29 April 2007

Insane Whackos

Tim has a go at some creationist.

I've come to the conclusion that I don't like being so rude or dismissive of creationists. Not because there is any truth in their conclusions, but because their arguments, while incorrect, are not actually stupid or insane.

What are the arguments for evolution? The primary evidence is the widespread existence of signs of relationship between different species, existing and extinct. But that evidence is spread pretty widely. It takes considerable time and research to find enough of it, or considerable experience of the workings of science as an occupation to see it in the literature. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to be able to make certain of themselves that evolution happens, when most people couldn't explain how a fridge or CD player works.

So that leaves the secondary evidence, that just about everyone who has studied biology seriously for the last hundred years is in no doubt. To be sure, that's a strong argument. But it does mean, more or less, that most people are being asked to take evolution on trust. Given that, the more we pressure people to accept what we tell them about natural history, the more they will reasonably suspect an ulterior motive.

Labelling creationists and ID'ers as "insane whackos" is therefore not just counterproductive, but wrong. More precisely they are ignorant, but no more ignorant than the many who "take our word for it" about natural history because they don't have sufficient knowledge of the subject to make themselves sure. Creationists may be ill-educated, but they are not exceptionally ill-educated, just exceptionally disobedient to academic authority. I am not prepared to condemn their disobedience.

My sympathy with their disobedience has been enhanced by the global warming issue, where I have found myself in disagreement with the scientific mainstream, in a debate which appears to me more political than scientific. Possibly the two questions are similar, and if I knew more about climatology I would agree that global warming is almost certainly anthropogenic, and the dirty tricks, bad arguments and dogmatism of the other side would be beside the point. Conversely, if I am right about AGW, then when the whole IPCC steam train goes off the rails, any other politically significant scientific "fact" which is aggressively asserted on the basis of "we're the experts" is going to take a popular battering.

Of course the difficult question is how to handle education. Should we permit children to be taught things which we are sure are not true? I've gone on too long so I'll come back to this later.

15 April 2007

Radio Times

The Radio Times had a very good website for TV listings. One thing I particularly liked was that they did not bother to require a password to store personalised information. All I had to do was log in with an ID and it would remember which channels I selected to put on the programme list. If anyone who knew or guessed my ID wanted then they could change my list of programmes, which it is impossible to believe would ever be a bigger problem than needing a password to see what was on television on any given day would be.
So today, they have changed their system to require me to choose a password to have my channel selections remembered. They have also changed their grid-view browsing format to show less information in the same amount of space.
I will now check out the first ten or so TV listing sites I find on Google and only if they are all very bad will I ever return to Radio Times

09 April 2007

XML again

For the second time today, I've seen an assertion of mine on this blog made by someone much more authoritative.

Me, October 05:
XML is a text format for arbitrary hierarchically-structured data. That's not a difficult problem. I firmly believe that I could invent one in 15 minutes, and implement a parser for it in 30, and that it would be superior in every way to XML.

James Clark, Friday:
.. any damn fool could produce a better data format than XML.

via Tim Bray, who explains that James Clark "was designated Technical Lead of the original XML Working Group and is the single largest contributor to the design of XML", and also points out the reason XML is a poor data format is that he and Clark and the rest designed it as a document format, not an arbitrary data format.

Mass Destruction

I made the point some time ago that Chemical and Biological weapons are much less effective for mass destruction than high explosive. I don't have any special knowledge, it's just obvious.
Today in The Register, a former bomb disposal officer makes the exact same point.
I'm not saying that a chemical attack would be a completely trivial matter, but it would almost always be preferable to being hit by the same weight of high explosives.
So, if your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you'd be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMDs, while ordinary explosives aren't. So too are biologicals, even more amazingly. Biological "weapons", in the modern sense, have yet to be even demonstrated.

08 April 2007

Unexpected Sense of Proportion

I think my fears, expressed on Friday, that too much of a fuss had been made over the captured boarding party in Iran, were misplaced.
Certainly there was a lot of media attention, but on reflection, the attention was not so much the result of an unhealthy over-sentimental concern whether they lived or died, but was just the latest Reality TV spectacle.
The Sun caught exactly the right note with the headline "We went to Iran and all we got were these lousy suits".
On the same basis, I think the authorities are right to allow them to sell their stories. Treating global conflict as "I'm a Lieutenant, get me out of here" might make us look decadent, but, let's face it, we are decadent, and it's going to be very difficult to appear otherwise.
On the other hand, it also makes us look strong in a strange way. The Iranian regime is fighting for its life, and perhaps hit on the desperate tactic of kidnapping a British naval unit in international waters. If, rather than panicking, we treat the whole affair as a joke or a bit of cheap entertainment, it really drives home the fact that we're not really even trying. Just imagine how much damage we could do if we actually gave a shit!

07 April 2007

Deskilling and Overskilling

For anyone who works for a living, the biggest threat to his livelihood is that his job will be made easier. For if it is made easier, someone else might be able to do it.

On the other hand, making jobs easier is the main effect of technological progress. It is the process that has given us the wealth that we now live in.

When is it then a bad thing for a job to be made easier -- to be deskilled?

First, when it doesn't work. That is, in my experience, the most visible form of bad management -- an attempt to codify a job with a set of procedures, in the hope that the particular skills of the worker can be replaced by the written procedures. If it worked it would be socially beneficial, but all too often it just means that a the job is just as difficult as it was, but there is then an added difficulty of pretending to follow the procedures.

The other time is when it would be better to make workers more skilled. After all, workers becoming more skilled is equivalent overall to jobs becoming less demanding. However, the incentives are different, as the benefits of deskilling a job stay with the employer, whereas the benefits of improving a worker move with the worker.

Historically, I think efficiency has come much more from deskilling jobs than from improving workers, but it would be wrong to ignore the other process.

Of course if a job isn't done quite as well by relatively unskilled workers, that doesn't necessarily make it bad. A handmade shoe might be better than a mass-produced shoe, but the general replacement of handmade shoes with mass-produced shoes is surely a huge improvement in efficiency.

In the market there is a constant pressure to improve efficiency by using fewer or cheaper workers. At the same time, workers want to become more skilled, and to use their skills. The task of improving efficiency and getting it right is difficult, and seems to me to depend mostly on the managers actually in touch with the workers, not the top of the hierarchy.

Back in the 1980s, the big thing was deskilling those middle managers. In a static situation, that would make sense: the workers know how to do their jobs, the senior management to strategy, and the middle managers are a waste of space. But to actually produce change, skilled middle managers are needed.

In the public sector, the process does not operate the same way. There is an unending trend towards workers becoming more skilled, and more expensive, and not the steady pressure to find ways to do the job with slightly less skilled workers. Instead, we see skilled public-sector workers like doctors, teachers and police officers becoming steadily more trained and scarcer, until senior management (the government) is forced to try to fill gaps by dragging a whole new layer of worker in to do the job which the original workers are now too skilled and too expensive to do. That is the story of the Nurse Practitioner, railed against so steadily by Dr Crippen. It is the story of the Police CSO and the Learning Assistant to the class of 40 pupils.

The case of teachers is particularly striking, because it is necessarily a skilled job, and because the system needs so many teachers. As of 2003 the country had over 400,000 teachers (full time equivalent). As more pupils stay in education to 18, the demand will rise. There are certainly worries about the standard of some of the teachers. But we aren't going to get better teachers than we've already got - not 400,000 of them. Any improvement in schools can only possibly come by making it easier for actually existing teachers to teach effectively -- by, whereever possible, deskilling their jobs. The solutions that actually come down from government, however, always seem to involve demanding extra skills from teachers. If you can teach well, but you're not good at writing formal lesson plans, you're now not a good teacher. If you can teach well, but you can't impose discipline on a gang of rowdy teenagers, you're now not a good teacher. If you teach well, but you refuse to pay lipservice to the many political nostrums handed down from on high, you're now not a good teacher.

If we had a surplus of good teachers, we could get away with all this, but demanding more skills from a profession that numbers in the hundreds of thousands can't be done. If you employ 400 people, you might be able to get better workers to do a more demanding job. If you employ 400,000 that's out of the question.

As I said, in the private sector attempts at deskilling jobs often fail. The only way we will see any improvement in these public sectors, without a large risk of catastrophe as possible improvements fail, is to allow variety. And that, of course, is the one thing this government more than any other has stamped out.

This discussion has been slightly aimless, but it's a huge question -- the driving force of human progress -- and there's a great deal more that needs to be said. It was brought to mind by Theodore Dalrymple's piece on the medical student problem, and by chris dillow's comments on it.


I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

We do not consider that the right to freedom of conscience and religion requires the school curriculum to be exempted from the scope of the sexual orientation regulations. In our view the Regulations prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination should clearly apply to the curriculum, so that homosexual pupils are not subjected to teaching, as part of the religious education or other curriculum, that their sexual orientation is sinful or morally wrong. Applying the Regulations to the curriculum would not prevent pupils from being taught as part of their religious education the fact that certain religions view homosexuality as sinful. In our view there is an important difference between this factual information being imparted in a descriptive way as part of a wide-ranging syllabus about different religions, and a curriculum which teaches a particular religion's doctrinal beliefs as if they were objectively true. The latter is likely to lead to unjustifiable discrimination against homosexual pupils. We recommend that the Regulations for Great Britain make clear that the prohibition on discrimination applies to the curriculum and thereby avoid the considerable uncertainty to which the Northern Ireland Regulations have given rise on this question. We further recommend that the Government clarifies its understanding of the Northern Ireland Regulations on this matter.

House of Lords / House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, Sixth Report

Note that the position taken by parliament towards the theory that homosexuality is sinful is identical to that taken by the authorities of the church towards the Copernican theory as expressed by Galileo. He was permitted to believe that the Earth went round the Sun, and he was permitted to teach his model of the movements of celestial bodies. He was merely prohibited, like the church schools of the UK, from teaching that the things he believed were actually true.

Of course, the fundamental problem is that once you accept the principle of anti-discrimination laws, which nearly everyone now does, there is no logical justification for the retention of any individual autonomy whatsoever. After all, there is no logical distinction between a customer who prefers to buy clothes from shops owned and run by people of her own race, and a landlord who puts "No blacks" in his window.

The only sane argument for any anti-discrimination law is that there are some groups who are so vulnerable that they require special protection. I think it is on that basis that such laws are widely tolerated. However, that rationale is never stated, and instead the nonsensical theory is put forward that all "discrimination" based on group characteristics is wrong, and worthy of being banned.

For the record, I agree with Galileo, and disagree with the anti-homosexual position of certain church schools. But that is by the way. Like Paine, I believe that reason is the appropriate weapon against errors, and that The Human Rights Act 1998 is not.

06 April 2007

The 15 in Iran

I didn't comment on the capture of the Naval personnel in the Gulf, because I think it's fundamentally a bad idea to make such a big deal out of it. It becomes impossible to use military force effectively if you're prepared to look at your troops as hostages that way.

If the 15 had been killed by Iraqis two weeks ago the media would pretty nearly have forgotten them by now. If they'd been killed by Iranians, there would be a bit of fuss, but everybody knows that people get trigger-happy on borders sometimes, and it would probably be on the way to blowing over by now.

The British government has been made to look very foolish, not so much by the way the situation was handled, but by getting into it in the first place. It does seem to demonstrate that Blair believes his own propaganda - that Britain has a perfect right to be in Iraq, and no-one else has any right to interfere. As I've said before, while Britain's intervention can be defended, Iran's taking steps can be defended just as well. Britain's right to be in control of southern Iraq rests at least in part on possession of superior force. That being the case, there can be no excuse for the navy wandering around the Shatt-Al-Arab with its hands in its pockets as if it was the Serpentine. The accounts I have seen seem to indicate that the boarding party should have been well able to defend itself if not caught unprepared, and that in any case plenty of force was available to protect it had it occurred to anyone that it might be needed. That the party was caught both unprepared and unprotected suggests to me that they did not understand they were in a hostile part of the world among people who did not recognise their God- or UN- given right to be there bossing people around. I find that lack of awareness extremely worrying.

Peace processes

There is a lesson to the unexpected spectacle of the DUP/Sinn Fein power-sharing setup.

That is that a peace agreement has to be negotiated between the parties that are actually fighting. Distantly related proxies can negotiate all they want, but ultimately it's what the conflicting parties themselves will accept that matters.

The initial peace negotiations in Northern Ireland were outside the political institutions, and they set the framework for the new regime. But at that stage it was still tentative.

The government formed by Trimble and Hume was not able to settle matters, because neither was able to satisfy the other side that was speaking for the hardliners. John Hume could not satisfy Unionists that the IRA was on board, because he doesn't speak for the IRA. And Trimble could not satisfy Nationalists that the unionists were permanently committed to the new arrangements, because he could be overruled at any election by Paisley being elected.

So when commentators ask, how can Paisley make a deal that he attacked Trimble for making, the answer is that Paisley is making a deal via Sinn Fein with the IRA, not with the SDLP. And no deal with the SDLP is a deal for peace, because the SDLP was never at war.

Science and Climate

A very interesting guest posting on Roger Pielke Sr's Climate Science Weblog.

What's revealing is that the writer, Benjamin Herman of the University of Arizona, is not a "climate scientist". That is because hardly anyone is a "climate scientist", as in someone who's job it is to understand the climate. Like thousands of others, Herman is an expert in measuring, understanding or predicting one small element of the world's climate processes.

The views Professor Herman expresses on the subject of global climate are pretty much those I would expect.
  • He can see that the anthropogenic CO2 -> global warming theory is basically plausible.
  • He can see many sources of uncertainty that seem to have been ignored in the IPCC literature, with the effect of exaggerating the confidence of its statements.
It seems to me that the majority of scientists with specialties relating to climate hold pretty much these views, along with a third belief:
  • That pushing world energy production away from fossil fuel burning is highly desirable or essential over the long term, for a number of reasons mostly unconnected with climate.
As such, they have until now refrained from speaking up against the dishonesty or bad science in the AGW debate. After all, it might well be true, and it's in a good cause even if it isn't. Why step into the politically charged and dangerous arena of global climate prediction if you don't have to?

The only people who have to take a scientific position on the issue are the holistic climate scientists. And pretty much the only reason for being a climate scientist in that sense is to predict global warming. The vaunted "consensus" that the IPCC represents is a consensus of a small group of people, fortified by the silence of the thousands of relevant scientists whose work they cite but who are not directly concerned with predicting the global climate, and who have better things to do than quibble about the confidence levels. If they have any hostility to the "consensus", it is a kind of resentment that the work they're doing is considered irrelevant: the questions they're spending their careers working on are treated as already answered for the purposes of global climate prediction.

It's an effect of the astonishing specialization in modern science. Scientists do not in general work on "big questions". They work on small questions, and answering the big questions is left to summarizers, who are relatively few in number.

Of course, just because the police have fitted someone up doesn't mean they're not guilty. Even if this scenario has been foisted on us by a dishonest and politically motivated clique, that doesn't mean it's not true: it easily might be, and the alternative explanations of 20th century climate, while plausible, are not any better proved than the IPCC's.

The curse of DIY

From Jeff Randall in the Telegraph, a piece on the carnage of DIY over the Easter weekend.

The curse of DIY is inflicted on us by two policies: income tax and trade credential regulation.

The income tax is obvious: There is a job in my house that will take a skilled person an hour. I have two choices: I can do it myself, or I can work for money with which to pay someone else to do it.

Assume I get paid the same as a skilled tradesman. I have to work for an hour to pay for an hour of his time. Then I work for another 40 minutes to pay his income tax. Then I work for another 17.5 minutes to pay the VAT. Then I work another 78 minutes to pay my income tax. In the end I have worked three and a quarter hours to get an hour of someone else's time. The temptation to think I can do it myself in less time than that is very strong.

The credentials are the other problem. The costs of getting a professional are inflated by rationing the supply.

It can be argued that the regulations are necessary to protect from under-skilled practitioners. But that assumes that the result of banning the less qualified provider will be that a more qualified one is used. The facts of DIY show the fallacy of this - if I can't hire a cheap workman, I'll probably have a go myself, with worse consequences.

It is like the ever-increasing monitoring of the quality of parents. I have seen at quite close hand the struggles of the underqualified single parent attempting to keep her child out of the clutches of the state. The process could possibly be justified if the end result was giving the child a better home, but in reality the only alternatives are the foster system or a children's home. The most stringent sane criterion for judging the adequacy of a parent is whether she is doing a better job than the children's home would, and the most stringent sane criterion for judging whether a workman should be allowed to do a job is whether he would do a better job than his potential customer.


I watched 300 last week, and it was a pretty good film of the sort I wouldn't normally bother to review here.

I am, however, somewhat struck by the massive point-missing that has gone on. Many have complained that the film appears to be crude political propaganda, although there is some dispute as to who is being supported and who attacked.

How many of these people actually stayed to the end? The film is indeed crude propaganda, as we see at the end the narrator of the whole movie, the David Wenham character, standing in front of an army doing the St Crispin bit, presumably at the battle of Platea.

All the things that have been attacked make perfect sense in that context. The characters banging on and on about freedom while their many slaves never appear in shot, the domestic political rivals of the narrator being represented as hideous subhumans, the improbable monstrous character of the Persians (and for that matter the wolf) -- the film was not the battle of Thermopylae, it was a pep-talk for Platea.

I haven't read the graphic novel, and indeed have only the slightest aquaintance with them (Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is I think the only one I've ever bought), but that kind of perspective-choice is one of the things I think they can do well.

The imagination of another's perspective seems to be something in very short supply. Witness as just one example the Telegraph editorial yesterday accusing Iran of "meddling in Iraq" -- it takes an amazing lack of imagination not to see how ludicrous that sounds.


Excited by the EMI/Apple announcement of imminent DRM-free downloads, I checked whether my audio player -- an iAudio M5 -- could play the AAC format that Apple sells. I found that it couldn't, but that the open-source Rockbox player software, which can, has recently been ported to the M5.

I've installed it, and it works. I like the plugins - there's a chess program, and a sudoku. The metadata database feature doesn't seem to work, and the interface is sometimes slow to respond, which is irritating. (It can take a couple of seconds sometimes for a submenu to come up, and if you've repeated your selection, the extra events then take effect afterwards).

These are quibbles; I'm very impressed with rockbox. I'll dig into the database issue over the Easter weekend, and maybe come up with some patches if I can work out what it's supposed to be doing.

There are other obstacles to taking advantage of the Apple thing: there is some question as to whether rockbox can play 256kbps AAC in realtime, but I suspect on the M5 it can, as it has a more powerful CPU than some of rockbox's older targets. I also understand you can't just buy iTunes from the web, you need to install the software. Apple may change that, or I might be able to get it working with Wine.

There is also a question as to whether the iTunes offer is value for money. I currently get music by buying CDs from the likes of Play or 101cd, typically at GBP5-8 each (very little music that has come out in the 21st century has interested me). I will try it out if I can, just because it's a step that has to be encouraged.

Europe's good government

It is reasonably obvious that the biggest factor affecting the quality of a school is not the building, the management, the teaching staff, or the level of funding, but the intake. By that I do not merely mean that pupils who go in better come out better, but that a pupil entering a school with a good intake will come out better than the same pupil would entering a school with a bad intake.

While this is widely recognised for schools, I think it applies also, and possibly just as much, to other public services. The difference between a good train service and a bad train service is, to a significant degree, down to the passengers. The biggest reason for a person to prefer to drive a car, rather than take a train, is to avoid the other people who would be on the train. Indeed, the point is so strong in transport that we do not consider as "public transport" a service which does not force us into proximity with other users, i.e. taxis, which operate on exactly the same basis as any other form of public transport.

There are two kinds of public/private distinction: there is the distinction between state-provided and privately-provided services, and the distinction between publicly-consumed and privately-consumed services. They line up sufficiently to cause confusion, because publicly-consumed services are not excludable and are therefore "public goods" generally considered better provided by government. Public/private provision is a more definite yes/no question, albeit with hybrids funded by subsidy plus usage fees, while public/private consumption is a continuum - a medical operation is a private good, but control of infectious disease is somewhere in the middle.

It is with this assumption that I look at Tyler Cowen's controversial assertion that, as an effect of differences in structure, Western European governments provide public services better than the US government can. To the degree that this is true, I think the cause is more to do with the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans to public services than to different structures of government organisation. As the Economist blogger illustrates, even a straightforward benefits system will be much more effective in a public-oriented society like Denmark than in the USA.

In Britain, we seem to have the worst of both worlds: something approaching a European-sized state sector with very American public attitudes to the services it provides, and I think that more than anything explains the current state of our public services. It was not always that way -- some years ago I mentioned in a discussion of mobile phone tariffs that, where evening calls were free, some customers were using their mobile phones as baby monitors, by making a call from one handset in one room to another and leaving the call open all night. To me that was reasonable and unsurprising, but my older friend found it hard to believe that people would abuse a limited public resource that way, just because they weren't being charged. Publicly consumed services work much better with that older generation's attitudes than with those of my generation.