Archive for January, 2016

Power and Corruption

January 30, 2016 Leave a comment

It seems that almost every day we hear of corruption in various organisations: many sports governing bodies seem to have massive levels of corruption, increasingly governments are doing secret and unscrupulous deals, unions are more interested in the power of their leadership than the good of their members, and private companies are constantly involved in horribly immoral practices.

So what’s the answer? If we distrust unions we can give private companies more power but then they will abuse that dominant position. If we then give unions more power to help offset the corruption in business then they become corrupt instead. If we dismiss the leadership of a corrupt organisation it seems that inevitably the new leadership drifts back in to the same old habits as the one it replaced.

Here’s the problem: give any group too much power and they will abuse it. Or, as Lord Acton said: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely (that’s how I remember the quote, according to Wikipedia the full quote is “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Now that I think about it, how much power did he (as a baron, lord, politician, etc) have, and how much did he abuse it?

It’s interesting to note two things in the full quote. First, he hedges his bets a bit by saying that power TENDS to corrupt. That’s probably a pretty fair point. The second is that he claims that great men are almost always bad men. Today we would extend that to women of course, but I do think it depends on your definition of “great”.

People can attain greatness in many ways. I guess Acton was referring to greatness in a political sense and in that sense he’s probably right. I think that most “great” political leaders are inherently evil because to get to the top of the political heap (what it is a heap of I will leave to the imagination) a person needs a certain form of devious self-interest and, in many cases, a misplaced confidence in their own ability and an unwavering faith in their political ideals.

So although politicians probably don’t really think they are deliberately acting immorally, in most cases they are. The modern trend towards giving excessive freedom and advantages to the rich in the (presumed) hope that the benefits will “trickle down” – even though all evidence is that they don’t – is an example of the sort of evil I mean.

Hierarchies do seem to be almost universal in human civilisations and cultures. In most cases even the repressed majority accept this as the natural order of things. In the past kings ruled because of “the divine right of kings” and that was impossible to argue against (mainly because most people believed it, but even if they didn’t any disagreement was seen as treasonous or blasphemous and the penalties for those were generally fatal).

Having just mentioned the divine right I am surprised to notice that I haven’t mentioned the worst offenders in the misuse of power: the church (especially the Roman Catholic Church, not because its dogma is necessarily worse but because it had more power). I will correct that now. In fact, over the millennia religion has been the worst example of excessive power leading to overwhelming corruption. OK, that aside, on with my main point…

So what is the answer? Well, as I have have suggested in this blog before, I favour direct democracy. After all, the only alternative is anarchy and I think that has too many potential problems!

In direct democracy the whole population vote on all issues. Of course there are many details which need to be resolved in a system like this. Who decides what the issues are? If “all” issues are voted on won’t that mean an endless stream of votes? Should there be criteria (such as a minimum age) for who can vote? What mechanism for voting would be used and how would it be done in a way that was secure?

Then there are the objections to a system like this even if the mundane issues could be resolved. The main one is whether a majority will give the best outcome anyway. The majority aren’t always right and people might be tempted to vote for what is good for them rather than society as a whole.

These are all real issues but I think they could all be overcome, especially if (initially at least) a less than pure version of direct democracy was used.

The internet provides an obvious way to provide for the simple “mechanics” of a voting system. It will soon be reasonable to assume that everyone will have an internet connected computer, and for a relatively small cost (easily less than the cost of a conventional election) a dedicated “voting machine” could be provided free for anyone who doesn’t have a computer.

In fact everyone could have one. I’m guessing one could be mass produced for about $100. It could have the necessary encryption and identification mechanism built in and it would make voting really easy.

Any new law, regulation, or policy any person or group thought was necessary could be submitted for consideration by the total voting population. If sufficient interest was registered it would go to a full vote. Voting wouldn’t be compulsory so people who weren’t interested or informed on a subject probably wouldn’t vote on it.

But what about that bigger problem: whether people would vote sensibly? Well, we trust our representatives to do the right thing already and, as has already been established, they often get it wrong. So could a citizen vote be any worse? And even if it was, the people would have to take ownership of the resulting problem and fix it rather than just hide the error as is often the case now.

It’s not a perfect system but it’s a lot less imperfect than the alternatives. And it does eliminate the problem of a particular group gaining too much power because the final power is with everyone. But, even though it solves the problem he brought to our attention I don’t think a conventional politician like Acton would have agreed!


Minutes to Midnight

January 27, 2016 Leave a comment

The song “2 Minutes to Midnight” from heavy metal band Iron Maiden described the state of the world in 1953 when the “Doomsday Clock” was at its closest to midnight (indicating the likelihood of global catastrophe, in that case because of H bomb tests by both the USA and USSR).

Here’s a few lines from that jolly little ditty…

The body bags and little rags of children torn in two
And the jellied brains of those who remain to put the finger right on you.
As the madmen play on words and make us all dance to their song,
To the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun.

Two minutes to midnight
The hands that threaten doom…

Yeah, not very optimistic but probably quite appropriate even though the situation was considerably better by the time the song was written in 1984. And recently the Doomsday Clock (a symbolic clock face representing a countdown to possible global catastrophe, maintained by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) has been at 5 minutes to midnight.

But this year it has been moved forward again to 3 minutes to midnight – maybe not bad enough to write a rather lugubrious metal song about but still pretty bad!

The reasons for moving the clock forward include “rising tension between Russia and the US, North Korea’s recent nuclear test, and a lack of aggressive steps to address climate change”. There is also concern about the potential of modern, compact nuclear weapons and how those might fall into the hands of groups who might be less responsible than the major nations.

So I would have to agree that things do look fairly grim and I thought there might be an interesting link with another article I read regarding intelligent life on other planets. I have mentioned the Fermi Paradox (which basically asks why we have never found any signs of advanced civilisations anywhere in the universe) in this blog before and have never been able to find a good explanation.

The article suggested there is a critical point in the early stages of life on a planet where evolution must lead to forms of life capable of modifying the environment. At this point life is in a race against potential destruction by physical forces. Life has to evolve quickly and regulate concentrations of water and carbon dioxide to keep the temperatures stable and be able to survive.

If this doesn’t happen then advanced life will never evolve and even simple life forms might die out completely. So it might be that life is much less common than we suspect just because progress past this stage so rarely happens.

Or it could be another factor in the Drake Equation (an equation describing how often life should arise) which is responsible for our failure to discover intelligent extraterrestrial life. That is the point where the expected lifetime of an intelligent civilisation is considered.

Maybe all intelligent life quickly and inevitably gets to the point where its “Doomsday Clock” is close to midnight and for most of them maybe it reaches that ominous time instead of just hovering close to it like it has for us (so far).

For a civilisation to become successful maybe it needs to be aggressive and/or reckless. It’s easy to see how those two attributes which can lead to success can also often lead to failure.

Maybe somewhere in the universe a metal band created a song “one minute to midnight” and maybe that was the last song ever heard on that planet…

The Latest PC BS

January 25, 2016 Leave a comment

A popular topic of discussion recently is the pay-gap between men and women in New Zealand government organisations. Gender pay-gaps have been the source of much angst in the past and it was generally assumed that things were much better now, but no, apparently they aren’t. In fact, in many cases the gap is widening.

The gap in the worst organisation was about 40% and even the ministry which generated the report had a gap of about 30%. Only one organisation had a situation where women were paid more on average and that was the Ministry for Women (37% more than men, and by the way, why isn’t there a Ministry for Men?). I would like to know what kind of sexist policies they have in operation there!

But overall this seems unfair, doesn’t it? Well superficially maybe it does, and many people have immediately jumped on the old politically correct bandwagon and denounced the whole situation as sexist, unfair, and totally unacceptable. And that’s the problem: not so much what people are saying but why they are saying it (because they don’t know the background but want to appear politically correct).

Interestingly, with notable exceptions, only women have suggested that there might not actually be an unfair bias at work here. The only man I heard who dared to dispute the consensus was summarily dismissed in a vicious ad-hominem attack with little consideration for his actual points (which admittedly could have been better).

So what are the facts? Well, apart from small anomalies, women do get equal pay for equal work. That has been the law here for many years. So anyone still demanding “equal pay for equal work” should probably get over it and stop demanding something we already have, or least define what they mean by “equal work”.

So what are the real causes of the unequal pay then? Well, men tend to do more highly paid jobs and they tend to be more senior. Is that the result of an anti-woman bias? In some cases, yes, but in the majority it is not. Research indicates that women tend to fall behind men in seniority when they take time off to have families or choose a better work/life balance.

The research also indicates that women are less demanding when negotiating salaries and advancement in their careers but also that women are less likely to be hired for senior positions even when they have equal qualifications and even when those interviewing them for the position are also women!

So you might say that women themselves are mainly to blame for the situaiton they are in. But that is also unfair because the work environment we have and the value we associate with different jobs might itself be biased towards the work habits of men.

To demonstrate the complexity and subtlety of the situation let me give an anecdote I heard on a podcast specifically about this topic. It involved a senior professor of economics from a respected American university. Just as an aside, she was a woman and was paid more than her husband who was also an economist at the same organisation.

This professor was asked to critique a review done by an organisation where gender bias was suspected. She did this along with two male colleagues. The findings indicated the pay gap was due almost entirely to the two factors I mentioned above: taking time off to raise children, and a choice of working less hours to get a better work/life balance.

But perhaps the most interesting finding of her work was purely coincidental. It was this: after completing the work she found that the two male participants had been paid considerably more than she had. Was this an example of the bias she had been asked to examine? Well yes, but not in the way many people would suspect.

When she was asked to do the work she was offered a certain sum, which she accepted. The two male participants were offered the same amount but insisted they were worth more. So they negotiated a greater pay rate, and one which could presumably have been available to the woman if she had just asked.

So there’s nothing simple about this whole phenomenon, except the simple-minded politically correct bullshit I hear from the majority of commentators on the subject. I don’t really know if there is a problem, and if there is a problem I don’t know what the answer is. All I do know is that I’m sick of dissenting opinions not being taken seriously, and I’m really sick of all the PC BS!

Democracy Versus Capitalism

January 23, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article saying that writing anecdotal introductions to your real subject is a bad idea. Unfortunately, you might notice that this is a technique I use in most of my blog posts. I think it adds a bit of context and I prefer it to just launching into the main subject without any gentle ramping up to the serious point under discussion. So I might continue with this and just apologise in advance to those who think it’s a waste of time or makes the post too long.

As you might already know if you read this blog I listen to a lot of audiobooks and have been listening to a mix of modern and classic fiction, and some non-fiction about subjects as diverse as history, physics, general science, and economics. My current book is a science fiction novel, “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s another story dealing with the colonisation of Mars but very different from the one I mentioned in my last blog post (Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles).

The thing I found most interesting about the book was not the discussions of space travel, future technology, or life on another planet, but more the way politics and economics was incorporated into the story.

According to the dictionary economics is “the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.” It is interesting to note that it is not claimed to be a science, and although I think the subject can be approached scientifically it usually isn’t.

Modern economies reward certain behaviours with more wealth and many economists just treat that as the natural way things are, like a physicist would treat the movement of an object in a gravitational field as just the way the laws of gravity work.

But the difference is that the rules of economics occur in an environment which is primarily constructed by society, and the current structure of these rules has no inherent inevitability. So when we learn in recent news that just 62 people in the whole world have the same wealth as the poorest half of the human population (about 3.7 billion people) that isn’t the result of any natural law, it is the result of a carefully constructed system designed to benefit a certain type of person.

And what type of person is that? Well, contrary to what the elite might tell us it is not the most deserving, the most productive, the group who contribute most to society. In most cases it is quite the contrary: people (and corporations) who are good at avoiding making a fair financial contribution (through tax avoidance for example), good at ignoring any commitment to the world apart from maximising profit, and good at dodging inconvenient negative aspects of their activities (such as environmental damage, climate change, and social inequality).

There is no doubt that the same issue arises in all polito-economic systems to some extent, and it could even be that capitalism leads to the best outcome compared with alternatives. The Soviet era is hardly a great recommendation for that particular alternative, after all.

So I am saying that conventional capitalism might be bad but just might be less bad than the alternatives. The problem is where it is going. Big business is gaining more power and many companies now have far more cash (and probably more power too) that most smaller governments.

My thought is that any individual or group of people who get too much power – whether they be a democratic government, a socialist dictatorship, an out of control military, an individual dictator or king, or a multinational corporation – is a bad thing.

So we do need some way to hold back the power of big business and it seems that government is the only realistic way to do that. Unfortunately the corporate world fully understands this and that is why most governments are under the control, to varying degrees, of big business. This is very obvious in the US but happens everywhere to some extent.

Capitalism will fail and hopefully something better will arise in its place, but until that happens the only thing we can do to prevent the worst excesses of big business is to have governments control them more.

But that didn’t work so well in Red Mars and it doesn’t seem to be working too well in real life either. It seems that the battle between Democracy and Capitalism is definitely being won by Capitalism at the moment. How bad it will get until the balance is restored I just don’t know.

In the Mind of the Reader

January 18, 2016 Leave a comment

If there’s one thing I really just don’t get in modern society it is the enthusiasm many people have for movies. The latest movies, movie stars, etc seem to get an inordinate amount of attention. And for what? OK, there are a few movies which I have been quite impressed by, but in general I wonder why I just wasted 2 hours of my life!

On every occasion I can remember when I ask someone who has read a book then watched the movie version what they thought of the movie they say something like “it was OK but not as good as the book”. But if nothing is ever as good as the book why not just read the book and forget about the movie?

Maybe it’s because books take a lot longer to read and need a lot more effort than a movie and people are lazy. Or maybe watching movies is cool and socially acceptable but reading books is seen as too, well, bookish!

I haven’t even watched the latest Star Wars movie and have no real inclination to see it. Recently I joined my son watching “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and what a load of inane, childish, stereotyped drivel it is. Why any intelligent person would bother to watch anything like that I can’t possibly imagine. It was embarrassingly bad! OK, I admit that is probably the worst Star Wars movie of all (especially due to the tedious Jar Jar Binks) but the rest aren’t much better.

In the past I used to read a lot (one or two books a week) but I now don’t have the time, maybe because I spend too much time with my computer writing blog posts, etc! But for the last year or two I have got into audiobooks. The advantage of these is that I can listen to them at times when I can’t read a book, such as when walking or driving.

I listen to a combination of fiction and non-fiction, and old and new. The latest book I listened too was one I first read many years ago (in fact when I was still at school) and it must have made an impression because this is the third time I have mentioned it in this blog.

It was Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, a rather poetic collection of short stories all on the theme of the colonisation of Mars and which is as much science fantasy as science fiction. As I listened I thought about how it would be presented as a movie (the movie rights were bought in 1960 but mo movie was made) and concluded that all the real depth of the story would be gone because apart from having a narrator quoting the book the movie just couldn’t present the material with any integrity.

Here’s an example of a (basically random) paragraph from the book…

In the stone galleries the people were gathered in clusters and groups filtering up into shadows among the blue hills. A soft evening light shone over them from the stars and the luminous double moons of Mars. Beyond the marble amphitheater, in darkness and distances, lay little towns and villas; pools of silver water stood motionless and canals glittered from horizon to horizon. It was an evening in summer upon the placid and temperate planet Mars. Up and down green wine canals, boats as delicate as bronze flowers drifted. In the long and endless dwellings that curved like tranquil snakes across the hills, lovers lay idly whispering in cool night beds. The last children ran in torchlit alleys, gold spiders in their hands throwing out films of web. Here or there a late supper was prepared in tables where lava bubbled silvery and hushed. In the amphitheaters of a hundred towns on the night side of Mars the brown Martian people with gold coin eyes were leisurely met to fix their attention upon stages where musicians made a serene music flow up like blossom scent on the still air.

This paragraph describes a scene of life on Mars (of course, in the book, Mars has Martians, canals, etc) before the colonisation from Earth which could be represented in a scene in a movie too. In fact I chose a scene which could be fairly represented in a visual medium like a movie. But would it be the same? Could any movie better show visually the image that paragraph creates in the mind of the reader (or listener)? I don’t think so.

And that’s why I rarely bother with movies any more. They just don’t have the richness, or the depth, of a book. And this doesn’t just apply to more “serious” material. I am assured by those who have both read the book and seen the movie that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is far better as a book than a movie too!

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Jesus Versus Socrates

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

Recently the old question of the historicity of Jesus (that is, did he really exist) came up again, specifically in comparison to other historical figures, especially Socrates. It’s an interesting and controversial subject in itself but I want to discuss a related topic here: the relative merit of the two individuals’ ideas (let’s assume they both existed for the sake of this discussion).

One of the big problems in discussing a person’s contribution to society is deciding on how many of their ideas were genuinely original and not just borrowed from earlier thinkers. There’s also the question of whether this matters, because making an idea widely known might be more important than just thinking about it first. To make matters worse there is the problem of contradictions from one person, interpretation of what they really meant, etc.

Of course, there is one more issue in this particular case which needs to be considered too. That is did Jesus have some sort of divine status or supernatural abilities? I mean, if he really was the son of God that sort of gives him an unfair advantage, doesn’t it? Again, for the sake of this discussion I will assume he was just some normal person with some interesting ideas.

In many ways it seems like the whole idea of this discussion is hopeless. How do we untangle myth from reality? How do we decide which interpretation to use? Some people use Jesus’ teachings to help the poor and promote peace while others use the same thing to accumulate wealth and start wars. How can the same ideas lead to such different actions?

Anyway, I need to move on to the actual central issue. Instead of looking at specific points from the two people I want to look at the underlying philosophy involved. In my opinion Socrates is by far the better person. I’m sure most of my readers won’t be surprised to learn this because I am an unashamed skeptic and atheist!

Let’s look at the Socratic method to start with. This involves a discussion between teacher and pupil which leads to more questions and deeper thought on the subject. So Socrates is encouraging a dialog between people, careful thought about the consequences of an idea, and rejecting already held beliefs if they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

So what about Jesus? Well he really just tells people to do what he says or else you might end up in Hell. He is the only path to truth. No discussion, no argument, and no chance to test whether his ideas can actually withstand any critical examination.

For many people being told what is “true” is so much easier than having to think about it themself so the Jesus approach is good for them. But is it good for society as a whole? I don’t think so.

And if you are a Christian and think that being told what to think by Jesus is OK then let’s just change things a bit. What do you think about Muslims being told what to think my Mohammed? That hasn’t worked out so well, has it? If being told what to think is not good for “them” then it’s not good for “us” either.

Some Christians will also claim that they only started following their faith as a result of carefully thinking about it. I call bullshit on this! Just the fact that Christianity is usually called a “faith” shows that it’s core beliefs come from revealed “knowledge” rather than critical examination of the facts. And if you read the alleged teaching of Jesus in the Bible it is clear he is more a dictator than a debater.

Another problem I have with Jesus is his incredible arrogance. Broadly speaking Socrates says “I know nothing” and Jesus says “I know everything”. Assuming you start with the truth is not a good way to get to a closer appreciation of real facts. I think Socrate’s approach is far more honest.

Let me give you an example of why I reject a lot (not all) of Jesus teaching. Here he is, revealing his true perspective, straight from the New Testament…

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city. (Matthew 10:14 – 10:15)

So for Jesus it’s do what I say or suffer the consequences. Maybe he wasn’t such a nice guy after all. Give me Socrates any day!

O Canada!

January 7, 2016 Leave a comment

There has been a fair amount of commentary about the new government in Canada recently. A lot of it has been positive and has concentrated on the fact that 50% of the members are female but there has also been some discussion on the expertise of the various members of the cabinet.

The lack of experience of various politicians in the areas they are supposed to be in charge of has always bothered me so I thought I might do a comparison of the Canadian Minister of Health (a portfolio I chose because it is important and has a clear area of expertise associated with it) with counterparts in similar countries (I chose Australia, New Zealand, and the UK).

So here is a brief bio of each of the ministers…

Canada’s minister is Jane Philpott. She was a doctor until last year, she has done medical relief work in Africa, and was involved with AIDS advocacy. She has numerous awards associated with her work including an Everyday Hero award from Global National Television, a Community Service Award from University of Western Ontario, and many others.

Australia’s minister is Sussan Ley. She has a master’s degrees in taxation and accountancy and has a commercial pilot’s license. I could find no record of any experience of significance regarding health and I could find no reference to significant awards.

New Zealand’s health minister is Jonathan Coleman. He is a qualified doctor and also has an MBA. he has worked as a doctor and as a health consultant for an accounting firm.

The UK’s minister is Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt. I can find no record of any significant involvement or education in health, nor any awards for work in the area. I can find a series of controversies involving excessive and inappropriate expenses and tax avoidance though.

So there’s quite a range there. Superficially the Canadian minister stands out as clearly the best choice: not only is she a working doctor, but she has been involved in worthwhile charitable work, and has non-political awards as a result of her contributions to the community.

But New Zealand’s minister also seems to have some merit. At least he was a doctor at some point. It is unfortunate that he went on to do an MBA because (just my personal opinion here) that is a guaranteed path to disaster. I have never met such a worthless group of useless, arrogant bureaucrats as people with MBAs. He also worked for an accounting firm as an a consultant so that’s pretty much the last straw for me. The New Zealand health system is a disaster so he is clearly incompetent but he’s probably still better than most.

Australia’s minister seems to be fairly neutral: no specific skills, but not necessarily a bad person either. I live in New Zealand and haven’t heard much good or bad about Australia’s health system so I really can’t comment on that.

The UK’s minister sounds like a more extreme example of the sort of person who shouldn’t be a politician. In fact he sounds like the sort of person where the world would be a far better place if he didn’t exist at all. I’m guessing that applies to most of the Tories however.

I should say at this point that there is a school of thought which says that people who are in charge of a service, like health, need different skills that those who work in it. In this case having a medical background might not be a positive thing, in fact it might even be a hindrance by acting as a distraction from the role of administration.

I personally don’t ascribe to this theory. Although being in charge of a service requires a different skill set from working in it I don’t think anyone can truly understand and deal with the issues unless they have been a part of the organisation they lead.

So time will tell how well this approach works in Canada. If the new government fails miserably then I might need to concede that the old way of picking MPs might just be better after all. Of course there are many other reasons for failure apart from the personnel involved but if the Canadian government doesn’t function well it would certainly cast doubt on the current leadership.

Finally, here is a list of other examples of “relevant” appointments to various functions…

Minister of Health is a doctor.
Minister of Transport is an astronaut.
Minister of National Defense is a Sikh Veteran.
Minister of Youth is under the age of 45.
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is a former farmer.
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness was a Scout.
Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development was a financial analyst.
Minister of Finance is a successful businessman.
Minister of Justice was a crown prosecutor and is a First Nations leader.
Minister of Sport, and Persons with Disabilities is a visually impaired Paralympian.
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and Canadian Coastguard is Inuit.
Minister of Science is a medical geographer with a PhD.
Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees was an Immigration critic.

Also note the fact that there are scientists in the cabinet, and it is made up of 50% women.

It seems like an impressive team and it will be very interesting to see how it performs in comparison to the tired old political hacks from the previous administration. I hope it does well because having to admit that the political hacks were better would be quite depressing!