Archive for March, 2016

The Meaning of Easter

March 29, 2016 Leave a comment

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, New International Version).

This is possibly the most well known verse in the Bible and many would suggest the central message of Christianity. It is also particularly relevant during Easter, of course, since that is when the sacrifice described by John supposedly happened.

Clearly how much importance you attach to these words will depend on your perspective on the Christian religion. Those who take it seriously will probably find the idea both inspirational and highly relevant. Others might find it inconsequential or even bizarre.

Let’s have a quick look at what this is all about…

Supposedly the only way God could solve the problems the world was experiencing (mainly to do with sin, but more on that later) at the time was to send his son, who was in some way both a man and a god, to a primitive and isolated part of the world so that he could spread the message of how to make things better.

And in addition to that God’s son had to be sacrificed in order for this new way of thinking (which in fact wasn’t new and had been discussed by philosophers for years) to become possible. The people who were being saved had to submit to God’s will by accepting his Son as their source of guidance, and if they didn’t they were likely to be punished horribly.

To complicate matters God’s son didn’t write down any of his ideas and no one else around him bothered to either, so there are various versions of what his real intent was.

Then, just to make things worse still, most interpretations of the new message were quite different than the existing one, and about 600 years after all this happened a lot of people think he changed his mind again and sent another messenger down (who really was going to be the last one, this time).

Finally, to add insult to injury, the followers of all God’s various messengers have caused unmatched death, misery, and destruction over the entire planet in a presumably misguided effort to follow their god’s wishes.

At this point you might wonder about whether God really knew what he was doing. This really doesn’t sound like the way a competent omnipotent being woud operate. And it doesn’t sound like things overall were much better after the sacrifice described in John 3:16 than they were before. In fact, you would really have to wonder, what was the point of it all?

But according to many commentators the world is gradually getting better. It is more peaceful, people live longer, they are happier and more free, and they are more healthy. Is this because of the sacrifice? Well, no, probably not. In fact, many of the worst aspects of the modern world are as a result of people still misinterpreting (presumably) God’s messengers (mainly the more recent one this time) and the real improvements have only happened through ignoring religion and following rationality, and especially the scientific method.

So despite the reverence with which this verse – and the message it imparts – is held by believers it is really more a condemnation of God’s incompetence to many. Maybe a better message would be this: For God was so incompetent that we would all be better off to ignore his inept bungling and just get on with improving the world ourselves!

Where’s God?

March 24, 2016 2 comments

So yet another vicious attack on a civilised and peaceful country has been carried out by a group motivated by Islamic extremism. And just like it has been in the past with almost every attack of this type we can all say “Islam Again” (see my previous blog post with this title from 2015-06-29). Why is it always (or almost always) Islamic extremists who perform these revolting acts of violence?

Is it because Islam is just a religion which encourages violence? I think that is certainly a factor. Is it because even though the fundamental reasons for extremism are non-religious that religion is still a convenient excuse for it? That is probably true in some cases. Is it because this is what their god actually wants? Well, apparently he does.

I mean, if he really does want peace you might think he would make those wishes known to his followers. But his communications with humans have always been a bit confusing. There are over 20,000 different Christian sects all with their own interpretation of God’s thoughts, for example. And different sects within Islam routinely kill each other in significant numbers.

But God always has been pretty mixed up. I mean Allah is the same god as the god of the Jews and Christians and his wishes seem to be very contradictory. With the Jews it was mostly “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. With the Christians mainly “turn the other cheek”. And with the Muslims something like “a religion of peace which was spread by the sword”.

So you can see how Islamic terrorists might reasonably think they are doing their god’s bidding. There are parts of the Islamic holy books which seem to indicate that killing infidels is OK and their god hasn’t really indicated that they are doing the wrong thing, has he?

I mean, if these atrocities really were against his will you might think he might want to clarify things a bit. Like by sending a sign that terrorism isn’t good. You know, like some of the cool stuff he did in the Old Testament. When he didn’t like Sodom and Gomorrah he destroyed them and all their inhabitants with fire. Sort of like an early form of napalm attack. God was so bad-ass back then!

But today he just sits around twiddling his thumbs while his followers commit vile acts in his name. And yes, that is literally true because we know the words “Allahu Akbar” are commonly used during terrorist attacks.

So I blame God for the violence we see today. If he approves of this stuff, fair enough, he should just keep quiet and let things continue. But the followers of the same religion who claim to be peaceful should have a think about this. Either God condones this violence and lets it continue or it is against his wishes. And if it is why doesn’t he do something about it?

It gets back to this: if the Islamic extremists have got the message wrong they need to be told they are wrong. And really only their God can do that. But where’s God when we really need him?

The Immigration Debate

March 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Should the freedom to move be a basic human right? By “moving” in this case I mean the ability to live in any country of the person’s choice. Of course, this issue has become prominent recently because of the Syrian refugee crisis. Should those refugees have the right to move to another country when they want to?

That right has gone through various phases in the past. At some points the US, for example, has had almost no restrictions on immigration but currently has fairly strong regulations – and those could get more severe still if Donald Trump becomes president!

National borders are largely arbitrary and which country a person is born in is not a choice that person voluntarily makes. So should any person have the option to live where they want?

Well, a case could be made both ways, and it’s very unclear what is the morally correct position. In most cases it is to the benefit of the person who wants to move so I will just accept that and look at the affects on the country the person is moving to.

Different countries have different values and that affects the standard of living of that country’s people. But it works the other way too: people to some extent determine the politics, economics, and society of their country. So people moving from a country which has failed might take some of the factors causing that failure to their new home.

But immigration undoubtedly (as shown by both common sense and empirical research) has a positive impact too. It brings new people with new ideas into a society which might become somewhat unoriginal otherwise.

Let’s have a look at some examples…

Two recent atrocities can be traced to immigrants. Abdelhamid Abaaoud participated in the Paris terror attacks and was also involved in other terrorist activities. He was born in Brussels but his father emigrated to Belgium from Morocco in 1975. The San Bernadino shootings were carried out by Tashfeen Malik who was born in Pakistan and lived most of her life in Saudi Arabia, and Rizwan Farook who was born in Chicago but whose parents had immigrated from Pakistan.

Tighter immigration policies might have prevented these two horrible attacks which have a clear association with Islamic extremism. It is far less likely that a non-immigrant who hadn’t been subject to the same social-religious conditioning would have carried out an action of that sort.

But then there are the counter-examples. Andrew Grove was born in a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary and escaped the Nazis in World War II. He made his way to the United States in 1957 where he eventually became CEO of Intel, the world’s biggest manufacturer of semiconductors and of the CPUs that most common computers use.

In fact, in the US 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by migrants or their children.

Despite the clear advantages of immigration it seems that having a completely open policy is no longer viable. There are too many people (mainly Islamic extremists) who would make that situation untenable even if the majority of immigrants do not have violent and anti-social tendencies.

And there is one other point I want to mention that I haven’t seen widely discussed elsewhere. That is about a country protecting its distinctive communities and social value systems by maintaining traditional principles and moral codes (wow, I sound like some sort of Christian conservative there).

If there is unfettered immigration in every country it seems likely that the distinctive, individual characters of countries will be gradually replaced with a sort of global mediocrity. For example, if one country has little religious basis to its laws but another bases its laws around religious principles then that gives human civilisation as a whole some divergence.

One or the other might turn out to be more appropriate in the future but at least the variation exists. If ideas migrate across borders we might end up with the same basic structures everywhere. Not only might that not be good for adapting to future situations but it is also rather boring.

So yes, this seems to be a difficult issue to reach a conclusion on. The first response that most people who are basically liberal (like myself) have is to allow all immigration (including refugees), but I really don’t think anyone would want that if they really thought about it.

Maybe the current piecemeal and inconsistent laws are the best we can really do. And if that means there are far more immigrants and refugees than can be accepted using those laws then that is just unfortunate. Maybe fixing the problems in Syria should be a higher priority for the international community rather than trying to disguise the problem by accepting all the refugees.

One thing’s for sure: the immigration debate won’t be resolved any time soon.

Sadness and Beauty

March 16, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article from Wired titled “The Sadness and Beauty of Watching Google’s AI Play Go”. It was a commentary on a Go match between AlphaGo (Google’s Go playing artificial intelligence) and Lee Sedol, one of the world’s top players.

An expert commentator (who had earlier lost 5 games and won zero against AlphaGo) said, relating to one move: “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move” and then, “So beautiful.”

So the “sadness” is the realisation that a computer can out-play a human in a game which was once considered impossible for a computer to even play at a competent level. And the “beauty” is the absolute and unexpected magnificence of the move.

A move that a small number of very special humans can appreciate but probably never make in a real game. And the fact that a machine has done something more beautifully than a human just adds to the sadness (the match was eventually won 4-1 by AlphaGo so the machine is not totally dominant yet).

Before I go any further, here’s a small bit of background on Go and game playing programs in general…

Go is an ancient game (it originated in China over 2500 years ago) which is many orders of magnitude more complex than Chess (there are 10^761 possible games compared to an estimated 10^120 possible in chess). It involves placing stones on a 19 x 19 board and attempting to capture opponent’s stones and to gain territory. Many people thought that, even after beating the world champion at Chess (IBM’s Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997), a computer would never master Go.

But one has.

Chess programs tend to rely on pure brute force to gain the advantage. They analyse millions of moves per second and many moves ahead. But “understanding” the game and “learning” from past games isn’t so important. But because of the sheer number of moves possible in Go that approach cannot work. So AlphaGo actually learns from every game it plays, and it can play against itself to get even better. In many ways it “thinks”.

The idea of computers thinking is a problematic one, largely because no one really knows what thinking actually is. But even if they don’t think now I believe it’s only a matter of time before they do. It’s not a matter of creating anything genuinely new, it’s really just about how computers are programmed.

The techniques used in AlphaGo should be able to be used more generally to create expert systems in any area – medicine being one of the most obvious. Should we trust a computer with our health? I certainly would, especially after the very mediocre results I tend to see with human doctors.

What about computer programming? Could I be replaced with a computer? Well that might be more difficult because there’s a much greater level of creativity involved. But that also is probably only a matter of time. In fact all jobs will be able to be replaced, and I will go further: all human activities will be able to be replaced.

So where does that leave us? Well, nowhere really, because humans will be obsolete. The beautiful machines will create more beauty – in science, art, fiction, everywhere – and the sad humans will just watch in awe. Maybe until they decide to end their species, or maybe the machines will do that for us. Just beauty will be left, but some sadness too.

Policy Shmolicy

March 14, 2016 Leave a comment

Every day I seem to hear a lot about rules. In many situations they seem to have taken the place of commandments from on high. Like some for of bureaucratic proclamations etched into stone by an intransigent dictator. Maybe people just want simple, certain solutions and when religion can’t provide them (because religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant) they have to be provided through other means.

But however they originate, hard and fast rules to govern social phenomena are not the best solution. Why should we throw out religious laws as they become less relevant and instead accede to a new set which are potentially just as disconnected from people’s true requirements?

I’m not completely against having laws, regulations, and policies. But I am against treating these as absolutes instead of as guidelines. I am confident that I could find a specific situation where any rule can be shown to be irrelevant, so why treat them as if they are set in stone?

So why do we interpret rules so literally? Why do people take breaking laws so seriously? Why is acting against an organisation’s policy seen as some sort of inexcusable offence? And why are there more and more rules – which no one can possibly be expected to remember – created every year?

Well since I am writing this blog post you might suspect that I think I have an answer. It’s because decision makers are risk averse. They don’t want to think for themselves and potentially get things wrong, so they mindlessly follow rules and regulations instead. In addition most decision makers are pretty ignorant about what they are responsible for, so even if they wanted to they probably couldn’t make an informed decision.

Is this really a problem? I think so, because rules are often intended to stop the worst situation from happening. Unfortunately by doing that they also stop the best outcomes. It is all part of the mediocritisation (yes, that is a word) of modern society. We are so scared of doing something bad that we can’t do anything good either.

I tend to be rather dismissive to all forms of simplistic control: policies, rules, regulations, and laws. I basically do what I think is best based on my own moral standards and hope the consequences aren’t too severe. Fortunately my moral code does coincide with the law in most cases (probably because most laws in the broadest sense are basically reasonable).

For example, in almost any imaginable circumstance I would not contemplate murder, theft, etc. But I don’t need a law to tell me that. On the other hand, some people do. But they are the same people who would probably ignore the law anyway. So laws are for people (like me) who don’t need them, and other people (with lower moral standards) who will just ignore them. What’s the point?

I recognise that I have painted a ridiculously simplistic picture above and that there are many cases where people do need guidance on the right way to behave. But notice that I used the word guidance there, not absolute authority.

What right does one person really have to make rules that control the life of someone else? Did I agree to do what a bunch of policy makers in our government told me to, based on what is in the final analysis just their personal moral standards? No, I don’t remember doing that.

And the case in favour of allowing myself to be controlled by lesser forms of rules (regulations, policies, etc) is even weaker. I have little respect for the people making the rules and low levels of confidence in the process, so I see no reason why I should feel bound by the outcome.

Of course, if I break the rules and the power elite find out I can expect some repercussions. OK, that might happen and there’s not a lot I can do about it. But who’s right and who’s wrong? Not me. All I can say is “rules shmules” and “policy shmolicy!”

PS I have encountered this way to indicate derision towards something by using the shm- start on the original word before and apparently it is a real thing. It’s called “shm-reduplication” and here is some of its description from Wikipedia: “a form of reduplication in which the original word or its first syllable (the base) is repeated with the copy (the reduplicant) beginning with shm- (sometimes schm-). The construction is generally used to indicate irony, derision, skepticism, or disinterest with respect to comments about the discussed object”.

The Cult of Ignorance

March 11, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article describing a phenomenon the writer had noted as becoming more prominent in the US. It is a form of anti-intellectualism, of the dismissal of science and rationality, of the celebration of frivolous pop culture, and of the rise of superficiality and ignorance.

To be fair to Americans, that is not the only country where this phenomenon has occurred, but it is perhaps the best common example of it. Unfortunately, since the US is currently the leading society in the western world, it is likely that other countries will soon follow if they haven’t already. Or maybe not. As I will describe below, there are some factors which make the US particularly susceptible to this form of “dumbing down”.

So what evidence so I have that Americans are becoming dumber (or at least acting like they are dumber because other evidence indicates that underlying intelligence is actually increasing)? Well I could mention two politicians: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump and leave it there! Case proved!

I’m not totally sure these two politicians are themselves stupid or ignorant (although, at least in Palin’s case, I am almost positive that is true), it is more the stupidity of people who want to follow them. It could be that the politicians themselves are just acting dumb to fit in with what their followers want. I’m fairly sure this is at least partly true with Trump, for example.

Both polls and informal surveys have revealed the unbelievable ignorance of Americans. For example, most in a recent informal survey didn’t know who won the American Civil War. In fact many didn’t even know what it was or who was involved. I asked some typical New Zealanders, who have probably never studied American history, and most of them knew the answer.

And then there is the worrying problem that only a third of biology teachers teach evolution properly (in other words without reference to mythology), and that almost 20% of Americans think that the Sun revolves around the Earth (I agree that there are various explanations, apart from ignorance, for this high figure).

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon myself which is probably related to this general ignorance. That is how committed Americans are to their movie culture. Even from quite intelligent and rational sources there seems to be a lot of reference to movies (and these are often fairly fatuous movies like Star Wars) and a disproportionate reverence for people involved in the movie industry. An emphasis on visual rather than written entertainment is often touted as a major contributing factor to the new cult of ignorance.

And now I must move on to possible explanations of the cause of this phenomenon. Some of these explanations are quite simple and others verge towards being conspiracy theories. Of course, sometimes where there’s a conspiracy theory there is a real conspiracy, so these shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.

The first explanation is that people just don’t have to be smart. The modern western state has evolved to the point that most people can get by without any special skills or knowledge. Since most people are lazy and feel no need to learn just for the sake of knowledge they take the easy route and don’t bother.

Next is the possibility that I – and many others – are just totally wrong about everything and we just don’t accept that what is smart has changed. Who’s to say that knowing what movie a particular actor got a certain award for is more or less important than knowing who won the Civil War? Maybe what is classed as knowledge has changed.

Then there are the conspiracies involving deliberate suppression of intelligence and deep knowledge in the average person by the government and/or the global industrial system. There’s no doubt that keeping people ignorant makes them easier to manipulate for the benefit of the rich and powerful. While this idea dives deeply into grand conspiracy territory it shouldn’t be completely dismissed because of that.

Related to this is the fact that religion is unusually important in the US. It is the only major western country left where religion is a significant factor in politics and culture generally. Religion encourages ignorance (to the extent that the “knowledge” it encompasses isn’t actually real) and stupidity (a bit more controversially because within the religion’s worldview the processes it encourages might be perfectly consistent) but that doesn’t explain why ignorance has apparently become worse recently.

Finally there is the idea that this is just a trend which happens occasionally. The zeitgeist seems to change from time to time for no easily discernable reason. One political ideology might become accepted then gradually become less popular again. The same might happen for cultural memes, philosophical perspectives, or any other vaguely defined human attribute. Maybe there’s no real reason for it, it’s just something that has happened.

Most likely there is a combination of factors at play here. In fact, no complex social phenomenon is totally the result of one thing, so this conclusion should be self-evident. I think that the modern state does look after people who are actually poorly adapted to modern life. I think we should accept that what is knowledge does change but that doesn’t excuse the extreme levels of current unenlightenment. I think that there are some deliberate moves to keep people ignorant so that they can’t meaningfully participate in discussions of current issues. I think that religion has to take a lot of the blame for the willful lack of rationality in most people. And I think anti-intellectualism is a random trend which comes and goes over time and it currently quite strong.

There’s not a lot that can be done to counter all of these diverse factors. And because we have a democratic system even ignorant, stupid people get to vote. I just hope this doesn’t go too far, but looking at the situation in the States today I’m afraid it might!

I Don’t Like It

March 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of the conclusions I have reached after being an “IT expert” for many years. I use a lot of different computer, smartphone, tablet, and other products and I have a good sense of what is good, what is not so good, and what is just plain horrible. The odd thing is that it is often the most widely-used products from big companies which are the worst. I should say this applies mainly to software rather than hardware.

For example, after many years I no longer use any Microsoft or Adobe products because they are just so, well… not necessarily bad, but just totally average, uninspiring, and unintuitive. And the worst thing is that this unfortunate situation is even creeping into the one company I have higher expectations of: Apple.

I don’t know how many times I have ranted about the inadequacies of Microsoft Word. I work almost entirely with Macs but on the occasions when I do Windows support I have issues there as well. It’s not that Word lacks capabilities – it can do almost anything – it’s more the way it does it. It’s unreliable, unpredictable, unintuitive, and uninspiring.

When I use other word processors I know that I can create a document hundreds of pages long with lots of graphics and it will still print (or more likely convert to PDF) accurately. I know I will be able to work with the document without it becoming slow even on a high performance computer. And I know it won’t become corrupted in some way. But not with Word. I can almost guarantee something will go wrong with a project of any significant degree of complexity.

But I shouldn’t just pick on Microsoft. What about the second biggest software company, Adobe? Well I have always loved Photoshop, and I still use it occasionally. But Adobe products suffer from poor interface design, slow performance, crazy licensing schemes, and other problems which really shouldn’t exist.

And just to show that I really am an “equal opportunity” critic of different products and companies, what about Apple? Well in general I like Apple programs because even though they do a smaller range of tasks, they do them really well. Apple’s word processor, Pages, for example never fails me. It doesn’t do quite as much as Word (although it does everything even a power user like me needs) but I know it will do everthing I want it to reliably.

But Apple have a few notable failures. Let’s get the “elephant in the room” out of the way first: iTunes. Everyone seems to hate iTunes – especially Windows users – and I can see why. It is probably the program I have most problems with (remember I don’t use Microsoft software). But it’s not just poor reliability; it’s an inconsistent, illogical, confused user interface which is possibly even worse.

Apple have made a few other mistakes over the years too, both on the Mac and on “iDevices” (iPod, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch). For example, the whole Lion operating system was a backward step in many ways, especially in terms of functionality of the built-in apps.

No one thinks that creating modern systems or apps is easy, because there are so many variables which need to be taken into account, especially in the environment the program will be used in and how the user will use it. But the leaders in this area (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple) seem to be the ones doing the worst job in many cases. Why is that, especially considering the huge resources they have? Why can small companies or individuals often make better products?

No doubt it is partly because of the corporate culture where policies and rules have more influence than good design and engineering decisions. Partly it is because of the need to support previous code bases, file formats, and interface designs. And partly it is due to the simple law of diminishing returns. As more people interact in a project their contribution tends to be less about the core project and more about maintaining the complex set of interactions with other participants. So I’m sure that there is a point where having more people makes things worse rather than better.

When I look at the programs I actually use they can be broken into three categories: those which Apple supplies and are either well designed (Pages, Preview, Safari) or just the only real practical option (iTunes); those which I choose to use because they just work really well (TextWrangler, BBEdit, Pixelmator, Skim); and awesome, mostly non-commercial technical and programming tools (Apache, MySQL, PHP).

I think everyone wins when smaller, innovative programmers can challenge the big guys. Unfortunately just for compatibility with other users and to fulfill poorly considered policies I do have to use inferior software like Microsoft Word occasionally. But I don’t like it.