Archive for December, 2012

Tech 2012

December 27, 2012 9 comments

As we approach the end of the year I think it is time to ruminate on tech trends and to speculate on where things are heading for 2013. Generally I think the trends of this year will continue and there is not likely to be anything new or revolutionary appear next year. Of course predictions by experts are notoriously unreliable and there might be something totally unexpected happen that I haven’t thought of, but that’s what makes working in IT so much fun!

Anyway, here are my observations on the year which I think will be an indicator of where things will continue next year…

The year has been an interesting one for computers and information technology in general. It has been one where the new trend towards use of non-computer devices, such as tablets and smart phones, has accelerated while traditional devices have become less relevant. And cloud services have became more important as mobile devices became more widely used.

Android devices make up the bulk of the numbers of these new smartphones and tablets but, as is so often the case, Apple have continued to lead the way and show everyone else how it’s done. I think Android will be the most widely used platform for these devices in the immediate future but Apple will always be the best.

I personally find Android OK but it’s so far behind iOS in terms of pure usability that you wonder whether it will ever catch up. Maybe it will be like the PC and Mac situation now: OSX is much better but Windows is OK for those who either don’t care or who are prepared to put the extra effort into using and maintaining their computer.

There are three news stories I have read recently which back up my opinions and might indicate where things are likely to go next year, especially for Apple…

The first is that Apple achieved its highest ever US smartphone market share for the quarter with 53.3% of the market, mainly thanks to the release of the iPhone 5. This shows that Apple is still very competitive despite the quite good hardware available from other manufacturers like Samsung. Predictions that the vast numbers of Android based devices would destroy Apple seem to be somewhat different from the reality.

Things aren’t quite so good for Apple in the rest of the world – the iPhone was beaten by the 61% share of Android in Europe – but it is still a very significant brand. And it’s also important to realise that most iPhones are used a lot for their smart features where many Android phones are almost unusable as smartphones and are really nothing more than fancy feature phones.

Another interesting story involved the rapid evolution of the iPad. After the surprise release of the iPad 4 (I know it is really just called the iPad, but I’ll stick with this naming) there are now rumours that an iPad 5 isn’t too far away. Apple will need to keep moving quickly to stay ahead of the opposition and an unfortunate side effect of this is that older iPads will become obsolete quickly.

Again it looks like iOS versus Android will be the big battle here because no one else (see next story for details) seems to be selling many devices. And again Android will represent the most common but inferior platform and Apple will be out ahead with superior design and innovation but at a premium price.

The final story involves Microsoft’s Windows 8 and how sales are disappointing. Most commentators have been saying this for a while but Microsoft have insisted that sales are good. It seems that the Microsoft propaganda is just that: propaganda. The problem in a market area where people just want something that is good enough (rather than brilliant) is that when they have something which is just good enough (Windows 7) why would they change (to Windows 8)?

So the big problem for Microsoft is that their traditional area of strength is becoming less relevant. Even the corporate market, which is always the least innovative and open to change, is likely to move to more mobile devices in the future. Microsoft have joined this trend late with their tablet product and they also might have taken the wrong approach.

Microsoft have tried to create one OS which does everything: Windows 8 runs as a desktop and laptop OS as well as a touch OS for tablets. In contrast Apple have built a different OS optimised for the two different functions. iOS is built specifically for touch devices and OS X for computers. Both approaches have their advantages and time will tell which will work. I think it’s clear that the Apple approach provides a far superior user experience but that isn’t necessarily the most important thing to many corporate users, so Microsoft’s approach might still be successful.

The fact that WIndows 8 and Microsoft’s Surface tablet devices have not sold well doesn’t bode well for Microsoft, especially as iPads and Android tables continue to sell in great numbers, so I suspect Microsoft’s recent slide into obscurity will continue. Never mind, they still have the Xbox. At least they can still beat Sony, but who can’t do that? Oh how the mighty have fallen!


Christmas Update

December 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Over the last few days we have had a leisurely trip from Dunedin to Nelson where we are spending a couple of weeks holiday over Christmas. Generally when we are making this journey (a distance of about 800 kilometers) we try to do it in 1 or maybe 2 days, but this time we decided to take our time. (For those of you from outside of New Zealand, two points: first 800 kilometers is about 500 miles; and second, distances here take longer to travel because our roads tend to be quite windy).

So on the first day we stopped overnight in Geraldine, then took the “scenic” inland route through Methven, Oxford, and Rangiora out to the main road and on to Hanmer Springs. We spent a day at Hanmer just doing the usual causal things: mini-golf, thermal pools, etc. The temperature started getting up to what you would expect for a real New Zealand summer (almost 30 degrees C, 90 degrees Fahrenheit) while we were there and we got the same driving through to Nelson the next day.

I’m writing this Christmas Day (as all true bloggers do) and it looks like it will be warm again today. I love Southern Hemisphere summers!

So it’s all pretty relaxing so far but a computer geek’s work is never done and I am currently in the middle of upgrading an old original iMac running Mac OS 9 to a much newer (but still kind of outdated) G5 iMac running OS X. Should be a fairly significant improvement for the user!

It did remind me of how far computers have come though: the flash drives I used had 10 times the capacity of the old iMac’s hard disk! And the general reliability of Mac OS 9 could have been better. I’ve had more crashes this morning than I would have in a year running OS X!

My friends and family seem to know me quite well: for Christmas this year I have received a whole pile or chocolate, some wine, and a variety of chilli sauces. Of course there was also the most useful gift I received: cash! Yes, that will be very useful to help out with home renovation projects.

As expected it has turned out to be hot again today but according to the weather app on my iPad we might be about to get some rain and thunderstorms for the next week or two! Yeah, New Zealand gets some great warm weather on occasions but it can change fairly quickly too!

Doomed to Failure

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Shouldn’t the people at the top be responsible for their organisations? Isn’t that why they are paid the big salaries? In so many cases it seems that the more responsible a person is the less they are likely to he held to account for what happens under their leadership.

Sure I agree there is the occasional case of a politician resigning after a case of gross negligence, but even those events often seem to be politically orchestrated and the person tends to continue on in a lesser role but still with a substantial salary and might expect an easy, less controversial job in the future when the current problem has been forgotten.

Of course this phenomenon can be seen with all leaders, but the particular case which is most obvious in New Zealand at this point is the minister of education, Hekia Parata, who surely is currently responsible for the most disorganised, dysfunctional, and dispirited organisation in the country. And the way our country is at the moment, to be the most dispirited isn’t easy. There’s plenty of competition!

It’s almost impossible to find anyone involved in education who agrees with this minister’s decisions. Everyone knows that the experts are not being listened to, that her policies are driven by economic and political dogma rather than practical educational requirements, and that the minister can not or will not learn from her mistakes.

As I have said in a previous blog entry, I don’t think Parata is actually evil, she’s just the person who drew the short straw and became education minister for a National government. It’s impossible to do that job properly no matter who you are because National, being a right wing party, is automatically opposed to good traditional educational values.

So the minister is doomed to failure from the beginning and that explains why every National minister of education has been a disaster and has been despised by the majority of people in education. It explains for example why a past minister had to escape out of a window to avoid an angry crowd.

So let’s look at a few of the ridiculous debacles this government has been responsible for in education: there’s the National Standards policy, the League tables, the school closures, the Novopay disaster, and now the resignation of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone.

Longstone always gave me the impression of being a gross incompetent but that might just be because of the way she was forced to defend the minister’s policies which she might not have necessarily agreed with. In fact her resignation indicates that she did disagree with the policies she was forced to implement.

But she won’t do too badly because she is likely to get a half million dollar payout as she leaves. This is from the same ministry which is closing schools to save money. Really, what is the point in recruiting and paying an allegedly highly skilled person if she is going to be forced to do the wrong thing by her minister in charge?

I would suggest the main reason these people are hired is there ability to carry out the instructions of their political master and divert attention from them rather than to make good decisions and really produce quality results for the people they are actually there for.

If any of the education changes had been a great success I’m sure the minister would have taken the credit, but now they have become a disaster suddenly someone else is to blame. And to make matters worse the minister has disappeared off on holiday, but it’s OK, the prime minister has full confidence in her. No surprises there!

Ad Hominem

December 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Looking back through my old blog entries I have found a post where I said that I would do a series on logical fallacies and how people could use them to improve their debating and thinking skills. I have only covered one so far, special pleading, and a commenter noted that he would await further entries so, here goes…

The logical fallacy I want to cover this time is the “ad hominem”. This is an attack against a person rather than a point if view or argument. The definition from the encyclopedia of philosophy is: “Your reasoning contains this fallacy if you make an irrelevant attack on the arguer and suggest that this attack undermines the argument itself.”

It’s interesting to note one word there which is sometimes left out, that is “irrelevant”. I will come back to this point later.

Ad hominem fallacies are very common and it’s difficult to avoid them entirely. They occur when an argument is rejected because of a disagreement with the person making it. Sometimes the rejection is completely unsupported, and on some occasions it is partly appropriate, but in many cases it has little relevance (in which case it would be a clear case of the ad hominem fallacy).

Here’s an example: a global warming denier might say that he doesn’t believe in the phenomenon because the people who support it are scientists who are all to the left politically making them unreliable.

This is an ad hominem attack because scientists occupy a spectrum of political views and even if they were all to the left it would make no difference to the facts they are presenting. Those facts can be independently checked and are open to peer review. Any argument of this sort should be either rejected, or at least treated with great suspicion because it really can’t be taken seriously.

Here’s a less clear example: the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” cannot be taken seriously because it’s about Al Gore who has a political agenda.

There are inaccuracies in this movie and Al Gore is a political activist for action on global warming, but that doesn’t mean the many facts and accurate reports in the movie can be ignored. It does mean it doesn’t have as much credibility as it would have if it was about an independent expert discussing the same subject but it should still be considered and fact checked. When that is done the greatest part of the movie is found to be relevant and accurate.

Finally there is this: I always ignore my neighbour who thinks climate change is just a vast conspiracy. He works for BP and is a member of the local libertarian party. He also supported many other pro-industry causes in the past such as contributing to the denial of cigarettes causing cancer and aerosols causing the ozone hole.

This is an attack against the neighbour as opposed to his ideas but I think it is largely justified. Because the criticisms of the person are relevant to the point under discussion this isn’t an ad hominem.

First, the neighbour has produced no facts at all to support his denial of climate change: he has simply stated that he thinks it’s a conspiracy. It’s possible that it actually is one but without any verifiable evidence that contention is useless. He also has a very clear reason to reject climate change whatever the facts may be because he works in an industry which would be affected by any action taken and belongs to a political party with a dogmatic view against it. Finally he has a history of rejecting similar phenomena which are now clearly accepted as true even by most of the people who initially rejected them.

Clearly all debating should involve examination of the facts rather than the character of the people involved but there are some people who present such weak arguments and have such clear biases that it’s sometimes more practical just to initially assume their argument is baseless. There are also a few “serial offenders” who make the same mistakes, or present the same misinformation, over and over. For example there are people involved in climate denial now who also worked for the tobacco companies in propaganda campaigns against the dangers of smoking. I think it is OK to reject these people’s arguments with little further thought.

In a perfect world – one where we had plenty of time to look at everyone’s opinion – we could look at the claimed facts behind everyone’s opinion and accept or reject them based on that. But the reality is that sometimes that just isn’t possible, and an attack against the person is acceptable without it being labelled as an ad hominem.

A Bad Time for Conservatives?

December 17, 2012 2 comments

The two biggest items in the news today were the disastrous tropical cyclone which is causing widespread destruction across the Pacific, and the latest in a whole line of massacres in the US. Both of these are not isolated incidents and both should be warnings demonstrating the problems with policies widely supported by the right. Those policies are lack of action against global warming and lack of action for gun control.

There always have been catastrophic events like Tropical Cyclone Evan and Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Caribbean and Eastern US earlier this year, but most experts (and many non-experts as well) are beginning to see a trend of greater frequency and intensity of these storms which is most likely attributable to global warming. We all agree this is not certain but lack of 100% certainty should not be used as an excuse not to act.

It might already be too late to avoid some of the worst long term effects of climate change but unless we make some effort – and the earlier the better – the worst possible outcome is virtually certain. At the very least people should be prepared to accept that the phenomenon is real and they should stop hiding behind a ridiculous facade of denial. Of course, as the title of this entry suggests, climate change denial is primarily a right-wing defect.

The other item in the news is the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Every time this sort of thing happens (and it is happening more and more frequently) there is a renewed debate on gun control but the pressure groups, especially the NRA, always seem to have the last word and very little ever changes. We just wait a few months and then the cycle repeats. And yes, weak gun control is another right-wing favourite.

There are two arguments commonly used to support lesser controls on firearms: first, it is an issue of freedom that people should be allowed weapons if they want them and is supported by the second amendment; and second, if ordinary citizens didn’t have guns they would not be able to protect themselves against criminals who did have them.

I have even heard the suggestion that if more people carried guns they could stop the criminal and insane people who perpetrate these shooting rampages. But already there is almost one gun per person in the US. Since they are quite widely distributed you would expect that occasionally a private citizen might have managed to end one of these rampages, right? Well, according to my research it has never happened. Despite the widespread ownership of weapons there has never been an occasion where a shooting rampage has been stopped by an armed potential victim.

On the other hand there have been plenty of cases, including the latest one, where individuals of doubtful mental status have accumulated large collections of weapons and ammunition which have been far in excess of anything a person would need for self-defence.

There has also been clear evidence that lax gun laws lead to more violence, higher suicide rates, and much greater numbers of accidents. Even if self-defence could be used as a reason to support gun ownership it seems to me that on balance guns are undeniably bad.

But, of course, I should not have used the word “undeniably” because, as we all know only too well, certain groups in society will deny anything, including climate change (as I noted above) and the fact that guns are just inherently dangerous. I mean, this isn’t rocket science people: guns are specifically designed to kill and that’s what they do.

The more I think about it the more I see how exactly the same misinformation techniques are repeated over and over again in different areas of denial. Cigarette companies say people should have the freedom to smoke and many smokers aren’t affected by smoking, global warming deniers say the free market will sort out our issues and some areas of the world aren’t any warmer anyway, and the gun lobby say people should have the freedom to defend themselves and guns don’t kill people, other people do.

It’s all mindless rhetoric and most of it comes from the right wing crazies who would sacrifice anything just to support their warped idea of how the world should work. But surely every disastrous storm and every school shooting must weaken their position, just like the increasing death toll from smoking eventually had to be acknowledged by the tobacco companies. It seems that it really is a bad time for conservatives.

Irish Religion

December 13, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently listened to a podcast where the the co-founder of “Atheist Ireland” was interviewed. Ireland is a modern western country but, as we all know, it has had a long tradition of problems with religion. Ironically all the “troubles” have been caused by conflict between one sect of the religion based on the teaching of the so-called “Prince of Peace” against another sect of that same religion. I know there is a strong political element to this conflict as well, but it really doesn’t lend a lot of credibility to either the Protestants or the Catholics.

Bizarrely (and I really need to check my calendar when I hear this to see if it is 2012 or 1012!) Ireland recently introduced a new blasphemy law. The new law defined blasphemy more precisely than the existing one (presumably when that was introduced it was just assumed that everyone would know what blasphemy was). The new definition is something like this: “it is an offence to publish or utter material grossly offensive or abusive in relation to matters held sacred to any religion, causing outrage.”

There are at least two problems with this. First, it is still rather vague and subjective because know one knows what the standard is for something to be “grossly offensive”, for example. And second, it incentivises outrage. If a religious person objected to a statement by another person all they have to do is feign outrage and instantly the problem is passed on to the person who made the statement rather than the person who didn’t like it.

If anyone makes a statement which I find outrageous – and I often do hear this sort of thing from far right nut jobs who genuinely make statements offensive in both their bigotry and their lack of truth and intelligence – I don’t instantly think I should be able to persecute that person using some arcane law. I ridicule the person making it by showing how wrong they are. Surely that approach is far more effective!

But there’s a problem in this approach for the religious people. In my case I am right and the nut job is wrong, but in the case of blasphemy the person making the “offensive” statement is usually right and there is no defence against it. So why do the Irish need a law to protect those who are wrong? Presumably this has occurred through pressure from the church or because the law-makers themselves are religious.

And for those more conservative people who might try to defend these laws think about this: perfectly reasonable criticism of religion causes gross over-reaction in less morally developed Islamic countries. Need I mention the violence (both real and threatened) as a result of the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons or Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”?

I believe that more reasonable nations (and Ireland should be in this category) should be setting an example in this regard. Free speech should be protected and that should act as a force reducing similar laws in more extreme countries and might stop attempts at having religiously motivated laws being introduced through the UN as is currently happening.

I’m not saying that people should be free to say anything. It shouldn’t be possible, for example, to use free speech to incite violence against your opponents. But which side in this controversy does that? Is it the blasphemers? No, in fact it is the people who are allegedly insulted who really need to have their hate speech curtailed.

To give an example of how utterly absurd the whole notion of blasphemy is I will quote a case from India where a free speech campaigner (actually the chairman of the Indian Rationalist Association) explained a mysterious “crying statue” near a church in India as capillary action from faulty plumbing from a nearby toilet. Wow, the symbolism there is almost too good to be true!

Needless to say the Catholic Church was outraged. But there are two possibilities here: either that explanation is true, or it isn’t (and possibly a real supernatural event is responsible). Any reasonable person would have checked the explanation and found it true and said “oh yes, you’re right, that was embarrassing” or found it untrue and said “see, the skeptics can’t explain this truly amazing phenomenon”.

But with blasphemy laws the truth is irrelevant. The church can make up a load of total nonsense and doesn’t even need to defend it. They just persecute their critics instead. In this case the person involved was facing 3 years in prison and had to leave country after police tried to arrest him. Arrest him? For offering an explanation to a mystery? Really?

Of course the Catholic Church regularly criticises other superstitions, such as Islam, when they do the same sort of thing to defend their ignorant beliefs. But there’s one thing that religion is supremely good at: hypocrisy!

But while religious extremism seems to be growing in some parts of the world the trend is more positive I believe. Religion is slowly dying. It would be unfortunate if it ever disappeared completely because it is a fascinating social phenomenon, but it needs to be kept in its place: away from any possibility of affecting decisions which should be made based on reality, and not fantasy.

A recent survey in Ireland found the following interesting statistics: in the last 20 years the number of non-religious people has grown by 400%, half of Roman Catholics don’t believe in Hell, 15% of them don’t think Jesus was the Son of God (isn’t that sort of an important part of Catholicism?), and (this is just too good) 8% don’t believe in God!

So even though the vast majority of people in Ireland still identify themselves as being religious I would contend that that is more a label of convenience and habit more than one of any real thought. How can you claim to be a Catholic yet reject the most fundamental tenets of the faith? It’s just bizarre, but religion is always bizarre because the basic beliefs never make sense in the first place!

A final criticism answered in the interview was the one that atheism is sterile, devoid of feeling, and lacking in any meaning or wonderment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality is so much better than fantasy. The truth of the universe is infinitely grander than any silly creation myth. The understanding of how the world really works and the questioning of all current understandings is a far greater thing than just simply accepting what a religious leader or an old book tells you to believe. Only someone who has freed themselves from religious dogma would understand this.

As the interviewee said: the idea that a god felt it necessary to tell one person in one tribe on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in the whole universe that he shouldn’t pick up sticks on a Sunday is just unbelievably bizarre!

Yes. As they say: blasphemy is a victimless crime.

On the Ground

December 12, 2012 Leave a comment

My lack of respect for most managers, leaders, politicians, and other people in positions of authority is no secret. Reading through this blog that is very obvious. I have encountered a few people who perform well in leadership roles but they are in the vast minority and sometimes their genuine efforts to work in a better way are sabotaged by people further up the hierarchy. And apart from those few there is little to get enthused about.

So why are management so grossly useless? I think the main reason is that they just don’t listen to the people on the ground, that is the people doing the actual work the managers are responsible for. Instead they rely on people who will give them the answers they want to hear: senior managers with no clue about how the “real world” works, expensive consultants who produce reports supporting what those paying them want, and their equally inept colleagues who support the managers imagined right to make the decisions they do.

There are several problems these managers might see with listening to the people who know the facts. First, their opinions will very likely differ from those held by senior management because they will be based on real life rather than some management or economic theory. That makes the decision making process much harder and most managers want to avoid having to make any real decisions at all costs.

A second factor is that most managers have a bizarre feeling of superiority. They genuinely believe that they know what they are doing and are in possession of some sort of superior knowledge or vision of “the big picture” (I hear that one all the time). Talking to their “inferiors” – who usually are far more skillful and knowledgeable than they are – might disabuse them of this delicate notion of superiority.

Finally there is just the simple standard process of top-down management. In most organisations there is usually some theoretical mechanism to feed information back up the hierarchy but this is usually dysfunctional, either because it is deliberately sabotaged or is just too cumbersome by design to perform any remotely useful function at all. So the flow of command comes from the top down, which might be OK if the person at the top knows anything at all about the area they are making decisions in. But, of course, they rarely do.

A major reason I wrote this blog entry is because of the continual problems in education here in New Zealand which have primarily arisen because of this exact phenomenon: the decision makers being completely clueless about the subjects they are making decisions about and their refusal to listen to anyone who actually does know anything about the subject, either from a practical or theoretical perspective.

There is an old tradition for right-wing governments to make a total mess of education here – it’s almost a guaranteed outcome as soon as they get into power. There are several probable reasons for this: first, the neo-liberal agenda they follow is opposed to good education in its traditional form; second, education professionals are generally more to the left in their politics so the right doesn’t take them seriously; and third, the right don’t genuinely believe education is as as important as reducing taxes and encouraging business efficiency.

Recently the ministry has made a seemingly endless series of silly errors regarding Christchurch school closures. And after trying to close a residential school for girls with intellectual disabilities the parents and board had to take court action which showed the move was illegal. Many people involved in education have lost confidence in the minister which I find surprising because that implies they had some confidence in her to start with!

Another problem with the minister is her refusal to discuss the issues on radio and TV. She seems to be particularly averse to appearing on National Radio and Campbell Live which I think is unfair because although those programs are going to ask the difficult questions I don’t think they are inherently unfair to the government.

The minister of education clearly can’t do her job. I don’t mean she’s not an intelligent or skilled person, I just mean she can’t do this particular job. Actually looking at her background she maybe could do it reasonably well so maybe the problem is not her at all, maybe it’s the policies of her party which is the problem: private and charter schools, funding cuts, closures, mergers, etc.

The real problem is that these policies are based on neo-liberal theory and right wing dogma rather than what is practical. And in almost every case education experts, teachers, and even principals say the new policies aren’t a good idea but that makes no difference to them at all. They just won’t listen to people on the ground.