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Is the President Right?

January 30, 2017 Leave a comment

It seems that every day Donald Trump launches another onslaught on the sensibilities of many people around the world. Well, when I say “many people”, I should probably say that these people probably occupy a relatively small niche of those who care enough to comment or act, and who are sufficiently to the left or sufficiently PC that they reject everything Trump does.

I need to say at this point that there is plenty in regards to Trump which everyone should be concerned about. In general these issues stem from a disregard for what is true (or what is sufficiently well supported by evidence that it could be reasonably assumed to be true), such as climate change.

But let’s look at the latest controversy: the tighter border controls, especially for those from certain, majority Islamic countries. Many people are totally against this action, and the inevitable protests and condemnation have been ongoing since it was announced, but how bad is it, really?

Well, like most things Trump does, it is pretty bad, but nowhere near as bad as many people seem to think. My main objection is not the underlying idea, but the implementation.

The main reason for the president’s action is ostensibly to prevent terrorism in the US. It has been pointed out in many places that Islamic terrorism isn’t really a major issue in the US (at least, not since 9/11) and this makes the underlying justification invalid, but does it?

There is little doubt (at least amongst those who look at the facts) that terrorism around the world is primarily carried out by Muslims. The best list of international terrorist attacks I can find indicates that Islamic extremists perform far more attacks than every other group put together. So, from an international perspective it is reasonable to be cautious of Muslims.

Of course, very few Muslims actually pose a threat, but it is still a factor which can’t be ignored. The religion itself also seems to incite violence more than most. Of course, this will be debated by those who claim (with very little justification) that Islam is a “religion of peace”, but there are many places in the Koran and Hadith where violent actions seem to be encouraged – more so than the New Testament, for example, although maybe not as much as the Old!

So I don’t think simply being a Muslim or coming from a country where Islam is the dominant religion should be enough to deny someone rights to visit or immigrate to the US, but it should be a factor which is considered. Unfortunately, anyone who belongs to this religion should expect to be more closely checked than others.

And that isn’t racist or xenophobic, it’s just common sense based on statistics. Muslims are more likely to be involved with terrorism. It’s that simple.

In a recent debate on this subject I was challenged with an argument like this: “you (that is me) say that Muslims are more violent, does that mean men should be more closely scrutinised too because they are more prone to violence?” I’m sure my questioner expected me to say “no, that’s different”, but it isn’t and I said “yes, and I’m sure that happens already”.

But the PC brigade seem to accept that as OK. They love to point out how women are less violent then men and therefore should be given extra trust, but don’t seem to be able to apply the same logic to different religious groups.

And I don’t think the idea that all groups deserve the same level of trust can be justified. If a person belonged to a neo-Nazi group they would be unlikely to be trusted much, so clearly varying levels exist. And all religions have different beliefs so it’s hard to defend the idea that they are all equally positive. So clearly some religious groups must be less trustworthy than others. And, as I said above, the evidence clearly shows that, in the current era at least, a group which probably deserves a bit less trust is Islam.

So President Trump’s specific actions don’t make sense, so from that perspective he is wrong, but I think the underlying sentiment makes some sense, do maybe, just maybe, he’s a little bit right, too.

Bigger is Better… Not

January 23, 2017 Leave a comment

I deal with several larger companies for IT services and products. I buy products from them, I buy services from them, and I get support from them when things go wrong. I also deal with smaller companies, especially for specialised software and other products, and sometime I need support from them as well. I think, after many years, I have noticed some general patterns in the way these larger and smaller companies operate.

Basically, it’s simple: bigger is better. No, I’m joking: it’s the opposite!

Obviously I am just talking about personal experience and anecdotes here, but this is a blog, not a scientific paper, so I’m going to proceed with that understanding.

First, what is it I have noticed?

Well, big companies are sometimes the only choice, whether you like them or not, because there are some products which can only realistically be produced by big corporations, if we operate under our current economic model. For example, if I want to work with computers I really have to buy one from a large corporation. And if I want to work in the Apple world my choices are down to one!

The products these companies produce aren’t necessarily bad, although I believe some of them are, but there is a huge amount of room for improvement. For example, how can Microsoft keep producing such a junk product with successive versions of Office for Mac? It’s hard to imagine how a company with so many resources available can continue to produce such slow, unreliable, ugly rubbish!

Even the good products have serious defects. For example, I really like Apple’s hardware (including the Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch, all of which I use every day) but, again considering the resources (and massive amounts of cash) they have available I think they could do so much better.

And that is not so much with the design of the hardware, but the pricing, bundling, compatibility, and other issues. For example, with the new MacBook Pros, why are there no USBC to USBA adapters included, and why aren’t they the same price or cheaper than the previous models?

Another example of these issues peripheral to the main product is licensing. Why is Adobe’s licensing so complicated? Why can’t I just buy a product from them and use it? I can’t, so now Adobe has joined Microsoft as a company whose products I just don’t use any more.

And finally there is the big one: service. The most abysmal, frustrating, pointless service always comes from the big companies. Recently I waited on hold for almost 2 hours with the helpdesk for New Zealand’s biggest telecom company, Spark. And the phone still wasn’t answered so I just gave up. I did manage to communicate with their on-line chat service but that was useless and I got no useful answers.

The worst helpdesk service I have ever experienced was probably with HP. I basically told them what was wrong but they insisted I go through a “check-list” of possible causes before they would try anything else. After an hour of this I agreed to try the things they suggested and call back. After doing this and re-contacting the helpdesk they wanted to go through the list again before they would even listen to the issue. That’s what happens when the helpdesk staff just follow a list of instructions and have no real idea what they’re doing.

On the other hand, small companies I have dealt with almost always provide great service. It’s unusual to even have an issue to resolve, but when it does happen (including licensing issues I had with one product) the problem is fixed almost instantly.

Why? Why do small companies perform so much better than big? Well, I think there are two reasons…

First, big companies (and other organisations) always suffer from communicaitons problems because there are always too many layers between the customer and the people who do the real work. These layers are sometimes bureaucratic – like useless customer service managers – and sometimes structural – like helpdesks run by unskilled (cheap) staff.

I’m not saying every helpdesk is bad, I’m just saying that the good ones are the exception rather than the rule. And I’m not saying every manager is useless… actually I am. In fact, they are worse than useless.

Second, the policies set by big companies come from the wrong people. They come from professional managers (and you already know what I think of them) who have no concept of what is really required and what the customer wants. Instead of reality they rely on instructions from more senior managers, accountants who want to reduce costs, lawyers who just want to avoid legal issues, and that primary source of bad policy: best practice.

If the policies (and those should only be used as guidelines, not absolute rules) in big companies were made by the same people who produce the products and provide the services, and if it was possible for customers to discuss issues with the people who design and produce products and provide services, things would be so much better. But, of course, the bureaucrats aren’t going to give up their influence any time soon.

In summary, I don’t think the problem is Apple, or Microsoft, or Adobe, it’s big business in general. So I try whenever possible to use smaller companies, because I like to support the underdog, because that’s where the real innovation happens, and because that’s often where you get the best deal.

The Politics of Envy

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently read a report which highlighted the difference between rich and poor in New Zealand. While the situation here is nowhere near as bad as in some other countries, it is still maybe the biggest challenge facing our modern society. Most people accept that there will always be some individuals or groups who will do better financially than others (and some would say the rich deserve their extra wealth), but it is the magnitude of the difference which is of concern.

So how much is this difference? Well, the wealthiest 1% of New Zealand own 20% of the wealth and that is the same as the bottom 30%. Also, the top 10% own over half the wealth, leaving the other 90% with the remainder (obviously).

This is bad enough but it’s nothing compared with the US. There, the top 0.1% have as much as the bottom 90%. By the way, these stats are all from published research and surveys and I can provide links if required. Also some numbers might be a few years out of date and the situation is likely to be even worse now.

As I said, most people accept there should be different levels of wealth depending on the contribution the person makes to the economy. When asked what the difference between the pay for a CEO and a worker should be a US study found that the “average” American estimated that the ratio was 30 to 1, and that ideally it would be 7 to 1. But the reality is that it is 354 to 1. Fifty years ago, it was just 20 to 1.

Note that the numbers above are just for pay and the rich tend to make the majority of their money in other ways, so this is just the tip of the iceberg.

An argument often used to justify these mismatches is to say that anyone could succeed if they really wanted to, simply by working hard enough and learning the required skills.

This point has a certain amount of truth, but only to a very limited extent. I have a cartoon which I think makes the point well. It says “Remember, always follow your passion. And if your passion doesn’t fit into global capitalism, well, then you are a failure at life.”

A survey of work hours reveals two things. First, the top earners don’t work significantly longer hours than anyone else, in fact the top earners aren’t even the hardest working category; and second, working hours have been going up over the last few decades (while real income for most has come down).

So both of the defences of wealth disparities are nonsense. Sure, you can get rich but only if you know how to, or are willing to play the game which leads to wealth (after possibly abandoning your moral standards). And working hard makes no difference. You can work hard and make very little money, or you could do almost nothing and make a lot.

So what does lead to greater wealth, then? Well, as I said above, it is the ability to “play the game”. The game involves being self-centered, ruthless, and sometimes being a border-line sociopath. So pay your workers a s little as you can get away with, stab both your competitors and your colleagues in the back (just metaphorically in most cases) if you get the chance, and dont worry too much about big picture issues which affect others (climate change, pollution, etc).

More positive attributes, like hard work, dedication, and ability can help, of course, but there are far more people with these attributes and very little money than there are with a lot.

Another factor which appears quite often in the history of people who have become rich is luck. Specifically this often involves being in the right place at the right time. For example, a product or service might be ready to be accepted at a particular time when earlier (and often better) ones were rejected because the world wasn’t ready.

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are two examples of people who were more lucky than anything else. Many people rely on their company’s products now, but that is more a matter of history than superiority. There have always been better alternatives, but they just didn’t get the lucky breaks.

There is a modern trend for the extremely wealthy to engage in philanthropy and I fully support this. Bill Gates is doing some great work here, Larry Ellison contribues to some good causes, Tim Cook (Apple CEO) says he will give away all of his wealth, and many other make some effort to contribute to good (and some not so good) causes.

But there are two problems with this. First, many rich people don’t make much of a philanthropic contribution; and second, they get to choose where the money goes (which is fair enough, because under the current system, it is their money).

So maybe it would be better if they didn’t get that money in the first place. Then it could be distributed in more efficient ways to where it is needed (and yes, I fully realise that the government making that decision is often not much of an improvement).

So let’s summarise what I have said. We have a system which gives certain people lots of money because they are good at making lots of money. They aren’t any more hard-working, and they usually aren’t the most innovative, intelligent, creative, or anything else. They are just people who are good at accumulating money, and are probably also lucky.

Am I envious of them? Well in some ways I am, especially of those who deserve little or no admiration for their actions. But it is really not just simple envy. Along with wealth comes power, so the rich have great influence over the direction society takes, and guess what: they are unlikely to want to change it in a way to make it better for the majority. If they had generous, moral personalities they wouldn’t have become part of the 1% to start with.

The Opium of the People

January 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In this blog I have often portrayed the advantages I see in being an atheist compared with following a religion. But like all worldviews, atheism has some disadvantages as well. Religious people have three advantages over atheists, as I see it: they have a church which provides a benefit to their social life, they tend to donate more to charity, and they are happier.

All of these factors are documented in fairly credible studies so I don’t think they can easily be explained away. But, of course, I am going to try!

First, the social aspects of religion. There is no doubt that attending church helps bond people and gives them a group they feel they can belong to, get support from, and generally identify with.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping non-religious people from forming groups based on their shared values or interests, such as skeptics in the pub, atheist outreach, or groups based on any other activities (amateur astronomy, computer users, stamp collecting), but there is no doubt that church groups just seem to have an extra element the others lack.

There are negative aspects to this too, because being part of an in-group means that others are the out-group. So strongly bonded church groups do create a sort of “us and them” mentality. I have heard many members of one particular Christian sect ridiculing other Christians just because they belong to a slightly different group with almost indistinguishable beliefs. And their opinion of other religions and the non-religious can be even more extreme.

Another problem with these groups is that it discourages receptiveness to new ideas. If a person socialises with others who believe the same thing – however ridiculous those beliefs might be – they are unlikely to expand their horizons to encompass anything new. So a church group is like a trap which is hard to escape from.

What about charity? There are stats which indicate religious people do donate more than others. Unfortunately the stats don’t distinguish between donations which go to genuine charities and those which just go towards the church they belong to. Looking at the money involved in running some churches and the lavish lifestyles of some of the church leaders I would say that a lot of that charitable giving is wasted.

So now the big one: happiness. Research indicates that religious people are often happier. This observation is complicated by the fact that the most happy societies are those which exist in the least religious countries (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, etc). What’s going on here? Well it seems thet religion gives some individuals greater happiness but it reduces the happiness of society as a whole.

Why are religious people happy? Research indicates it is almost entirely due to the social cohesion they get from belonging to a group, but surely some of it must also relate to blissful ignorance!

So religious happiness might be a bit like the state of euphoria some people get from taking drugs. It’s not real, but it’s good while it lasts. And also like using drugs or alcohol, some people become happy and good natured and others turn bad.

As Karl Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. He realised the good and bad aspects of religion. Here is the full paragraph containing that quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And following that: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

So the analogy of religion as a drug leads to the idea that by being a “user” of religion the person avoids confronting real problems of the world and possibly improving the world to the point where real happiness is possible. Certainly denial seems a common attitude amongst religious people. And that is where the problem really arises.

But real happiness seems very difficult to achieve, so maybe the fake version provided by the opium of religion is the best alternative we can hope for. But that’s a rather unhappy thought!

Are You Getting It?

January 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Ten years ago Apple introduced one of the most important devices in the history of technology. It has changed many people’s lives more than almost anything else, and nothing has really supplanted it in the years since then. Obviously I’m talking about the iPhone, but you already knew that.

Like every new Apple product, this wasn’t the first attempt at creating this type of device, it didn’t have the best technical specifications, and it didn’t sell at a particularly good price. In fact, looking at the device superficially many people (the CTO of RIM included) thought it should have immediately failed.

I got an iPhone when Apple introduced the first revision, the iPhone 3G, and it replaced my Sony phone, which was the best available when I bought it. The Sony phone had a flip screen, plus a smaller screen on the outside of the case, a conventional phone keypad, a rotating camera, and an incredibly impressive list of functions including email and web browsing.

In fact the feature list of the Sony phone was much more substantial than the early iPhones. But the difference was the iPhone’s features were something you could use where the Sony’s existed in theory but were so awkward, slow, and unintuitive than I never actually used them.

And that is a theme which has been repeated with all of Apple’s devices which revolutionised a particular product category (Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad). Looking at the feature list, specs, and price compared with competitors, none of these products should have succeeded.

But they did. Why? Well I’m going to say something here which is very Apple-ish and sounds like a marketing catch-phrase rather than a statement of fact or opinion, so prepare yourself. It is because Apple creates experiences, not products.

OK, sorry about that, but I can explain that phrase. The Sony versus iPhone situation I described above is a perfect example. Looking at the specs and features the Sony would have won most comparisons, but the ultimate purpose for a consumer device is to be used. Do the comparison again, but this time with how those specs and features affect the user and the iPhone wins easily.

And it was the same with the other products I mentioned above. Before the Mac, computers were too hard to use. The Mac couldn’t do much initially, but what it could do was so much more easily accessible than with PCs. The iPod was very expensive considering its capacity and list of functions, but it was much easier to use and manage than other MP3 players. And the iPad had a limited feature list, but its operating system was highly customised to creating an intuitive touch interface for the user.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 10 years ago he teased the audience like this: “[We are introducing] an iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone – are you getting it? These are not separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone.”

Today I made a list of the functions my iPhone 6S regularly performs for me, where it replaces other devices, technologies and media. This list includes: watch, stopwatch, alarm clock, point and shoot camera, video camera, photo album, PDA, calculator, GPS, map, music player, portable video player, calendar, appointment diary, book library, ebook reader, audiobook player, magazine, newspaper, recipe book, email client, note pad, drawing tablet, night sky star map, web browser, portable gaming console, radio, TV, audio recorder, TV and audio remote control, landline, and mobile phone.

Not only does it do all of those things but it does a lot of them better than the specialised devices it replaces! And, even though the iPhone isn’t cheap, if you look at the value of the things it replaces it is a bargain. My guess at the value of all the stuff I listed above is $3000 – $5000 which is at least twice the cost of the phone itself.

My iPhone has one million times the storage of the first computer I programmed on. Its processors are tens of thousands of times faster. Its screen displays 25 times more pixels. And, again, it costs a lot less, even when not allowing for inflation.

Most of what I have said would apply to any modern smart-phone, but the iPhone deserves a special place amongst the others for two reasons. First, it is a purer example of ease of use and user-centered functionality than other phones; and second, it was the one phone which started the revolution.

Look at pictures of the most advanced phones before and after the iPhone and you will see a sudden transition. Apple lead the way – not on how to make a smartphone – but on how to make a smartphone that people would actually want to use. And after that, everything changed.

The Next Big Thing

January 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Many (and I really do mean many) years ago, when I was a student, I started a postgrad diploma in computer science. One of the papers was on artificial intelligence and expert systems, an area which was thought (perhaps naively) to have great potential back in the “early days” of computing. Unfortunately, very little in that area was achieved for many years after that. But now I predict things are about to change. I think AI (artificial intelligence, also very loosely described as “thinking computers”) is the next big thing.

There are early signs of this in consumer products already. Superficially it looks like some assistants and other programs running on standard computers, tablets, and phones are performing AI. But these tend to work in very limited ways, and I suspect they follow fairly conventional techniques in producing the appearance of “thinking” (you might notice I keep putting that word in quotes because no one really knows what thinking actually is).

The biggest triumph of true AI last year was Google’s AlphaGo program which won a match 4 games to 1 against Lee Sedol, one of the world’s greatest human players. That previous sentence was significant, I think, because in future it will be necessary to distinguish between AIs and humans. If an AI can already beat a brilliant human player in what is maybe the world’s most complex and difficult game, then how long will it be before humans will be hopelessly outclassed in every game?

Computers which play Chess extremely well generally rely on “brute force” techniques. They check every possible outcome of a move many steps ahead and then choose the move with the best outcome. But Go cannot be solved that way because there are simply too many moves. So AlphaGo uses a different technique. It actually learns how to play Go through playing games against humans, itself, and other AIs, and develops its own strategy for winning.

So while a conventional Chess playing program and AlphaGo might seem similar, in important ways they are totally different. Of course, the techniques used to win Go could be applied to any similar game, including Chess, it’s just that the pure brute force technique was sufficient and easier to implement when that challenge was first met.

Also last year a computer “judge” predicted the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights cases with 79% accuracy. What does that really mean? Well it means that the computer effectively judged the cases and reached the same result as a human judge in about 80% of those cases. I have no data on this, but I suspect two human judges might agree and disagree to a similar degree.

So computers can perform very “human” functions like judging human rights cases, and that is quite a remarkable achievement. I haven’t seen what techniques were used in that case but I suspect deep learning methods like neural networks would be required.

So what does all this mean? I think it was science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke, who said that a thinking machine would be the last invention humans would ever have to create, because after that the machines themselves would do the inventing. I don’t think we are close to that stage yet but this is a clear start and I think the abilities of AIs will escalate exponentially over the next few decades until Clarke’s idea will be fulfilled.

And, along with another technology which is just about ready to become critical, 3D printing, society will be changed beyond recognition. The scenario portrayed in so many science fiction stories will become reality. The question is, which science fiction story type will be most accurate: the utopian type or the dystopian type. It could go either way.