Friday, October 30, 2009

Fruit and nuts

Priests and prophets have never got along.

Ever since Moses came down from the mountain to find Aaron cavorting in front of an ornate bookend, every prophet has made it his business to condemn the priests of his own time. And the priests have returned the favour. A prophet is basically a heretic with a following.

Since Christ's day, the term "prophet" has been out of favour in Christendom. Instead we've had various kinds of "reformers", many of whom have also been condemned by the church of their day. The rules are reasonably clear. You can have all the private communion you want with God, but your preaching and argument has to be grounded firmly and solely in scripture. Those who want to give their personal revelations a comparable status, generally have to split completely from mainstream Christianity. (Like Islam, or Mormonism.)

Sometimes it can be hard to tell, at a glance, on which side of the dividing line a given Holy Figure stands.

Brian Tamaki - or Bishop Brian Tamaki, as he calls himself - is the founder and leader of the ominously-named Destiny Church. It's a vaguely Pentecostal organisation, with branches in New Zealand and Australia. Tamaki preaches a type of prosperity theology, and accordingly lives the high life as a demonstration of his own righteousness.

Yesterday, he was in the news for conducting a ceremony in which 700 "spiritual sons" swore personal fealty to him and subscribed to a 1300-word manifesto specifying how they must conduct themselves towards him at all times.

Now, some people have been calling Destiny a cult for some time. Yesterday the Herald sat on the fence: the ludicrous Garth George broke out the c-word, but the more measured journalists and editorial writers refrained from comment. TV3 did a fine hatchet-job. Today, Destiny is complaining that TV3's anonymous commentator "misrepresented" the church.

I heard part of that report (I was cooking at the time), and it strikes me that the things TV3 is accused of misrepresenting pale in comparison to what I heard Tamaki saying in his own words.

Tamaki claims equivalence to respectable religions ("If we are a cult then the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists and the Pentecostals are all cults as well").

And I'm disappointed to see that a surprising number of supposedly intelligent atheists are willing to let him get away with that. Editing the Herald, for instance, points out that it's not in the business of criticising random nutcases (fair enough), but then goes on to grant Tamaki the equivalence he craves: "The old saying goes that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. A similar sort of thing could be said about religion: a 'valid church' is a cult with fancy robes and the favour of journalists." The lunatic-Libertarian Not PC makes the same mistake: "He's not doing anything that hasn’t been done before by other religious leaders".

Now, that's a line that could only have been written by someone who not only has no understanding of religion, but also doesn't really believe that there is anything to understand. I guess it just goes to show how un-seriously religion is taken nowadays.

Because what Tamaki claims goes far, far beyond what any of those religions claims:
"What [God] loves, I love. He loves people, he hates the world. I hate the world."
Look at that claim for a moment.

There is no wiggle-room there. No interpretation, no reference to a primary source. It's a direct, unarguable claim to know the mind of God. Even the much-mocked Doctrine of Papal Infallibility doesn't give that kind of authority to any one person.

Catholics and Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Pentecostalists - all claim to communicate with God, but none identify with Him. That claim - private revelation that trumps anything you know or think you know about God - puts Tamaki beyond priesthood and firmly into the "prophet" category.

Couple that with people swearing personal loyalty to him - not to the office of the bishop, but to Brian Tamaki personally - and I'd say the difference between "church" and "cult", in this case at least, is pretty clear-cut.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It's true that the Internet is killing imagination. Consider this question, posted to WikiAnswers 26 seconds ago: "Who lived at the same time as michelangelo?"

Who indeed? Tens of millions of people. If I, aged ten or so, had wanted to know that, I'd have asked my dad - and received a lengthy lecture on how to frame a meaningful question. (Of course I didn't understand the lectures, but they lodged in my brain for later.) Then I'd have asked a bunch of other people, getting answers of varying degrees of relevance and truth, until my mind would brew up some magical version of the Renaissance in which, very likely, the Pope was locking his daughter in a tower while he led crusades, and Dracula haunted the caves of southern Italy.

But now you just post it on the Internet and wait for an answer. What use is that?

Well, it's not the first thing to kill imagination. Video games did it; TV did it; movies did it; photos did it, and printing. Five thousand years ago, I don't doubt one Egyptian storyteller complained to another "Mark my words, this writing business is going to be the end of us."

But sometimes real information can be inspiring.

Yesterday was Labour Day in New Zealand. I had thought it was merely a contender for Most Ironically Named Holiday (although we both worked damn' hard yesterday). But looking it up online, I learned about a great New Zealander I'd never heard of.

Samuel Parnell was a carpenter from London who came to New Zealand in 1840, where he encountered a shipping agent who wanted a store built in (what is now) Wellington. Parnell agreed, on condition that he would only work eight hours a day. Eight hours of work, eight for sleep, and "the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves". The agent protested, but Parnell stuck to his terms, and because carpenters were scarce he got his way.

In his spare time from that day onwards, Parnell made it his business to greet new migrants arriving and tell them about the eight-hour-day rule. He lived prosperously for another 50 years, and died a national hero.

Parnell was not a typical working-class hero. He was the son of a gentleman. The fact that he was apprenticed to a trade suggests that his family was struggling, economically - but the young Samuel was raised with the secret, middle-class knowledge that leisure is a wonderful thing. More importantly, he had an instinctive grasp of economics. He knew that you don't create value by the hours you work, but by the output you produce. That's what people will pay you for, and the amount they'll pay depends only on how badly they want it and how hard it is to get. The amount of work involved doesn't enter into it.

Workers of the world, take note.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Collaborationist philosophy

Apparently, men who voted for the losing side in an election experience a sharp drop in testosterone when the result is announced.

At least, this was the case for the last US presidential election. Among certain experimental subjects, who knew they were being monitored while they watched the whole thing. To what extent that finding can be generalised to all men watching all elections remains a mystery for future research grants.

There's a very plausible animal-behaviour theory that says: when you've just lost a pissing match, it's a good time to sit quietly and reflectively and not make any aggressive moves, lest the winners feel motivated to make an example of you. But that only accounts for half the story. How does that concept translate into a non-violent contest involving proxy champions a thousand miles away? Is it different if you're sitting quietly at home and not being monitored? Is the effect more or less marked in younger or older voters? Would it still work if they didn't hear the result at once, but some hours after the event? Would Democratic voters have been similarly affected if Obama had lost?

Most of all: are they taking the whole thing just a leetle too personally?

The president - allegedly - is the leader of the whole country, not just those who voted for him. To see one candidate's victory as a defeat suggests that your identity as an American is taking a back seat to your identity as a Republican. I know modern democratic (small-d) politics encourages this sort of tribalism, but why do we play along?

Perhaps our countries would all do better if we all took a more measured approach to politics. Whoever is in government, it is probably not a good idea to oppose them automatically in everything they do. I know you think that by making their job more difficult, you're hampering their ability to fulfil their promises and win the next election; but you're also making your own country a nastier place.

It's like pissing in your own soup to spite the cook.

By all means argue against your government when it's doing the wrong thing. But make the arguments measured and focused. Ranting and railing is very satisfying, but all it does is inspire your opponents to dig deeper into their entrenched position. If you really want to change their minds, you need to persuade them that you're on the same side.

Speaking for myself: I'd rather have a government led by a party I dislike, but can influence, than one led by a party I like, but that only listens to its own trusted apparatchiks.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The New York Times announces it's laying off 100 newsroom staff. Oh well, at least it's still healthier than The Observer.

Our own New Zealand Herald shows what happens when a newspaper thinks that cutting its newsroom staff is a sensible answer to falling circulation. Basically, the less news-writing resource the paper has, the more news gets written by those who are willing to put money into it. Namely, those who stand to make money out of manipulating public opinion.

It's most obvious in political coverage, both here and in the US. Reporters no longer make any effort to cover politics: they simply reprint, largely unchecked, the stories fed to them by professional spin doctors. (I know how that works. I've edited a magazine myself.) In the US now, "political reporting" means getting two insane people to shout at each other for three minutes, while a nominal moderator makes token efforts to drag them back on-topic. The ghost of Joseph Pulitzer forbid that they might say something that could be interpreted as critical of the talking heads. That would be "expressing an opinion".

(And that, dear Americans, is why Fox News is wiping the floor with the older networks, and why your best current-affairs programme comes from Comedy Central. Those journalists are not only allowed, they're actively encouraged, to take up a position of their own.)

In the UK, the BBC has been a layer of insulation against this effect. But even the Beeb has spread its abundant resources too thin, in pursuit of the chimerical 24-hour news cycle. And now it's under direct attack, by the likes of Murdoch Jr and his minions in the Tory party. "It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism", bleats James Murdoch, "that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it."

Newsflash, Mr Murdoch: nobody pays for "independent digital journalism". There are some things you just can't pay for, even if you want to. If journalism is to be independent, it has to be free in both senses of the word.

Let's try to formulate a pithy observation here:
Professionals do what they're paid to do.
Okay, that seems a little... oblique. But it's actually at the heart of the problem. Let's try a corollary:
Professionals hate to work when they're not being paid.
Still not clear? Okay, try this:
A true professional will do the bare minimum amount of work required to get paid.
Really, that's implicit in the word "professional". If we want people to do better, that's the word we have to focus on.

Already, it's obvious that bloggers do a far better job than "professional" journalists of covering many stories, because they're keen. Therefore, they don't stop working the moment they've got "enough" for today.

Sadly, there's no way of getting an actual news feed from blogs, because blogs simply don't try to cover all news. If they did that they'd be newspapers, employing professional staff paid to do things they weren't particularly interested in, and we'd be back to square one.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The price of liberty is - everything

Of all the sad things about the Internet, the fourth most depressing, I've decided, is the rise of "libertarianism".

This, for those of you lucky enough to have missed it, is a political idea whose conditions seem to be ripe - though not as ripe as its conclusions, which are higher than a skunk's latrine. During the Cold War it seemed just plain silly; before the Internet it was written off as an adolescent phase one grows out of, much like Leninism; before the economic crisis it seemed to be addressing an abstract, tedious problem that few people cared about. But now it's gaining traction.

It's sad, really. "Libertarianism" started out as an extreme left-wing idea, aimed at freeing people from the shackles of arbitrary authority. Now, it's been adopted gleefully by those whose main concern is to preserve their own privileges. For that, I mostly blame Ayn Rand - the woman who made a career out of her personal bitterness that the Russian Revolution had robbed her of the wealth and privilege that, she was raised to believe, were hers by right. Rand took a deeply held personal belief - that there could be no possible justification for strangers to have taken her toys away - and turned it into what's euphemistically called the "philosophy" of Objectivism.

Now, in a reasoned debate with any real political philosopher, Rand wouldn't have lasted five minutes. In her lifetime she was, rightly, ignored by everyone. Her ideas simply don't take account of - well, pretty much anything outside her own head.

But on the Internet, that's no longer a problem. Online, it's not hard to find a clique of true believers for absolutely anything. St Patricks' Day is a global conspiracy to promote the colour green? Barack Obama is the direct male heir of Genghis Khan? The Rapture actually happened in 2002, and now we're living through the End Times? There is no belief so bizarre that some idiots won't support it.

Better yet, those who don't support you - no matter how numerous - can simply be ignored. And so you can live in a beautiful dream bubble in which yours is the mainstream opinion, and you never have to defend it. It's a curious paradox, that free speech has delivered us to exactly the opposite of the situation that John Stuart Mill, with his sunny Victorian logic, hoped for: where every idea goes unchallenged, and nobody ever needs to change their mind.

And people see these sites, and there will always be a small number of those people who imagine that there must be something to them.

Take this drivel, for example. These morons seem to think that there are people who oppose exploiting the Earth. (Of course there are such people, by the same no-niche-left-unfilled principle I've just been describing. But to characterise this belief - that we need to exploit the Earth - as a courageous, individualistic stand against repressive conformism, makes about as much sense as handing out leaflets proclaiming "The sky is UP! Don't let THEM deny it!")

The Exploit-the-Earth loons remind me of the philosophy of Franz Fanon, who held that violence has a liberating effect. To make oneself free, one must break taboos; and the greatest of these is violence, especially murder. How do you show your defiance for the eco-nazis who would subjugate human life to the interests of trees and squirrels? Set fire to a tree today!

We are free, within the law, to destroy what we own. You can, if you like, buy a field, then salt the earth with chemicals so nasty that nothing will grow there and no builder will ever want to build on it. It's your property - if you want to destroy it utterly, the libertarians would say, that's nobody's business but your own.

But does that make it right?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Do cats have nose hair?"

There's a truly weird site that you've probably seen, if you've Googled a lot of random trivia, but I for one have seldom dwelt on. It's called "WikiAnswers". The idea is that you can log on and type in any question you like, and take a chance that some random J Bloggs, somewhere on the Internet, will take the time to answer it just for the sheer joy of showing off their knowledge.

Or maybe that they'll make up something entertaining enough to be worth sharing with your friends.

It's amazingly popular. In a random 60 second period this afternoon, 20 new questions got posted:
  • What is the name of the group made from former klymaxx members?
  • Bobs discount furniture?
  • Do apples brown faster in the fridge or on the counter?
  • How are the functions of connective tissues reflected in its structure?
  • What is the gvwr of a 1981 toyota 2wd pickup?
  • What is broken down by cells to produce energy?
  • In ancient china what did they use money for?
  • Where is the high speed relay located on a 1983 chevy el camino?
  • Is Nomex windproof?
  • Outline the role of condensation and hydrolysis?
  • What was the significance of the fall of fort sumter?
  • How many syllables has the word house how many syllables has the wordcurtain?
  • Ancient method to predict the future?
  • Do cats have nose hair?
  • What are the areas that border mexico?
  • California's largest county?
  • I had sex 3 days in a row alot of times he finished each time my period came the next day its a week early could you still get pregnant?
  • Full faith in credit clause example?
  • Is there a scary movie 5 comming out soon?
  • Why are the dim lights on a is300 blue but the bright lights and running lights are white Can i make them all blue?
Fairly obviously, about half of these are from schoolkids trying to get their homework done for them. (I do hope their teachers look in from time to time. In fact, if I were a teacher, I think I'd post the question here myself before setting it to the kids.) One is a frightening testament to the quality of sex education. Some seem to suggest that the questioner has never heard of Google (which would tell you, without waiting, that California's largest county is San Bernardino, and Scary Movie 5 is scheduled to appear in 2011).

Or maybe they're just craving acknowledgment and validation, the (extremely indirect) human contact of some faceless, random stranger picking out and taking the time to answer their question.

So if you happen to know the answer to any of these, feel free to head over and show off. Make someone's day. But no-one will thank you.

Back-of-the-envelope economics

It's almost like being back home. In the 80s. Auckland is in the eighth day of a paralysing bus strike.

Well, "paralysing" might be overstating things a tad. Most people drive themselves anyway. I, swelling with ecological smugness, walk to work. Only an unlucky minority, such as Susan, are really affected.

It's also not a strike. What happened was that 875 drivers and cleaners, wanting better pay, notified their employer that they would work to rule; and their employer, NZ Bus, responded by locking them out.

To me that makes the whole issue cut and dried. Working to rule is about the mildest form of industrial action it's possible to take; if I had my way, it should be the norm for everyone everywhere. Any company that feels threatened by a work-to-rule - is exploiting its employees. To retaliate with a full lockout, completely shutting down your services for over a week - that's a huge escalation.

And most people seem to agree. The (Auckland-based) New Zealand Herald has been squarely behind the drivers. Even Auckland's city government, such as it is, has mostly aligned itself the same way, threatening to cut off $58 million in subsidies to NZ Bus unless it gets back to delivering the services it's supposed to.

Now, we're told NZ Bus normally carries approximately 80,000 passengers per day. Since Susan is one of them, I happen to know that a standard, full-price season ticket costs around $110 a month. Allowing for concessions, let's say the average passenger pays about half that much. That's a monthly income of $4.4 million from fares. Add $58 million in subsidies from the city, and we're talking about an annual income (not counting advertising) in the ballpark of $110 million.

There are 875 drivers and cleaners - let's guess that there are 400 actual buses, each costing (let's say) $25,000 per year in tax, maintenance and depreciation - that's $10 million. Fuel - maybe as much again. That leaves $90 million to pay for advertising (minimal - mostly done by the city anyway), premises, wages, parking and other running costs and overheads. Let's say 40% of that should be going to the people who actually do the work - $36 million between 875 people comes to just over $40,000 per year, or (assuming a 40-hour week) about $20 per hour.

But NZ Bus pays its drivers $14-16 per hour. Susan tells me that other bus companies are significantly more generous. (Although how she knows this, I don't know. All I know is that they're not having these problems, at least not at the moment.) Which suggests my calculations aren't too far out.

It's enough to make me want to start my own bus company. If only I knew where I could lay my hands on 400 buses and a bunch of spare subsidies...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Translation and transformation

It's official: Jesus was a godless commie.

The Conservative Bible Project aims to "retranslate" the Bible in "conservative" terms and language. (I can't help thinking that producing a new translation is just about the least "conservative" thing it's possible to do to the Bible, but I guess that's just because I speak English.)

This "retranslation" is to use the King James Version as a "baseline", chiefly because the KJV is out of copyright. ("It could be used as the baseline for developing a conservative translation without requiring a license or any fees", explain the instigators. "Also", they neglect to continue, "it doesn't require any actual knowledge of ancient languages, so we're not reliant on a bunch of 'scholars' to do the work for us. What we're after here is ideological purity - 'accuracy' is overrated anyway.") So volunteers are being asked to "translate" the KJV into modern "conservative" English. (I don't think I've ever used so many quotation marks in one story before. That's a reflection of just how far these people have debased the language, how they have made whores of so many innocent words.)

It's been done, guys. It's called the New King James Version.

But the KJV isn't conservative enough, apparently. It contains such subversive liberal lines as Luke 23:34:
Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
This verse is apparently "a liberal corruption of the original", "a favorite [quotation] of liberals", and "should not appear in a conservative Bible".

Since the Conservative Bible Project is so keen on "translation", let's try translating that sentiment into plain English:
We think the author is lying. It's not as if the text is divinely inspired, after all.
I don't know if they haven't thought it through, or if they're simply planning to lie through their teeth, later on, about how they arrived at their "translation".

Then they talk about the parable of the "dishonest" manager. They criticise the liberal New International Version translation of Luke 16:8: "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly". But, they say, "being dishonestly shrewd is not an admirable trait".

Let's see how the beloved KJV renders that passage, shall we?
And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely
I don't really see how that helps. If "dishonest shrewdness" is "not admirable", is "unjust wisdom" any better?

The CBP suggests the word "resourcefully" in place of "shrewdly". Because "dishonest resourcefulness", of course, is an absolutely admirable trait.

Then it criticises "liberal" translations for using "liberal" language - words like "comrade", "labourer", "fellow", instead of good "conservative" words like "volunteer". ("Comrade"? Not used at all in the KJV, NKJV or the much-reviled NIV, but occurs a horrifying three times in the English Standard Version, apparently.)

I hate to break it to them, but "volunteer" isn't a synonym for any of those: it's a separate word with a distinct meaning. You can't just go switching it in because you like the sound of it.

Actually, scratch that. Of course you can do that, it's the work of moments with any word processor. But it's not "translation".

Part of me is struck with doubt. Part of me feels that an exercise this shameless can only be a false-flag project by liberals who have infiltrated the conservative Christian movement. But then I reflect on some of the Christian conservatives I've encountered, and I ask myself: Would I really put this past them? And the answer is "no".

So purely for experiment, let's try a passage for myself. Here's James 5:1-4 in the King James Version:
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.
Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.
Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
Clearly a massive liberal interpolation there. Let's try rendering it more faithfully to the spirit:
Look here, you welfare dependents, you should be crying, because you'll get yours. Your money is undeserved and you can't afford new fashions. Your income drops in real terms every year, and it serves you right, it's meant to incentivise you into showing some initiative; you thought you could scrape and save to survive. But now the debt collectors are at your door, the people who have provided services to you in good faith want to be paid, and the businessmen have the ear of the powers that be.
There, not so hard. All you have to do is let your "conservative" training rape your soul and bludgeon your conscience into a bloody pulp, and let the hatred flow through.

The Muslims don't have this trouble...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Karaoke thinking

You know how some ideas sound really good when you're three sheets to the wind? Like karaoke, or trolley racing. Many thriving businesses have been built on this simple perceptual filter. The kebab industry, slot machines, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire...

Sometimes I think the UK is increasingly being run by people who are in just that stage of inebriation. The precise, finely balanced point of the evening at which, if I were to tap them on the shoulder and say "Do you think running barefoot is an unfair advantage in professional athletics?", next thing we knew one of us would be under arrest for streaking.

For evidence, I present two stories from today's crop on El Reg.

In the first: the Tory party - an allegedly serious political organisation, a party that earnestly hopes and believes it has a good chance of forming a government within the next year or so - is introducing a new stage in the legislative process in which ordinary citizens are invited to give their views on a bill. The idea is being punted by foreign-affairs spokesman (and former party leader) William Hague, in consultation with a veteran of web-based activism, Tom Steinberg.

Now, previously, if you wanted your views to be heard, you had to make a submission to a parliamentary committee - in the bill's committee stage. This new phase - the "public reading stage" - comes before the committee stage, and invites people to rewrite the legislation online. Obviously this is a great leap forward, as it no longer requires you to sober up long enough to print out your submission and mail it to anyone - much less actually get dressed and give evidence in person. And it opens the process to hijacking by every lunatic YouTube host, cable-TV rent-a-rant, and blogger, who can now tell their faithful just what to write where.

Fortunately, the committee stage of the bill remains intact - at which point no doubt the professional lobbyists will take over again, all the changes will be reversed and the bill put back to what it was before the Great Unwashed intervened. But we'll think we've been listened to, and that's what matters.

That's an illusion that should hold right up until the first bill to go through this process makes it to its third reading. At that point, some smartass - quite possibly Tom Steinberg - will undoubtedly compare the texts of the various versions and see what changes have actually been kept. William Hague may not quite realise what he's letting himself in for.

In short: it's a gimmick, and a politically dangerous one. It might net the Tories a few headlines and/or a few votes in the short term; but it'll lose them more in the long run. But it's not all good news. Unfortunately, in the process, it has a good chance of alienating the politically-engaged citizens of a whole generation.

Against that competition: kudos to Anthony Clive Morgan, of Dawlish, Devon, for coming up with an idea that makes Mr Hague's brainwave look positively - brainy: the dumbest business idea I've seen since (the seemingly defunct)

Mr Morgan has noticed what must have been obvious to any Briton these past ten years - that there are vastly more surveillance cameras in Britain than there are people to watch them - and figured out how to make a profit from it. Charge the camera owners £20 per month to pipe their feed to volunteers on the Internet, who will text an alert if they see anything fishy going on. At the end of each month, the most successful of these volunteer curtain-twitchers gets a £1000 prize.

Presumably Mr Morgan has done his homework, and discovered that a significant proportion of the UK's unknown number of cameras is indeed connected to some kind of IP network. (Although the stats on his website don't look very convincing. He not only repeats the wild guesstimates of "4.2 million cameras" for the country as a whole, and "we are filmed 300 times a day on average" - which is just plain false, if we're using common definitions of "average" - but also states, baldly but alarmingly vaguely: "At least 90% of them are not being manned". I don't doubt it's true, but if I were starting an actual business I'd try to find some real numbers, not just pull them out of my backside.)

I won't go into the data-protection nightmare, the randomness of vigilante justice, the social corrosion of setting ordinary people to spy on each other, or the impossibility of guaranteeing that, for your £20 a month, you'd actually get a pair of human eyes fixed on your camera feed for some given proportion of the time. I'll just ask: if you'd spent tens of thousands of pounds on a camera system and found that it didn't reduce crime, how anxious would you be to spend thousands more on a service that might, or might not, provide some random people to watch them?