Archive for May, 2015

Campbell Dead

May 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Well, I have just watched the final episode of Campbell Live and I’m kind of sad about its demise (and a little bit angry as well). So what is the most appropriate way to respond? To write a blog entry, obviously!

As I have often said in the past, I don’t watch a lot of TV because it just isn’t worth it. First, 90% of TV programs are crap so I don’t want to watch them (but remember Sturgeon’s First Law: that 90% of everything is crap, plus the fact that half of everything is below average). Some programs are so bad that if I happen to be in the room when they’re on I really just cannot stand to be there any more and have to leave! Second, having programs on at a fixed time is just so inconvenient now that on-demand programming is available on-line. And third, there are far too many advertisements on broadcast TV and most of them are tedious, insulting, and repetitive.

So I’m not a fan of TV but there are certain programs I still watch. I come home and cook dinner at about 6.30 so it makes sense to watch a bit of TV then, and that coincides with TV news and current affairs. And that leads to this discussion of the end of Campbell Live.

Yes, I generally watched this program, and while I do have to admit that some stories were a bit lightweight and some tended towards being annoying (especially when Ali Ikram was the presenter), I still think it filled a valuable role and there was nothing else quite like it.

The owner of the channel broadcasting the program, Mediaworks, announced it would be reviewed about 6 weeks ago but few people thought this announcement was genuine. It was generally assumed that the decision to axe it had already been made. Generally the “consultation” and “review” processes in large organisations are a farce and that was clearly the case here, because in my experience reviews tend to involve gathering evidence to support a decision which has already been made.

TV3 is a channel owned by Mediaworks which is a private company. It has not been doing well financially and rumours are that it is set to be sold to a US vulture fund called Oak Tree Capital – this cannot be good! But as a private company does it not have the right to ignore any aspect of its business which doesn’t lead to greater return to its shareholders?

Well that depends on your philosophy of business. A purist would say that maximising return to investors is the only requirement for management of a private company. Others might say that other factors, such as social responsibility, a commitment to the environment, and a duty to protecting employees should also be considered.

But either way it’s hard to see how the viewers of a program could demand any commitment from the management of a private company when they are simply consumers of the product, and of a free (in some ways) product at that.

The real problem here is that New Zealand does not have a public TV channel. Most other countries do and they generally provide a high standard of programming that would be unlikely to be produced by a private company. Before I go any further I do wish to acknowledge that a public producer, the BBC, recently stopped producing my favourite TV program, Top Gear, because of bungling bureaucracy which was the equal to any private company, so the public model clearly isn’t perfect!

Before our great neoliberal revolution there was public TV here but after everything was privatised current affairs programs became less common, were relegated to unpopular time slots, and were generally dumbed down. Now that even our center-right government is following an almost socialist agenda in many areas maybe now is the time to admit that privatising everything wasn’t such a great idea after all and that we need to go back to the old model.

And the first person that new organisation could employ is John Campbell to start his program all over again. Until then Campbell Live is Campbell Dead.

Just Playing Whack-a-Mole

May 28, 2015 Leave a comment

The big news this morning was the investigation into corruption involving Fifa, the world body controlling football (AKA soccer). In one interview a statistic was mentioned which indicated that 99% of fans think the people in control of the sport are corrupt. That’s quite a damning statistic, I think.

Most people I speak to think our politicians are corrupt, incompetent, uncaring, and have various other negative characters. And many people who work in large organisations and companies dislike the management and think they are corrupt and incompetent and usually more interested in extending their own power and influence rather than improving the core aims of the organisation.

Why is it that those who are ostensibly our leaders, and therefore theoretically the people who should enjoy the most esteem and loyalty, are so often in reality treated in the completely opposite way and are despised and mistrusted?

I think there are two reasons…

First, being a leader of a large organisation is often quite difficult and errors of judgement are inevitable. But in many ways most people’s jobs are difficult. As an IT consultant my job is difficult because I have to keep up with new technology, have to work with very complex concepts, and need to coordinate the requirements of many disparate and competing systems to get the best result. But am I despised by the people I work for? Well I certainly don’t think so, in fact the opposite is generally true (I should emphasise I’m talking about my clients here, not my managers).

The second reason is just the nature of most (but not all) large organisations. The mechanism which selects people for leadership roles is itself hugely corrupt. I’m convinced that in many organisations the promotion system gets the worst possible outcomes and just choosing people at random would get far better results.

This idea is supported by a study done in 2010 by three Italian researchers who demonstrated mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random. I don’t take the results of single studies too seriously, especially when they involve “social science” like human group behaviour, but it’s an interesting result anyway.

So the current systems used to select leaders tend to choose people whose ideas closely match those making the decisions already (because they do the selection). They tend to select people who are good at telling their seniors what they want to hear rather than what is true. And they tend to favour people who are dedicated to continuing and extending the existing structure no matter how irrelevant it is.

Once an organisation starts trending toward corruption or incompetence it is unlikely to get better because the leadership system protects itself. It’s almost like a social Darwinist mechanism where the “fittest” are selected, except the fittest in this context are those who fit in best to the prevailing structure no matter how dysfunctional it is.

Even if those controlling an organisation are fundamentally reasonable people (not corrupt or incompetent to a significant extent) the promotion system is still wrong because it doesn’t encourage diversity. Everyone at the management level in most situations just look like clones of each other.

You might make the point that if there is too much diversity of opinion in a management structure that it will end up being conflicted and maybe paralysed by indecision caused by too many divergent opinions and philosophies. Well maybe, but I would prefer to risk indecision because a clear path can’t be agreed on rather than just going with the unopposed view of a controlling elite.

Clearly there are limits when even the most well organised and tightly controlled organisation can be overthrown and that is what might happen this time with Fifa. There are plenty of times when this type of change has happened in the past, the most significant one in recent times might be the breakdown of the USSR. But maybe this is a bit like a game of “whack-a-mole”. What happened when the USSR transitioned to modern Russia? What happened when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq? Are things really that much better in either of those situations? I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s just an inevitable part of the human condition, at least in the current phase of our social evolution, that we will usually be ruled by the most corrupt, the mediocre, and the most self-serving leaders. Maybe all we’re really doing is just playing whack-a-mole!

Bible-Bashing Barbarism

May 22, 2015 Leave a comment

When I start writing these blog entries I am usually thinking about what would be a catchy title for them. The title is usually something a little bit quirky but still relevant to the subject under discussion and should occur somewhere in the blog post, preferably at the end. For this one I considered “Maths Not Myths” and “Education not Indoctrination” but finally settled on the one I have used.

The subject for this post is religious teaching in schools, a topic which has already featured on several occasions in this blog. My opinion on it has gone in the opposite direction to many other opinions because I have actually become more extreme in my opposition. Yes, as surprising as it may seem, my opinions on most subjects are more moderate now than in the past!

The latest chapter in the Bible in schools saga involves a parent by the name of Jeff McClintock who decided to take his child’s school to court over the way they taught her Bible lessons. The “lessons”, which originally happened in 2012, were done by an organisation called “Values in Action” which claims to not be specifically Christian although it makes extensive use of the Bible and Christian mythology in its “teaching”.

Judging by the reports coming from these lessons this is clearly religious propaganda by stealth. Many Christians believe they have some sort of unique ownership of moral principles which is completely untrue. Not only are the positive moral aspects of Christianity not unique to that religion and in fact mostly pre-date it, but there are many negative aspects to Christianity which no reasonable person would see as moral.

So moral teaching should have as much of a link to Christianity as it does to any other belief system or philosophy. Even if the underlying aim is genuinely just to present better moral values – and this is extremely doubtful – a presentation involving just one interpretation of what is moral is surely a bad idea.

I’m not against morality being taught in schools, and I’m not even against Christian values being part of that process, but I am against the suggestion that to be moral you have to be a Christian and I am against disguising a program of proselytising as one helping kids make good choices. Following a religion which uses such deceitful tactics to gain new members is not a moral path!

The title of this post is “Bible-Bashing Barbarism” and that came from a blog post by Sue Bradford. Given the other forms of religious barbarism evident around the world currently isn’t this just a bit hyperbolic? Well, maybe, especially when the truly barbaric acts happening in the name of religion in the Middle East are considered, but I do think that deliberately exploiting young children’s increased credulity to instill Christian beliefs of doubtful value is also quite barbaric.

The school Bible programs have made extremely unpleasant statements about other people’s lifestyles which they disagree with, and they have directly or indirectly threatened young children with the prospect of Hell if they don’t follow the same beliefs as the “teachers”. That is barbaric. Maybe not quite to the same degree as beheading people you disagree with, but if someone is naive enough to belief Christian mythology then the prospect of spending eternity in Hell is in some ways even worse.

As I have said in past posts on this topic, many kids won’t be taken in by Christian propaganda and will see the stories as either fun fantasy (Genesis), weird and really messed up stuff (the story of Lot), or just bizarre and meaningless nonsense (Revelation). And I’m not denying the possibility that some kids’ moral standards might be improved, but there is just as much (maybe more) chance that this will make their morals worse.

Let’s just get honest about this. School should include discussions about morality but these should be done in an truthful and unbiased way. They might include some Christian material but equally they should include moral standards from philosophy and other sources (obviously presented in a simplified and entertaining way).

We can teach both myth and math but the myth should be presented as what it is, not some depiction of a history which never happened. Presenting Christianity as the only moral path is dishonest. The more they try to do it the less moral they become. We need education not indoctrination in the form of reasonable opinions from a wide variety of fields. And we definitely need less Bible-bashing barbarism!

Bizarre and Offensive

May 13, 2015 1 comment

They say that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Before criticising another person we should all be careful that we are not open to criticism for exactly the same thing ourselves. Some groups in society are more susceptible to this sort of thing than others. Those groups tend to be the ones who are not open to self criticism and don’t question their own assumptions. And yes, the first group which comes to mind is religious people!

I am thinking of a specific case here: an Auckland man who objected to a statue of the Hindu god Shiva being built by his neighbour.

He thought the marble statue was “bizarre” and “offensive” and that “Religiously and culturally it’s a bit insensitive to us and I can’t believe they’re able to do this. Part of our property looks at it and it’s part of a religion we don’t agree with.” Plus, bizarrely, he compared the Hindu god Shiva to a Nazi swastika.

Sounds like this guy is a bit intolerant of strange superstitious beliefs, doesn’t it? So it might surprise you to know that he is a Catholic!

So let’s look at his issues: he thinks the statue (and presumably the associated beliefs) are bizarre and offensive. He doesn’t like people displaying symbols associated with a religion he disagrees with. And he sees some connection with Naziism.

Here’s what I find bizarre and offensive: a God who tortures his own son (or himself depending on your interpretation of the myth) by having him nailed to a cross which is supposed to, in some undefined way, save believers from the sin which is an inherent part of their nature as created by that same god.

I find statues of a dude hanging on a cross bizarre and offensive. I find some silly myth about a virgin birth which is completely inconsistent with other myths of the same religion bizarre and offensive. And I find the belief that bread and wine turns into the body and blood of Christ which his followers then consume bizarre and offensive.

Actually, to be honest, I find those things bizarre but not offensive because how could I be offended by something so pathetically absurd?

I can see Christian symbolism in many public spaces around the town I live in, including churches and cathedrals which are extravagant and imposing symbols of Christianity. I don’t find these offensive though, in fact they are quite inspiring (not in a religious way I hasten to add). But even though I’m an atheist and less than half this country’s population is Christian these symbols of a religion I don’t agree with don’t bother me.

And let’s talk about the Nazis. Well first, any comparison between something you disagree with and Naziism leaves you open to disqualification as a result of various variations of Godwin’s Law. Plus there is ample evidence of cooperation between the Catholic Church (although some of it is overdone, I agree) and the Nazis but I can’t recall too much cooperation between Hitler and Hindus.

So why would any reasonable person who is a Catholic dare to even mention the subject of Hitler and religion? That is bizarre and offensive!


May 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Many people who work in a large organisation look at Dilbert cartoons and think they were written specifically about them. In the unlikely event you are not aware of this cartoon let me briefly explain: it chronicles the life of Dilbert, an engineer in a large company who is part of a system consisting of out of control office politics, inept bosses, lazy and incompetent workers, pointless projects, and meaningless management speak.

The author of Dilbert, Scott Adams, started drawing it in 1989 and it has been hugely successful, appearing in 200 newspapers in 65 countries. Adams has worked in several large companies and has had extensive personal experience with the dysfunction he documents in the cartoon.

I have been a big fan of Dilbert for many years and have some examples, which seem to apply very accurately to my own work situation, on the wall of my office. I thought I might share a few Dilbert cartoons here and discuss why I think they are pertinent to the situation many people are in at work. Of course, it would be unprofessional to discuss my personal experiences so I will discuss those of my friend, Fred (not his real name), who works in a similar environment to me.

Cartoon 1. Talent versus time…

In this cartoon Dilbert asks “Why does it seem as if most of the decisions in my workplace are made by drunken lemurs?” Another character (a garbage collector) says: “Decisions are made by people who have time, not by people who have talent”. Dilbert asks “Why are talented people so busy?”. The reply “They’re fixing problems made by people who have time.”

Regrettably this is so often true. Fred reports that his management effectively have nothing to do except create meaningless paperwork and attend meetings with each other (see another cartoon later in this post), but they do occasionally have to be seen making a decision. These are almost inevitably bad (because the decision makers have no talent), and because management will never admit a mistake the only option is for the people who do the actual work (those with talent) to spend most of their time fixing them.

Cartoon 2. Ignorance and bluffing…

Dilbert’s boss comes up to his desk and says “I think we should build an SQL database”. Dilbert (sensing the manager has learned but not understood a new word) thinks “Uh-oh”. He then thinks “Does he understand what he said or is it something he saw in a trade magazine ad?” So he asks “What colour do you want that database?” The manager replies “I think mauve has the most RAM.”

Fred cites numerous examples of managers who really have no technical skills at all and whose ideas generally originate in management-oriented magazines and other similar sources. As a result they have a totally superficial knowledge that is easily exposed by asking the right questions where their answer will often involve a lot of misused terminology or they will revert to meaningless management jargon instead (every second word will be “cloud” or “agile”). That is one reason they generally make decisions without consulting with anyone who actually knows something about the subject.

Cartoon 3. Laughable superficiality…

Dilbert’s boss walks into his office and announces “It took us three days at the executive retreat to come up with a name for the new procurement policy.” He continues “We named it the procurement operations over-sight policy.” Dilbert asks “POOP?” The manager says “Do you now how many managers it takes to come up with a good name?” Dilbert replies “A few more than you had?”

The management at Fred’s company/organisation (I can’t specify which) did something very similar and came up with similar pointless, laughably childish nonsense. It’s insulting that people actually get paid for doing something that would be considered sub-standard in a primary school but it’s even worse when those same people spend half their life harassing the workers over doubtful claims of them being “unproductive” when management themselves make a negative contribution to productivity.

Cartoon 4. Meetings…

Dilbert’s boss walks into his office and says “Let’s have a little pre-meeting to prepare for the meeting tomorrow.” Dilbert replies “Whoa! Do you think it’s safe to jump right into the pre-meeting meeting without planning it? Then we see Dilbert, his boss and a colleague. The boss says “Okay, let’s get this preliminary pre-meeting meeting going”. The colleague says to Dilbert “You think you’re funny, but you’re not.”

Meetings are a great way for people with too much spare time (see cartoon 1) to do something. Not only does the person whose idea it is to have the meeting use up a lot of spare time but all the other people invited get to do the same thing. It’s not so good when talented people are also required to attend, of course.

Fred reports that on the rare occasions when he attends meetings he sometimes asks what has been actioned from the pervious meeting only to find that nothing was actioned because people were too busy in meetings. The meeting is possibly the greatest farce in the modern workplace.

Cartoon 5. A bit of all of the above…

The boss walks up to the desk of an administrator and says “Carol, schedule a staff meeting.” Carol asks “What’s the topic?” The boss replies “I plan to fuse six sigma with lean methods to eliminate the gap between our strategy and objectives.” Carol says “I’ll just say ‘waste of time’.”

Fred claims that his management team have no clues of their own so tend to lean on whatever trendy management technique they happen to have been exposed to most recently. Management is a subject full of meaningless nonsense or simple, common sense ideas dressed up to look like they have deeper significance. Words like “lean”, “nimble”, and “agile” are used to describe techniques which fundamentally make some sense and are probably being used by the actual workers anyway. But as soon as they are formalised and turned into a bureaucratic nightmare by managers they lose whatever advantages they might have originally had.

In conclusion, it might seem that if the workplace is so much like the farcical world of Dilbert that we have no hope. That’s not quite true because I do occasionally find managers who do quite a decent job. They tend to be the ones who don’t try to over-manage the workers lives and who shelter the people with talent from the worst excesses of higher management.

Also there is the idea that large organisations cannot operate any other way and no matter how ridiculous they seem things cannot really be made much better. There may be some truth in that but if it is true then surely we should abandon all hope now!

More BS News

May 4, 2015 Leave a comment

I was really annoyed last night when the first 10 minutes of the TV news I watch was dedicated to the birth of the latest member of Britain’s royal family. I can’t give you any details because I turned the sound off and got on with cooking dinner for the entire time, but I believe Kate Middleton gave birth to a daughter who is fourth in line for the throne. That’s all I know and it’s more than I actually care about.

Because really, does anyone care? Actually many people do, because it gives them a small bright spot in their pathetic lives where they can live vicariously through the antiquated institution of the royalty. But in the greater scheme of things it really doesn’t matter much. Yesterday all of the New Zealand news sources had royal baby stories everywhere but today there’s almost nothing to be seen.

That’s not too surprising though because what really happened? Some baby was born on the other side of the world. So what? Once you’ve reported that and got some reaction from a bunch of fawning royal admirers what else is there? Look at the New Zealand Herald and even the BBC web site now and there is barely a hint that the royal family even exists, apart from some idle speculation about what the name will be. No doubt this announcement has been delayed to try to spin the excitement out a bit longer.

And there are far more important things going on around the world, after all. Our prime minister’s latest little faux pas, for example, involving his bizarre and disturbing hair fetish. And the controversy around the big boxing match – apparently the greatest of all time. And the status of Tiger Wood’s latest relationship. OK, I’m being a bit sarcastic here because wherever you look there is BS and the royal family is just one of the more malodorous examples.

Our country is involved in a debate about changing the flag which currently reflects strong links with Britain which are probably no longer relevant. But in many ways those links are significant because we still officially have the Queen as our head of state. Sure, it’s a symbolic rather than practical position, but it does exist.

So it seems to me that until we can become a republic and finally abandon the British monarchy we should probably keep our current flag which has the Union Jack in the corner. If we are so lame that we still want to have another country’s hereditary ruler as our head of state then we should also accept our lame and uninspiring flag as well.

Plus there are other factors against changing the flag: first, the prime minister, good old Shonky John (ohh, that’s a nice pony tail) Key wants it changed. Or maybe he just wants a distraction from his party’s poor performance and his own personal blunders. Such a transparent and superficial ruse is sure to inspire resistance amongst the rabble. And second, that horrible baby was just born on the other side of the world. When that happens any sign of disloyalty will not be tolerated by the mindless masses.

So things don’t look good for New Zealand finally growing up and becoming a real, fully independent country in it’s own right. We have a lame and irrelevant head of state, we have a totally uninspiring flag, our national anthem is a joke, our prime minister is a pervert… Hey, but we now have the world’s best league team as well as the best rugby team, so things aren’t all bad!