Monthly Archives: May 2011

Stone age culture returning in the 21st century

In the stone age and probably before, there were high priests and priestesses who kept society under some control by threatening them with the wrath of various gods. We tend to think today we live in more enlightened times, but I think in the last two or three decades we have made huge strides backwards.

Human nature forces many people to need approval from their peers, to feel good about themselves,to feel they are on moral high ground,  indeed to feel what religions call holy. Many of these needs have been met historically by religion, and of course even today for many people. But when you take away religion, those needs don’t go away, the vacuum left sucks in all kinds of ‘isms’, according to taste. Vegetarianism, environmentalism, humanism, liberalism and even secularism are all meta-religions, modern abstractions that invoke the same behaviours as conventional religion.  Secularism has made big progress in getting rid of Christianity from the UK, but it hasn’t been replaced by rationality, it has become almost a religion in its own right, just one set of beliefs replacing another, claiming the high ground exclusively for its advocates, with sanctimonious behaviour, exclusion of other points of view, pontificating on the truth, proselytising and so on.

I am not saying that these isms are always wrong or that all their follows indulge in such behaviours. Wanting to protect the environment is highly commendable, but all sensible people want to protect the environment, not just those who call themselves environmentalists. It is perfectly possible to be a vegetarian without looking down your nose at everyone else. It can even be well argued that it is a good idea for all kinds of health and environmental sustainability reasons, but it does tend to stretch sometimes to more than a purely rational decision. What I am saying is that isms attract people who are trying to fill these same human needs that religion once filled, as well as perfectly rational people like you, I hope.

I would go further and be provocative and say that when people join these isms with pseudo-religious motivations, they corrupt them, their need to feel holy taking priority over the core of the ism itself. That then is a problem. Vegetarians who progress into animal rights extremism can cause damage to the ecosystem, eventually harming animals, as we saw with the release of mink into the British countryside. Someone who joins an environmental group and worships mother earth is far more likely to cause damage to the environment via a dogma-based, anti-science mindset than they are to protect it. We’ve seen plenty of examples in recent years, with carbon credits and biofuels infamously working together to incentivise destruction of rainforest, bogs and other important habitats, as well as causing the deaths of many people (I’ve seen recent estimates of 350,000) via starvation due to increase in food prices resulting directly from these policies.

It is obvious that such behaviours can damage the cause they claim to support. Good intentions may arise from meta-religious pressures, but the wisdom of decisions correlates negatively with them. I’ve always argued that emotions should be used only as a driver to solve a problem, and once the decision to act has been made, they should be set aside. They should not be used as a means to decide the best mechanism to solve it. That should be done using a logical analysis of the problem, followed by development of potential solutions and rational comparison of their system-wide, full-lifetime effectiveness, before finally picking the best and implementing them. Emotions themselves tell us little about how the non-human bits of the  universe work or how to fix things that are going wrong. And even in the human parts of the world, where they may govern people’s decision making so can be an important part of the system being analysed, they are of relatively little use unless at least analysed objectively.

Government suffers from such problems too. The problems where religious governments run things are pretty obvious, but political ideologies such as liberalism are almost equally rich in meta-religious tendencies, they just point in different directions. I will avoid debating the merits of different political viewpoints, you can make up your own mind, but consider how many political decisions are motivated by a desire to feel the moral high ground rather than looking objectively at evidence. And look at the consequences all around us. Loss of objectivity leads to loss in decision quality.

But let’s go back to environmental issues. It is here where the worst damage is being done at the moment. Even though the field of climate science is a tiny fraction of science as a whole, the whole of science has been badly tarnished by the corruption here. This didn’t start with Climategate, that was just another step along the way, but it was a big step. Just a few people putting their personal beliefs and their desire to occupy what they consider as the moral high ground above scientific objectivity has caused huge damage to the wider community of scientists. Scientists in every field now are doubted because of these few bad apples. And like any religious split, the many followers of the debates on climate change have polarised into religious squabbles. Although some of the debate is high quality and objective on both sides, much isn’t. The press coverage of the issues adds another layer of religious zeal to make it extremely hard to distinguish what the facts are in any aspect of the debate. The level of corruption now is such that both sides claim completely opposite interpretations of the same input data. Even for scientists, a sensible position can only be taken after enormously lengthy reading and analysis to try to filter out the good from the bad.  Science shouldn’t be that hard, but it has been made so by pollution from meta-religion. And the rest of science has been corrupted by association now. Many people have far less faith in science than they had, and that makes it even easier for religiously motivated claims to gain ground. If we cannot stop the slide, we will head back into a dark age where priests masquerading as scientists carry as much authority as genuine scientists on the best way forward.

Science will recover, but it may take decades. The reason is the depth of the infiltration of meta-religion into many important circles, and the strength of the human tendency to want to feel morally or politically correct. If either side of any debate manages to claim followers because of this, and it happens frequently, it becomes harder to get to the facts that should be the basis of good science. Experiments get distorted, data discarded, evidence tweaked, models misdirected. Results get misrepresented and spun, truth buried deeply and disguised so well it might as well not be there. And we all lose because in the end, objective, good quality science is the only way we can figure out how the universe works and how to fix stuff. Religion won’t work, and meta-religion changes science into psuedo-science. It is a disease that must be eradicated if we are to reap the benefits that science can bring.

Why do we let stupid people make important decisions?

OK, rant mode active, constructively I hope. More and more of my time seems to be wasted by other people’s stupidity, and since life is short and time limited, it annoys me. I think it is getting worse and is undermining what could otherwise be a very pleasant life. We all experience lots of things every day where someone has been empowered to make decisions who really shouldn’t have been, due to either incompetence, bias or even malice. Things often seem to be going backwards, in spite of access to more wealth and better technology. It is one step forwards and one back.

One aspect of the problem is the seemingly ubiquitous replacement of common sense by sets of petty rules and box-ticking, possibly to avoid litigation. Too many abide by rules instead of using their own judgement, and it costs us all dearly in wasted time, sorting out the mess. In an age where people should really be trying to differentiate themselves from machines, it seems many want to behave like robots and discard their human advantages. What should be their ability to judge individual situations on their merits is often discarded. Consequently, their behaviour falls far below a standard that should reasonably be expected, and in doing  so they hold everyone back and prevent quality of life from reaching its full potential. The state is certainly one of the guilty parties here, disincentivising personal initiative and punishing free thinking.

It isn’t just in authority that people just don’t seem to activate their brains a lot of the time though. It applies in shopping and food preparation, where  decades of exposure to bad programming and examples from  advertising, health scares and sell-by dates appears to have brain damaged us and removed much of our natural ability to discern what is good for us or what is safe to eat.

And in an age where we know is quite some detail how the universe works from a physics and chemistry perspective, we know surprisingly little about some of the really important stuff. Surely after 150,000 years, we should have figured out how to bring up kids and educate them, but people still disagree passionately in these areas. Where is all the accumulated wisdom gone? In areas like science, knowledge builds up over time. But not here, where it is really important.

But we are collectively dumb too. There have always been smart people and less smart people, nice people and not so nice. But we often give decision-making powers to idiots instead of ensuring that those things that affect us are designed or decided by people with at least a modicum of competence and sound judgement. Why? When people get to a point where they can do damage with their decisions, we really ought to make sure they are competent beyond the point of simply ticking boxes and blindly following instructions. But we don’t. We just put up with the consequences and occasionally moan.

Planners especially seem unable to learn from their mistakes. For example, in the last few years, we have seen a huge rise in the numbers of traffic lights, in many cases where it was obvious to everyone except the planners that they would make things worse. The planners seemed surprised that they didn’t make things better, and that turning them off temporarily actually improves traffic flows again. Now they will remove many of them again. Money was wasted, along with countless hours of people’s time, and huge frustration resulted, because the wrong people were empowered. And this isn’t the first time planners have collectively made such mistakes, they did it all before with speed bumps, chicanes and other ‘traffic calming’ measures. They make major errors again and again. We all suffer as a result, but no-one ever gets punished for it. Town and road planning sometimes seems to be staffed entirely by idiots, generation after generation. And it certainly isn’t the case that no-one else could do any better. Planners cause problems that almost anyone living in the area would have expected immediately and yet  large amounts of money are wasted on their ideas, time after time. Estates are built that provide little or no infrastructure, expensive ornaments are bought that almost no-one likes, apartment blocks need demolished because no-one wants to live there, cinemas open and close again because they were built in the wrong place. Planning is a huge concentration of applied idiocy. We can’t expect everyone to be geniuses, but we shouldn’t put people in important roles if they aren’t capable enough to do them properly. Doing so is collective stupidity.

Even the private sector is affected, even though stupidity reduces profits, and it isn’t for lack for examples of good practice. Companies seem actively to introduce stupidity. We see many companies annoying their core customers again and again by trying to mislead them with ‘up to’ offers, misleading bulk buy pricing, auto-renew contracts, and deliberately misleading advertising. Many quite deliberately employ obnoxious people on customer service desks who perhaps save pennies for the company by refusing to help at a much greater subsequent cost in lost business. Whatever short term gains any of these achieve are far outweighed by the loss of long term revenue, since annoyed customers will soon look for competitors to move to, taking their cash elsewhere.

I will stop the list here, otherwise it could fill a book easily. We are all familiar with the high level of stupidity ingrained in things we encounter everyday, even though mentioning such daily things quickly gets you grumpy old man status.

The problem isn’t that everyone is stupid – just that more stupid people are allowed to make the decisions now. There always have been stupid people, but we didn’t always put them in charge. In some countries even today, important decisions seem to be made by relatively smart people. And in terms of overall level of stupidity, it sadly does appear to be the case that people are getting worse. More people seem willing now to abide by silly, petty or abitrary rules as if there is some merit in doing so, and more willing to abdicate any personal thinking in favour of ticking boxes and following official guidelines without any use of discretion or judgement. In some cases, it is almost a religion substitute, achieving a sense of being holy by making sure you follow all the rules rigidly, regardless of any sense. In many cases, a moment’s thought would indicate that the rule should not be applied in that situation, or should be interpreted differently. That’s what I really mean by stupid (albeit a bit late to define it), steadfast refusal to apply even a modicum of intelligence to a situation. In a few cases, the person may not have the raw intelligence, but usually they have, they just don’t bother to use it.

If it is true that society as a whole is getting worse, the future will be terrible, in spite of any scientific and technology advances. Then, other people will always mess it up, however good it could be. But somehow we must escape the spiral into such a state.

Of course, most people have observed these same issues from time to time, even if they don’t bother to blog about them. They are common conversation material. Some people blame the education system, others blame the nanny state, others modern lifestyle. Human nature is partly to blame, and makes its presence felt via all these routes. When people are given an easy path, they tend to take it. If the state provides simple rules and financial incentives to tick appropriate boxes, while punishing mistakes, then personal initiative is deterred. If driving carelessly and inconsiderately but staying below a speed limit leaves you unscathed, whereas briefly exceeding what may well be too low a speed limit is punished more severely than shoplifting, then it is no great surprise that roads are populated by inconsiderate and incompetent drivers who stick to speed limits but cause endless congestion, traffic jams and accidents.

Education too has become very much more a process of learning to tick boxes. Having to push kids through exams that confirm to a rigid syllabus has squeezed out much of the free thinking that society ultimately depends on. Fixed knowledge is already documented well and easily accessible by machine based intelligence. We don’t need people to do work that depends on existing knowledge, computers and robots can do it. We need people who can go easily beyond what they have been told, or we will cease to be able to add real value to anything, which of course is the whole basis of any economy. Again offering rewards for sticking to rules and punishments for free thinking runs counter to this need. Education needs to move away from the rigid syllabus and once again development of thinking skills.

But the core issue is putting people in charge who are not suited to such positions. Part of this is self selection, where people go for jobs that they want to do, even if they are not suited to them, (and may even know they aren’t) and somehow they get through the selection procedure. Part is deliberate placing for party political reasons, even when it is known that the person is unsuitable. Part of the cause of that is poor interviewing, part is luck. The skills needed to win in interviews are not always, or even often, the same as those required to do the job. Appearance and interpersonal skills play too large a part in recruitment, at the expense of other areas of competence. And part is being lucky enough to get asked questions that suit you better then those given to the competitors – luck plays a much bigger part in getting to the top of an organisation than people give credit for. If the timing of the vacancy being advertised means you are up against weaker opponents, you are more likely to get through. And differences between competitors may be very small so tiny differences in interview might make a big career difference. So, given the high degree of randomness and scope for errors built in to such a system, it is sometimes the case that some people get to the top even when there are far more able people in the organisation. So we end up sometimes with less able people in power. So part of the problem is deliberate misplacement, some is luck, some poor judgement or other errors.

But it doesn’t even need these problems. Organisations tend to promote people who think like those above them – people who fit the mould. Once a bias for a particular kind of person or mindset exists in an organisation, it tends to be reinforced, as years of ongoing natural wastage and selection gradually replaces those who don’t fit it. Boards are notoriously bad at this, picking new members just like themselves even when it is obvious that new challenges need new thinking. Once again, we end up with people unsuited to the job in hand, but who accumulate others around them equally unsuited to their roles too.

In order to break the mould, to get to a state of competence, the cycle of reinforcement of poor performance has to be broken. This cannot be implemented by existing structures which have been proven not to work, it has to come from outside, either by regulation or replacement of an entire system.

Maybe we need to end the long term employment expectations we tend to use today. It is often very hard to get rid of someone from a job even if they are obviously unsuited to it. Fixing that would enable a feedback mechanism that could actually work, based on feedback. But feedback from whom? Customer, end users, other stakeholders? It isn’t going to be easy fixing it. We are in a real mess and it will be hard to find solutions that will work, but before we can even start to do that, we need to recognise the problem is genuine and not just a topic for discussion in pubs. I am not sure we are even close to that yet.

Flexible electronic paper gadgets this. It is nice to see this sort of thing finally making it to market, or at least viable demo.

In May 1994 I applied for a patent on this (I didn’t get it because someone had actually patented a conflicting idea in 1991):

I think it is a bit late coming, but with electronic flexible paper and updated interfaces, this sort of thing would now fly. I for one would rather have my security and other functions at least a bit unbundled from my phone/PDA, and have the flexibility of buying components from different manufacturers.

A wallet device like this could be a good open source venture. Manufacturers of processors, memory cards, biometric devices and son on would see an obvious advantage in this versus devices such as an iPhone or Google phone. Users too would appreciate being able to add a sensible amount of storage and processing without having to wait for whole new models of PDA to be released by the giants. And of course, there is no reason to assume that a company who makes a nice attractive interface is necessarily the best one at security or networking. So mix and match capability would still be as attractive now as it was in 1994. And with flexible electronic devices coming in, we may well finally see solutions like this making it into the high street.