Monday, May 30, 2011

Blunt weapons

 Slutwalk is something that I've mentioned before. Then, I think, I was talking about the principle that slutwalk was based upon. Since then, I've had occasion to read Danyl's take on how well slutwalk does in getting it's message across. A chunk of the post wonders whether dressing up as sluts, while attracting media attention will be conveyed by said media or received by the population in the manner intended. I'm guessing a lot of thinking about whether that works or not will be dependant on your view of the public (the media, I doubt strongly, will do much to convey the message beyond "oh looks, girls for looking at!")

It's an interesting read for though, primarily because of the second to last paragraph. I'm not, traditionally a fan of going on protest marches. I'm not particularly sure of how much effect writing letters to politicians is either for that matter. And the media that we rely on as a watchdog is ... somewhat deficient. As far as I can see, the only real weapon the public has is the ballot box and that is a very blunt weapon. At best, when the protest march, the media and the public combine, it can demonstrate to our representatives that there is a significant number of  their constituents are annoyed, which is a situation best not ignored. As Danyl says though, "a protest march is not a nuanced, sophisticated medium". A blunt weapon in other words. Giving the media's habit of picking ill thought issues and starting random crusades, what could be an effective tool for the monitoring of the government, at best, it's another blunt weapon.

So what to do? A electorate with more involvement in the political process would be a start. Sadly, the electorates lack of involvement has been something that has been lamented for many years. I've seen very few sensible ideas. There are some, but getting the ideas into action will be a long, slow process.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen ....

Neil deGrasse Tyson. Seriously, find yourself an hour and sit down and watch one of the best, most passionate science communicators in the US at the moment. Skip the first 15 minutes, the rest of it, find some time. 

Cosmic Quandaries with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Now that's entertainment.

Danyl points out the Hone Harawira is currently beating Don Brash in the preferred prime minister stakes. Neither  people I'm particularly fond of, but quite entertaining given Brash's insistence that he's going to become a major force, taking ACT to 10-15% of the vote. Elsewhere Danyl also notes the ACT register no support amongst female voters, which is interesting. What's depressing is they've gone from 0.9% of the vote to 1.7. If, as is likely, Banks takes Epsom, they'll be back in parliament with more undue influence.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rational self interested actors.

Our free market enthusiasts on the right of the political spectrum generally have some attachment to the theories of Milton Friedmann. Given the set of premises that Friedmann has, his theories actually make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, one of the premises is that all the individuals in a economy are perfect, rational, self aware, self interested actors who will do what is most beneficial to themselves at any given point in time. This, is patently untrue. And unfortunately, it's why I don't have a lot of time for anyone who is adamant that markets know best and should be unregulated, it's an idea that is based on a faulty premise. I'm quite willing to admit that the theory is elegant but an elegant theory means nothing if it is not based in reality.
In general, the only two groupings of economists that I'm aware of are the Miltonian ones and the Keynsian ones. The Keynsian ones, to me are a little more rational but are still basing their models on some pretty general (though not necessarily wrong) assumptions. It's interesting to see a third grouping in this article mentioning economists working on something called behavioural economics, a system of economics that is attempting to take into account the silly, non-rational things that people do, folding economics with psychology. It's a big ask and they've set themselves a huge task, but you have to start somewhere. And at least they're starting with a set of premises based in reality. There's hope for economics yet.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Spiritual journeys.

Young PZ Myers deconstructs another one of Deepak Chopra's waffle pieces. It's a fairly standard ripping to shreds, nothing particularly exciting to write home about. Then again Chopra does make it very easy. One little titbit that took my fancy though,  PZ's take on the phrase "Spiritual Journey".
Spiritual journey" is one of those New Age phrases that means nothing: it means not going anywhere, not learning anything new, only wallowing in one's preconceptions and justifying it with bafflegab about "spirituality", which is also undefinable and unmeasurable and utterly useless
It's something I should probably try and expand upon one day, for now though, I'm just noting it down here for future reference. The whole idea of a spiritual journey I find to be nonsensical. PZ's description is the closest I can conceive of it as it is spoken by most people these days, a waste of time, wallowing in ones preconceptions. If one truly wants to improve upon oneself, I'd recommend the Socratic method of doing so - examining one's life, critically identifying the parts of ones self that you like and the parts you don't and making changes. It's not a difficult thing to do, in the sense that all it requires is self reflection and honesty with oneself. Though that's not necessarily to say that it's a pleasant thing to do though, in some cases I imagine, it would be quite unpleasant. And I wouldn't call it spiritual, I'd call it rational.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Policy based on what?

As sometimes happens in the blogosphere part of the world, several somewhat disparate things get written and read within a fairly short time frame, welding together into a fairly solid picture. In this case it started with Ben Goldacre's last column. It points out the lack of will politicians generally have to actually figure out what works and what doesn't. Yes politics generally gets fought on big ideas but if the politicians never take the time to see what works and what doesn't then our planning for the future consists of listening to whoever is currently able to charm the public. It's quite worrisome. A day after I read that, Tim Watkin over at pundit came pretty close to describing my reaction after reading Ben's column, that you get someone selling an ideal for a few years, which is implemented regardless of whether it works or not and then someone else comes along and does the same thing with a different idea. All without bothering (usually) to find out whether the ideas are any good or not.
On a slightly different note, but a few days later, a chap I've never heard of before, a Chris Worthington by name, writes a column in the herald suggesting that there is no magic bullet policy that a government can create which will put us economically in front of the world. And he makes a good case for it. He even has a couple of ideas at the end about using things like prediction markets to figure out which policies aren't really doing the job. I'm not convinced that the use of prediction markets is the best way to go about it, I would suggest we should be running trials such as Ben suggests, or better yet, listen to what Peter Gluckman has to say in his latest report on using science to inform policy (unfortunate that he is the science adviser to an idiot prime minister who seems to think that science is just a matter of opinion). One of the big problems of course, is how you go about getting a politician to care about what happens 5 years down the track after they have left parliament. Ideas anyone? I'm fresh out. We have the tools to figure out what works, we are aware of the problem of ideological based policy formation, yet we don't seem to be able to do anything about it. Sad.

NB.  Danyl has an interesting note on coming from Worthington's column, the cherry picking of Singaporean policy to fit an ideological policy base by the right, Singapore currently being the free marketers dream (low corporate tax rate, low unemployment, small public sector, fast growth) provided you ignore a whole bunch of other things like massive enforced compulsory savings schemes or the busiest port in the world on a route that see's approxiamately 60% of the worlds shipping trade being owned by the government and funds from that being used to pay for other things. If anything this should show why its dangerous to use ideological based policy. It's prone to picking only the parts of policies that fit with the world view of it's proponents, which if implemented would without the other half would fundamentally screw the system.

Monday, May 16, 2011

It's not that broken and that won't fix it.

Here in New Zealand we have a single government agency that is responsible for buying pharmaceuticals from the drug companies. Pharmac gets quite a lot of negative publicity, usually when they decide not to fund a particular drug. From the point of view of someone outside of the medical system though (I have no idea what insiders think of it), I think it does a hard job reasonably well. In a sense, yes, they are putting a value on peoples lives, but that is what their job is. They have to make a call on each drug taking into account the number of people affected, how much the drug costs and how effective it is, what the benefits and costs to society will be if a drug is or isn't affected. New Zealand doesn't have the money to be able to buy every drug that everyone needs which is sad, but the truth. To buy more drugs, we have to spend less elsewhere.
It's worrisome then when we get lobbyist's from American drug companies suggesting that we need to get rid of it. I think there is a case to be made for the fact that drugs are incredibly more expensive to buy in the US than Canada being common knowledge. Even the Simpsons have made an episode extracting the urine on that topic. Pharmac doesn't get us everything we need, but that's because we don't have enough money. It does get us a good baseline of drugs, part of making sure that everyone has access to a good baseline level of medical services. To get rid of it would remove that baseline and healthcare would move that much closer to what it is in the states: for the rich.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Russell weighs in.

Russell Brown quite rightly notes that the kicking of Labour in the blogosphere has become a bit tiresome. He's quite right. The problem being that in discussions of NZ politics these days, that's pretty much all they deserve. There are apparently glimmers of hope that Labour is not entirely moribund, with David Cunliffe actually responding intelligently to some questions, though only on his blog. And sadly, it ends with a dig at National for destroying our "economy and our cultural and environmental heritage". Completely failing to mention of course that Labour has pretty much actively supported them rather than being the voice of caution as an opposition party should be. The flawed Christchurch recovery legislation rushed through. The copyright amendment thing a few weeks ago? Labour just rolls over like a tame puppy dog.

In a democratic system such as ours. an opposition party, in conjunction with a free, open and competent press corps, should be acting as a check on the power of whoever holds the majorities mandate. Currently we have a a free and open press corps (yes, I'm deliberately leaving something out there) and a fairly incompetent opposition party. The only ones who appear to have the gumption to perform the function of an opposition party at the moment are the greens. I'm rather hoping that that's where all the disillusioned labour voters go in the next election rather than just not voting. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Growing up.

I've a friend who's at school doing a Masters degree in town planning at the moment. Every so often, it results in really interesting conversations. Recently, one of these started off with a discussion about heritage values and ended up in a talk about New Zealanders general apathy regarding the political process and both the local and national level. When New Zealand was first colonized by europeans, a lot of the colonists were people seeking, funnily enough, a better life for themselves and their families. The escape they made influenced several of what came to be classic New Zealand traits. Things like the no. 8 wire mentality, being influenced by settlers who were probably poor and from rural communities that already had the knack of making do with what they had available.

One of the more interesting traits, apparently comes from the fact that a lot of settlers came so that they could own some land. A lot of the English settlers were apparently renters, so coming to a new country was an opportunity to escape from under the thumb of English landlords, own a bit of property and have a bit of security. This in turn influenced some of our attitudes towards property, one of which has apparently been the bane of town planners for some time now. That is, we generally consider that a property owner has or should have the right to do whatever they damn well want to on the confines of their private property. Specifically, this causes problems for heritage planners as private property owners and developers get a little pissed when they get told they can't do certain things and then tend to argue that the public should be paying for the upkeep of any building that is deemed important. I can cope with the argument that the public purse could be used to assist in the upkeep of certain buildings but no more than that.

The problem with the attitude of being able to do anything you want within the confines of private property, is that private property doesn't exist in isolation. Maybe in the back blocks of Taranaki, but certainly not in urban areas. Any property/building has at least one aspect (the outside) that is essentially it's face towards the community, making it part of the community, part of the public sphere. While the owner should probably have a significant say in what happens to this, I don't see that they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. And people have the opportunity to influence the public voice, when district plans are created, when local body and national politicians are elected. There is something to be said for it being difficult to find the information and how to have a say, but I don't exactly see crowds of people clawing at the doors of local authorities demanding easier access. So we sit apathetically by and wait for everything to be all right. And then moan when it isn't. I'm probably being a tad harsh at the moment but I can't help but see this conceit that the individuals rights are paramount as symptom of immaturity. As much as a I hate broad generalizations, large swathes of our population give me the impression that they don't really care what happens, as long as they themselves are all right. I'm quite happy for individuals who want to be self absorbed to go live in the back of beyond. Urban dwellers though are part of a community, part of their life can be behind closed doors but not all of it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Producing food in a new climate.

This article from ars technica, about a paper from Science is worth a read. For some time now, we've been getting better at producing farming so our food production has been going up. Not, as much as it should  though. Climate change has been damaging our ability to produce food, it's just that no one has noticed because the increases in productivity have more than compensated. If we didn't have climate change to deal with, it appears we would have had the equivalent of Frances annual wheat crop and Mexico's annual maize crop at the very least, in addition to what we've already been producing. It provides yet another good reason to be doing something about climate change (though it's not like there was a dearth of good reasons anyway). It would make the growing world population easier to feed and if climate change continues apace, at some point, the change will outstrip our ability to improve production, which will make food shortages all the worse.


There's an idiot of a senior police man in Toronto who, I'm pretty sure, didn't think through clearly exactly what he was saying. Telling women not to dress like sluts so as to reduce their risk of being raped is not constructive. There have been demonstrations in Canada objecting to these comments and there will be a corresponding one here in June. A couple of the message boards I frequent have commented on the demonstrations so far in Toronto and while some comments are positive a lot of it causes dismay. The basic argument that a lot of males are making on these things is that women have to bear some of the responsibility for rape if they are dressed in a certain manner or frequenting certain "bad" areas. And the idiocy of this argument is what dismays me. One of the marks of a mature person, male or female, in my most humble opinion, is that they take responsibility for their own actions. The action of walking down a street dressed in a certin manner is the responsibility of the person doing the walking. The action of any response to that is the responsibility of the person responding. In the case of rape, the action is the responsibility or the rapist. Provocation is not a defence, either the action was taken consciously,  in which case the rapist is fully responsible for making that decision and should be locked up or the action was semi/unconscious, in which case the rapist is not in sufficient control of their actions making them  a clear danger to society that should be locked up. At no point in time does the action of the rapist become the the responsibility of the victim. It maddens me that people are willing to accept the abdication of responsibility.

Maintaining that an action can be provoked implies that the person who claims they were provoked is weak, that they have insufficient control of themselves. It's a different order of magnitude but the same principle holds when men insist that women should wear burkas. Any claim that the temptation of looking at a woman must be removed is an admission of weakness and earns my disgust overlain with a light dusting of condescending pity.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Harris and Dawkins have a chat.

It takes an hour, but I do think this is worth a watch. There's a bit about 5 minutes in which is ... important. I think important is the word. The story involves someone who is apparently currently serving on the US President ethics advisory panel who is set against using MRI scanners as lie detectors against criminals/potential terrorists yet would not condemn torture by religious groups if said torture was explicitly permitted by their religious texts.  This, I think, is an example of where privileged ideas can lead you. The idea that religious ideas should not be criticized because they are held to be sacred can be used to let some fairly horrific things pass.

The whole thing is worth a watch though. Or a listen to. Harris has taken a lot of flack over the past few months since he put forward the view that science can say something about morality. I don't see how the objections he has faced detract from his central point. He doesn't claim to have all the answers. Or even to know about how to go about solving certain problems with measuring well being. The analogy that he touches on later in the piece which I think is apt is economics. It's a complex system, we down know how it works, we're only just now beginning to get the tools to be able to deal with some of the complexity involved and it'll be while yet before we can treat economics in a scientific manner. What I've taken from every thing I've read from Harris or heard in his talks is that we shouldn't automatically assume that science can't know anything about morality. It would put the study of morality about where the study of economics was 50 or so years ago, but it's not necessarily an impenetrable topic.

Anyway, go watch it.

Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Every so often, I steel myself and read a Garth George column. Not, you understand, because I think he is remotely sane, but because I think it's good to know what you're up against and I regard Garth's as a good baseline marker when looking for some good 'ol fashin non-reality based "in my day" talk. I find a lot of what he says to be either staggeringly ignorant or generally disgusting. Or sometimes both.

Anyway, today's column wasn't that unpleasant, comparatively speaking. He is bemoaning the days of when our governments were elected using first past the post and we had none of that icky dealing with smaller parties business. Thankfully, even if ditch MMP, the chances of going back to FPP is minimal. It's annoying though, that all the conversation in the media is only about the possibility of getting rid of MMP instead of fixing it. I find the idea of a parliament that reflects the make up of society to be a lot easier to live with that one made up of two parties or with a tiny ineffective token gesture towards proportionality (STV). I really can't see STV leading to anything other than a parliament dominated by the two big parties who could ignore the minority parties at will. The point of having minority parties is that they command the loyalty of a significant minority of our population.

Significant minority. That's where I see the problem being for our implementation of MMP. The best fix that I can see is to get rid of the tag along clause in our current system. Currently a party gets representation in parliament, proportional to the number of votes they get if they get 5 percent of the party vote or if they win an electorate seat. This second part is what is allowing the very small parties to exert the undue influence that everyone bemoans. Change it that if a small party wins an electorate, they still don't get to bring in any extra MP's unless they get over 5 percent of the vote. That way you don't end up with the idiotic result we got last time where NZ First got 4.5% and no seats in parliament while ACT got something like 2.5% and ended up with 5 seats. And it basically reduces the small minority parties to what they are single voices, while leaving significant minority parties to have the say that they are due.

As for Garth's kvetching about MP's coming back into parliament on the lists after not winning an electorate seat - that's just plain ignorance. Sure, maybe the electorate didn't want them, but enough people nationally did. It's the same with the idiotic idea that the party with the most votes should automatically get to form the next government, even if they don't have a majority. If two parties, neither of which have the greatest number of votes, but  together represent more than 50% of the population, form a coalition then it means the representatives commanding the mandate of the majority of the population will be the ones forming the government.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I wrote a post on privileged ideas being a bad thing last week. I'm not entirely happy with it on the basis that it sounds like a declaration that privileged ideas are bad rather than an argument against them. So this is an attempt to expand on the idea, forgive me if I mangle it.

I think one of the problems with the previous post, is that it is somewhat muddled. The initial post was sparked by proponents of an idea labelling criticism of their idea as infringing on their right to speak. Either they didn't think about their response to criticism or that they assumed their freedom to speak privileges their ideas. I am more inclined to the view that people don't think their way through what they are saying. This off the cuff response to criticism gives rise to the same problem as assuming ones ideas are privileged though. They may not have thought about it, but in attempting to make any criticism of their idea an infringement on their rights, then they are construing an attack on their idea as a personal attack on themselves rather than a criticism of their idea. This effectively an endorsement of their idea in public while privileging it, not allowing it to be subject to criticism.

An idea, when it is put forward in public, should become subject to criticism. Criticism, analysis and investigation allow an idea to be compared to the real world, to be refined until it reflects the world. The world I am referring to is not just the physical world, it also partly constituted by world of human interaction or the state of affairs of the part of humanity that the idea is concerned with. We each wander through the physical world with our own view of how the world works. Where those views intersect, we have human interactions and for an idea to be useful it must be able to cope with those interactions. 
So in the case of the previous post, where the idea was the vaccinations are bad. The Anti-vax people put forward their idea and others critique it and oppose it. In the incredibly unlikely event that the anti-vaxers idea had some merit, the only rational way that the general population can have any confidence in it is if it can stand up to any opposition that cares to put itself forward. As criticisms of an idea are brought to bear, the idea either accepted, modified or is discarded as it is found wanting. To characterize opposition as an attack on the anti-vaxers ability to speak freely is not only false, but it attempts to deflect criticism of their thesis, privileging it.

The logical conclusion of this is that if ideas are privileged by their proponents, brought to the world and endorsed without allowing the world to oppose, investigate or analyse it, then it becomes easier to have ideas in the public sphere that are wrong or even harmful. Worse, it demonstrates incredible arrogance on the part of the people/person attempting to privilege an idea. And it is arrogance. It is telling the world that their idea is special and takes priority over the real world, it may be unintended, but it's still there. And arrogance is one of the least helpful traits in sorting that which is useful from that which is harmful. The most useful trait in that search is humility, the ability to admit that you might be wrong.