Category Archives: My soap box

The problem with capitalism…in a ball

Unless you’re a golfer, you probably don’t think about golf balls. But a new US lawsuit about these little dimpled spheres has an economics lesson for all shoppers, showing why consumers have cause for concern when companies use court for sport. Costco, the wholesale membership club, rocked the golf world in 2016 when it started…

via A lawsuit over Costco golf balls shows why we can’t have nice things cheap — Quartz

The practice of Capitalism is more people-friendly than say, Totalitarianism, because it requires people to be consumers, and that is something people are happy to be. But to work properly, Capitalism requires the checks and balances of a healthy, competitive marketplace.

Using the law as a way to get rid of the competition may be ‘legal’ and ‘clever’, but it’s also a bully’s scam. The law is meant to be an equalizer, not a weapon. Frivolous legal action should have punitive consequences. While it does not, the law becomes complicit in the scam.

Perhaps I’m naive. Okay, I know I’m naive, but I did not expect the companies being bullied to accepted the inequity of their situation without protest. Excuse me? You’ve just lost your company for no good reason, and you grudgingly admire the tactic that made you lose?

Is this really the way we want our world to run?

In Australia, we have something called the ‘pub test’. If the common man in the pub thinks something stinks, then the authorities need to take action, even if it isn’t strictly illegal, because there’s the letter of the law, and then there’s the spirit of the law, and we all know the difference.

Meeks


Another post about a perplexing WordPress.com ‘feature’

I’ve had issues with the WordPress Reader in the past, but this latest one has me scratching my head. Have a look at how many screens I have to go through to comment on a post from the Reader:

This is a screenshot of the Reader. Notice the function circled in red? Comments are definitely available.

So I click on the heading of the article to read what it’s actually about and get this:

 

‘Share’, ‘Comments’ and ‘Like’ are still available, as you can see, but if you click on the ‘Comment’ function, WordPress just refreshes the page you’re on without allowing you to:

  • leave a comment or
  • see what other comments there might be.

You can, however, click the ‘Like’ function.

Something not shown in the screenshot [because it wouldn’t fit] is a very small link in the top right corner of the screen that says ‘Visit page’. I didn’t notice that link at first, and assumed that I was already on the page. But no. To get to the actual page, I need to click again, either on the ‘Visit page’ link or on the heading of the article.

Then and only then do I finally get to the poster’s blog where…glory be…I can leave a comment!

And, of course, with all these clicks needed to simply leave a comment, you’ll have to click back just as many times. 😦

Is this a WordPress change-in-progress that isn’t quite there yet? I hope so because this layering is annoying and will probably stop all but the most determined reader from leaving a comment, and that is bad for all of us.

WordPress is not Facebook. It’s a blogging community that interacts via comments. That is its strength and beauty. Likes are all well and good, but we all know that it’s comments from friends and potential new friends that puts the joy into blogging. Anything that creates a barrier between members of this community should be avoided at all costs.

Let’s get back to a format where the Reader provides not only tasty samples but also a direct gateway to the main course.

cheers

Meeks

p.s. And after all that, you can read Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog post here. 🙂


New genetic modification techniques – Australia

The following is a quote from an email I received today regarding the approval of new GM tech in Australia:

Next week Dr Michael Antoniou, Reader in Molecular Genetics at King’s College London School of Life Sciences will be visiting Melbourne. He is here to discuss his concerns with a range of new genetic engineering techniques that the Federal Government is currently proposing not to regulate.
If the Government deregulates these techniques anyone from amateur biohackers – to industry – would be free to use them to genetically modify plants, animals and microbes. And they could enter our food chain and our environment with no safety testing and no labelling. The results could be catastrophic.

The key phrase is ‘proposing not to regulate‘, closely followed by ‘no safety testing‘ and ‘no labelling‘.

Genetic modification is here to stay and we have to accept that, but we do not have to accept a wild, wild west style free-for-all. Surely an ethical approach is not too much to ask from our government, even the Liberals?

The ‘GM 2.0: What the Government isn’t telling you’ forum is being held next Monday:
6.30 (for a 7pm start) – 9pm, Monday 20th March
William Angliss Institute: Rm. A337, Building A, 555 La Trobe St., Melbourne

Please email Louise Sales <louise.sale@foe.org.au> for a ticket if you can attend [they’re free].

If not, please get people talking about this issue. Isn’t it time our opinions were heard? Corporations may stand to make a lot of money out of this, but you and I will be the bunnies who have to live with it.

cheers

Meeks


Manipulation of the ‘filter bubble’

In my previous post, ‘Is Facebook the Real Big Brother’, I talked about Facebook and manipulation. Here, now, is a TED talk from 2011 about the ‘personalisation’ of the internet, and how it locks us in rather than freeing us up.

I have to say I was shocked when I watched this TED talk, especially as Eli Pariser foresaw the problems we’re now facing…6 years ago. I was also shocked because I had no idea that even my searches were being ‘tailored’ for me by Google.

“From human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.”

When I do a search, I want it to be relevant, yes, but I also want to see what’s out there. I want to choose what I see, because if I can’t see the things that I may not like, I may be manipulated into seeing things that are skewed for someone else’s benefit.

Cambridge Analytics already boasts that:

  • it knows us better than we know ourselves and
  • used that knowledge in both the Trump election and Brexit.

Truth or bullshit?

Given the company’s connection to billionaire software genius Robert Mercer*, and Mercer’s connection to Breitbart and Bannon, I can’t shrug it off as bullshit. But if Trump and Brexit are possible, then Eli Pariser’s filter bubble could turn out to be more like a noose.

My thanks to Honie Briggs for the link to the TED talk.

Meeks

*The Guardian expose is here and you can Google the details to check their validity:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage


Is Facebook the real Big Brother?

 

Image courtesy of orwelltoday.com

Image courtesy of orwelltoday.com

I read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in the mid-70’s, but even then it was pretty obvious that his prediction of a world ruled by ‘Big Brother’ just wasn’t going to happen.

For starters, the technology simply was not there, and then there was the disconnect with [Western] society itself. Rather than being downtrodden and submissive, individuals in the ’80’s had never had it so good. So I filed 1984 away as another example of science fiction getting it wrong.

Now, let’s jump to 2017 and the article I read in Quartz this morning:

Facebook says it can sway elections after all—for a price

Essentially, the story is that Facebook didn’t sway the 2016 election with ‘fake news’, but in the future, candidates might get themselves elected by buying into a paid campaign:

To the majority of its users, Facebook seems like a passive platform for sharing news and engaging with various communities. But the social network is also a sophisticated multibillion-dollar advertising giant that is, at its heart, in the business of persuasion.

‘Advertising giant’. Wow. Of course…

I’ve never enjoyed spending time on Facebook, so I’ve never really taken the Facebook phenomenon seriously, yet now I feel as if the wool has literally been torn from my eyes. Or perhaps it’s just that so many disparate pieces of information have finally coalesced into a new picture of the world. Think about this:

  • As at February, 2017 there were ‘ 1.86 billion monthly active Facebook users’ [https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/]
  • Facebook already possesses masses of information from and about its users,
  • This information is provided, free of charge and voluntarily, by the users themselves [every ‘Like’ is data],
  • The users provide this information because at some level they either trust Facebook or enjoy the experience enough to suspend doubt,
  • Facebook makes its revenue from advertisments,
  • Facebook advertisements are tailored to the likes and dislikes of its users,
  • Newspapers are going out of business because their advertising revenue is drying up,
  • News media online are finding it hard to attract subscribers – i.e. people who pay for news – because the internet is awash with the stuff, much of it on Facebook,
  • Every company with a product to sell is scrambling to find a way of attracting customers because the old ways are no longer effective.

So, what do all these ‘bits’ actually mean?

Close your eyes and imagine that Facebook is not a social media platform. Imagine instead that it is the biggest market research company in the world. Now, picture that market research company analysing all the data it receives from users and using the results to offer targeted ‘audiences’ to advertisers. For a price, those advertisers will get to place their advertisements in front of the people most likely to buy their products – the perfect, closed loop sales environment.

“So what’s wrong with that?” you say. “Facebook is merely doing what commercial TV has always done, just better, and it’s still the quality of the advertisment that ultimately sells the product. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether the product is a brand of toothpaste or a politician up for election; boring adverts get tuned out.”

There is an element of truth in that objection, and if that were all that Facebook does, I’d simply shake my head and say ‘buyer beware’.

But Facebook doesn’t just use data to push advertising to users. Facebook also hides information from users.

The official story is that the Facebook algorithms ensure your timeline displays only the information you actually want to see. In truth, much of the information hidden from users is advertising ‘spam’ of the “Please buy my XXX” kind. Given how boring such spam is, most users see Facebook’s actions as no different to the spam filter of their email.

The trouble with this view of Facebook is that email spam filters do not make money by selling a different kind of spam back to the user. Another difference is that real spam filters require the user to tell them what’s junk and what’s not, and even then, they often get it wrong. I know mine does. So how can we be sure that Facebook’s algorithms are any better? The simple answer is that we can’t, because we never get to see the ‘spam’. Facebook’s algorithms could be wildly wrong, but because we are never given a choice, we never get to find out.

I’m sure that the bulk of Facebook users will see this as pure convenience, but I see it as manipulation. And as far as I’m concerned, when manipulation is teamed with propaganda [selling advertising campaigns to politicians], I see the potential for a very dangerous situation.

While Facebook remains unchallenged in its ability to provide targeted advertising, its ability to manipulate users will probably remain merely a potential danger. But what happens when/if some other social media platform comes along to challenge Facebook? What if revenues begin to fall. Will Facebook continue to do the ‘right’ thing and distinguish between paid advertising and ‘content’? Or will it try to cheat the system the way German car maker Volkswagen did?

For those who don’t follow the news, Volkswagen created software for some of their cars that would make it appear that the car was EPA compliant when it was not. Why? Because it was cheaper to create the software than to make the cars truly compliant. Read money and shareholders’ profits.

The problem with Facebook is that it has the capacity to do more than just cheat the system. It has the capacity to completely subvert the system, effectively selling votes by manipulating what users do and do not see. It’s not such a big step to go from not seeing spam to not seeing ANY information that competes with the world view of the politician with the deepest pockets.

That’s why I see Facebook as having the potential to become the Big Brother of our nightmares. And if the unthinkable does happen, it will have done so with our free and willing consent.

 

Meeks


Propoganda – then and now

I don’t want to do too much exposition here. Instead, I’d like you to read these two quotes, and then I’ll tell you where they come from [the highlights are mine]:

“Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. (…) All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. (…) The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another. (…) The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.”[5]

Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favourable to the other side, present it according to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favourable to its own side. (…) The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. (…) Every change that is made in the subject of a propagandist message must always emphasize the same conclusion. The leading slogan must of course be illustrated in many ways and from several angles, but in the end one must always return to the assertion of the same formula.”

And now for the big reveal: both quotes come from Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_in_Nazi_Germany#Films

In her post today, Jill Dennison writes about the most recent White House press briefing in which certain media organizations were allowed in, and others were not. I strongly recommend reading her article for yourselves:

https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/12093442/posts/1353096890

1-trump-as-hitler

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-marshall-crotty/comparing-trump-to-hitler_b_9334668.html

I know the resemblance to Hitler is a meme at the moment, but the reality underlying that meme is truly frightening. Everyone laughed at Trump prior to the election, and we’re still laughing at the little black moustache now, but it’s not really funny. Trump may be a buffoon and little better than a ‘child’ himself, but the men pulling his strings are not. Let’s hope they don’t have the last laugh.

Meeks


Letter of resignation from Climate Change Authority

I promised myself some good news posts this weekend, and in a strange sort of way, this is one. It’s a resignation in response to the ‘clean’ coal bullshit of the Libs.:

climate-change-resignation

My thanks to Metan for tweeting about this, even if it made me angry all over again. And hats off to Professor Clive Hamilton for putting his principles first, but what a sad indictment of the man-who-once-supported-the-ETS. It seems our PM has decided that his reputation and legacy are of less value than his continued presence as our leader.

If the above sounds as if I’m taking Malcolm Turncoat’s defection personally, you’re right, I am. Despite being a Labor supporter, I did harbour a secret admiration for the man. He was what I thought all good politicians ought to be – a man of honour and integrity who became a politician to serve us, the people.

No fool like an old fool. In betraying his own principles, Malcolm Turncoat also betrayed me and every other voter who believed in him. The man who should have resigned was not Professor Hamilton, it was the PM.

Not happy, Malcolm,

Meeks


#Australia – new climate change predictions

Sitting here with the aircon turned on, and a hot north wind blowing outside, it’s hard not to be afraid, especially after seeing this graph:

climate-change-temperature-graph

The graph charts temperatures over the last 100 years – from 1910 to 2010. Not surprisingly, blue represents years of below average cold and red represents years of above average heat. And no, it wasn’t your imagination – summers really have been getting hotter.

My growing up years [1950s to 1970s] were mild. We did get the odd hot day in Melbourne. We even experienced the odd heatwave, but they were unusual events. I know, because we did not even own a fan back then! Now, I can’t imagine living without an air-conditioner.

Unfortunately, heat is not the only thing that’s changed. Nor will it be the only thing that gets worse. I highly recommend reading the complete report from the Climate Council:

https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/uploads/1b331044fb03fd0997c4a4946705606b.pdf

You can also read an abbreviated, ‘highlights of’ article about the report here:

http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/climate-change/longer-hotter-summers-predicted-in-extreme-weather-report-by-climate-council/news-story/958f45a1141453664fcb5933921b4c14?utm_source=Daily+Carbon+Briefing&utm_campaign=4b550aee94-cb_daily&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-4b550aee94-303473869

Now think about these facts – every year for the last three years has been the hottest on record. That means since we’ve been measuring and recording temperature.

According to the Climate Change deniers and skeptics, what we’re experiencing is just another ‘cycle’ in the earth’s climate history. We’ve had ice ages, now we’re having a period of heat. The one thing they’re not ‘having’ is that this period of heat might be caused by humans rather than natural fluctuations.

So let’s take that perspective to its natural conclusion: the world may be getting hotter and climate may be getting more extreme, but it’s not our fault so there’s nothing we can do about it except ‘suck it up’ [and hope we all survive].

To me, that is the most terrifying, defeatist outlook possible. Yes, it does allow for ‘business as usual’, but only because disaster is inevitable so we may as well make money while we can.

By contrast, almost all of the actual climate change scientists say that this distopian outlook is not inevitable. It will take a lot of work, and things will get worse before they get better, but there’s a good chance that we’ll survive…if we clean up the mess we’ve made.

As one of the canaries in the coal mine, I much prefer the optimistic outlook, don’t you?

But why do I imply that Australians are canaries in the coal mine? Isn’t that fate reserved for the island nations of the Pacific?

Um, no, actually. Australia has quite a delicate climate. Yes, I know, how can deserts and bushfires be delicate? What I mean is that we already experience extremes thanks to our geography which means that climate change will have less work to do to make extreme turn into unbearable.

But it is the Australia inhabited by this generation’s grandchildren, 2090, where the heat will really be on, if greenhouse gas emissions worldwide fail to meet current reduction targets.

By that year the report predicts Darwin will have a staggering 265 days each year above 35C.

That quote was taken from the news.com.au article, but the data comes from the Climate Council report [linked above].

Melbourne won’t fare so badly in terms of temperature, but we’ll have other worries – such as increased droughts and a great many more bushfires. If we continue with business as usual, life will be close to unbearable for our children and their children. This is not some dystopian, science fiction plot line I’ve come up with to give you all a good scare. This is real, my friends, and becoming harder to fix with every day we procrastinate.

Back in 2009, eight years ago now, Malcolm Turnbull lost the leadership of the Liberal Party because he supported the Rudd, Labor government, in its attempts to get a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme up and running. Many Australians honoured Turnbull for that, seeing him as a politician of integrity. Many Australians supported his return to the leadship of the Liberal party for the same reason. I know I did. 😦

But where is Turnbull now? Shackled to the idiology of the ultra Right, that’s where. These Conservatives do not believe in human induced climate change. As a result, they fight tooth and nail to keep Australia from shifting to a low or neutral carbon economy [read renewables instead of coal]. If Turnbull wants to stay in power, he has to appease these deniers and skeptics.

Well guess what? Turnbull has been appeasing these deniers and skeptics. The latest ‘clean’ coal proposals are the greatest betrayal possible because Turnbull must know that the holy grail of clean coal will never be achieved. Even with the most stringest technologies currently available [which would make electricity from coal more expensive not less], coal fired power plants would still produce more emissions than gas fired power plants. Yes, gas. Not solar, not wind, not wave or geothermal, but gas.

I no longer believe that Malcolm Turnbull is a man of integrity. He has what he wanted all along – the Prime Ministership – and he’ll betray everything he believes in to keep it. Thanks, Malcolm. I hope your stay at Kirribilli House is short.

Meeks

 


Stubbing your toe will hurt – that is a fact

First came the Women’s March. Now comes the March for Science. Given the ongoing protests sweeping the US, one might assume that scientists are organizing to voice their general disagreement with Donald Trump’s policies—or perhaps that they simply want to protect their grants and jobs from federal funding cuts. But what’s at stake is much…

via The March for Science isn’t partisan or anti-Trump—it’s pro-facts — Quartz

This article is about facts and the threat facing science in tRump’s America. Not ‘alternate facts’ but the kind that always hurt, no matter how much you may try to explain them away. One such fact is that the US became great because of its science. The only way to make it great again is to give science, and facts, the respect they deserve.


Glyphosate and autism…or is it?

I would very much like to believe that the glyphosate in Monsanto’s Roundup is toxic, but I’ve just found a comment that brings the current ‘proof’ into question. The comment, from Henry, is copy-pasted below.

I have to admit that the word “autism” troubled me a great deal when reading this piece. The whole debacle with vaccines and autism has been quite well-publicised as an example of bad science. The reason why autism spectrum disorder always seems to pop up should be clear.
Autism spectrum disorder affects children. And there are a lot of concerned and frightened parents in the world, who look things up on the internet.
It turns out Stephanie Seneff is quite infamous for a paper she co-wrote in 2013. Here are two links to articles debunking her paper at the time by people more familiar with the topic than I am.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamar-haspel/condemning-monsanto-with-_b_3162694.html
http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2014/12/31/oh-no-gmos-are-going-to-make-everyone-autistic/
Some of the main points in the articles are that:
– Correlation between glyphosate use and autism over time does not prove causality; indeed there is a similar correlation between organic food sales and autism.
– Showing that a compound affects an enzyme in gut bacteria is far removed from showing any link with any disease, let alone proving that the compound causes autism specifically.
– “Exogenous semiotic entropy”, a phrase used in the paper, is made-up.
– The paper contains no original research.
Now this is not to defend Monsanto as an organisation (the interplay of intellectual property and genetics is something I’m really not comfortable with). But please let’s not get into fearmongering. I really admire this blog because the information you throw light on is not just interesting, but also accurate.
Thanks for your consideration~
Henry

I have followed both links and read them. Honestly, I no longer know what to think. Please read Henry’s comment and let’s talk about this. I have someone with Ulcerative Colitis in the family so this is rather important to me.

As a lay person, I can’t speak for any of the facts, on either side, but the disruption of the shikimate pathway in gut bacteria does worry me. We do not know everything there is to know about either the human body or the bacteria that live in our gut and seem to have a symbiotic relationship with us. At the very least, I’d like to see some serious research into what effect, if any, the glyphosate has on our gut bacteria. All? Or just a few? Which ones? And does it matter to them? If it does matter, then I’d like to know if it affects us and in what ways.

I think these are valid questions, but as far as I know, the research hasn’t been done, and that is the problem with the correlation vs causation argument: until we can disprove any harmful connection between glyphosate and shikimate pathways and gut bacteria and humans, we cannot prove that there is no causation either. Examples off the top of my head include: smoking and lung cancer, asbestos and mesothelioma, h.pylori and stomach ulcers, thalidomide and birth defects, human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. I was tempted to mention agent orange but I have no idea where the research is on that one.

I’m not saying the glyphosate/shikimate pathways/gut bacteria situation is the same, but the question has been raised, and I’d hate to throw the baby out with the bath water. Whether the answer will have anything to do with autism [or ulcerative colitis] is irrelevant. This is something we need to know, and I, for one, do not trust Monsanto to provide a non-biased answer.

Please tell me what you think.

Meeks


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