I bet people who have followed this blog in the past will be surprised to see a post titled “Apple Sucks!” On the other hand I have made it very clear on many occasions that I am not much of a devotee of modern big multinational corporations and Apple is undoubtedly one of those, so maybe it isn’t that much of a revelation.
I have often ranted about how I disapprove of the short-sighted, greedy, self-serving nature of modern commerce but at the same time I have enthused about the great products produced by at least one company (Apple) which is guilty of all of those things.
Am I being inconsistent? Am I being hypocritical? Surely not!
Actually, I don’t think I am. There is a difference between liking a product and liking the organisation that creates that product. Since I have chosen IT as my career I am sort of trapped into being part of the corporate world but that doesn’t mean I approve of it. And if you are going to be part of that world you might as well choose to work with the products from a corporation which, while it is just as evil as any other in its business practices, at least produces spectacular products.
At the same time I do try to use tools which don’t come from the traditional corporate world. I do a lot of web programming and use PHP and MySQL for example. And yes, I know MySQL now belongs to a big corporation! I also use few programs created by big business.
For example, I use no Microsoft or Adobe products. I have made my dislike of Microsoft clear in the past. Not only are they an evil corporation which stifles innovation and quality but they also produce crap products! In the past I excused the evil practices of Adobe because I found at least one of their products (Photoshop) exceptionally useful. But I have even moved on from there and now use an alternative image editor (Pixelmator).
So the software I use either comes from Apple (who receive a reluctant dispensation because they produce great products) or from smaller software publishers, such as Pixelmator (a small company which has only been around a few years and is dedicated to producing great software instead of just producing great profits like Adobe clearly is).
That explains my position on the subject and how I am forced into a compromise which I think is reasonable, but what actually is the problem with corporations? What caused my lack of confidence in the “system” which many people think works extremely well?
The event which lead to me writing this post at this time was a report on how Apple avoids paying tax through various dirty business tricks. As the company’s profits have soared the tax they pay as a percentage of income has reduced. They pay far less tax (as a percentage) than me, for example.
There’s nothing illegal about any of it of course, but is it moral? In a reply to the criticism of their business practices Apple said this: “Apple has conducted all of its business with the highest of ethical standards, complying with applicable laws and accounting rules. We are incredibly proud of all of Apple’s contributions.”
Really? Using tax-loopholes, exploiting the tax laws of small countries, and manufacturing products in virtual slave-labour economies is ethical? Maybe we should have a look at the definition of those words…
Ethics: a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct.
Morals: concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.
So that’s not very helpful, is it? Ethics is about moral principles and morals are about right and wrong. But who decides what’s right and wrong? Depending on your source for that anything can be ethical!
It’s a similar problem to one I experienced recently in a discussion with a religious person I met on the internet. He maintained that only God could be the source of morals and only people who followed his god could be moral.
I countered this by saying that for that to be true at the very least his god had to exist, an idea which he was far from proving. And even if his god existed we could never be sure if that god was truly good and whether we could accurately interpret his wishes anyway.
So in the end ethics and morality are all about what we as individuals think is right and wrong. There is no absolute morality in that sense so what right do I have to say that Apple is immoral or for Apple to say that they are moral? Either way it is just an opinion.
Not quite. I think morality is an emergent property of human thought, social interaction, and biology. And there is a strong common set of standards that the vast majority of reasonable, sane people from multiple cultures see as being moral: things such as don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, etc.
Of course there are plenty of exceptions to these rules but there are just as many exemptions for the god-given versions as well, so I don’t think that makes them any weaker. For example, the Bible says “thou shalt not kill” but George Bush (a supposedly sincere Christian) genuinely thought that God had told him to start two wars which lead to the deaths of a hundred thousand innocent people.
In fact the only moral rules which differ between cultures are those of an obvious religious nature. Most people would agree with many of the Ten Commandments for example (those against murder, theft, etc) but those are just basic moral laws anyway which pre-date the Bible. But the nonsense about the Sabbath, graven images, and having other gods is just irrelevant to anyone who hasn’t bought into Christian mythology and has nothing to do with morality.
In many ways religious people are actually less moral than atheists. But that isn’t really what this blog entry is about and could perhaps be pursued in more depth elsewhere. The question should be: would Apple’s tax avoidance behaviour be seen as moral by the majority of reasonable people?
Probably not. Apple could pay a lot more tax, employ just as many people, and produce just as many great products. They would just have slightly less profit and given how much they already have that would be no real hardship!
So by my definition (and I would contend that of the majority of others) Apple are not ethical despite the fact that they employ a lot of people and produce a lot of great products.
But the simple idea that people and organisations are either ethical or not is maybe an unnecessary source of misunderstanding and conflict. Apple is both ethical and not ethical. So are philanthropists like Bill Gates (who despite creating Microsoft has done far more good than most other people). And so are people who are usually labelled evil, like Osama bin Laden.
Apple, you suck because you fail to pay your fair share of tax but you are great because of the employment you provide (both directly and indirectly) and because of your fantastic products. Fire a few of those tax accountants and corporate lawyers and hire a few moral philosophers. You can do better!
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
That was the original quote from the Star Trek television series from 1966. But what would it be like today? Maybe something like this…
Space: the next place to be exploited commercially. This version of the story is authorised by the public relations department of Starfleet Command, Inc. Our mission statement is to spend up to five days pursuing our corporate objectives: to investigate new revenue streams, to empower potential new stakeholders, to carefully go (following all health and safety guidelines) where no person has wanted to go before.
Star Trek 2012: Episode One…
Kirk: Starfleet. Any word on authorisation to leave port yet? We’ve been waiting four and a half years to leave and the paper work still hasn’t come through!
Starfleet: What? Haven’t you got it yet? Our head office sent it to the PA of the senior vice-president in charge of fleet departures. It should have gone to the departure authorisation committee by now and they would have got the correct permission from the appropriate departments.
Kirk: What about my supplies? I submitted a requisition order and we haven’t heard anything since.
Starfleet: We’re processing it now. We are having problems with the phasers you wanted. Our supplier has outsourced their manufacturing to China and we’re having trouble with quality issues.
Kirk: OK, has my budget been accepted? I cut costs everywhere I could but it still hasn’t been accepted by financial services.
Starfleet: Well you know that since the financial crisis our budget isn’t what it was. The mission has been cut and we had to recalculate all the costs. The accountants are working on it now. We had to double the size of the accounting department!
Finally the mission gets under way. The starboat (a downsized starship) encounters problems fairly quickly however. The engine fails (only one was fitted after budget cuts) and a Klingon fleet is approaching…
Kirk: Bridge to engineering. What’s happened to the engine Scotty?
Engineering: Welcome to the engineering section of the Starboat Incentivize. If there are sparks and flames shooting out of the consoles press 1. If the photon torpedoes are jammed press 2. If you want to reset your password for the holodeck press 3. To talk to an engineering services representative press zero.
Kirk: Oh God. I knew that reorganisation in engineering would cause problems.
He presses zero.
Engineering: All our engineers are busy at the moment helping other callers. Your call is important to us. Please hold and we will answer your call as soon as we can.
Some hideous musac begins. Kirk briefly considers initiating the self-destruct sequence. After five minutes (the objective of the engineering section is to answer 50% of calls within 5 minutes) an Indian voice is heard…
Engineering: Welcome to Engineering. How may we help you?
Kirk: The engine has failed and we are about to be attacked by Klingons.
Engineering: The engines have failed? Are you sure? Have you tried re-booting them?
Kirk: Of course we have. We have to reboot them quite often because the operating system recommended by the the CIO according to best practice is 20 years out of date and unreliable.
Engineering: Could you please reboot them again just to make sure.
Kirk: OK. Nothing happened. And who am I talking to? Are you part of engineering on this boat?
Engineering: I am part of the helpdesk operation that Starfleet outsourced last year. I’m talking to you from Bangalore. Can you tell me what version of the engine are you using? Is it the one authorised by the engineering subcommittee?
Kirk: I don’t know. How can you tell?
Engineering: Have a look in the user manual. Please call us back when you find out what it is. Is there anything else we can help you with today?
Kirk: No, I’ll call you back.
After 30 minutes of trying to find the manual and finally locating the version number Kirk calls the helpdesk again. After the usual button pressing and waiting…
Engineering: Welcome to Engineering. How may we help you?
Kirk: The engine has failed and we are about to be attacked by Klingons. I have the version number of the engine here.
Engineering: The engine has failed? Are you sure? Have you tried re-booting it?
Kirk: Look. This is an emergency. Please put Scotty on the line.
Engineering: Scotty has been promoted to management and doesn’t take calls. Could you please reboot the engine.
Kirk ends the call and his hand moves to the self destruct button again, but then a young engineer on the bridge has an idea…
Young engineer: Captain, I’ve Googled the problem and it seems that the engine is protected by a safety system which shuts it down when it exceeds warp factor 8. I’ve downloaded a patch which bypasses the circuit. Should we install it?
Kirk: Warp factor 8! We never travel slower than that. Is this another one of those safety initiatives I’ve heard vague rumours about?
Young engineer: It’s also to save fuel. Dilithium crystals have reached peak production and the price has gone sky high. Apparently this was documented in section 15, sub-section 7, clause 9 of the operational procedures manual, captain.
Kirk: Damn it! Apply the patch and let’s get this ship… err, I mean boat… out of here!
The patch is applied and the disaster is averted. A few days later the boat returns to the space port. Kirk is being debriefed by his manager…
Manager: I’ve just been reading through your report Kirk. Under the section “value-added mission-critical synergistic proactive benchmarks” you’ve just put a question mark. In fact you also put a question mark next to “best of breed business case for out of the loop paradigm shifts moving forward” along with most of the other questions. What is the reason for this?
Kirk: None of my team could come up with an answer to those sections. There are a few items I need to discuss with you regarding the mission. We had to patch the engine safety over-ride on day 2…
Manager: Yes, that action is being taken very seriously and is being reviewed by the engine maintenance, safety and economy sub-committee now. Do you realise your budget stated you would need 400 dilithium crystals but you used 500?
Kirk: We encountered some Klingons and we were never supplied with the phasers because of a paperwork problem. We had to get out of there fast!
Manager: But you must realise in the current financial climate that we must all play our part in economising. Dilithium crystals are expensive. Do you think that you don’t need to contribute to this effort?
Kirk: But the accounting section of Starfleet has just doubled in size, the managers all got 30% pay rises, and you returned a huge dividend to your shareholders!
Manager: Listen Kirk, I don’t like where this meeting is going. You cannot see the big picture and all of those initiatives were for the greater good of the corporation. If we want good managers we have to pay them well, don’t we? And the shareholders deserve a good return on their investment. You’re starting to sound like a socialist!
Kirk: It’s easy for you to sit in your office criticising me. I’m the one dodging Klingon photon torpedoes!
Manager: We all have hard jobs to do. I think you should leave now and finish that report. And don’t come back until you have the right attitude to be a true member of Starfleet. You obviously have trouble adapting to change.
Kirk leaves and is replaced as captain later by some politically correct Frenchman who follows orders. And so ends this episode of the great mission into the final frontiers of bureaucracy!
Tomorrow is ANZAC Day. You’ve probably never heard of it if you live outside of Australia and New Zealand but it is a national holiday where New Zealanders and Australians are encouraged to think of the people who have served in the armed forces in the past (ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).
The organisation for returned service personnel is known as the RSA (Returned and Services’ Association) and it has an appeal leading up to the 25th where it gives out (paper) poppies for a donation. The poppies represent the poppies which grew in the battle fields of Flanders in Belgium during World War I.
Whatever your opinion of war most people would agree that the majority of people who served in the armed forces were in many ways innocent victims of greater political forces, so they tend to help out by “buying” a poppy from the collectors for the RSA.
In the past the poppies have been made by disabled people here in New Zealand as a way to give them employment, but this year the RSA decided to source most of them cheaply from China instead. That’s why they won’t be getting a donation from me, or many other people, this year.
I’m not against buying from China (or anywhere else) in every case. If I was I would own almost nothing because just almost every piece of technology I own (including all my beloved Apple devices) are made there. I would prefer it if China wasn’t a virtual slave labour source which allowed big multinationals (including Apple) to get rich but that’s the current reality.
But where there is a clear alternative I would prefer to support it. Sure the Chinese poppies were cheaper, but is cheaper always better? Cheaper often has unexpected consequences. I would be happy to donate 10 dollars for a New Zealand made poppy but I won’t give them anything for a Chinese one. Which is really cheaper?
A lot of the problem comes from the example set by corporate leaders. Recently a particularly obnoxious one called Jim Quinn who is the CEO of our national railway KiwiRail (a state owned company) first refused to use a division of his own company to do work it could easily have done, and now wants to sell that same division (the railway workshops in my home town of Dunedin) because they have no work.
Is it any wonder that when horrible people like that set an example that others are tempted to follow? They think it’s OK to abandon morality and ignore the big picture to save a few dollars. Well it isn’t. We pay CEOs lots of money to make the best decision, not the cheapest. Any idiot can just look at a report and choose the smallest number. It’s just not good enough and the CEO of both KiwiRail and the RSA should resign (and preferably leave the country so we don’t have to put up with them just moving on to the next organisation they want to demoralise).
Business leaders really do get it easy. They can justify their vile decisions by saying they are just following best management practice, they often hide the details of their dirty deals behind the lie of “commercial sensitivity”, and they spend a fortune on publicity campaigns, hideous spin-doctors, and professional lobbyists so that they can continue with the loathsome farce which is modern business.
Naturally the current government, being ideologically motivated to encourage this sort of thing, doesn’t help and things will no doubt get worse before they get better.
So the matter of the source of some simple paper poppies has turned into another political rant. No surprises there!
A series of incidents have recently caused some controversy in the US. They involved the legality (and/or morality) of potential employers requiring people being interviewed for jobs to give up their Facebook passwords so that they could be “checked up on” for things the company might not like, such as drug or alcohol abuse in the past, controversial political views, and other things which don’t necessarily have direct relevance to the job in question.
On one occasion the person really needed the job so he gave the interviewer his password and on another the person refused (I don’t know whether either got the job or not after that). Since then Facebook has said they don’t condone this sort of behaviour and will try to stop it. The issue has even gone as far as the US senate and is being investigated as a breach of privacy laws. The senator involved sees it as an “unreasonable invasion of privacy for people seeking work.” That’s undoubtedly true.
But on the other hand, what’s the problem really? If the person applying for the job finds the interview techniques of a company that draconian they probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway. And is it really a breach of privacy because the person has the choice on whether they give up the password or not. And doesn’t the company have the right to know what sort of person they are hiring?
Actually I’m not totally serious about the comments above but I have worked out a strategy which I would use in a similar situation. The trick is to create a fake profile which contains material potential employers would like and would generally be totally false. For example you could be applying for a job at an oil company and say you admire the company’s values where in real life you rant against their environmental abuses.
Some people might say that this is dishonest and not a good start to an employer/employee relationship. I agree, but I don’t think most companies deserve enough respect to be treated with total honesty anyway.
It would be impossible for some people to cover their true opinions of course. For example, I don’t think my anti-establishment rants in this blog and on various prominent sites could be easily disguised, but I don’t really care.
I also think that privacy is becoming less of an issue to people who spend a lot of time on-line. If everyone is open about their opinions and activities then it won’t really matter what they say on various web sites. If the norm is to say what you really think in public then employers won’t have much choice but to accept employees anyway and in that case the need to view personal information on social sites would become unimportant.
There certainly appears to be a lot of concern about privacy on the internet but it seems to be mainly from people who don’t use services like Facebook and Twitter (which is where they seem to think privacy standards are being breached). Most people who use these services a lot have a pretty good idea about what they are doing.
Some do let their enthusiasm go too far and should probably back off a little bit on the personal accusations and other controversial and malicious or even potentially libellous comments. On the other hand the internet is the last place where free speech is possible with minimum interference from political or corporate forces so I think it’s important to try to preserve that.
People should act responsibly and avoid putting extreme and inflammatory comments in their blog posts and other contributions. Just look at the example I set… yeah, right!
If I gave you a piece of paper and asked you to fold it in half, then half again (so that it was then four layers thick), then again, and again, how many times would you need to fold it before it was so thick that it would reach most of the way to the Sun (100 million kilometers)?
Most people are surprised to hear that the answer is 50. In fact I have seen at least one person try it. She was convinced she could fold the paper 50 times and prove me wrong but only got to about 5 folds (because it got too awkward and the paper wasn’t big enough, but you should ignore these practical difficulties for this thought experiment.)
Let’s think about it. Say the paper is 1 mm thick (I know that’s quite thick for paper but it makes the maths simple and doesn’t really change the end result). After the first fold the paper is 2 mm thick, then 4, then 8, 16, 32, etc.
So after 5 folds the paper is over 3 cm thick. What about after another 5? After a total of 10 folds it is over 1 meter thick. After 15 it is 32 meters thick, after 20 over 1 kilometer, after 30 over 1000 kilometers, after 40 over a million, and by the time the 50th fold is completed over a billion (that’s more than I said earlier because my paper started off too thick but you can see that it works in principle). That is the power of a geometric progression.
How many more folds would you need to make to double the thickness (from 1 billion to 2 billion kilometers). Some people say another 50 folds, but anyone who is paying attention will know the answer is 1. Just one more fold makes the paper a billion kilometers thicker because each fold doubles the previous thickness.
Again I must emphasise this is a thought experiment and obviously cannot be done in practice. Or can it? What about something similar involving self-replicating nano-machines?
People find this effect counter-intuitive because they tend to think linearly rather than geometrically. The expect things to increase smoothly rather than to accelerate suddenly.
Here’s another example of something counter-intuitive: take a pack of cards and shuffle it (randomly) then look at the result. How likely is it that the particular order of those cards has ever existed before anywhere and at any time in the entire history of the world? There are only 52 cards so surely it is very likely that the result has occurred before, isn’t it?
Well no, it’s almost 100% certain that the card order you have just created is totally unique and has never existed before. The cards in a standard deck of cards can be arranged approximately 80 million trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion different ways!
The first card could be any one of 52 so there are 52 possibilities. The second can be chosen from any one of the 51 remaining, etc. So the total possibilities are 52 x 51 x 50 etc. Do the calculation and see that it gets big quickly!
The deck we use today was invented in 1480, about 530 years ago. If every person in the world (let’s average that out at 5 billion) shuffled a new deck every second for all that time (about 17 billion seconds) they would still only deal 85 million trillion combinations. That is only 1 billion trillion trillion trillionths of one per cent of the total possibilities!
And you can now take a card from any place in the deck and put it somewhere else. That is (almost certainly) another totally unique combination.
People find this counter-intuitive because they don’t understand statistical and probabilistic concepts.
Here’s another piece of weirdness which seems trivial but maybe isn’t. The phrase “eleven plus two” is an anagram of “twelve plus one”. Coincidence? Most people would think so in this case because there is no political, religious, or social reason to think otherwise. But similar coincidences can often be misinterpreted as being far more meaningful when the person involved has a motive to see things that way.
People aren’t good at accepting that sometimes there is no deeper reason for something and no pattern even when it looks like there is.
So what I’m trying to say here is that most people aren’t good at analysing facts and coming to a valid conclusion. They aren’t good at estimating the answer to numeric problems. They aren’t good at establishing the probability of a particular outcome. And they aren’t good at figuring out what is a real effect and what is just “noise”.
It’s no wonder such a large proportion of the population believe in so many wacky things like UFO encounters, psychics, gods, ghosts, lake monsters, and a bunch of other stuff. And it’s no wonder they have trouble accepting scientific facts which are based on unintuitive processes such as evolution, the big bang, climate change, quantum theory, and relativity.
But those are just the obvious outcomes of this human failing. People rely on their intuition which is the result of a million years of evolution in a simple natural environment. It works well in most situations but utterly fails when trying to understand deeper meaning. The more concerning issue is that our political and economic systems assume people make good decisions. They don’t.
The facts above came from another thread on Quora called “What are some of the most mind-blowing facts?” (for a similar thread see my pervious blog post.) The link for the Quora discussion thread with these and many more weird facts is here.
MetaFilter (www.metafilter.com) is an interesting web site I visit every day. It is described as a “community blog” meaning it’s a place where the community posts stories instead of an individual. The neat thing about it is that the subjects are ones I might not intentionally seek out myself (arts, music, history, etc).
A title caught my attention recently: “The most Epic Photo Ever Taken?”. It linked to a Quora (another web-based service I use which asks and answers “big” questions) thread with possible answers to the question.
I recognised most of the photos suggested as “most epic” and a few are worth commenting on here, I think…
The photo with the most votes was “pale blue dot”, a dark grey grainy photo with some streaks of light and a single blue dot to the right of center. That blue dot is the critical part: it is the Earth, photographed in 1990 from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers by the Voyager 1 spacecraft after travelling outwards from the Sun (and Earth) for 13 years.
The greatest science communicator of all time, Carl Sagan, wrote about the deeper meaning of the photo in a book he wrote in 1994. Here’s what he wrote…
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Yes, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Good old Carl could be quite poetic when he put his mind to it. But it’s a good point isn’t it? It really shows how pathetically trivial most human endeavour really is.
Looking at this how could anyone take the ridiculous claims of religions seriously? How could they begin to accept the self-important nonsense espoused by the world’s political and military organisations? And who would take the slightest notice of the frivolous tripe we hear from business and corporate leaders?
None of these things have the slightest importance to the universe as a whole. But does anything we do? I guess in the vastness of the cosmos nothing really does, but I would like to think that the higher human activities: art, philosophy, science, do have some significance.
But maybe I’m just fooling myself. The photo in second place is described by the submitter to Quora like this…
“This image was taken in Sudan during the 1993 famine. That’s a little girl, crawling slowly and painfully across the ground toward a food distribution center, while a vulture watches her and follows, waiting for her to die so it can eat her.
The photographer, Kevin Carter, chased the bird away and then sat sobbing uncontrollably after taking the photo. In April of 1994, Carter was informed he’d be winning the Pulitzer Prize for the photo, and he was presented with the prize on May 23rd of that year. Two months later, he killed himself out of grief and desperation over all of the things he’d seen and his depression at the things humanity does to one another.”
So this is the sort of result we get from the short-term thinking, the self important political posturing, the failure to accept reality, and the greed and corruption which is rampant in the world today.
I think those are two of the most powerful photos there but there are others as well. There is the famous photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 8 crew as they orbited the Moon. The Apollo missions seem to be an achievement worth celebrating but even those were motivated by petty politics.
Another (which has always been one of my personal favourites and I have mentioned on this blog several times) is the Hubble Deep Field photo. It was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1975 and covers an area of sky the size of a coin viewed from 75 feet away. In that image are thousands of galaxies. Each of those galaxies have hundreds of billions of stars. If the Pale Blue Dot made you feel small this should multiply that thought a trillion times over!
A lot of what I see on Quora is quite intelligent and this thread is no exception. If you want to have a look at the photos, this is the link.
Last Sunday I did my usual biennial visit to the Warbirds Over Wanaka air show. I left about 7.30 in the morning and was there by about 10.30. Yes, I did a bit of “low flying” getting there (I won’t mention my maximum speed here) and got my first speeding fine for about 2 years. But I just see the occasional speeding fine as an added cost of driving. I know other people who have been let off with a warning for doing more than I did, so the whole thing is just not fair! (See my other blog entries for similar experiences of “Fred”.)
Once I got there I enjoyed the low flying of the various aircraft on display. I don’t think the show was quite as good as some in the past but it was still well worth attending, even though a lot of what was shown I had already seen in past shows.
One of my favourite planes is the Hawker Hunter and that flew at the show. I also saw a few planes I hadn’t seen before, such as the Avenger, Fokker D.VIII, Strikemaster, and Agusta 109 helicopter.
I did my usual photography, both still and video, and got some pretty brilliant photos (and I say that with all appropriate modesty). My report on the show, with photos, videos, and commentary is here.
Clocks don’t sound like a very interesting topic for a blog post, do they? I mean who cares about clocks? We just have them and they work. They perform a simple function well (hopefully) and what interesting new developments could possibly occur? Well quite a lot, actually.
My interest in horology began when I read a book by Dava Sobel called “Longitude”. Actually I read a few pages of it when I found it in a client’s office while I was waiting for an install to finish. It was so good that I bought a copy myself. It was a real paper book because this was a few years back before I started reading on the iPad.
So what’s the connection between longitude (which is the measure, usually in degrees, of a position around the Earth) and clocks? It goes back to the time of sailing ships when measuring longitude (and getting an accurate position) was impossible. The problem was that the Earth rotates on its axis so that unless you know the time accurately the observed location of the stars was useless as a measure of your position on Earth.
But clocks were notoriously difficult to keep accurate on a ship which was being tossed around at sea as well as experiencing extremes of temperature.
So the British Parliament offered a huge prize for solving this problem and the obvious way to do that was to build an accurate clock (there were other ways as well). A brilliant inventor and clock builder, John Harrison, built a series of increasingly accurate and compact clocks which were remarkably accurate even in the most difficult conditions.
They incorporated incredibly clever and complex mechanical mechanisms to compensate for the movement of the ship and changes in temperature. For example, bimetal strips would expand and contract and alter the balance of the clock’s timing just enough to keep it accurate. What he achieved was almost unbelievable.
His clocks (or copies of them) were used on famous voyages such as Captain Cook’s and on the Bounty. His most successful design, a large “watch” called H4 lost only 5 seconds after a two month journey at sea. But even though the clocks were admired by the sailors who used them he still had a lot of trouble extracting the full payment from the prize.
As I said, mechanical clocks are capable of impressive accuracy. In fact, according to a recent podcast (which was the reason for writing this post), the best pendulum clocks are actually more accurate than modern quartz electronic clocks. This probably only applies to standard modern models without accurate calibration and temperature control, I suspect. And also remember that modern quartz clocks are extremely cheap, compact, and reliable.
But that aside, mechanical clocks which achieved an accuracy of one hundredth of a second per day are very impressive. It’s also an example of genuine progress because the first pendulum clocks were only accurate to 15 seconds per day (but even that was almost one hundred times better than other technologies at the time).
So where have we gone from there? Modern atomic clocks are accurate to one second in about 50 million years. That is a hundred million times more accurate than the mechanical clocks I mentioned above.
And a new technology, which has been suggested by a team at an Australian university, is accurate to less than a second for the entire age of the Universe (about 14 billion years). As far as I know no one has yet built one of these “nuclear clocks” (which use neutron oscillation instead of the electrons used in conventional atomic clocks) but they would be another 300 thousand times more accurate than even atomic clocks.
But what’s the point? After all, if you are a billionth of a second late meeting your friend at the coffee shop it’s not really a big deal, is it? Obviously not, but picosecond timing can be useful for physics experiments involving precise measurements of events.
The recent controversy over the so-called faster than light neutrinos illustrates this issue. The neutrinos were travelling over 700 kilometers through the solid crust of the Earth and arriving at their target 0.0024 seconds later. But the timing revealed some arriving 0.00000006 seconds (or 60 billionths of a second) sooner than expected.
In that case the timing system was correct but the error was probably due to a faulty piece of cabling. However it does show the sort of accuracy required in modern experiments.
Incredibly precise measurements of time might lead to truly fundamental discoveries concerning the most basic laws of physics. They could tell us just how accurate theories like relativity and quantum theory really are (so far they have passed every test we have thrown at them) and even reveal if fundamental laws and “constants” are changing with time.
So something as simple as a clock is important and maybe just as critical as a far more spectacular bit of equipment like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, or the (yet to be built) Square Kilometer Array.
There’s a lot of trivial nonsense and wasted effort put into many activities in the modern world. A large proportion of the people in our society don’t contribute much to its overall progress, in fact many of them make a negative contribution by actively inhibiting the efforts of more productive individuals.
Some jobs seem to exist for the purpose of getting things done and others seem to be more geared towards stopping things from happening. Of course, my old favourite bureaucrats, especially managers, would be the first in the firing line for this criticism.
I don’t usually take too much notice of anecdotes because they can be misleading and not represent the big picture. Anyone can carefully choose individual cases to prove any point of view and one of my favourite skeptical quotes is “the plural of anecdote is not data”.
But there is one type of anecdote that I find more compelling, that is the one that I recount myself! Yes I know I’m being hypocritical here but who cares? If I label this blog entry with the keyword “rant” I can get away with anything, right?
So here are some of my (true) anecdotes of stupid trivial nonsense from bureaucrats. By the way, I’m going to use a character “Fred” as the victim of these incidents. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether these incidents represent something that happened to me or someone else.
A few years ago Fred saw that an auditor was checking the department he worked in for accounting irregularities. The auditor spent a lot of time carefully looking through the documentation he was given. Everyone knew that there were many suspect actions that the staff used to bypass the idiotic rules that managers imposed on them and it would be entertaining to see if the auditor noticed anything.
By the end of the lengthy process, which presumably cost Fred’s place of work a small fortune, the auditor recommended that they stop providing free perked coffee for the staff. So the staff had to visit a cafe and buy their own coffee which saved their department some cash but instead of working through their coffee break and drinking their coffee at their desk the workers disappeared for 15 minutes.
The director approved fully of the recommended change but it must have cost them tens of thousands of dollars a year in lost productivity. What unbelievable stupidity!
Anecdote the second is this: Fred worked part time and was often exploited because of his status by being forced into doing extra work without being paid and having his hours reduced unnecessarily. It turned out that some of the dirty tricks the management used were against his employment agreement. So the employer had to refund some of the hours that were taken from him.
Unfortunately the bureaucrats in charge of pay gave Fred a little bit more than he was entitled to. By a little bit I mean $2.02. So they started a series of letters to Fred demanding he repay the extra amount as quickly as possible. Fred was told to ignore the first letter but that was just followed by another. As the process continued it became obvious that the bureaucrats were wasting the small amount they hoped to regain many times over in trying to recover it.
But presumably no one considered the possibility of just ignoring the whole issue because that’s not the way these brainless morons work. Thinking and application of common sense is not a part of their job, obviously.
Here’s anecdote three: the managers at the organisation Fred worked for decided they had to follow the “best practice” that their profession demanded. As soon as we hear the term “best practice” we know some pure idiocy is on the horizon though don’t we? Best practice is just an excuse not to think and to avoid blame for failures. After all, if you followed best practice and still failed how can you be blamed?
Anyway the particular objective of this bit of time wasting was to produce a mission statement of some sort, or maybe it was a set of objectives, or something intended to motivate the staff, who knows because no one took any notice of it apart from laughing at it anyway!
The mission statement took the form of an inspiring word. I won’t say what it was because that might identify the perpetrators and then Fred might face some sort of half-assed disciplinary action. Each letter in the word stood for a principal the organisation (well actually the bureaucrats) held as important.
It was all embarrassingly pathetic. It really did look like the sort of thing a teacher would put together with the help of a bunch 8 year olds. Of course, to heighten the embarrassment it was displayed prominently in a public area of the organisation’s offices.
It’s bad enough that such an insult to any normal person’s professional standards should exist but it’s much worse when you think about how much the morons who wrote it were paid for the time spent on it. Most professional staff are self motivated and know how to do their job well. Having puerile nonsense like mission statements to tell them they need “heroism” or “integrity” is just pathetic.
Finally here’s anecdote 4: Fred drives to and from work and many other places and although he has been known to accidentally reverse into other cars on rare occasions he is a decent driver. He often sees other people doing stupid things though, like driving much too fast for the conditions, not giving way, and almost causing accidents.
Fred does have a habit of driving a bit faster than the speed limit sometimes but only when the traffic density is low and there are no other factors leading to possible hazards.
But when he is pulled over by the police for doing a few ks over the speed limit his explanations of his behavior are ignored. When he asks the police why they aren’t out stopping genuinely dangerous drivers instead of persecuting someone for doing a small amount over the speed limit his argument is not taken seriously.
The police just launch into some self evident commentary regarding how the faster you go the more damage is likely to occur. Well duh. I think we all know enough basic physics regarding the energy involved in collisions at different velocities to understand that!
So those are some of Fred’s experiences. I’m sure that everyone can think of similar situations they have been involved in themselves. Something is wrong with our society where self-important dimwits have control over reasonable intelligent people like Fred. It’s just not right but the only people who can really dismantle this sick system are themselves bureaucrats so what’s the chance of that happening?
About the same chance as the average bureaucrat using his brain: zero!