Saturday, 29 November 2008

Ministry of standards

Governments involve themselves in much of public life. It is reasonable to think that at least some involvement is excessive. Many would argue that most involvement is excessive. Of all the portfolios that governments have, there is one that I think should exist of its own accord.

We should have a Ministry of Standards.

Now we do have laws related to these issues, but I think the issue is important enough to warrant its own department with various divisions.

By standards I mean
  • defining various standards;
  • ensuring they are appropriate;
  • enforcing their use; and
  • prescribing punishments for breaches
Given that I prefer minimal government this may appear intrusive, but I see it as an issue of justice, and justice is an important role of government.

Defining standards

It is important to understand that I mean standards which are defined not prescribed. I do not think the government should enforce what manufactures should do, rather describe accurately what they in fact do. Granted there may be safety issues that mean minimum standards must be met in some areas, but by and large I think people should be able to exchange what they wish to do so. People should be able to buy products of varying quality.

Quality often relates to price. For any given object, desired price and quality vary among consumers. Some want high quality, others want low price. Most want high quality and low cost, but decisions are made at the margins. Government does not have a role in specifying a minimum standard (usually). Such a policy limits people, especially the poor who may not be able to afford such high quality items.

I do however think the government can have a role in ensuring that such items are of the claimed quality, and further, the government can have a role in specifying what must be shown on items for sale.

Examples include weights and volumes for foodstuffs, measurement dials in vehicles, breaking force and insulation property of glass, and electricity meters. Much of which is already covered by law.

Ensuring appropriateness

Consumers have the benefit of taking their custom where they will. Manufactures have the benefit in knowing exactly the quality of their product. Few consumers have the knowledge or ability to assess quality to this degree. Manufacturers may advertise various benefits of their product which is fine, but this should not be used to remove focus from more important quality issues that may not be mentioned.

Consider digital cameras. The quality of a photo is determined by several things including resolution. For people who print photos 6 megapixels is probably adequate. Now manufacturers can produce cameras of higher density such as 9 megapixels and they should be free to do so. This is good for larger photos, for cropping photos, and for digital zoom. The problem is that people may assume that the number of pixels reflects the quality of the photo because of the way cameras are marketed; but other factors are important such as the depth per pixel, speed of shot, stability of image capture, and software manipulation. So one may spend the extra money gaining extra pixels with no gain in printed product, and possibly worse if the pictures are blurred. He would be better spending the extra money on a camera that shoots more stable pictures at a lower resolution.

Defining standards of measures that affect photo quality that must be displayed on the product makes people aware of the issues, it lets them choose what they think best, and makes it harder for manufacturers to make cheap improvements and market the product as significantly superior.

Enforcing use

This is legislation that makes certain labelling compulsory and allows for the government to fund random testing to ensure compliance. Not compliance to some artificial mandate, rather accuracy of labelling. I am not concerned whether a product contains 1% or 20% sugar, just that one can trust the label.

Dealing with non-compliance

I think there is a role for this ministry to define the level of fines for breaches. The relationship between consumer and manufacturer is asymmetrical. Fortunately manufacturers are quite responsive to consumers for the sake of their brand name. However they may not be, especially in areas that may not have significant repeat service such as car and house sales. When organisations are blatantly and knowingly passing off a false product it is unduly onerous to expect a duped consumer to take up this cause. It costs them time, time that may be intentionally delayed by a company; money they may not have; and even if they were to win in court they may still be out of pocket and time and the company may be inadequately fined nor forced to significantly change their practice. Government enforcement is probably preferable.

I do not see this as applying to legitimate disputes, nor should it remove the ability for a consumer to act if they deem it necessary.

Nor am I anti-industry. I think some people make frivolous claims. Frivolity should be dealt with by claim dismissal and fining if necessary (paying the appropriate costs of all sides at minimum). Further, many companies care about both their employees and their customer base; they are what keep them in business.

Some caveats

  • As mentioned above, I don't see the governments role as setting what standards a product should have, just what standards it should measured by and making those easily accessible, preferably displayed on the product. Of course the company can include any other benefits it wishes to, so long those claims are accurate.
  • If the government wishes to set minimum standards, e.g. seatbelt positioning and engagement, then this is the role of a different department. It is very important the roles are not confused and that excessive red tape is not created.
  • I do not think the compliance costs should be high. It is reasonable to measure the macro- and micro-constituents of foodstuffs as this is a one-off cost. Incorporating the data into a label is not that costly either. But requiring a car company to carry out extensive crash testing would be an excessive cost. Car companies remain free to do this of their own volition and many large car companies do this anyway. And the government is free to carry out this testing (though at whose cost?).
  • I am not certain whether the government should enforce standards that are measured by a group not of the manufacturer's choosing. It is their product, they should have some say. Though if it is a sensible and well defined standard then the result should be the same whoever tests.
  • Protecting vulnerable people from predators and the public from scams are important issues, but may come under a slightly different aegis. Possibly a division within the "standards" umbrella, probably within a policing portfolio.
  • I think monetary policy and inflation comes under the definition of standards, but the issue of monetary standards is large enough to have a separate division within a Ministry of Standards.

Current law

I am aware that much of this is already in legislation. I do not mean to imply that this is not done. I just think it important enough for citizens that it is reasonable for the state to involve itself. It is after all an issue of justice, and justice is one of the few mandates of the state.

More to follow.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Walk the (grace) line

I intermittently watched the movie Walk the Line recently. It is about Johnny Cash (1932–2003). I did not know that much about him other than he was a Christian and I have heard a few of his songs.

I am cautious about how much one can rely on a movie for biography; at times "artistic licence" seems to be a euphemism for "flagrantly disingenuous." Nevertheless, it told of his his addiction to (prescription) drugs and possibly alcohol; and his marriage break-up due to this and possibly his infidelity.

He subsequently recovered from his addictions and also married singer June Carter. He remained married to her until her death 35 years later.

The story reminded me of a prayer by a fellow parishioner. His own marriage had dissolved many years ago following his indiscretions. He subsequently remarried. He apparently prayed a few years ago during an open prayer meeting something along the lines of, "Lord, thank you that you are a God of second chances."

These are excellent examples of God's grace in people's lives. The God we serve is a God of redemption, of the returning prodigal, of mercy and goodness toward a race of sinners; a God of second chances.
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live;... (Ezekiel 33)

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Ancient Hebrew text found

If you haven't seen this, archaeologists found a potsherd with a text in ancient Hebrew characters.



The glyphs have been described as proto-Canaanite, though the era is claimed to be that of King David c. 1000 BC. Paleo-Hebrew was thought to have formed into square Hebrew near the time of Ezra/ Nehemiah at the end of the exile. Below is the first 3 paleo-Hebrew glyphs (alef, bet, gimel; a, b, g).

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Unclean food: Do God's commands change at his whim?

Most Christians have no concerns about eating pork. Many Jews do. God clearly forbade the eating of pig meat at Sinai, yet Christians don't consider it forbidden. Several questions that I can think of or that I have seen asked include:
  • Is eating pork acceptable?
  • Why was it banned at Sinai but acceptable millennia later?
  • Can God give contradictory commandments?
  • Which command takes precedence?
  • What basis in Scripture is there for accepting the later commandment rather than the previous commandment?
  • Why is it wrong for the Hebrews but not for the Gentiles?
  • Is morality or God arbitrary?
The issue here is understanding the reasons for which God sets laws.

Some laws reflect God's righteousness. Examples of sins directly against God would be murder, adultery, worshipping anything other than the true creator. These laws exist because of the nature of God. These laws are directly determined by the nature of God and his morality. Honouring anyone above the creator dishonours the creator. Unlawfully destroying the image of God in a man steps outside man's domain and assumes God's domain; not to mention the source of murder is in hatred which God despises.

The Hebrews had many laws and not all of them were in the above category. The offence against God in breaking these other laws was disobedience. Now disobedience is a major sin which implies that obedience is very important; but this does not mean that the forbidden action in and of itself offends God's righteousness. Whereas breaking laws like murder are acting in disobedience as God has commanded not to, but they are sinful both in their disobedience and in their intrinsic action.

Parenthood holds an analogy. I forbid my children to do many things. Some verboten actions are always wrong, but others are somewhat arbitrary or temporary based on the child's age. All broken rules are disobedience but several are also morally wrong.

One could label these 2 types of laws,
  • Moral laws: Breaking these contravene God's nature.
  • Legal laws: Breaking these contravene God's commands.
Legal rules can potentially be for a season. They could be for all time on earth but cease in heaven. They could be forever to test our obedience to God.

God forbidding Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge-of-good-and-evil was probably an obedience rule. Other examples would be eating vegetables pre-Fall versus eating meat post-Flood; not eating pig, rabbit, and camel for the nation of ancient Israel but eating these foods okay for Gentiles and Christians.

So why did God command the Hebrews not to eat pork?

Eating pork was not banned for the same reason as murder. It was in some respects arbitrary. This is seen in the temporary nature of the command.
And [Jesus] said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?" ( Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7)
The sin of eating pork is therefore not intrinsic to the pig meat itself, it is the disobedience of Jews to God concerning this specific commandment.

It is helpful to seek the underlying reason for the ban. This will give us the reason for the temporary nature and give us understanding into God's character and his reasoning in this example.

I think the commandment was to teach the Hebrews about holiness. They had to think about what food was acceptable and what was not. This is similar to other laws such a the the ban on ploughing with unclean and clean animals yoked together or making cloth with 2 different types of thread.

God made categories of clean and unclean so the Hebrews could learn to distinguish between them. Clean and unclean symbolise holy and unholy. God belongs to the category of holy and he wants the Jews to be holy also.

Of course there was never a ban on Gentile consumption of pork, nor a ban for Hebrews/ Israelites pre-Sinai. However Christians trace their spiritual heritage thru Israel; Christianity was not so much a new religion, more a greater revelation of God, namely thru Jesus his son. Now that now we have a fuller revelation in Jesus these old rules have changed. We have a new and better covenant.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The only test of any analysis is its truth

I am currently reading America's Great Depression by Murray N. Rothbard. He makes an interesting comment concerning critiques of Austrian economic theory. If it was included in the first edition, this comment was made in 1963:
Hayek believes that Mises's theory is somehow deficient because it is exogenous—because it holds that the generation of business cycles stems from interventionary acts rather than from acts of the market itself. This argument is difficult to fathom. Processes are either analyzed correctly or incorrectly; the only test of any analysis is its truth, not whether it is exogenous or endogenous. If the process is really exogenous, then the analysis should reveal this fact; the same holds true for endogenous processes. No particular virtue attaches to a theory because it is one or the other.
I found this reminiscent of the intelligent design debate. My substitutions bolded.
Evolutionists believe that intelligent design theory is somehow deficient because it is non-naturalistic—because it holds that the generation of genetic information stems from interventionary acts rather than from acts of the organism itself. This argument is difficult to fathom. Processes are either analyzed correctly or incorrectly; the only test of any analysis is its truth, not whether it is naturalistic or non-naturalistic. If the process is really non-naturalistic, then the analysis should reveal this fact; the same holds true for naturalistic processes. No particular virtue attaches to a theory because it is one or the other.

Friday, 7 November 2008

It doesn't matter so much who you vote for so long you vote

What is it about getting people to vote? It may seem reasonable to inform people about electoral process, but the intense drive to get people enrolled and to the polling booth seems at least partially misguided.

About a month ago nearly 100,000 New Zealanders under the age of 25 were not enrolled to vote in an election that happens tomorrow. And I say so what? One of the most foolish comments I hear is that taking part in elections is more important than who one votes for. This from Nigel Roberts, a political scientist no less,
Once you've got people to participate, they are more likely to participate the next time. The difficulty is snaring them in the first place.
There are so many things wrong with this concept it is difficult to know where to start.

Governing a country is no minor issue. If you are clueless as to the issues why do you have an opinion? And if you don't even really have an opinion, why cast a vote based on a trivial issue? Governments make decisions that significantly affect people for good and bad. Ruling people is a serious issue. You need to consider how policy will affect you and other people both in the short and long term. If you don't know as much as you think you need to, don't vote. The article gives several reasons why people don't vote but these are good reasons not to.
  • Most [young people] do not care, do not know enough about the process or just cannot be bothered.
  • An Electoral Commission study of young Kiwis last year found two general reactions to elections among all who were interviewed – "I'm in the dark" and "It's not on my wavelength".
  • Most said voting meant nothing to them, and some had a "fearful" relationship with politics.
  • Parties know that securing a first-time voter can result in a vote for life. Voting is habit-forming, and voting for the same party election after election is the norm rather than the exception.
If you don't care, are ignorant, it means nothing to you, or you are going to get into a habit rather than basing your decision on a valid reason, then I don't think you should vote, and encouraging other people to vote with this state of mind is plain wrong.

Some reasons given are understandable, but should not be a reason to avoid voting; they should be addressed.
  • Though they wanted to take part, they were overwhelmed by the decision-making process and intimidated by polling booths.
  • Most simply did not think their vote would make any difference, and many were disillusioned by politicians, distrusted those in power, did not believe the Government cared about them...
  • The least motivated almost held the entire system in disdain.
Voting shouldn't be made unpleasant for peripheral reasons like intimidation or inadequate access for the disabled. And it is understandable why many hold some politicians and the governmental system in low regard. Many in power are untrustworthy. These things are worth interacting with people about. Choosing not to vote because you object to all options, or even the concept of democracy is also a reasonable option.

Thinking your vote won't count is an understandable logical error.

2 other sentences are worth commenting on.
The challenge is to convince those people that voting is not only a right, but a responsibility.
It is a right in a democracy, though not an inalienable right. And it is your responsibility to vote well, not just vote. If you can't vote well one could argue it your responsibility to not vote.

I am not certain about these plans though.
And when the new school curriculum takes hold next year, New Zealand politics will be taught more frequently.
Firstly, politics is an important though peripheral subject. Literacy and numeracy remain primary, and I would rate logic as more foundational than politics. What is potentially concerning however is related to the current public schooling system having a socialist flavour. Attending a class in "politics" could very easily become indoctrination in socialist policy rather than teaching of political philosophy.

While some youth can make intelligent political decisions, I am not certain if this is the case for the majority. And there remains much immaturity and selfish motication. I mentioned above that one needs to consider how policy will affect you and other people both in the short and long term. Considering others and understanding the long term issues probably increases with age. The statistical nature of democracy means you need to consider how a demographic thinks and acts, irrespective of particular individuals in that demographic. Because of this my current thinking is that voting should be restricted by age to those older than 25, and preferably 30. This also applies to being a candidate for office.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Message and matter

It is important to understand the fundamental difference between these 2 concepts. Matter is all around us. Everything physical in the universe is matter or energy and Einstein showed us that they are essentially interchangeable, at least in essence if not always in practice. The stars, the earth, the moon. All the objects on the earth, both animate and inanimate. All are material. Composed of atoms and/ or photons.

As such they obey the laws of physics. Mass attracts, objects fall, momentum and energy are conserved, and entropy increases. They all obey the laws of chemistry which at a foundational level are laws of physics for elements. Why the chemistry laws should be as they are, ie. could the elements theoretically be different, is a different question.

None of this is too complex to understand, neither is it modern. While the ancients may not have understood the scientific laws in such detail, the concept of the material was well understood. And the material was often distinguished from the spiritual.

What I think it very important to comprehend is that information is utterly distinct from matter and not reliant on it. It exists independent of matter and there is no reason to think it could not exist even if matter itself did not. Though the existence of matter without information is unlikely to be possible.

Information or intelligence is difficult to quantify, though it can be done. Information is frequently stored in matter but it is in no way dependant on the matter in which it is stored. This post as you read it is stored magnetically on your hard-drive, having been copied from a server elsewhere. However it could be printed and stored in toner on paper. Or you could memorise it and it would be stored in your neurons. But the message is not derived nor is dependant on magnetism, paper, ink or anything else composed of matter.

This concept is fundamental. And it has significant implications.
  1. It means that the 2 (message and matter) are to be distinguished from each other, something that may not be done in defending various theories.
  2. They are not derived from each other. Information cannot make material and material cannot make information.
  3. We need a source for both matter and information.
  4. The laws that govern information are not those that govern matter. Information does not obey the law of gravity, it does not contain momentum, it cannot be transformed to energy.
Expanding on item 2: One might argue that a powerful source of information can create matter, but this is a being, not just an idea.

Information that appears to arise from matter is merely the level of information that already exists in the matter, it is not created by the matter. The limited information to describe a crystal structure is intrinsic to the information already contained within the physics and chemistry of the molecules.

Note that the crystal structure of salt is low information content and no more than can be known from our (potential) understanding of sodium, chloride, solutions and temperature. However deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has information that is imposed on it which is not intrinsic to nucleic acids, sugar bases, or phosphate. One can transcribe the code onto a computer or paper and the code remains intact.

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