Monday, May 23, 2011

Conclusive proof that I'm not Elect

The more I read about the Rapture, the dumber it gets.

We all know by now that the latest prediction, by some engineer-turned-numerologist, didn't happen - thus bearing out the predictions of the great majority of both Christians and non-Christians alike. But the last I heard of the prediction itself was that it set not only the date, but the precise time of the event: 6:00 p.m., wherever you happened to be.

Thus it would strike Tonga first, then roll westward across New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Asia, Europe, and finally sweep across America and Hawaii, ending up in Samoa 24 hours after it began.

I'm not clear whether it was supposed to be guided by 'official' time (so that whole timezones would be struck at once), or real astronomical time, so that it would roll steadily westwards at constant rate of approximately 1000mph (at the equator). If official time, then I wonder how long it would take for governments in all points west of New Zealand to hastily amend their own timezones? If astronomical time, then why would it begin at the International Date Line? - I would have pegged Jerusalem as the obvious starting point.

This is what happens when engineers get hold of holy scripture. They (we) are ferociously literal-minded people (Osama bin Laden was educated first as an engineer, before the CIA trained him to be a terrorist).

There's something about a certain type of religious fantasy that appeals to people who believe in "working things out". Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic bilgewater, describes himself as "... raised by a crossword-puzzling, poetic father and an anagramming, word-loving, Latin-knowing, grammarian Mother".

When you look at a crossword, you can be reasonably sure that there is a solution. And when you look at the world as something designed by a higher intelligence, it's very tempting to see it in the same terms - as a puzzle, with clues inserted for those with eyes to see. And if you get your predictions wrong, that's just like getting a 'x' from God - it doesn't mean your whole approach is flawed, just that you've made a mistake somewhere.

For people who think like this, the idea that there are no clues, there is no plan, there is nothing to be worked out - strikes at the heart of their belief.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Take that, Friedman

I keep hearing about how the UK gov't is cutting spending, in a desperate and probably doomed effort to bring the finances into something like balance within a reasonable timeframe.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand government continues spending as if it seriously believes the Rapture will strike on Saturday. In the wake of economic disasters (the collapse of one mine, and the announcement after an investigation that fully half of those remaining open have unsafe working practices), natural disasters (the Christchurch earthquake) and financial disasters (still no end to the stream of financial firms needing bailouts), the government doesn't hestitate to reach for its chequebook.

Yet for some reason, the foreign exchange markets love the Kiwi dollar over the pound. Can't get enough of it.

Each time some fresh disaster strikes New Zealand, the dollar rises. It's uncanny, really.

I can only conclude that free markets (I think the forex markets are about as close to 'perfectly free' as any existing market) believe strongly in the merits of heavy-handed Keynesian economic intervention.

Think about that, next time someone tries to tell you that governments shouldn't interfere because free markets know best.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Crowded Planet guide to Britain

Big news from the UK this week is that the famous Lonely Planet guide is sticking it to Britain's tourist industry.

About time too.

I love England. I love touring around it, I love showing it off to my foreign friends and relatives. (I've had a fair bit of practice at that now.) But there's no denying that the restaurants, hotels, sights and resorts that make the most effort to attract tourists - are those that are the least worth visiting.

There's probably a good reason for this. Every Briton - well, at least every middle-class Briton with my upbringing - knows that the best don't need to advertise. So it follows that anyone who does advertise is, at best, second-rate. Stonehenge doesn't advertise; but the tacky visitors' centre that has pretty much destroyed the point of going there - that advertises like nobody's business.

Whatever the reason, there's no denying: if it's British and you've heard of it, it's almost certainly either (a) crap or (b) laughably overpriced. Sometimes both.

What's important to remember about Britain, though - and England in particular - is the incredible density of it. This means there are two things everywhere you look: people (hence, pubs, hotels and restaurants that your guidebook has never heard of), and history.

It's not exactly secret, but it's not advertised either.

My recommendation, if you're contemplating a visit to the UK, is to do some reading before you go. Either pick a place[1] and read up on its history, or pick a history and identify the places associated with it.

[1] "London" isn't a place - it's about 60 places all wedged together. Trying to do them all is a rookie mistake, and a recipe for (at best) extreme boredom.

And don't take the Lonely Planet. While it's true that most places marketing themselves to tourists are overpriced and disappointing, a guidebook's job is not to lament these pitfalls, but to guide you safely past them. If it can't do that, it's not worth the weight.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Victory conditions

So Osama bin Laden has finally run out of luck. Good riddance, and congratulations to whoever got him.

Not wishing to carp... but the US has spent, so far, more than $450 billion on the Afghan war. That's over $130 million per person allegedly killed by Osama, not even counting the lives wasted.

I say "allegedly", because since he's dead, he'll never have a trial. I bet some in the CIA are toasting that fortunate circumstance, as much as the achievement itself. Now no-one will ever question all the crimes they want to pin on him, and no-one will have to explain (publicly, at least) why it took 18 years*, plus the biggest budget blowout in human history, to catch up with him.

* (Counting from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when the FBI first put a price on his head.)

And if we factor in the Iraq war, the economic costs to the US and its allies, the number of lives lost by the US and its allies, and the horrific damage to US foreign relations and strategic goals (think North Korea), and of course the gargantuan budget deficit - then strategically speaking, Osama has inflicted far and away the most humiliating defeat in US history.

I don't like it. I hate everything Osama stood for. But we should face facts: he won.