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Another IT Debacle

June 26, 2013 1 comment

Many people don’t have a great deal of trust in computers and in the people who work with them. Often IT consultants are seen as charlatans more intent on exploiting the computer owner’s ignorance and making some easy money rather than genuinely trying to fix problems and make things better for the user.

I have reached this conclusion through anecdotes rather than any scientific evidence because I can’t find any good surveys on the subject. The best match I could find rated engineers highly but I don’t think, most people rate computer professionals as a type of engineer. And yes, I am a computer professional myself and I am *not* talking about personal experience! As far as I know my clients don’t think I’m ripping them off!

So where has this poor reputation come from? Maybe it’s related to the seemingly continuous stream of computer-related disasters which we hear about. If you are interested, I have blogged about the “Novopay” fiasco here in the past, in blog entries such as “Corporate Newspeak” from 2013-03-21, “Doomed to Failure” from 2012-12-20, and “Talentless Too, No Pay” from 2012-11-24.

And today I heard an update on another ongoing computer disaster, the new student management system for New Zealand’s biggest school (with 20,000 students), the NZ Correspondence School.

They spent $12 million on this new system and the management are convinced it is working well, so everything seems good, doesn’t it? I mean, what could possibly be wrong here?

Well here’s some comments left on a recent survey by actual users of the system: “I’m personally nearly at breaking point because of this system”, “There are no positives with this system. It has put our school on a downward spiral”, “This antiquated dinosaur system is an abomination. We need to start looking at a replacement SMS now.”

Do these sound like happy users of a system which cost millions of dollars and the management assures us is a great success?

There are many obvious parallels with Novopay and other botched systems here. First, an overseas company, which had no experience in the area, was brought in to do the work. Second, the actual users weren’t consulted much on the system and had very little input into how it worked. Third, the system was hacked together from an existing, antiquated system and extra functions were added on top. Fourth, the old system was shut down and the new system was put into full operation before it was thoroughly tested. Fifth, the introduction new system was delayed many times. And last (but certainly not least), the senior management involved are denying the problems exist and are either totally dishonest or out of touch with reality.

I suspect the actual programming team weren’t consulted much on how the project should proceed either. I strongly suspect they were told they just had to hack together something using existing parts and build a sort software equivalent of a Frankenstein monster which was never going to work efficiently. Few IT professionals really want to work that way. Generally they would rather create something new and efficient from the start.

But the management team would have done what management do everywhere: make stupid, greedy, ignorant decisions, and then blame everyone else. Again, I emphasise this is my reading of the situation and I have no proof of this. The senior people involved with the project have refused to be interviewed and have just issued meaningless statements instead, so speculation is always going to be necessary.

My contempt for management in general should be well known to anyone who reads this blog. I don’t reject the idea of using some form of management in every case, and I don’t think all managers are necessarily incompetent, although the results seem to indicate most of them are. But I prefer to look at different situations on a case by case basis, and in general this leads to my conclusion of general incompetence.

When you think about it, in many cases the sort of person who wants to be a manager is probably similar to the sort of person who wants to be a politician or a used car salesman. Either they see an opportunity to make a lot of money for doing very little, or they want undeserved control over other people, or they just can’t get a real job.

So you know what they say: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t even teach, manage! (there, I’ve offended both teachers and managers!)

And as far as its effect on my profession is concerned, I think a lot of real IT professionals just take it as an additional challenge: not only do they have to contend with constantly changing products, complex software interactions, computer security issues, unreliable infrastructure, intricate programming, and awkward users, but also with silly management decisions. But then, many of us do like a challenge!

A Matter of Principle

June 24, 2013 Leave a comment

There is little doubt that the world has some big problems at the moment, although to be fair, there have always been problems of different sorts and it is debatable whether things are better or worse now than they have been in the past.

What are these problems as I see them? Well there is Islam for a start, which is probably the biggest current threat to world peace and stability. I don’t want to dwell on that in this entry but I will repeat one of my favourite quotes which I think is relevant: “those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.”

So now with that out of the way, what other issues are worthy of discussion? I think it might be the increasing failure of western democratic and economic systems. By that I mean how the military, big corporations, and other elites are taking control of the world through their escalating influence over governments. And I mean how governments are increasingly working against the people they are meant to represent, through secretive trade deals, laws favourable to the economic aristocracy, and increasing surveillance of citizens.

It’s as if the majority of decent reasonable people have become the enemy. Generally these draconian rules are rationalised by saying they are to protect us against terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction, or disruption to essential services such as the internet, but how true is this? There is a certain amount of credibility to these claims but I don’t think that is the primary purpose of the new laws.

In reality these laws are designed primarily to protect the rich and powerful. I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory but remember that sometimes there really is a conspiracy. Look at the most prominent people who are being persecuted by the establishment around the world at the moment. That would be people like Julian Assange, Kim Dotcom, Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning.

Are these people terrorists? Are they likely to cause death and destruction by using weapons of mass destruction? Are they causing disruption of services to the average person? Of course not. Their only crime (if you even want to call it that) is to threaten the established powers by doing things like exposing information that those powers don’t want released. If that’s a crime then I say we need more criminals!

Most of the people of the western world are too apathetic to really try to fix these problems but there is an increasing level of discontent which must eventually overcome the current corruption in governments. For example, in a recent poll 54% of respondents agreed with Edward Snowden’s actions but in another survey only 15% approved of the performance of the US Congress.

So what is the biggest cause of the world’s problems? Is it a person who tells the world about how they are being spied on or is it the people who are doing the spying? Is it a person who offers an efficient file sharing system or is it the corporations who lock up and excessively profit from the world’s musical and other creative talent? Is it a person who releases a video of American military killing civilians or is it the killers?

Clearly the majority of the population see through the feeble excuses offered for the actions of our leaders. If they really have our best interests in mind what’s the harm in us finding out about it?

I think there is far too much secrecy in both the public and private sector. Whenever I hear a politician saying that he can’t comment on or give details about a government activity because of security policies, or the risk of terrorists using the information, or some ridiculous excuse involving weapons of mass destruction (now who could I be talking about here? that’s right: the NZ prime minister) I naturally assume he’s lying.

And when I hear a company refusing to comment on something because of “commercial sensitivity” I naturally assume they are engaging in some dirty deal that they don’t want us to know about.

I won’t always be right in these assumptions because there are probably some rare occasions when secrecy really is required, but the right to secrecy is misused so often that it has now lost all credibility in most situations.

I joined a campaign today emailing the US president demanding that he not interfere with the travel of Edward Snowden. You might think that such campaigns are pointless but I think they are one of the few tools available to the average person. And yes, I am broadly speaking an Obama supporter but although I believe he is one of the better presidents the US has had recently he still needs a reminder occasionally on who he is there to server.

You see, here’s the thing Barack (hope you you don’t mind if I call you that?) You’re not there for the corrupt and greedy 1% who probably didn’t vote for you anyway, you’re there for the other 99% – in which I’m not included, since I’m not a US citizen, but you see the principle here, right?

Or is that word “principle” not in politicians’ vocabularies any more?

Random Astronomy Facts

June 21, 2013 Leave a comment

When someone wants to describe a number as being really big they often use the word “astronomical”, presumably because astronomy involves so many big numbers. Big numbers are cool in themselves but more interesting when the significance of big numbers can be used to make a more relevant point. So that’s what i am going to try to do here, in my next instalment in my “random facts” series, which will probably be slightly less controversial than the last one!

One of the first questions people ask about the universe is how big it is. I will answer this question through the use of some of my random facts from my “Astronomy Random Facts” file (as explained in the entry “Random Environment Facts” from 2013-05-20).

Fact 1: There are 5 times as many stars as grains of sand on every beach on Earth. (source: Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, 20 Jun 2011)

Discussion: The IMC podcast is (was) hosted by well known astronomer Brian Cox so you would expect it to have a certain amount of credibility. But this number varies greatly depending on the source and method used to do the estimate. Some estimates suggest the number of grains of sand and stars is about the same. But either way, that is a lot of stars.

Remember that stars are huge balls of glowing plasma, just like our Sun. The Sun is 1.3 million times bigger (in volume) than the Earth and many stars are much bigger than even that. A star called VY Canis Majoris (a red hypergiant) is often quoted as the biggest known. It’s volume is almost 4 billion times bigger than the Sun or 7 thousand trillion times bigger than the Earth!

Plus the distance between stars is huge. Even in our galaxy the distance between stars is 50 million times bigger than the size of the star itself. And stars are grouped into galaxies where the distance between them is generally very large (millions of times greater than the distance between stars).

So, in summary, the universe has a vast number of really big stars separated by huge distances. So yes, the universe is big. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space. – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Fact 2: If you attempted to count to stars in a galaxy at a rate of one every second it would take around 3,000 years to count them all. And fact 3: The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) site estimates there is hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. A recent German super-computer simulation estimates that the number may be as high as 500 billion.

Discussion: Just to reinforce the number of stars out there, this is the same information presented in a different way. Again, the number is an estimate which varies greatly. The only thing which is certain is that it’s big!

I often wonder what people with “human-centric” worldviews think of this sort of thing. For example, the Bible strongly implies that the Universe is here for our benefit, yet we only experience a tiny fraction of it and practically the whole Universe is unsuitable for life as we know it. Why? How can that possibly fit in with a human-centric belief system?

Fact 4: It looks like we live in a flat universe where the total energy is zero.

Discussion: To many people this seems bizarre. How can the Universe have zero energy? After all, there are all those stars and other high energy phenomena, aren’t there? Yes, there is a lot of energy in the Universe but there is a lot of negative energy too. Gravitational energy is always stated as negative and it exactly balances the other forms as far as we can tell.

Is this merely coincidental or a side-effect of the measurement techniques, or is it something fundamentally important about the Universe? We don’t know for sure but it is interesting to note that something with near-zero energy can easily be created from a vacuum with no underlying cause according to quantum physics. Perhaps the whole Universe is a vacuum fluctuation.

Fact 5: Sun leaks 7 billion tonnes of coronal mass every second into space. And fact 6: The Sun would only burn for about 5000 years if it was made of coal.

Discussion: Stars like our Sun are truly mighty objects. Every second the Sun loses billions of tonnes of it’s mass into space yet it has been doing that for billions of years and that has barely made a difference.

But even with such a huge mass it could only produce energy at the rate it does for 5000 years if it utilised conventional combustion. The fact that it has “burned” for a million times as long yet has only used less than 1% of it’s total fuel shows how incredibly efficient nuclear fusion is. And that’s why we want to use this energy source (not quite the same but very similar to stars) for power production on Earth.

Fact 7: At its closest approach to Earth, Mars appears about as big as a tennis ball viewed from a distance of one and a half miles (two and a quarter kilometers).

Discussion: When I used to teach astronomy to the public there were two responses I commonly got when viewing the sky. The first was the delight that people could actually see those objects (especially Saturn) which they had only seen in books. And the second was disappointment in the image size and clarity we often had. The fact that we were observing from inside a city with a lot of street lights and heat sources didn’t help, of course!

But observational astronomy is just inherently difficult. Apart from the Moon everything is too far away to make detailed observation easy. Even the closest objects like Mars (technically the third closest large body after the Moon an Venus) is very small even in large telescopes. When I taught astronomy we didn’t have the HST photos we do now so expectations weren’t quite as high. It must be a lot more difficult now!

So Mars is very small and it’s sometimes difficult to see much more than a small orange disk, but what about genuinely distant objects? What about the closest star? Well that is about the same size as the Sun so it is about 100 times the diameter of Mars. That means that if Mars was a tennis ball, the star would be 6.5 meters across (about 20 feet). But the star is 40 trillion kilometers away compared with a mere 40 million for Mars. That is a million times further.

So the star is a hundred times bigger but a million times further away making it appear 10,000 times smaller. And that’s the closest star! In effect this means that stars tend to be just points of light in even the biggest telescope. The damn Universe is just too big to be convenient!

Last fact: Virtually every atom in your body (other than hydrogen) was created in the core of an exploding star over five billion years ago.

Discussion: As Carl Sagan said: we are all star stuff.

Back to the Future

June 19, 2013 Leave a comment

In a recent blog entry (“Zeitgeist” from 2013-04-12) I discussed how certain ideas became unstoppable just because their time had arrived. The corollary to this is that an idea’s time also ends at some time (after all, when a new idea becomes popular it usually replaces an old idea which, in its turn, was popular in the past).

If we look around now what ideas do we see which might be getting just a little bit past their “use by” date? I think neoliberalism is on the way out. Specifically I am talking about the idea of non-interventionist economics, free markets, small government, extreme free trade policies, etc. Clearly these ideas still have some support and they won’t go quietly, because there is a class of people who are doing very well out of them currently. But as I said in “Zeitgeist” an idea whose time has come cannot be resisted.

Here in New Zealand our economic extremist party, Act, is practically dead and the party which would normally follow neoliberalism, even if to a lesser extent (our conservative party, National) has considerably toned down its ideology on the subject. Sure, it is still selling our valuable assets even though it makes little economic sense to do so, but at least these are only partial sales, unlike the irresponsible total “giveaways” of the 1980s and 1990s.

The opposition are promoting policies which would have been considered quite mainstream and possibly even somewhat timid before the neoliberal revolution. But the government are (somewhat predictably) labelling these as “backward steps” and “loony left”. Are these criticisms fair?

Well in a way they are because they do represent a step back to older policies and they do tend to come from the left rather than the right. But does this mean they are automatically bad, as the government suggests? Of course not. But it’s a lot easier just to assign a simplistic and unfair label to your opponents’ ideas rather than debate them on the actual issues, so that’s what many politicians will do, especially our PM who continually demonstrates gross intellectual dishonesty in this way. Still, he’s a politician, so what do we expect?

There does seem to be a gradual global trend towards more interventionist policies as people realise that the old ideas of laissez faire economics simply don’t work. Notice what i did there? It’s easy to criticise your opponents as having out-of-date ideas because these things tend to happen in cycles. The current policies did originate in the late 1970s and early 1980s so they can easily be seen as “tired old ideas from the past” just as much as the left’s ideas can.

In fact non-interventionist policies have caused massive economic disasters in the past which have only been fixed by application of political control over the economies involved. So accusations of particular ideas being “from the past” are irrelevant. Which particular cycle of economic boom and bust are we referring to?

So let’s look at policies based on their merits instead of consigning them to entirely artificial categories based on ideology. Printing money isn’t a bad thing, although it can be if it is used to excess. Government control isn’t a bad thing, unless it is used in a corrupt or incompetent way. Trade control isn’t a bad thing, unless it is used to support obsolete or grossly inefficient industries. Having controls to promote environmental and social issues isn’t a bad thing, unless they are used excessively. Tax isn’t a bad thing, as long as the taxation regime is fair and the income is used sensibly.

So let’s have a look at these ideas fairly and see if there is a way they can be used in a sensible way to actually promote greater fairness and stability in society. We don’t want to over-use them because that is just as bad as under-utilising them like we are doing now. But don’t just throw them out without thinking simply because they came from the left.

When an idea arrives whose time has come it cannot be resisted, and it doesn’t matter which part of the political spectrum it originated in. Back to the past? No, I think of it more as back to the future.

I See no God Up Here

June 17, 2013 3 comments

I love quotes from famous people. I don’t pretend for an instant that a quote made by anyone – no matter how brilliant they were – should be given unquestioning acceptance, but they are often an interesting starting point for discussion of a subject and they do often contain a significant element of truth.

I also realise that many quotes attributed to certain people are, in fact, misattributed and are often re-worded or simplified. This may be the case with some of the quotes here but I present them anyway, as I said above, as a starting point.

I found these quotes when I was sorting through some old email recently (I like to do a tidy up of my mailboxes occasionally in a vain attempt to keep the hundreds of thousands of message I have under control). I sent them to a friend who is a fundy (fundamentalist Christian) who dared to send me a quote which he thought supported his views. Needless to say, these quotes are basically contrary to those views.

Anyway, here they are…

Quote: “Religion is all bunk.” and “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, or of a God.” – Thomas Edison

Discussion: Edison was a brilliant inventor and a deist. Deism is sort of like an insipid form of religion so why would Edison had said this? I guess he was referring more to the established, organised religions with their supernatural dogma and unsupported beliefs. Deists claim to believe in a god (usually of a rather poorly specified form) because of logic and evidence rather than faith. It was popular after the Enlightenment and I suspect it was a way for people to abandon Christianity, which had clearly been shown to be untrue by scientific advances, without abandoning religion completely.

Needless to say, I would include deism in the category of religion and is therefore also “bunk”. However I would obviously be more open to arguments based on logic which lead to a conclusion of a god existing rather than pure faith claims (which are basically useless).

Quote: “Surely you do not believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?” – Aristophanes

Discussion: Doubt of religious claims has been alive and well for thousands of years apparently. This one is from good old Aristophanes. He was a real trouble-maker. Often known as the father of comedy and a person with a wicked wit, especially when applied to political and religious satire!

Quote: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” – Eric Hoffer, and “It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” – Voltaire

Discussion: Faith, contrary to what many believers would try to make us believe, is a terrible thing. Let’s have a look at some synonyms for faith in the Oxford dictionary: “church, sect, denomination, persuasion, religious persuasion, religious belief, belief, code of belief, ideology, creed, teaching, dogma, doctrine.” Do most of those words have a positive feeling to them? I don’t think so. When we use words like ideology, dogma, and doctrine in other contexts they tend to have negative connotations. I think the same thing should apply in the area of religion.

Many people cannot appreciate their own faults when viewed from within the belief system they have created for themselves. Ironically many religious people look at belief systems which are different from their own and scoff at how ridiculous they are, yet they fail to see exactly the same problems within their own beliefs.

And yes, I know many believers try to use the obvious (and all too easy) excuse and say atheists also exist within a belief system. Well sorry, but you’re wrong. Atheism is specifically the rejection of a belief system related to god. Thats what the “a-” part of atheism means!

A further quote on faith: “Faith is to the Christian what sand is to the ostrich.” – Anon

Analysis: Exactly. This quote is anonymous but it is too good to ignore. Faith is just an excuse for ignorance, fantasy, and intransigence. When the facts are revealed, when every argument has been shown to be false, and when all else fails, there is always the good old “burying your head in the sand and invoking faith” defence. That cannot be defeated because basically it’s the equivalent of saying “I know I’m wrong but I don’t care. I have faith, aren’t I wonderful?” Er, no. You’re an idiot.

Quote: “If salvation is the cure then atheism is the prevention.” – Dan Barker, and “The Christian resolve to find the world evil and ugly, has made the world evil and ugly.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Analysis: Salvation has always seemed both an odd and very likely a highly corrupt and cynical part of Christian dogma. What is salvation? Being saved, apparently. But from what? From ourselves apparently. Well I don’t really feel the need to be saved from myself. If God made me with some deficiencies (as his followers see it) then why rely on that same entity to fix the problem?

The whole idea of salvation is quite evil, in fact. It’s a clear attempt to victimise the believers and convince them that they are evil and fully deserve any terrible fate which awaits then, unless they follow a particular church of course… Oh, and did we mention the church requires both total subservience, and a certain monetary contribution from you? It’s what God wants, you understand.

So the quote which says that atheism is the way to prevent the need for the “cure” of salvation is quite right. Atheists aren’t subject to this self-serving creation of guilt like Christians are, so we just don’t need that generous offer of salvation.

And in many ways the Christian worldview is evil and ugly as Nietzsche says. Christianity is a cult based on sacrifice according to what they say. John 3:16 (see even I know that passage) must be the most commonly quoted but has anyone really analysed it’s deeper meaning? Rather than a loving contribution to the good of humankind as the believers would suggest it’s really a primitive and pointless sacrifice of nothing for nothing.

Final quote: “Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.”, and “Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom … Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.” – Martin Luther

Final analysis: One of the leading figures in the history of the Christian religion, and the person who started the Protestant Reformation, largely because of perceived corruption in the existing church, thought that reason was not a good thing for Christianity. Why not? There doesn’t seem to be any good reason that I can think of that could explain why a religion, assuming it is a true religion, should not be accessible through reason.

And what about that second quote! Wow, settle down Marty. Sounds like he might have a few psychological issues hidden away there. People don’t tend to rant in that way otherwise.

OK, I can’t resist just one more: “I see no God up here.” – Yuri Gagarin. Yeah, well that’s what you get no matter where you look!

Whistle-blowers

June 12, 2013 Leave a comment

We don’t want to be the victims of terrorism, do we? But is there a possibility which is even worse? What if your government becomes a bigger threat than any likely terrorist? And if we want to protect our society from the threat of anarchy shouldn’t that society have sufficient freedoms so that it is worthy of protection?

What is the point of trying to protect a society where the citizens are spied on by their own government, where injustices cannot be reported, where the “good guys” act worse than the bad? And just how far is it really worth going to protect people from a threat which might or might not really exist, and if it does exist is likely to be a minor problem rather than the major one which is portrayed?

And if the terrorists really dislike the freedoms that the western world possesses (at least in comparison to the despotic, religious regimes in the countries most terrorists come from) is it not a victory for them if those freedoms are systematically eroded away? Would the terrorists not see that as a victory?

Government spying is a hot topic at the moment, especially after the admission from Edward Snowden that he was the NSA Prism leak source. But that is just the latest example of a whistle-blower revealing information which the powers wanted to keep secret. The case of Bradley Manning is still ongoing and there is significant support for him after his leak of sensitive information to Wikileaks.

Are these people heroes or villains? Obviously that depends on your perspective. If you believe that secrecy and extreme tactics are justified in the battle against terrorism then they are clearly villains. But if you take the factors into account which I listed in the first three paragraphs of this post then they are equally clearly heroes.

The problem is that there are many reasons why a government would want to keep different things secret. Some of them are legitimate, such as wanting to keep personal details with no public interest private, or keeping information which can be used against legitimate military or police forces out of enemy hands, or preventing criminal organisations gaining access to information they can use.

But there are many times when governments might want to keep information secret for the wrong reasons too. For example the information might reveal corrupt or dishonest activities by the government or its allies, or it might show where errors have been made which those in power would prefer to cover up rather than correct, or it might show that what the leadership say they are doing and what they are really doing are not the same thing.

I would suggest that many of the leaks are in the second category: they are sources of embarrassment to those in power rather than genuine security threats to society as a whole. So leaking secrets should be looked at on a case by case basis.

If the leak shows that the military of the US has murdered innocent civilians and barely concerned themselves with the mistake then the leaker is a hero, because that is the sort of news the people need to know. They might be prepared to say that is an unfortunate side-effect of war and a sacrifice we need to make for the greater good; but they might also say that the negatives of war outweigh the positives and it should be terminated as soon as possible.

But if the people don’t even know what is happening how can they make that decision? Supposedly we all live in democracies where the general population vote to determine who makes the big decisions, but how is it possible to know how to vote if critical information is hidden?

I think I would rather have a free society with as much as possible out in the open even if there is a slightly greater risk of the enemies of that society using it. And I would rather a few terrorist escape detection (after all, they seem to avoid detection most of the time anyway) rather than have spies poking through the phone records, internet logs, and other data belonging to the people whose liberty they are supposed to be protecting.

Many people say there is nothing to worry about as long as you don’t break the law. But many laws are immoral and breaking them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it’s basically up to the government to decide who is acting badly and clearly they don’t always act with the greatest level of honesty and integrity. So everyone is potentially at risk.

And one other thing: we should never be placated by the claim that a spy agency doesn’t spy on its own citizens. First, as we found out here in New Zealand, they spy on whoever they like irrespective of what the law says, and then just change the law to suit; and second, all the agencies cooperate so if the American agencies can’t spy on Americans they will just ask an ally to do it and get the information indirectly. So there’s no escape. We just have to be aware that sometimes our worst enemies are those who claim to be our friends and protectors.

Benjamin Franklin said “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Surely this is true. I know there must be some compromise on this and that some surveillance is probably justified but the standard must be far higher than just automatically spying on everyone.

Thomas Jefferson said “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” And surely this is also true. Just because something is lawful doesn’t make it right. A law can be made to cover any situation and anyone who breaks a bad law isn’t a criminal, they are a hero.

So yes, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are both heroes. Many people see them that way now, but many others don’t. I think in the future they will be almost universally regarded as heroes just as many of the heroes we have today were seen as dangerous subversives in their own time. It’s unfortunate that the truth takes time to reveal itself because until it does those heroes are persecuted by those currently in power.

But I guess it’s just like Edward Abbey said: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

Beauty in Simplicity

June 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Jony Ive (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple) says that there is beauty in simplicity. It’s easy to get sucked into the reality distortion field (even without the influence of Steve Jobs) and rave about how great Apple’s latest efforts are without really analysing them logically, but I think that catch-phrase – beauty in simplicity – has a lot of truth.

As a programmer and database and web site designer myself I know how easy it is to create something with a lot of features and functions. But while a “Microsoft” type of product with every feature imaginable and a disorganised mess of user interface elements to access those features may seem impressive, it’s actually the simpler, uncluttered products, such as the one’s Apple makes, which are truly superior.

In some ways it’s about what you leave out rather than what you put in. If something is designed properly it can appear simple and uncluttered while still providing plenty of functionality. But that is actually harder than just trying to do everything with little thought to how the user accesses those functions, how they are presented, or how they work together.

I think this principle applies to everything which is why I used more general terms above, but it is most apparent in software design, hence the example of Microsoft software user interfaces.

So what’s the point of all this? Well Apple are currently holding their World Wide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco and the keynote presentation showed off several new iterations of Apple’s current products including iOS7, the latest version of the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

I don’t generally like to comment on products I haven’t used myself but I will present some initial thoughts here and perhaps do an actual review once I have used iOS7 for a while.

Many people (me included) think that the current version of iOS is very functional and simple to use but it is starting to feel a little bit lacking in some areas and maybe starting to show it’s age. After all, the first iPhone which used iOS was introduced a whole 6 years ago now – an eternity in computer terms!

So something had to be done and it seemed to make sense to have Apple’s design genius, Jony Ive, have a look at the system and bundled apps and apply some of his magic. It looks like he has succeeded. The new iOS looks simpler and cleaner but still has more functionality. The advanced features are accessible when they need to be, but don’t get in the way. It looks encouraging although I think they could have gone even further in perhaps eliminating the simple grid application layout.

Some people will say there isn’t a lot of real innovation there. I agree. But in many ways – despite what is often believed – Apple isn’t really about innovation at the most basic level. They are more about doing things right rather than doing them first. Let’s look at some examples…

The Apple II was the first home computer which most people could use, but there were a few other models which pre-dated it so it wasn’t really first home computer.

The graphical interface and mouse on the Mac (and Lisa before that) weren’t invented by Apple. They were developed at Xerox PARC. But Apple took those elements and improved them to a point where they worked (within the limitations of the hardware of the day). So again they weren’t the first with a graphical interface they were just the first to do it right.

The iPod was not the first MP3 player. There were plenty of others before that. But again the iPod was easy to use and had good capacity (although 5GB seems small by today’s standards) so it become very successful (at least once a PC compatible version was released) and to many seems like it was the one product which started the digital music revolution.

The same applies to the iPhone. There were many smart phones before that. Some of them had quite impressive feature lists, but those features were slow and awkward and most people didn’t use them. I had a very sophisticated Sony phone before I got my first iPhone and it had a web browser, email client, video chat, and many other features. But I didn’t use those features because they just didn’t work well. That all changed with the iPhone because everything was usable.

You must be getting the idea now so do I really need to mention that the iPad was not the first tablet, but that earlier efforts were truly awful?

So the same applies to iOS7. There are elements there which are just enhanced versions of what is in iOS6, and there are elements reminiscent of alternative systems like Android and Windows 8. But I suspect that it is how the functions work together and how they are so easily accessible and so intuitive to the user which sets them apart.

I guess I won’t really know until I start using iOS7. Luckily my iPhone 5 is new enough to be able to use all of its features. Sadly, my poor old iPad 1 can’t even run iOS6. Still, that is now 3 years old – virtually a vintage device in the fast moving world of computers!