Archive for June, 2016

Out of Touch

June 28, 2016 Leave a comment

What’s going on in world politics at the moment? Have previously sensible people gone completely mad? That might be the conclusion after the events of this year, culminating in the recent vote for the UK to exit the European Union.

Until that, the unexpected success of Donald Trump was probably viewed as the most bizarre and worrying trend in global politics, but there are many lesser events around the world where things seem to be getting just a little bit out of control. Even countries like Iceland joined in when their prime minister resigned after being caught up in revelations from the Panama Papers.

Many people have offered opinions on what it’s all about and the eventual conclusion usually relates to the person’s pre-existing political biases. Of course, I am no exception and because I am both anti-establishment and highly skeptical of the “new right” (as well as the old right for that matter) I blame the political establishment and years of neoliberal market reforms.

You might ask in that case why parties who traditionally keep away from right wing politics aren’t doing better. Well I have two answers there: first, the anti-establishment thing applies to all traditional politicians equally; and second, most parties of the left dabbled in neoliberalism during the 80s and 90s and are now tarred with the same brush as the parties of the right who would more normally follow that particular political ideology (think Tony Blair in the UK for example).

I think no one can reasonably doubt that there is huge disenchantment with the current political elite in many parts of the world. In the US both likely presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are highly unpopular with voters and only Bernie Sanders, who is more outside the current political establishment, has gained much respect.

Normally I would think that it was quite remarkable that even though Bernie has been sabotaged by the more mainstream sections of his own party he has done so well, but with the current trends perhaps it isn’t so unexpected after all.

Many people are saying that the major factor leading to the exit vote in the UK was immigration and how people were concerned with the negative consequences of increased numbers of immigrants allowed by EU rules. But I think it goes beyond that. Immigration was just a convenient focus for more general fears about the way the country is being run by the Conservatives, and by Labour before that.

People are scared about future jobs, about inequality, about their rates of pay, about the health system, about austerity politics, and about all the other factors which seem to be common in other advanced western nations. In many ways immigration was just a convenient touchstone which the exit side used in a rather cynical and dishonest way to gain support.

Leaving the EU might seem like a way to escape those issues but that might be a false hope, just like voting for Donald Trump is not a good way to “make America great again”. I totally understand the wish for change because the current political regimes in place around the world are completely out of touch with reality, but if you are going to make a change it’s important to make the change to something that is better rather than something which is even worse than what you already have!

Also, many people who do want change aren’t particularly extreme in their attitudes to the issues which are ostensibly at the core of the problem as they see it. But a successful vote for change like this one does give strength to the extremists. So now we see irrational and hateful racist comments such as notices saying “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin” being posted through letter boxes, and assaults against people with various European origins.

I recognise the problems with the current establishment as much as anyone, but I think I would have voted to stay in the EU, even though that was the side supported by a Tory prime minister. It’s important not to let simple political point scoring get in the way of doing what’s right.

But people are often not rational when it comes to politics, especially when both sides have used so many emotional arguments. I quite like this quote by Winston Churchill about voters: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” And regarding the results of Brexit, Ricky Gervais said something like “The rich will still be rich, the poor will still be poor, and we’ll still blame the immigrants.”

I heard another useful piece of advice too, which was too remain calm and wait for things to sort themselves out. One New Zealand commentator recommended something like: “stay calm, we need banal and meaningless statements now, and no one can do that better than prime minister John Key!”

Unfortunately John Key is a classic example of the exact problem we have with most politicians around the world: he is completely out of touch with reality. Well the indicators are that world opinion is changing. The zeitgeist cannot be denied. Change is coming, but it’s going to get pretty ugly before it gets better!

White Male Privilege

June 23, 2016 2 comments

Before I start I have to say the following: Many people will read this blog post and label me as a sexist, or a racist, or just an old fart out of touch with modern trends (most likely all 3). But before you do that can I just ask that you look at the points I make and consider whether they are actually true or not. What I’m going to say is not politically correct but instead of reacting by jumping on the old political correctness bandwagon why not just think about it a little bit first. And if you still find my points too challenging, go ahead and jump on the bandwagon then!

I’m starting to feel a bit annoyed with the “white male privilege” meme which seems to have become popular on the internet recently. I’m not saying that the phenomenon doesn’t exist, but I do reject using it as a reason to criticise anything without any real consideration of the reality of the situation. And I also reject the idea that all groups don’t get some privileges to varying degrees.

I don’t really care if people think I’m privileged and in no way am I expecting a sympathetic response to my position. The reason I’m writing this is more because I dislike political correctness – which is what this is about more than anything else – and I would like people to maybe think a little bit differently instead of just accepting the latest trendy catchphrase.

There is research indicating that genuine bias exists against some “disadvantaged” groups in society. For example, there is a social science study showing people are less likely to hire women than men, even if they have identical CVs (apart from the name). Interestingly, women are just as likely as men to demonstrate this bias.

But most of the material I see on this subject consists of anecdotes and opinions rather than facts, and those are far less reliable as indicators of real phenomena, of course.

So here are some of the ways that white males are seen as privileged: often hired for jobs ahead of other groups, taken more seriously in formal settings, not sexually harassed much, treated with greater leniency in criminal situations. Those are all true to varying degrees so clearly the phenomenon does exist.

Now let’s look at some examples of female privilege: often avoid criticism because that would be seen as misogynistic, sometimes given a job ahead of males to make up a quota, participation in negative behaviour (violence, crime) often ignored because there is a greater problem with males. These are also all true to varying degrees.

Now let’s look at some privileges of minority ethnic groups: given special political positions instead of having to compete for them, given a lower threshold of entry into courses, damaging activities ignored because they are seen as having a special status. These all happen and demonstrate genuine examples of privilege.

So everyone has privileges to some extent. Some people will say “well I don’t feel privileged” and sure, I agree. But guess what: I, as a white male, don’t feel privileged either. I can’t think of a single case where I have gained anything simply because of my race or gender.

The PC brigade usually say at this point “well you’re one of the privileged class, you can’t even comment on this”. Well isn’t that convenient? That sort of closes down any possible critique of their position, doesn’t it? if a controversial social position cannot be criticised then I don’t think it can be taken too seriously.

So after listing the general points above let me give a few specific examples…

Here’s some examples of how the indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand have been given a “free pass” regarding the massive environmental devastation they caused…

1. About 45,000 years ago, when humans colonised Australia within a few thousand years 95% of all large animals were extinct.

2. The Pacific rat, introduced by Maori, caused more extinctions in New Zealand than any other mammal species. And on the Pacific islands, two-thirds of the animal populations went extinct in the period between first human arrival and European contact.

3. Historians have calculated that the Maori settlers destroyed about half of the native forest that had existed before they arrived (mainly by burning it down to facilitate the hunting of the moa, now extinct), and that the European settlers destroyed about half of the remaining half.

How many people know this? Almost no one, because it isn’t politically correct to criticise indigenous people. After all they have a “greater connection with the land”. Well I call BS on that, and I would like to remind everyone that it is mainly privileged white males who have set up the modern conservation measures which have stopped this trend.

And similarly for women…

1. In New Zealand children are killed by their mothers more often than their fathers, but if you follow anti-violence campaigns you might think it is a male-only problem.

2. When girls were underachieving in our schools it was seen as a major problem which required positive action to fix. Now that the opposite is happening, although it is occasionally mentioned, it seems to be just accepted as OK.

3. Various campaigns to give equal pay for equal work for men and women have been prominent recently but New Zealand has had equal pay for years. If the real issue is whether certain jobs should be paid more then let’s have a campaign based on that instead.

I could go on listing these sorts of issues for any group in society you want to name. Again, I have to emphasise that I’m not denying there are some privileges in being a white male but I’m saying there are a lot of disadvantages as well, and that every group has some privileges.

What’s the answer? Well let’s look at issues of unfairness and ignore these false categorisations of disadvantage and privilege. If a person is treating women badly then let’s do something about it, whether that person is a white male or a black female. If an indigenous group is doing badly let’s find out why instead of saying they are the victims of white male oppression.

In summary, forget the simplistic PC nonsense I so often hear from my theoretical allies on the left. Of course, we equally shouldn’t swing to the opposite extreme and espouse the equally nonsensical rhetoric of the right. What we need to do is look at each situation and evaluate it on it’s merits instead of approaching it with a pre-existing bias based on some silly buzz-phrase like “white male privilege”.

God Did It

June 17, 2016 33 comments

One of the most common tricks that religious people use to escape the fact that their beliefs have been refuted by scientific knowledge is to try to assimilate the new ideas into their own, but add the element of divine intervention.

Here’s an example: Traditionally Christians have believed that life was created by God in a few days and that nothing much has changed since then. But since the Theory of Evolution was developed and since the extraordinary amount of evidence supporting it has been discovered that original myth is no longer viable. So now a common response (apart from just denying the facts as many fundamentalists do) is to say “Sure, evolution is true. That’s how God works with life”.

Another example might be the origin of the Universe. The Bible gives an account of this in Genesis and that’s exactly what people believed until science uncovered the real facts regarding the Big Bang event about 13.7 billion years ago. So the Christians (again, those who don’t simply deny the overwhelming evidence) now say “But who started the Big Bang? Of course, it was God”.

In reality, this brand of believer (it’s not just Christians) could summarise their ideas in three simple words: “God did it”.

I recently heard an interesting analogy. When I walk into a room and turn on the light most people would accept that closing the light switch simply allows the electricity to flow to the bulb which then emits light. But using the “God did it” gambit I could say instead that the “Light Fairy” did it. Flicking the switch is simply a signal for the fairy to do her magical work and provide me with light.

What I’m saying is that God and the fairy aren’t necessary. Adding that extra element provides no extra level of knowledge we didn’t already have. It just makes things unnecessarily complex.

In addition to this it is entirely arbitrary. If we were going to add an extra layer of control to evolution (or any other phenomenon) why should it be God? Why not advanced aliens? Or psychic powers? And if it is a god, then which one? What’s so special about the Christian God? Could it be Thor or Zeus instead?

Some people say there are particular aspects of these processes which indicate a supernatural power must be involved. After all, how could a “blind” process like the naturalistic form of evolution lead to advanced life? Wouldn’t a “guided” form be more likely?

Well no. Let’s look at how evolution has worked. Over 99% of species which have existed in the past have gone extinct. Does that sound like how a god would operate? It seems very inefficient to me. But let’s just say that is a viable process for a god to use. What would have happened if we found the exact opposite: that every species was successful? That would have sounded even more like a god, wouldn’t it? And, no doubt, the religious people would be pointing out how their god was responsible.

So it doesn’t matter what the facts are, the “God did it” hypothesis can be invoked and it can never be proved wrong. It can’t be wrong, because it isn’t something that can be tested. But because of that, it can’t be right either. It’s actually worse than something that is wrong.

If we test evolution instead we can find many ways it might be wrong. If every species was successful evolution would immediately be disproved because elimination of some species while others survive is its main mechanism. If one type of life didn’t lead to another through gradual change evolution would also be disproved because small mutations being selected and eventually dominating is an evolutionary mechanism.

And what about the Big Bang? Well for it to be true there has to be some precise observations which agree with theory. The universe has to be expanding, there has to be certain abundances of elements, there has to be background radiation left over from the initial expansion, and several other more minor points. So what do we find? Well all of those requirements are satisfied, including a cosmic microwave background exactly as expected if the Big Bang is true.

But God could still be involved, right? Maybe the cosmic microwave background is just a remnant of the process he used. Sure, maybe. And if there was none then God could still be involved. And if the temperature had been 1 or 5 or 100 or 500 instead of 2.72548 then maybe that was the sign of God. Again, anything is possible because “God did it” is just not a theory.

Not only is it not a theory, but it is nothing. It’s a childish, meaningless inanity which isn’t even worthy of discussion – yes, I understand the irony in the fact that I have just used a blog post to do just that!

If anyone wants to use this in a serious discussion then we need a few details. You know, the sort of details which science gives us, like when, how, or where God did it. Then we can do some serious testing and see whether there really is any merit in the idea. Until then, these religious types should just keep the silly fairy tales where they belong and let the adults get on with the real discussions of reality.

Richie Rich

June 10, 2016 Leave a comment

In the past I have been quite impressed with Richie McCaw, the previous All Blacks captain. He was a great (I use that word deliberately) player and an effective captain. He was humble when interviewed about his achievements, but wasn’t obviously just following a PR script. And, most importantly, he rejected the offer of a knighthood in 2012 because he thought he didn’t deserve it yet (he now has an Order of New Zealand which is theoretically a higher honour).

When he was All Blacks captain he probably made well over a million dollars a year according to various sources, so you might think there would be little need to make extra cash by participating in activities of doubtful moral value, like doing advertising for large corporates.

But, unfortunately, that’s what he has done. After having such a high opinion of McCaw it is very disappointing – and I might even go as far as saying sickening – to see him in a TV advertising campaign trying to improve the public perception of Fonterra, the biggest company in New Zealand and the largest milk exporter in the world.

Fonterra has a poor public perception because of the way they manage milk exporting from New Zealand where they have a virtual monopoly. They have concentrated on producing larger amounts of low value products like milk powder and this has lead to two big problems: first, more cows have lead to major issues with water pollution; and second, when the price of commodities has slumped many farmers have been adversely affected and many have had to get out of farming.

There’s no excuse for it because various commentators have been saying for years that a better strategy would be to emphasise lesser volumes of higher value products instead, or at the very least have a greater diversification in production.

The criticisms of Fonterra don’t end there though, because they have also been criticised for extravagant director salaries, excessive numbers of managers and bureaucrats of doubtful value, and unfair payment terms for suppliers.

Sure, there have been times in the past where the company has been held in high regard. But these have been primarily when the price for milk has been high and payments to farmers have been generous. Any company can do a good job in those circumstance and it’s only when things go wrong that the true value of those highly paid executives is really tested.

And – disappointing but perhaps not surprisingly – they fail miserably. And not only are they incompetent but they are also immoral. And I’m afraid that, by association, so is Richie. Was he not rich enough? Why did he sell his soul to the devil? Surely he cannot possibly believe the inept drivel in the advertisement.

And in addition, I’m not impressed with the fact that he accepted an honorary doctorate as recognition of his sporting achievements. So he got a degree for running around a rugby ground throwing a ball around? Makes me wonder why we bother with universities. I think almost all honorary degrees are a travesty. A degree is supposed to be a recognition of academic ability, not a reward for being a good sportsman.

It seems more that honorary degrees are a dishonest attempt for the university to gain credit through association with a famous person. Lincoln University might say “oh yes, the All Blacks captain has a degree from here, aren’t we great?” I do admit that McCaw almost completed a bachelors degree before rugby took over his life, but many people don’t complete study for various reasons, so I don’t think that can really be used as a justification.

The fact that McCaw accepted something that he must have known was morally wrong is also a point against him, in my opinion. So, along with the Fonterra propaganda campaign which is even more morally wrong I find the whole thing very disappointing.

Sure, no one is perfect, but there are some actions which are unforgivable. It’s just as well Richie Rich isn’t playing for the All Blacks any more or I might have ended up supporting England or South Africa instead… or even (gasp) Australia!

Skillful Lying

June 6, 2016 Leave a comment

There’s an old joke which says: “Question: How can you tell when a politician is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.” It’s not literally true, of course, because politicians also lie in printed material (where their lips aren’t moving). But seriously, it has become a bigger problem recently because skillful lying is now a sophisticated and effective technique for gaining and maintaining power.

In many cases the lie (or error, or inaccuracy, or deliberate or accidental deception) isn’t particularly well hidden. I hate to belabour the obvious, but Donald Trump is probably the most well known source of statements which simply aren’t true, and even occasionally contradict earlier statements by himself! In a recent discussion by American comedian/commentator, Bill Maher, the explanation offered was that he makes so many incorrect statements that no one takes any notice any more.

The fact that someone whose accuracy is (deliberately or through ignorance) so poor is doing so well is a sad indictment on American politics. Or maybe the fact that he increasingly seems to be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for president is a sad indictment on her (assuming she wins the Democratic nomination, because although I think she will I don’t think she should).

So Trump is the most obvious liar because he says things which are simply untrue, but Clinton in some ways is worse. I really cannot take anything she says seriously because she just emanates such an air of inauthenticity that I really can’t stand to listen to her. It’s like every word doesn’t come from her but from some spin doctor who has contrived words intended to evoke the greatest positive response from the voters.

I presume all American politicians (including my preferred presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders) have advisors recommending what they should say and how they should say it, but the lack of legitimacy on Clinton’s part seems, to me, to be beyond anyone else.

And while I’m on this subject, I think the concept of “skillful lying” also explains the success of the current New Zealand government. As I have said in the past, even I was initially, if not enthusiastic then at least fairly accepting, of the current center-right administration, even though they didn’t really do anything I fully supported.

Maybe I was initially deceived by the superb spin machine that the National Party seems to have at its disposal. As I have looked at the situation more carefully I have realised that they have employed masterly deception, deflection, and diversion to cover any deficiencies in their actual actions.

And since I became aware of these techniques I have seen them used in many places. One of our prime minister’s favourite tricks is to turn a challenge which he cannot answer into a joke. When he makes a humorous response to a serious question and the person opposing him tries to bring him back to the serious matter it just makes his opponent look boring and humourless. It’s a brilliant strategy and many people are beguiled by this clever strategy to the point that they forget that he never answered the original question.

Another popular habit of successful public figures is offering their opinion on subjects they know nothing about. Again, Trump is a champion at this and our PM is developing an expertise too. He recently offered an opinion on the unfortunate demise of Harambe, the gorilla. Of course, why shouldn’t he, because almost everyone else did too!

A more politically relevant subject where the PM made a misleading statement related to “cheap” (which actually aren’t very cheap) housing in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. The PM claimed there were many houses for sale below $500 thousand if anyone “Googled” New Zealand’s major trading site, TradeMe. But a simple search reveals this simply isn’t true. There are very few houses in that category and, of the few which do exist, most are either tiny, long distances out of town, on islands, or (in one case) actually a boat 2 hours away from the CBD.

But that illustrates one further point: that fact checking in live interviews is almost impossible. An interviewer can’t challenge a statement which seems fake until they research it, and in the fast paced political world we live in by then it’s too late.

Politicians no doubt know all of this and they also know that, as Abe Lincoln said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” But, of course, you don’t need to.

Pointless, Unproductive, Unnecessary

June 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I have a category in my calendar called “administrivia” which is especially reserved for trivial administration tasks. In fact the word “trivial” above was probably superfluous because I think all administration is trivial. Anyway, I don’t use the category much because I do tend to minimise the amount of this sort of work I do, a tendency which often gets me into a certain amount of difficulty with people who take such tasks more seriously than I do!

Although I find it hard to give administration the respect some people think I should, I do recognise that a certain amount is necessary to keep things running smoothly. It is the all too common situation where administration becomes a prime function in itself instead of what I think it should be – an unfortunate supporting function which should be minimised – where I think we have got things wrong.

A recent survey of time wasted doing administration supports this point. The survey was carried out by Kronos, a company which sells web-based management systems. Of course, this should immediately cause a bit of skepticism and perhaps even cynicism because this company has a lot to gain from convincing people they need to streamline their administration and management systems! However, I think the general points the survey makes are valid.

So the basic claim is that New Zealand companies are throwing away billions every year because of time wasted doing pointless, unproductive, and unnecessary administration tasks. Kronos claim that “internal red tape” is costing businesses in New Zealand and Australia $61 billion per year. That is on average $4200 per employee per year, or 3 hours per week wasted. To be honest, I find it a bit difficult to believe it isn’t a lot more.

The survey also showed that 70% of people thought that they weren’t productive because of the environment they were forced to work in. The managing director of the regional branch of Kronos thinks that productivity issues are due to failures in management rather than problems with the actual workers. Again, I think most people could have told him that without the need for a survey.

In addition to these points there was the remarkable finding that 52% of HR managers didn’t view people as one of their organisation’s top 3 assets. I believe that HR is one of the most vile and worthless components of the modern workplace so, again they are preaching to the converted, but even I was somewhat surprised that an attitude like that could possibly exist.

I mean, how could anyone think that the organisation’s staff aren’t, if not first, then at least second or third in order of importance? I guess these deluded management types could maybe rate managers and share-holders one and two, and even that would be wrong, but surely staff should be at least third! And these aren’t just any managers either, they are HR managers. They seem to think the “resource” they are tasked with managing isn’t important. Does that not make them unimportant as well? I suspect they don’t really see it that way.

The recommendations included the following: reduce back office functions, install efficient systems to manage essential tasks (yes, a bit self-serving, I think), automate mundane tasks where possible, and invest in employees and make life easier for them. One of the presenters also offered this: dismantle HR departments which was deemed a “shade extreme”.

Naturally, I would go a lot further and not only dismantle HR departments but all of the worthless and counter-productive nonsensical bureaucracies which exist in modern organisations. So I guess that would be seen as more than a shade extreme. It would be seen as properly extreme, but I think also properly necessary.

The management class are constantly demanding extra productivity while creating an environment where the exact opposite is achieved. There is no way that minor adjustments can fix this problem. We need to start again. We must dispense with everything that is pointless, unproductive, and unnecessary.