Archive for October, 2016

No Answers

October 19, 2016 7 comments

It’s unusual for me to be uncertain about stuff. I mean, I am always prepared to change my opinion on anything, if I’m shown new information, but until that happens I usually have a fairly well established position on most things. Here are some examples: most climate change is caused by humans, almost certainly true; fluoride in water is overall beneficial, yes very likely; humans have been to the Moon, no reason to doubt it; the official story of the 9/11 attack is accurate, probably fairly close to being true; evolution is a fact, there is no alternative; etc.

But there are a few things I’m not so certain about. I don’t even have a consistent interim position on these. Some times I will be pro and others anti. And these are some of the most interesting questions in modern society. Let’s have a look at a few of these issues…

Is abortion morally OK?

I know the arguments that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, but it isn’t that simple, is it? There is another body involved, even though that is currently sustained by the woman. When does a fertilised egg become a foetus and when does that become an unborn child, and when does that become a unique conscious entity? There are no objective answers and any answers we might have are largely arbitrary.

It seems that in the early stages before any sort of nervous system has developed it would be hard to call the foetus a unique entity, but when does that change? It’s a difficult one and the current limits are arbitrary and could be debated either way.

I know a lot of people hold strong positions on this issue on both sides: some are anti-abortion for irrational religious reasons and some are pro- for equally irrational feminist reasons. I’m just honest enough to say I don’t know.

Does conventional economics produce good outcomes?

Clearly the answer to this question depends on the exact definition of “conventional economics” and “good” but I think most people have a fair idea of what I am talking about. I often argue for a more socialist approach to running our economies, but socialism has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its more pure forms. Of course, I would say those examples (such as the USSR) aren’t the sort of socialist principles I’m talking about, but it does weaken the argument.

On the other hand, free markets, globalisation, and unregulated labour markets seem to clearly produce poor outcomes for the majority. But many people would say that the perceived deficiencies are still less pernicious than those of other economic systems.

I have heard good arguments for greater economic freedom and equally good ones for greater state control. The problem is I trust neither government nor big business! So again, I don’t know where the best balance lies, although I tend to think we need a bit of a correction to the left from the way things are now.

Was Jesus a real person?

If Jesus actually existed and the stories about him are even mostly true then that makes a big difference to my perception of the world. I see practically no reason to believe any of the supernatural aspects of the Jesus story because they are inconsistent and totally unsupported by other sources outside of the Bible, but the question on whether he existed at all is more interesting.

A lot of the time I see the evidence for his existence as being so poor that it just isn’t worth taking seriously. But then I see that most scholars – including many who aren’t specifically Christian – do strongly support the idea he existed, even though they usually reject the religious enhancements to his story, like the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection.

I’m currently in a phase where I say he didn’t exist in any form which would be remotely similar to the Biblical account, but who knows, tomorrow I might read another opinion and tend more to the idea that someone who was a great teacher and proponent of peace and good moral standards did exist and that the Bible stories are based on this.

Is the common interpretation of quantum mechanics real?

The deeper science probes into the inner workings of the universe the more bizarre and incomprehensible reality seems to become. Relativity, with its warped space and time, speeding up and slowing down of time, and other bizarre effects seems odd enough, but that is nothing compared with quantum theory.

Is wave particle duality a real thing? It seems to me that fundamental particles are probably not either waves or particles depending on the experiment we perform on them. More likely they are neither but can be interpreted as either as a sort of shorthand to their true form.

And what about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Does the observer cause the wave function to collapse and define reality? I don’t think anyone really understands the question and certainly no one has a good answer. Like Richard Feynman said: if you think you understand quantum mechanics you obviously don’t know anything about it! (slightly paraphrased)

Do we have free will?

I have heard good arguments both ways on this one too. Usually ideas on this diverge for two reasons: either the person has a religious, philosophical, political, or other irrational worldview which requires free will to be real or an illusion; or the person has an unusual interpretation of what “free will” really is.

I generally say that, according to my defintion, we don’t have free will, but I would have no choice but to believe in free will if good enough evidence arose. There, read that last sentence again and tell me I have free will!

There’s no reason to think that all questions have an answer and maybe I have just chosen what I sometimes call “un-questions”. All I know is that even if no answers exist it’s kind of fun to try to find them.


Pointless Jobs

October 15, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an opinion piece on the subject of why capitalism has created so many pointless jobs. The idea that increasing automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence would make life easier for people at work has not really worked the way it was predicted to when these trends became more prominent about 80 years ago.

Economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that advanced countries would probably reduce the working week to about 15 hours, but that hasn’t happened. In fact, many people are working far more than the traditional 40 hours, and there hasn’t been a conspicuous lack of jobs available for all those people still working for the full week.

So what has happened?

Well a while back I read another piece titled something like “the rise of bullshit jobs” which pointed out that a large fraction of modern jobs are completely pointless and really could be eliminated tomorrow without making any real difference to how efficiently the economy was running.

Our society still values employment very highly and regards unemployment as one of the great social evils to be avoided at all costs. But as technology makes human labour less important shouldn’t we be welcoming the freedom from work, especially the repetitive, unpleasant, and dangerous jobs that really shouldn’t exist?

In a report covering most ot the last century it was found that the number of productive jobs (in manufacturing, agriculture, etc) has crashed but these jobs have been replaced with professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers which have grown from about a quarter to three quarters of the total.

I’m not saying that all jobs in these categories are pointless because they’re not. I myself am a computer consultant/programmer so I guess I would fit into professional or service sector (depending on how highly you rate computer geeks) and I think I perform a needed function. So not all the new jobs are pointless but a lot (maybe most) of them are.

So instead of creating the opportunity for greatly reduced working hours by having the same working population doing the lesser amount of productive work we have created a whole pile of pointless jobs to fill the void. The most ironic thing is that it often people who work in these jobs who complain about the lack of “productivity”, even though it is precisely them who are causing it!

So let’s have a look at the type of job mentioned in the article that the author regarded as being in the “pointless” category: private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, legal consultants, most administrators, financial service professionals, health administrators, human resources experts, and academic administrators.

These are the sort of people who I often see the blanket term “worthless bureaucrats” being used to describe. It may be that there is a need for these professions to exist at a certain level, but a case could be made that we could dispense with them completely and make the world a better place.

Because the title “pointless jobs” is actually a bit too generous. These people are not only a complete waste of time and space but they actually make the people who are doing the real work less effective and productive. If a worker is constantly interrupted with the need to do pointless paperwork to keep a bureaucrat happy, for example, that bureaucrat doesn’t just have zero value, he or she is actually worse than useless!

And the argument that administrators take some of the burden of the paper work away from the workers doesn’t really work. What is that paper work for? In most cases it is just pointless nonsense to keep another bureaucrat happy who can then use the meaningless information collected to keep an even more senior bureaucrat informed on a subject she/he knows nothing about and is simply being mislead about through junk information. And inevitably the workers are the original source of the information so it is their time which is wasted in creating it.

I do have to say that blaming capitalism for this is arguably a bit unfair. One of the worst places I have seen it is in schools where teachers are expected to teach bigger and more difficult classes while at the same time coping with an increasing burden of reporting, evaluation, and generation of other, mostly pointless, nonsense.

Schools aren’t generally thought of as being run on capitalist models, although modern education does more closely follow the board, CEO, senior management model and have financial constraints as an important aspect of its operational principles. So technically schools aren’t capitalist entities but the rise of neoliberalism has ensured that many capitalist ideologies are followed.

But capitalism is supposed to create efficiencies because each company wants to optimise its income. Surely having a whole layer of bureaucracy stifling greater productivity is an anathema to this ideal?

Well, no. Because companies are run by boards and senior managers who are exactly the type of person who start the bureaucratisation process. It’s hardly likely that these people are going to suddenly experience an epiphany and say that managers are parasites, considering they would be describing themselves.

The other critical factor is what is often referred to as the “Protestant work ethic”. This isn’t to say that everyone who rate the simple fact of working as being virtuous has to be a Protestant, it’s more just that this is where it is often thought to derive from.

And in the past, when there was little automation available, hard work was a genuine advantage to society and many of the advances in Europe and America stemmed from it. But it’s just not relevant any more.

It’s time to make it OK to spend more time on interests, leisure activities, sporting goals, and other non-work related pursuits. We can make society operate on a 15 hour working week. And eventually maybe a zero hour week. People will still do things, but it will be the things they want to do instead of what they have to do. And society will be so much better as a result.

My New Party

October 8, 2016 Leave a comment

I have noticed recently that many of my interactions on the internet have become more confrontational and argumentative. That might be because I frequent places where robust debates are likely, or maybe it’s just that I am a cantankerous old fart!

But seriously, the problem is that I seem into get equal amounts of trouble in discussions (or debates or arguments) with liberal left people as I do with libertarians or conservatives. Of course, it goes without saying that I get into vigorous debates when visiting climate change denial, anti-vaccination, pro-gun, and creationist web sites, but there should be no surprises there.

I personally think my refusal to accept the norm is a good thing because it means that I am not too devoted to a particular dogma and that I think for myself. As Mark Twain said “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.”

So let’s look at what I think are the good and bad points of the different political ideologies I get into debates over…

I have the greatest attachment to liberalism and the politics of the left and, if I do a political evaluation, this is the area I am usually assigned to. But there are some bad aspects of it which I strongly object to. Mainly that would be political correctness and naive acceptance of naturalistic claims.

So when I see things like “we can learn a lot from Maori, they have a special connection with nature” I call BS on that. It might be true, but there is no real reason to think that it is, and I could produce some points which would contradict the idea. The main reason people believe it is pure political correctness and very few can defend the idea beyond repeating meaningless catch-phrases.

And when I see “we need to abandon modern chemical farming and especially genetic engineering because the natural, organic approach is much safer and better for society” I call BS again. And like the previous point, it could be true, but there is no consistent evidence to suggest that it is, and I could produce a lot of information which is contrary to the idea.

So what about libertarianism? Well I have a sort of love/hate relationship with it, because it does have maximum freedom and minimum interference with individuality at is core (which I like), but it also strongly supports privatisation and pure capitalism which I overall disagree with.

So I would generally support the libertarian social agenda of maximum freedom but I think there is strong evidence that rampant private enterprise can never be good for society and that it inevitably ends up taking away any advantages the social agenda might provide.

And so on to conservatism. Actually, I think there is some merit in its purported philosophy of looking at how things have been done in the past and not going ahead with change unless there is ample evidence that it is going to produce a better outcome, but that’s not where it usually ends.

Because many conservatives take things far beyond that and oppose change even when there is no real reason to think it will be problematic and fairly good evidence to say it would result in a more free and progressive society. On the positive side, conservatives tend to be extremely critical of political correctness and I definitely approve of that!

None of the major political philosophies suit me so, as many people have suggested (as a joke), maybe I should start my own party with my own special philosophy. It would be called the “Rationalist Party” and it would reject all of the weaknesses of the existing political camps.

We would have none of the political correct nonsense the liberals refuse to question, none of the dogmatic attachment to privatisation and free markets the libertarians treat as almost a religion, and none of the failure to move forward with new ideas the conservatives suffer from.

It would be the perfect political system, but rational people never or rarely want to get involved in politics, so I guess it will never happen.

A Real Prisoner’s Dilemma

October 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I have already discussed the prisoner’s dilemma in a couple of previous posts but I want to re-examine its implications here because it’s just really cool, and (predictably) I have been listening to another podcast which mentioned it in relation to game theory recently.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a sort of thought experiment in philosophy or game theory. Here’s a statement of the dilemma from Wikipedia…

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal – if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates/assists), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each “rats out” the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

Let’s look at the options here. I’ll call the two prisoners Al and Bob. If Al betrays Bob but Bob keeps quite then Al goes free and Bob gets 1 year. The same happens in reverse. If both Al and Bob keep silent then they both get 1 month. If each betrays the other they both get 3 months.

Now look at it from Al’s perspective. If Bob will betray him he is better to also betray Bob because he will get 3 months instead of a year. If Bob won’t betray him he is still better to betray Bob because he goes free instead of getting 1 month. But Bob is also thinking this way, meaning that the inevitable outcome is that both get 3 months.

The above assumes each is thinking independently (which must happen because the problem above specifies that “the decision of each is kept quiet”). What would happen if they could cooperate or if both knew the other’s intention before they decided? Clearly in that case both would remain silent and get 1 month each.

Notice that each individual making the most rational decision does not result in the best outcome for either.

This isn’t just a fun game because the original work on this was done in the US during the Cold War in relation to the best way to respond to the USSR’s war efforts.

Now let’s see how it might apply in real life. A recent controversy here in new Zealand involved management of fish by commercial fishing companies. We have a quota management system to prevent over-fishing and potential destruction of fish stocks, but surely if the fishing industry acted rationally that shouldn’t be necessary, should it?

If we apply the principles of the prisoner’s dilemma to this situation it is obvious why regulation is necessary…

Let’s say there are two fishing companies operating in this particular area. I will call them A and B. They both know they can either catch a sustainable share of the fish and ensure the long term survival of the fishery, or they can just go out and catch as much as they can.

Let’s look at this from A’s perspective. If B cheats then A is better to cheat as well because the fish will run out but at least A would have made a lot of money before that happens. If B doesn’t cheat then A is still better to cheat because the number of fish will be reduced but A will make a lot of money at the expense of B.

But again, if they both cooperate then both can make a moderate amount while ensuring that the fish survive indefinitely which ensures both company’s survival.

When you start thinking this way examples are everywhere, especially where multiple entities are competing over limited resources (climate change mitigation is an obvious example). In other words, in exactly the situations where conventional economic theory thinks that free competition is the best solution. Clearly it is wrong.

So in theory truly free competition as espoused by neo-liberal economics will never work. It just can’t. Is the usual alternative – government regulation – any better? Well, in theory it is, but only if we assume that the government acts rationally and tries to optimise the rules for the long-term benefit for the majority.

But in too many cases the government simply acts as another participant in the prisoner’s dilemma scenario. It makes short-term, self-serving decisions which don’t give an optimal result for either society or for even itself.

There is one advantage that democratic governments have though. They are ultimately given power through a majority vote which, theoretically at least, represents the thoughts of the people. Private companies don’t have this restriction.

But there is one last factor I should mention here. The prisoner’s dilemma changes completely when the participants know what the others are doing. If all the participants cooperate and act rationally then the best outcome always results. So the key to getting the best outcome seems to be total openness and complete participation by all affected parties.

That sort of sounds like a democratic political model with a Keynesian style economy (I would advocate for a greater degree of control than Keynes did). But it should be the model we always hear about in theory, not the imperfect version we see in real life.