Archive for October, 2011

Conflict is Good

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

At my place of work I’m known as a bit of a rebel, someone who doesn’t care too much about the rules and established ways of doing things, and someone who has little regard for my so-called superiors. It’s all true and it does occasionally lead to situations where a certain amount of conflict with authority arises, but so far I’ve managed to escape with no serious consequences.

Most of my colleagues (in fact all of them as far as I’m aware) have a more relaxed view and tend to stick a lot more with the official line. That could be because I’m wrong and the official way really is the best, but I would prefer to think that it’s just that they aren’t quite as prepared to take the hard route as I am.

There are many ways to bypass bureaucracy and get things done. One of the best is to lie: saying one thing while doing something “subtly” different is a good strategy in my experience. Another is to just do things and keep quiet about them: what people don’t know won’t hurt them. And another is to do things better than the established standards so the people who get those better outcomes are your supporters.

Many people wonder why I bother. I would get paid the same by just following the tedious and mediocre standards and I would have a lot less work and stress as a result. But I think it’s only when I’m involved in this sort of conflict that I’m really doing my job properly. After all, I’m not there to provide the best solutions for managers, I’m there to do that for my clients and that is often quite different to what the managers want.

Management in every organisation tend to claim they are dedicated to providing the best customer service but that is almost never the case, generally because managers don’t deal with their clients directly and are primarily involved with playing petty politics instead. Of course there are exceptions and where good guidance is provided there’s nothing wrong with following that.

A quote I have used in this blog before is Edward Abbey’s “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government” and another from Thomas Jefferson is also relevant: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”. They were thinking about the bigger political picture but the same applies on a smaller scale to the workplace, I think.

The principle these quotes endorse is currently being applied in the larger political domain because this is exactly what’s happening with the “Occupy Wall Street” and related movements. The world has become unjust and many of the world’s governments have become the enemy of the people. Those people protesting across the world are the real patriots and heroes. They are doing their duty.

By the way, I know several people at my workplace read this blog and they might be surprised that I am so openly critical. But it’s nothing personal: it’s the system that’s the problem, not individual people or organisations. If the way I work leads to inferior outcomes for my clients then I think that needs to be discussed but until then I think I’ll just continue doing what I think is right.


A Week with iOS 5

October 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I installed iOS5 on my iPhone and iPad about a week ago now, and at the same time I upgraded my Mac and switched to iCloud (I have been a dot Mac and MobileMe user for many years now) so now might be a good time to give a general appraisal of how well the process has gone.

Overall, it went well. Because I downloaded iOS 5 fairly soon after it was released it did take a while, but it did arrive safely for me, unlike the experience of some other users. I guess Apple’s servers were just getting a thrashing that soon after the release.

The iPhone did take a long time to fully upgrade but it is a 32G model and was almost full. The iPad was even worse of course: it’s a 64G model and was also almost full! So the backup, upgrade, and restore process did take a long time. It really took me almost a whole day before all three devices (including my MacBook Pro) were fully upgraded and operational again.

The most positive outcome after all that time was that all of my data, both stored locally and in the cloud, and all my apps, and all of my in-app downloads (maps, magazines, etc) were fully maintained after the update. The calendars, contacts, and emails shared between all the devices were also completely intact. I know that this is exactly what we should expect but I always feel a bit nervous during such a major change.

The iCloud service seems to be working well: documents from programs like Pages (which know how to use iCloud) synchronise automatically between the iDevices. I haven’t got them onto the computer yet though. Surely this is possible. The new mail servers have had a bit of down time but that hasn’t been too bad because it has been (for me at least) only for short periods.

I would expect that after introducing such a significant new service (even though it shares a lot of functionality with an existing one) that Apple would have a few initial problems, especially since they don’t exactly have a great reputation in this area after the “MobileMe debacle” of a few years ago! So overall I think things have gone OK, but not brilliantly.

So what about iOS 5 itself? Is it a worthwhile improvement? I think so, because apart from the time spent doing the update (during which I lost one phone call while the phone was disabled) I have only found one issue. That is that a process on the phone must be getting a bit out of control. It hogs the CPU sufficiently to make audio playback occasionally skip and it also uses the battery faster than I would expect. I haven’t figured out exactly what triggers this but restarting the phone (which I’ve had to do twice) fixes it. This is a typical “version 1” problem so I hope Apple fixes it soon.

Oddly a similar issue I previously had on the iPad (where a process prevented syncing, shutdown, etc) has gone away, so you win some and you lose some, I guess!

I’m not going to go through all the new iOS 5 features (there’s plenty of discussion on the web) but I will say that the new notification system is really nice and the wireless syncing is great although the full advantages of that will only become apparent when/if Apple gives us wireless charging (because currently I still need to plug a USB cable into the devices to charge them).

One other simple but important thing which I appreciate is the quick access to the camera from the lock screen and the volume button being used as a shutter release. Thanks (at last) Apple: that small point where practicality overrides pure design is appreciated.

The biggest thing I want but don’t have is Apple’s voice control system, Siri. I thought at one point that it might be available on existing phones but unfortunately it is limited to the new iPhone 4S. Since the processing is done in the cloud I thought that existing devices should have been able to use this feature but maybe there’s something I don’t know (I hope Apple aren’t just using this as a feature to force people into upgrading!)

In summary, this seems to be an update which involves a bit of effort but is worth doing. The new system would be even better if I could also upgrade my hardware but I probably won’t get an iPhone 4S because my current cell data plan will run out just as (I estimate) the iPhone 5 is released in a year.

Occupying Wall Street

October 15, 2011 1 comment

There seems to be a growing global protest movement against the current economic system we have all had inflicted on us. There have been sporadic outbreaks of this unrest for years but now it seems to be gaining real momentum, even in the US which is the home of the model which people are gradually realising doesn’t actually work.

The Occupy Wall Street movement shows that even people in the US now understand that things cannot go on the way they are, even though that country has managed quite well until recently. When large corporations pay no tax and are still rescued when they fail at the same time as wage earners pay 30% tax and have their houses taken by those same banks they have just bailed out you are going to get resentment. All I can ask is: why has it taken so long?

The corrupt model I’m talking about is of course, my old favourite, neo-liberalism. The primary dogma of this movement is that we should all be free of excessive government control, that private enterprise should be given free rein, and that free markets will solve all of our economic problems.

With all that use of the word “free” it’s hard to argue with the idea, isn’t it? And that’s the problem: on the surface the ideology of neo-liberalism seems not only reasonable but entirely fair and maybe even the best system possible. After all, who doesn’t want more freedom?

The problem is that the reality doesn’t live up to the rhetoric. Freedom from government control inevitably leads to greater control by big corporations and other organisations. Giving private enterprise greater freedom leads to lower wages, inferior work conditions, and unemployment. Letting markets rule leads to monopolistic problems, outsourcing to virtual slave economies, and a huge and ever increasing gap between the top and bottom of the income scales.

So in fact the promise of greater freedom really only applies to the top earning one percent and the rest inevitably lose. If anyone can look at the world today and not see that this is exactly what has happened then they must be blind. And many people actually are blinded by propaganda from those who win in this system because they own the media, and in many cases they own the politicians too.

The problem with demands for change – like those form the Wall Street protestors – is that it’s not clear what they suggest as an alternative. It seems to be that they don’t know what they want – at least as a group – because these are people who see the current system as flawed and they either have no idea what they want instead (they just know that something needs to change) or they hold a wide variety of alternative views which cover a wide gamut of plausibility, from quite benign to totally outrageous.

The protest movement has no obvious leaders because it seems to be organised (if that is the right word) from the bottom up and as a group rather than as a reaction to action demanded from a central figure. And that is entirely appropriate considering that a large part of their message is that we can’t trust our leaders.

In the US commentators have pointed out that the protests might be damaging the current president who the protestors would theoretically support. But Obama has failed miserably to make any real change as he promised during his campaigning. Sure, he’s a lot better than the alternatives but he’s still really bad. The political system in the US only gives the illusion of freedom and control because no matter who Americans vote for they lose. The land of the free? What a joke!

By comparison we have a relatively moderate government here in New Zealand, even though they are nominally right wing. But even they have made it clear that they intend to swing more towards the exact neo-liberal policies which have failed, not only in other countries but also here in the past, if they are re-elected at the election (and that seems likely given the current low popularity of the opposition).

The only good news is that the real right wing nutters, Act, seem to be sinking into oblivion. I can only hope that they do disappear from New Zealand politics. I usually prefer a wide range of ideas to be on offer, but if Act’s new leader, the genuinely dangerous and immoral Don Brash, ever gets any control here then we’ll be heading the same way as other failed economies around the world.

So if National do win the election and they start selling off our assets again then maybe we’ll see an escalation of the small protest movement which has already started here. But it would be preferable to keep them out of power instead. People need to ignore personalities and frivolous electioneering and look at the philosophies behind the different options. Neo-liberalism doesn’t work and it never will work, and any party following its dictates is one all voters should avoid.

Think Different

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

What can I say about Steve Jobs? It has already all been said, both by technology enthusiasts (AKA geeks) and surprisingly by many people with little or no connection to the tech world. Not surprisingly almost every commentary on his life and achievements has been very positive (apart from one by a leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, but more on that later) and why wouldn’t it be? It’s difficult to tell at this early stage but it seems likely he will be remembered as a genuine genius who really did make a difference.

But was he really a genius? What was it about him which meant he was able to make such a difference and to change the world of technology so much? He wasn’t a technical or engineering genius, he wasn’t a traditional management genius, he wasn’t brilliant at investment, or marketing, or anything else for that matter. But he did have a unique combination of skills and he was in the right place at the right time.

Jobs did what other entrepreneurs say they will do but almost universally fail to deliver on. He did do things differently and he did take real risks. Despite what they say, it seems to me that few modern companies really do that. They actually don’t take risks and they never do anything genuinely entrepreneurial.

Every other major company (even including Google to some extent) really just follow along and take the simple and safe route. They copy, they take the easy options, and they follow established business best practice. That might be a good way to keep the board happy and to keep the company safe short term but it’s an obvious formula for failure long term.

During the period when Jobs was away (1985 to 1997) Apple was run in a similar way to most other companies, and it gradually failed because of that. It was not the sort of company which flourished under the leadership of a bunch of “suits”. It probably could have survived but it would have been just another PC maker no different from all the rest.

Looking at the products introduced by Apple with and without Jobs it’s obvious that his guidance was essential. There was just one genuinely brilliant, innovative, and risky product introduced while he was away: that was the Newton. The Newton truly was a superb device. Understanding it from a technical perspective just made how far ahead it was even more obvious. Newton aficionados (of which I was one in case you hadn’t guessed) used to say the Newton came to Apple from a time warp into the future, it was that advanced. Maybe too advanced. Jobs killed the Newton project when he returned, just as it was starting to work really well. I’m not sure why. Maybe he just didn’t like something so great existing which he didn’t create.

Still, we can easily forgive him for killing off one great product because he introduced six even greater ones in return. Yes, I think he introduced six products that were so great that anyone else would be venerated for creating even one of them. OK, so here are the six products: the Apple II, the original Mac, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Also, if you count the software driving these devices (Mac OS X, iOS) as separate products then his contribution is even greater.

None of these products were the first of their kind but they were the first brilliantly executed examples of their kinds. There were earlier home computers, MP3 players, smart phones, and tablets for example. But no one wanted to use them (I don’t mean that literally but they were compromised and not suitable for many users). Apple took a bit longer to create its products but when it did create them it really did the job properly.

I keep talking about Apple’s success as if it could be entirely attributed to Jobs. That’s not what I really mean. Apple has brilliant engineers and product designers. The main reason Apple succeeds is because its products are just so good. And I totally reject those (who really just don’t get it) who say Apple’s success is more to do with marketing and the “reality distortion field”. People can only be fooled that way temporarily.

I said Apple has a lot of brilliant engineers but surely other companies do as well. Of course they do: they probably have people as good as Apple’s. So why don’t other companies also produce brilliant products? Because they are all operating according to the old traditional conservative business model. The one which almost caused Apple to fail in the 90s and is gradually leading to the failure of companies like HP, Nokia, and RIM (and maybe even Microsoft).

Apple under Jobs knew how to create a culture where individual brilliance (such as that of Jonathan Ive) could flourish without being buried in a pile of worthless business nonsense like business plans, financial justifications, and (that ultimate source of all mediocrity) best practice. It was as much what Jobs didn’t do as what he did do that made the difference.

There was one more thing too (I couldn’t resist that). Jobs seemed to know what people wanted before even they did. So many people rubbished the concepts behind the iMac, iPod, and iPad before they were released. It’s actually quite amusing to go back and see what the “experts” said. Well they were all wrong and Jobs was right. He almost always was and he wasn’t scared to abandon traditional business wisdom to follow his ideas. That’s what made him great.

Now I want to share a few of the best comments I have found about Jobs’ life.

A lot of commentary came through Twitter so this is relevant: “Once in a rare while, somebody comes along who doesn’t just raise the bar, they create an entirely new standard of measurement.” (Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO).

Short and to the point: “Steve Jobs was the man.” (Tony Hawk, retired pro skateboarder and actor).

This is good advice (but hard to carry out): “Remember Steve Jobs this way, in his own words: Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” (Dan Gillmor, digital-media entrepreneur and author).

And here’s some “intelligent” commentary from our fundamentalist Christian friends: “Westboro will picket his funeral. He had a huge platform; gave God no glory & taught sin.” (Margie Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church on Twitter). And when it was discovered that tweet came from an iPhone: “Rebels mad cuz I used iPhone to tell you Steve Jobs is in hell. God created iPhone for that purpose! :)”. Well if Jobs is in Hell and scum like this go to Heaven all I can say is I know where I want to go!

And finally the best and saddest (from Twitter user @TechZader): “The world lost some of its magic today…”.

Poverty in NZ

October 4, 2011 9 comments

I recently listened to a podcast where an economist discussed poverty in New Zealand. Poverty has always been present in some parts of the world but we really should be asking why it should be so common in a country like New Zealand where there should be plenty for all.

One of the problems with discussing the subject in the past has been the definition of poverty. I have heard definitions based on the person’s total income in comparison with the median for the country. The problem with that is as the nation’s average income gets higher the poverty line becomes easier to reach so high poverty in some ways indicates a better economic situation.

In the podcast some basic statistics were presented and although they don’t indicate a good formal definition I think they do show a situation which any reasonable person would consider as representing poverty in the context of a modern western nation like New Zealand.

Here are some of the statistics about child poverty in New Zealand: 20% of children don’t have a separate bed, 39% can’t replace shoes when they are worn out, many miss out on cultural activities like music and sport, 31% can’t invite friends to a birthday party, 39% lack a waterproof coat, 37% don’t have a warm room in winter, 63% have cut back on fresh food, 65% postpone visits to the doctor, and 73% lack a holiday away from home once a year. The study was done by the Ministry for Social Welfare and it showed that overall a third of children here live in poverty.

While the numbers are bad I agree that this definition of poverty can hardly be compared with the more extreme hardship suffered by people where there is famine and civil war. And there will be situations where the problems suffered by families in New Zealand are partly the result of the neglect, incompetence, laziness and ignorance of its members.

But that isn’t really an excuse. It’s just too easy to say that people are poor because they deserve to be. There are examples where the poor could do much better if they just managed their lives properly but the main cause of the problem is our society which no longer has any balance and fairness.

Previous generations had much better access to part-time work, a university education, and apprenticeships. The difference in income between the top and bottom of society was much smaller. And governments weren’t afraid to intervene when necessary. Many years of neo-liberal politics have left the country in the state it’s in now but the propaganda supporting this approach is so strong people are hesitant to reject it even though it is clear it has huge deficiencies.

So what’s the answer? I’m afraid the only things that will really work are completely contrary to current perceived wisdom. We do need to throw more money at the problem and we do need to intervene in the markets to make them work better. Or we could carry on the same path and just ignore the problem, or maybe take the standard libertarian approach and say that it’s really for their own good because freeing markets will make everyone better off. But that is both dishonest and ultimately destructive.

New Zealand switched to its current economic model in 1984. That is almost 30 years ago now. I think it’s time to admit that it hasn’t worked. We do need higher taxes for the rich, we do need intervention in markets, and we do need less investment by overseas multi-nationals and less privatisation.

Many people agree with these aims but few seem to be prepared to act on them by voting for a party who will follow them. That’s strange but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised because our political system, like our economic system, never really has worked properly.