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More Red Tape

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Controversial commentator, George Monbiot, thinks the disastrous fire in the London tower block serves as a warning about removing “red tape” from society. He sees this as a consequence of the neo-liberal agenda followed by successive governments – which would traditionally have been from both the right and left – in the UK. And there is no doubt that a very similar situation has arisen in many western countries, such as here in New Zealand.

On the other hand many other political pundits have suggested that we need a lot less regulation. They say that worthwhile commercial and social programs are being held up by excessive regulation and laws which stifle all forms of innovation.

So who is correct?

Well, in many blog posts I have commented on how I think there are too many rules and regulations, but in others I have said that large corporations and other organisations get away with too much as well. So, which is it? Do I want more or less regulation?

Well, I want both. Both the opinions above are correct. It is not so much the number of rules we have (although I still think there are far too many), but the type.

To take an example in New Zealand: one of the biggest disasters here in recent times was the Pike River mine explosion and fire. There is little doubt that it occurred because of incompetent and irresponsible management, something I should note has not really been addressed in the years since the original tragedy began.

On the other hand we have ridiculous health and safety rules in workplaces with no real hazards which have no reasonable chance of preventing any deaths or injuries in any event which could realistically occur.

So there is both stupid, stifling bureaucracy (and a whole class of bureaucrats to enforce it) and a lack of regulation and enforcement where it is actually needed. We seem to have chosen the worst of all possible worlds!

Now I should discuss how this relates to the recent London fire. Before I do I should admit that the exact direct and incidental causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster have not been established yet. However I think there is sufficient evidence on what happened to make my following commentary (AKA rant) relevant. If it turns out that the causes aren’t what currently seems obvious then I will retract this post.

For a start, the facts…

First, a massive fire in an accommodation block in London has resulted in the loss of many lives (about 60 at this point) along with many injuries and missing persons.

Second, the block had recently been renovated by applying panels to the outside, and these panels were primarily decorative and contained a highly flammable material.

Third, the building was not protected by sprinklers and had no (or only defective or inferior) fire alarms and smoke detectors, and the residents were told to stay in their apartments in the case of a fire.

Finally, the residents (who were poorer people even though it was in a rich suburb) had warned the owners that the building was dangerous but had been basically ignored.

So putting the facts together, and reading between the lines a bit, here’s what I think really happened…

The building was in an affluent area and didn’t look up to standard to the rich people living there, so the building owner was pressured to improve its appearance.

The owner, or the contractor doing the work, tried to save a few pounds (in other words make more profit) by using a cheaper building material even though it was a major fire hazard (the cladding used cost 90,000 pounds less than a fire resistant alternative, and was part of a multi-million pound contract). This could happen because building regulations had been loosened by recent governments.

Warnings that the building was dangerous were ignored because the owner simply didn’t care. There was probably nothing illegal about the building itself (although some reports suggest the material was banned). In many ways bad regulations are worse than no regulations at all, because the owner can claim that the building follows the standards.

When the fire started it spread rapidly because of the material used and the fact that the money was spent on superficial cosmetic improvements instead of real safety features like sprinklers or modern alarms. In addition the residents were told to stay in their apartments during a fire – I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m not making this stuff up!

The following might not have made a lot of difference, but because of austerity measures the number of fire fighters serving the area was less than it had been in the past.

The government has made insincere, totally inadequate, and late efforts at helping. Of course an investigation is under way, but we all know how biased those usually are.

Now there are protests over this issue. But who should be the target and what, specifically, went wrong? I don’t think one person or one action can be blamed. This is a systemic thing which might be able to be improved to a limited extent but will never really be OK under the current system.

So, again I get back to the theme that we need revolution and not evolution. If one good thing comes out of this tragedy it might be to wake people from their apathy and have them finally realise that the ruling elite are both incompetent and grossly immoral.

To get back to the original issue about regulations. Do we need more? Well the best option would be to get rid of capitalism so that most decisions weren’t driven entirely by greed. Any decent building owner (assuming people were allowed to own housing at all, and I don’t think they should be) would want to provide safe accommodation, not to make some superficial changes to a squalid death-trap. But until we put decent people in charge we need regulations to control those who currently have all the power.

In summary, until the revolution comes we (regrettably) probably have little choice: we need more red tape to control the worst excesses of a system which is rotten to its very core.

Islam Again, Again

May 31, 2017 7 comments

I said in my last post that I had some thoughts on terrorism and its causes, mainly after thinking about the Manchester attack. I think the there are two big problems which have lead to poor analysis of the situation: first, people tend to form conclusions based on their existing political beliefs instead of trying to reach an unbiased verdict; and second, they tend to look at things too simplistically instead of accepting that there is never just one cause for a complex social phenomenon.

In the last post I briefly mentioned my initial reaction when I first heard about the attacks. That was that it was probably “Islam again”. By that I meant that Islamic beliefs were likely to be an important part of the motivation for the attack. And that was clearly the case. But what I didn’t mean was that Islam was the only cause or that all Muslims should share equal blame.

Another important point is that, no matter how evil these attacks are, they really don’t represent a great threat when looked at statistically. There are plenty of stats out there to show this.

For example, the Washington Post reported that on the day that 130 people died because of the Paris terrorist attacks, roughly three times that number of French citizens died from cancer. They also say that in the US more people have been killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorist activity since 9/11.

Those numbers should be accepted but that doesn’t mean that taking terrorism seriously isn’t important. It could be that because terrorism is treated as if it is far more dangerous than it really is that it has been kept under control to some extent. And disease, road deaths, and work related accidents are just an unfortunate side effect of people living their lives. Terrorism is far more malicious and deliberate and has no positive side making the losses a bit more tolerable.

So a death from a road accident and a death as a result of a suicide bomber aren’t really equivalent. People shouldn’t be scared of terrorism, but they shouldn’t become complacent and they should make their abhorrence of it clear even if they are unlikely to be affected by it directly.

I think I have made a case for treating terrorism and terrorists with the utmost contempt, what about the more difficult question of what or who to blame? Is Islam actually the problem?

Well yes and no. As I said above, all complex political or social issues have multiple causes. But the statistics make it very clear that Islam is a major factor. Find a list of terrorist attacks and you will see that the vast majority would be carried out by Islamic groups or individuals motivated by Islam. This cannot be denied, and I don’t think it can be denied that Islam is one of the most significant causes of terrorism.

People will say Islam is a religion of peace, of course, but that has become more a knee-jerk reaction than a statement which is the result of serious and considered thought. I don’t think it is a religon of peace at all. In fact, there are many reasons to think that it is one of the more violent religions. It’s true that most Muslims don’t act on these more aggressive aspects of their faith, but that doesn’t mean that they are not there and that they don’t encourage people with a predisposition to extremism.

Another excuse offered by Muslim apologists is that many of the problems in the Islamic world are caused by the unwanted meddling of the West, especially the US. I totally agree. I think US foreign policy is one of the biggest causes of political instability around the world today. But does the fact that a major power interfered with the politics of your country give you the right to kill innocent children at a pop concert in a different country? Only an incredibly sick-minded person whose human decency has been warped by a vile ideology could believe that.

Not many people would be prepared to sacrifice their own life and take those of many innocent people without some incredibly powerful ideology being involved. No one is going to strap on a suicide vest after considering a problem rationally. To do that takes something like strong political views… or religion, of course. The problem is currently Islam, but any Christian who thinks they can take the high moral ground on this should have a look at the history of their own faith and maybe reconsider that thought.

So was it Islam again? Yes it was, but it was also political frustration caused by western interference again, and it was many other things again too. Should there be greater scrutiny of Muslims because of this sort of event? Yes, but it should be in proportion to the potential threat.

These things are nuanced, and neither side: neither the people who always spring to Islam’s defence, nor those who automatically condemn all Muslims, are right. The truth is somewhere in between. Sure, it was Islam again and it will continue to be Islam again, but what our response should be to that fact is the real issue.

An Upcoming Apocalypse

March 31, 2017 2 comments

Recently I have been contemplating the possibility of an upcoming apocalypse. Why is that, you may ask. Well, there are several factors: first, there is the current political situation in the world, where regressive and extreme politics seem to be becoming popular; second, I have recently re-read a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel called “Earth Abides”; and third, I just listened to a podcast about the collapse of bronze age civilisation.

By apocalypse I don’t mean anything religious or Biblical, or course, and I don’t mean the world will be totally destroyed, or the Universe will end, or anything that extreme. I just mean a major collapse of the current civilisation and, hopefully, it’s replacement with something better. So maybe apocalypses can actually be good.

There have certainly been situations in the past where dominant civilisations have fallen after a period of stagnation and regressive thinking. We might look around the world today and see similar changes towards more inward thinking and conservative policies. Maybe these are early signs of an approaching apocalypse.

In Earth Abides (a novel written in 1949, but still quite relevant even though it does show a few anachronisms and other signs of being dated) most humans are wiped out by a virus. The few survivors band together into small groups and try to survive in various ways. The story is told in the third person and involves the events experienced by the main protagonist, Isherwood Williams (known as “Ish” – a rather symbolic name).

Initially Ish tries to maintain the old civilisation by teaching the children to read, and by planning to have his most intelligent son, Joey, learn about the old world and its technologies. But the lessons become increasingly pointless and when Joey dies in an epidemic he has to abandon that path. Eventually, as the old technologies, such as power and water, fail the tribe reverts to a more primitive lifestyle and the most useful skill he teaches them is how to make a bow for hunting.

But it seems that the new, simpler culture might not be such a bad thing, because the new members of the tribe (those born after the great disaster) are arguably happier than most of the people were before.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and not too much should be extrapolated from it, but it does provide a useful perspective on what the actual benefits of society really are.

Apocalypses have been common in the past, although they tended to be localised, simply because global interaction between regions wasn’t possible. So societal collapse has ranged from Rome to Maya to Angkor Wat. The Maya are an interesting parallel to the story in Earth Abides. They abandoned their great cities and returned to a village-based lifestyle after a huge population collapse. No one seems entirely sure why.

According to the podcast on the bronze age, the causes of that collapse were quite complex and probably included an excessively intricate and dependent trading network (especially for tin), major natural disasters (especially earthquakes and drought), and attacks by foreign invaders. It would probably have been possible to survive any one of these influences, but not them all.

So let’s put it all together. Clearly we have an excessively complex trading network today. If one part was interrupted (like oil from the Middle East) it would cause a major collapse in society as a whole. We have natural disasters becoming more devastating as a result of climate change. And attacks from “outside forces” could be from a number of sources, including terrorism, which is a more symbolic than real threat, but maybe even more influential because of that.

At the end of the Bronze Age the interruption of trading in tin caused alternatives to be considered. Tin was used to make bronze, so alternative materials, especially iron, had to be used instead. In fact iron was much better than bronze and the iron age resulted. So one collapse lead to something new and better. Unfortunately many societies suffered a dark age of several decades to centuries between the two.

Maybe it takes destruction and darkness before creation and light can result. We might hope that we are more aware of these factors today and that we can abandon our “bronze age” – which is paralleled by the carbon fuel (oil, coal, etc) age today – and move to an “iron age” – modern renewable energy sources. But there is increasing evidence that this might not actually happen.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. We could easily transform our society to a much better one any time we wanted to, but that probably won’t happen until the current one becomes totally unworkable. It’s just much easier to continue with the status quo. In Earth Abides the tribe just broke into an abandoned store and retrieved cans when they needed food. They didn’t need to do anything harder than that. But the cans couldn’t last forever. They never do.

They’ve Got Nothing

February 6, 2017 6 comments

I’ve been stirring up trouble again. Yes, I have been on-line, mainly in Facebook but also Youtube, leaving comments for people who I consider are talking BS. Just to prove that I am an equal opportunity critic of ignorance, I have criticised about equal numbers of people who would probably be categorised as right and left.

In some cases I have had some fairly thoughtful reactions, and some have even changed my opinions slightly, but in general my opponents simply have nothing, and either respond with irrelevant comments of their own, refuse to answer my question, insult me (one person called me a “cabbage”), or just unfriend or block me.

On a couple of occasions I have terminated the debate because it was just going nowhere, or going around in circles. In that situation I usually say something like “We have got to a point where we interpret the facts differently because of our worldviews, so there’s not much point continuing. Thanks for the discussion” and that ends it.

I have realised that differing worldviews can lead debates to a point where no progress is possible, but I want to write a full post on that in future so I won’t continue it here.

There is one phenomenon I want to comment on here though. That is, although I am a fairly liberal person myself (that isn’t just self-reported, it is also what I inevitably get when doing political orientation tests) it is people on the left who generally make the most ridiculous and ill considered comments. They also tend to react with denial rather than argument, including blocking further comments – in fact I was unfriended by one lefty (I was going to say “libtard”) today.

The worst nonsense from the left unsurprisingly, involves criticism of Donald Trump. Now I’m perfectly happy for anyone to criticise any politician, because I think once someone enters politics they should expect to become a target, but it is just embarrassing when the critic gets it hopelessly wrong, especially when they are obviously just parroting a criticism they have got from their friends with similar political views.

I have commented on this phenomenon before and I think it’s getting worse rather than better. I have also blogged about how to avoid falling into this trap. It’s really quite simple: the more you want something to be true the more suspicious of it you should be. So if you are about to post something which strongly supports your political ideology just check it first, preferably in a source which would normally be against your views, or a neutral one (if neutral sources even still exist).

The fact that I was blocked just for pointing out a whole pile of inaccuracies in a criticism of Trump indicates that the person involved simply didn’t want to engage in a search for what is true. The same person responded to an earlier comment I made with something like: “I knew you would point out that was wrong but I don’t care”. This person actually wants to be ignorant!

So the stream of hate-filled criticism of Trump (ironically for what they claim are his hate-filled attitudes) is likely to continue, although I see less and less of it because most of the libtards (there, I said it this time) are blocking me!

And as dissenting voices like mine are blocked I guess those people will only get confirmation of what they want to believe. So they will become more and more ignorant. And as that happens they will become more extreme, and a moderate position which most people can agree to will become harder to achieve.

In general, the future doesn’t look great. Where we need more agreement we are getting more division. Where we need more progress we are getting more regressive thinking, and most of all, where we need more facts we are getting more ignorance. Apparently, most people can’t argue their political position rationally because they’ve got nothing!

Is the President Right?

January 30, 2017 Leave a comment

It seems that every day Donald Trump launches another onslaught on the sensibilities of many people around the world. Well, when I say “many people”, I should probably say that these people probably occupy a relatively small niche of those who care enough to comment or act, and who are sufficiently to the left or sufficiently PC that they reject everything Trump does.

I need to say at this point that there is plenty in regards to Trump which everyone should be concerned about. In general these issues stem from a disregard for what is true (or what is sufficiently well supported by evidence that it could be reasonably assumed to be true), such as climate change.

But let’s look at the latest controversy: the tighter border controls, especially for those from certain, majority Islamic countries. Many people are totally against this action, and the inevitable protests and condemnation have been ongoing since it was announced, but how bad is it, really?

Well, like most things Trump does, it is pretty bad, but nowhere near as bad as many people seem to think. My main objection is not the underlying idea, but the implementation.

The main reason for the president’s action is ostensibly to prevent terrorism in the US. It has been pointed out in many places that Islamic terrorism isn’t really a major issue in the US (at least, not since 9/11) and this makes the underlying justification invalid, but does it?

There is little doubt (at least amongst those who look at the facts) that terrorism around the world is primarily carried out by Muslims. The best list of international terrorist attacks I can find indicates that Islamic extremists perform far more attacks than every other group put together. So, from an international perspective it is reasonable to be cautious of Muslims.

Of course, very few Muslims actually pose a threat, but it is still a factor which can’t be ignored. The religion itself also seems to incite violence more than most. Of course, this will be debated by those who claim (with very little justification) that Islam is a “religion of peace”, but there are many places in the Koran and Hadith where violent actions seem to be encouraged – more so than the New Testament, for example, although maybe not as much as the Old!

So I don’t think simply being a Muslim or coming from a country where Islam is the dominant religion should be enough to deny someone rights to visit or immigrate to the US, but it should be a factor which is considered. Unfortunately, anyone who belongs to this religion should expect to be more closely checked than others.

And that isn’t racist or xenophobic, it’s just common sense based on statistics. Muslims are more likely to be involved with terrorism. It’s that simple.

In a recent debate on this subject I was challenged with an argument like this: “you (that is me) say that Muslims are more violent, does that mean men should be more closely scrutinised too because they are more prone to violence?” I’m sure my questioner expected me to say “no, that’s different”, but it isn’t and I said “yes, and I’m sure that happens already”.

But the PC brigade seem to accept that as OK. They love to point out how women are less violent then men and therefore should be given extra trust, but don’t seem to be able to apply the same logic to different religious groups.

And I don’t think the idea that all groups deserve the same level of trust can be justified. If a person belonged to a neo-Nazi group they would be unlikely to be trusted much, so clearly varying levels exist. And all religions have different beliefs so it’s hard to defend the idea that they are all equally positive. So clearly some religious groups must be less trustworthy than others. And, as I said above, the evidence clearly shows that, in the current era at least, a group which probably deserves a bit less trust is Islam.

So President Trump’s specific actions don’t make sense, so from that perspective he is wrong, but I think the underlying sentiment makes some sense, do maybe, just maybe, he’s a little bit right, too.

A New Zeitgeist

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment

I have often mentioned the concept of the zeitgeist in my blog posts. It is one of my favourite concepts and one of my favourite words too (German words are often very useful because they have specific meanings). I you need a reminder of it’s meaning, it is (according to the Oxford Dictionary): the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

For the period from the 1970s to the early 2010s there has been a clear belief (well, I thought it was clear, anyway) in commercialism, political and economic elites, and free markets. There have been great promises made that following these will bring great benefits to everyone, primarily through the famous “trickle down” effect where greater wealth held by corporate leaders is somehow distributed to the lower echelons too.

But that doesn’t seem to have worked, because the gap between rich and poor is now utterly obscene.

It might be argued that although the gap has widened greatly, in absolute terms everyone is better off, but that is far from clear, apart from in emerging economies like China. And it is a well known psychological effect that people measure their wealth (and well-being in general) in a comparative way.

Clearly there is significant dissatisfaction at the way the world is being run today. The most obvious “protest vote” against the political establishment is Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election, but there are many other indicators across the globe.

As I have said in the past, I welcome revolt against the establishment (being a fairly anti-establishment person myself) but the danger here is what alternatives will people choose?

I have said in the past that I am not as anti-Trump as many other people are. I am very concerned about some of his opinions and some of the people he has appointed to positions of power, but I am also prepared to give him a chance. But he is an example where potentially an anti-establishment (Clinton clearly represented the existing political elite) vote might have resulted in the unleashing of something even worse!

Whatever the outcomes of this change might be, the fact is there is an appetite for change and it seems to be a global phenomenon. There clearly is a new zeitgeist emerging. At the moment it is just the thought that we don’t want what we have now, and protectionism, localism, and conservatism seem to be preferred, but it will hopefully (but not necessarily) lead to something more positive.

And there is another factor on the horizon which will force an even greater degree of change than the social, economic, and political factors I have bene considering so far. That is the true computer revolution.

What has happened so far has been significant but it will look minor compared with what is soon to come. Robots and intelligent machines will take over many jobs, virtual and augmented reality will blur the line between the real and virtual world, super-fast and reliable internet will make distance irrelevant, 3D printing will make manufacturing complex items easy, and (most importantly) artificial intelligence will finally fullfil its promise.

Already companies are saying that many professions will be taken over by AI (for example, accounting will become almost obsolete according to some), that many less skilled jobs will also disappear thanks to automated machines (self-driving vehicles, for example), and that abundant energy and goods will make existing economics obsolete.

Whatever small changes people imagine today will seem trivial compared with what is coming. We need a total change in thinking. We need a new zeitgeist.

The Golden Quarter

December 14, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article titled “Aviation is flying into exciting times” which claimed to list the most exciting new developments in aviation which are about to happen. The list included: more choice of airlines and better prices; more connectivity (basically, internet services in flight); new planes and cabins including the B787, A350 and upgraded 777s; better loyalty schemes; and some new equipment for New Zealand’s air force (actually just aircraft which have been around for a while but are still newer than the rather ancient Hercules we have now).

That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? Well if you are still awake after reading that compelling list (not) you will probably answer “no, not really”.

And it isn’t. One reason I find it a bit uninspiring is that I have just finished reading Jonathan Glancey’s book “Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner”. And I have also spent some time researching the “The Golden Quarter”, which is the idea that many of our greatest cultural and technological achievements happened between 1945 and 1971, and that progress has stalled since then.

I’m not totally convinced that the idea of technological and social stagnation in the last 45 years is true, but I do see some signs that the ideas has some merit, and I have commented on similar ideas before coming across the Golden Quarter concept.

If I compare the world of 1971 with today there are very obvious technological changes, especially in the area of computing and communications. Also, every other significant area of technology has progressed very obviously.

For example, the cars of today are hugely superior to those of the 1970s. They are far more reliable, far more powerful, better handling, have better economy, and they are a lot safer. And despite what I said in the first paragraphs of this post, modern aircraft are much more advanced than aircraft of the 70s in similar ways.

But this is all about evolution rather than revolution. And building aircraft with good fuel economy and safety is important, but it doesn’t have the same “cool factor” as building a commercial airliner which can travel at over double the speed of sound! In comparison, current commercial jets fly at about 0.8 to 0.9 times the speed of sound.

Here are a few things which are claimed to have come from the Golden Quarter:
electronics, computers and the birth of the internet, nuclear power, television, antibiotics, space travel, civil rights, the pill, feminism, teenage culture, the Green Revolution in agriculture, decolonisation, popular music, mass aviation, the gay rights movement, cheap reliable cars, high-speed trains, a man on the Moon, a probe to Mars, the elimination of smallpox, and the discovery of the structure of DNA.

I tried to get a list of significant achievements since then and they might include: the Hubble Space Telescope, the LHC, the discovery of gravitational waves, gene sequencing, huge advances in the power and price of computers, and the modernisation of certain countries (China, India) leading to a better standard of living.

Sure, it’s significant, but compared with the first list it’s not that impressive, is it?

And what about the areas where we are (or seem to be) going backwards? Conservative and nationalistic politics seems to have become popular. The total number of people affected by conflict is reducing but there are still many examples of war and terrorism around the world. Science funding seems to be becoming more difficult, and science is more often asked to contribute to commercial solutions rather than perform much more important fundamental research.

So if my hypothesis is correct, what went wrong?

I think it is just a phase we are going through, which started in the 1970s, when the current political-economic environment began. Clearly people are getting rather sick of all the unfulfilled promises and things are now changing. Unfortunately they appear to be becoming even more repressive, irrational, and unprogressive than before.

So unfortunately it looks like we really are heading down hill, and I don’t think we will have another golden quarter in the foreseeable future.