Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dumb and dumber

This week, Q&A plunged to an all time low in the arena of ideas. 5 non-teachers arguing the merits of education and baring their ignorance without a moment of self-doubt or hesitation. As Australia falls further and further behind in most areas of education and intellectual endeavour, the conservatives see a new opportunity to play politics with people's lives and futures.

According to Pyne, Minister for Whining and Shallow Self-Deprecation, the most significant challenges in Education are the supposed insidious influences of the communists. In a classic Cold War 'reds under  the bed' moment, Pyne opined that someone who has a past in which they belong to a political party cannot, despite their expertise in the field, generate a worthwhile curriculum in History.

Apart from this being a tired re-run of the History wars, it is staggeringly stupid logic. By this line of argument, Pyne must certainly be incapable of his job as Education Minister as a direct result of being a member of the Liberal Party. Thence, sack everybody who holds any position concurrent with party membership or with a history of party membership because this precludes them from doing their job.

As a History teacher, I would challenge Pyne to actually find one instance of something recognisably left or communist in the national History curriculum. Could it be that study of the Khmer Empire as an OPTIONAL in-depth study in Year 8? After all, they became communists, didn't they? Or perhaps it's the study of the Catholic Church in the Medieval Period of European history? Everybody knows Catholics are closet commies.

But just as insidious, in Pyne's breath-takingly moronic evaluation of the National Curriculum, is these nasty cross-curricular priorities. In common language, these are things you incorporate in every discipline because they have general applicability. Dangerous, left leaning considerations such as, wait for it, Literacy.

I know you are shocked to discover that teachers would want literate students and for a moment would step outside the subject area in which they teach (subject areas that  are convenient categories anyway and generally not reflected past Year 10). Clearly, there is an international conspiracy of Literacy advocates seeking to destroy the family unit, social fabric, Christian homes and our freedom.
Amongst these cross-curricular studies are ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) and Numeracy. Most teachers extend these to include good manners, punctuality, organisation, personal hygiene, self-control ... Now you see why Pyne is so alarmed. How many international conspiracies can one sustain (pardon me, swear word, swear word) an opposition to?

Of course, the most alarming of these cross-curricular priorities is the dreaded "themes". Teachers have "themed" learning experiences for the past 100 years, but now we must face what we all dreaded - national themes. Now I'm supposing that, should the national themes have been sheep, John Howard's eyebrows and rorting travel allowances, Pyne might have simply missed them completely. But we have those disastrous themes - Indigenous perspectives, Sustainability, Australia's place in Asia.

Of course, you can see how negative such themes will be. Here I am, trying to get the kiddies to get their 6 times tables  and I have to stop and talk about Aborigines for 9 minutes, Greenies for 6 and the Chinese for 8 minutes. Good gracious me, when do they ever do Maths? Clearly, it wasn't like that in the old days when everybody knew their times tables - you know that skill they use to ... to ... well, surely it has a use, don't you worry about that.

Judith Sloan is an economist. She's meant to say intelligent things. She wonders about how these themes work in Mathematics.

Here, Judith, let me, like a good teacher, step you through it, slowly, one concept at a time. There'll be a test later, and your results will be published internationally and you will be ranked by Ignorance Quota against all the Ignoramuses of History. Are you sitting up straight? Like all good teachers, I hope you do well, but, you know, I have an opinion about that that I keep to myself.

First, it is actually entirely impossible to teach anything with referring to something not directly relevant to the subject area. Every Maths (yes, that's short for Mathematics) text book uses multiple examples of 'real life' scenarios as examples in which Maths can be applied. Can we possibly explain how references to ice-creams can possibly have any bearing on the Mathematics of Finance? Put your hand up. Yes, Judith, that's correct. People buy ice-creams with money. Good girl.

Some of the best teachers go so much further. They do radical (yes, the reds again) things like going down to the tuckshop and getting the kids to look at the price of all the items sold, compiling a list, asking how many items of each kind are sold ... Now, Christopher. Can you please tell the class whether using that Tuckshop theme (sorry to use that expletive Tuckshop - I know, quite unacceptable in public) is responsible for declining church attendances in Western countries? Yes, it is. My, you are coming on, young Mr Pyne. I think a call to your folks is in order.

Of course, those independent minded teachers have always used themes to help them out in teaching things. Usually they look around for aspects of their charges' lives and try to contrive a theme which will engage - woops, sorry for the Edspeak - I meant, "make the kids sit still and be brainy". But now some fagotty, left-wing, tree-hugging, evolution-believing Islamist has thought national themes should be employed as containers for learning experiences. And its driving us all to the brink of disaster.

Take indigenous perspectives. Now we know how wonderfully our country has valued Indigenous perspectives - we're the nation of Myall Creek, Stolen Generation and intervention. But, like the saying goes, in the presence of Germans, "don't mention zee war". In the presence of Australians, don't for God's sake, mention indigenous history. Certainly don't let it infiltrate proper study.

You and I both know that in our Tuckshop theme, comparing the nutritional content of the food (that theme in which we, radically, decided to incorporate Science and Health - you will immediately recognise what a disaster that is - you might persuade children to eat well, thus avoiding obesity, and if we don't have obesity, how can we possible sound alarm bells at a convenient political moment?) with those of say a traditional Aboriginal diet or a Malaysian child will, almost entirely, rot the brain of a good Aussie kid to the point of oblivion.

See, I'm one of those disgusting communist child-hating types who has actually used the poetry of Paul Kelly ("From Little Things Big Things Grow") and Archie Roach ("Took the Children Away) to study poetry because they have wonderful allusions, literary devices, and .. the kids love singing them. Perish the thought that the kids should interrupt their spelling to sing.

In the theme of Sustainability, our Tuckshop theme finds real legs. Let's pull all the rubbish out of the rubbish bins, wearing gloves for hygiene and teaching hand washing as a barrier to preventable diseases, compile the rubbish according to manufacturing process or material, measure its weight, volume and compressibility, calculate the proportions of recyclable material, benign material and environmentally dangerous material and construct a graph ...

Wait one moment, children. Please stand back. Yes, Christopher and Judith have fainted. Put your gloves back on because we may need to resuscitate them. Yes, we actually did Mathematics in a relevant, engaging way within the theme of Sustainability. Who would have dreamed of it. A teacher actually able to manipulate a theme for multiple learning purposes!

But, I digress into rationality. I, like you, recognise that Education is not the issue here. This is shameless political positioning for re-election - at its most sordid. And the rest of the panel could not muster an objection - well, Wendy had a go, but she was well out of her depth.

As we wander aimlessly into the future, public dialogue on important issues becomes progressively two-dimensional. As the Titanic lurches, our conservative leaders will swear that the unsinkable economy of good hardworking folk is the antidote to the iceberg of foreign boat invaders, CO2 haters and Gollum types driven by Gina envy.

I, for one, do not want a society for my kids where the importance of Asian country as our future markets is made apparent, where valuing everybody's heritage is normal and trying to live within our environmental means is the standard ethos. No, join me as I sing, "Australians all let us rejoice for we are baaa  baaaaaa"

Friday, July 5, 2013

The real revolutions

I was prompted by an article on Jaron Lanier's book, Who Owns the Future, to think about IT and its impact on society and the world. I admit to being underwhelmed by Lanier's hypothesis, via Timberg, that the future landscape of employment (or unemployment) will be drastically altered by the Internet. Its a bit like saying the sun will rise tomorrow - not particularly insightful and certainly anything but "visionary".

Lanier might be an IT boffin but he's possibly woefully ignorant of history. What he ought to be noting is how pathetically fad driven modern IT really is and how glacial its progress has been. What he really should be talking about is the real revolutions in history that have been transformational along so many dimensions, but are invisible today amongst the hype upon überhype from the IT industry.
Let's take one development as an example. Touch technology is so smart that a whole new technology - text prediction - had to be co-developed even to get it off the ground. Predictive text technology has been around for decades, but it has been hampered in being marketed by poor processing power. Its moment has come just in time to prevent a billion people ceremoniously smashing their 'smart' phones.
Touch screens are so entirely unintuitive because they require us to move our bodies in ways never intended in order to achieve a relatively simple outcome - text entry. Not only is input serial, it requires the use of a digit evolved to work opposing the thumb. It is almost entirely useless at fine manipulation. Too bad that even the average two finger typist like me can spew text onto a screen at about 5 times the pace of the average text entry by the most fluent in the art. Let's not even mention RSI.

The bottom line is that it's really stupid technology, saved by text prediction technology. A revolution it isn't; a revolution it will never be. It too will pass, like some ugly edition of Windows 2000, into historical oblivion.

It follows one of the most dramatic failures of human machine interactions - WIMPS. Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer. I have watched as a trench was dug on my place by a guy manipulating 3 levers on a back hoe. Even at a distance of 2 metres, he could carved the earth with millimetre precision. I have witnessed an interesting son of a Sri Lankan immigrant on a farm in western Queensland drop a kangaroo at full hop, while riding a motorbike at 25km over a dusty track, with a revolver, at 20 metres. I have heard Bobby McFerran mould his voice to sound like a violin; and watched in awe as pianists manipulated 10 digits with frightening speed to execute unbelievable manual gymnastics.

The fact is, with practice, humans are capable of genuinely breathtaking feats of skill. Inevitably it is the eye and the hand that conspire in this magic, tuned by a million years of genetic selection. Why did we ever imagine that a single digit was going to match a highly skilled set of fingers? What profound blindness led us to think that there was a productive edge to this?
The truth is, there isn't. IT is so pathetically underdeveloped that we should wonder why we even nod in recognition. Why would anyone, ever, repeat the "IT revolution" mantra?

Digital communication began about 4 million years ago when hominids walked upright and released their fore-limbs from transport duty, making them available, relatively unimportantly, to manipulate tools and most importantly to communicate. Gesture and body language was so refined that it persisted across species. Where facial movement and eye contact work with intimate communication, gesture has an advantage of being unambiguous over some distance. It is fast, clear, reflexive and effortless.
That gesture-mediated user interfaces were not the first development of IT is a travesty of history. The spectacular dead ends which humans have pursued are witness to our incredible resource richness in that we can waste valuable energy of worthless  or futile pursuits.
Digital communications outside of gesture began in 1792 with semaphore, not the first codification of text into a transmission mechanism, along with mark-up language and transmission protocols, but one that had international recognition and implementation and a degree of standardisation. It was rapidly followed by electrically mediated telegraphy in 1837 and was already widely used by the beginning of the Civil War in America. In a single generation, the efficiency of information transmission of text had increased 1000 fold. So successful was this system that it persisted for a century, changing only in the media of transmission - to radio.
Telephony, often heralded as a step forward, actually created more problems that it solved. It can be celebrated as our first massive regressive step. First, standardised communications protocols were almost entirely abandoned in favour of the confusion of conversation. Not only did telephony lack the support of paralinguistic elements critical to proper conversation, it also introduced institutionalised rudeness, where your attention to one person could be interrupted by another, regardless of the triviality of the business of the interrupter.
Furthermore, conversation relies entirely on spoken language which is, by its very nature, almost entirely undisciplined. After centuries of making writing less and less vulnerable to confusion by standardising spelling, syntax and register, telephony chose the least means of passing on information. Like its descendant predictive text, analogue communications technologies had to be greatly refined to faithfully carry a message such that a comment on your Auntie May's garden wasn't mistaken for "Aren't the Melroses gorging themselves".  
Moreover, telephony reduced the effective distance of transmission by a factor of 100 because entirely unimportant elements of speech, akin to frilly fonts on websites, had to be accommodated, resulting in the integrity of digital communication being entirely compromised.  In the competition of communication media, the faddish telephony overcame the practical telegraphy and progress was stymied for a century. Inanity became institutionalised. No matter how entirely disinterested you were in someone's life, it became rude not to ring them. Not calling a girl became equivalent to saying she was ugly.
The supposed revolution given to us by Bernes-Lee, heralded as some kind of hero, was likewise a giant step backwards. In HTML, entirely fatuous formatting trivia was encoded around real information and in HTTP, an entirely clunky protocol of data transfer was overlaid onto packet data transfer protocols that were already established and highly efficient. Hypertext has since proved steadfastly unintuitive since it almost entirely ignores the underlying structure of information, especially visual information.
Fortunately, back-end SQL (Structured Query Language) has saved both HTML and HTTP from themselves, as has XML, developed under pressure from frustrated information managers who found HTML to be just so much frippery. We never needed HTML when we already had portable document formats and we have yet to see a proper information linking technology.
Why isn't every link on the web fundamentally tied to every other piece of information that is semantically equivalent by the structure of the mark-up language? What possible use is a mark-up language that has to advertise that it is making a link, then define the link as data and then provide the data? Why do we not have a universal tag for "PersonName", the most universally applied information? The 'WWW revolution' was simply a massive fashion show.
We can add to this litany of disasters a whole raft of technologies that have been dramatically regressive. We could talk to people on the moon with wireless in the 1960, but chose telephony, possibly the most crippled technology of the time, on which to build the WWW. Almost half a century later, we re-discovered wireless, but only after telcos had fleeced us of a massive fortune to try and make a copper network viable.
So what technologies have really been revolutionary?
Consider mining in the 16th century. A good miner could recover about 10 kilograms of ore from a rocky seam in a day. This might render as little as 10 grams and rarely more than 1 kilogram of useful metal, but only after extensive processing that was energy intensive. The use of explosives in mining, which changed mining within a single decade, increased the output by a factor of up to 1 million but generally as high as 10000 times the output.
Hidden in that statistic is a significant advancement that was revolutionary. Explosives were so successful in uncovering ore that mining could be restricted to good weather. Before the 1600s, mining would carry on through winter and murky rainy weather, often resulting in the death of miners by gradual exposure.
In contrast to the WWW, the printing press was revolutionary. Not only did it increase the speed of 'printing' by a million fold, it forced communication to adopt highly regulated forms and structures which are still vital in the 'lol' generation world. It released the pent up social disquiet of the middle class and allowed universal access to information (attributed, falsely, to the WWW).
Revolutionary, also, was the recognition by physicists that atoms were only notionally equivalent to mini solar systems and that electrons 'grouped' themselves into quanta and where located probabilistically, rather than geographically. This led to so many radical reconsiderations of how matter and energy were related and 'operated' and allowed the development of laser technologies, without which most of the IT developments would simply not have happened, regardless of clever programming.
Other revolutions, such as vaccination and use of penicillin are largely forgotten, even denied.
But these kinds of revolution are rare, because most developments in technology are incremental and many do not progress the mission that they serve. Which brings me to consider the next incremental step.
A million years after gesture became commonplace, user machine interfaces are set to become gesture mediated. Not only is gesture easy to map and generally unambiguous, it frees technology of the requirement to touch or tap or wave a stupid little piece of plastic to move a pointer.
This heralds a swath of technologies. Foldable screens will not require touch capability and will develop rapidly. Virtual keyboards will hover in space in front of you and allow a return, just in the nick of time, to high speed, almost parallel, data input. 'Mouse' motions will return to being intuitive, rather than locked into 2 dimensions.
Windows will be meaningless, because the scope of attention will depend on the angle the lens of the camera is capable of, not the resolution and size of a screen. Eye movement control will die a natural death because eye movement is so immensely difficult to control (or even be conscious of) and devices will be free to interpret your movements even without any invitation (such as starting up when you sit down to work or switching off when you are clearly engaging in something else).

We are well overdue for a revolution. This one is in rejecting the idiocy of our immediate past and embracing a world which evolution gave us a couple of species ago.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

To market, to market?

An off-the-cuff remark by Malcolm Turnbill last week raised my ire. In talking about the NBN, Turnbill characterised, or rather caricatured the government's model of the NBN as 'Soviet' in its conception. This flourish of political polemic will work with many loyal Liberals but will also have some penetration in the wider community.

Of course, the element of truth is not missing, otherwise Malcolm can be laughed out of town. The NBN will be a government monopoly; not because of an ideological position but through the sheer practical difficulty of implementing competition in communications infrastructure in Australia.
Put simply, Australia lacks the density of population to make duplication, even in suburban areas, a workable option. Therefore, competition is impossible. Did Malcolm know this? Undoubtedly. Does he actually believe there will be competition? No.

What he actually hopes is that something resembling competition will fall out of the FTTN model so he can keep the frothing-at-the-mouth ideologues at bay. Perhaps someone will challenge Telstra's stranglehold on Australia's copper by offering cheap fibre. Where's the queue for those companies? He also knows that technology will change sufficiently in the next 5 years that the price for the final leg will be lower; so politically, why make your option sound more expensive by using today's costs?

We are not surprised that a major project should be a political football. Unfortunately, only when a country digs deep and acts boldly do nation-changing events occur. And they are not driven by markets. What we can safely say is, although markets deliver efficiency, they do not deliver inspiration.

Let us take two examples.

First, let us look back at a project that by today's standards would be considered mind boggling - the transcontinental railway in the US. Even if we took a conservative index of 2%, in today's money, what the US government offered would be in the 10s of billions of dollars. The real value is probably closer to half a trillion dollars. For one railway. Not a communications network to every city and town in the country.

How did it get paid for? No, not taxpayers money directly, but government bonds. Loan us the billions and we will reward you with 6% interest. Where's the market? In the buying and selling of bonds. Does the market identify the need, have the bold vision or work out how it will be done? No. But without a bond market, giving the government your money doesn't seem half as attractive.

The transcontinental railway was not just a means of joining the economic powerhouse of California to the East Coast industrialists. It was also a social program to make sure unemployed soldiers of the Civil War did not languish in poor houses. In every way, it was a win-win; except if you happened to be a labourer who died as a result of avoidable hazards of building the railway.

Regardless of which of the economic orthodoxies takes your fancy, these kinds of projects are very common in modern history and very compelling in their logic. They are not exactly rocket science. But the Soviet experience has made a convenient whipping boy of all state enterprise. Big government projects = big government spending = big government control.

But all government projects are not equal in the manner in which they are conducted. What made the Soviet model dysfunctional was not its ownership or payment by the government, but the dead hand of centralised management of the whole economy, not just a project. China now proves that state control and ownership are not antagonistic to free enterprise and market capitalism.

But another example looms to illustrate just how poor markets are at achieving anything except the best deal for the shareholder.

The price of carbon has collapsed in Europe. There are a multitude of factors that impact this price but the major factors are these:

The price of energy has collapsed. The Woodside decision is premised in the poor returns on gas, regardless of the health of China's growth. The boom in US shale oil prospects means energy is going to be cheap. Capping carbon will be increasingly difficult and investors know it.

The signals that the market has given to those who were likely to go green has already worked - too well. Those companies who might have needed carbon credits are now green or carbon neutral, so the value of credits has dropped through lack of demand.

Lastly, large energy users are realising that direct investment in energy sources that don't fluctuate in price - that is, renewables - beats being a polluter and paying for carbon use.

Unfortunately, a carbon tax cannot succeed unless the restriction on carbon pollution continues to close. It is the government setting strong targets and beginning large projects that sets the market going. Requiring zero emissions by 2020 might hold the price up. Investing a trillion dollars in renewables might do the same. Nothing like a 'piece of the action' to light up a capitalists eyes.

Nothing like a bold plan from the government to galvanise people to buy bonds. The government needs to offer a prize of a 40 billion dollar contract, paid for in government bonds, to the company who can produce 0 emissions energy at the same price as the cheapest oil or coal and billion dollar contract, paid for in government bonds, to the company who can produce 0 emissions energy at the same price as the cheapest oil or coal and then stand back and wait.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gapfilla God

A conversation about a moving God
JohnSo you believe in God?
MaryYes. Of course. Can't you see him all around, in the birds and trees. Isn't it wonderful?
JohnQuite wonderful. So God is in all the natural things around, even the ground. How do I tell him apart from the natural world? Sounds like you mean God is the wonder you feel when you observe that natural world.
MaryNo, no silly. God isn't the trees and bees. He's in them but isn't them.
JohnRather confusing really. So if I keep investigating the universe by looking further and further inside, I will come to God. We haven't got there yet. So, in the mean time, how can you be certain he is there?
MaryOf course, he's not in there in a sense that science can find. He's in there sustaining the universe, beyond the reach of science.
JohnAh, a kind of force behind everything. Still, we've found them before. Must be a matter of time before we find him. Meanwhile, how can you be certain?
MaryNo. You've missed the point. You won't find him, because he's outside the natural universe. We can't find him with science.
JohnOh, I see. An unknowable God outside what we know and can know. Makes it rather hard for you to know he's there. If he's unknowable, he might be anything, like a large bird or a fart from a monkey.
MaryNow you're just being silly. He's not either. He's God - unknowable and beyond the universe.
JohnStill, you speak so confidently. As if you do know. Rather a contradiction, don't you think?
MaryNot at all. God has revealed himself to me.
MaryWell, he wrote a book called the Bible. It tells me all about God.
JohnNot bad for an unknowable God. How did you know it was God writing?
MaryOf course it was. It says so in the book.
JohnBut it might have been a clever person masquerading as God.
MaryIt wasn't. It is inspired writing. No person could write that.
JohnHow was it inspired?
MaryWell. It talks all about where the world comes from, who were the first people and their descendants and the wars and the travels.
JohnThat's inspired? Sounds like most history books and myths written by people throughout the ages.
MaryNo, God wrote it. In it he claims he is God.
JohnAre you sure? Don't humans claim he is God, like you are doing.
MaryBut I know its God.
MaryGod revealed himself to me.
JohnOK. What was that like?
MaryI had a moment of great inspiration. God said to me "I am here"
JohnWow. That must have been exciting. How did you know it was God?
MaryHe spoke to me.
JohnBut what if it wasn't God? What if were a trick or something in your head?
MaryOf course I wasn't. It was God.
JohnWhat did he sound like?
MaryHe didn't sound like anything. I just knew it was him.
JohnSo you just recognised him?
JohnSo, you must have seen him before.
MaryYes, all around me in creation. In the birds and the trees.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Burning witches

Recently, my brother-in-law 'gleefully' posted this apparent rationale for believing in God.

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism by Austin Hughes.

I was less than impressed and, in my Facebook response, a little immoderate in my language. This is my simplified reply:

Reason has no regard for categories such as scientism. It rejects anything unreasonable. Reason requires no falsifiability. It is reasonable to accept as fact that I am the father of my children, given all available evidence.

Maths does not require falsifiability, as it is propositional by nature. It does not poll real circles to arrive at a relationship of radius to circumference (Tau) - it simply proposes an ideal circle, then applies a proof to that. This is then overlaid onto the material universe and found to be profoundly useful. Is Maths wicked 'scientism' because it has explanatory power and utility?

Forensic science begins with an outcome and verifies the likelihood of a set of beginning states and events producing this outcome. Historical discovery does the same. 'Fact' in these studies is necessarily provisional and makes claims only in a limited way. I don't think we ought to load sets of people in aeroplanes and crash them in order to establish the cause of the crash. That would be unethical, without even having to ask a scientist or a sciencismist.

That sort of science IS unethical and also stupid, precisely because we already know the outcome and therefore prediction is unnecessary. But you have to be bold to tell those folk doing the investigation that they are just products of that rampant fad 'scientism'.

Ethics should not be bridled by scientific experimentation but it would be stupid to ignore its contribution. Ethics without science can simply tell me an alcoholic is a bad person. Ethics with religion can tell me an alcoholic is a bad person because he sins. Ethics with science can tell me an alcoholic has a mechanism that I share and thence I can boldly claim "there, but for the grace of god, go I" (ie. true grounds for forgiveness). Woops, guess the professor didn't want his shallow evaluation of Harris busted.

Name-calling is boring. Hughes should stick to science, which, on the evidence, he is brilliant at. He should leave reason, ethics and discourse to the rest of us, because he is bad at it. Did he not talk about the "typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion." but somehow manages to critique the work of Hawking, the physicist? Mmm, that seems a little inconsistent.

Facts help as well. No falsifiability required, but 'memes' were a tiny element of Dawkins' work, mainly referring to work others had done. Meanwhile, he devoted several books and a three part series to debunking superstition via reason. Forgot to notice that part of Dawkins' work? Woops, do we see spin in the good professors critique? He's not very good at it if a quick Google search can prove otherwise (and expose his naked arse); maybe he should stick to science.

Oh, and he is oft quoted by the ID people. Where did he mention them as the peddlers of superstition that they are? I guess he couldn't bring himself to a balanced assessment of scientism. Still a good atheist bashing has the same delightful smell as a witch-burning.

Dear, dear. Rather a large member exposed when his pants are so low! Now, there's a bit of hard science that could be done, Austy. Do we really go blind with too much masturbation? How would you do that science?

The folly of (stupid) scientists.

How stupid of him to trust the plumber when he said the toilet was fixed. No, Austin. Get down and dirty and lets find out if it is fixed using hard science. Don't go believing that 'cold reading' plumber who just said something to please your superstition that the toilet worked. No, no. Don't apply reason or experience or probability or even pragmatism. Only 'hard science' will do!

Abandon logic all who enter this argument

Some reject Sam Harris's ideas because he is an atheist and they are single-minded theists. Some even consider his ideas as representative of 'pop science' (Hughes:  The Folly of Scientism, http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism).  Some simply question whether, on occasions, in pursuit of a point, Sam Harris simply abandons logic.

As Sam admits, "I own several guns and train with them regularly." Nothing is quite so compelling in holding an opinion than personal investment in one side of the argument. In what appears superficially to be a well thought and balanced response to the events of Newtown, Sam writes what turns out to be one of his most poorly argued pieces yet - but one so entirely predictable, given he lives in the US.

Just to paint a quick picture of some of the ridiculous arguments, let us look at Sam's ' self-defense arguments in aggregate. "Had an armed guard been at the school, this could have allowed for a defensive response." Although this quote is taken out of context, it does faithfully represent Sam's notion that being armed in self-defense provides an advantage if your weapon and training is greater than your opponent's.

It is a narrow and ultimately stupid argument, even if initially emotionally compelling. An average Year 5 class, given 10 minutes, could come up with arguments that would knock it out of the water.
First, the principle of "he who shoots first, wins." Regardless of Sam's investment in his own protection, quite understandable though irrational, if I hold a shot gun even at a reasonable distance and I shoot first, I have a very good chance of rendering him defenseless because he is either dead or in pain or blind.

Second, the principle of "he who has least to lose is the most dangerous". If I am a disgruntled student of a school, confronted by an armed guard who will almost certainly kill me before I can wreak havoc, my best strategy is to play on a vulnerability that all good people have - the protection of others. As I walk into the school with my concealed handgun, I target the most innocent of children and hold a gun to their head. Despite the officer's superior training, more accurate or effective weapon, if I have nothing to lose (I'm going to shoot myself in my drug addled brain anyway) and I know he will respond properly by laying down his weapon, I win.

Third, the principle of "three vs one wins".  Confronted by 3 armed intruders in a home invasion, unless Sam conveniently employs 2 other armed guards 24/7, then even if he is good enough to take out 2 before he is shot, he is still dead.

Fourth, the principle of "if you can't see me, you can't shoot me".  In a home invasion, a heat triggered siren, flashing searingly bright and blinding lights and a pack of enraged dogs trumps the best weapon because of the confusion of the intruder. Why put yourself in harms way?

To follow Sam's logic to its logical extreme, if we really want security at our home, we will of course deploy land mines around our house. After all, the concern expressed by my neighbours will only prove how un-American they are. And our children would go to school in a tank and be educated in bunkers.

But this is only one posture that Sam adopts in this debate that is premised in shabby logic. Consider the argument from "the context of other risks".  Certainly, the drama of a Newtown not only elicits specious claims from both sides, (as well as dumb blogs), claims that ignore the simple fact that we are surrounded by risks and we accept many activities more risky.

But risk is more nuanced that simple quantitative comparisons. If you want a really dumb comparison of risk numbers, compare those who die from gun massacres to those who die of old age in hospital. Clearly living beyond 70 should be avoided at all costs because of the very real risk of dying abruptly. So many more people die of old age than guns - can't we just understand the relativities? 
Risk falls into two general categories - those we choose and those we don't. We choose to travel in speed and comfort along roads where other vehicles hurtle towards us at 200km/h (relative). We choose to urinate in public toilets. These are risks that we endure for convenience and comfort sake. Broadly, we call them lifestyle.

Other risks, like home invasions and school shootings , don't have a choice component. The parents of a six year old probably doesn't send their child to school contemplating the risk of a shooting (although they might choose to live in the US, which makes this incredibly more likely). The risk of their child falling from the monkey bars, slipping on concrete or stepping under a vehicle seem like the risks that are actively embraced for the convenience of having a child at school.

Of course, risks that are chosen are usually those which are analysed, legislated upon and which simple protocols and procedures can all but remove. Teaching kids hand washing procedures minimises risk of contagious diseases, supervision on monkey bars and protocols that constrains the sizes of children who play together usually bring risks to an 'acceptable' level. Creating drop-off zones and properly structuring spaces and times for children to be in the vicinity of traffic usually stops these kinds of accidents.

Comparing (and thus confounding) risks is a fairly worthless activity because each kind of risk requires a proper assessment, not the kind of 'folksy' analysis that Sam brings to bear. We can and should examine the risk of guns pretty much in isolation if we claim any kind of care for their victims, just as we examine in great detail each aircraft crash, even though we know, without equivocation, that travelling by plane is the safest form of transport in comparative terms and way safer than extreme sports.

The only riddle I can extract from Sam's piece is his inexplicable lapse into pop logic. Why is knowledge of guns even remotely relevant to the discussion of gun control? I really do not have to be aware of a vehicle's engine size or top speed in order to form an opinion on traffic control. And even with such knowledge of guns, I may easily fall on the side of gun control. Thus, of itself, relative knowledge or ignorance of guns doesn't qualify one to enter the debate, nor negate the worth of what one might say even from the point of ignorance. This is a classic failure in Sam's reasoning  that a class in Logic might solve - Fallacy #7.

Once upon a time, when I lived out west in Queensland, Australia, I went roo shooting. Everybody went shooting. I had a high powered rifle which was lethal to a kilometre. My best shot was a monster red kangaroo at 800 metres. I could barely see it through my scope. But I was a very average shot.

The property on which I went shooting was owned by a Sri-Lankan family. The youngest member of this family could make a head shot on a moving kangaroo with a (legal) revolver with his left hand while riding a motorbike at speed. It was a wonder to behold. I guess, if you have done this a thousand times, it is habitual. No-one needs to think a highly trained autonomic nervous system is not capable of breath-taking accuracy.

I reloaded my own cartridges to make them more powerful than standard over-the-counter cartridges. The skins of the kangaroos I shot were tanned and became good mats (kangaroos skin has it all over bovine hides for leatherwork) and the meat was loaded into the fridge as almost-free dog meat for the next x months. In a time when the zeitgeist says that shooting kangaroos is unacceptable, I am a dissenter.

When I moved to the rural area in the quiet valley in which I now live, one single shot with my rifle convinced me that it was not acceptable to shoot in this valley with this weapon. I simply had no way of telling where the projectile would end up, especially in ricochet. There are simple too many houses, people, horses, dogs and cows around in the thick vegetation to make it responsible to own this weapon any more.

I traded this weapon for a pump-action shotgun. In my mind, I wanted a second go at the wild dogs that roamed the area in which I live and I didn't want to miss, regardless of the condition of the wounded animal. In fact, I wanted to make sure I didn't wound a wild dog and not be able to kill it. That seemed inhumane.

As I stood in the gun shop, the attendant beside me was dealing with a man who was boasting of a cache (he mentioned a shipping container) of semi-automatic weapons he was selling. Since that was illegal, the attendant was, predictably, nervous. This convinced me that no place on earth is immune from nut-jobs who will happily break the law in relation to guns.

Later, in the gun buy-back that should prove to the world that gun control is both possible and practical, I handed in my gun and made a tidy profit on my original purchase. The wild dogs have been poisoned and have largely disappeared, I have educated my children to run away from snakes and I still battle with goannas who steal eggs. I could, if I pleased, legally purchase a shotgun and control "vermin".  But I haven't, because, in the end, the dangers of a gun outweigh the benefits.

On the surface, my experience would seem to serve Sam's arguments. The responsible citizen and the dangerous nut-job. Gun control only limits the responsible citizen. But, of course, that is bullshit. Responsible citizens limit themselves. Laws empower police and magistrates to make the balance of power marginally in the hands of the state. No-one even pretends that a determined killer will not kill. Gun laws are not about certainty but about probability. The equations are surprisingly simple. Access to guns increases the chances of them being used.  The use of guns is more likely to cause death than other means. If it proves nothing else, Newtown shows how legally held guns can be put to horrific use through no other mechanism than access.

Regardless of the nuances of context, gun type, relative power, gun training and state of mind, the common element of school shootings in Norway, German and the US is access to guns. The common element to homicides world wide is access to guns. You don't introduce gun laws to prevent homicide, you introduce them to reduce them, considering  each life saved worth the inconvenience.

The most insidious bit of spin that the gun lobby has produced and to which Sam subscribes is that gun controls do little except restrict the freedoms of law abiding citizens. In Australia, the work of Baker and McPhedran is toted by the gun lobby as proof that the gun buy-back in Australia, where 600 000 guns were recovered from a population of about 18 million (making it possible that at least 1:30 guns in the US, or 10 000 000 weapons, could be recovered), was ineffective in changing homicide rates where guns were used.  Baker and McPhedran's work is both academic and mischievous.

They are careful to fully disclose their association with gun groups, as if that then necessarily means their arguments will be without bias. While they are happy to tout ABS figures to support their flawed conclusions, they make quite a case for these statistics being  suspect in relation to suicide. It seems they like the idea of having their cake and eating it too.

Their conclusion is superficially credible. The trend in both homicides and homicides where guns were used, derived from the graph shown on page 3 of this document, "clearly indicates" a downwards trend prior to the 1996 buy-back in gun-related homicides. This, they conclude, shows that the sharp drop after 1996 can just as easily to attributed to a general trend as to the buy-back.  They somehow manage to ignore the Victorian gun law reform of 1988; but then, don't let fact get in the way of the conclusion you wish to make.

Before I address this 'finding', let us first consider the notion of trends. Imagine you are a ship builder from early last century. As a result of better communication and detection systems, rates of collisions ships on icebergs has trended downwards for about 2 decades. As it is clear that communication and detection is the key, do you now decide that building your Titanic without separate flotation chambers is worthless?

Since a failure of detection and communication was at the core of the sinking of the Titanic, such thinking would be foolhardy. Clearly, downward trends do not provide an exhaustive reason for any decision - only careful analysis, such as that demonstrated so elegantly by the aircraft industry and its crash investigators, can really provide a substantial claim in regard to the effectiveness of measures. Additionally, legislators do not wait for the next disaster to act - even if the outcomes of their legislation don't immediately 'stack up'. This is erring on the side of caution, a strategy that does so well in keeping us safe and secure.

The major error, however, in Baker and McPhedran's work, is not in the logic of how trends should translate in legislation. It is more fundamental.  It falls within the scope of the "lies, damned lies and statistics" problem. An easier-to-read graph can be found at the AIC's http://www.aic.gov.au/statistics/homicide.html and a similar erroneous conclusion (beneath the graph), which perhaps Baker and McPhedran simply took 'as read'.

Fluctuations up and down, considering the low number of homicides anyway, are likely to appear dramatic. If you were to ask me what the rate of gun related homicides in Australia was in the first half of last century, I would say about 35%. The number of peaks above is roughly equally to the troughs. The period from 1930 - 1950 roughly matches the period 1975 - 1995. Both have a high followed by a low, with fluctuations . The first period is followed by 10 years of relatively high and the second, if we extend it to 2010, a sustained period of low; in fact, a continued downward trend to 13% in 2010. After a century of 35%, how do we make a 23% difference virtually permanent? Why does the trend continue downwards and not rebound to its 'normal' level of 35%?

Only two factors feature in homicide that can possibly be relevant to this trend - preference of weapon and access to a weapon. Don't be distracted by the total number of homicides, as this is a proportional figure.  No doubt, the total number of homicides  would be susceptible to community attitudes or policing methods. But these attitudes can't explain the change in the proportion of gun homicides.

Are we really meant to believe that murderers for the last century have chosen guns and that only now a small percentage choose guns? That's right, 'choose'.  Implicit in the notion of this being a trend downwards, that  was already in place and therefore a continuation of this trend is not significant, is the necessary notion that murderers have changed preferences. Or is the other factor - access - more likely to provide an explanation of the change.

Baker and McPhedran would have us believe that social attitudes towards guns have changed and this could account for lower rates. Apart from affirming that legislation may well work by changing social opinions, can we consider that as the agent of a permanent 23% change? Frame this in your imagination for a moment. "Murderers don't use guns to murder anymore because its not socially acceptable. " I intend to kill you, but I'm squeamish about shooting you? Credibility is strained somewhat.

Prior to Victoria's 1988 legislation, gun ownership was relatively unrestricted and access fairly loosely controlled. Since the 1988 legislation, the tightening of access to weapons progressively across Australia has made access difficult. This translates directly into lower gun homicide rates. No reasonable person would conclude otherwise.

Sam Harris's personal feeling shape his rhetoric.

"But when I contemplate atrocities of this kind, I do not think of "gun control"-because it seems extraordinarily unlikely that a deranged and/or evil person will ever find it difficult to acquire a firearm in the United States. Rather, I think of how differently the situation might have evolved if the school had had an armed (and, I have to emphasize, well-trained) security guard on campus. I also think of how differently things might have gone if the shooter, who seems to have shown signs of mental illness for years, had been more intrusively engaged by society prior to the attack."

This is not an unrealistic response; just irrational.  Conceiving big events as incredible doesn't make them incredible - the USSR disarmed unilaterally. False hopes of a saviour in the form of a guard don't wash when it comes to public policy decisions. Intervention in mental illnesses, although having come a long way to managing these illnesses, doesn't actually work unless you lock these people in jail for the term of their natural life. Kneejerk reactions don't make good arguments.

I have faced an 'atrocity' of far less consequence than Newtown but one in which the same principles applies.  Two young workers on a building site at the school that my children attend began calling out sexual innuendo and, according to some students, exposed themselves to some of the girls. Whatever the facts of the event in regard to sexual assault, these two youths found two key weaknesses in the security and supervisory structures of the school. First, they were legitimately on the campus and second, they waited until supervising teachers were out of sight to act. I know that, because I was the teacher on duty.

In the end, no amount of 'guarding' can keep our children safe. Those who set out to harm will probably manage it.  Harm reduction, by procedures, protocols and vigilance are our primary tools. Changing the ability of the harmer to harm is the a parameter along which we can surely achieve some measure of success. Glass-free zones takes a weapon out of the hands of crazed football fan, but football fans can still wreak havoc. Removing alcohol from a driver reduces harm but doesn't prevent accidents. Taking a gun from a lunatic makes harm less likely but won't provide certainty.

The arms race was never won, but it was pursued with a vigour that is unquestionable. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction arguably kept us safe during the Cold War. You can probably depend on someone who is better armed to have something over someone who is armed with something less powerful but matching someone else's arms gives you some persuasive power.
In the world of crime, the mentality of ever increasingly powerful weapons comes into play. If you are going to commit a crime, knowing that you have a bigger weapon than the victim is important.

Most criminals don't go armed with intent to be killed first. The argument put forward by the gun lobby that criminals will simply choose the least protected sites cuts both way. If everywhere is equally protected by ever vigilant guards, the criminal must choose a weapon of greater accuracy, reload or ability to be concealed. The long term outcome is more weapons and more danger. War zones prove this daily.

The saddest element of Sam's piece is his lapse into simple name-calling and ad hominem.

" The liberal commentariat seems to have no awareness of what "well-trained" signifies. It happens to include an understanding of what to do and what not to do when the danger of shooting innocent bystanders exists. The fact that bystanders do occasionally get shot, even by police officers, does not prove that putting guns in the hands of good people would be a bad idea. Gun-control advocates seem always to imagine the worst possible scenario: legions of untrained, delusional vigilantes producing their weapons at a pin drop and firing indiscriminately into a crowd."

In the end, even if liberals happen to say stupid things or religiously follow a doctrine in a thoughtless way, the rules of logic tell us this does not negate their propositions. The irony of Sam's name calling is that the most conservative prime minister in Australia's recent history introduced gun law reform. Your political views are a poor measure of your opinion on gun control and an even poorer measure of how well-formed the arguments will be. The NRAs gob-smackingly stupid argument regarding placing guards at schools and transforming schools into warzones can be assessed as dumb for all these reason I outlined throughout this blog. The NRA alignment with Republicans is largely superfluous and introducing this political angle is about creating spin, not argument.

I have already written a piece on the historical reasons for the high gun ownership in the US and the peculiar (in the sense of being unique, not stupid) mentality of self-defense in the US. I am not unsympathetic to a cultural position derived from three centuries of tradition. Changing this tradition is not something that is likely to occur in my lifetime.  But even minor changes are unlikely while smart people like Sam Harris relinquish logic to private investment in the arguments over gun control.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

When you have nothing else, go for the straw man

John Dickson might just be proof that, even if you have a blog on the ABC, you can still be a twat. His latest Christmas special, A fight they can't win: The irreligious assault on the historicity of Jesus, which is already too verbose just in its title alone, manages to compose an elaborate straw man which is fastidiously dismantled. Too bad its totally irrelevant to the irreligious or the religious.

Talking about the 'historicity' of Jesus to the religious is a perfect waste of time. No matter who Jesus was as a Jew from Nazaret, he has been progressively buried in layers of doctrinal sediment. Each new Biblical scholar 'discovers' Jesus 'anew', with all the awe of a kiddy opening presents from under a Christmas tree. A new revelation is entirely par for the course - it certainly guarantees a following amongst the gullible.

Talking to the irreligious about Jesus is likewise futile. Since Jesus is quite likely to have been the unremarkable son of a craftsman who 'fell into' fame, as many second rate performers do and certainly not a god, prophet or miracle worker, this line of conversation will probably elicit "Uh-huh".

Where Dickson shows his capacity for spin is in his denigration of Dawkins. If in doubt, a glorious ad hominem may cover the singular lack of argument. Supposedly, "Richard Dawkins says 'a serious historical case' can be made that 'Jesus never lived at all,'" and from this "no doubt receives applause from his followers". Of course, few of Dawkins followers are so woefully ignorant of his words as Dickson. In fact, on page 122, Dawkins does say
"IT IS EVEN POSSIBLE to mount a serious, THOUGH NOT WIDELY SUPPORTED, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, as has been done by, among others Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London in a number of books, including Did Jesus Exist? Although Jesus PROBABLY existed." (My capitalisation, for the selectively blind)
What is even more pathetic is that Dickson cherry picks this book as many Christian commentators are want to do to the Bible. If lacking an argument of substance, simply ignore the thesis of the book in preference to a selective quote that can be easily refuted (if you even quote it accurately).

The substance of the God Delusion is that belief in God is delusional - that is, it demonstrates the same characteristics as a belief as any other beliefs considered to be delusional beliefs. Dickson probably laughs at spiritualism; a seance is a magic trick. Yet up until Houdini comprehensively exposed spiritualism it was accepted as within the realms of possibility by many of the educated and scholarly. These days we might section someone who consistently insisted on the delusional belief that granny was following him around.

Some of Dawkins arguments are weak on evidence or generalise religion when a more specific analysis is necessary. However, Dawkins has shifted his posture in this regard, as is evidenced in his 'concillitory tone' in

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life

Dawkins has moved on, but Dickson prefers the 'straw man' of the person he presumed Dawkins once was.

But, even as an historian, Dickson manages an epic fail. Few people in history have had quite as much opinion and pure speculation written about them as Jesus. Jesus has been both an agent of a vengeful God and the Prince of Peace. He has been both a social radical and affirmation of a long tradition of law. He has been both the humble human and the miracle working superman. If you seriously think you are going to do novel or significant historical work, forget Jesus.

If amongst the 'noise' of 2 millenia of propaganda you can still get any sense of an historical person with some authenticity, then you are either a liar or magician. But the historicity of Jesus is entirely a red herring. Literary criticism is much more useful inn trying to understand Jesus than the historical process of confirming secondary sources with primary sources.

All claims about Jesus and all Jesus' claims can only be seen through a lens of interpretation. In regard to Jesus' claims about himself, letting a character in literature make a case for their own existence or character is absurd. Nobody expects to verify that Julius Caesar was a historical figure by reading in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that he makes claims to be Julius Caesar. Such claims must be externally verified. Thus, as historians, we cannot accept Jesus' claims about himself, under any circumstances.

We can, however, construct a profile premised in his words and actions as they are recorded. All literature that speaks about an historical figure positions the audience to believe a particular set of precepts. This is a fundamental aspect of all literature. Thus, even if we have witnesses to Jesus' life, we must take into consideration that they will have an agenda in speaking about Jesus.

There is little virtue in even addressing Cathcart's stumble or Nobbs and Judge's correction or an inflated sense of the importance of your own tweets, nor the religious affiliation of an historical author, as Dickson does.  They might help you sound 'terribly scholarly' but add precisely nothing to the real debate - which version of Jesus can actually be authenticated? To this debate Dickson adds precisely nothing. This is because he has precisely nothing to say.

There is even less virtue in lame anecdotes about boxers. For Christ's sake, Dickson, can't you even make it slightly funny!