Archive for June, 2010

Cart Before the Horse

June 30, 2010 Leave a comment

We seem to have the cart before the horse. That’s an old proverb. In fact after researching it I can inform you that it dates back at least 2100 years to the time of Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC). Given that long history of recognising that things are often the opposite way around to what they should be you would think that we would know by now that it’s something to be avoided!

At this point you are probably wondering what I’m ranting on about this time. Well it’s our economic system again. You see I just listened to a couple of podcasts from NPR (National Public Radio in the US) and at least one of the guests recognised, as I do, that we’ve got things badly mixed up.

We’ve created a system which has taken control of the people its supposed to be benefitting. Businesses, and especially big corporations, have become out of control, self propagating entities which are greater than any one person. The speaker pointed out how pointless it was to demand the resignation (or assassination!) of the CEO of BP for example, because BP, as a large corporation, runs independently of its supposed masters.

It’s like a monster which has been created and now is out of control. It would make little difference who was in charge because the behaviour of the monster cannot be changed. And as I have said in past posts, other corporations are no different really. Any big oil company could have created the same disaster. It’s just that BP was unlucky this time.

So now people are subservient to the corporations. And governments do what is best for the corporations instead of using the corporation to achieve the best outcome for the majority of people. Even the people who do benefit from a corporation’s success lose in the end because the financial gain is achieved at the expense of social justice, the environment, and other factors which are unsustainable in the long term.

The current “golden period” that most of the western world has enjoyed for many years is achieved through exploitation. Significantly through exploitation of natural resources, but also through exploitation of people. For example, we only have cheap consumer electronics because people in China live on a close to subsistence income. And we enjoy our extravagant lifestyles through excessive consumption of fossil fuels.

I’m the first to admit that I’m as guilty as most because technology is an important part of my life and I’m as happy as anyone else to enjoy cheap iPhones, laptops, stereo and audio equipment, etc. But that doesn’t change the essential truth of the problem.

There’s no easy answer because the big corporations have so much control over the leadership of the world’s most powerful countries that they can’t easily be managed through government regulation. It’s abundantly clear that has happened with BP and the other oil companies and that’s why we now have the Gulf disaster.

What makes it worse is that it seems that every day ordinary people are controlled more and more by government regulation while at the same time regulation of the entities doing the real damage is loosened. The NPR guest gave an interesting example.

He described how energy exploration companies are using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to collect gas and oil. The process involves pumping millions of gallons of often unidentified chemicals into the ground and these cause a lot of harm to people living in the area, including medical effects and water from their taps which will burn! But there are no regulations to cover this activity because the companies successfully lobbied the politicians so they could be exempt from them.

And why are these chemicals which are harming people unidentified? Because the corporations hide behind commercial sensitivity. They say they want to maintain the secrets of the chemicals they have developed, and apparently it’s OK to not tell people what’s being used to poison them.

But an individual throwing a small item into a river (say an old car battery) which would cause much less potential harm would be prosecuted if he was caught. Is that fair? Of course not, because most laws are specifically designed to protect the corporations and punish the people.

So our whole civilisation – the economic system, the political system, and the law – is designed to protect these big companies and many people recognise this. The ones that do often say the system has given us the standard of living we have today. That is partly true but it’s also given us huge problems, not the least of which is global warming. And it’s not just coincidental that a lot of the corporate world denies the truth of climate change, peak oil, etc.

So this whole post sounds like one huge conspiracy theory and I guess it is (however remember that not all conspiracies are untrue, although most of them are). It’s not a conspiracy created by a group of people though, it’s one which naturally arises out of a system which started out being much more under control. Unfortunately it has got beyond the point where we can control it any more. The cart really is before the horse!

Predicting the Future

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

What do people think will happen in the future? It’s an interesting question for two reasons: first because it can reveal genuine predictions (crowd sourcing often works); and second, because it says a lot about the people being asked whether they are right or wrong.

The Pew Research Center recently ran a survey of this subject in the USA and the results were quite intriguing. Here are a few predictions and some of my comments about each one…

First, the big picture. The survey showed overall optimism but it was well down since the last time the survey was done in 1999. The subjects were all Americans and it’s easy to see why they would be less optimistic since then. They were the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they are still involved in two rather unsuccessful wars which drag on and on, their economy is a mess, they are losing their place as the world’s most important power, they were struck by the financial crisis, and then there’s the oil spill. Who wouldn’t be a bit less optimistic?

A significant proportion fear a major conflict before 2050. 58% think there will be another world war and 53% expect a terrorist attack against the US using a nuclear weapon. Both of those things are entirely possible, I would agree. Of course it depends on what your definition of a “world war” is but the rise of fundamentalism, especially in Islamic countries, has got to be a bad sign.

There is further pessimism around energy supplies. 72% think the world will be hit with a major energy crisis in the next 40 years. Again this is self evident to most. Oil is increasingly difficult to extract and coal has major disadvantages associated with pollution (including greenhouse gases) so that will surely be an issue.

But about the same number think our future energy will come from new sources. They think oil, gas and coal will reduce in importance. Whether these new sources are widely used after the crisis or whether they will negate the crisis isn’t clear. Most alternative sources aren’t suitable for large scale implementation. I guess the best hope is for a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion or in much more efficient solar sources.

On a related topic, there was reasonable acceptance of global warming. 66% say the Earth will definitely or probably get warmer, but it seems to be more of a political idea than a scientific one because it’s correlated with the person’s political views: less than half of Republicans agreed but over 80% of Democrats did.

There were some interesting thoughts on future technology too. 71% think cancer will be cured by 2050. I think this might be optimistic because “cancer” covers such a wide range of diseases with different treatments and causes. I would expect that new technology will greatly increase the effectiveness of cancer treatment but saying it will be entirely cured is unrealistic.

Just over half think ordinary people will travel in space. That sort of depends on what you mean by “ordinary people” of course. Civilians and non-specialists can already do this but it is expensive. How much does the price need to reduce by and how little preparation will be necessary before space travel can said to be available to “ordinary people”?

And 42% say that it will be possible to tell what people are thinking using brain scans. There is already some progress on this using FMRI but again it comes down to definitions: how accurate and specific does the scan need to be? It’s almost certain this technology will allow the general type of thought to be scanned but the exact details will certainly be much more difficult.

What about social issues? Almost 90% think a woman will be elected president by 2050. It has already happened in almost every other western democracy so surely it will happen in the US soon as well. All I can say is that I hope it isn’t Sarah Palin! What credibility would the idea of women in leadership have after that!

86% think people will work into their 70s before retiring. That also seems likely based on work trends and constantly extending life spans. Maybe by that time the working week will be reduced to 20 or 30 hours and the general conditions of work will be much better than today. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be.

OK finally the big one. 41% say Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years. That’s not surprising because many Americans have totally nutty religious beliefs. Interestingly though more than that think he definitely won’t return. Maybe they are finally sick of waiting and have given up on the idea!

So overall the predictions are fairly reasonable (apart from the silliness about Jesus). People seem to think that we are in for some considerable difficulty but that it will be overcome, mostly through the application of science and technology. I just wish more people would consider this fact when voting on issues related to funding of universities and other research organisations!

Worst Practice

June 18, 2010 Leave a comment

If you have read this blog much in the past you will be aware that, amongst the many professions modern society has, I have a particular dislike for managers. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t get it, or maybe I have trouble accepting authority, or maybe I’m just one of those mavericks who always wants to do my own thing, but it seems to me that they are amongst the lowest forms of life on Earth.

Why do I say this? Because they represent one of the few job types which are actually worse than nothing. There are a few others I would include in the same general category: corporate lawyers (a truly evil profession), public relations experts (yes, also evil), CEOs of large global corporations (have I used the word evil too much?). To be fair, I guess there are a few people in those positions which are OK, and I should also emphasise it’s not the person I’m criticising – it’s the job, but in general I think that’s a fair appraisal.

So getting back to managers. I would like to name a few attributes I have found which I particularly object to. First of all, they are almost universally lazy. I don’t necessarily mean that they do nothing or don’t “work” long hours, what I mean is they make no real effort to do what their job should really be.

A classic example of this is the rather silly idea of “best practice”. Best practice seems to be a simplified “paint by numbers” approach to management. Someone comes up with some general rules which might work sometimes then these are decreed to be “best practice” by some ill-defined authority, then all the manager has to do is force the people who do the real work to follow these guidelines and he has done his job.

The manager achieves two major wins by doing this: first, he fixes a problem (or more likely creates a new one) without thinking because he uses best practice instead; and second, he diverts attention from himself when things go wrong (and they usually will) because he has followed best practice and what else could he be expected to do?

The problem is that the real world isn’t that simple. Every situation is different and by just simplistically following some simple principles created by someone else, no matter how authoritative that person might be, nothing is ever likely to be improved.

If you want to see a classic case of the failure of best practice try using some big corporations support systems. You’ll most likely get an understaffed foreign helpdesk of minimally trained individuals who usually clear the call after the person seeking help gives up in frustration! I’m sure it’s not just me who has this problem because almost everyone I talk to has experienced it.

So implementing Indian (or other countries with cheap labour) help desks is considered best practice by many companies. Actually from a business perspective it’s probably a good idea because it doesn’t cost much to set up and most people will resort to on-line discussion forums and other sources to try to solve the problem instead.

Best practice is a bad idea in my opinion. I have no objection to the idea of “recommended ideas which have worked quite well in the past” which is what we should be working with instead. There’s certainly no harm in taking notice of what others have already tried instead of “re-inventing the wheel” but labelling something as “best practice” makes it sound like the solution has been found and no further effort is required.

There’s another point too. Is it best practice to follow best practice? If it is, how do we know this is true (it seems rather circular) and if it isn’t why are we doing it?

I recently had a discussion with a manager where we were trying to establish a way to support some computer users and he said he wanted to use best practice. I offered a few suggestions of what might work based on the actual facts of the specific situation and he got rather upset and said “no, we have to use the helpdesk”. If he wanted to do that why not say so instead of using a management buzz-word?

It just shows how different my thinking is to a manager’s (I accept that not all of them work this way but it does seem quite common). I look at the requirements and the resources available and come up with some solutions, the manager just recalls a solution he might have heard in a management course or a business magazine. There’s no real analysis and thought involved at all.

I work with many different types of people and the one class I find universally uninspiring are managers. As a group they are just uniformly mediocre. As I said above, their space in the universe could be filled with a vacuum and everyone would benefit. Unfortunately it’s the managers who make most of the decisions in this world (including those relating to hiring more managers) but I know who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes!

Note that I don’t really think there will be a revolution and I don’t condone violence against managers. This is just a phrase (from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) originally used to describe the fate of the corporate management of the “Sirius Cybernetics Corp” and it seemed appropriate!

Intelligently Designed?

June 14, 2010 2 comments

A lot of my work involves designing and creating database systems, web sites, and basic applications. Another part of it involves using (and helping my clients use) programs, web sites, and databases. One of the things that often surprises me is what a terrible job a lot of the “full time professionals” do when they are doing similar things to what I am doing as a part time programmer.

The best systems I have designed have resulted from a collaboration. In fact, they have gone beyond that and have become a synergy. I do the technical work and most of the design work but the feature set I create and the user interface I build are the result of my ideas and experience as an IT professional and my clients’ ideas as users.

When I use a lot of database systems and web sites I often wonder whether the designer has ever had to use their own system. And if they have used it perhaps they coped OK because they were just so familiar with it but have they asked a non-expert to use it and watched what happens?

The same applies to many widely used programs. I wonder whether the programming team responsible for Microsoft Word, for example, have ever used it much and whether they have watched other people try to use it.

Either they have never done this or they have but have ignored the obvious conclusion any reasonable person would reach in that situation. What is that conclusion? It’s that Word isn’t designed to be used as a word processor. In fact, many people would say it isn’t designed at all!

If there was a biological analogy it would be that it is the result of evolution rather than intelligent design! Like biological organisms Word does work but only because various features have been hacked around with, pushed into service in areas they were never really designed for, and added on to while maintaining the old functionality for compatibility purposes.

This is not a good way to create a living thing and it’s not a good way to create a program either. It’s easy to tell when you use a modern word processor like Apple’s Pages that it is more the result of intelligent design, although (like any program which has been around for a few years) there is some evolution there too.

Looking at it more generally that is a major difference between Apple and Microsoft. Apple isn’t afraid to start again and build things in a better way but Microsoft is so intent on maintaining backward compatibility that all they do is throw another layer on top of an already unstable structure making it even more ugly.

Of course Apple’s approach does have its problems. Switching to a whole new hardware architecture (which Apple has done three times: from 6502 to 68K, then to PowerPC, then to Intel) and completely changing the operating system (from Apple II and III to classic Mac OS then to Mac OS X) does create problems in accessing old data. I have many files created in programs like Word Perfect, MacDraw and HyperCard that are very difficult (but not impossible) to access on my current Mac.

I can see a similar phenomenon in Apple’s recent successful products, especially those in areas where Microsoft and other companies have failed. The iPhone was intelligently designed instead of just being hacked together like a Windows Mobile phone would be. iOS (the new name for the operating system Apple use on their mobile devices) is designed for mobile touch screen devices – it’s not just a layer thrown on top of the already clunky Windows platform like Microsoft’s efforts.

The same applies to the iPad. Other companies have made tablets but they have just been smaller laptops with less features. Apple designed theirs completely from the start for the functions it was supposed to perform. That’s why they were wildly successful when Microsoft and its partners failed.

Of course Apple isn’t the only company following this strategy. Google is doing something similar with its Android devices but it doesn’t quite have the same style as Apple. But in the longer term it might turn out that Google becomes the supplier of the OS for devices which are “good enough” just like Microsoft is today.

I said at the start that my best projects were a synergy between me and my clients. Apple is lucky because they don’t seem to have to rely on that so much. Steve Jobs seems to have such a good understanding of what people really want that most of the time he gets it right.

That’s what makes him the world’s number 1 CEO, I guess. Now I’m not a big enough Apple fanboy to say Jobs is God – but he is the intelligent designer!

The Mighty Have Fallen

June 11, 2010 Leave a comment

BP is one of the world’s biggest corporations yet several commentators are now saying it could be soon bankrupt after the debacle of the oil leak in the Gulf. How can this happen? How can just one mistake cause the whole mighty edifice to crumble? It’s simple really: the whole corporate system is totally corrupt (according to multiple meanings of the word) and it doesn’t take much for that corruption to lead to catastrophic failure.

The banks which have recently failed in the US and Europe were just as corrupt (probably more so) but they were saved by government hand outs. I’m not sure whether BP will get similar charity because the disaster and most of the financial activity is happening in the US and BP is a British based company. I suspect the Americans would be more generous if BP was American but there’s no way to know for sure.

So what do I mean when I say BP is corrupt? Well first I have got to say that I have no reason to think that it’s any more corrupt than other companies of a similar size. Basically most companies become successful by using dirty tricks, corrupt business deals, and barely legal political persuasion (effectively bribes) so it’s probably more through bad luck than anything else that it’s BP which has lost out in this particular case.

After reading through the reports on what has caused this and other disasters it seems to stem back to the one factor which above all is essential for successful business: greed. BP have systematically taken shortcuts to minimise costs on several projects. These have been allowed by the agencies who should be checking that the safeguards are in place because of political interference or pure incompetence. And many people have died as a result. But BP’s profits have steadily increased and what else matters to the corporations?

Yes, this is really another anti-capitalism, anti-free market, anti-corporate rant! I don’t apologise for that because I think corporations are responsible for most of the problems we have in the world today. I also recognise that corporations often efficiently produce the goods and services the modern world wants so the question naturally becomes: is there a reasonable alternative?

I commented in another blog entry (“Too Big to Fail?” on 2010-06-01) that I think there should be an upper limit on how big companies can get. If they can’t get too big to fail then bail outs won’t be necessary. And if there are many smaller companies instead of a few big ones then there will be more competition and less repression of new ideas.

As I have said many times before I have no trust in the free market and competition is often not the best answer. But realistically we aren’t going to abandon capitalism any time soon so the next best thing is to optimise the way it works.

Abandoning the corporate model seems like a good first step. Smaller companies would not be bribing political leaders like the big ones do now. There would be more competition amongst smaller companies. And there might be a slight reduction in efficiency but I think that would lead to greater employment and an overall increase in standards for most people. It might even lead to a reversal of the recent trend of the rich-poor gap increasing.

I think there is growing support for tough action against corporations. I have seen several articles in reasonably mainstream sources calling for severe action against BP. The proposals include:

1. Make BP pay and pay and pay (raise their federal civil liability limit to $10 billion).
2. Void all its government contracts (already being considered).
3. Kill the company (America already shuts down rogue companies).
4. Boycott BP, far and wide (a consumer rebellion against BP brands).
5. Throw the executives in jail (for involuntary manslaughter of the 11 workers).
6. Execute CEO Tony Hayward (they do it in China, so why not?).

These may seem rather extreme (and some of them are!) but the EPA was already deciding whether to declare BP ineligible for US government contracts because of four separate cases of criminal conduct in the past decade (yes, that’s criminal conduct, not just poor decisions or dodgy accounting).

The problem is that, as I said above, BP has got into this situation as much through simple bad luck as anything else. I have no doubt that many other companies take just as many shortcuts and are just as evil as BP but maybe this is an opportunity to make an example of one to act as a warning to others.

One thing seems clear to me: after the numerous corporate debacles recently I think most people can now see that the world of big business is nothing to admire and aspire to joining. Unless, that is, you are a true capitalist and death, destruction and total lack of morality is just the price you are prepared to pay for more profit.

Shallow Technology

June 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve recently read a few commentaries regarding the topic of whether the internet is making us stupid. Sometimes the issue is expressed using exactly those words and other times slightly less extreme claims are made, such as the internet reduces our attention span, or makes us multitask too much, or makes us more shallow.

The argument applies to other technologies as well, for example texting on cell phones is a favourite target for people who claim that technology makes us less literate, and of course for years there have been numerous arguments against TV as a source of entertainment and information.

I like to be on the cutting edge of new technologies so I would be expected to be affected by this more than most – so is it true? In a way yes, it is, and in others it isn’t (there’s a typical, frivolous answer for you).

For example, I know I multitask a lot more now and recent studies have shown fairly clearly that people don’t multitask well – and yes, that applies to men and women equally! But the multitasking I do is in situations where it is appropriate.

I listen to podcasts while I’m driving. Actually I’m not sure that is a good example because other research indicates that reduces my safety as a driver! So let’s try this instead: I listen to podcasts while I’m walking from one location at work to another, while I’m doing household tasks, mowing the lawn, etc. They seem like times when multitasking is a good thing.

And I surf the web a lot when I’m watching TV. That’s usually because most TV is barely worthy of my full attention because most of it has been dumbed down so much that half my attention is all it deserves. Of course, the surfing is often related to what’s on TV. For example I often announce various “fascinating” trivia about a movie my family is watching because I’m also on the IMDB web site.

New internet services seem to be emphasising short chunks of information rather than in-depth analysis. Twitter is the most obvious example of this but RSS feeds, news aggregators, web headline summaries, Facebook, and other technologies do the same thing. I use a social networking program (currently Socialite – a brilliant program) to accumulate all of these streams of information into one place. Sometimes reading the headline is all I need but for some summaries I just click and read the details in my web browser (Safari 5 – the world’s best web browser – has a useful “reader” feature which makes this easy).

So the “shallow” information sources are a great way to sort through the trending subjects and get an overview of general news and the deeper analysis is only a click away. It’s really no different from reading an old-fashioned (paper) newspaper where I might read the headline and one sentence summary of most stories and only read the whole article for stuff that particularly interests me.

The advantage of the internet is that the information can easily be aggregated from numerous sources which gives me a far less biased and more general view of the news. I feed general news from the New Zealand Herald, the ODT (our local paper), the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, MSNBC and Fox News for example. Without the internet no one could source that sort of variety of news practically.

So it seems to me that the internet isn’t making me stupid at all – it’s making me far better informed in the breadth, depth, variety, and in the objectivity of the news I read. Of course I could equally easily just choose sources that fit my political biases and many people do, but you can’t blame the technology for people who are determined to remain ignorant.

The final step for me will be the iPad (I don’t have one yet but should get one soon) because it will make accessing these sources as easy as carrying a book or newspaper. Actually it will be a lot easier because books and newspapers aren’t easy to handle in many cases. And I hope the iPad will be a sufficiently good experience that I will use it to read fiction as well. Maybe that will be the next step in my road to a paperless life (I’m already well progressed down that path).

Actually, I just noticed that I blogged about a very similar topic almost exactly two years ago (on 2008-06-10 in a post titled “Making Us Stupid?”). It’s interesting to see how things have changed (although the basic principles have stayed the same). If technology is making us stupid it’s doing it far more now than it was then and the trend is accelerating, so it does seem a bit pointless complaining, doesn’t it.

Unholy War

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

I have read a few commentaries recently on what seems to be a trending topic: is there a war between science and religion? (sometimes called the “unholy war”) Alternatively there is the related topic of whether science and religion are compatible or whether they can co-exist or even whether religion can be proved by science.

Like a lot of subjects of this sort it does partly depend on how you define your terms. When we say science do we include philosophy or non-empirical social science, and how much support is necessary before it can be claimed as real support? There are several well known scientists who claim to have relatively bizarre religious beliefs but few of those actually use science to support them. Also there will always be a few crazies in every group, even amongst scientists.

And when we say religion do we mean a specific religion, such as Christianity (which is often what people are implying) or are we talking about a more generic concept of religion? Must the religion encompass the supernatural or is it reasonable to resort to vague (and in my opinion meaningless) concepts like “the Universe is God”?

If we take the most general case all we are saying is that some people involved in some moderately well recognised areas of study think there is some reason to believe in phenomenon which they describe in a vague way as “spiritual”.

If we take the most specific case then it is well accepted that physics, chemistry and biology fully support the literal meaning of the Old Testament.

The first case is ridiculous because it’s so non-specific that it is totally meaningless. It’s like a pithy quote I heard recently: make god into everything and he becomes nothing. But it’s impossible to accept the second case as well because only the truly nutty lunatic fringe would even pretend that real hard science supports a literal interpretation of Christian mythology.

So if the idea of compatibility or support has any meaning at all then the best interpretation must lie somewhere between these two extremes. Does that make sense?

I don’t think so. The basic methodology of the two subjects seems incompatible to me. Science proceeds on extreme skepticism and by using the absolute minimum number of pre-conditions possible. Religion is quite the opposite: it has the pre-condition that certain facts are true: a certain god does exist for example.

I know it’s impossible to not have some premises in any formal system of knowledge but it seems to me that science uses far fewer and more logical premises than religion does. And even if you want to debate that then the two are still different enough that they can’t be compatible.

This dichotomy is reinforced every time I see someone try to use science to support religion. It doesn’t matter how intelligent the person is, the end result is universally pathetic. The person not only lacks logic and facts to an extent that they would be laughed at if they tried to publish their thesis in a scientific journal, they often lack credibility to the extent that even an untrained person can see how ridiculous their assertions are.

Sometimes the most effective technique is to try to misuse complex scientific terms in an attempt to confuse the listener. Quantum theory is a favourite subject for this. Many people will hear a complex argument using uncertainty, wave particle duality and other difficult to understand physics concepts and assume the speaker knows what they are talking about. But even someone with a fairly informal knowledge of the area (like myself) can see it is pure nonsense.

I have blogged before (in an entry titled “Brilliant Stupidity” on 2009-09-22) about Francis Collins, who has done brilliant work in the past yet makes himself look like a fool when he starts trying to justify his religious beliefs. More recently I have read similarly silly stuff from Dinesh D’Souza and Gerald Schroeder (a physicist and Biblical scholar who teaches at the College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem).

I’m not saying it’s not worth listening to anyone who thinks they can support religion through science. Who knows, maybe one day they will genuinely come up with something new which has some actual validity. But so far I have been disappointed every time.

It’s not that I go out of my way to ridicule the idea. I genuinely find it fascinating when science indicates that something new and mysterious might be happening that we don’t understand. I have discussed the fine-tuned universe and the anthropic principle in this blog before and I find these genuinely intriguing but I don’t think they prove a god exists and they certainly don’t have the least impact om the argument over the existence of the Christians’ god – he really is irrelevant to the subject.