May 26, 2013

P/PC balance

One of the most important ideas in Steve Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is that of P/PC balance. The P stands for production, the amount of output you create. Production is the goal you are trying to meet and can often seem like the most important aspect of your career, financial, or personal aspirations. However, production capacity or PC is equally as important for without this capacity nothing will be produced and no goals will be met. Sometimes work on PC can be temporarily put aside to focus on output, but this time needs to be made up be working on PC until it is back to full capacity. Ideally, you strive to keep work on P and PC in balance at all times.

Many different activities count as PC building. Organisation and planning are a big part of the equation. Being prepared to produce is just as important as producing itself. Looking after your mental and physical health is also a PC activity. Suffering from mental burn-out or even physical exhaustion will prevent you from getting things done. Although it is possible to put these considerations aside for a short-term deadline, long-term neglect will lead to a complete loss of production capability and thus a loss of production. Certain routine tasks also maintain our ability to produce. Making sure the materials are available, procedure written up for review, and notes recorded makes it easier for us to continue production. Finally, it is not just about maintaining PC but improving it. Learning new practical and organisational techniques help to improve PC as well as enhancing or stream-lining old ones is a critical aspect of PC.

My P/PC balance had lately gotten very far out of balance. I was capable of large efforts on the production side putting in long hours, working all week, and spending time thinking about how to produce more. But over the long-term this ability has faded as I have not spent enough time maintaining and improving my PC. I even feel that I have become worse at some activities I used to be more skilled at and have not advanced as far as I would have liked by this point in my project. As part of getting P and PC back into balance I have committed to more scheduling of routine tasks so they require less mental effort to complete. Additional planning of the papers I want to write and the experiments I want to have done. These two activities go towards the planning and organisational side of the P/PC balance. In terms of exercise I am biking every weekday to and from work as well as a ride on Saturday when I am home. I play squash with friends once a week and will go for a short bush-walk every Wednesday. Other activities include reading a lot more about organisational habits such as the book discussed above and keeping a website on my work procedures to make it easier to complete experiments. I am also attempting to tackle one PC activity per day as part of my three daily 'big rocks'. I know there are many more things I could be doing on PC but these things are enough for now. So far I am feeling really positive about these changes and they seem to be helping a lot. I will endeavor to keep them going.

October 30, 2011

No Logo

No Logo by Naomi Klein is a detailed critique of our branded world and the corporations behind it. Klein examines the takeover of public culture by private companies, their suppression of variety, and their destruction of stable employment conditions. Finally, she explores what people are doing to try and reclaim what has been lost. For anyone wondering what the anti-globilisation protests are about, this is the book that will explain it to you.

No Space.
No space covers the rise of the brand as a new form of marketing. Rather than making anything useful, corporations have moved towards leveraging consumers' perceptions of their brand to sell products with large mark-ups. To achieve this goal, banded corporations have taken over public space, public culture, and public style. Advertisements have become ubiquitous from the TV commercial, to billboards, to product placements. Corporations have even resorted to planting people on the street to drum up hype about new products (called bro-ing, "hey, bro, check out these new shoes"). In a modern city you can't see the forest for the ads. Cultural movements are also being co-opted by brands. The company 'Body Shop' sells itself as part of the environmental movement taking over the language and approach associated with this social cause. Clothing corporation are even managing to adopt the cultural styles associated with various groups. This process ends in the absurd situation of Nike selling black lower-class style to white upper-class teens and Tommy Hilfiger selling white-upper class style to black lower-class teens. The rapacious appetite of corporations for new public space to exploit has left very little free of their influence. Even school and universities are being squeezed by the mindless expansion of these hollow corporations.

No Choice.
No choice deals with the tendency of large corporations to merge and expand. The quintessential business model in this case is 'Wal-mart'. The idea is to move to the outskirts of a town buy up a large parcel of land at a relatively cheap price and build a huge mega-store. This store is filled with inventory bought at bulk rates and the management then proceeds to undercut all the local stores. These smaller stores have to close down as they can't compete and the previously vibrant town centre becomes a shadow of its former self. People are then left with no option but to shop at the large chain-stores like Blockbuster, Starbucks, or McDonalds. The other way corporations curtail choice is by mergers and acquisitions. When all the content is being provided by a few large media conglomerates it's hard to find sources outside the mainstream and dissenting information becomes suppressed.

No Jobs.
No Jobs is a look at the way corporations are hurting their employees by trying to pretend they don't have any workers! Since corporations sell brands and not products, they don't need to make anything - which requires less workers. By outsourcing all of their activities, corporations empty themselves out and start to focus on their core competency of brand management. Unfortunately this has resulted in a marked decrease in job security and a stagnation of wage levels for the average worker. Corporations are taking advantage of this, offering increasingly worse jobs with less benefits, fewer hours, and lower pay. In one example, Microsoft hires around half its employees as temp workers making sure to fire them before reaching the full-time threshold, only to re-hire them again for the next temporary period. In another example, hours worked by employees at Starbucks have become so random it's impossible to fit scheduled class time or a second job around it. Finally Klein takes a look at the desperate situation in third-world countries where corporations are taking advantage of sub-standard labour laws and minuscule rates of pay to make their products even more cheaply. These employees face long hours of repetitive work to produce items that retail for hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than cost when sold in branded stores. And when confronted with the facts about their indirect employees in third-world countries, most of the corporations don't even care.

No Logo.
No logo tells the story of what anti-corporate protesters are doing to show their opposition to the take-over of public space, the lack of consumer choice, and the worsening conditions of employment. Actions range from ad-busting the latest marketing campaign to a world-wide co-ordinated protest on Shell's (and others) support for brutal dictatorial regimes. Klein's thesis is that the corporations have done this to themselves. By co-opting activist movements they radicalised them, by suppressing dissent they brought a spot-light to bear on their own role in the problem, and by destroying jobs they destroyed employee loyalty. No Logo tells stories of limited success, protesters have made a small amount of difference to the way corporations run their operations. The book ends on a hopeful tone. The more activists around the world connect and co-ordinate, the more they become like the sprawling multinationals they oppose, and the better able they are to resist their protean growth.

Overall 7/10, the first three chapters are great but the last is much too long and repetitive.

October 29, 2011

The Nazis were wrong! (Part II)

Back at Well That Was Daft Nasher has a response to my take on the nature of morality. In his original post he took the position that morality was subjective stating that even the rightness or wrongness of the Holocaust is just a matter of opinion. I took a different approach explaining while I don't think moral truths are determined the same way as scientific truths, they are not on the same level as matters of taste and are actually epistemologically objective. Now Nasher has a follow up where he clarifies his position.

Nasher agrees that my example "apricots taste better than strawberries" is an example of a subjective truth. Something that is true for me but not necessarily true for anyone else. However, he goes further saying "sugar tastes better than elephant dung" is also an example of a subjective truth. I would disagree, if there was someone who maintained they found elephant dung more tasty than sugar I would assume they either haven't tasted each one or they are confused about which is which. If someone told me "sugar tastes better than elephant dung" my response would be 'well, of course' and not 'that's just your opinion'.

Nasher seems to partially agree with me but also wants to broaden the area of concern to other species, even hypothetical ones. I am suspicious of the value of this move. Perhaps dung beetle larva do find elephant dung more tasty than sugar (although, do they even taste?) but what if I change the original statement to "sugar tastes better than elephant dung to humans"? Does this make the question suddenly objective rather than subjective? I think Nasher would still insist this statement is subjective even though other species are now excluded. A further issue I have is that I don't really think dung beetle larva have anything to add to discussions on morality. As far as we know, humans are the only species capable of engaging in advanced moral reasoning. Perhaps this will change in the future but it seems fairly pointless to speculate.

Nasher then brings it back to a realistic example saying that people raised in different environments can be more or less prone to bigotry and homophobia without considering themselves immoral. But my response to these people is to explain why they are wrong. Often it is a case of correcting facts like demonstrating the folk concept of race does not match up to the modern biological understanding of the human species or showing studies refuting the idea that homosexuals are bad parents. To dig a little further into the homophobia example, these people already agree with the basic moral principle that raising children in a stable household with loving parents is a good thing. Often the objections revolve around concerns that homosexual parents can't provide the same nurturing environment as heterosexual parents. If the homophobes still insist on their point of view after being shown studies on child performance outcomes that dispute their claim, then they are like the flat-earther, simply denying reality. Importantly what I am not saying is that everyone will agree with every moral judgement. There is scope for reasonable disagreement, especially around the fringes where new arguments appear frequently. A good example of this is animal rights. Perhaps in the future we will look back and see eating animals as immoral similar to the way we look back and realise how wrong scientists were to believe in the ether theory of light. Our morality, like our science, can update itself - but this doesn't make either source of knowledge any less objective.

To be honest I don't fully understand Nasher's last paragraph. He says we must have a "clear, immovable frame of reference to which we can compare and contrast the viewpoint". There is a broad inter-cultural agreement about what constitutes a good person and what sort of activities are prohibited. Surely we can compare the results of our moral reasoning to that? This doesn't rule out the possibility of being wrong about a moral judgement nor updating as new information comes in. But it does give us a frame of reference from which to start our (objective) moral reasoning.

September 09, 2011

Seeds of Distrust

Seeds of Distrust: The Story of a GE Cover-up explores the potential release of genetically modified (GM) corn in New Zealand in 2000 and alleged attempts by the government to cover it up. As New Zealand has very strict controls on the presence of GE organisms, the publishing of this book made genetic engineering (GE) a hot topic in the 2002 elections. Although Nicky Hager describes some dubious practices from the Labour government, the story in Seeds of Distrust is let down by a lack of science and ultimately loses sense of all proportion.

In late 2000 the Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) were notified by seed company Novartis of the possible presence of a transgene in a sweet corn seed shipment. Initially Helen Clark took the position that the planted crops needed to all be pulled out and destroyed. Legislation was quickly rushed through in order to give the relevant government agencies the necessary authority. However, after meeting with representatives from the industry, the government became less convinced of any significant transgene presence and moved to adopt new rules allowing seed shipments containing up to 0.5% trangenes to be labelled GE free. The rational for this is PCR - the technique used to detect transegenes - has a certain lower limit of detection (for practical reasons). Additionally, some doubt was cast on the accuracy of the positive results which could have been due to sample contamination or a PCR artifact. Given the positive tests were less than the newly adopted 0.5% threshold, the government allowed the sweet corn to mature and enter the food chain. The Labour government kept the whole situation relatively low key in order to avoid spooking the public as a royal inquiry into GE was currently underway. This is the basic story that emerged for me after reading the facts presented in Seeds of Distrust - and it is a well documented book - however Hager has a different take.

Hager makes a big deal of the government meeting with industry to talk about the possible release of a GMO. Although I share his unease with the influence of corporations on government, in this case it was Novartis who initial detected possible transgene presence and it was their corn seed shipment which may have been recalled or destroyed, they needed to be involved in the early stages. Hager also focuses on the threshold level being set at 0.5%, he says the practical limits of PCR detection were actually 0.1%. Although, in principle, this meant the government was allowing up to fives times more GMOs into the country than was necessary, the overall level of transgene presence in the shipment of seeds was 0.04 - 0.08% and therefore below either measure. There was one test which reported a 0.5% transgene level but here his lack of science really lets Hager down as the rigour of the test is not defended at all. The story then continues with Hager doing everything he can to spin the downplay of the possible GMO release by the government into a deliberate cover-up of a definite GE food contamination. This is the weakest part of the book and I was not convinced anything particularly sinister was being perpetrated by the New Zealand government.

After reading this book I wanted to find out more about the science of the PCR tests that had gone on during this process. I found this press release by Dr Russell Poulter (now a professor of genetics at Otago University) who explains where the positive results came from. The ‘transgene’ detected was actually the nos terminator which can be associated with the actual transgene but can also be found in the common soil bacteria Agrobacterium. If this was an actual case of transgene presence then a 35S promoter sequence should have also been found by PCR as it is associated with the transgene but is not present in soil bacteria. It wasn’t. Given that Hager notes two of the samples were opened in the field, it seems likely these positive results were from contamination of the sample rather than due to a GMO. Removing these as false positives brings the presence of transgene down to an undetectable amount and eliminates most of the force in Seeds of Distrust.

Overall, Hager has written a book detailing behind-the-scenes decision making when governments behave in a less than exemplary manner. But given that the major premise of his book - GMOs were knowingly released by the government - is not well defended and likely false the whole thing reads like a storm in a teacup. Only worth reading if you are interested in the GMO scandal that hit around the 2002 election.


September 06, 2011

The Nazis were wrong!

Over at Well that was Daft Nasher lays out his position on objective and subjective truths. I have a different take on this subject to him and one critique of his post that may make him rethink things a little.

First, let’s get clear on the distinction between objective and subjective. Following John Searle I’ll distinguish between two types of questions: metaphysical and epistemological. Metaphysical questions concern “what exists?” Something exists objectively if its existence doesn’t depend on it being experienced. For example, the Earth exists whether or not there is someone here to experience it. On the other hand, subjective existence depends on being experienced. The feeling of a stubbed toe or the aroma of a nice Sauvignon Blanc are metaphysically subjective and their existence depends on me experiencing them. The experience is unique to me, you could never find out the way stubbing my toe felt to me.

However, Nasher is more concerned with epistemological questions. These are questions regarding “what is true?” Epistemologically objective statements can be true or false but the methods used to determine their truth value have to be publicly available and generally agreed upon. By ‘publicly available’ I mean not reliant on personal subjective experience and ‘generally agreed upon’ means that reasonable people, when presented with the same evidence, would come to the same conclusion. To take Nasher’s example:
“Some things are absolutely, objectively true. That the Earth is round is an example of this kind of truth.”
This is indeed an objective statement. We can take a publicly available observation – departing ships sink below the horizon – and draw the reasonable conclusion that the Earth is round. Epistemologically subjective statements are those whose truth value is determined by metaphysically subjective evidence. If I was to say “apricots taste better than strawberries” the primary evidence in determining the truth of that statement would be how different fruits taste to me. Someone else who has different subjective experiences of taste could reasonably disagree with my statement.
Nasher proposes a novel test do determine whether a truth statement is objective or subjective:
“Did the Nazis themselves think they were justified [in the systematic extermination of six million Jews]? If the answer is "yes", if even a single Nazi considered the holocaust justified, then the answer to this moral question is subjective. In fact, all it takes is the capacity for someone to consider it justified and it becomes subjective.”
But is this test sufficient? What if we change the topic and consider a flat-Earther? Surely there is a single flat-Earther who considers their position on the shape of the Earth to be justified, or - if not - we can at least agree there is the capacity for someone to consider the flat Earth position justified. According to Nasher’s test this makes the issue of the planet’s shape subjective, but earlier we agreed that this was an objective question. I would submit to Nasher that his central test for subjectivity leads to outcomes that he would reject.

We could modify the subjectivity test slightly to avoid my objection. If we said that no reasonable person could find flat-Earth justified then we have a second criteria that would eliminate the problem. But now we have to apply the new criteria to the moral question, could a reasonable person find the Nazi holocaust justifiable? Nasher seems to think not:
“Obviously, your answer is "no". I share your sentiments. I consider the Holocaust to be one of the worst crimes committed in human history. If you do not feel the same way, I invite you to jump off a skyscraper and rid the rest of the world of your barbaric views.”
I agree. Someone who thinks the holocaust was justified, even if they are Nazi, is either lacking certain information or is just not thinking in a reasonable way - a "barbarian".

Since morality is based on certain objective facts about the world and a need for clear and rational thinking, it seems morality is much closer to the realm of epistemological objectivism than subjectivism. Hence why am a moral objectivist and can confidently say that the Nazis were wrong!

September 03, 2011

A plea to theists: well I guess it is too late for you

One of the greatest ironies in life is watching theists try to reason about moral philosophy. The mess of contradictions produced makes for some laugh-out-loud reading and can be terrific fun to unpack. Working through this kind of fractal wrongness can also help us to clarify our own moral reasoning and shows us why secular morality is superior to that of the religious.Exhibit A is Rabbi Moshe Averick’s A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late. I’ve picked out a few of the major problems and given my response to them.

Averick’s main beef with atheistic morality is that is subjective:
“For the atheist, morality is simply a word that is used to describe the type of system that an individual or society subjectively prefers. Each society establishes, maintains, and modifies its values to suit its own needs.”
While some atheists do see morality as subjective there are also moral philosophies based on facts and a shared understanding of reality (i.e., objective). Rabbi Averick also thinks it is a problem that moral philosophy can update itself as new arguments are made and accepted. As someone who works in the sciences I am comfortable with knowledge improving as new facts are discovered and new ideas developed. There will be setbacks, aberrant paths that are found to be wrong, but on the long view a gradual improvement is continuously made. In modern social democracies can we really doubt that we are better off today than in the past? We have more freedoms and more rights than ever before. This is not the result of mere subjective whims that happened to go the right way, but a recognition that some actions of the past (e.g., slavery) were wrong and should no longer be permitted in our society. Dogmas, on the other hand, do not update and are stuck in our less enlightened past.

Peter Singer
Averick spends a significant chunk of the article attacking Peter Singer for his views on consequentialist utilitarianism. Which is an objective moral system. The Rabbi doesn’t seem to recognise that his criticism of moral subjectivism doesn’t apply to Singer but he continues regardless:
“Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.” For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism” in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical.
What Singer’s philosophy actually entails is the evaluation of harm that results from an action. Utilitarianism considers happiness to be desirable and harm to be deleterious. This means that when assessing an action for its morality you should look at the consequences in terms of the people harmed and the people helped. So if enjoying child pornography and having sex with children harms someone then it is unethical. Since paedophilia often has traumatic effects on the child involved, their parents, and the wider community Singer would most likely find most cases of paedophilia morally wrong. So much for the slippery slope argument.

Averick claims that since we resulted from slime (or from dust if you are Jewish, I guess that’s better?) that means we are morally bereft. The fact that we evolved from primates does not degrade humanity. It is thrilling to think that all species on this planet are interrelated though the process of evolution. What makes humans different, more significant than our jungle dwelling relatives, is our ability to reason. When we exercise our unique intelligence we get to make our own decisions about meaning, value, and morality. Atheists aren’t handed their morality from on high, we have to think about it, and thanks to evolution we have that ability. After spending most of the article decrying the ability of secular philosophers to reason about ethics, Averick engages in the most dishonest part of the article. He simply throws out a bunch of ethical rules without giving any justification for his claims.
  • All men are created in the image of God and are therefore inherently and intrinsically precious.
  • All men have been endowed by God with unalienable rights and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery, incest, or bestiality.
  • Thou shalt not have sex with children, and if you do you will be looked upon as a disgusting and contemptible criminal and will be treated as such.
  • Thou shall teach these laws to your children.
Fortunately, we can recognise the source for some of these claims, and they don't come from a god. The ones about unalienable rights are from the American Declaration of Independence and the rules about murder, stealing, perjury, and adultery are from the Torah. These moral rules aren’t from God but from the men who wrote the documents. But where do the other bits and pieces come from? Since Averick hasn't demonstrated God is the moral author, we have to conclude they come from Averick himself. The Rabbi simply prefers it to be the case that paedophilia is immoral and so claims that it is a divine command. This is merely Self-Projection As God. After spending an entire article railing against subjective morality we find that the only justification Averick has is that he just feels paedophilia is wrong (and God agrees with me!) Unfortunately for Averick the main point of his article is that atheism leads to paedophilia. It is rather easily countered by the mention to two religions: Catholicism and Islam. Both of these theistic beliefs have managed to rationalise and accept (respectively) the sexual molestation of children. If theistic societies are also capable of accepting paedophilia then Averick’s point is moot and it seems that God does not totally agree with our hapless Rabbi on the immorality of pedophilia.

Irony, it’s everywhere.

September 01, 2011

Free GE

A recent story in the Dominion Post (Commercial benefits lacking in GE trials) reveals the genetic engineering trials being carried out by Crown Research institutions have lead to very few commercial gains. Plant and Food and AgResearch have paid over half a million dollars in application fees to ERMA and only one of the trials has resulted in royalty generating IP. To those familiar with New Zealand's restrictive requirements for GE research, this outcome is hardly a surprise.

Despite decades of safe use around the world, GE and GMOs remain contentious issues in New Zealand. The regulatory environment alone makes it difficult to carry out even basic research, let alone the commercial research which scientists are now being criticised for not producing. Anti-GE spokeswoman Claire Bleakley decries that the benefit of GE research being completed in New Zealand is lost to the overseas companies. But if private companies are the only ones paying for the research to be carried out then it makes sense they are the ones who reap the economic benefit. Basic funding for GE research is simply not available in New Zealand, the funding bodies know there is little chance any innovation made will be allowed to be used.

If New Zealand wants its scientific organisations to produce applied science using GE technology then it must:
1) relax the regulatory environment so that research time and money is not being consumed navigating expensive legislation
2) fund GE projects so the IP is not captured by overseas companies
3) open the New Zealand market to GMOs so that the benefits of this technology can be accrued here

There is very little risk and huge benefits to allowing GE research to be conducted more freely. The longer New Zealand clings to the anti-GE label, the more we miss out on the exciting commercial opportunities. Rather than be GE-free, let's free GE!