An Update on Updates

You might have noticed that it has been a couple of weeks since I wrote a blog post. Why? Well, there is so much to do when you are interested in the areas of social media, web content, and other geeky IT stuff, and I could easily spend all of my spare time on just keeping my blog up to date, or creating more podcasts, or debating with nutters on Facebook and Twitter, or maintaining my web site, but I can’t fully do all of those things together. So, which should I choose?

I was fairly early in creating a web site. In fact, back in the day when my workplace was far more flexible than it is now, and I didn’t have my own server, I created a personal web site hosted at work, and I believe I was the first person to do this. That was in the 1990s, so my web site dates from the fairly early days of the web.

The problem is that things have changed quite a lot since then, and by “quite a lot” I mean a whole lot! No one had mobile devices back then, screens on computers were quite small, bandwidth was ridiculously poor (often utilising dial-up modems), and most web sites were static and didn’t provide many interactive or feedback mechanisms.

I have added new features to my site since the early days to keep it partly up to date, but the underlying structure was always a problem. For example, about half the pages were delivered through static HTML documents, and only the newer features were served from databases. And some of the graphics were of poor quality because they were optimised to load quickly on slow connections. And, maybe most importantly, there was no mobile optimised version for phones and other devices with small screens.

So the obvious answer was just to move all the information from static pages to a database and provide the content through optimised templates and responsive stylesheets based on the visitor’s requirements. How hard could it be? Well, if my site only had a few pages, or a few dozen, or even a few hundred, the conversion task would be manageable. But my site has 5000 pages and, if it takes 30 minutes per page to convert, that adds up to 2500 hours, or about a year of full-time work!

One person suggested I convert my blog initially, which is already sourced from a database, and then do the rest when I can, but there are so many connections from one part of my site to others that even that was quite difficult to get right. So I decided to convert everything instead!

I have found a lot of shortcuts and optimisations, which means that it will take a lot less than 2500 hours, but it is still a significant task. And that’s why my blog has suffered a bit recently; my new web site is taking all my time. This blog post – ironically about the subject which has stopped me from creating other blog posts – is just a short interlude in the greater task of web programming.

So for all of those people who are missing the vicious, or occasionally amusing, political invective of my blog, I will get back to it in the next month or two. And for those who are missing me pointing out the deficiencies in their arguments in on-line debates: I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!

Is Capitalism Perfect?

One of the greatest concerns many people – especially those on the left – have with modern society is inequality. They quite rightly point out how the top 100 (or less) people have more wealth than the bottom several billion. Also, to a lesser extent, most – and possibly every – modern society is also very unequal, with a small number of people (such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos) owning “obscene” amounts of wealth, while so many others have next to nothing.

The phenomenon is undoubtedly real, and definitely is a problem, even if the problem is only one of perception rather than reality (see later in this post for an explanation of what I mean here). One major point of disagreement though, is what causes this inequality. The most common institution to be blamed is capitalism, but is this fair?

Karl Marx had a lot to say on this subject, obviously, and he blamed capitalism, and that is probably where the left today gets the idea from, considering how many of them seem to be proponents of neo-Marxism. So Marx was undoubtedly right about the fact of inequality, but I would say he was wrong about the cause, because I don’t believe blaming capitalism is realistic.

In the past I have criticised capitalism for this exact fault. For example, I criticised capitalism in a post titled “Capitalism Sucks” from 2014-04-22 and spent a bit of time analysing the stats of inequality in “When the Revolution Comes” of 2013-03-13. Here are some points from those posts: Warren Buffet, the world’s highest earner, makes $402 in 1 second, while someone on the global poverty line makes $0.0000144; and the top 1% (of high income people, shown on a graph divided into 5 categories based on income) have more wealth than all of the poor, and all of the lower middle, and all of the middle, and all of the upper middle, and a good part of the rich all put together!

Those numbers certainly seem very damning on the surface, but I do have a more nuanced view on the subject now. Actually, if you look at my blog posts from 5 to 10 years ago and compare them with today you might have noticed how I have a more nuanced view on many things now!

I still think massive inequality like we see in most modern societies is a bad thing, but I don’t just jump on the good ol’ anti-capitalism bandwagon any more, for two main reasons…

First, inequality has always been a phenomenon in society, even before there was capitalism in anything like the form we see today. For example, after their deaths, the upper echelons of ancient Egyptian society were buried with great riches and had massive monuments built for them (the pyramids being the most obvious example) while the vast majority of the people were poorly paid peasants (if not slaves) who got very little. That shows inequality on a scale possibly even greater than what we have today, yet capitalism wasn’t involved.

For a more recent example look at the USSR. According to a paper on this subject, the level of inequality there was comparable with many western countries. Surely the Soviets could not be accused of implementing capitalism, yet inequality was an obvious part of their society. In fact an elite class was a conspicuous part of their political system.

And in more “primitive” societies there are often other mechanisms which allow one individual, family, or group to dominate others and to own far more of the available resources. In many cases this is simply physical force, and the threat of violence; and in others it might be some hereditary right, such as with monarchies. Surely it is preferable to have the ruling class determined by commercial skills rather than being born into the right family or being more violent.

My second point is this: even if capitalism results in a small number of people becoming “obscenely rich” it does seem to improve the wealth level of almost everyone. So by following capitalism instead of some other system, a rich person might have a billion dollars instead of a million, but the poor might have a thousand instead of 100. As a ratio of their income to the income of the super-rich the poor are badly off, but in absolute terms they are better off. Look at the standard of living in Soviet Russia in comparison to the US at the same time to see that this is real.

And, related to that, what is the alternative? Clearly from what I have said above, socialism doesn’t work. The death toll from that is far more obscene than anything capitalism is responsible for. It seems pointless criticising one economic system if you don’t have a superior alternative in mind. To be fair, it is OK to point out the problems inherent in any system, including capitalism, so we can consider what changes could be made, but until some reliable changes are identified it is best to stick with the status quo.

Note that I have concentrated on one negative aspect of capitalism here: inequality. Of course, there are many other issues as well we should be aware of, such as environmental degradation, inability to engage with societal functions which cannot provide a profit, the negative effects of inevitable monopolies, and many others. But similar arguments to what I have provided above also apply to those. We need to look at the big picture, and balance the good and the bad when discussing all of these issues.

Is capitalism perfect? Not even close. Have the alternatives worked out very well? Hell, no!

Collectivism vs Individualism

One of the defining divisions in modern society might be the philosophical difference between the dogmas represented by collectivism and individualism. It seems that some cultures value individual rights and freedoms highly, and try to reduce or eliminate control by the state, while others see the state as an essential element in making life better for the majority.

So who is right? Well, as you might guess based on my previous blog posts, I would say both. I strongly believe in maximum freedom of both action and speech which are free from the restraints of excessive state control, but I also realise there are many issues which cannot be treated that way and where a central authority is necessary.

So neither the libertarians nor the socialists are right, but there is a need for both of those political philosophies in modern society. So when people say they don’t want socialism in their country they are wrong. They actually do want some socialism, because without central institutions controlling excessive corporate power, managing infrastructure and services which aren’t commercially viable, and supporting groups which are disadvantaged by free markets we couldn’t function. But without a strong element of individual freedom, efficient and well-directed markets, and true innovation coming from individuals and small businesses our society would also be dysfunctional.

I’ve seen a lot of unthinking criticism of political parties on both sides of this issue. The criticisms of Act – which could be loosely described as New Zealand’s libertarian party – and the Greens – which are a broadly socialist and environmentalist party – are almost always based on perceptions of their underlying ideology rather than real policies and ideas. It’s quite annoying really, because if people bothered to leave their biases behind an just look at the actual issues being addressed they might see that there are good ideas on all sides of politics. And bad ideas too, of course!

First, I want to look at the more libertarian ideas on how society should work. Basically, this philosophy says that the individual is key, that individuals should have the freedom to do what they want – as much as is practical – until they start encroaching on other people’s rights, and that uncontrolled mechanisms – especially markets – are the best way to control and guide economic and social systems.

There is a range in the purity of these ideas. Some extremists are virtually indistinguishable from anarchists in that they want no government at all and individual freedom is everything. Others are more moderate and want most mechanisms to be in private ownership but make exceptions for a few key institutions like the military and police. And the most moderate want to use market mechanisms as much as possible but also realise that central government needs to step in when markets fail.

Naturally, being a moderate, I identify mainly with the last group. While it is tempting to demand complete freedom from government oppression, in the real world it quickly becomes apparent that other forms of control soon replace that which would otherwise come from government. So big corporations might gain too much power and use that for their own benefit and against the best interests of the majority.

And there are many activities which produce no immediate financial reward so are unlikely to be of much interest to commercial entities. For example, infrastructure to poor and isolated communities, specialised scientific research with no obvious commercial purpose, and social programs where no income is available don’t fit into a commercial model based on traditional markets.

So what about the other side? Well, socialism emphasises state control and collectivism rather than individuality. If people cooperate instead of competing they can achieve a lot, and central control by a benign government seems like a great way to tackle the big problems through the insight of a group who can see “the big picture”.

Again there is a wide range in how these concepts should be applied. In a purely socialist state, which might be something like the former USSR, all production, services, and other aspects of society are controlled by the government. Then there are more mixed models with strong central control but private enterprise also contributing, like China today, and finally there are essentially democratic, capitalist societies with strong elements of state control, like the Scandinavian states.

Again, I can see merit in the more moderate aspects of socialism. The miserable failure of so many states where a purer version of socialism has been tried should be enough to discourage most people from supporting that, but many people don’t see it that way and claim that “real socialism” has never really been tried anywhere. Well I think a lot of those failed states think they were trying pure socialism, so the real-world reality might be a better indicator of socialism’s merits than some theoretical concept which exists only in the minds of political ideologues.

In past posts I have discussed the way the “tragedy of the commons” and the “prisoner’s dilemma” show that, even when acting purely rationally, individual action can lead to poor outcomes for everyone involved, so I think that almost without any chance of doubt eliminates the purely individual approach. And the failure and abject misery inflicted on the inhabitants of purely socialist states should be sufficient warning against taking the collectivist path too.

So a compromise is needed. The happiest countries in the world are regularly reported as those in Scandinavia, where a capitalist society is moderated by strong government control (and often high taxes, but quite extensive social services). But in many ways the US – which is still the most important and powerful country in the world, and where the majority of our technology, scientific advances, and social norms arise – has relatively weak central government control and tends more towards a pure market model. Which of those approaches is best in many ways depends on what you want to achieve: more individualism creates more innovation and more freedom, but more collectivism creates greater equality and happiness. Both approaches are good and bad.

I tend to favour a Keynesian style economy, where markets are allowed to work, but those markets are manipulated by the government to steer the outcomes in the “right” direction. Of course, that word right is in quotes for a reason, but at least in a democracy the people have the chance to choose a government whose interpretation of “right” is closest to their own.

Maybe somewhere out there is the perfect balance between collectivism and individualism. I suspect no country has discovered that balance yet, because where it is is largely subjective. Maybe the current system of countries each trying their own political experiments is the best one. But maybe it would be better if more governments looked at what works elsewhere and tried to implement the best ideas in their own jurisdictions.

No one knows where the best balance lies, but all I would advise is to keep away from the extremes. We need both collectivism and individualism, cooperation and competition, left and right.

Nothing Fails Like Prayer

On March 18 2020 the Pope announced that he would ask God to stop the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately for him, that was roughly the day that the rate of new infections started increasing exponentially. Maybe it would have been better if he had just stayed silent. Apparently God must have misheard him and instead of stopping the pandemic he started it spreading even faster.

But what good is religion if the leader of the biggest church in the world can’t do anything about the biggest threat facing humanity today? And this is not a threat which only affects bad people, or irreligious people, or any group where we might say they deserve the suffering this disease brings. In fact, less privileged groups seem to be affected more. Sure, there are international travellers – including those poor victims on cruise ships – who are more affected because of their affluent lifestyles, but in general it is the poor who are suffering disproportionately.

It seems to be that this is completely contrary to what we might expect based on the commonly accepted message of Jesus. He was a defender of the poor and weak in society. And he claimed that subservience to his leadership would bring protection and other benefits. Apparently not.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but I would say there are no believers in a health crisis. Both of these statements are literally wrong, of course, because there are both atheists in foxholes and believers in health crises, but there is a wider point to be made here.

Let’s examine these claims. First, there are no atheists in foxholes. This is saying that when a person is in imminent danger and under attack from the enemy (presumably sheltering in a foxhole) they might be tempted to pray to a god they have previously rejected. I’m sure that happens, but I also know some people refuse to succumb to superstition no matter how great the danger is. So there are atheists in foxholes. In fact, there are several organisations with that name for atheists in the military, and numerous personal narratives from people in extreme danger who maintained a strict atheistic attitude.

And the opposite also applies. There are many believers who refuse the assistance of science when they are in a situation of obvious harm. There are many stories of highly religious people refusing scientifically based ways to avoid coronavirus. And there are many who have gone on to catch the disease, and some who have died.

So it might seem that the two situations are equivalent: the refusal of atheists to accept the help of a higher power, and the refusal of religious people to accept science-based solutions and to rely on faith instead.

But, of course, they aren’t equivalent. Belief in a god, and attempts at summoning help through prayer never works, except perhaps to make the person feel a little bit better because they are doing something in a situation where there might not be other options. So you might say a “placebo effect” of sorts is in action here. And relying on divine help often leads to the person not seeking other solutions which might be more efficacious. We constantly hear stories of people dying from preventable diseases because they preferred faith healing to real medical treatments, for example.

So prayer is an epic failure in every way (except the occasional success through the placebo effect). I was going to say that any other belief which failed so badly would be rejected, but that actually isn’t true. There are many other completely ineffective beliefs which have not been abandoned: homeopathy immediately comes to mind, but there are many others. So exclusively picking on religious people and their faith in prayer is unfair.

So I’m not sure what the Pope was thinking when he announced that attempted request for help from God, and I don’t know what he is thinking now that it has so epically failed. Maybe he has fallen back on those old standard excuses: God works in mysterious ways and we can never understand his actions, or we haven’t tried hard enough to please him so we don’t deserve his help, or God gave us free will and diseases are just part of that.

If these are the sorts of excuses he finds himself accepting you really do have to wonder at his degree of sophistication in the understanding of basic philosophy and theology. He is an intelligent person, so you might also wonder if maybe a small amount of doubt creeps into his mind. God says he will help if we pray. We need help. We pray. But there’s just no response. It’s like a supernatural version of “your call has been disconnected”, or “your call is important to us, please hold”, followed by endless musac.

You also wonder about other religious leaders who claim they are protected from the virus through the power of Jesus, then go on to catch it, and die in some cases. How do they (and their family in the case of the fatalities) justify that failure? Presumably they just fall back on the same old banal excuses I mentioned above. At least you can partly understand that in relatively unsophisticated people.

But the Pope? Surely he must have some doubts by now, because nothing fails like prayer.

Postscript: While I indicated above that prayer is highly unlikely to be effective for anything, I still think it is worth testing its efficacy. So, a physician in Kansas City who wonders whether prayer might make a difference, and who launched a scientific study to find out, gets my support. Looking at the description of his methodology it looks OK superficially, so this is potentially a useful contribution. Other similar studies have given negative results, so I don’t have much hope for a positive outcome, but I disagree with the commentators who are condemning the idea. It’s a hypothesis which can be tested using properly blinded experiments, so why not?

All Lives Matter

I recently got involved with a debate over the validity of a blog post made by a New Zealand left-wing blogger. It was concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, and I disagreed with literally every line this person wrote. It’s unusual to see so much concentrated misinformation in one short post, so I thought it might be good to write a response to it here. Material from the original post is preceded with “Blog”. and my response to it is preceded with “Response”. I hope that is clear enough. Anyway, here’s my thoughts on this rather contentious subject…

Blog: All lives DON’T matter – that’s the problem

Response: Well let’s have a look at the claims here, and see exactly how much credibility this little politically correct tirade has.

Blog: There are two things that surprise me when someone responds to Black Lives Matter with, “yes, but All Lives Matter”.

Response: I’m not sure why this blogger would be surprised that not everyone agrees with him. It should be apparent by now that there is significant opposition to the BLM mob. While this political movement might have started with the best of intentions (despite being factually deficient), it has now has become a major obstacle to rational debate and fairness around the world.

Blog: The first is that the statement, “all lives matter” is actually a lie.

Response: Oh really; so he is saying that objectively all lives don’t matter? Well it’s good to know where he stands, at least! This is just playing with semantics. There would be very few people who say that any category of lives don’t matter; the disagreement occurs because not everyone agrees that we should be concentrating on attacking the rare cases of police violence instead of looking at the deficiencies in black culture which are the underlying cause.

Blog: All Lives DON’T matter, that’s why African Americans are being casually murdered on the streets of America by the Police force.

Response: The main source of casual murder of blacks in the US is by other black people. The deaths caused by police are, except in extremely rare cases, neither casual nor murder. And again, blacks are killed by police at a lower rate than their participation in crime wold suggest. If we are going to worry about police violence we should be asking if white lives matter.

Blog: If ALL lives mattered, African Americans wouldn’t be dying!

Response: Yes, they would. Even though all lives matter, there is an unfortunate reality that there will be occasions when criminals have to be controlled through force, and there will also be cases where that force is excessive, possibly leading to death. This phenomenon happens to all races, and is actually lower for black people in relation to the number of crimes they commit (and therefore the number of interactions with police).

Blog: The second thing that always surprises me when someone (always a white person) responds to Black Lives Matter with, “yes, but All Lives Matter”, is the audacity of it.

Response: Oh no, the horrible white people are offering an opinion. We can’t have that, can we? If too many white people offer an opinion we might have too much truth emerging, which is contradictory to the politically correct narrative. Everyone is affected by this (real or alleged) phenomenon, and everyone has a right to an opinion on it.

Blog: It’s like the millisecond white people aren’t the centered narrative of an issue, EVEN IF that issue is the murder of African Americans, they get their feelings triggered like subjective millennial snowflakes.

Response: It’s more a reaction to the utterly irrational, and increasingly dangerous, nonsense being propagated by people like the writer. If I am triggered it is by BS. So it’s not a matter of “feelings” here, it is a matter of truth, fairness, and rationality; three traits conspicuously missing in this ridiculous post.

Blog: This shouldn’t be about white people feeling defensive, as global citizens…

Response: Well, it’s hard no to feel defensive when you are under constant attack from politically motivated fiction like this. Initially we all just had a good laugh at how silly it was, but the silliness has become dangerous. This irrational worldview has now lead to assault, murder, arson, theft, looting, and general destruction around the world. We are starting to think we need to stand up to the left-wing fascist bullies.

Blog: …as global citizens living in democracies we should all feel disgusted and offended by police brutality that ends in the loss of life…

Response: Most people think police brutality needs to be controlled. But it has very little to do with racism. And the police involved in recent cases of violence have been charged and will be punished if they are found guilty. In the mean time blacks are killing other blacks at a far greater rate, but this is almost totally ignored. If black lives really matter, then stop them killing each other!

Blog: …particular when that police brutality has a long history of naked racism within the broader socio-political constructs of slavery.

Response: Oh the “socio-political constructs of slavery” is it? That is sufficiently vague to be meaningless. We all know that practically every culture (including black people in Africa, and many Islamic countries, and Maoris here in New Zealand) had traditions of slavery which are arguably worse than what happened in America, right? If we are going to criticise people for their past, we might as well include everyone.

Blog: You can say all lives matter WHEN black lives matter…

Response: Black lives do matter. The police kill less black people than white in relation to the amount of criminal activity those groups are involved in. Studies show police are more hesitant to shoot black people than white. When a police department in the US hired only black cops the number of shootings of black suspects stayed the same. It’s not really about racism!

Blog: …Until that day, constantly saying “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” makes you confused at best, or at worst…

Response: This isn’t a problem of racism, it is a problem of police being too violent to all suspects. But, given the cultural issues with gun ownership and other violence in the US, in some ways the police there cannot be blamed for responding the way they do. There is one way black people could reduce the number of police-related violent events they are exposed to: do less crime!

Blog: …actively siding with those causing harm.

Response: No, it is the blogger who is siding with the people causing harm, both in an obvious, physical way as a result of the mindless rioting around the world; but also, possibly more damaging, in perpetuating this false anti-police story that some people are naive enough to believe without checking the facts.

Summary: A common tactic in political propaganda is to “own” a phrase which few people would disagree with, then warp it to support your political view. Few people would disagree that black lives matter, but many people would disagree with the claims of system racism, excessive bias by police, and the other claims of the BLM movement.

Final comment: And before we get into an argument about how to fix systemic racism we should first establish that it exists. There is extensive statistical data to suggest it doesn’t. The individual anecdotes, warped to fit a pre-existing view, don’t constitute good evidence that black lives are valued less than any others by police. The whole narrative the BLM movement is based on is BS. If we want to deal with police violence, then deal with it, but let’s work with the facts, not some crazy fiction from far-left fantasy land.

Stupid Rules

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often cogitate on the reasons why we have so many dysfunctional and inefficient systems in place. These systems range from simple rules to hugely complex institutions, and their degree of sub-optimality seems fairly constant, with the bigger instances seeming to be much worse then the more minor ones simply through scale.

I have various theories on why things are run so poorly. One is that the people making the decisions are both arrogant and ignorant as a result of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see “Too Stupid to Know” from 2018-08-21). Another is that most promotion strategies reward exactly the wrong type of person. And another is that no big organisation can ever run efficiently simply because of its size and complexity.

Now it’s time for an example, so it’s time to hear from my friend Fred (not his real name) again, who works in a large organisation in a similar role to me. Here’s an interesting little tale he recently told me…

This story happened during the later stages of New Zealand’s COVID lockdown, when the worst of the effects of the pandemic had been overcome, and the country was starting to return to normal, while still partaking in a significant amount of paranoia.

Fred was required to visit an academic organistion which was physically located next to the public hospital. He would normally have entered the building directly and had to walk maybe 10 or 20 meters to get to the office he needed to visit. But while approaching the usual entry to the building he was intercepted by an officious looking individual in a high-vis vest.

This person told him that the entrance was closed for health and safety reasons, and that he needed to access the building through the hospital’s main entrance, where visitors were being processed in a way designed to reduce the spread of the virus.

So Fred proceeded to the main entrance, where he entered a crowded foyer with many people milling about aimlessly; some patients and some visitors. He waited around for a while to try to get a clue about what to do, but nothing was very clear, so he just walked confidently through a space which said “staff only”. No one seemed to notice so he continued looking for a way to get to the other building.

There was no obvious entrance to the stairs, so Fred had to take the lift, which was limited to 2 people at a time. So after waiting in a small crowd near the lift he ascended to the next floor with one other person. Arriving at the floor he needed he couldn’t remember the exact path to the area he needed to get to, so he talked to a person at a nearby reception desk.

After being given instructions, which turned out to be wrong, he finally found a corridor which lead to the other building. This involved a journey of about 200 meters past various medical facilities, waiting rooms, etc.

So, finally he arrived at the department he needed to be at.

Clearly this was a horribly inefficient process, which wasted 10 minutes of his time and involved a detour of about 300 meters, but things were far worse than just that. Fred estimates he came within 2 meters of at least 50 people on that extended perambulation, and many of those were of unknown health status. Of course, considering they were in a hospital it is not unreasonable to expect that some of them, at least, might have been quite sick!

The alternative would have meant contact with probably no people at all, and any which were encountered would be academics – not patients – who were more likely to be reasonably healthy. Not only that, but there was no check at all as he entered the hospital. After lurking for a few minute he just walked in without being challenged by anyone.

Now I’m sure the genius who invented this system thought it was a good idea. Ensuring everyone went through official checks is exactly the sort of officious but superficial solution we would expect from people with plenty of ideas they feel are good, but no practical thoughts regarding how the world really works. In fact, what was achieved was the opposite of the original intention. By walking so far, past so many potentially sick people, instead of just going directly to an academic’s office (who was far less likely to be afflicted with the virus), Fred increased the chance of COVID infection by orders of magnitude.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Rules like this exist everywhere, achieving the exact opposite of what they are intended to do, or at the very least resulting in many cases of unintended consequences. But nothing ever gets better because there is no mechanism to fix these problems. The leaders don’t want feedback, because then they might need to admit they were wrong. They are far happier sitting in their ivory towers, pretending everything is OK, while those who disagree are just rejected as being unable to accept change.

It’s hard to prove this one way or the other, but I suspect no rules at all would be better than most of the stupid rules the bureaucrats put in place. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m too anarchistic. I freely admit anarchy can’t work. But bad bureaucratic systems don’t work either. There must be a better way for society to control itself. What it is, I don’t know, but I’d love to hear some suggestions.

Skunk Works

The word “skunk works” doesn’t sound like it is particularly important or impressive, but it is what we need more of. Just in case you aren’t familiar with this term, let me explain…

Skunk Works is used in a general sense to describe specialised units in larger organisations, and more specifically often refers to a division in the American aircraft company, Lockheed Martin, which was where its use in this context started.

Here’s the definiton from Wikipedia: Skunk Works is an official pseudonym for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. It is responsible for a number of aircraft designs, including the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which are used in the air forces of several countries. Its name was taken from the moonshine factory in the comic strip Li’l Abner. The designation “skunk works” or “skunkworks” is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.

If you follow this blog you might be aware that I am not a fan of excessive rules and regulations – in fact, it’s not just in excess, I’m not a fan of them at all! So the skunkworks concept basically releases certain units from the onerous demands of bureaucracy, and allows the original thinkers and expert engineers (usually) in the unit the opportunity to do extraordinary things.

Also if you follow this blog, you will know I have done a series of “favourite thing” posts, and one of them was specifically about the SR-71 Blackbird, which I discussed in a post called “Favourite Things 5” from 2013-02-25. You can see from the description above that the SR-71 is arguably the most impressive achievement of *the* Skunk Works at Lockheed.

The first project tackled by Lockheed Skunk Works was the first US operational jet fighter, built near the end of World War 2: the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. It took just 143 days from the first designs to going into production, but was only a moderate success, being outclassed by MiG-15s by 1950, ironically because the MiGs used swept wing technology based on research captured from the Nazis. The US used a similar design in the F-86 Sabre.

So you might say that was only a partial success, but it is doubtful whether a more conventional design and manufacturing process could have achieved any better results at that time. The Skunk Works concept still has benefits in my opinion, and many people would agree. Here are some quotes which I think also capture some of the essential elements of what I am trying to say…

Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something. – Thomas A Edison.

I suspect this isn’t literally true, because it’s probably impossible to organise a group of people without *some* rules. But the deeper meaning refers to the minimisation of rules, and the total avoidance of pointless rules. In fact, most people would agree with this – even people who are the bureaucrats this is aimed at – but they might disagree on which rules are “pointless”.

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work. – Albert Einstein

Again, this probably isn’t literally true, but there is little doubt that bureaucracy makes work more difficult, it slows it down, and it forces productive people to find creative solutions to bypass awkward rules.

Powers once assumed are never relinquished, just as bureaucracies, once created, never die. – Charley Reese

This is becoming a theme, but this isn’t completely true either. There are occasions when bureaucracies are disestablished but they are often replaced with slightly different bureaucracies, and sometimes there is a genuine decrease in bureaucracy. But the bigger picture is true: bureaucrats often have control and they are unlikely to use that power to reduce their own influence.

Entrenched bureaucracies are always opposed to fundamental changes. – Christopher Dodd

The word “always” is dangerous, but I won’t repeat my “not literally true” argument yet again. But I think bureaucracies are mostly dedicated to supporting the existing system, which they benefit from, so change is always going to be difficult.

Bureaucracy is more people doing less things, and taking more time to do them worse. – Evan Esar

I think it is undeniable that a bureaucracy inevitably involves more people doing non-core work for the organisation involved. That’s how I would interpret the phrase “more people doing less things”. And I think it is also inevitable that those extra layers of “organisation” will slow things down, so the “more time” part also makes sense. It might be more debatable whether extra layers of management make things worse or better though. Of course, I would strongly suspect worse, although there might be some dysfunctional work environments where more supervision might actually improve things.

Q. How many twenty-second-century bureaucrats did it take to change a light panel? A. We’ll have a sub-committee meeting and get back to you with an estimate. – Peter F. Hamilton

I think this is also a fair criticism of bureaucracies. Meetings and committees seem like an essential part of their structure. No one seems to be able to make a decision on their own, probably because most bureaucrats are also very ignorant, but the committee structure does give the advantage of not having a single person who can be blamed for its failures.

And finally, there is my personal favourite problem with bureaucracies: their failure to consult. Of course, they all say they consult fully, but this is usually misleading. There might be structures set up which make it look like they are consulting, but they aren’t; it’s all a sham. Here’s my final quote, which is from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” describing why there was no consultation on plans to demolish the Earth…

But the plans were on display…
Arthur Dent: On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.
Mr Prosser: That’s the display department.
AD: With a flashlight.
P: Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.
AD: So had the stairs.
P: But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?
Yes, said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the leopard’.

It’s unrealistic to think that bureaucracies are going to go away any time soon. A major reason for this might be that the decisions about disestablishing bureaucracies often need to come from bureaucracies, and they are unlikely to shut themselves down.

But the skunkworks concept might be a good compromise solution. We could still have conventional, large, bureaucratic organisations, but there could be a division in that organisation where real innovation happens. It has worked for some organistions in the past: Lockheed, Xerox, IBM, Apple, etc, and maybe we need more of it now.

The Lying Media

I have always been suspicious of the media. In a post titled “Gell-Mann Amnesia”, from 2019-06-18, I pointed out the phenomenon where a person examining any article in a mainstream media source (newspapers, TV, radio, etc) which is about a subject they are an expert on will find numerous errors, omissions, exaggerations, biases, and outright lies. I certainly find that myself; any article in the MSM about stuff I know a fair amount about (computers, astronomy, etc) will quickly be found to be problematic. The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect states that we then go on to articles where we don’t know so much and assume they are accurate. Why would we do that? It is safer to assume that everything in the media is similarly flawed.

There are two reasons of this problem: the first is pure incompetence, because most reporters are completely clueless about the subjects they are reporting on, and modern news is done quickly rather than thoroughly. The second is pernicious bias, and this is far more problematic.

I’m sure that not every single item in the MSM is wrong or significantly inaccurate – because they must get something right occasionally, even if purely by good luck rather than skill – but it is safest to assume that that you are being lied to, mislead, or having a distorted perspective presented to you. Whenever I see something in the media that I am interested in, I immediately research it properly to find the truth, and the media are almost always wrong.

Often this doesn’t really matter, and in most individual cases of reporting some bias or inaccuracy is not too problematic. But when it occurs over and over again on important issues it does become a major societal problem. Democracy depends on voters making informed decisions, and that will never happen while people are ignorant.

And of course, this phenomenon is being seen in an extreme form during the “Black Lives Matter” protests currently happening around the world. I have seen a lot of information about this in various mainstream sources on this subject: two New Zealand national newspapers, and my local newspaper; two New Zealand TV channels; so-called “respected” sources in the US, such as the New York Times; Radio New Zealand; and common internet sources, such as Wired, Digg, Medium, etc.

Here’s the message you might get from these sources…
George Floyd was a peaceful black man murdered by a white police officer.
There is institutional racism in the US, especially from police.
This issue also occurs to varying extents in other countries.
Protests, even destructive violent ones, are a valid way to address the issue.

Here’s the reality…
George Floyd was a violent criminal who had committed numerous crimes.
We can’t say there was a murder until a trial is completed.
There is no evidence of any significant level of systemic racism in the US.
There is even less of a case for widespread racism in most other countries.
Protests just make the situation worse by unnecessarily dividing communities.

I do have to make an admission here: that is that I am being deliberately provocative above, and some of the “reality” is really my interpretation of the facts. Depending on your perspective, you might arrive at a different answer, but my conclusions are at least as good as the mainstream media narrative, and I believe actually much better.

There is one other thing I need to say before I go further too: whatever the facts, I think the treatment of Floyd was unnecessarily violent, and the cop should have released the hold when he had successfully restrained the suspect, so I do support the incident being investigated and any possible criminal charges which might result from a *fair* trial.

But I did wonder why the cop would have acted the way he did. The media would have us believe it is because he is a racist thug, but are there other possibilities? What sort of person was Floyd?

Well I only discovered it today, but he really wasn’t a good, innocent, gentle, or reasonable person at all. He as at least as much a violent thug as the cop, and probably a lot worse. But I would never have known this from the mainstream media. In fact, I double and triple checked these facts because they just didn’t show up in conventional sources.

When I searched “George Floyd police record” most of the hits didn’t even relate to that topic. I got numerous reports from the MSM describing other, peripheral issues. But eventually I found some real information.

First, here is a description of this aspect of his life from Wikipedia: “After several arrests for theft and drug possession, Floyd was charged in 2007 with armed robbery in a home invasion, which he committed with five other men, during which he forced his way inside the residence, placed a pistol against the complainant’s abdomen, and forced her into the living room area of the residence; he made a plea deal in 2009 and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was paroled in 2013 after spending four years at the Diboll Unit.”

His list of offences shows 9 items, including aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, possession, trespass, and theft. There is also an unconfirmed story that he was on drugs (probably meth) when he was arrested and violently resisted. Floyd was quite tall – 6 foot 6 inches – and might have posed a serious threat to the police.

Again, I don’t want to suggest that the method of restraint used (which was permitted by the police force in that city) for that period of time, leading to death, was fully justified, but I do believe that the facts I have found might have made a difference to many people’s opinions on the subject. So why did we not see this highly relevant material in the MSM? Because it didn’t fit their narrative. This is a clear lie by omission.

In my previous blog post, “Emotion vs Rationality” from 2020-06-04, I stated why I don’t think there is a good case for systemic racism by US police, and the case for other countries, like the UK, is even weaker. But again, the information people might need to form a fair opinion on this is missing. It is like the media actually want to see uninformed, mindless mobs destroying society.

Most media companies are controlled by white people, and they seem to be interested in nothing but promoting false stories which favour black people. How is this repressing black lives? Why can’t the media give us all the facts so we can decide if there are any real problems we need to deal with? Pretending all the problems in the black community are caused by racism and repression isn’t doing anyone any good. By making white people feel like racists it makes their lives a bit worse, but by refusing to acknowledge the necessary reforms in the black community it makes their lives a whole lot worse.

The problem isn’t really white racists, even though they really exist; the problem isn’t black criminals, even though they also exist. The problem is the lying media.

Emotion vs Rationality

OK, I get it, there is a place for emotion when responding to traumatic events. But after the initial emotional response people should allow their more rational side to take control and they should analyse their initial thoughts more carefully. Of course, many people don’t do this, and allow their “primitive” irrational reaction to take hold of their lives.

Now I didn’t write that opening paragraph in a vacuum. And guess which world event I am applying it to? That’s right, the current US race protests (or riots in some cases). One thing you have to admit: my blog never hesitates to take on controversial subjects!

When I saw the video of the cop suffocating the alleged criminal I was pretty horrified, just like any reasonable person should be. But I also had some questions, even at that early stage, such as: is this a recognised restraining technique, what lead up to the events shown on TV, will the cop be held accountable for his actions, and is the race of the people involved really relevant?

Even after many of these questions have been answered I still think the cop needs to be charged for unnecessarily violent behaviour leading to the death of the suspect. I think this is the case whatever else happened. But let’s look at a few facts around this case, and try to avoid any emotionally driven hyperbole.

So here are the facts…

A cop restrained a suspect of a crime using an authorised technique, leading to (or contributing to) the death of the suspect. Here’s the additional nuance to this starting statement: The cop continued the restraint for what seems like an unnecessarily long time, even after being warned the suspect couldn’t breathe. The cop was white and the suspect was black. There seems to have been some resistance by the suspect leading to this event which might partly justify it (but probably not for the time it was done for). The suspect had health issues which might have exacerbated the effects of the restraint.

Many people interpreted this event as part of a bigger problem where cops are unnecessarily violent to black suspects. Here’s the nuance: Most cops are white and most criminals are black, so we would expect a higher proportion of white on black violence purely statistically. Some cops are unnecessarily violent, especially to people they might not hold in high esteem (and sometimes this extends to genuine sadism). A single incident (or even a series of them) doesn’t necessarily mean there is a genuine societal problem.

Since then there have been extensive protests and rioting across the country, and the protests have extended to other parts of the world. And the nuance: many of the protestors are genuine in their beliefs, and are causing no significant harm. Many of the rioters are not really part of the protests, but are just making use of it for either political reasons (Antifa extremists) or for personal gain (looters). Some people who think they have a genuine reason to protest also think that violence and destruction is a fair part of that protest, given the alleged seriousness of the issue.

Those are the facts, and now I want to present a few statistics supporting them…

Racial or ethnic minorities comprised 27% of police in 2013 (some of these stats are a bit out of date and the situation might have changed a bit since they were collected, but the essential message is the same), and 12% were specifically black. So, depending on your exact criteria, you might say 88% were “white”.

Twice as many white people as black are killed by police each year. This does represent a higher proportion than in the population, but this is where opinions seem to significantly differ, because black people (in most cases I mean black men) also commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime (between 40% and 52% of murders for example, even though they are only 13% of the population (or 6.5% black males); these numbers vary depending on the year they are taken from).

There have been some police precincts staffed with entirely black police forces and these have committed the same number of acts of violence against black alleged criminals as white police did.

Forty times as many black people are killed by other black people than by police (this is from 2012 FBI stats and it is hard to extrapolate from that, but I think a case could be made to say this might be worse now rather than better, given the emphasis on reducing police violence).

Numerous studies have been done on the issue of police violence against black people in the US. The results are very inconsistent. Some find that white cops are less likely to shoot black people than white. Some find black people are unfairly targeted, even when their rate of crime is factored in. Some find no significant bias either way.

So the idea that black people are targeted by police for unnecessary violence because of racism is highly doubtful. Is there any racism in the police? Of course, depending on your definition of the word, there is racism everywhere. But there is also “reverse racism” where police have become so sensitive to this issue that they avoid treating minority groups with the “robustness” they might for others. Maybe it all evens out; maybe it doesn’t. It’s a difficult subject to study and I could find no consistent studies or stats on it.

Are black people targeted more than they should be? Based on their proportion of the general population, they are more targeted, but based on their proportion of the criminal population they are possibly under-targeted. They do seem to be more targeted for being stopped by police, but under-targeted for police shootings. Which is the most valid way to look at it? That depends on your preferences, but I believe the more correct way is to look at the lethal violence (rather than less serious actions) against people the police might be interacting with, rather than the population in general.

I also have to emphasise here that being grossly over-represented in the crime stats is not necessarily a criticism of the group involved. It is entirely possible that societal disadvantage explains that discrepancy, so members of that group cannot be personally blamed. But it is also possible that the increased criminality is a cultural issue which the group should take some responsibility for. Almost certainly, it is a bit of both.

So this single incident – and others like it – cannot be said with any certainty to be part of a general societal problem. For every black person killed by police there are more of other ethnicities. Do we have riots when that happens? Of course not.

The incident itself, I think, is an example of unnecessary police violence, and the cop (or cops) involved should be charged. And they have already been charged, after being fired. So what are the protests and riots all about? What do the protestors actually want? No one seems to know, except for some vague demands for fair treatment of black people by police. But the overall stats indicate this is already happening, so what now?

When debating this subject on line I have often used words like “mindless” or “unthinking” to describe the protestors, and have received severe criticism as a result (including the predictable accusations of racism), but I really do think this is an example of totally thoughtless behaviour.

Surely there is nothing worse than acting out of a dogmatic believe perpetrated by various bad actors in the media and political community. Or acting out of an initial emotional reaction to a horrible event, but then failing to think about it sufficiently to realise it isn’t really what it seems to be.

I see these people protesting, and see mindless sheeple acting out a fantasy that allows them to bond with their group of leftist social justice warriors. I see extreme virtue signalling by well-meaning but unthinking individuals. I see some elements who take the opportunity to indulge in mindless violence under the guise of protest (I was going to say “legitimate” protest then, but realised it actually isn’t).

These aren’t stupid people either; many of them are very intelligent. But I think, despite their intelligence, they are both ignorant and narrow-minded. The people I have debated on-line certainly aren’t stupid, but when I present the stats and facts like I have here they have no answer (apart from one person I discussed this with as I was writing this). They really haven’t done any research on this at all; they have simply swallowed the line fed to them by the mainstream media. I really feel quite sorry for them.

In a recent debate I presented some of the stats above without mentioning the sources (it was an informal debate, not an academic paper!) and was then challenged to give the source. I then said it was an FBI crime report. The debate continued and I was rejected again because I hadn’t prided a source (even though I had). So I found another supporting source; in this case the Department of Justice. Finally the fact that I had provided sources was accepted but then rejected because they “weren’t good enough”. Really? The FBI and DoJ aren’t good sources for crime and policing data? Then what is? I got no answer on that one, except to be called a racist again.

This happens over and over. And as I said above, I’m generally debating intelligent people who are just hopelessly ignorant and deluded. They really are mindless sheeple. And that lack of clear thought and inability to be an individual instead of a part of a mob is maybe the saddest part of the whole phenomenon.

There is room for emotion when engaging with this issue, but don’t forget some rationality as well!

Science Worship

I recently got into a mild debate (well, more of a short discussion, really) about the value of science. A Facebook “friend”posted a picture of four situations where he claimed science had failed in the past, and suggested that maybe it wasn’t the best methodology for us to use today either.

The four pictures referenced: a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette, a baby saying thanks for DDT because it keeps flies away, a bottle of (apparently prescription) heroin tablets, and asbestos being recommended for use in farm buildings.

The accompanying text said “To all you science worshipers out there. Remember…. There was a day when SCIENCE backed all of these things too and just like today, those research studies were funded by the industry and corporations themselves.”

I thought there was a certain amount of truth in the comment, but decided to debate it anyway. Here’s how this very brief debate went…

Me: Yes. Science can be warped by commercial interests. But do you know what changes ideas which are wrong in science? More science. Also, what alternatives are there for establishing the truth?

Him: Science is as much a curse as a blessing never answers the question just makes more
Much like politicians

Me: Well, no. Science answers questions, but there are always more details which then need to be studied. Fact is, science is the only methodology we have to establish truth and despite its occasional errors, it works. Again, do you have an alternative?

Him: So science does makes more questions thank you.

Me: Well in a way, but the questions become more about the details uncovered by the bigger discoveries. Again, your alternative is?

Me, again: Seriously; if you distrust science so much, how do you suggest we find out facts about the real world? What is the alternative? It’s a genuine question.

There was no further response.

I do need to say here that there is some material produced in the guise of science which has been negatively influenced by commercial pressures. There is “science” which supported smoking for years, and now the same phenomenon applies to climate change, often supported by industries which might lose if significant climate change mitigating policies were implemented.

So, I guess it gets back to the distinction between science the way it is meant to work, and science the way it sometimes works in reality.

Before I go further I would like to briefly summarise the way science is supposed to work. First, scientists are well-trained and experts in their specific area of research. They want to investigate a particular (usually very specific) phenomenon. They research the phenomenon to see what other experts already know. They propose a hypothesis which might extend our knowledge in that area. They create an experiment which might support or reject the hypothesis. The experiment must be free from bias and precisely described so that any other person could also do it. The experiment is carefully run (using double-blinding and other techniques) and the results are reported whatever the outcome is. Other scientists peer review the report and if it is good enough it is published in a reputable journal. There is criticism and replication of the experiment to test its validity. As more evidence accumulates the hypothesis becomes more or less accepted. Eventually the level of support might get to the point where the hypothesis becomes an accepted theory. Nothing is ever accepted without question and the whole process might start again at any time.

Unfortunately things don’t always work quite like that. For example, researchers might decide what they want the outcome to be before running the experiment, then deliberately or accidentally warp the results to suit. Or they might report results which confirm their preferences and ignore the rest. Or they might publish poorly implemented work in sub-standard journals with little peer review or other checks.

So, sure, things can go wrong, and no doubt do. And I do judge science based on how it actually works rather than how it should in theory. I do that for other belief systems, like religion and politics, so I must do it for science as well. But there is one big difference: science is designed to get to the unbiased truth, and has numerous correction mechanisms. No other system does, at least to any significant extent.

Note that in my Facebook debate I asked three times for a suggested alternative to science without receiving any answer. That is most likely because there is no answer. Maybe you might suggest philosophy. Sure, that is OK, but its hypothesis checking is weak. How about religion? Well, that has the exact opposite aim of the objective rigour of science, so that’s a fail. Politics? The arts? Business? No, none of these can do what science does, because they aren’t designed to.

And here’s the most impressive thing which I think completes my argument: when science is found to be wrong and is corrected, what causes that correction? Is it a philosopher showing why the Big Bang is wrong? Is it the Pope disproving evolution? Is it Donald Trump coming up with a great new theory? Maybe it’s a work of art which uncovers some previously unknown truth. Or a rich businessman who shows that quantum theory is nonsense.

No, it’s more science which corrects errors, because science has a great self-correction mechanism. Here’s how Sean Carroll puts it: If you’re a priest and you write a brilliant article that explains why the Pope is wrong, you get excommunicated! If you’re a brilliant theoretical physicist and write a brilliant article that explains why Einstein is wrong, you will win the Nobel Prize!

That’s not always necessarily literally true, but it makes the point. All of those phenomena listed at the start of this post were corrected by science, and I’m not even convinced science ever supported them in the first place, because technology and industry aren’t science.

Anyway, I’m still waiting for my opponent’s suggestion for a better source of knowledge, but I suspect I’ll never get one.