Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday morning ramble

Julian provides your regular Friday morning ramble today. PC will be back banging away on his keyboard next week, so you have a few days of respite before he returns to slay the looters and moochers, who, annoyingly, just don't go away. So sit back and enjoy the liberty-related news that came our way during the week.
  • Cactus Kate asks some fair questions: Is it possible for WINZ to “rip off its clients?” And “How can a beneficiary ever be a client at WINZ?" Not surprisingly, she has an opinion.
WINZ Rips Off Clients? – Cactus Kate
  • “Obama sees in a mirror only what other people see. He cannot be “free to be himself,” because he not only has no respect or “concern for facts, ideas, or work,” but he can have no self-respect….”
Obama the Pseudo-Narcissist  – Centre for the Advancement of Capitalism

  • The Adam Smith Institute gets a letter published in the Telegraph
Taxing the Sheriff of Nottingham will harm the poor 

  • Yaron Brook from the Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights critiques neoconservative foreign policy, exposes the real meaning of their vaunted patriotism, and argues that their policies will lead to failure in America’s war against Islamist totalitarians.
"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself."  
- Thomas Jefferson 
  • It was tough being a global warmest this week. The truth can, at times, be, well, inconvenient. In an interview with the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, Professor Phil Jones, the warmest at the centre of the Climategate emails finally acknowledges that there has been no significant warming from 1998 to 2009, and that the science is not settled. 
The global warming emperor is scantily clad  – Watts Up With That?
  • We even saw Donald Trump call for Al Gore to be stripped of the Nobel Peace prize he was awarded for campaigning on climate change.
  • And this would come as no surprise to our North American readers but the data show that last week, the Northern-hemisphere snow extent was the second highest on record. According to Rutgers University Global Snow Lab, which has kept records continuously for the last 2,227 weeks, last week’s snow extent was only topped by that in the second week of February, 1978.
Northern hemisphere snow extent – Watts Up With That?

"Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place." 
 - Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850)
  • Peter Martin of The Sydney Morning Herald has the shocking details of the modus operandi of the thugs at the Australian tax office (ATO). “The Tax Office has been given a ''tick of approval'' to break into homes, cars and workplaces…[A] senate report found that the ATO conducted as many as 280,000 raids without warrants yearly.”
Taxman free to break in to homes -  Sydney Morning Herald [Hat tip: Money Morning]
    • Kris Sayce from Morning Money thinks that this report on what the ATO are up to should be the scoop of the month.  “…[G]overnment lovers will probably write to tell us it's appropriate as it makes sure "everyone pays their fair share." Whichever way you look at it, taxation is theft and this report by Peter Martin reveals the ATO is happy to use physical violence as well..."
    Kris Sayce comments on the ATO  Money Morning
    • Speaking of tax...

    • From Mangrove to Metropolis: In fewer than 200 years, an island was transformed from a swamp into one of the world's richest countries on a GDP/capita basis.  This island, Singapore, with no natural resources, chose to embrace Free Trade, and as the following Discovery Channel programme shows, this remains fundamental to its economic success. Who would have thought that freedom and prosperity were linked?

    [Hat Tip: Bastiat Society]
    • North Korea
    From the relative freedom of Singapore to the hell hole that is North Korea; “the most odious regime on earth by an incredibly long margin," as Liberty Scott puts it.  Not only is he right, but, as he points out, it gets all too little attention by the left inclined protest movement.  I guess it must be hard for them to see what their ideals look like when brought into reality
    Nevertheless, we don’t often get to see what existence is like for the human beings in that slave pen. Fortunately, the online broadcast network VBS recently travelled to North Korea and gave viewers a glimpse into a world where things are not exactly as they seem. In it, you will see some of the most bizarre footage. It is a portrait of a brainwashed society, of individuals without souls, and of life under a totalitarian regime
      Part 1: The vice guide to North Korea
      Part 2: The vice guide to North Korea
      Part 3: The vice guide to North Korea

      • And while PC is away, let's sneak in something to do with Apple....well...actually it's a new application for the iPhone called Square which turns your iPhone into a credit card. Quite possibly one of the best apps yet. 

      And that's it for another week. Thanks for reading and having us guest posters at your place this week. We hope you'll have us back some time. Have a great weekend.

      Thursday, February 18, 2010

      "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule..."

      "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." 

       - Thomas Jefferson 


      The American Experiment With Keynesianism

      [Guest Post by Jeff Perren.]

      Pete du Pont, ex-Governor of Delaware and ex-U.S. Congressman, reviews some of the staggering sums expended by the U.S. Federal government over the past year... and the even more stunning ones to come.

      The federal deficit this fiscal year will be $1.6 trillion, or about 10.6% of gross domestic product. That is the largest deficit since World War II, and even Obama's optimistic estimates show our deficits will not return to sustainable levels for at least the next decade.

      The administration's projection of total federal spending over those 10 years (2011-20) is $45.8 trillion, while expected taxes and other receipts will be $37.3 trillion. The $8.5 trillion deficit is about 20% of spending. And all of these numbers are based on a full and lasting economic recovery, which, based on current experience, is a pretty optimistic projection.
      When the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, the debt held by the public was 36.2% of GDP. It rose to 40.2% the next year. This year it will be about 63.6%, next year 68.6%, then 77% of GDP in 2020.

      One can't help but ask: how will Americans pay for all this? One also can't help but be reminded of the line from Atlas Shrugged: "You'll do something, Mr. Rearden!"

      And so, on a wish and a Keynesian prayer, we're hurtling down the abyss with nary a flashlight in sight.

      Most revolting of all, of course, is the fact that this is hardly the first time the experiment has been run and the results have long been in. The manner in which that approach fails has been exposed repeatedly over a period of decades. Writers from John T. Flynn (The Roosevelt Myth, 1948) to Burton Folsom Jr. (New Deal or Raw Deal?, 2009) have demonstrated again and again in layman's terms what actually happened when the Keynesian experiment was tried here on this scale before. (Other countries show similar results, not surprisingly.)

      You have to wonder when the general public will finally get educated enough to get the message, and muster up enough outrage to put an end to it once and for all. My view on that subject is not particularly optimistic.

      [Cross posted at Shaving Leviathan.]

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      Who's holding the gun, Mr Brownlee?

      [Guest Post by Julian]

      Transpower continues to seek access to farm properties with the debate now moving to the South Island. Says Temuka farmer Jeremy Talbot, "There is to be no more access given to allow [...] work to be finished until we finally do get the settlement we've been seeking." Seems fair enough to me. Let him and Transpower negotiate in a civilised way as many people around this country do every day. I thought we had already dealt with this issue here at Not PC a few week ago.

      Yet the South Island farmers’ attitude has annoyed Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee. Speaking on Morning Report this morning, he states his annoyance that some farmers are holding a gun to the head of government.  "Holding a gun to the head of government is simply not going to work," he whines. Excuse me, Mr Brownlee, but that is not what these farmers are doing. They are exercising their property rights. It is their land, their property.

      If Mr Brownlee objects to the holding of guns at people's heads, then I suggest that he show equal disdain for his own government, a government that routinely bullies New Zealand taxpayers and property owners, using the threat of a gun to the head as its means of persuasion.

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      Romantic Painting - The Dahesh Museum

      [Guest Post by Jeff Perren]

      Some soul-refreshing delights from the great little (relatively young) Dahesh Museum in New York. Highly recommended for anyone fond of the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, or of 19th century Academic art in general.

      Here are some samples. Click on the titles to view at the Dahesh Museum website.

      See also Jules Breton's 1885 Study for The Snack.

      [From the July 2, 2009 edition of Shaving Leviathan]

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      Wednesday, February 17, 2010

      How Taxation & Bureaucrats Destroy Freedom

      [Guest post by Mark Hubbard.]

      In the spirit of The Free Radical 'horror files' I am simply going to post the following link, and let it stand by itself, testimony to the evils of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, and the callousness of our convoluted taxation systems that destroy freedom and individual lives, and, of course, capitalism.

      This won't make the MSM, but it's truly appalling, and there should be a reporter on Michael Cullen's door asking him why the hell he hasn't rectified this.

      From NetProphet:
          "Unintended consequences of a tax change in 2008 will cost the privately owned New Zealand oil and gas explorer Greymouth Petroleum an unexpected $10 million on a $30 million Chilean venture, a tax adviser representing the company in select committee hearings said today.
          "Greymouth was expecting to spend around $30 million on exploring four licence areas in southern Chile, and under old tax law would have been able to deduct that expense against New Zealand income, David Patterson from law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts told the finance and expenditure select committee.
          "Greymouth's appearance was the latest representation in a long saga for the company, which was caught on the wrong side of tax changes announced in 2008 that prohibit foreign-owned oil companies with production assets in New Zealand to offset exploration expenses against New Zealand income.
          "The company has been unsuccessful so far in seeking a grandfathering clause to cover its Chilean activities, claiming it has been affected in an unintended way, and the select committee promised last year to return to the issue if necessary, following discussions between Greymouth and the Inland Revenue Department.
          "While there have been exchanges of legal opinions and discussions with IRD, Greymouth is unaware of the tax department's most recent recommendation to Ministers, with the company now seeking this under the Official Information Act.
      ... (Snip)
          "Greymouth had met with the Inland Revenue Department just days before Cullen's announcement to confirm that expenditure on a work programme agreed with Greymouth's partner, the Chilean government oil company, would be tax deductible in New Zealand.
          "It was unable to back out of the deal with the Chilean government without substantial loss of reputation and initial bonds worth US$400,000. Now that the company was committing to the project, bonds worth US$28 million were at stake."
      Even if they get the grandfathering clause, think of what this firm has spent on legal and accountancy fees so far, and the sheer waste of human hours and lives over this.

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      "Reason is not automatic..."

      "Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone."
      - Ayn Rand

      Sweden, Coming Soon to a Country Near You

      [Guest Post by Jeff Perren.]

      Anyone interested in realistic projections of where the U.S. is heading in education need only look to Europe, in this case Sweden. The government there is proposing to outlaw homeschooling on the grounds that:
      "…the education in school should be comprehensive and objective and thereby designed so that all pupils can participate, regardless of what religious or philosophical reasons the pupil or his or her care-takers may have."
      As a result, they argue (in a giant non-sequitur): "[T]here is no need for the law to offer the possibility of homeschooling because of religious or philosophical reasons in the family."

      It would be hard to find clearer empirical evidence that the socialist State simply has to ceaselessly indoctrinate individuals as young as possible in order to continue to survive, But pass over that for now. Observe instead the subtle, unstated premise: your convictions are not objective, but those of the State educators necessarily are. No argument beyond pointing it out should be needed to show how false and pernicious that idea is. But that view is particularly ironic given how opposed all Dewey's descendants are, in principle, to objectivity. (It's contrary to the most basic principle of Pragmatism, half of the twin offsprings of the father of Progressive education.)

      The various States have long forced American parents to jump through hoops to remove their children from the clutches of the Progressive Comprachicos. Yet, homeschooling in America has still been on the rise (and hence under attack) for years. If current social trends continue here, expect something like this legislation to be introduced at the Federal level within the next 10 years, sooner if ObamaCare is enacted.

      [From the January 2, 2010 edition of Shaving Leviathan.]

      Tuesday, February 16, 2010

      “Creativity With Beauty and Joy” – David Knowles

      Creativity with Beauty and Joy
      122cm x 183cm

      In this painting I have created an extended metaphor of the philosophy that permeates all of my Art.

      It is an interpretation of The Legend of The Three Graces.  But I abandoned the popular Christian based story of ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’,  and instead went to the original story in Greek Mythology.

      Creativity, Beauty and Joy

      Beauty is 'Aglaea'. The youngest, known as 'the golden one' or 'the shining one'. Full of splendour and brilliance. In the golden dress.

      Joy is 'Euphrosyne'. Known for her happy disposition, with charm, mirth and grace. Wearing blue.

      Creativity is 'Thalia'. The oldest, known for her imagination and ideas, and her flourishing abundance as a young mother. In the centre in red.

      This painting characterises to a large extent how I see my art, and is consciously allegorical.

      An uplifting sense of positive expectation in a sun-filled, optimistic world.


      And it is for sale!

      [Guest Post by David Knowles. Visit him at]

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      Clinton: Iran Becoming Military Dictatorship

      [Guest Post by Jeff Perren]


      File this one in the "ya think?" folder.
      Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Monday that the United States feared Iran was drifting toward a military dictatorship, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps seizing control of large swaths of Iran's political, military, and economic establishment.
      So, during the past 30 years, when has it been anything else?

      Ok, I grant you that there are technical differences between that and a totalitarian theocracy that rules by ethical guilt induced by a soul-killing religion coupled with the ever-present threat of coercion by Revolutionary Guards. But, as Ira Gershwin might have it, potay-toe, potah-toe.

      Personally, given the choice between an 870 AD-style dungeon and a 1970s Chilean jail, I might have to flip a coin. But that's just me.

      [Cross posted at Shaving Leviathan.]

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      Save the Tasmanian Devil?

      [Guest Post by Jeff Perren]

      Almost certainly NZers know more about this than I do. Still, I thought the story was worthwhile mentioning. According to this Los Angeles Times report, Tasmanian Devils have been having a pretty rough time of it the past decade.

      The facial cancers that are devastating populations of Tasmanian devils in Australia are a nerve tumor that escaped its original host and became a parasite of the cultural icon, passing from one devil to the next by bites when the animals are fighting or mating, researchers reported Thursday.

      So, flash poll: Are they as cool as they seem to me, or are they really a bane down under? (Or, up top, if you insist I avoid 'geo'-chauvinism.)

      Based on the photo, I'd go with "worth saving" (solely by private donations, of course).


      Welfare Strikes Again

      [Guest Post by Callum McPetrie]

      The welfare state and "multicultural" government policy of many European governments has yet again led to riots. As reported in Stuff:
         "Dozens of immigrants from North Africa rioted during the night in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Milan, smashing shop windows, overturning cars to protest at the knifing death of an Egyptian, Italian police said."
      This certainly isn't anything new; in fact, it's the second in Milan this year! And of course, we all remember the famous Paris riots of 2005, when large numbers of poor immigrants from Paris's suburbs went on a rampage. In all parts of Europe, many immigrants (including second and third generation immigrants) are not assimilating into European society, and many are living in the poor suburbs of cities like London and Paris. Likewise, the immigrants are not just from one part of the world - the Egyptian in the story was killed by a South American. Why is this so?

      A quick glimpse will show that many of these disenfranchised immigrants live in state housing. Unemployment is extremely high - a New York Times article written before the recession reveals that the unemployment rate in a Parisian suburb with a high number of immigrants, Les Bosquets, was about 40%. Likewise, these suburbs have high numbers of young people, with birth rates several times the national average across Europe.

      So, these disenfranchised immigrants are, by and large, products of the European welfare states. Likewise, heavy labour restrictions - particularly so in France - are preventing immigrants from working their way up the social ladder. Without any way to get up, many young immigrants turn to crime and gangs to make up for lost self-esteem. This can also lead to the spread of dangerous ideas such as jihad, among Muslim youth. The welfare state and French-style social democracy provide a disincentive and make it harder to climb the social ladder and assimilate into the local culture, be it French, British, Italian or Greek.

      Click here to read more ... >>

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      Monday, February 15, 2010

      On Travelling with a Toddler

      [A guest post by Bernard Darnton, last seen here several months ago as Not PJ. He disappeared overseas for several weeks last year and finally feels ready to talk about it.]


      Our motives for displacing our eighteen-month-old daughter and hauling her around the world for several weeks were sincere. We wanted her to share a Christmas with her English grandparents. We wanted her to meet her English cousins for the first time. We want her to become a well-rounded, well-travelled child comfortable with the food, the customs, and the multi-lingual babble that animate our planet.
      So enamoured were we with our motives that we failed to realise that every expression of good intent laid a cobblestone on the road to hell.

      Flying a Long Way

      Spiritually, Christchurch is as close to England as it's possible to get. Physically, you need to venture to an icy sub-Antarctic outcrop inhabited only by seabirds and conservationists to get further away.
      Traversing that vast physical gulf requires crossing into the unreal conveyor-belt world of mass international travel, each step mediated by a passport, a departure card, or a boarding pass. The first step on the conveyor belt is the Singapore Airlines check-in desk bearing a paper slip encrypted with the abbreviated details of airport codes and seat classes.
      Singapore Airlines is the enormous beating heart of a tiny island nation. Aircraft stand at the gates of Changi, wingtip to wingtip, together for a few brief moments. A heart beat later they will be spread across the globe, arteries stretching from Christchurch to Rome. A second beat and they will have returned, carrying the human corpuscles that bring oxygen to Singapore's tourist economy.
      But a heart beat for an international leviathan is an eternity to a toddler. An adult can pass the time by exercising or dulling the mind. Looking at a flat projection of the continents and guessing the Great Circle path; imagining the topographically and politically induced deviations from that route; then flagging down the drinks trolley for another dose of VSOP. To the toddler there are no such diversions. With a ten-minute attention span and carry-on baggage cruelly limited to seven kilograms, even a Saint Nicoline sack of never-before-seen goodies stands no chance of filling the temporal chasm that awaits.
      Meal times provide a welcome relief from the tedium but a child on one knee and a meal tray on the other instigates an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.
      In the pure and orderly world of mathematics, small children only have two hands. However, small children do not inhabit a pure and orderly world. One hand grabs a knife, one lunges for the fork. Another hand pokes its fingers into the individual serving of strawberry jam, while yet another tightly grasps an explosively pressurised thimble of milk, whose tiny dimensions belie the quantity of fluid it contains.
      Between meals the reading light winks, seemingly at random, and we are repeatedly visited by flight attendants inadvertently called by those same exploratory hands.
      One of the less noble motivations for travelling with a toddler is the steeply discounted ticket price for under-twos. A thousand-and-one times during the interminable flight I wished that my wallet had been prized open wide enough to accommodate an extra seat but, in reality, the extravagance would have been wasted because the familiar contours of a parent will always be more attractive than a mostly empty airline seat. For the parent whose contours have been favoured, the ever changing contours of the child mark the passage of time as the nanoseconds slip into microseconds and the plane inches its way across the map.
      Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, it's over, like an executive pardon to the condemned prisoner expecting a death warrant. Gears whine to extend the flaps as the wings clutch at the slowing air, the scale model world below undergoes a phase change back into real landscape, and finally we feel the welcome shudder as our aluminium cocoon once again becomes land-borne.


      Displacement alters a toddler’s sleeping habits. Away from the familiar cot, the familiar blanket, and the familiar shelf of toys, what remains is the family. From the foreign environment of the hastily-erected travel cot, our bed looks like the Promised Land. Out of consideration for our hosts’ eardrums we become indulgent parents.
      For an adult, the act of going to sleep involves snuggling into a comfortable position, stilling the body and calming the mind. For a toddler it is a task more akin to breakdancing as she explores all possible orientations in a wide-ranging search for a preferred sleeping position. If she eventually settles on an alignment compatible with her parents', some minutes or – luxuriously – hours of sleep may be had before the exploration resumes.
      At a certain point it becomes futile to continue the quest for sleep. In that tired wakefulness the hours crawl by, neither opening nor closing my eyes provides any respite from the infinite darkness of the never-ending night.


      Biologists have a simple word to describe the ecological role fulfilled by small children: “vector”. They succumb to illness with wearying regularity and inopportune timing. For a child sickened by the stresses of unchosen travel, Rome is not a place to absorb the faded glory of a once-great empire; it is a place for recuperation and copious laundry.
      My once indefatigable immune system, without a non-self-inflicted sick day in ten years of childlessness, also submits to the disease incubated in our midst. Viral legions besiege my organs and begin their sack. They are defeated but not without heavy collateral damage to the itinerary. The cultural experience has become a sightseer’s checklist.

      Becoming a Philistine

      A toddler's timetable is not tuned to the contemplation of priceless and ancient works of art. The Vatican Museum is home to millennia-worth of craftsmanship and plunder. Any of its numerous galleries would reward a lifetime of study. Or a day trip for those in a hurry. But with all clocks set to toddler time Giotto, Caravaggio, and da Vinci hold no interest.
      The Egyptian room, packed with three-thousand-year-old treasures, is skimmed. Raphael, the Etruscans, the ancient Greeks, and the early Christians are passed over completely. The cartographic room, home to ancient and medieval maps of the known world and imaginings of the rest, a place where the previous childless I would have spent hours, barely noticed. Given the chance to see the world through the eyes of the wise men of a different time and place, I chose to see nothing. A quick glance at the ceiling, a second glance to hunt for a familiar landmark. Sistine Chapel. Done. And all in time for the day's primary goal, the afternoon nap.
      I only wonder what the rest of those stampeding through at the same pace had to do so desperately at one o'clock.
      The Castel Sant'Angelo is a medieval fortress, situated on the banks of the River Tiber, enclosing the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian. During our week in Rome we visited Sant'Angelo four times – not because of the magnificence of the fortress and its approaches, nor because of the importance of Hadrian, but because its surrounding park contains a children's playground with swings, a rocking dolphin, and a slide.
      The mysteries of Hadrian's tomb and the castel remain mysteries but the playground is well-trodden territory because swinging on the swings was one of the few holiday activities that made our young charge genuinely happy rather than inducing her to mere tolerance or simple sleep.

      Serving as a Warning to Others

      It is said that we all have a purpose in life. It is quipped that some people’s purpose is to serve as a warning to the rest of us. Or should that now be: the rest of you. Do not be seduced by the ten percent airfares. Do not be cajoled by distant grandparents; let them come to you. Do not be persuaded by images of foolhardy parents carrying their infants on treks along the Silk Road or through the Vietnamese highlands. It can be done. But it shouldn’t be.
      The preceding catalogue presents one side of the story. On the other side, we have indelible memories of faraway places. We have visited places that most people will never see. We briefly reunited a family separated by continents. But would it have hurt to wait a couple of years until our daughter could tell us what she thought of the whole imprudent idea?


      AGW Scientists: "No Plans to Leave Oz Just Yet"

      [Guest Post by Jeff Perren]

      It's been a busy week for AGW warriors.

      First, the IPCC is arm-twisted into acknowledging that their claim about melting Himalayan glaciers was based on some rumor started by an eighth grader trying to get back at his teacher for a homework assignment on climate change. Then, they have to backpedal after overstating the area of Netherlands land under sea level — being off by roughly a mere double the amount (55% vs 26%).

      Now, much beleaguered Phil Jones has come out of the closet to say that perhaps, after all, all was not as it should have been with East Anglia climate science. He acknowledged:

      [T]wo periods [prior to the present] in recent times had experienced similar warming [to the current one]. And he agreed that the debate had not been settled over whether the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than the current period.

      Considering the source, this is positively mirror-Clintonian in its breathtaking honesty.

      Still, he stuck to his guns to the extent of asserting "[H]e had not cheated over the data, or unfairly influenced the scientific process."

      Yeah, never mind those hundreds of CRU emails suggesting otherwise or the massive fudging of computer code. Just the inherent fuzziness that invariably accompanies leading-edge science.

      Worse, "he said he stood by the view that recent climate warming was most likely predominantly man-made." Ya gotta wonder what evidence would make him think "most likely not..."

      Honest Phil puts it all down to weak data organization skills on his part. Uh, huh. With that level of skills in equities trading a floor broker could expect a visit from the SEC, if not the Justice Department.

      However, the most hilarious quote from the news report is undeniably this one: "I have no agenda."

      Right. Never mind about those emails discussing how to remove editors from journals, and the like. No more than the normal give and take among reasonable men with differing points of view.

      Toto, stop pulling on that damn curtain, will you!

      [Cross posted at Shaving Leviathan.]

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      GUEST POST: Quacks, quacks, quacks

      Given the popularity of that smackdown of homeopathic quackery by the Skeptics’ Vicki Hyde the other night, here’s a guest post on similar quacks put together by regular commenter Falafulu Fisi (and Vicki Hyde) a few years back when they were all over the telly.  It was an episode of 20/20 that finally kicked him into print . . .

      Recent weeks have seen the screening of several documentaries about mysticism and so-called faith-based practices. TV3’s 20/20 profiled Taranaki medium Jeanette Wilson in a piece called "Back from the Dead";  another was an hour-long special investigation of the self-described Grandmaster Aiping Wang. Investigations they weren’t. Both documentaries displayed a complete lack of journalistic balance of this growing multimillion-dollar ‘faith-based’ industry. What cried out for solid, robust treatment was presented instead as just breathless entertainment. 

      We watched Wilson and Wang make unchallenged claims for their treatments that challenge modern human knowledge - claims that contradict proven concepts and knowledge in fields as diverse as Physics, Philosophy, Psychology, Probability and Statistics. Instead of going to a recognised university to get opinions from each of these departments, we saw reporter Melanie Reid describing Wilson’s performance as “astonishing” and citing how impressed she was with both Wilson's presentation - "she looks just like Lady Di!" gushed Reid - and her accuracy - "she was coming up with specific names and relationships." Ooh ah!

      Claims for “accuracy” are actually well-covered by a field called statistics. It is a pity Reid seems never to have heard of it, for the sort of hit-or-miss high-school level descriptive statistics used by Reid is not the proper way to test the validity of a claim or hypothesis. In proper statistical testing, a hypothesis is first formulated and then rigorously tested with a method called DOE (design of experiment). Since claims like the ability to talk to the dead would be dependent on many variables, a discipline called multivariate (many variables) analysis would also be applied. Following this, the hypothesis can be either confidently validated or rejected following such an analysis. Indeed, this writer is already confident that had 20/20 sought expert advice from the Auckland University Statistics department the result would be both a sure rejection of the validity of the psychic ability of Jeanette Wilson, and better television viewing.

      Of course the very powerful images selected by 20/20 were chosen precisely because they make great entertainment for the unthinking. They didn't screen many of the more unimpressive readings, for example when Wilson asked a lady twice if her father had died, or the cases where she used the same names and stock phrases over and over again.  

      While 20/20 did include a very brief critique, it was disappointing that the programme chose to focus extensively on one very emotional, but content-free reading in what they called a "test" of the medium's ability. The real tests of such skills have to be carefully planned in order to avoid naïve or misleading interpretations, and once again statistical hypothesis-validation must be applied. If 20/20 had divided the audience into different ethnicities and then asked Wilson to do a performance with groups only of Polynesians or Asians for example, it might well demonstrate a shortfall in Wilson’s techniques. As common names such as “Falafulufisi” or “Semisi” will probably be unfamiliar to her, I would suggest the hit rate for her guess work will likely be almost zero or quite low. This is just one way a proper statistical test should have been conducted.

      Faith-based practitioners come in a range of makes and models - Clairvoyant, Psychic, Palm Reader, Spiritual Surgeon, Crystal reader/healer, Numerologist, Channelling Medium, Tarot Reader, – and cover a vast field of alternative therapies - Herbal Medicine, Holistic Therapy, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Spiritual Healing and so on. 

      For the most part, all use a collection of staple techniques well documented in many books such as Peter Huston's Scams from the Great Beyond. An example is that of fishing for names, where the medium will ask a client if a common name such as John "has any meaning for them." Asking leading questions designed to elicit information or agreement is another common tactic aimed at building confidence in the performer and making it appear as if they are revealing hidden knowledge. Telling a middle-aged audience member that their parent or grandparent is watching over them is another technique playing simple demographics, as it is more than likely that such people will have older relatives who have died. Neither Wilson nor Wang offer anything new in the way of technique.  

      Wilson’s website for her ‘Taranaki School of Reiki’ informs us that “Reiki energy has a consciousness of its own and knows just where to go and what to do.” Faith practices frequently use the term “energy” to refer to some non-tangible entity that conveniently sits above or outside the ‘Laws of Physics’ meaning that the laws of Physics can somehow be defied. However, there is no such non-tangible entity as energy outside the ‘Laws of Physics.’ Energy is a concept well-defined and understood by Physics and all its physical properties accord with the Laws of Physics, which are observable, quantitative and measurable – none of which can be said for Wilson’s flights of fancy.

      Grandmaster Aiping Wang’s interview included the claim that followers can be taught to heal themselves by “making connection with the energy of the universe” as well as by flying. Good luck. An Aiping Wang follower did say that he did really ‘believe’ he could fly His ‘belief’ is hardly relevant however – he either can or he can’t, and the proof of his claim would be simply to demonstrate the skill. He chose not to grant us this boon, but instead cited as proof of something that that there were lawyers, doctors and highly educated professionals in the group. This is a typical comment from people who wanted to justify faith practice as genuine, but it proves only that there are suckers everywhere. 

      Claims such as yogic-flying, psycho-kinesis, bending of spoons by the power of the mind and so forth are all claims comprehensively answered by science and the sceptic literature. Were these things to occur as described, physical laws would be broken in all cases – amongst others Newton’s third law of motion, energy conservation and momentum conservation respectively. 

      Some faith-based practitioners have jumped on the theory of quantum mechanics as a means of validating their claims. One website suggests that the phenomenon of quantum mechanics offers proof for the human mind’s psychic ability since, it suggests, “the mind is operating at a quantum level.” This particular website points to recent ground-breaking experiments conducted at the University of Innsbruck. In these experiments, instantaneous communication between sub-atomic particles at a distance has been inferred. Such a phenomenon is indeed ground-breaking, for it implies that faster-than-light communication is possible – something Einstein had ruled out in the 1930s.

      Much more investigation is needed however to completely integrate and understand what the results imply, however these faith-based practitioners are not waiting for the science – they’ve already claiming that this instantaneity of communications is the explanation for psychic phenomena and the ability to see the future. The human brain emits some sort of quantum particles called “psychotrons” that enable us to communicate with the dead, they say. Now, except for their presence in the dreams of the demented, such quantum particles have never been detected. Never. But the claim for them is an instructive one for the way it illustrates the methodology – or lack thereof – of these practitioners.  

      Science proposes its hypotheses based on logical deduction or inductive reasoning, which it then sets out to test. For example, the quantum particles known as ‘quarks’ were deduced on paper some twenty years before the first experimental observations confirmed their existence. By contrast, the ‘psychotron’ has simply been dreamed up and its existence is just wishful thinking. Neither deductive nor inductive reasoning has been undertaken or claimed, and no evidence has been given of their existence.

      Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used to dismiss anything about the world that was not accessible to scientific method. Author and philosopher Ayn Rand went further: she showed that when presented with a claim that is purely arbitrary then that claim must be rejected. An arbitrary claim is one made entirely without proof, such as that there are green spiders on Mars or that we can talk to the dead. Since one can’t disprove a negative, the onus is on the one asserting the claim to offer some evidence. If none is offered, the door to such a claim must be closed – the arbitrary is out.  

      If, in this case, the medium had definitive proof of the after-life, this should have been world-shattering news.  After all, with this sort of capability, it means there should be no unsolved murders, no missing children and all faith-based practitioners would be so wealthy from stock-market success they would hardly need to dabble in the day-to-day tawdriness of the faith-healing circus. The world would certainly be a better place, and that's something about which there could be no doubt. So where’s their evidence?

      It doesn’t exist.

      So why worry about these faith-based practitioners? 

      There is no problem with Granny reading the tea leaves, but when vulnerable people are being exploited, it would be ethically wrong not to be cautious about such extraordinary claims without seeing extraordinary proof. That exploitation can take many forms, whether causing unnecessary heartbreak for distraught parents of missing children, fleecing little old ladies out of their retirement savings, false hope for dying cancer patients, or breaking up relationships through inappropriate advice - all of which we have seen occur here and overseas. Wishing doesn’t make it so, and no amount of wishing otherwise can change that.

      Most reports on the latest medium or psychic doing the rounds are treated very lightly, but the ‘gee-whiz’ method chosen recently by 20/20 can have dangerous consequences. Readers and viewers are better served if the journalist takes the time to think critically about what they see - and you may find it avoids the clichés and makes a more interesting story and better television. 20/20’s own John Stossel has made an award-winning career out of proving this last point.  

      We might all hope that one day we'll find someone who actually can speak to the dead - we'd all like the comfort of knowing that death is just a transition to another life. But if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck …

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      Sunday, February 14, 2010

      Larry Elder Gives Paul Krugman a Fisking

      [Guest post by Jeff Perren]

      In a recent Investors Business Daily editorial, Larry Elder gives Paul Krugman a very thorough – and soul-satisfying – fisking. Granted, that's easier and easier these days, but it's pleasant to watch nonetheless.

      Elder begins:
      In a November 2004 interview, Krugman criticized the "enormous" Bush deficit.
      "We have a world-class budget deficit," [Krugman] said, "not just as in absolute terms, of course — it's the biggest budget deficit in the history of the world — but it's a budget deficit that, as a share of GDP, is right up there."
      The deficit in fiscal 2004 was $413 billion, or 3.5% of gross domestic product.
      Back then, a disapproving Krugman called the deficit "comparable to the worst we've ever seen in this country. ... The only time postwar that the United States has had anything like these deficits is the middle Reagan years, and that was with unemployment close to 10%."
      Then, Elder goes on to — yeah, I know, shooting fish in a barrel – show how the nature of Krugman's complaints are highly dependent on who is in office.

      Elder then observes:
      The projected deficit for fiscal year 2010 is over $1.5 trillion, or more than 10% of GDP. This sets a post-WWII record in both absolute numbers and as a percentage of GDP. And if the Obama administration's optimistic projections of economic growth fall short, things will get much worse.
      Yet, the winner of the Fauxbel Prize in Economics appears unphased.
      "[F]ear-mongering on the deficit may end up doing as much harm as the fear-mongering on weapons of mass destruction."
      It goes without saying — or should among this audience — that Bush was a profligate spender to the point of idiocy, not to mention no friend of economic liberty, in general.

      Still, it's good to see Krugman being flayed with his own words for his utter hypocrisy, even if hypocrisy is the least of the Progressive's sins. (They're much more dangerous when they're completely sincere.) And, given his perch from The New York Times, it can only help to have the toad's inconsistencies openly revealed.

      Sometimes, even the non-cynical among us can enjoy a moment of guilt-free Schadenfreude.

      [Cross-posted at Shaving Leviathan.]

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      Truth in religion?


      More brilliance at Jesus and Mo.

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