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No More -isms

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

I am often challenged about why I reject various beliefs, such as liberalism, theism, libertarianism, or feminism. My thoughts on this are, that if you identify with a particular doctrine with is described with a word ending in -ism then you are probably being needlessly dogmatic. But then I remembered that I often identify with two (and maybe more) of those myself: atheism and skepticism.

So why would I ridicule one person’s belief (like the belief in libertarianism or feminism) while I give myself a free pass to pursue beliefs of my own? Well, maybe I’m just a hypocrite – that’s certainly possible – but I would like to use a slightly more generous interpretation of the situation and say that my beliefs are more a lack of a commitment to a particular idea than a close allegiance to one.

So atheism isn’t really a dogma of any kind, in fact it’s the antithesis of that, because it specifically precludes acceptance of any dogmatic, religious belief. I do agree that skepticism is in a slightly more debatable category. It could be seen as a belief system in some ways – in fact one meaning of the word refers to a specific philosophical system. But that’s not the meaning I’m using here. In this context skepticism refers to the preference for treating new truth claims with a level of suspicion until good, objective evidence for them is demonstrated.

So I think I can defend my -isms fairly well, but what objection to I have to the others? Well, the main one is that they are just unnecessary. Not only do they provide no positive benefit, but undue adherence to them is potentially dangerous. People who take their beliefs too seriously might follow the belief’s dictates instead of looking at the facts of specific incidents in the real world.

For example, there might be a need to decide whether a new industry – let’s choose self-driving cars as an example – should be regulated to ensure safety standards. A libertarian (that is, someone who follows libertarianism) might be tempted to say that more regulation is always bad and that the market should decide.

But not only do we see numerous examples of market failures (in fact the phrase “market failure” has become a common one in these sorts of discussions) but it can be shown through pure logic that markets often don’t work.

That’s not to say that markets don’t work quite well in some situations, but they certainly cannot be relied on in every possible place they might be used. But a true follower of libertarianism will think they do work everywhere, or at least will think they work in a far wider range of situations than a careful examination of the facts would support.

So there’s really no need for libertarianism at all, because anyone looking at the facts and at the outcomes required in a particular situation could just use common sense, and logic, and examination of the consequences in the real world to see whether a market or a regulation is a better choice.

So let’s look at another -ism now, let’s really jump out of the frying pan and into the fire and look at feminism. Is feminism necessary? Well, as you could probably guess from the general tone of this post, I don’t think so.

I know many people claim feminism is just wanting equality for women, but of course that is often not true, just like libertarianism isn’t usually simply about the fair and appropriate use of markets. Feminism in many cases goes far beyond that and demands special privileges for women, equality where it already exists, and is generally biased towards a female-centric worldview.

I’m not saying that there have been no good outcomes from feminism, but I am saying that the usual realisation of it can easily produce many bad outcomes too. There are many situations where females are now enjoying benefits because the bias is now in the opposite direction to what many feminists imagine. For example girls seem to be getting more benefit from our education system, women enrol in universities at a greater rate than men, women live longer lives, and they get less punishment under the law, etc. Hell, maybe I should be a masculinist!

And the issues where feminism might be useful – such as equal pay, equal participation in society, etc – don’t require feminism, they just require fairness. And most people have an inherent sense of fairness. I want women to have equal rights, but I am certainly not a feminist!

I see the down-side of -isms all the time. I see people react to an event which is actually quite nuanced in simple-minded, thoughtless ways, simply because of a knee-jerk reaction they have caused by their favourite -ism.

Note that I have picked on that particular suffix because it is catchy, but other worldviews which end in a different suffix, like Christianity, should also be included in my argument for completeness.

I know they are not doing this deliberately – and that’s what makes the whole phenomenon even more scary and dangerous – but the sort of thought that is going on is like this: there’s an event I want to comment on; I am a (insert your favourite -ism here) so I should think this; I will write some tedious, biased crap on the appropriate discussion forum.

And when a more nuanced person, like myself (well OK, sometimes I take a hard line to make a particular point, but I do make an effort to see both sides of most stories) comes along and points out any deficiencies in these arguments there is rarely a reasoned rebuttal to those points, because the person makes that comment just because that’s the way things are always portrayed according to their -ism.

If I suggest we need a new regulation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change the libertarians will usually disagree, saying government regulation never works and we need less government involvement, not more. But they could admit that the market is the cause of climate change, not the solution, while still maintaining that markets are a useful tool in society overall. But if you follow libertarianism you really cannot say that.

And if I dare to suggest that females are already doing well in our education system and they really don’t need any further assistance, then the feminists will attack me with allegations of sexism and mansplaining. If they just admitted that there are situations where women are given an unfair advantage as well as other situations where the opposite is true, then they would be easier to take more seriously. But if you follow feminism almost everything looks like an attack on women and sensible discussion is difficult.

So I say abandon your -isms. That doesn’t mean to switch to another, even worse, belief system which just doesn’t happen to end in -ism, of course. So those who libertarianism shouldn’t switch to anarchy, and if you currently follow feminism, please don’t become a feminazi!

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Evil Jesus

February 7, 2018 Leave a comment

I have heard many atheists arguments diminished by an admission that the teachings of Jesus are inherently good and that, even if he never existed in any form recognisable from the New Testament, at least the thoughts attributed to him are beyond reproach.

Well, here is my deeply meaningful, intellectual, theological response to this idea: bullshit!

Sure, there is stuff in the NT which can be seen as being really positive, but I think the overall tone and message is quite negative, although I fully agree that the tone can be interpreted in more than one way, and this can easily lead to totally contrary conclusions.

This is very much the problem with theology and some philosophy too. If we just look at the thoughts of an individual person, whether it be Jesus or Wittgenstein – especially when they are presented in metaphors and imprecise language – it is very easy to take whatever meaning you want from them.

But I also think there are parts of these people’s thoughts which cannot be honestly misconstrued, and I think in Jesus’ case this is both unmistakable and deeply flawed.

The fact that many modern Christians are quite moral people and exhibit quite decent behaviour overall is more to do with changing ethical standards, mostly separate from theology, than anything which is specifically part of a religion. They know what is right and look for a message in the NT supporting that view. When slavery was considered OK that idea was found to be supported by Jesus, but once social norms changed and slavery became unacceptable, a different message was found to support that.

My point is (and this is one I have made before) that religious texts are like Rorschach Inkblot Tests: the pattern is in the viewer’s mind, not on the object being viewed (whether it is an inkblot or the Bible).

But some inkblots, along with some texts, do have an obvious meaning which requires some effort to get past and be ignored, and the New Testament, contrary to common claims, can easily be seen as an exhortation towards hate rather than love.

So what are the negative messages portrayed by the character of Jesus in the NT? Well there are three I want to concentrate on here: the idea that people must accept Jesus as their saviour or face eternal torment in Hell, that this life is unimportant compared to what you will get in Heaven after death, and the eschatological message which warns of signs of end-times eventually resulting in the return of Jesus and eternal happiness for the select few.

I know some people will debate whether these messages are genuine, and others will say they are real but should be seen as positive rather than bad, while others will say something like “sure that is true, and they may seem bad, but those are God’s rules and we have to live by them”.

In this post I want to concentrate on why these things are bad, rather than try to justify them in the context of the Bible, so let’s just say these are either the only fair interpretation, or at least one very viable interpretation of the Bible, especially the NT.

In previous posts I have discussed why I think the Christian dogma of salvation through Jesus is evil. Basically my argument is that God gives us free will, yet punishes us when we use it. It’s sort of like walking up to a voting machine (where they have them, like the US) and pulling the lever for the “wrong” party resulting in a safe falling on your head and killing you.

And it’s like there’s a sign in the voting booth saying “you can vote for either party, but if you choose the wrong one you will die in a horrible accident”. Not only that, but both parties claim they are the one you should vote for to avoid the horrible punishment. And people who don’t vote are treated even worse than those who do!

And just as the final icing on the cake, we are supposed to praise and thank this god for the system he has created, because of the claim that he has offered an escape from an evil rule he created. Gee, thanks God, you’re so thoughtful, but why not just make it 100% clear which is really the right party, or give us real free will and forget about the punishment for using it!

The idea that this life is unimportant compared with what might come later is also very harmful. All the evidence indicates we only have one life, so any dogma discouraging people from not making the best use of it has got to be seen as really negative.

I suppose you could make a case to say that people are more likely to be accepting of their place in life, and experience a lot less stress as a result of believing in a better life after death. But this is also very harmful because it stops people from striving for something better. And the temptation for a political elite to use this superstition to keep the “lesser ranks” under control is a very insidious problem.

Finally there is the “end times” problem. If people think the world will soon end, and their current lives will be replaced with a far better one in heaven, then they are unlikely to get involved in any long term projects to make the world better. For example, why try to reduce climate change when the main effects won’t be obvious for 50 years and the Rapture will have already happened by then making the whole problem irrelevant? This is a genuine issue because there are politicians who have made this exact point.

But it gets far worse than that, because many people not only expect Armageddon at any time, but they would like to try to speed up the process. They have been waiting for the final battle between good and evil for 2000 years and they can’t wait much longer for that final destruction. Anyone with this belief isn’t going to hesitate to use the nuclear option, or to start wars in politically sensitive areas of the world.

It is clear that these criticisms don’t just apply to Christianity, of course, because it is obvious that Judaism and Islam (and probably other religions I know less about) are possibly even worse on some of these points.

But I have picked on Christianity for two reasons: first, it is often seen as the most forgiving and peaceful religion, where a case could easily be made for the opposite; and second, it is the most dominant religion in the world today, especially in the most dominant country. Whether Donald Trump really believes all the Christian BS he seems to espouse is highly doubtful, but the fact that he has to pretend to be a believer is telling in itself.

The Doomsday Clock is currently set closer to midnight than for any time since the Cold War. I’m not saying we can blame this completely on religion, and especially not on any particular religion, but those irrational and evil ideas can’t be helping. Thanks a lot, evil Jesus!

The Future of Driving

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

In a recent post, I talked about how electric power seems to be the inevitable future of cars. This is probably not too surprising to most people given the way electric cars have become so much more popular recently, and how the company Tesla has successfully captured a lot of headlines (in many cases deservedly so, because of its technical advances, and in other cases mainly because of the star status of its founder, Elon Musk).

But a much greater revolution is also coming: that is self-driving cars. In the future people will not be able to comprehend how we allowed people to drive and how we tolerated the massive amount of inefficiency, and the huge number of accidents and deaths as a result of this.

In my previous post I commented on how I am a “petrol-head” and enjoy driving, as well as liking the “insane fury” of current petrol powered supercars. I commented on how electric cars have no “soul” and this would appear to apply even more to self-driving cars. Before I provide the answer to how this travesty can be avoided, I want to present some points on how good self-driving cars should be.

First, there is every indication that computers will be far better than humans at driving, especially in terms of safety. Even current versions of self driving systems are far better than the average human, and these will surely be even more superior in the future once the algorithms are refined and more infrastructure is in place for them.

Whether computer controlled cars are currently better than the best humans is debatable, because I have seen no data on this, but that doesn’t really matter because being better than the actual, flawed, unskilled humans doing most of the driving now is all that is required.

In fact, the majority of accidents involving self-driving systems now can be attributed to human errors which the AI couldn’t cope with, because they still have to obey the laws of physics and not all accidents can be avoided, even by a perfect AI.

So if we switched to self-driving cars, how would things change? Well, to get the full benefit of this technology all cars would need to be self-driving. While some cars are still driven by humans there will always be an element of unpredictability in the system. Plus all the extra infrastructure needed by humans (see later for examples) will need to be kept in place.

Ultimately, as well as all cars being self-driven, the system would also require all vehicles to be able to communicate with each other. This would allow information to be shared and maybe for a central controller to make the system run more efficiently. It might also be possible, and maybe preferable, to have a distributed intelligence instead, where the individual components (vehicles) make decisions in cooperation with other units nearby.

The most obvious benefit would be to free up time for humans who could do something more useful than driving. They could read a book, read a newspaper, watch a movie, write their blog, do some work, etc, because the car would be fully automated.

But it goes far beyond that, because all of the rules we have in place today to control human drivers would be unnecessary. There would be no need for speed limits, for example, because the cars would drive at the speed best for the exact conditions at the time. They would use factors like the traffic density and weather conditions and set their speed appropriately.

There’s no doubt that even today traffic could move much faster than it does if proper driving techniques are used. The problem is that drivers aren’t good enough to drive quickly. But speed and safety can co-exist, as shown by Germany’s autobahns where there is often no speed limit, but the accident rate is lower than the US.

There would be no need to have lanes and other symbols marked on roads, and even the direction vehicles are travelling in the lane could be swapped depending on traffic density. All the cars would know the rules and always obey them. Head-on crashes would be almost impossible even when a lane swaps the direction the traffic is flowing in.

The same would apply to turning traffic. A car could make a turn into a stream of traffic because communications with the other cars in that stream would ensure the space was available. There would be no guessing if another driver would be polite enough to create a gap, and no guessing exactly how much time was needed because all distances and speeds would be known exactly.

I could imagine a scene where traffic was flowing, turning, and merging seemingly randomly at great speed in a way that would look suicidal today, but was in reality is precisely coordinated.

Then there’s navigation. Most humans can follow GPS instructions fairly well, but how much better would this be when all the cars shared knowledge about traffic congestion and other delays, and planned the routes based on that, as well as the basic path?

Finally there’s parking. No one would need to own a car because after completing the journey the car could go and be used by someone else. It would never need to park, except for recharging and maintenance, which could also be automatic. All the payments could be done transparently and the whole system should be much cheaper than personally owning and using a car, like we do now.

The whole thing sounds great, and there are almost no disadvantages, but I still don’t like it in some ways because my car is part of my identity, I like driving, and the new world of self-driving electric cars sounds very efficient, but seems to lack any personality or fun.

But that won’t matter, because there will be two ways to overcome this deficiency. First, there might be lots of tracks where people can go to test their driving skills in traditional human driven – maybe even petrol powered – cars as a recreational activity, sort of like how some people ride horses today. And second, and far more likely, virtual reality will be so realistic that it will be almost indistinguishable from real driving, but without the risks.

And while I am on the subject of VR, it should be far less necessary to travel in the future because so much could be done remotely using VR and AR systems. So less traffic should be another factor making the roads far more efficient and safe.

In general the future in this area looks good. I suspect this will all happen in about 20 years, and when it does, people will be utterly shocked that we used to control our vehicles ourselves, especially when they look at the number of accidents and fatalities, and the amount of time wasted each day. Why would we drive when a machine can do it so much better, and we could use that time for something far more valuable?

Fake News

January 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Everyone has some bias, and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to be totally neutral and fair, especially on topics which are very divisive, like race-based politics, or the performance of Donald Trump. But we do expect some effort on the part of certain professions to show a fair degree of impartiality. They should make at least a token gesture towards giving both sides a fair hearing. And maybe at the top of this list of impartial professions should be journalism – at least that’s what you might have thought.

But apparently not. Fake news is everywhere, and even when the news isn’t fake, it is so close to being fake – through biased reporting, uneven treatment of different aspects of a story, and selectiveness regarding what is reported – that it is often more pernicious than an obviously fake story.

Here in New Zealand I have always trusted Radio New Zealand (now called RNZ, I think, to reflect their new multi-media approach) as my preferred source. It wasn’t that they were necessarily more accurate – although they often were – but more that their professionalism and commitment to unbiased reporting was better than most others.

Well not any more, because RNZ is so overwhelmed by political correctness and a populist, leftist agenda, that they can no longer be trusted to the same extent. I still use RNZ as my primary news source, but I no longer trust anything they say without checking it against other sources.

My favourite interviewer on RNZ was always Kim Hill. She had an intelligent, and in most cases a well researched, interview style, and generally tried to keep her innate biases under control. But apparently this is not a priority for her any more.

To show how totally biased she is (and the same applies to most staff at RNZ) I could compare two interviews she has done recently. The first was with Don Brash about his fairly reasonable (at least in most aspects, although he definitely got one or two points wrong) criticism of the way the Maori language is used by the media, especially RNZ. And the second was with Michael Wolff, the author of “Fire and Fury” the just released book exposing the alleged dysfunction of the Trump presidency.

From the very start of the interview with Brash it was obvious that Hill was not going to listen to his alternative opinions, and that she was going to be very aggressive towards him. She didn’t listen to his points, and seemed to be more interested in pursuing her own agenda with no regard to what he said.

Brash is a very calm person, but that often doesn’t work well against a more emotional attack. An acceptance that his opponent’s view has some merit is often seen as weakness, especially when the opponent refuses to make the same concessions.

And he occasionally tries to make points based on what could be most charitably described as poor research, but that doesn’t mean other parts of his argument are totally without merit. He deserved a far better hearing than what he got on RNZ.

All that is bad enough, and it might even be excusable if it was applied evenly. But apparently that fairness is not part of RNZ’s makeup. Because the interview with anti-Trump author, Michael Wolff, was the exact opposite.

Although it is well known that Wolff’s style is confrontational and occasionally not well supported by objective facts, Hill’s interview with him was totally devoid of any incredulity. She never questioned his extreme comments which didn’t seem to be supported by very much more than an opinion, and he never offered a single challenge to any of his conclusions.

For example, saying that a major public figure like Trump is stupid and/or has major psychological issues – which don’t need to be formally diagnosed – really requires some form of challenge. This suggestion is just as bad as anything Don Brash said, yet Hill just loved it. Not only did she not challenge these obviously questionable claims, but she seemed to offer tacit approval for them.

Note that I am not saying I agree with everything Don Brash said, or that I disagree with everything Michael Wolff said. What I am saying is that public radio should be a forum where fair discussion of ideas is possible, even when those ideas are controversial. In fact it should be that especially when the ideas are controversial.

I know people who are a bit more oriented to the right of politics than me who used to listen to RNZ. Back when they were more balanced RNZ could maintain an audience with various political views. But I think that is far less likely now. The people I mentioned above now listen to some inane talkback show which is full of biased and ignorant opinions. But how can I criticise that when our premium news service is really not a lot better?

So the thing that really worries me is that by being so one-sided and by failing to encourage robust debate on contentious issues, the more left-leaning media are just pushing away any audience which doesn’t agree with their politically correct agenda. I have been close to abandoning RNZ myself but I still find enough valuable material there that I can stick with it.

But for how much longer, I really don’t know.

The Future of Cars

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

I have mixed feelings about the idea of electric and self driving cars. I am a bit of a “petrol-head” (car enthusiast) myself and enjoy driving fast, reading about fast cars, and watching supercar videos, so the new generation of cars is not necessarily welcome to me.

There is no doubt that electric power and self-driving cars are the future, but both of these remove the fun factor from driving. Of course, that might be thought of as a small price to pay for the huge advantages the future will bring, but it’s still kind of sad.

But I should talk a little bit about how great the future will be with these two technologies first before I discuss the disadvantages. So here’s what is so great about electric cars (I’ll deal with self-driving technology later)…

Electric is fast. I said I was a “petrol head” and liked driving fast, but I guess I could adapt to fast driving in electric cars as well. After all, no petrol car can get close to an electric for initial acceleration off the line. Electric engines produce maximum torque from zero RPM. My twin turbo petrol car (and every other conventional car) takes a lot longer to reach peak torque.

Electric is cheap. Well, when I say it is cheap I mean it is cheap to run. Unfortunately at the moment the initial cost is far too high, mainly because high capacity batteries are not being mass produced in enough quantity to bring the price down. Some countries have subsidies to encourage the use of electrics, but this shouldn’t be necessary, and hopefully one day won’t be.

Electric is simple. Modern petrol powered cars are ridiculously complex. Depending on what you count as essential components, a petrol car might have hundreds or thousands of moving parts, against just a few on an electric (again, the number of parts depends on whether you count cooling fans for the batteries, air conditioning, and other extra components). Despite this, modern petrol engines (and transmissions) are incredibly reliable. But an electric can have one moving part (essentially the rotor of the engine) connected directly to the wheel. That’s one moving part for the whole drive train! There are no cam shafts, valves, turbos, gearboxes, differentials, or CV joints. Once electric cars become better established their reliability just has to be far greater.

Electric is quiet. The sound of a high performance petrol engine might be music to the ears of a true enthusiast like me, but to many people it is just an annoyance. The electric ars are so quiet it almost becomes a hazard but this will soon become normal.

Electric is environmentally sound. The advantages to the environment of electric cars aren’t quite as obvious as is often imagined, but they are still significant. There is little doubt that electricity generated centrally and used to charge batteries for cars is superior to burning fossil fuels in an engine – especially when an increasing fraction of electricity generation is from renewable sources – but the production of batteries, and their disposal after they lose efficiency, is an extra environmental issue which is sometimes not considered. This makes the environmental advantage of electric cars a bit less certain, but the consensus seems to be that they are still significant.

Electric is the future. Even if you debate the points I have made above it seems that electric cars are an idea whose time has come. Even though they still make up a small fraction of the total fleet, there is a clear trend to them becoming more common on our roads. And, most importantly, they are now an obvious option for anyone buying a new car, where in the past they were a fringe possibility that few people would take seriously.

Of course, there are big disadvantages too. I have already mentioned the initial cost, but the other major factor is range, slowness of recharging, and lack of recharging points. The first two are inherent to the technology but are improving rapidly. The last is a sort of a “Catch 22” situation: there aren’t enough recharging points because there aren’t enough electric cars needing recharging, because there aren’t enough charging points for them.

There’s nothing quite like the sound of a high performance petrol car being thrashed – the sight and sound of a Lamborghini or McLaren exhaust system spitting flames is just awesome – and there’s no doubt that petrol cars have more “soul” than electrics. But people said the same thing about steam engines before they were replaced with electrics. I guess petrol cars will go the same way, so we might as well accept the inevitability of technical progress just get used to it.

I started this post by mentioning both electric and self-driving cars and I don’t seem to have got onto the self-driving part yet, which is actually far more controversial and revolutionary. So I might leave that to a future entry, since it deserves a post to itself.

So, until I switch to an electric myself I will continue to enjoy driving my current car – but I won’t try to race a Tesla away from the lights!

Random Comments 9

January 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Here in New Zealand the summer break is a quiet time for controversial news stories so I thought it might be time to bring back one of my posts where I briefly comment on a number of items of lesser immediate importance. Therefore I present random comments 9…

Item 1: Jacinda is Pregnant!

The questions about our new prime minister, Jacinda Ardern’s, family plans seem more relevant than ever now that she has announced her pregnancy. When the question about this possibility was originally asked many people thought it seemed totally inappropriate, yet it really wasn’t.

I think the assumption was that the question was asked so that she could be condemned in some way if her wish to have children conflicted with her duties as prime minister, but the exact opposite has happened, because there has been almost universally positive reaction.

And I think this is a good thing. Our culture puts far too much emphasis on work, and if the PM can show that our family and personal lives are also important then that must be a good thing. And it’s nothing to do really with anti-woman sentiment, or misogyny, or glass ceilings, it’s just about a better deal for everyone.

Maybe this discussion will be an opportunity to de-emphasise work in our lives, reduce the number of hours everyone works, and to make taking time off for non-work related activities more acceptable.

Item 2: Kim Dotcom Strikes Again!

Kim Dotcom says he will initiate a lawsuit against the New Zealand government for its illegal (and in my opinion grossly immoral) attack on him six years ago. At that time his mansion was attacked by armed police in helicopters, his assets were seized, and his business was destroyed. All because of political pressure by big business in the US influencing the government there, then pressure from the FBI who demanded the NZ police raid his home.

Few people would claim that Dotcom is the most innocent citizen on the planet, but I hope that even fewer would say a violent (and no doubt expensive) raid of that type, and the continued persecution afterwards, was justified given his relatively minor alleged transgressions.

On this one I take Dotcom’s side. The reaction of police (and their political masters) was grossly out of proportion with what was necessary, if anything. While you could say that Dotcom represents the rich and powerful, I would say he more represents a reaction to those with far too much power and wealth. I give him credit for standing up to the corporate elite.

Item 3: The Wealth Gap Again

A recent report revealed more obscene facts about the richest members of society in New Zealand, and how much of the wealth they control in contrast to how little the rest of us do. There’s nothing surprising about this, of course, because it is a topic I have ranted about on several occasions in the past. Also, the gap isn’t as great here as it is in some other countries – but it’s still inexcusable.

An interviewer (I think it was the annoying Guyon Espiner, surely one of the worst on RNZ) asked what harm it did to have some people with so much wealth. How does that disadvantage the rest? Well, money is a placeholder for resources and power, and those two commodities are in limited supply. The more one person has, the less is available for the rest of us. So even if we ignore the obvious moral philosophical point about gross inequities in wealth there is also a practical point here. Effectively the super rich are stealing resources and power from everyone else.

Item 4: Confidence and Lack Of

The latest business confidence survey indicates a reduction in confidence, yet the general feeling is that the new government is doing a good job, although it is admittedly very early in their term. The consensus seems to be that business confidence is a rather meaningless measure of the overall economic situation and it seems to be mainly ignored.

Some commentators think that the National Party is unlikely to regain power with their current leadership. It might be that a more progressive (despite the inclusion of NZ First) coalition, lead by Labour, could run the country for the next 2 or 3 election cycles. These sorts of predictions are extremely difficult so I will reserve judgement on that.

So there it is, a few items of just moderate interest from a relatively boring period. I guess I’ll just have to hope that something more controversial happens soon. Or maybe I should comment on American politics instead!

Random Clicking

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Nowadays, most people need to access information through computers, especially through web sites. Many people find the process involved with this quite challenging, and this isn’t necessarily restricted to older people who aren’t “digital natives”, or to people with no interest in, or predisposition towards technology.

In fact, I have found that many young people find some web interfaces bizarre and unintuitive. For example, my daughter (in her early 20s) thinks Facebook is badly designed and often navigates using “random clicking”. And I am a computer programmer with decades of experience but even I find some programs and some web sites completely devoid of any logical design, and I sometimes revert to the good old “random clicking” too!

For example, I received an email notification from Inland Revenue last week and was asked to look at a document on their web site. It should have taken 30 seconds but it took closer to 30 minutes and I only found the document using RC (random clicking).

Before I go further, let me describe RC. You might be presented with a web site or program/app interface and you want to do something. There might be no obvious way to get to where you want to go, or you might take the obvious route only to find it doesn’t go where you expected. Or, of course, you might get random error message like “page not available” or “internal server error” or even the dreaded “this app has quit unexpectedly” or the blue screen of death or spinning activity wheel.

So to make progress it is necessary just to do some RC on different elements, even if they make no sense, until you find what you are looking for. Or in more extreme cases you might even need to “hack” the system by entering deliberately fake information, changing a URL, etc.

What’s going on here? Surely the people involved with creating major web sites and widely used apps know what they are doing, don’t they? After all, many of these are the creations of large corporations with virtually unlimited resources and budgets. Why are there so many problems?

Well, there are two explanations: first, that errors do happen occasionally, no matter how competent the organisation involved is, and because we use these major sites and apps so often we will tend to see the errors more often too; and second, large corporations create stuff through a highly bureaucratic and obscure process and consistency and attention to detail is difficult to attain under such a scheme.

When I encounter errors, especially on web sites, I like to keep a record of it by taking a screenshot. I keep this in a folder to make me feel better if I make an error on any of my own projects, because it reminds me that sites created by organisations with a hundred programmers and huge budgets often have more problems those created by a single programmer with no budget.

So here are some of the sites I currently have in my errors folder…

APN (couldn’t complete your request due to an unexpected error – they’re the worst type!)
Apple (oops! an error occurred – helpful)
Audible (we see you are going to x, would you rather go to x?)
Aurora (trying to get an aurora prediction, just got a “cannot connect to database”)
BankLink (page not found, oh well I didn’t really want to do my tax return anyway)
BBC (the world’s most trusted news source, but not the most trusted site)
CNet (one of the leading computer news sources, until it fails)
DCC (local body sites can be useful – when they work)
Facebook (a diabolical nightmare of bad design, slowness, and bugginess)
Herald (NZ’s major newspaper, but their site generates lots of errors)
InternetNZ (even Internet NZ has errors on their site)
IRD (Inland Revenue has a few good features, but their web site is terrible overall)
Medtech (yeah, good luck getting essential medical information from here)
Mercury (the messenger of the gods dropped his message)
Microsoft (I get errors here too many times to mention)
Fast Net (not so fast when it doesn’t work)
Origin (not sure what the origin of this error was)
Porsche (great cars, web site not so great)
State Insurance (state, the obvious choice for a buggy web site)
Ticketmaster (I don’t have permission for the section of the site needed to buy tickets)
TradeMe (NZ’s equivalent of eBay is poorly designed and quite buggy)
Vodafone (another ISP with web site errors)
WordPress (the world’s leading blogging platform, really?)
YesThereIsAGod (well if there is a god, he needs to hire better web designers)

Note that I also have a huge pile of errors generated by sites at my workplace. Also, I haven’t even bothered storing examples of bad design, or of problems with apps.

As I said, there are two types of errors, and those caused by temporary outages are annoying but not disastrous. The much bigger problem is the sites and apps which are just inherently bad. The two most prominent examples are Facebook and Microsoft Word. Yes, those are probably the most widely used web site and most widely used app in the world. If they are so bad why are they so popular?

Well, popularity can mean two things: first, something is very widely used, even if it is not necessarily very well appreciated; and second, something which is well-liked by users and is utilised because people like it. So you could say tax or work is popular because almost everyone participates in them, but that drinking alcohol, or smoking dope, or sex, or eating burgers is popular because everyone likes them!

Facebook and Word are popular but most people think they could be made so much better. Also many people realise there are far better alternatives but they just cannot be used because of reasons not associated with quality. For example, people use Facebook because everyone else does, and if you want to interact with other people you all need to use the same site. And Word is widely used because that is what many workplaces demand, and many people aren’t even aware there are alternatives.

The whole thing is a bit grim, isn’t it? But there is one small thing I would suggest which could make things better: if you are a developer with a product which has a bad interface, and you can’t be almost certain that you can improve it significantly, don’t bother trying. People can get used to badly designed software, but coping with changes to an equally bad but different interface in a new version is annoying.

The classic example is how Microsoft has changed the interface between Office 2011 and Office 2016 (these are the Mac versions, but the same issue exists on Windows). The older version has a terrible, primitive user interface but after many years people have learned to cope with it. The newer version has an equally bad interface (maybe worse) and users have to re-learn it for no benefit at all.

So, Microsoft, please just stop trying. You have a captive audience for your horrible software so just leave it there. Bring out a new version so you can steal more money from the suckers who use it, but don’t try to improve the user interface. Your users will thank you for it.