Archive for July, 2011

A Week with Lion

July 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I have used Apple’s latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion for about a week so I think now is a good time to report back. I downloaded the new system as soon as it was available and have been using it on my main work computer, a MacBook Pro i7 with 4G of RAM, since then. So how has it gone? …

Overall it has gone very well, although there have been a few problems and compatibility issues. Also some of the new features feel a little bit unfinished so I am looking forward to getting Mac OS X 10.7.1! The new features are genuine improvements – not just meaningless design changes – and I use most of them.

First, let’s get the problems out of the way. I miss Rosetta. There, I admitted it. Strangely it is being able to play older games that I miss most and I can’t think of any situations where I needed any “serious” programs which required Rosetta. It’s typical of Apple to force people to move ahead by dropping support for older technologies and I know why they do it, but it does create a certain amount of inconvenience some times.

I have also had one or two compatibility issues. I do have a very large number of programs installed so the fact that so few gave me any real problems is probably quite impressive. The only real disaster is the Cisco VPN client which did seem to work when I started Lion in 32 bit mode but then caused a kernel panic when I tried to close it. That software has always been poor though so it’s not that surprising.

Another issue which I have found an easy solution for involves what used to be my main web browser, OmniWeb. It crashed shortly after launching under Lion but I thought it was time I moved on so I have now switched to Google Chrome as my main browser. I still use Safari as my development and technical browser. Chrome seems good: its speed and memory use are much better than OmniWeb although there are a few design features I don’t like.

Apple Remote Desktop required a free upgrade to start working again and a few other programs provided automatic updates about the same time. I’m not sure if these programs would have worked without the updates but since I apply updates to my extensive list of installed programs almost every day anyway it required no real extra effort.

I also had to upgrade to Parallels version 6 to run my “other” operating systems: Windows XP, Windows 7, Ubuntu Linux, and Chrome OS. That is also performing a lot better but if that is anything to do with Lion or just the newer version of Parallels is unclear.

Lion has many new features and most of them work really well but I want to mention one feature which isn’t that good. That is Launchpad. The idea of this feature is to provide an easy way to display the applications installed on the computer to make them easier to launch. When activated Launchpad shows the icons of all the applications overlaid on the screen and a single click launches them (sort of like the iPad and iPhone).

The problem is that when you have a lot of applications it’s hard to find the one you want. I cleared the Launchpad database and just added the ones I wanted but after a restart they all came back. And every new app seems to get added to the end of the list. It is possible to re-order the icons but not remove most of them. It’s poorly implemented and I just can’t use it although when I had a subset of useful apps only I did use it. So a small improvement – the ability to delete unwanted icons – would fix this problem.

Those are the only real problems. Apart from the crash with the Cisco VPN I have had no crashes or panics. The general performance seems similar to Snow Leopard but probably no better and memory use also seems similar. I have mainly listed the problems here so in my next blog entry I will report back about the good things I have found.


Management Morons

July 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I work in a large organisation which can be very bureaucratic, and this sometimes reflects the inadequacies of modern management processes. But it would be very unprofessional to comment on my workplace specifically so I want to discuss modern management in more general terms and also quote a few incidents from a similar large organisation a friend works in (who will remain unnamed of course).

So, first of all, what do I mean by modern management? It’s maybe not such a great term because a lot of the principles are actually quite old, but it’s really just about the way large organisations are organised. This almost universally means a hierarchical approach with a fixed reporting structure, a formal communications system, and a lot of detailed rules and guidelines about how things should be done.

Few people would deny that those attributes exist, but there would be a debate about the results they achieve. So let’s look at the management principles and why, in my opinion, they don’t work.

First there is the hierarchical structure with a CEO (or someone with a similar job title) at the top who has a series of senior managers below him (or sometimes her) who in turn have junior managers below them, then supervisors, and finally the actual “workers” (does that imply the others don’t work?). Of course there are often even more layers in the system (and there actually are in the case I mentioned above).

Assuming the ultimate role of management is to enable things to get done why is it necessary to have so many layers between those who actually perform the core functions of the organisation and those who make the big decisions? Some people would suggest it is a good “buffer” system between the fantasy world of upper management and the hard reality of the real world.

In fact that is precisely what my friend reports. When an issue happens at the “coalface” it is reported up through the system, but for various reasons the message changes until it is unrecognisable. Why does it change? For two main reasons: first, the managers rarely really understand the problem so it is difficult for them to communicate it effectively; and second, the middle managers usually have a “political” agenda which involves only telling people further up the hierarchy what they want to hear so they often misrepresent the problem deliberately as well.

Both of these issues (lack of understanding and a political agenda) are natural consequences of the way management works. Managers tend to have little understanding because they have been isolated from the real work their organisation does for so long. They also tend to get to management positions because they are no good for anything else! Yes, I know this doesn’t apply to everyone but it is remarkably common.

And managers tend to get to their positions of power not through competence in their profession, or through excellent organisation skills, but more through being good at working the system for their own benefit. In other words they are self centered, uncaring, and often quite immoral.

So hierarchies don’t work in most cases. There are exceptions of course: some organisations have a sort of “benevolent dictatorship” in place and Apple would be the most famous example. In that case the company is lucky to have someone at the top who is genuinely innovative (instead of just using that word without really understanding what it means like most managers) and whose ideas are both brilliant and generally accepted by the equally brilliant staff who implement them. But Apple is very much the exception rather than the rule.

What about the rigid communications systems? Obviously some of the deficiencies I have described above could be overcome if more direct reporting was possible. But it rarely is. For example my friend reports he was recently working in the top manager’s office and the subject of his work environment arose. There was an opportunity there for direct communications about the problems but it was made very clear that the manager in no way wanted to hear what was really happening. The happy ignorance resulting from the news passed up from the management team was obviously preferable.

Consultation is a word often heard in management circles but it’s almost universally a farce. Managers often dream up some new structure then offer it for feedback but that almost never makes any difference. They have generally already decided on pushing through their agenda (which is often based on politics or pure ignorance) and no real feedback is accepted. Sometimes they will deliberately make the change more extreme than they need to then scale it back a bit to give the appearance of compromise but this is really just part of the farce.

And I have heard of a situation where an accounting firm was asked to advise on a restructuring which had huge negative consequences. But to show how accountable they were the managers had the new structure audited… by the same accounting firm who recommended it! That is just grossly corrupt and a huge waste of money at the same time. It’s disgusting.

But it gets even worse. When their changes are rejected (as they almost always are) management have the temerity to say it’s because the staff “can’t accept change”. That’s just insulting and dishonest. Many people love change. If the change involved more freedom in their work, or better pay, or better conditions, or some other positive action the staff would be happy to accept it. But the changes management want aren’t usually like that, are they?

And finally what about the rigid rules and regulations? I agree that large organisations need structure to operate effectively. It can’t just be a “free for all” with everyone doing their own thing. But that doesn’t mean that every action has to be scripted down to the smallest detail. Anyone who has contacted a foreign helpdesk and who is forced through the tedious process of performing a lot of unnecessary and counter-productive steps will know what I mean.

Additionally there is the point that an over-managed work environment doesn’t encourage competent people to want to work there. If the staff are made to act like mindless zombies then that is the sort of staff you will get. It’s a sort of self perpetuating system: impose mindless rules, get mindless staff, create more mindless rules for them…

It’s time we got back to the real purpose of managers: to attend to the administrative and other needs of the people who do the real work, and who have the genuinely innovative and practical ideas. It’s time the pretence we work under, that managers are in some way superior and automatically worth of respect was thrown away. If a manager is superior it should be obvious by his actions, and if he wants respect he should earn it like everyone else.

But with current standard of management I don’t think that would happen much!

What a Waste!

July 19, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s no secret than I’m no great fan of the world’s religions. In the past I have listed the reasons I object to them. They include the fact that religions simply aren’t true, that they have been responsible for many atrocities in the past and present, that they have suppressed alternative ideas, that they are used as a form of mind control of their members, and that they are just plain embarrassing. When I see intelligent people engaged in some silly religious ceremony I just want to laugh. Needless to say this isn’t considered appropriate in some circumstances where religion is utilised!

Before I go any further I do want to say that I recognise that religions aren’t all bad. Some provide charitable services, social support services for people, add to the variety of cultural experience in the world, and they sometimes give moral guidance to some groups in society. I don’t think religions are inherently moral and I certainly don’t think you need religion to be moral (I think the opposite is more often true) but there are some weak minded people who need to be told what’s moral and many religions do an adequate (but not great) job of that.

So there’s nothing much new there and you may be wondering what the point of this blog entry is. Well it’s all about a new conclusion I have recently come to. I listen to a lot of material about philosophy and the history of science (my favourite source is the BBC’s “In Our Time” podcast) and there’s a theme which seems to be depressingly common. That is that religion has caused a lot of wasted time in the past.

Many philosophers and scientists (I use that word in its widest sense to include people doing something similar to science before the modern version emerged a couple of hundred years ago) tried so hard to make their theories fit around the prevailing theology of the time, whether that was orthodox Christianity, Islam, or other religions.

They applied the strictest standards to most of their thoughts but threw away their rigour when God was brought into the equation. For example philosophers (I’m sorry but I can’t remember which right now) hypothesised that everything has a cause and this implied an infinite regression, so there had to be a first cause and that was naturally labelled “god”. By some unspecified process this often translated to God (with an upper case “G”) which was always the particular deity currently popular in the culture the person lived in.

Does that really make sense? Obviously if god doesn’t need a cause then the initial premise: that everything has a cause, isn’t true. But it’s just that premise which leads to the conclusion of God’s existence. If I can see that then why didn’t the greatest minds the world has ever known see it too? Is it because I’m smarter than them? No, it’s that I’m not blinded by the theological beliefs of the time. Even Descartes, when he was trying to get back to true first principles, couldn’t help but give god a “free pass”.

If thinkers had ignored the easy answer (the same one mindless fundamentalists still give today: “God did it”) then they might have pursued more interesting ideas. Ideas like asking whether everything really does have a cause (quantum physics seems to show that events actually can happen without one) and who knows where that might have lead.

First causes are just one idea where God can be invoked as a simple answer which requires no further explanation. It’s actually a lazy answer and is hardly worthy of the great thinkers who have used it. But there are many others as well where real progress was blocked by the concept of a non-existent supernatural entity. What a waste!

Who Needs Books?

July 14, 2011 Leave a comment

As I write this I am returning from another trip to Australia, this time for an Apple support conference called “X World 2011” which was held in Sydney. It’s a conference which discusses and demonstrates how to support, deploy and set up Apple equipment including servers, desktops, laptops, iPads, and iPhones.

Actually it was quite a useful experience because not only did I get some ideas about what other universities are doing but I also picked up a few tips I had either forgotten or (gasp) not known in the first place regarding Macs. I also realised there is a lot in Apple’s server software which I have not had the opportunity to use, so I really need to set up an Apple server in a situation away from the restrictions of the university corporate environment (maybe I’ll destroy my own network at home instead!)

One idea which seems to be gaining a lot of support is the use of iPads by university students, both to hold information such as textbooks and to act as an interactive teaching tool. Some universities are giving students an iPad (to use for their course and then to keep) while others are insisting that the student provides one themselves.

I certainly appreciate the iPad as a very compact and accessible information source. In a small form factor you get the equivalent of a small reference library, plus you get capabilities not available in conventional books such as animations, easy cross referencing to other ebooks and to the internet, and interaction with other apps on the device.

I haven’t bought any traditional reading material for a year now because all of my technical material and fiction is now on the iPad. I have even been known to read on the iPhone for shorter periods of time if I’m somewhere without the iPad. I always have my phone with me (I just can’t cope with parting from it) but the iPad, while it’s a wonderful device for many things, is just a bit too big to carry everywhere.

So electronic books have a lot of advantages. They don’t use up any real space: an iPad with 100 books on it takes the same space and weighs the same as one with no books; they can easily be updated: just connect to the Internet and download updated or corrected versions (as long as the licensing allows this); and they are even cheaper: one university is sourcing its electronic texts for just 60% of the price of the paper version. On the other hand many of the electronic books are a fairly poor effort at this early stage because many are just a copy of the paper version with no features making use of the technology. Obviously this will change in the future (at least I hope it will).

And let’s not forget the environmental advantages. Sure, I agree that there is a significant environmental cost to actually making the iPad, but once you have it loading extra material costs almost nothing. There are no dead trees involved, no carbon produced by transport, etc. Surely this has got to be the way we store and use our information from now on.

Ironically I have to stop writing now because I’m not allowed to use electronic devices while the aircraft is taking off. Silly rule but I don’t want to get thrown off the flight. I guess there are still a few occasions when the old fashioned paper books still have some advantages!

A Week in Sydney

July 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m writing this blog entry on my iPad as I fly back from a conference in Sydney. The conference ran for 3 days and I organised to have another 2 days after that. I have spent time in Sydney before of course, but I hadn’t been there for a while and this time I was unencumbered with family who usually seem to complain about two “annoying” activities I often indulge in while on holiday.

The first is my wish, while on holiday, to experience the place I am visiting instead of spending half of my life in shops (which are often very similar to those we have back home except bigger). In addition to that terrible proclivity I sometimes want to do things which might be a bit geeky (sorry, there’s the geek stuff coming up again) such as visiting technology museums and that sort of thing.

My second dreadful habit (which I must agree could get a bit tedious after a while) is wanting to take photos of everything, often from bizarre locations (just to get an interesting angle on the subject) and occasionally at odd times as well (I like doing photography in challenging lighting conditions, such as sunrise and sunset, where the lighting can give an unusual mood to the image).

So on this occasion I had the freedom to do what I wanted, except I was on a serious budget so it couldn’t cost too much. Well I wasn’t really on a budget but I did feel a bit guilty about going to Australia and leaving the rest of the family at home in the middle of the New Zealand winter (yes, it is winter in Sydney too but you would hardly know it because the weather was just beautiful every day I was there, although it did get quite cold once the sun set) so I decided that spending as little as possible might assuage my guilt somewhat.

Anyway, here’s a list of what I did in my two days…

I visited the Opera House and Harbour Bridge twice – once in the late afternoon and once after sunset – to get the quintessential great photo of those landmarks. And yes, I think I got some really good ones! I love that part of Sydney because it’s so scenic (not naturally scenic but scenic from a city perspective) and there’s always something interesting happening.

The last time I was in that area of Sydney I still had a film camera (yes, it was a while ago) so I was limited in the number of shots I could take. This time with the digital SLR I probably took several hundred photos with various exposure compensations, ISO values, apertures, and other settings. Of those I kept about 10% and trashed the rest. Because I didn’t have a tripod all of the shots were hand held which is quite challenging once the light levels went down. I should report that I was quite successful though.

Sydney Harbour Bridge South Pier

I also visited a couple of museums: the Powerhouse Museum which has exhibitions of old technology (railway engines, steam engines, old computer equipment, etc); and the Maritime Museum which has exhibitions of stuff related to the sea.

Maybe the best exhibit was the “Spirit of Australia”, the fastest boat on Earth. The story behind this was pretty cool. It was built in a Sydney backyard by a relative amateur, Ken Warby. He had acquired a J34 jet engine (as you do) to power the boat but was worried it might not produce enough power – so he ordered an afterburner for it! Wow, I would just love to call someone and order and afterburner. So this engine was a fire breathing monster and he set the world speed record on water with it, then went on to set another record of well over 500 kilometers per hour. After that he retired from racing which was probably a good decision if you consider the death rate of people trying to go fast on water!

There’s an Apple store in Sydney so naturally it was compulsory to visit that. Now this fact should impress you: I didn’t buy anything. Of course, as I said to the staff there, I own almost every product Apple has ever made already! The store is very impressive though with a completely glass front, a glass staircase, and plenty of cool Apple products with lots of people playing with them.

I also visited the Centre Point Tower which is the tallest building in Sydney. I got some spectacular views from the observation deck which unsurprisingly resulted in another pile of photos to sort through. The biggest problem I had in that situation was taking photos through the glass of the windows and avoiding the reflections and smeared hand prints.

I’m sitting in Auckland airport while I complete this entry and I have just heard that there will be no flights leaving for a while because of lightning in the area. It could take a while to get home yet! We often joke about how changeable the weather in New Zealand is but it’s only after spending a week in somewhere like Sydney (I had a similar experience in San Francisco) where every day is the same (sunny and warm during the day) that you realise how true that really is.

There was only a short delay for the weather and I am now in the air again. I will be back to work tomorrow and that could be a bit of a shock even though I’ve only been away a week. I’m not sure when I will be in Sydney next but I already have some more geeky and some scenic locations I want to visit when I do!

Android Versus iPhone

July 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Which is better: Android or iPhone? Looking at the latest sales figures which show Android based smartphones outselling every other platform and Apple staying fairly steady at around 25% (poor old RIM is the main victim of Android’s success) you might be tempted to say that Android is clearly superior. But I’m sure you’ll not be surprised to hear that I don’t agree.

Maybe it depends on how you define the word “better”. If you mean the biggest selling phone is best then clearly Android wins. Of course Android is an operating system which runs on many phones, so that further complicates the discussion. But not many people would claim that simple popularity means quality in the wider sense. The problem is that all measures of quality are essentially subjective.

But whatever your views on quality how can the success of Android be explained? Allow me to offer an anecdote. In our house we have three smartphones. I have an iPhone 4 and two other members of my family have Android phones (one is made by Samsung and the other is branded Vodafone). Let’s have a look at how these phones are used…

The iPhone has pages of extra apps installed but the Android phones have nothing extra at all. All of the functions of the iPhone are regularly used but many of the Android phone basic features are never used. I love my iPhone but the Android users are constantly making comments like “I hate this phone” and “how do you make it do this?”

To be fair the Android phones aren’t the most expensive. They are considerably cheaper than both the iPhone and the top phones running other operating systems so the comparison is a bit unfair. But I think a lot of that large market share Android phones have comes from phones just like these. So most likely the vast majority of that share is for cheaper phones which are slow and hard to use and which the owners don’t use to anything like their full potential and actually don’t even enjoy using.

Even the top Android phones which I have used (admittedly for only short periods of time) have looked good on the surface but have fallen short of the great iPhone experience. And that is an opinion which has quite wide acceptance.

Of course Android does have some advantages. First, it is a more open platform so it isn’t susceptible to the possibly arbitrary rules and restrictions Apple puts on the much more closed environment of the iPhone. On the other hand the closed Apple environment does result in a very well integrated environment and one which is far less likely to be affected by substandard programs and malware.

Another Android advantage is the variety of hardware it runs on. If you want a phone with a physical keyboard for example, you can do that with Android but not iPhone. That is a real issue although I think most people would learn to like the iPhone’s virtual keyboard if they just gave it a chance.

Maybe the biggest Android advantage is price. The problem is that the cheaper phones tend to be slow and clunky and the phones where the hardware is of similar quality to an iPhone are often just about as expensive anyway. So what’s the point?

Android is a younger system than iOS so maybe it needs another year or two to mature. But the fragmentation of the design of the user interface on Android devices and the poor experience many people have with them means that while they will probably continue to be the biggest selling platform they aren’t likely to be a challenge to Apple for being the best.

Self Serving Unions

July 7, 2011 Leave a comment

A friend of mine who is – let’s not beat about the bush – a far right nut job, sent me a cartoon today which criticised unions. To tell the truth I couldn’t watch it all because it was so ridiculously biased and obviously political, but I think it is still worth discussing what possible validity the criticism might have anyway.

So what are the common criticisms of unions? First there is the claim that unions are run by corrupt officials who are entirely interested in advancing their own careers at whatever cost to the union members or its opponents. In other words they claim the union is good for neither the workers nor the employers.

Then there is the claim that unions protect incompetent employees and stop the reasonable process the employers might otherwise use to remove them. Again the result is claimed to be that everyone (except the allegedly incompetent employee presumably) loses.

And finally there is the idea that unions do indeed protect their members but by working against employers the economy as a whole is damaged and (yes, you guessed it) in the big picture this is not good for anyone.

So in summary it seems that the political right see no positive role for unions at all. It’s an interesting idea and one which has become more common as neo-liberal economics has become more prominent, but is it true?

Well first of all anyone should be prepared to admit that there are almost certainly unions where the people in charge are corrupt to some extent. After all, is there any type of organisation where a certain percentage isn’t affected by corruption? I’m sure that if you look you will find corrupt political parties, corrupt businesses, corrupt churches and corrupt organizations of every other type. I’ve never seen any statistics to indicate unions are any more corrupt than anything else, and statistics (and any real facts) are generally conspicuous by their absence from right wing political debate.

A similar argument applies to the claim that incompetent employees can be protected by unions. The real question is not whether this happens at all but how often it happens and to what extent. Everyone deserves the right to defend themselves against allegations of incompetence and in an uneven power situation like employee versus manager the support of a union seems perfectly fair. I’m sure there are times when someone who perhaps deserves to lose their job is kept on as a result, but I’m equally sure there are times when the opposite happens and people falsely accused of incompetence are helped.

But even if we concede the points above do unions damage the economy and therefore disadvantage everyone, including employees, as a result? Again the answer is maybe sometimes but probably not in general. Reasonable economies – and by that I mean those which make some attempt to balance factors such as simple economical outcomes, prevention of environmental damage, and some attempt at fair and equitable work conditions – should encourage balance in the power between employers and workers. If that balance swings too much in favor of the employer then sure the business involved might do very well, but often at a cost to the employee. Naturally the balance can occur too much in the opposite direction as well if unions get too strong.

So really it’s all about appropriate balance. No one (or at least very few people) wants a world where unions have too much power but they should also want to avoid one where unions (or employees through other mechanisms) have too little. Whatever your opinion on where that balance is the idea that unions are inherently bad or are always corrupt or always support incompetent workers, is just stupid and ignorant and generally motivated more by far right political dogma than any genuine reflection.