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Atlas Yawned

November 30, 2012 4 comments

I recently completed reading the classic Ayn Rand novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Actually I listened to the audiobook version of it because I don’t have enough time to read the well over 1000 pages of the conventional book. The reason I read it is because of its prominence as a book but also because of Ayn Rand’s standing as an author and philosopher.

Actually I must clarify that point because there seems to be two schools of thought: those who think she was great, probably because her philosophy agreed with the critic’s rather than through some intrinsic merit; and those who think she was deluded, evil, or just plain over-rated.

If you read my previous report on the book (which I made a month ago) you will see that I was moderately positive about it. There is a lot to like, but as I got further through I realised there is a lot to dislike as well. And the same applies to the underlying philosophy. Here are some examples…

I found this quote, in relation to negativity, and the emotional state many people find themselves in when under stress quite useful: “Never think of pain or danger or enemies a moment longer than is necessary to fight them.” Good point. Dwelling on your problems or the actions of your enemy unnecessarily is a worthless exercise and this is a quote I use when I see people doing that.

I found this simile very vivid, when describing the reporter broadcasting the demonstration of the State’s new weapon “…with a voice like a machine gun spitting smiles.” I really like the imagery there, especially the contradiction in the words. Here’s another one which is similar: “The military march boomed through the silence with the inflexible gaiety of a grinning skull.” She does have a way with words!

Rand was generally very rational and dedicated to logic and had no respect for pseudoscience or superstition. I like this: “Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking” and “The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard.” I couldn’t agree more!

She also had little respect for highly theoretical thinking and thought real practical outcomes were of greater value: “No principle ever filled anybody’s milk bottle.” And here’s a related quote that many people could learn from: “If you don’t know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.” So many science deniers could learn from that!

Another thing I like about Rand is her optimism, because without that there’s not much point in anything. Here’s a quote which illustrates that well: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swaps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists… it is real… it is possible… it’s yours.”

But where she goes wrong, I think, is in her support for extreme libertarianism, free markets, and pure capitalism. I disagree with these statements…

On work: “There is no such thing as a lousy job – only lousy men who don’t care to do it.” Really? That’s all very convenient for the employer, but what about the worker who has to do a job which is so meaningless, or dangerous, or unappreciated that no human should do it? Is it really the person who doesn’t want to do that work who is to blame? That’s just too simple an excuse for abuse of workers.

And her opinion of money is a bit simplistic. For example there’s this: “The man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it.” Really? Anyone who doesn’t appreciate money has not earned it? Again, that just seems all to convenient and I can’t see any way the idea can be objectively supported. On a similar theme there is this: “Money is the product of virtue, but it will not give you virtue and it will not redeem your vices.” Well, you must be starting to see the theme by now!

And yes, OK, we get it Ayn. You think the brightest and best in society should be rewarded and you have contempt for people who just make deals behind the scenes for their own benefit. Does it really take over 1000 pages to tell us this? After the first few hundred pages I felt like I was just being preached at and that maybe the author thought that by basically repeating the same points over and over that it would somehow be more convincing. I didn’t find that. I just found it more boring.

I completely agree that the most valuable to society should be rewarded. But I disagree that the most valuable are those who do well in a free market capitalist system. And I completely agree that individuals should be able to flourish free from the controls of other people (especially the state), but if the state doesn’t take control someone else will and sometimes regulations enforced by the state are the least of possible evils.

In Rand’s world of heroic business leaders and their evil opponents everything is so simple. It’s very easy to make your case look good when you make your heroes’ opponents look like idiots. It’s easy to make your case stronger by deliberately choosing the best and worst possible outcomes as is convenient. And it’s easy to make your ideas more prominent through repetition.

And was it really necessary to reiterate the points already made through a monolithic 34,000 word, three hour speech by the book’s hero?

In Rand’s world Atlas shrugged, but in many of her readers’ worlds he would have just yawned!

100% Pure BS

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I am a bit of a Tolkien fan – not a complete freak or a nerd who knows every detail of the Tolkien world, but more knowledgable than most – and even I am sick of the Hobbit movie and it has only got as far as pre-release!

There didn’t seem to be anything else on TV yesterday and particularly in Wellington you would think this was the most important news of the year. You know, it’s just another movie – and a Hollywood style movie at that (in other words one which is primarily about money rather than art) – so I don’t think the extreme approbation is really appropriate.

I guess I should really wait to see the movie before commenting because I do have to agree that the last Tolkien production, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was actually pretty good. But the main reason it was good was that it followed the books fairly closely, not that the movie introduced some grand new element to the story.

But the LotR movies were based on an extremely rich and complex world which Tolkien created. A world with its own consistent and unique geography, history, and sociology. The Hobbit isn’t quite in the same league – it was intended as a children’s story from the start and doesn’t have the same depth. Plus there is the fact that Peter Jackson is intending to make three movies from one small book, plus additional material. So I’m guessing the movie won’t follow the original book too closely.

And then there are the technical aspects of the movie. I would love to see this movie – or any movie in fact – at 48 frames per second because I think it will greatly enhance the experience. And I think 3D can enhance a movie if it is done properly. And finally there is the other technology used in character animation, etc. Again this can enhance the total experience.

But sometimes you get the impression these technological advances are an end in themselves rather than a way to make the movie itself better. I guess I’ll just have to wait to see if Jackson’s undoubted skills can bring the different elements together to create a worthwhile whole.

That’s the actual movie out of the way, so now what about the controversial elements ancillary to the movie? I’m talking about the corporate hand-outs, the labour laws changed simply to suit the whims of the movie makers, the claims of poor care of animals, and the marketing of the movie and New Zealand as the production location.

Well, no matter how good the movie might be (and I’m not even convinced it will be good) these are all another matter entirely…

The tens of millions of dollars given to the major corporates making the movie create an interesting situation. Why are these necessary when the movie is virtually guaranteed to be a huge commercial success? They aren’t necessary but the company will take them because the government here thinks it has to hand them out. If we didn’t then some other country would, is the usual reason. It’s hard to see how this problem can be avoided but even if it was seen to be necessary we should at least all admit what a thoroughly corrupt and cynical action it was.

Then there were the new laws, passed under urgency with no time for any realistic input from the public, which reduced the employment rights of many of the people working on the project. If the only way people can be employed on a movie likely to result in tens of millions of dollars in profit is to have the government create a one sided employment environment where wages and conditions can be driven down then again something is terribly wrong.

I’m not so sure about the allegations of animal cruelty. PETA do have a reputation for being somewhat extreme and rather loose with the facts and you would expect a few mishaps on a project of this size just like you would in any environment (such as a farm) where there are a lot of animals, so I will give the movie the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Finally there’s the marketing. New Zealand’s marketing slogan is “100% pure” which is meant to invoke a clean, green environment. In the past this might have been realistic but in recent years, with the increased emphasis on the “rights” of business and lack of fair consideration for the environment, it’s now just a lie.

Most of our rivers are significantly polluted by dairy effluent. Dairy farming in New Zealand is a hideously dirty activity because it is also a major source of methane which is a significant greenhouse gas. Dairy farmers have made huge profits in the last few years but little of that seems to have gone into prevention of this pollution. Plus agriculture has been removed from our climate change efforts which are practically zero anyway.

Yes, the 100% pure marketing caption is a particularly ironic one. What we really have is 100% pure bullshit and that is so appropriate considering the source of so much of the “impurity” in our rivers!

Technology: Good or Bad?

November 28, 2012 1 comment

I recently listened to a podcast discussing the sociological effects of technology. Few people would deny that technology has had a huge effect on our lives, and some would say that it’s probably had more effect than any other aspect of human endeavour, such as politics, religion, business, the arts, or even pure science. I agree this is debatable and many of the areas are inter-related – for example, science leads to technology which is used by business and coordinated by politics – but let’s just agree that it is important.

So what sort of effects are we talking about here and are they good or bad on balance? You probably won’t be surprised to know that I, as an IT professional and technology enthusiast, think that on balance the effects have been strongly positive.

There are several common complaints people have about technology. One is that using technology is addictive and people spend too much time with it. We hear about afflictions like “internet addiction” even though, as far as I am aware, this is an not officially recognised condition. Another common “addiction” is over-use of computer and console games. I’m sure there are examples of gamers whose lives have been significantly affected but I doubt whether it’s as common as is often claimed.

Another alleged problem is how technology causes people to disconnect from society. Social internet sites, like Facebook, are alleged to result in people interacting on-line instead of in person. Again this is usually suggested without any corroborating evidence.

There’s also the claim that people use technology where they would previously have used their own brain. For example, many people can’t do basic arithmetic because their computer does that for them, or they don’t remember phone numbers because they are all stored in their cell phones, or they can’t read maps because all their navigation is done with a GPS device. I’m sure this is true in many cases but isn’t that what technology is for? Doesn’t it take over some of the more mundane tasks we would normally do ourselves so we can concentrate on more complex and important things? Of course, this theory only works if their are more important things to worry about, but I think in most cases their are.

The final big issue (I’m sure there are other minor ones) is privacy. Many people seem to think that anyone who stores any information on the internet is almost certain to be stalked by some pervert, or be hacked by some malicious group from Russia, or to be ridiculed by the on-line community after they read and distributed personal details. Yeah sure, all those things happen in rare cases, but the reality is the risk has been blown out of all proportion.

Clinical psychologist and university sociologist Sherry Turkle has written a book titled “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” which discusses many of these points. I haven’t read the book so it is difficult to comment on it. I’m not sure, for example, how much of her opinion is based on facts and experiment and how much is based on opinion and anecdotes.

I do know that some real research has indicated trends in the opposite direction to what the book suggests: that people who use Facebook more also interact with real people more, that gamers sometimes broaden their horizons by interacting with other people all around the world who have a wide variety of experience, and that sharing information on the internet more often leads to good outcomes than bad.

I guess, like a lot of social science, there is evidence showing contradictory outcomes. And in the end the debate doesn’t matter anyway because technology, especially computers and the internet, is just too useful no matter what the disadvantages are. Few people will give up their social internet use just because there is an occasional unpleasant incident linked to it, no one is going to give up using a calculator or a GPS because it makes skills from the past redundant, and spending less time in front of a screen (computer, TV, or game) doesn’t seem to be much of a trend no matter what the naysayers are telling us.

It’s almost impossible to imagine life without these technologies now that we have them. I believe my horizons have broadened hugely since I started using the internet. I now know a lot more about a much wider range of topics than would have been practical without it. I find it hard to imagine how I could do much without my iPhone – it’s an ever-present source of information and communications. And I can do mental arithmetic quite well, I can remember many numbers, and I am quite good at reading maps, but I feel little need to utilise these skills because I just don’t need to.

We stopped riding horses everywhere when we got cars. Cars introduced many hazards, reduced the level of equestrian skills greatly, and had many other bad effects, but would we really want to go back to horses except as a recreational choice? Obviously not. The same argument applies to modern technology and if some people can’t cope with that then they should just get out of the way, saddle up their horses, and ride off into the sunset!

Talentless Too, No Pay

November 24, 2012 Leave a comment

About a month ago, in a blog entry titled “Make PowerPoint Illegal”, I discussed IT disasters, specifically what I referred to as the “Ministry of Social Development public computer kiosk security fiasco” and the “Ministry of Education payroll disaster”.

Since then the payroll disaster has just carried on getting worse and worse. There haven’t necessarily been more errors – although it’s possible there have been more but the facts aren’t totally clear – it’s more that many errors don’t get fixed even though there are assurances they have been, and new types of errors keep appearing.

The company which created the Novopay “system” is called Talent2. The title of this blog entry represents most people’s real thoughts on this company and their products: Talentless Too, No Pay. I also considered “Novopray” because by this time many teachers are probably offering prayers that they will be paid.

The ministry and Talent2 say the problems are being fixed and the vast majority of teachers are now being paid properly. I doubt it. According to principals’ representatives 90% of schools and still reporting errors and I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. For example my wife, who is a teacher, can’t get reliable payslips. At various times they come through blank, or with a couple of random lines, or with half the required details. We can’t tell if they’re right or wrong but we’ve never officially complained about it so we wouldn’t be counted in the stats.

I’m sure many people would blame the ministry for the problems because that’s just so easy, but I think the company, Talent2, is primarily to blame. They are the ones who were supposed to have created this system. They are the (alleged) professionals. They are one ones being paid over $100 million to create and maintain the system.

And despite their assurances their payroll systems in other organisations really aren’t that great. My friend Fred reports that a Talent2 system is also used in the organisation he works for and it’s a bit of a joke. He does admit that it usually gets the pay right but many features were never implemented and the ones that do work look like the user-interface was designed by a programmer from the 1970s. It really is that primitive.

No one is saying that producing a payroll on this scale is easy but Talent2 supposedly specialise in this sort of work, they have 150 people on the team, they have charged tens of millions for the work, and they have spent at least 2 extra years working on it. Plus they paid another company (presumably equally incompetent and corrupt) almost a million dollars to test the system. What did we get of that money? What did that other company do for a million dollars? Absolutely nothing as far as I can see. The whole thing must be close to being fraud.

I think a lot of the problem is caused by the distorted view people have of big “professional” corporations. They think that because those corporations have fancy office buildings and their staff always wear expensive suits that they are true professionals. Well they may look professional on the surface but the quality of their products and services don’t seem to be great value for money in my opinion. And when you consider that some New Zealand companies were also part of the tender process you really have to wonder why these clowns got the work.

Hopefully the system will eventually work but I suspect a major debacle is looming for the Christmas payroll. Just the time when teachers really don’t want “no pay” from a system created by a “talentless” company!

Animal Farm

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I just finished “reading” Animal Farm. I put reading in quotes because I actually listened to it as an audio book. I can do that through my iPhone while driving to work, or while walking from one job to another, or while waiting for a software update to install. I listen to 10 to 20 books for every one I actually read because I just have more time to listen and reading a book at work doesn’t look so good!

Anyway, if you have been following this blog you might have noticed a trend where I am trying to “read” a few classic books. The previous one was “Atlas Shrugged” which I still haven’t written a thorough critique of. Animal Farm is a lot more approachable though because the whole book is just 120 pages – the same size as the single epic “John Galt” speech amongst the 1200 pages of Ayn Rand’s rather hefty tome!

I would have to say though that, while I appreciated a lot of Atlas Shrugged, I think George Orwell said a lot more in a lot less space in Animal Farm!

As we all know, Animal Farm was written as an allegory of communist Russia but ironically in many ways I could relate it to the situation we find ourselves in today under the tyranny of neoliberal capitalism.

Read the following 3 paragraphs and think about what they remind you of…

“…The windmill had been successfully completed at last, and the farm possessed a threshing machine and a hay elevator of its own, and various new buildings had been added to it. Whymper had bought himself a dogcart. The windmill, however, had not after all been used for generating electrical power. It was used for milling corn, and brought in a handsome money profit. The animals were hard at work building yet another windmill; when that one was finished, so it was said, the dynamos would be installed. But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three-day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally.

Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer – except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs. Perhaps this was partly because there were so many pigs and so many dogs. It was not that these creatures did not work, after their fashion. There was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called “files,” “reports,” “minutes,” and “memoranda.” These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. This was of the highest importance for the welfare of the farm, Squealer said. But still, neither pigs nor dogs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them, and their appetites were always good.

As for the others, their life, so far as they knew, was as it had always been. They were generally hungry, they slept on straw, they drank from the pool, they laboured in the fields; in winter they were troubled by the cold, and in summer by the flies. Sometimes the older ones among them racked their dim memories and tried to determine whether in the early days of the Rebellion, when Jones’s expulsion was still recent, things had been better or worse than now. They could not remember. There was nothing with which they could compare their present lives: they had nothing to go upon except Squealer’s lists of figures, which invariably demonstrated that everything was getting better and better…”

Does this not sound like a description of the western world as it is today? The technological and commercial progress which doesn’t benefit the majority? The promises of progress in the future which never happen? The constant propaganda making the situation look better than it really is? The claim that frugality is a high or necessary ideal? The ruling class who fool the rest into thinking they have a higher purpose when in fact they do nothing? The endless reports and paper work which achieve no useful purpose at all? The loss of memory of the past when things were, in fact, better? And the lies and false statistics which are designed to deceive rather than inform?

It sounds like an exact description of where we are today! And if it is also a description of life in communist Russia then surely that is as much a condemnation of our modern society as it is a criticism of life under Stalinism.

Maybe the book also tells us something else: that there will never be a fair and equal society. That all revolutions, no matter how well intentioned they are at the start, inevitably are corrupted by the rich and powerful and lose their original ambitions. That’s rather sad but if we understand that it’s true then at least we will know the truth of human experience: that no matter what political or economic system you have in place the most corrupt and self-serving will always rise to the top.

Remember at the end of Animal Farm there’s that rather disturbing closing paragraph: “No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Laptop Upgrade

November 21, 2012 1 comment

I’m writing this blog entry on my iPad because I’m doing an upgrade on my laptop. Specifically I’m switching it from a conventional hard disk to a solid state drive. I have done the same for a client’s machine recently and I was very impressed with the increased performance, lower noise, less weight, decreased heat, and better battery life. I have also used computers with SSDs pre-fitted – like the new MacBook Pro – and the speed is awesome.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But if SSDs are so great you might wonder why all computers (especially laptops) don’t use them. Well there is one problem: cost. SSDs cost about 5 times as much as an equivalent capacity hard disk, so they are generally used in most compact laptops (like the MacBook Air) and in premium devices where cost is less of a factor.

In fact all Apple laptops now use SSDs so I hope greater production will mean the price will continue to drop, although it will be a while before conventional hard disks are completely replaced. An intermediate step is Apple’s “fusion drive” which combines a conventional disk and an SSD to give the speed of an SSD and the relatively cheap high capacity of a conventional hard disk. That doesn’t help much in a laptop though because the weight, heat, and power issues are not improved like they would be in a pure SSD.

So how does it work? As the name suggests, an SSD is a solid state device – it has no moving parts – which explains the reduced weight and power use. Because there’s no need to wait for moving parts to access different parts of the disk the speed is also much better – and I mean a lot better: in my testing programs launch, the system boots, and files open up to 5 times faster – it really is a huge improvement.

The technology in SSDs is flash memory, similar to what is in flash drives. It’s not just a simple matter of scaling that technology up though, because most flash drives are designed for a limited number of read/write cycles, but a hard disk replacement must be able to do a lot more. So paying about NZ$600 for a 512G drive is actually quite reasonable.

I am expecting that reliability should be improved as well because the lack of moving parts should improve robustness. That is a bit of an unknown factor because SSDs haven’t been widely used for long enough yet to get an accurate idea of reliability. All I will say is that I have a box with about 100 dead hard disks in my office but no dead SSDs… yet!

I’m finishing off this entry on the laptop – after the 5 hour process of the data copying from the old disk to the new one – and I am happy to say the performance is as good as I had hoped for. I click an icon and a second later the program is ready, plus the area of my laptop above the hard disk is cool instead of warm like it used to be.

So my recommendation for anyone wanting to improve the performance of their computer is to consider an SSD – in many cases it will provide a better boost than a fast hard disk, more memory, or even a a faster CPU or GPU. Of course it will depend on the specific machine, what it is used for, and how much data you have to store, but I’m convinced SSDs are the easiest way to really make a difference.

Greed is Good

November 20, 2012 3 comments

There’s a famous line in the 1987 movie “Wall Street” where a character, Gordon Gekko, says: “The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The catch phrase “greed is good” has been popular for a long time and some economists believe it is literally true. Adam Smith talked about “enlightened self-interest” being good for economies and for society as a whole, and many people claim that the elite (in terms of owning wealth) in our society deserve everything they have. Are they right?

Before I answer I have to say that I have finally finished “reading” (in audiobook form) Ayn Rand’s huge (1200 page) novel, Atlas Shrugged, which largely emphasises her philosophy (Objectivism) which essentially argues that greed is good (amongst many other things). I think this voluminous tome deserves at least one blog entry for itself so I won’t go into too much detail now, but clearly it is highly relevant to this discussion.

We have a significant problem from the start, and that is the word “good”. Some people would say that “greed” is also difficult to define but I think that a definition something like “the wish to acquire substantial amounts of wealth (in some form) for the individual’s own purposes and beyond what is necessary for a reasonable level of comfort” would do. So good in what sense? For the individual involved? For the individual’s society as a whole? For all humans? For the universe as a whole? Moral good? Practical physical good? What?

I would say they are all connected in the long term. Inevitably a concentration of personal wealth will affect that individual because society as a whole will react to it even if the individual gains an advantage in the short term. I also think morality is essentially a practical thing derived from the need for humans to interact peacefully in society so I think the distinction between moral good and practical good isn’t as strong as many people think.

I also think greed is probably a natural part of most peoples’ personalities so denying it is useless even if you disagree about it being good.

So is greed good? I think in most cases no, but since it is a fact why not make use of it in a positive way? It is possible to use capitalism to harness greed for the greater good. Enlightened self interest can exists as long as a system is set up to make use of it. But I don’t think a totally free and unregulated economy is the way to do this.

The problem is that in a totally free economy the people who will do best are not generally the entrepreneurs or the geniuses and creative types, they are the people who are good at manipulating the system for their own good and not necessarily providing anything in return. Neo-liberals (and Ayn Rand) claim that business leaders are the ultimate innovators and deserve all they can get out of the system. But I don’t see any evidence that this is usually true in the real world. I can only think of one true innovative genius who was also a business leader (in recent times) and that was Steve Jobs.

There have been a few in the past who were innovators and successful business people as well – Henry Ford and Thomas Edison wold be two prominent examples – but they are in the huge minority and there are undoubtedly many truly brilliant innovators with no business skills who would not do well in a pure capitalist economy.

So I would not complain too much if someone like the three people I mentioned above made a massive fortune because at least society is getting a lot in return. The problem is that the usual outcome is for people to make a lot of money because they are just good at making a lot of money. Currency traders, corporate raiders, and various other forms of low-life make a fortune but what do they contribute in return? Absolutely nothing. In fact they make a negative contribution.

In Ayn Rand’s book there are two types of rich elite: the inventors and industrialists (the heroes), and the useless government parasites who have made use of the system for their own benefit (the villains). Rand claims that the former are the natural winners in a free market economy but I don’t think so. I think it is more likely to be the second type of person who does best in that situation.

I know the supporters of neo-liberal economics would disagree. They would say that their economic system rewards the truly innovative and worthy. Well have a look at the rich lists around the world and show me how many of the people on those lists have really innovated. There will be almost none. Instead you will find brainless buffoons like the CEO of Microsoft who is only interested in maintaining the monopoly his mediocre software already enjoys, and you will find evil arrogant scum like the CEO of BP who thinks polluting the planet is just part of his business plan.

Truly innovative and valuable people don’t do it for the money. Many of them do make a lot of money and might think they deserve it all (and maybe they do), but that’s not their reason for what they do. Having read two biographies of Steve Jobs for example, that is very clear in his case.

So greed is good? No, I don’t think so.