Archive for September, 2016

No Justice in NZ

September 27, 2016 Leave a comment

A rich kid beats up a local (female) cop and is only punished with community work. A young rugby player assaults several people and is discharged without conviction. These are two recent cases of violence in New Zealand where a violent offender has basically got away with little or no punishment.

In the first case the cop was punched several times while unconscious and in the second the victim’s head was stomped on after he was punched and fell to the ground. These sound like pretty serious assaults yet no significant punishment was judged necessary. And for other, far more minor, crimes people are locked up for significant amounts of time. What’s going on here? Is this really the way our “justice” system should work?

Well judging from most of the comments on these two incidents – many of which thought the law is a joke – the legal system (I will call it that because it has little to do with justice) has failed miserably. But should both of the people above have been sentenced to prison instead as many people think?

Well maybe not, but I don’t think prison is an appropriate response for the vast majority of crimes, so in my opinion almost no one should go there.

If you think about it the whole thing is absurd…

First, someone does something which is against a set of arbitrary rules which everyone is expected to know (yet no one does). These rules might or might not follow what the majority would regard as natural justice.

Then, the offender might or might not be caught depending on priorities such as the amount of resource the police are using against that particular transgression at the time (something which is generally politically motivated).

If the offender is caught he will receive some judgement based on the opinion of a judge who is probably more out of touch with everyday life than any other person in society. Additionally, if the accused has lots of money he can get a better lawyer and is far more likely to be found innocent.

If found guilty the offender is sentenced based on vague and arcane rules which essentially come back to the opinion of the (out of touch) judge. It will also depend on the time of day, how long it is since the judge had a coffee, the offender’s appearance, race, and gender, and many other factors. In some cases the person might avoid any punishment at all depending on the judge’s particular interpretation of the rules at the time.

Then, the criminal (because that is now what they are) is most likely sent to a prison where he will stay, at huge cost to the taxpayer, in an environment where he is exposed to some of the worst people in society and will most likely learn attitudes and skills making future crimes more likely.

Finally, the person is released from prison and expected to re-integrate into society, even though having a criminal record makes that almost impossible.

Where did we ever get the idea that this could ever be a good system?

Maybe it is like most of the other systems our society has where they are clearly inadequate but since we have evolved with them over hundreds of years we have just got used to them and are too timid to try anything which might be better. These systems might include: parliament, courts, local government, banks, financial institutions, etc. Well OK, let’s be honest here – it includes everything!

So, unlike most people, I am not saying these two thugs should have been locked up in prison like others who have done far lesser crimes. I am saying that they shouldn’t have been locked up, but neither should the people who did the lesser crimes, and neither should many who did worse crimes too.

Real crimes (and by that I mean stuff like theft from individuals or violence, which all reasonable people agree is bad) are committed by people with anti-social tendencies. They might be so poor they need to steal to survive, they might have psychological issues as a result of being from a violent family, they might have drug dependencies, or they might have attitude issues because they belong to some sort of elite group (like the ultra-rich or elite sports-people).

In every case part of the blame belongs with the individual and part with the person’s circumstances, many of which are beyond their control. So having a “lock them up” attitude is neither fair nor effective. Why not get psychological appraisals of all offenders and base a program of rehabilitation on that? If the person is beyond redemption then prison might be appropriate, but I suspect in most cases it wouldn’t be.

This is beginning to sound like another part of my program to revolutionise society with rational decision making: get rid of the judges and bring in the trained psychologists. But it’s not really the judges who are the problem, or the law makers, or even the law breakers. It’s the system.


Problem Solving

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article asking why there aren’t more science and technology experts helping solve the world’s problems. Sci-tech experts are supposed to be the smartest and most innovative people around so why aren’t they out there involved in global problem solving? Looking at the background of most political leaders we see people with a background in law, business, and other similar fields, but rarely STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths). Why? And is this good or bad?

First, let’s establish whether this is actually a real issue. I looked at the members of the US congress and found that law is by far the most common previous occupation or area of expertise. Out of the approximately 550 total members just 9 had backgrounds in STEM, and that included no mathematicians.

In New Zealand, the National Party (center-right) members have backgrounds mainly in law, business, and politics, while Labour (center-left) have mainly government, education, and union. Looking at the pie graphs there isn’t even a segment for STEM in either!

In a time when representation in politics from all groups – especially from those based on gender and ethnicity – is encouraged it seems odd that we don’t want greater equality in representation from different groups based on area of expertise or interest as well.

But there is one attribute I have noticed (and this is an anecdote rather than a fact) commonly in people from STEM: that is that they have a great deal of humility and understand that there are no simple answers, that opinions aren’t facts, and that reality doesn’t respond to actions based on ideology.

And all of those things are contrary to how most politicians work. To be a successful politician you have to have absolute confidence in your party’s policies – or at least make it look like you do when discussing them in public. I don’t think many science oriented people could work that way.

There are exceptions, of course. Margaret Thatcher had a background in chemistry before becoming British prime minister but while she was in power seemed to have absolute confidence that her extreme and dangerous political views were beyond criticism. She was rejected for a job (before entering politics) because she was “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated”.

And Thatcher (or Roberts before she married) was already looking towards law and politics even while completing her science degree. She was said to have been more proud of being the first British PM with a science degree than being the first female PM. Unfortunately she failed to demonstrate the higher ideals of science once she was PM!

Of course, science and technology have changed the world for the better very significantly without the people responsible for these advances being involved in politics. In fact, a case could be made to say that almost all the benefits of modern society come from sci-tech. But if the same people who created these benefits could also help apply them more efficiently and fairly then things would be even better. And to do that we need those people in politics.

It seems to me that the reason few “science types” enter politics is because the environment they would find themselves in is totally contrary to the principles a good science type would value. Those principles are: valuing actual truth above convenient beliefs, questioning the statements from all authorities and correcting them if they are found lacking, and using empirical well founded techniques to improve outcomes.

As a science oriented person myself I could not function in the political environment we have. I would have to criticise and vote against my own party, I would have to make private information public if it affected other people, and I would always be debating with my colleagues about the best way forward.

So it seems that the reason that STEM people don’t make a greater contribution to society is because society doesn’t let them. Until we create a political environment where more fact-based decisions are endorsed, where the freedom to critique ideas is tolerated, and where all information is made accessible we will never get the benefits the sci-tech people can provide.

Pure Worthless Drivel

September 14, 2016 Leave a comment

While I was deciding what to call this blog post I went back over previous posts looking for duplicate names and for the frequency of use of the constituent words. One word which showed up a lot more than I thought it might was “drivel”. But it’s a word I think is particularly useful in so many contexts today. With the dumbing down of society there is more and more drivel and that’s the main subject of this post.

The particular source of drivel I want to concentrate on this time is mainstream news. And the particular news item which has just pushed me over the edge and lead to this rant was the reporting on the introduction of the iPhone 7.

I am an IT expert and a consultant/programmer, specialising in working with Apple products, so I do know a bit more than most on this subject. That means that the poor reporting and discussion on the new phone was more obvious than most other subjects would be. But I also notice poor reporting on other subjects where my knowledge is above average (that’s probably almost everything I can say with all due modesty, not so much because my knowledge level is high, but because the average is so low) and I suspect it’s about the same for everything else too.

The drivel on this occasion was from a program called “Story” on one of New Zealand’s main TV channels. I have noticed when it first started it did some fairly worthwhile and controversial investigations and reporting, but as time goes by it really has sunk to the level of inane, simplistic, unsophisticated nonsense that many people predicted when it was first announced.

You might ask why I watch that particular program instead of another channel or not watch TV at all. Well you might guess what I am going to say here: the other channels are even worse! And the program is on at dinner time and it is slightly more sociable to watch TV with other people rather than just look at my iPad screen. Plus there is the point that I like to keep up with the latest drivel, oops I mean news.

You might say that programs like these are as much about light entertainment as they are about real news, but I have occasionally noticed the same thing – although certainly not quite as bad – from more respectable news sources like RNZ.

So the discussion on the iPhone 7 consisted of a few people, none of which had any knowledge of the iPhone or even of tech in general, sitting around making their opinions known. The main source of discussion seemed to be the lack of a headphone socket on the new phone and how that would mean people would not be able to use the earphones of their choice.

Not once during the discussion was it mentioned that other (Android) phones had already dropped that connector (over a year ago) and the world seems to have continued without a major meltdown. Not once was it mentioned that, in the box, is an adapter allowing you to use your existing headphones with the new iPhone through the digital port. And not once was it mentioned that the new phone comes with earphones which connect to the digital (Lightning) port directly.

Now in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if TV news and current affairs programs are totally accurate about one particular product, but it does matter that the same level of inane ignorance extends to everything.

As I said above, the program in question is called “Story”. Here are the two main definitions of that word from the Oxford Dictionary: 1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment; and 2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.

I’m sure they had definition 2 in mind when the name was approved, but they seem to be straying more into the area of definition 1 all the time. Truly we are doomed. There’s just too much pure worthless drivel.

Sinner or Saint?

September 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Giving a blog post a title like “sinner or saint” might seem a bit odd for someone like myself who thinks neither really exists, but I think in this case it is appropriate because the person I am posing the question about is Mother Teresa, or “Saint Teresa of Calcutta” as she will be known in future.

Recently Pope Francis (who, as fas as Popes are concerned, I quite like) canonised Mother Teresa (who died in 1997) after a process started by his predecessor. Was this justified? Many people just naturally believe that she was a great person who helped the sick and poor, but she also has some very vocal critics, one of whom was Christopher Hitchens, a person who I really admired (and who we unfortunately lost to cancer in 2011).

So which is it: sinner or saint? Well I think it was a bit of both.

First, let’s get the silly idea of her literally being a saint out of the way. A saint must have been involved with a miracle (specifically a prayer to her after her death must have resulted in a miraculous cure) and this must be checked by a special group from the church. Needless to say, the supposed miracle is totally absurd and no sensible person would take it seriously.

But the miracle is largely irrelevant. Was her well known work with the poor and sick in India genuine? Well fundamentally it seems that she did set up hospitals to treat the sick and organisations to help the poor. And she raised a lot of money to help fund these missions.

So that sounds quite good. Maybe she was a saint in some way, even if she wasn’t in the strictly religious sense. Well yes, maybe, but there was the dark side to her activities as well.

First, the miracle. The claim is that a Bengali woman, Monica Besra, saw a beam of light emerge from a picture of Mother Teresa and cure a cancerous tumor. But the woman’s doctor had a slightly different story, because there was no cancer. The problem was a tubercular cyst which was cured by a course of prescription medicine. But the church’s team didn’t even talk to the doctor, so it is not surprising they reached the wrong conclusion. Of course, if they thoroughly investigated every case there would be no saints.

Second, the money. A lot of the funding she gained was from very corrupt sources and it is quite unclear where a lot of it went. There were no good records of spending so this could not be investigated properly.

Third, the standard of care. Standards in the centers where the sick were treated were very poor, with stories such as syringes being re-used and other poor health practices being common.

Finally, her attitude. The ultimate motivation for her work seemed to be more conversion to Catholicism than anything else. And she did not support women’s rights, birth control, or other progressive changes India really needed.

Would the world have been a better place if Mother Teresa hadn’t existed? I don’t know. I’m tempted to be generous here and say that at least she made some positive difference, despite the clear problems. And maybe calling her a saint is OK too, but why not just make people saints when they do good in the world and forget the ridiculous pretence of these silly alleged miracles?

Mother Teresa was a human being like the rest of us. Not a sinner or a saint. Just a flawed person who did some good things but probably did a lot of bad things as well.