats they have bought for themselves.

As I complete this post the news has just arrived that ministry staff are going to take over the running of the prison. Surely now not even the government can deny this is yet another privatisation failure. But will it stop them from making the same mistake again? History tells us probably not.

A Week with Apple Watch

July 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Apple Watch will be released in New Zealand by the end of the month but I always like to have a small lead on the pack and have had one for a week now. It has joined my iPhone 6, iPad Air, MacBook Pro, and numerous other Apple products (3 x Intel Mac Pros, 2 x G5 PowerMacs, another older MacBook Pro, 2 x Intel Minis, several older G4 Macs, an Apple TV, 4 x Apple Airports, and probably some others which I just can’t recall right now!)

So, given all the computing capability I already have what is the point? Does the Apple Watch fill any useful niche and is it worth the US$400 price? Well while I love the device and use it quite a lot, I’m still not totally convinced it is worth the price just yet.

First, let me describe the Apple Watch for those who haven’t heard yet. It is a range of smart watches which all have the same internal electronics but differ in the materials they are made from. The basic model (aluminimum case, hardened glass face, polymer band) is US$400 but if you want the same device made in Apple’s custom gold alloy it will cost you about US$20,000. There are two sizes and several different band materials.

As I said, the top model has exactly the same functionality as the bottom one, so the more expensive materials are presumably a matter of durability and fashion.

The Apple Watch is a watch, and a very nice one too, but it is really more a small computer you wear on your wrist. It can’t do much by itself though and has to pair with a newer model iPhone to be genuinely useful. The next revision of Watch OS will give it more autonomy and that will instantly make the device far more useful.

So, apart from telling the time, what do I use the watch for?

Primarily reading notifications of events happening in my digital world: incoming emails, text messages, calendar events, news items, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. The watch discretely taps you on the wrist and optionally plays a sound to notify you of new events which can be seen with a quick glance.

It is also useful for sending text messages, either through choosing a message from a set you create (Yes, No, See you in 5 minutes, Thanks, etc) or by using dictation through Siri. There is no keyboard on such a small device, of course, so Siri dictation is important and luckily it works really well.

Here’s how I would send a text. Raise the watch and say “Hey, Siri”. Siri listens and I say “Send a text to my wife”. The new text screen appears and I tap the dictation icon and say “What should I make for dinner tonight?”. I tap the send as text (audio can also be sent) and the text is sent. It actually works really well although you do feel a bit silly talking to your wrist – it’s all very Dick Tracy!

Many of my iPhone apps have an Apple Watch component which can be used for notifications and basic interactions. All of the third party apps run on the phone which is automatically accessed from the watch but this does make using them slower and less reliable. As I said above, Watch OS 2, which should be released in a couple of months, will allow these apps to run directly on the watch which will be a big improvement.

Third party apps have a wide range of functions. I have apps which notify me of observing conditions for the sky that night, the next time the Internatonal Space Station or an Iridium flare is visible, latest news updates from the BBC, where my tiles are (tracking devices I have on my wallet, car, computer bag, etc), and several others.

Most of the time the display shows the watch face and that can be chosen from a range of varied layouts – both analog and digital – and can be customised with various levels of detail, different colours, and different complications. A “complication” is a horology (the study of time keeping and clock making) term for extra information shown on the watch face.

Currently only Apple apps can provide this information: date, day, temperature, alarm settings, next calendar event, time in another country, etc, but in the next OS this can also come from third party apps.

Extra information from any app can be displayed in a “glance” though. This is a screen of information provided from another app and accessed by swiping up on the screen (the watch has a full touch interface, including forced touch for extra functionality). Notifications of recent events can be accesses by swiping down on the screen, just like on the iPhone and iPad.

Even the cheap model with the polymer band is quite comfortable to wear. It’s best to have it fairly tight so it stays still in operation and gives good contact for the pulse monitoring (I haven’t mentioned yet that this is also a health and exercise device and monitors your activity each day).

The watch looks really good and even the cheap model seems sophisticated. The bigger model is maybe a bit big, although big watches are the current trend I believe. The display is beautiful, bright, and high resolution and it almost looks like there are real hands moving around the display (assuming you use the analog option).

Battery life is surprisingly good. I recharge the watch every night (along with my phone, iPad, and laptop) but the lowest the battery has got so far is about 60% and I have used it a lot. I have noticed my iPhone battery has been draining a bit faster though. This is presumably because of the frequent Bluetooth interactions between the two. Even with this I still easily get a day of battery life out of the phone.

In summary, there’s not much which can be done on the watch which maybe couldn’t be done more easily on the bigger phone but with a device on your wrist it is so much faster to do many of those everyday quick interactions because there’s no need to pull the phone out of your pocket, unlock it, and find the appropriate app.

In some ways the current system is a bit limited, especially with the apps having to run on the phone, but this will be improved with that free upgrade to Watch OS 2. Reliability seems good for a version 1 device although I did need to force quit the message app once.

My final thought is that for someone dedicated to the Apple world the Apple Watch is an obvious addition, but to anyone else it is perhaps a bit of an extravagance!

More Foreign Exploitation

July 16, 2015 Leave a comment

No one likes political correctness… except maybe when being politically correct supports a position they want to take. And we all want to know the truth, don’t we? But what if the truth is inconvenient or contradicts some poorly defined social norms?

A major controversy which has erupted recently here in New Zealand concerns foreign investment in housing, in particular investment from China. There is no doubt that the lack of affordable housing is a major problem in many places and that foreign investment contributes to the severity of the problem, but who is really to blame?

Foreign investment certainly isn’t the only contributor to high house prices, and might not even be the biggest factor, but it does undoubtedly make a difference – I don’t think anyone denies this.

Of course claims that Chinese investors are causing social problems can easily be attacked as being xenophobic and racist. But that is really just too easy. A better question might be: is it true?

There are no official stats on this, but the Labour opposition has acquired some house sales data which they analysed and concluded that Chinese people who don’t live here buying houses is a significant problem. Because the analysis was of a statistical nature and involved a few estimates and assumptions it can be questioned but I don’t think the opponents of the findings are skeptical for rational reasons.

In every case I have seen the doubters have political or commercial reasons for denying the findings. Plus there are the usual unthinking objections based on political correctness (because it isn’t considered acceptable to criticise a group identified by ethnicity or culture).

In hindsight the Labour Party might have been better off to present their findings in a different way but it’s hard to see how they could have done that, considering the analysis was based on identifying people based on their name (a technique which isn’t exact but seems to have considerable merit according to what I have heard).

I am deeply suspicious of all foreign investment for the following reason: why would a person invest in another country instead of their own? There is only one reason really: to exploit conditions in the other country for their own financial benefit. Some foreign investment is helpful but I think it is likely that most of it is bad for the country being invested in. After all, if the foreign investor is making more money where does that come from? The country where the investment is made, obviously.

I have no objection to Chinese investment specifically, it just happens that China is the country of origin of most of these cases. I am just as cynical regarding Australian investment in our banking system, Americans buying up large properties, etc.

If Chinese investors want to build new houses here and sell them at a reasonable profit I can see some merit in that. If Australian banks want to set up here and offer good services without exporting excessive profits back across the Tasman that is somewhat acceptable. But if any group wants to “invest” (I use quotes because most investment is just exploitation) here and make little, if any, positive contribution while causing a major social problem then I just can’t see how that is a good thing.

How do we stop it? Well I would like to see capitalism completely dismantled and replaced with a fairer, more efficient system, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. So maybe all foreign investment should only be allowed if a significant advantage to our country can be demonstrated. Yeah, that’s not going to happen tomorrow either. Maybe it should be as simple as you can only buy a house if you’re going to live in it. Hmmm, probably also unacceptable to the ruling elite.

So that last rule could be modified to: you can only buy property here if you live in the country. That’s not enough to solve our bigger problems but at least it’s a start.

There’s one other point which should be made on this topic. If I wanted to buy property in China I wouldn’t be able to. Specifically, I couldn’t buy land at all, and I could only buy property if I had lived or studied there for at least 12 months. Similar rules apply in many other countries. No wonder foreign investors (or, more accurately, exploiters) think we are such suckers!

IT Support 101

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

As many of the followers of this blog will know, I do IT support and programming for a New Zealand university. After just spending 4 days away from “home base ” doing some quite intense and varied work I thought I might list a few hints for aspiring IT support people and anyone else who might have a passing interest. I have worked in IT since the days of the Apple II and have learned a few things in that time!

OK, here’s some of my best hints…

Hint 1: passwords.

It has been shown to be psychologically impossible for users to remember their passwords, and in the unlikely event that they do remember a password it will be even worse because it will be the wrong one, they will enter 10 times in a row, and they will lock themselves out of their own accounts.

Many users also “don’t have a password” for their email and other services. When you hear this you know you are in trouble because, of course, they do have a password which is provided automatically by the software. Generally on a Mac this can be retrieved from the system keychain – if you can get the master password for that!

Next, if a user has a password and they can remember it then it will most likely be something incredibly secure like “password” or “123” and the clue for these will naturally be “password” or “123”. Also, when you visit the same person several years later it will still be the same.

My solution to this is to give the user a reasonably secure password and record it somewhere safe for them (only with their permission, of course). I would recommend an encrypted document (with a really secure master password) and this will be stored on your hard disk which is also automatically encrypted, right? Bonus hint: get a Mac and use Apple’s built-in system, FileVault 2, which is secure enough for most situations.

Hint 2: help.

It is extremely rare to find a help system in any software which is particularly helpful. In fact I would say that all built-in help systems are basically useless. Luckily there is an alternative: our old friend Google! Yes, google the question or problem (google is now a valid verb meaning to search the web using Google) and you will generally get a much better answer much more quickly than you can get from any help system.

You do have to be aware of one effect though. That is that every new program, computer, or anything else will have many people complaining about its basic deficiencies whether these issues really exist or not. So don’t take too much notice of general comments that a certain system simply doesn’t work, especially when there is a trendy meme on that topic.

Sometimes the problem with googling (a noun derived from the verb google) is finding an answer which is specific enough. I like to include error numbers or unusual words which are more likely to give more specific information. Don’t google “Microsoft Word crash” because you’ll get millions of answers (that particular query might even overload Google!). Try “word mac hangs at launch” or something like that. Even better, use the Console app (on Mac) to check error logs and find more specific error information.

Hint 3: generic solutions.

Have you ever contacted a helpdesk and been told to reset your modem, restart your computer, rebuild a database, re-install your software, or just to “try it again?” Of course you have! These are what I call “generic solutions” and they are usually (but not always) given when the person has no idea what is going on.

That’s not to say that they won’t work or that you shouldn’t use them, but by using them you do lose something. Specifically you lose the chance to really know what went wrong, because the information needed to diagnose the source of the problem might be lost after a reboot, etc.

So I recommend trying to actually solve the issue unless you specifically know of a problem which cannot be fixed realistically any other way. In some cases I use this solution myself, usually when I want a particularly nasty problem to just go away. For example Microsoft Outlook is a horrendous mess which often corrupts its master database. I’ve never figured out why and would prefer it if people just didn’t use the program, but if they do use it and when (not if) the database becomes corrupted a rebuild is an easy solution.

Hint 4: burning bridges.

Some functions we perform on computers cannot be undone, or if they can be it might involve a huge effort. For example, deleting a settings file, because you think it is corrupt, might fix a problem. But on the other hand it might not fix it, and it might create more problems because valuable settings are lost.

So just move it to a new location or rename it instead. Remember that if you just move it some programs will continue to use it, even in the new location, even if that location is the trash! Relaunching the program, including any background processes, will usually persuade it to relinquish control of the file. And yes, reboot if you must!

If the process above doesn’t fix the problem you can just reverse the steps to get back to where you were. Don’t forget that any file re-created when the app launches will be in use and won’t be able to be replaced unless you quit the app first.

Hint 5: everyone is different.

Every user, every job, every computer, and every situation is different. Don’t get too hung up on policies, rules and regulations. These can be useful as general guidelines but I prefer to evaluate every case on its own merits and come up with an optimal solution for the user. Of course, many bureaucrats don’t like this but I always feel I am there for the users, not the bureaucrats.

Naturally this idea is a bit contentious so use it sensibly. If there are corporate requirements which aren’t too onerous it makes sense to follow them rather than risk problems later. Choose which battles are worth fighting!

Hint 6: don’t panic, and be nice.

This is the ultimate hint really and one that can be very difficult to always follow. I do have to say that on occasions I get frustrated with poor infrastructure, substandard programs some people are forced to use, and outdated hardware which really should be replaced, and might launch into a rant regarding the unfairness of it all.

I generally regret these and a simple statement like: “Unfortunately our network is very unreliable so we can’t give a perfect solution to this problem”, or “Yes, Microsoft PowerPoint often does that and I’m sorry but it can’t be fixed by anyone except Microsoft” is more effective anyway.

Also, don’t try to force people into working in a way which doesn’t suit them. When I was a beginner computer support person I tried to persuade people to adopt a zero desktop clutter policy, or to use PDFs instead of printing, but I now realize that is the wrong approach.

Many people just like throwing junk on their desktop even though I believe it is better to reserve it for stuff which is currently being used or awaiting being filed in a permanent location. By the way, the ability to find files amongst the clutter by just typing the first few letters of their name is a revelation to some users!

And most people still really like paper and I can see why because it has a lot of benefits, so let them use paper if they must. Maybe creating a preset to print double-sided might be a more valuable contribution to saving the trees than trying to eliminate paper completely.

Sometimes people have such hideous computer habits that it is worth trying to correct them. For example I once had a user who stored her documents in the trash because then they “wouldn’t use space on her disk”! That was an accident waiting to happen. And if people store so many items on their desktop that they overflow and pile up on top of each other at the top-right of the screen it is worth encouraging them to use an alternative strategy.

A secret stealth weapon I often use is to be nice. Many people get stressed when their computer is misbehaving and they might not treat you as well as they should. But being nice back to them – even if they are being a real ass – is something they might not expect and often works really well.

I once had a senior manager call me and rant about something I had done and when he threatened to never let me work in his department again I said “That’s unfortunate because apart from this I thought we had a really good working relationship”. I then went on to explain why I had done what I had done and he agreed that he had over-reacted. In the end he apologized to me!

So those are my IT support 101 hints. I hope you find them useful. Now I just need to take my own advice and eliminate those rants!

More Real Miracles

July 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Readers of this blog might be aware (how could you not be) that I am a skeptic. By this I mean that I take the default position of not taking new claims on trust, especially when they are from sources which have a history of being unreliable. Examples of these sources might include alternative medicine supporters, religious groups, and political parties.

On the other hand I do tend to be more trustful of new scientific announcements. This certainly doesn’t extend to unquestioning support because I realize that the majority of scientific findings are actually wrong (yes, it’s true), but the difference is that science has an effective correction mechanism so the errors are fixed.

Anyway, now that my traditional introduction is out of the way what is my main theme for this blog entry? It arises from a podcast I recently listened to which noted how scientific and technological advances are just accepted and treated as mundane by many people. It went on to comment on how, if these same advances had come from other areas of human activity, we would be totally astounded,

The example in the podcast was of cochlear implants. These are small devices which can give the deaf the ability to hear again. There are many videos showing the total amazement and joy when the patient treated with these first experiences them working.

Now this “miracle” was provided by science and, apart from the recipient of the device, we all just take it for granted because we are so accustomed to the success of technology. How would we react if this success had been the result of a homeopathic treatment, or healing prayer, or acupuncture?

I’m not talking about a single occasion where it might seem that one of these methodologies has worked but could equally easily be just a fluke (maybe the person just recovered spontaneously or maybe they didn’t have a genuine case of the affliction to begin with). I’m talking about a reliable, predictable technique which works in almost all cases (we don’t necessarily expect 100% success).

If someone could cure the deaf (or any other genuine medical condition) with close to 100% reliability by using just prayer we would all be totally amazed. It would be amongst the most incredible news ever, but when science does it we barely notice.

Why?

Well it’s quite simple really. Science works, we know it works, and we see constant examples of it working. Despite what they say, I think the majority of people know that alternative medicine, prayer, and other pseudoscientific and superstitious beliefs don’t work, so if they suddenly started getting positive results we would quite rightly be astonished!

I am currently flying at about 900 kilometers per hour at 11,000 meters and tapping this post on an iPad while enjoying a coffee. These are all miracles! Not miracles of the unexplained, supernatural kind, but miracles of the well understood kind, originating through science and brought to fruition by technology.

Imagine if I had enchanted a broomstick with a magic spell and could fly in the stratosphere at great speed and with impressive safety and comfort. Imagine I had found ancient secret knowledge in the form of a book which could store thousands of pages of text, pictures, and videos, and could source information from all over the world instantly. Imagine I could summon a coffee grown on the other side of the world instantly by just praying.

These would be miracles, but miracles of the kind which never happen and we all know that. The kind of miracles I am experiencing now are less surprising because they do happen, and that is because their source is something real. Something that humanity has discovered works better than superstition. But it is something that far too many people just take for granted or even reject.

Yes, despite the obvious success of our science many people do reject it in favor of nonsense. But they still enjoy the benefits because, well, the science and technology experts are pretty generous with distributing the results of their work, even when they aren’t really given the appreciation they deserve.

So anyone who thinks their alternative view is pretty miraculous I challenge you to do this: just examine what you do during the day and count how many examples of technological “miracles” you encounter. Now compare that with the miracles of your alternative ideas (remember they must work most of the time for everyone). How did that turn out? Let me guess the score: scientific miracles: hundreds, other miracles: nil.