Archive for January, 2011

What’s Your Mission?

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

As I read newspapers, magazines, and other sources, I often record articles which interest me. I use an iPhone app known as “Genius Scan+” for this. It takes a photo of the article, crops it and corrects any distortion in the photo, and stores the result in a document on the phone. This can also be transferred to services such as Evernote and DropBox.

But that’s not what this blog entry is really about. I was scanning through the stuff stored in my “political stories suitable for blogging” folder and found one from a month or two back about submissions for new mission statements for local hospital boards.

I am deeply skeptical of almost every management practice, and the production of mission statements is no exception. They really are a pitiful farce, a waste of time and money, and more a source of wry amusement than inspiration for the people expected to use them as a guide for their work.

To most people they are completely irrelevant. I don’t even know whether my workplace has a mission statement, and if it does (it probably does since it’s a big, bureaucratic organisation) I wouldn’t take the slightest notice of it anyway. And I’m fairly sure my colleagues feel the same way too.

So what really is the point? Why would highly paid bureaucrats have to spend time coming up with some meaningless, frivolous piece of doublespeak like the average mission statement? I guess it’s because they’re being paid a lot to try to impress bureaucrats further up the hierarchy (and therefore even more out of touch with reality) and what could be more impressive to that sort of person than some pitiful piece of fluff like a mission statement?

In the case described in the newspaper article one nurse was surprised to find that she was the only person to make a suggestion. It as “working to provide humanitarian healthcare for all New Zealanders”. In some ways that’s OK but it was odd coming from someone living in Queenstown, New Zealand’s biggest tourism center, because what is the obligation to non-New Zealanders? Do they not deserve humanitarian healthcare? It’s not in the mission statement so I guess not!

Various other suggestions included supporting statements such as “being realistic in our endeavor to provide healthcare to encompass all of New Zealand’s cultural and individual differences while bearing in mind monetary constraints” (how inspirational!), and “don’t toss out the good ones to save someone else’s butt” (yeah, that’s going to happen), and “put your egos where they are needed” (only works for people with no ego), and “listen to the people who are really affected by cuts to services” (LOL).

I can’t imagine any situation when statements such as these would be any practical help to anyone. For example anyone who already let their ego take control is unlikely to take much notice of the idea that they should put their ego where it is needed. And anyone who indulges in office politics and saves their or other’s butts by tossing out the “good ones” is likely to continue on that route no matter what some trite advice might suggest.

But I’m being negative. Would it not be better to offer some ideas of what could be done to improve an organisation’s morale and cohesiveness instead of just ridiculing other people’s ideas? Yeah sure, but it won’t be easy. The problem is that most people who do the real work in modern organisations feel like pawns in a game being played by people who don’t know how to win. Well they do know how to win I guess, but they’re not playing the game they should be.

For example, in a hospital the managers might be playing the “do what the politicians say even when it’s wrong” game, or the “balance the budget and forget the services to patients” game, or the “blame everyone except myself” game. In fact it’s these people who might actually benefit from having a mission statement. I would suggest something like this: “I will endeavour to support the people who provide the services in this organisation whatever the consequences”. Yeah, that’s likely to happen, isn’t it?

The person involved with the statements I listed above actually indicated that she was skeptical about the impact any vision statement would have on services. Really? What a surprise!


A Taxing Question

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The Labour opposition has recently said they will cut taxes for the lowest paid people in New Zealand if/when they are voted into government next. Obviously the National-lead government has ridiculed the idea but I think they might have underestimated it.

There seems to be agreement amongst political commentators that many people are becoming disillusioned with how the richest are becoming even richer while the rest suffer. At the same time it has become apparent to many that business leaders aren’t quite the heroes that they are often portrayed as.

The disastrous oil spill caused by BP’s incompetence and it’s subsequent further incompetence in handling the problem showed that many top executives are no more deserving of respect and huge salaries than anyone else.

And then there was the biggest disaster of all which was primarily caused by corporate leaders’ greed and incompetence: the global financial crisis itself. People naturally object to these leaders being paid huge salaries when their actions have lead to everyone else being paid less. Sure, it’s hard to control how much they are paid but at least they can be taxed a bit more so that they do end up making some reasonable contribution to society even if it is only through paying tax.

New Zealand has also been affected in similar ways. Many would suggest the Pike River mine disaster was caused by poor safety standards implemented by its management. Then there are the continual finance company collapses, sometimes accompanied by government rescues. How can society justify paying the useless executives involved the salaries they get? Again I say let’s just take their undeserved pay back by taxing them.

The counter-argument that we shouldn’t help out the poorest by taxing the richest just doesn’t work. The rich can afford it and if more tax means they move somewhere else then they probably aren’t the sort of people we want here anyway. In fact, even if we didn’t need the extra tax it would be a good idea to tax the rich more. If they decided to get a job in another country because they were too miserable to help out those who haven’t learnt to rip off the system quite as well as they have then the didn’t deserve to live here in the first place.

I actually thought that we didn’t tax the first $5000 of income anyway, in fact for some reason I thought the limit was $12000. Maybe that used to be a rule but was removed a while back during New Zealand’s economic miracle in the 1990s (I’m being sarcastic because the “miracle” was actually a disaster).

But even moving away from those questions we should get back to an even more basic discussion of the subject. That is, ignoring all other factors, should we be taxing the poor less? There is merit in that idea surely because most people don’t really want an underclass living below or on the poverty line.

Another discussion should be around the idea of taxing others more. Forget about ideological and philosophical objections. Would it be best for our society as a whole if we did that? Would we have a more equal society (instead of having one of the greatest disparities between rich and poor in the world, as revealed in a recent study)? Would we have less families who can’t afford the basics they should have in a relatively rich modern western country? Might we lose some rich, greedy senior executives?

If we agree reducing taxes for the poor is a good thing then we should find a way to make it happen. If we also agree that taxing the rich more is good then there’s an easy answer to the problem of funding those cuts. I heard that it would take a top tax rate of over 40% for people making over NZ$150,000 to allow the tax cuts for the poorest to go ahead. What’s the problem with that? I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are but I guess they are a reasonable estimate. It’s even more reasonable when you consider the rich have just been given a huge handout through the current government’s “tax reforms” (which actually aren’t reforms at all).

So this policy might be quite successful in increasing Labour’s support. It’s unlikely to be enough to give them a victory because they are currently a long way behind, but even if it just gives the center-right (plus the Maori Party) coalition a scare at the next election then that will be good enough. They have got things far too easy at the moment and that is leading to them considering more unreasonable ideological policies which is the last thing the country needs.

I think we should all forget the ideology and let’s just see if we can find a way to return to a having a more equitable and fair society in New Zealand.


January 23, 2011 Leave a comment

What are our responsibilities to the society we live in? Is it our responsibility to obey the law, or to do what our bosses tell us to, or to follow every regulation or company rule, or to follow the wishes of our elected government? It’s a tricky question. Many people would say that it’s important to follow the law for example, but do we really think every law is fair and relevant? Very few people would. And a lot of worthwhile social change has been gained through civil disobedience. What about in the workplace? If we are employed by a company should we follow its instructions and regulations exactly?

While I do tend to have a somewhat anarchic twist to my personality I also recognise that for people to live together efficiently and peacefully there must be some rules for behavior. So like most things it’s not a matter of one or the other extreme being right, it’s a matter of knowing when to toe the line and when to rebel against the machine!

So what has lead to this rebellious little tirade? A few different things. First there is the continuing Wikileaks controversy and the question of how to treat whistle-blowers in general. And in New Zealand a member of parliament is currently facing censure from his party for making his opinion known even though it is contrary to the party’s official policy. And I just re-read a news story where New Zealand’s maritime union is considering whether to refuse to unload railway wagons made in China which they think should have been made here.

These are all examples where people have done what they thought was right instead of what the law, or the regulations of an organisation, or normal convention dictates. Sure, there are negative aspects to all of the actions I have listed but on balance I think it would be a disaster if this sort of behavior stopped.

My attitude to the law is that I assume it is reasonable but if there are any situations where I think it isn’t I reserve the right to break it and still feel as if I’m a moral person. Of course I would also expect that there might be consequences if I did, but all I’m saying is that illegal and immoral aren’t always the same thing. In fact there are times when following the law (or regulation, rule, or instruction from a “superior”) is anything but moral.

One of my favorite quotes is this: “It is the duty of every patriot to protect his country from its government” (Thomas Paine). I would extend this to say it is every employee’s duty to defend his company or his clients from his management, and it is every human’s duty to defend his fellow humans from all forces ranged against them.

So people like Julian Assange aren’t terrorists, they are heroes. Actually when someone is accused of being a terrorist when he has done something against the ruling elite I just laugh. The word terrorist has lost all meaning because of this nonsense. Anyone warped enough to really believe that Wikileaks is a terrorist organisation is probably so ideologically off the scale that it wouldn’t really matter what you told him. You could probably say Assange is the Antichrist (has anyone tried that yet?) and you would still be taken seriously!

The same applies to members of parliament (and elected representatives in other types of democracies) who are forced to obey their party’s official position even when they think it is wrong or contrary to the best interests of the people who voted for them. Last time I checked we lived in a representative democracy which means we elect politicians to represent us in government. Why are these people forced to do what the party hierarchy tells them instead? Surely that’s undemocratic?

I agree that the situation is complicated in New Zealand where we have MMP. That means that list MPs are voted in as a result of the party vote. Maybe they owe the major part of their allegiance to the party but surely those voted in as an MP for an electorate should primarily do what’s best for that electorate.

So again, those who rebel against the system are usually doing the right thing. Of course it does depend on why they are rebelling. If it’s just to gain some publicity for themselves, or to try to improve their standing in the party hierarchy, or for various other Machiavellian reasons then it’s not acceptable. If it’s to do what the voters want or to achieve something they genuinely think is best for those people then I say great, stand up and do what’s right!

Finally, what about at work? Surely part of the conditions for working in a company or other organisation is that you will follow the instructions of the management? Again, I don’t think so. It’s every person’s responsibility to do what’s right irrespective of the opinions of any other person, who by some process (often devious) might have ended up in a position of power. Of course the management don’t like this and will do all they can to prevent any actions which they disapprove of, so it’s the workers’ duty to find ways to circumvent the system.

I work in a large bureaucracy and I’m constantly working this way (my previous “boss” called me a “free spirit” which I think is a very positive way to put it!) If the senior management knew half the things I do they would be quite “surprised” I think. But I do it for my clients. I do it to get things done efficiently instead of waiting for the slow and inefficient bureaucracy to act. And I do it to avoid giving clueless, unimaginative managers any say in the decision making process.

Am I a bad person? I know that many people would say that I am and should be immediately fired. Just like the MPs who stand up to the party machine should be kicked out. And just like Julian Assange should be executed. Oddly enough, many of these conservatives who support these views are quite religious yet they fail to see that Jesus (if the stories about him have any accuracy at all) was quite the rebel himself. Isn’t that ironic!

Ah, delusions of grandeur are truly creeping into my thoughts now! Jesus, Julian Assange, rebellious politicians, and me! We’re the rebels. We’re the trouble-makers. We’re the ones who keep the system going by working against it. That’s our responsibility.

Is Good Enough Enough?

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I enjoy using good technology. I like expensive toys. I don’t have enough money to buy any truly expensive toys (whenever I buy a Lotto ticket with friends at work I joke that I’m off to look up the phone number of the nearest Lamborghini dealer but I guess I’ll never actually have a genuinely expensive toy like that!) but some people still think I have too much “invested” in technology.

Good technology comes in many different forms. I want to list and discuss a few of them here.

My wife is a food and nutrition teacher and she likes to do some fancy cooking for our fiends and family occasionally. A couple of weeks ago we decided to buy her a good quality chef’s knife. It cost about three times as much as anything similar we have ever bought in the past (about NZ$240) but it’s quite remarkable how much difference it makes.

This knife is made in Germany from some high-tech steel and it’s very sharp and nicely balanced. You can cut through stuff like ripe tomatoes with no downward force at all. It’s brilliant! I actually quite enjoy cooking myself and using a really good knife like that makes it even better.

Near the end of last year I bought myself a new car. My previous car was quite nice: a Honda Prelude with a 2.2 liter VTEC engine and four wheel steering. It had decent power in a lightweight body and handled fairly nicely. But it was a bit short of space for the family! So I got a used (because remember that I do things on a budget) Subaru Legacy B4 RSK. It has a 2 liter quad cam boxer engine with two turbochargers and an intercooler, plus a whole lot of other high performance stuff.

We also have a conventional Subaru Legacy with a 2 liter engine. But it’s like they’re two totally different cars. The B4 has double the power, very sharp handling, a nice manual gearbox and clutch, and those turbos just make it fly! I just drove it up to Christchurch and the effortless power when overtaking and great handling on the corners makes it well worth the little bit of extra fuel it uses. You do have to watch the speed though because it accelerates up to 150 ks (and lots more) in no time and you don’t even notice!

I’m writing this blog entry on my iPad. Compact laptops, tablets, netbooks, and other handheld devices have been around for a long time before the iPad and I have tried to use them on occasions. But other company’s efforts at making a truly usable tablet just don’t work. You can look at the specs and it might seem that the other devices are fine. They often have good processors, screens, cameras, lots of ports, clever little keyboards, and all sorts of other paraphernalia. But you wouldn’t want to use them.

The iPad is another example where if you aim a little bit higher you will be well rewarded. It’s like using the beautifully balanced knife, or winding up the turbos in the B4. It just makes you feel good when you use it because it’s a thing of beauty!

I never get that when I use PCs. They are usually good enough. But is good enough really enough? Why not just put a little bit of extra effort in, or spend a little bit extra, and get something that’s better than just “good enough”. It’s something that a lot of PC users just don’t get. They quite rightly say their PCs do the job. They’re good enough for them. But they fail to see that they could get more than that if they wanted to. They could break away from their mediocre PC hardware, toss out Windows, dispose of that horrendous Microsoft Office, and join the minority who have discovered there is a better way.

There’s one other point I should make here. When I refer to the idea of computer hardware and software being “good enough” I’m not referring to the computing principle of good enough (also known as POGE). That principle relates more to creating simple but extensible initial systems instead of trying to do everything from the beginning. The products which I am referring to generally don’t try to do this. In fact they often try to do everything and that’s what leads to many of the problems. Microsoft Word would be a classic example of this. By trying to do everything it ends up doing nothing properly. Many people say that Microsoft Word is good enough but it’s the very fact that it doesn’t follow the principles of good enough that makes it only good enough and not excellent! That was a very convoluted statement so I hope it makes sense!

So in summary, I guess there’s no harm in using mediocre stuff. But for me good enough just isn’t enough.

Shut It Down

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I saw in the news yesterday that the US is preparing to shut down their biggest particle accelerator, the might Tevatron, at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Sure, there is a bigger and better accelerator in the world now, the famous Large Hadron Collider, but there is surely enough work for both. Also, an expert panel recommended continuing to run the Tevatron for several years more.

Before I continue I want to make an amusing observation. Look at the difference in approach to naming the two facilities. The US calls theirs the Tevatron. That sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. I can just imagine Scotty saying something like “the Tevatron is overloading cap’n. She’s gonna blow!”. The Europeans call their collider the Large Hadron Collider. This thing is 27 kilometers in circumference. It’s the biggest, most expensive, and most complex machine ever built, yet they just call it “large”. I like that sense of understatement!

So back to the topic at hand. The Tevatron would have cost $35 million per year to operate, yet the richest country in the world can’t afford it. That’s just total nonsense. They can easily afford it, in fact given the decreasing relevance of the US in science (and everything else) the question is can they afford not to keep it running. That sort of money is nothing. The US has spent that amount 3000 times over on wars in every one of the last 10 years.

And it’s not just the US who is to blame. We get similar claims here in New Zealand. Our government claims they cannot afford funding for university research and other important things yet they throw around billions on bailing out private finance companies and other similar tasks. Clearly they do have plenty of money, it’s just they choose to spend it on the wrong things.

You might be surprised to hear me being critical of the current US administration because many people think I am an Obama supporter. Perhaps I should clarify that: I think Obama is a terrible president – but he’s still the best one they have had in living memory! That just shows what a terrible state the US has got itself into. The country is far too much under the control of big corporations and idiotic conservative and religious groups. As always happens in these situations (don’t people ever pay attention to history) where an empire becomes inward looking and conservative, the end isn’t far away.

It’s not just the Tevatron either. Funding for many other scientific programs is also being cut (again not just in the US either because Britain and other parts of Europe are also making this mistake). NASA is becoming a joke. It seems more interested in putting out politically motivated “good news” stories than engaging in the exploration of space. Who could imagine a time when the US relied on Russia for a launch vehicle!

It often seems like I spend a lot of time criticising the US. Is it not the responsibility of every country to contribute to progress, especially in science? Well yes, it is, but the US is the only current world superpower and it got there by exploiting the resources of the world (and causing more harm to the environment than any other country). Because of that I think it has a responsibility to use its power for good. Imagine what the money spent on the war in Iraq (approaching $1 trillion) could have achieved if it had been used constructively instead. For a start it would fund NASA for 50 years, or the Tevatron for 22,000 years!

You know the worst thing about it though? It’s how desperately underachieving the whole human race is for the most ridiculous reasons. The greatest achievements of humanity can be terminated on a political whim when it would be so easy to continue and improve them. Progress is held back by pathetically childish religious reasons (look at how Islamic countries have contributed to progress in the past compared with now, and how various elements in American society are specifically anti-science) and ignorant politics (need I mention the Tea Party?)

It’s all so depressing and I wonder where it will lead. There is one thing I think is true beyond anything else though: as soon as a country starts cutting back on truly innovative research, and shuts down programs which are intended to make genuine discoveries, and stops exploring the real boundaries of understanding, it’s finished. I guess the groups who are against progressive social and scientific policies will look back and wonder what went wrong. They should have checked out their history books. When conservative, self centered, inward looking attitudes take over the end is always near.

Christian Arrogance

January 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t have a lot of respect for religious people at any time because I think they have taken the easy way out. Either they are too lazy to check the facts and see that there is no basis for their religion, or they have been propagandised by their church and are too lazy to break free, or they want a simple and pleasant world view and are too lazy to seek the truth instead. All of that is bad enough, but something which makes it a lot worse is when they get arrogant as well.

An example was a headline which attracted my attention in our local paper. The headline was “Only Christian Faith Satisfies the Spiritual Thirst”. Wow, how arrogant is that? Assuming the “spiritual thirst” is a need many people have to believe in the supernatural it’s still doubtful since more believers follow other religions than those who follow Christianity. And if you extend the term to mean a wider meaning, such as the non-supernatural spiritual beliefs atheists have, it’s even worse!

Not surprisingly, the article was written by an elder in a local church – some clown by the name of Ivan Grindlay. I wonder how many other sources of inspiration he has seriously tried apart from Christianity? I would be prepared to guess the answer is zero, because most Christians aren’t only incredibly ignorant of the true origins of their own beliefs, they are also ignorant of all the others as well. I guess that’s why they go with that wonderful faith of theirs: it’s all that’s left when they have no facts.

So what does he actually say? He starts with some pitiful attempt at establishing the existence of a designer. It’s the old “we see design everywhere so there must be a designer” argument. The fact is that natural selection is a process which provides apparent design without a designer. Anyone with the slightest interest in the subject should know that, but there’s no mention of it here.

Then there’s some new age drivel along the lines of “humans have a latent awareness of the unseen”. Sure, they are aware of UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, hundreds of different gods, and fairies at the bottom of their gardens. This is a good thing how exactly?

Next there’s the old standard Christian sales pitch about Christ offering his life so that the rest of us can have eternal life in heaven, or something of that sort. I never did figure out what Christ has really done for us. Before Christ we had wars, disease, death, torture, evil, crime, and suffering, and after Christ we had wars, disease, death, torture, evil, crime, and suffering. Exactly how are we better off?

It seems to be that if you really want to point out some improvements in people’s lives you would be better to look at the before and after scenario for science. The same science the church rejected and fought against for so long. Christianity just seemed to bring more of the same: religious wars, the inquisition, witch burnings, the Crusades. Gee, thanks Jesus. That was so helpful!

Next our writer uses the oldest trick in the book. It’s the old “if in doubt sound confident” trick. He claims that the hope given by Christ’s death is certain and has been confirmed over time despite the misgivings of skeptics. It’s like the drivel about “sure and certain eternal life” in Christian funeral services. Sure *and* certain? I’m convinced!

Then there’s an example of the common confusion between confidence and faith. He suggests people demonstrate faith every day because when they switch on a light they expect it to work and it does. But that’s more confidence based on past experience than religious faith. True faith would be more like we switch on a light and nothing ever happens but we still think something will happen next time because the electric company says it will if we just believe in them enough! Oh, and the electric company has no power generation facilities, just a public relations department!

I really can’t go on. It just gets worse and worse. There’s junk about prayer not being answered because people have no relationship with god. Why devout believers’ prayers also aren’t answered is left to the reader to figure out.

So there’s just nothing there. Christianity is empty of all meaning. It gives no real hope but keeps the cowardly happy through false belief. What a travesty it really is. I could almost pretend it wasn’t so bad if its followers weren’t so damn arrogant!

Person of the Year 2010

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

In my last blog entry I said that rehashing the past year wasn’t that interesting but I like to contradict myself, at least on subjective matters such as this, so I am going to comment on an issue from the past year after all.

The subject is the “Person of the Year”. There are three potential and actual winners I want to comment on: Steve Jobs (CEO and co-founder of Apple), Julian Assange (internet activist and editor in chief for WikiLeaks), and Mark Zuckerberg (CEO and co-founder of Facebook). Time magazine named Zuckerberg as their person of the year even though Assange was well ahead in the popular vote. Jobs was named person of the year by Britain’s Financial Times last week. So all three of my candidates got some recognition and all deserved it to some extent.

I’m actually not that impressed with Zuckerberg. Sure, Facebook is outrageously successful but it’s really not that great an achievement. There were plenty of good social networking sites around a long time before Facebook (at least that’s the way I remember it because I haven’t used many of them for years) and they weren’t significantly different from Facebook.

On the other hand there is more to creating a successful web-based service than just the technical excellence of the coding and credit is due to the Facebook team (and especially to Zuckerberg’s leadership) in creating something that people find useful and want to use. He has also made several philanthropic contributions, including having a connection with The Giving Pledge (although some people have suggested there was a self-centered purpose behind these contributions).

Of course, Assange is a far more controversial figure. People who know anything about Wikileaks tend to be polarised in their opinions (that in itself is significant because important new phenomena often attract varied support). I know people who think Assange is the greatest saviour of democracy the world has seen in recent times and others who think he is a criminal and terrorist who should be assassinated. Wow! He’s certainly succeeded in gaining attention if nothing else!

Maybe if a magazine like Time, which is really part of the conventional establishment, had made him person of the year it would not have enhanced his reputation. Assange works on the periphery of society so an endorsement from that same society would have been ironic to say the least.

So what about good old Steve? Anyone who reads this blog will know I am an Apple fan and there’s no doubt that most of Apple’s success can be connected with Job’s abilities to create products which people want to use and his extraordinary attention to detail.

Job’s major success in 2010 was the introduction of the iPad. That one product created a whole new type of device because previous attempts at tablets were pitifully inept. Just running the same horrible operating system (Windows) on a computer with a small screen and adding some badly designed touch features doesn’t make a tablet. Again this shows how Apple differs from the other big computer companies: only Apple do things properly instead of taking the easy and cheap route of simply adapting technology which already works poorly.

If I was giving out a person of the year award it would definitely go to Assange because
he has created the biggest impact on the world as a whole. He used technology to do this but his influence goes away beyond technology.

Jobs would be second because he showed everybody (yet again) how to create a new product category. His past record is impressive: first he showed us how to create a hobby computer (the Apple II), then a useable personal computer (the Mac), then a music player (the iPod), then a smart phone (the iPhone) and now a tablet (the iPad). It really does show an extraordinary and unmatched history of true innovation.

Zuckerberg would be a distant last because he just copied what everyone else was already doing. He took no real risks, he demonstrated little real innovation, and he was really just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I agree that Facebook is a hugely influential service but it’s nothing really revolutionary and I don’t think Zuckerberg would have been Time’s winner without the publicity generated by the movie about him.

One final point: it’s interesting that all three people here are “technology geeks” rather than political figures or business people (although that aspect of their work is also relevant). When President Obama congratulated Jobs and specifically quoted Apple as being a case of where capitalism has worked I think he missed the point: it’s the technology that makes the difference and capitalism is just the way people are forced to deliver it.