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A Reason for the Season

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Well, Christmas is over for another year so I guess it’s about time I spoiled the holiday spirit with one of my curmudgeonly blog posts. We are often asked by the more traditional groups in society to remember the “reason for the season” but what is this and does a reason even exist?

Well no, I don’t think so. I think several reasons exist – one of which is the one the traditionalists are thinking of – but there’s no longer just one reason (and maybe there never was).

So let’s get it out of the way now: the most usually cited reason for the season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the symbolic founder of the Christian Church. As you might have guessed, I have a few comments to make about this particular reason…

First, no one really knows whether Jesus even existed. In fact I believe there are very good reasons to say he didn’t; however I realise that the majority of historians disagree with me on this one. The big problem is that it’s not a simple case of him existing or not existing. The idea that Jesus existed in the way described in the Bible is ridiculous and most historians agree that didn’t happen, but there are some reasons to think the myths might be based on a real person or maybe several people. So if the Jesus myth described in the Bible is very loosely based on real events does that mean he existed or not? It’s somewhere in between.

Second, the birth story is hopelessly confused and contradictory. Prophecy indicated Jesus should be born in Bethlehem but the story already indicated Nazareth so a non-existent census had to be evoked to try to reconcile this. There’s also the non-existent star mentioned in only one gospel, the contradictory virgin myth, the fact that no one knows the day, month or even year of the birth, etc, etc. So choosing December 25 seems to be totally arbitrary (or is it? see below).

Third, Christmas, along with all the other known traditions, dogma, and myths associated with Christianity, only appeared decades or centuries after the alleged events occurred (or, in most cases, didn’t occur) and the special days all seem to be borrowed from earlier traditions. Christmas is clearly a mid-winter celebration, for example, and Easter originally came from a spring or fertility ritual.

But if the birth of Jesus isn’t the reason then what is? In most countries the number of people reporting that they think of Christmas in the traditional, religious sense is shrinking. Christmas for many is about a break from work, time with family, an excuse to buy stuff, or just a summer (southern hemisphere) holiday.

So there is not just one reason, there are many: traditional, modern, religious, family related, consumerist, etc. Many Christians arrogantly assume theirs is the only reason but that isn’t true – it isn’t even the first. If we want to celebrate the original reason let’s go back to pagan rituals like Saturnalia, in fact the descriptions of those sound pretty cool (lots of drinking and sex).

Christians are welcome to their reason, no matter how silly it is, and I’ll stick to mine (enjoying summer, relaxation, drinking, etc) if they don’t mind. At least mine is based on reality.

Apple’s Dark Side

December 21, 2015 2 comments

Everyone knows I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy. Most fanboys (or fangirls, or fanpeople or whatever the gender neutral term is) will defend their chosen cause to the death but I, of course, am far more rational about the whole situation. While I appreciate the undoubted (well some of my Microsoft fanboy colleagues might say there is doubt) advantages of Apple products I do see the bad side of Apple as well.

I bring this subject up because recently Apple CEO, Tim Cook, has made a statement defending Apple’s tax payment record which I disagree with. Here’s what he said: “Interviewer: Apple is engaged in a sophisticated scheme to pay little or no corporate taxes on $74 billion in revenue held overseas. Cook: That is total political crap. There is no truth behind it. Apple pays every tax dollar we owe.”

Of course, he (Cook) is wrong (by not really answering the question). Apple might be following a literal interpretation of the laws, and part of the reason the company doesn’t want to bring those profits back to the US is because of American tax law, but that doesn’t excuse deliberate manipulation of the tax laws, in every country where they operate, in a cynical way which is clearly against the laws’ intended purpose.

So Apple might make great products – perhaps the best in the world – and they might make some sort of contribution to improving their environmental and labour impact on the world, but they still have a long way to go until they could really be looked with any real admiration regarding their moral standards.

We all know that every large corporation is the same. They all avoid paying their fair share of tax in every country they work in. And what they do might be legal but who cares about the law? What they are doing is still evil, whether it’s legal or not. After all, large corporations are one of the major groups contributing to how the laws work so the fact that they can easily bypass a law they had a lot of influence over really doesn’t make them any more moral.

So everyone else does it but does that still make it OK for Apple to do the same thing? Of course not.

And then there’s the capitalist imperative of returning the maximum amount possible to the shareholders by paying dividends or increasing the value of the company. Again, all large corporations do this. They ignore their obligations to society as a whole (through minimising tax payments, creating poor working conditions, polluting the environment, influencing politics for their own benefit) so that they can pursue that one goal of maximising return to the shareholders.

Again, this is an almost universal attitude, and Apple maybe doesn’t quite follow it to the same extent as some other corporations, but it’s still just not good enough.

What about Apple’s contribution to the world through their products? Well, as I have said on many occasions, I think that Apple produce the best products in the world in the categories they participate in.

I’m currently sitting in a cafe writing this post, and I am doing it on a high spec MacBook Pro. I also have an iPhone 6S, an iPad Air, and even an Apple Watch with me, and I don’t want to get started on all the Apple gear I have at home! So I obviously like Apple products. Does this mean that the end justifies the means? Can I excuse all of Apple’s corporate antics because at the end of it all they produce great products?

Well to an extent I can, but I would make three observations here…

First, Apple could make equally good products while paying much more tax. They have more money in the bank that most countries so clearly they don’t need it all for R&D or any other essential activity related to creating better products.

Second, many of the technologies and scientific advances core to the products Apple makes come from the non-profit sector, especially universities and other research organisations, where almost all of the truly fundamental breakthroughs originate. These organisations are funded through taxes. That’s right, the taxes you and I pay but Apple and other corporations don’t!

Third, I believe that a properly set up and funded non-profit organisation or even a series of smaller companies with no corporate culture could create even better (and cheaper) products. Look at the new technology that the big corporations use in their products and you will see it is often from a smaller company which has been assimilated into the corporate juggernaut.

I think that big companies, despite their propaganda to the contrary, are rarely genuinely innovative (except in their accounting practices).

So yes, I agree with my anti-Apple colleagues who say that Apple sucks. They really do suck, there is no doubt about it. But I think they suck a bit less than the alternatives, like Microsoft, Google, Samsung, etc. And as a member of the technical elite I guess I have no choice but to continue to support them.

Finally, it’s OK for Tim Cook to tell us about Apple’s successes but I really wish he would be a bit more honest about its dark side too, because that undoubtedly exists.

Proud of My Culture

December 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Recently I’m beginning to get really concerned that I might agree with people like Tony Abbott and Donald Trump. Well actually, I’m exaggerating because that is far too simple an appraisal of the situation. What I should say is that there are occasional things these people say in which I can see some merit.

A lot of my allies on the liberal left might be horrified by this because there does seem to be a tendency for them – just as much as our opponents on the right – to vilify certain people and refuse to consider anything they say in a positive light.

But that isn’t a fair approach. No one is totally good or totally bad, and I think we should give everyone’s opinions a fair chance. I really try to argue against ideas rather than people although I do suspect I would find a few transgressions in my writing here in the past. Also, there is a case to say that some people are so unreliable that rejecting their ideas, without further consideration, as a sort of shortcut to analysing them and evaluating them, isn’t completely unfair.

But what specifically is the point that my (perhaps erstwhile) enemies from the right have been making which I feel some agreement with? Well, it’s about cultural superiority. I’m getting a bit sick of politically correct people saying that we need to fully accept and value all cultures equally, especially in relation to our own.

I totally agree there are plenty of bad things about Western culture (by that I mean democratic governments, secularism, consumerism, capitalism of various types, high tech, etc – the sort of culture typical of the US, most of Europe, Australasia, etc). I have commented on the faults of this culture plenty of times in the past but let’s also recognise the good points, especially in relation to the alternatives.

For example, I believe Western culture is greatly superior to Islamic culture. That doesn’t mean I’m racist or anything else, just that according to the attributes I consider important (an emphasis on rationality, personal freedom, etc) our culture is superior to theirs. We all recognise that different cultures have different strengths and weaknesses which means it’s illogical to pretend they are all the same. So some must be better than others, and I think ours is best.

I used the words “ours” and “theirs” above unashamedly because I am quite proud of our culture. Again, there are plenty of bad parts to it but on balance I think we are doing OK. So I don’t want too many attributes of an inferior culture like Islam diluting the good qualities of our current western society. Wow, I really am starting to sound like Trump and Abbott now!

But on the other hand I do like cultural diversity too and I wouldn’t mind if we could gain some of the positive aspects of Islam. The problem is, I can’t think of any! I really can’t think of anything about Islam which is worth having. But that’s probably just my ignorance because, as I said above, I presume there are good aspects to all cultures.

So to try to establish some benchmarks let’s look at an indicator of the relative contribution of different cultures (in this case more specifically religions) to the world. Let’s look at the religions of people winning Nobel Prizes. That is one of the greatest achievements in world culture. I do admit that it is primarily a Western construct so we might expect some bias towards giving prizes to Western oriented people, but how much would it be?

Here’s a comparison I found on a Mulsim web site: Nobel science prizes awarded to Muslims: 4 (and one case was debatable) compared with those awarded to Jews: 176. Muslims make up 25% to 30% of the world population and Jews 0.2%. What’s wrong here? I’m sure there is some bias but can there be that much?

No, because the cause of the discrepancy is not primarily bias, it’s that Islam is an inferior culture when it comes to contribution to science. And yes, I know it wasn’t always like that, but it is now, and I don’t believe that can be realistically denied.

I’m not a Jew (in fact I don’t have any religious beliefs at all) so I don’t claim any ownership of that astounding statistic, but I think this is primarily a cultural thing rather than a religious one anyway. So I think that Western culture (which the vast majority of the Jews belong to) is scientifically vastly superior to Islam. No contest.

What about peace and stability? Well you just need to look around the world and it’s very obvious that the vast majority of conflicts are associated with Islam. Here’s a list of the countries where conflicts have at least 10,000 deaths per year: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria. Notice anything about those countries? I think this shows that Western culture is vastly superior to Islamic culture in terms of peace and stability too. Again, no contest.

Need I go on? Despite the glaring problems with Western culture I think we should be proud to be part of it because it could be so much worse. And yes, there are obvious examples of that for us all to see!

Keeping it Simple

December 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Donald Trump thinks the US should stop Muslims from entering the country until leaders can “figure out what is going on”. This seems to be a reaction to the latest mass shooting (at least it was the the latest when I wrote this post because there could be another one any day – they happen with such regularity in the States) which was carried out by a militant Muslim couple.

I have always said that religion (and particularly Islam at the current time) should accept a lot of the blame for the atrocities happening in the world today. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who believes the same religion as the extremists bears the same blame. But they should accept some because they promote the same belief system which is the source of the murderous rampages in all parts of the world.

And yes, I know the apologists argument that terrorism is also a result of political and social forces has some truth. But that can’t hide the fact that it is primarily religious.

Look at this report on Tashfeen Malik, the woman who carried out the shooting with her husband: “She started dressing more conservatively, wearing a scarf that covered nearly all her face, and became more devout in her Muslim faith…”. Does that sound like religion played a significant part in her actions? It certainly does to me.

I admit I haven’t read the whole Koran and I certainly haven’t studied it, but from the parts of it I know it certainly seems to contain a lot of violence, misogyny, and intolerance, as well as being very, very boring. If this is the holy book at the center of the Muslim religion then I think there actually is a case to be made to be suspicious of all Muslims.

But I don’t think entry into a country should be decided based on anything as unrefined as which religion the person thinks themselves as belonging to. After all, labelling yourself as a Muslim, Christian, or anything else can indicate a huge range of beliefs depending on which particular sect of the religion you belong to, how seriously you take it, and what part of your total personality it comprises.

So a Muslim who takes the whole Koran (and Hadith and other sources of belief) literally, including all the apparent approval of violence, is a totally different threat to someone who is a more “modern” or “liberal” Muslim who participates in the traditions but either ignores or finds convoluted explanations for all the bad parts of their religion.

I have often said that I don’t have a dislike any group of people. So I have very little resentment towards Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. But I do oppose irrational, primitive, and violent beliefs. I don’t like religions because they’re just plain wrong, and if you start off with a belief which isn’t true then things often go down hill from there.

So Trump should be stopping people with extreme, irrational beliefs from entering the country, not just people with one particular religion. After all, there are plenty of violent actions carried out by Christians too. But I admit that idea is technically more difficult, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t quite so effective as political rhetoric.

When things get bad people want simple answers. They want to be able to identify who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. But life isn’t a Hollywood Western and things aren’t quite as simple as that. Unfortunately in politics a simple answer is usually far more widely accepted than an accurate one, a principle Trump understands very well.

Is Anarchy So Bad?

December 3, 2015 2 comments

I can’t help but notice that I have become increasingly anti-establishment recently. Is this simply due to me getting grumpy because of my advancing years? Well maybe, except I was also this way earlier in life, especially in my 20s. So it seems that I started off being a bit of a rebel, became more moderate later on, and have now come back to my wild ways again!

Why? Is it something to do with me or is it the way the world has changed in the last 30 years? Few people are prepared to accept that their opinions come from deficiencies in their own character and I’m no exception, so I’m going to blame modern society!

Before I go on I do have to say that despite many major global problems (terrorism, inequality, climate change, peak oil, pollution, etc) in many ways the world is getting better all the time (see my blog post “An Optimistic Message” from 2014-03-16). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t specific areas where things aren’t so good, could be a lot better than they are, or are even getting worse.

I should also say that when criticising institutions I don’t mean to say that every person involved with that organisation is a bad person, just that the net effect is bad.

So let me list some areas of the current establishment (specifically here in New Zealand, but similar issues exist in most other modern democracies) that I object to…

Politicians.

Yes, nothing new here, of course because politicians have always been near the bottom of trusted professions and you can see why. We do have a particularly dishonest and cynical political establishment here today though and it is epitomised by our prime minister, John Key. The way he spins issues is just so cynical that it makes me cringe.

His hypocrisy and dishonesty seem to be obvious to everyone at the climate change talks where he recently won the “Fossil of the Day” award, yet most people here can’t see it and they continue to be taken in by his (admittedly very well executed) spin.

We could vote this current government out and get another one but they would soon sink to the same levels of self-serving cynical dishonesty. It’s the establishment which is at fault.

Police.

The police here are turning into nothing much more than a bunch of thugs. I have already talked about how their raid on Kim Dotcom’s home a few years back should be a big warning to everyone. If any person gets in the way of big business or our relationship with powerful overseas allies then there is no limit to the bullying and violence they can expect from police.

More recently they invaded journalist Heather du Plessis-Allan’s house over something totally trivial. They wanted a sample of her writing apparently in relation to an incident (some would say a stunt) where she highlighted the incompetence of police on her TV program. Obviously the police don’t like criticism and are using their powers to intimidate their enemies.

Why are the police so afraid of criticism? There’s only one reason I can think of: because they know they are incompetent and don’t like that fact being highlighted on national television. We could throw out the current police management but they would soon be replaced by some others who are just as morally corrupt. It’s the establishment which is at fault.

Big business.

Every dealing I have with large organisations (mainly businesses) and every incident I hear about indirectly shows the bumbling incompetence and calculated corruption in almost every big corporation. Almost every person I talk to reports poor service and hopeless inefficiency in their dealings with large corporations.

Just today the large multinational Serco has had its pure negligence and incompetence revealed in how it has managed the prison which the government foolishly allowed it to run. The government did this through the pure ideological belief that private companies always perform better – an idea which is clearly untrue. Mt Eden Prison, run by Serco, is now at the bottom of the performance list and we all know the only reason it was previously at the top was because the company lied to us.

What kind of company wants to make a profit by taking other people’s liberty and treating them so badly? I can possibly accept that the state might want do this just to maintain order. But to torture people for profit – that really is evil.

But it doesn’t really matter which large corporation we have operating here because, to a large extent, they are all the same. It’s the establishment which is at fault.

About a year ago I was debating an extreme libertarian and when he described his preferred socio-economic structure I said something like: “we can’t do that – it’s anarchy”. He said “sure it is, what’s the problem?”. I’m beginning to see his point. Is anarchy so bad?