I Can Lead Myself

In recent years I have noticed increasing resentment to the draconian rules implemented by our “leaders”. I put that last word in quotes because I really don’t think these people are leaders at all. Before I discuss this, I should say who I am talking about. I am referring to authority figures at all levels: government, city councils, law enforcement, and management… especially management.

I was sitting in a cafe recently, and heard some fellow coffee drinkers talking about their job. There were two comments about their managers which particularly resonated with me. The first was something like “they’re not living in the real world; they live in a cocoon”, and the second was “there was a horrible little man walking around the site taking photos”.

And I heard a staff member of a large organisation saying that she had “lost the will to live” after spending all morning and still “getting nothing done” when carrying out meaningless, and excessively bureaucratic procedures for a task which was simpler before a new regime was implemented by management.

Finally, I have encountered numerous instances of staff just not caring at all about the organisation they work for, because the managers make doing a good job almost impossible, and they have reached the stage where there is no point in even trying any longer.

In fact, with all my dealings with various larger organisations I have found almost no one who has any respect for their “leaders”. They are seen as a nuisance who have no ideas what they are doing, and are viewed with attitudes which vary from mild amusement to outright hate and disgust.

Of course, the leaders seem to view themselves in a quite different way. Unbelievably, they actually think they are virtuous, well-informed, tireless campaigners for a better world. They think that their staff admire them, and in the rare cases where they feel the lack of admiration just they dismiss it as the result of the people at the lesser levels being incapable of seeing “the big picture” or being unwilling to “accept change”.

In fact, there is a complete area of management dedicated to change management, which effectively reduces down to three actions: produce plenty of propaganda pointing out the alleged advantages of the new system, threaten anyone who doesn’t comply, and finally rid the organisation of anyone who doesn’t accept the new regime by firing them or implementing various dirty tricks to force them to leave.

So clearly “management of change” is an intensely dishonest and immoral activity, not that there would be any surprises there.

I should say here that change isn’t always bad. Sometimes change is necessary for the efficient running of an organisation, especially if the conditions the organisation operates in have changed, such as the appearance of new technology, competition, or markets. And sometimes the necessary changes are difficult for existing staff to cope with, and maybe sometimes they really do resist necessary change.

But that doesn’t cover the vast majority of cases I am aware of. In most cases the changes involve attempts at increasing efficiency by introducing more layers of bureaucracy, reducing staffing levels while increasing the number of managers, and allegedly improving processes by implementing hopelessly poorly defined and complex new procedures.

So generally anything created by a “leader” works incredibly badly – but why? Well, the big problem, as insinuated by the comment about “cocoons” above, is that managers have no idea how the real world works, and despite their reassurances of consultation, they make changes from a position of extreme ignorance.

In most cases I know of, after a few years the organisation does start working fairly well again, and will generally return to a similar level fo efficiency it had before the change. So the assurances the “leaders” provide that the new system will eventually start working properly are generally true.

But not for the reasons they think.

I guess the leaders thing the new system starts working properly because people get used to it, and start using it as was intended. But what actually happens is that the state of complete chaos which everyone finds themselves in by following the new rules gradually improves as people find work-arounds and short-cuts which bypass the system. After a while most of the staff will be working in ways which have little to do with the new system and more closely resemble what was happening before the change.

I always imagine it like this: it’s World War I and the general is courageously standing well back from the front lines giving out orders to advance on the enemy. He gives the orders and sees his soldiers advancing on the enemy machine-gunners. His job is done so he quickly retreats to his office to start his next great plan. The soldiers advance on the enemy but realise the orders are suicidal, so as soon as the general’s back is turned they take cover, plan an attack on the unprotected flank of the enemy, and generally ignore their orders in favour of action which has a chance of being successful. The general hears about the success of the operation and congratulates himself on being a great leader. The soldiers think he’s a dangerous idiot.

Is the general a leader? He might think so, but no one else does. We don’t want or need leaders. They are just a nuisance we need to find a way to bypass. But they can do a lot of harm before that happens. I’m an intelligent adult: I can lead myself.

Who Needs That?

It has been a while since I have talked about Fred. He is my friend and colleague, and Fred is not his real name, but I keep that secret to avoid repercussions – and that’s an interesting point in itself, because why do I need to do that just because he is expressing an opinion? He works in a similar role to me in a similar large organisation (it could be anywhere in the world, so don’t try to guess!), so I find his opinion a useful way to evaluate whether my experiences and ideas have any parallels elsewhere. Note that I don’t necessarily agree with all of Fred’s opinions, although (for obvious reasons) there is some consistency between his and mine.

So after that introductory disclaimer and explanation, I will get on to the issue at hand…

Fred’s organisation has recently gone through a major reorganisation, and many people affected by that don’t think it has been particularly successful. In fact, the words such as “unmitigated disaster” often come to the fore in discussions on this subject. I suspect that is an extreme opinion, because even changes designed by the most incompetent managers generally bring some benefits, even if it is purely by accident, but the fact that people feel the need to use that phrase does show the level of frustration and disgust involved.

In fact, Fred has told me that the magnitude of dissatisfaction has got so great that even the management have realised that something is wrong. When he says this, he is not just trying to make a rhetorical point, because managers generally are blissfully unaware of the level of loathing the workers have for them, and tend to have few clues about how their decisions affect other people’s work.

For example, Fred recounted an incident where a moderately senior person in the new regime met him in the corridor and asked how much he was enjoying the new system. She was utterly astounded when he told her that he thought it was hideously inefficient, bureaucratic, and that almost no one liked it. When asked what a solution might be he said “go back to what we had before” but was told that is not an option. He thinks this is most likely because then the managers would have had to admit they were wrong, and that never happens because it might destroy their fantasy world perception of their own competence.

But it would seem that any reasonable person should have already known about these problems, but apparently the management rarely do, so it is a minor miracle when they do understand what is happening amongst the unfortunates who have been forced into trying to make their terrible systems work.

And they seem to have taken it seriously, because they have hired some expensive consultants to find out why things aren’t working as expected. Fred says that the very fact that their first reaction to a situation like this is to hire some consultants should give them all the answers they need. And the type of questions these consultants are asking makes it clear that only an answer involving deficiencies on the part of the employees will be accepted, because there isn’t a lot of opportunity to criticise the management. Obviously, a company being paid a small fortune by management is only going to give them the answer they want, or they might not be hired again.

So, according to Fred at least, the entire process, from the first fake consultation, to the last examination of what hasn’t worked as well as expected, is a farce. I’m sure the management could give an alternative explanation of what is going on, so the situation probably isn’t quite as one-sided as Fred makes out, but clearly something fundamental is wrong with the system.

I think the problem he describes is related to a phenomenon I have commented on myself on occasions. That is that ignorance and arrogance are a dangerous mix. I can understand a person or group being ignorant, because it’s impossible to know everything to a high level, making some degree of ignorance inevitable. And, while arrogance is often seen as a negative characteristic, I think it is understandable if the person involved has good reason for it. You might argue that someone at the peak of their profession has a right to be arrogant, for example.

But the danger comes when those two attributes are combined. Arrogance from ignorant people is really problematic. And research shows that ignorant people are often lulled into a false sense of their own infallibility, which could easily lead to arrogance. So anyone who is ignorant can easily overlook the facts showing their own lack of competence, leading to more arrogance, and that in turn leads to the inability to recognise the need to improve, which creates more ignorance. It’s a vicious circle of self-delusion.

The other source of many of these problems is the echo chamber effect. People at the top of most hierarchies only interact with people at similar levels to themselves. They are all part of the defective system which almost inevitably leads to an even greater level of self-delusion. These people all want to support the hierarchy as it is, because they are doing well out of it, and the occasional person a bit further down who might be involved is unlikely to be too critical because their chance to rise to a higher level depends on them saying what their “superiors” want to hear.

You might think that the victims of these systems are also in an echo chamber, but that isn’t usually the case. The people near the bottom are constantly impacted with the consequences of what those at the top are doing, so it is a one-way process.

And do you know what the saddest thing is? According to Fred, one reason those people at the top think the situation is under control is that their incompetence is being disguised by the people at the bottom working longer hours, finding clever ways to minimise the disruption from the changes forced on them, and generally getting things done despite the changes inflicted on them from the top.

So it really is a mess. How widespread this sort of problem is can be difficult to ascertain, but I do hear a lot of complaints from people in other large organisations, just one conspicuous local example being the health system in this country, which seems to suffer from similar issues to those Fred describes.

Fred often becomes quite dispirited regarding these issues, because he actually cares about the organisation he works for, unlike (he says) the management. But I advise him to protect his own mental stability and let it go. There’s not a lot he can do, and constantly fretting about these issues can lead to depression and stress. So I hope he takes that advise, or I will be listening to a lot more bitter complaints from him in the future, and who needs that?

Dunbar’s Number

Why are there so many bad systems, organisation, and processes in the modern world? Why are governments so incompetent, inefficient, and often corrupt? Why are big companies and institutions so poor at innovation, so good at creating huge bureaucracies, and so bad at balancing factors such as profit and social responsibility?

First, we must establish that my claims against these organisations are true. That is difficult, because there is no valid basis for comparison, and no good objective way to measure good and bad attributes. But I think most people know through anecdotes, or just through their own personal opinions, that what I said is true, at least in the vast majority of cases.

I work in IT, so that is the perspective I often approach these questions from. Many of the worst products and services I know of are created by big organisations. I had the misfortune to have to use an NZ government web site recently and it was a shambles. And the most buggy, confusing web service I use regularly is probably Facebook, which is run by a large company. Also, I seem to have to fix a lot of problems with software designed by big companies in my work.

In contrast, many sites I use from smaller companies work really well. And I avoid software written by big companies. For example, I have a set of Microsoft and Adobe software on my Mac, but I almost never use them, because I find software written by smaller companies is much better.

So let’s just assume that “big is bad” and think about why this might be. I think it is about two things: first, as an organisation gets bigger its most important functions tend to be handed over to professional managers, and that almost always results in incompetence and inefficiency; and second, bigger organisations have too many people involved to allow efficient communications and cooperation to occur, so large projects involving many people tend to result in poor outcomes.

In the bigger organisations you tend to see a large number of incompetent managers trying to control far too many people to work together efficiently. Why do I think the managers are incompetent? Because all managers are incompetent or corrupt – if they weren’t they would be doing something useful instead! Clearly this is a controversial view, but exceptions are rare in my experience.

But what about the size of the group working on the project? What’s the deal there? Well I think it relates back to Dunbar’s Number. This is a theoretical upper limit to the number of social relationships an individual can maintain. It was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He used the brain size of different species in relation to the number of interactions they maintained, and extrapolated that to humans. His conclusion was that humans can maintain a maximum of 150 successful relationships.

So my hypothesis is that this number also applies to the size of groups in a successful workplace. I suspect it should be a lot lower than that, because people establish relationships in places other than work which must also count towards the total. Whatever the number should be, there can be little doubt that small groups are likely to work far better than big ones.

If that is the case, smaller groups of workers, along with the lack of a professional management class, gives smaller organisations a huge advantage over bigger ones. And that might explain why huge bureaucracies, like governments, seem to always be badly run. And it might explain why small companies usually produce better products and services than big ones, and why big companies tend to gain innovative new products by acquiring them from smaller companies instead of creating them themselves.

You might ask why – assuming my theory is correct – so many large companies are so successful. I would say they are successful for the wrong reasons, and despite their incompetence. For example, when I ask why people use Microsoft products they almost never say its because they have evaluated the options and found that company’s software is best. It is almost always because that’s what they were told to use (generally by incompetent managers), or its all they have, or they were not aware of the alternatives.

People like me who do use lesser known products tend to have migrated to them as a result of frustrations with attempting to use the “default” options from the big companies. So you could say that Microsoft’s success is due to laziness and ignorance on the part of its users. Also, once a “critical mass” is reached it is difficult to escape from the trap of the dominance of big companies. Even I occasionally have to use Microsoft Word, for example, to open difficult documents, even though it is a truly hideous piece of software and I hate myself for even touching it!

It’s difficult to see how this can be fixed, because any central authority which might need to make new rules to encourage more diversity in this area is itself a victim of the results of Dunbar’s Number. But, even though there’s not a lot I can do about it, at least I have an idea of why things are so bad. That’s slightly reassuring, at least!

The Problem of Power

I receive regular email updates from all the major political parties in New Zealand. These range from the left oriented Green Party, to the moderate left Labour Party, to the moderate right National Party, and to the libertarian Act Party. These different parties go through phases of popularity, and a few years back Labour requested the recipients of their newsletter to send them advice on how to improve their popularity, which at the time was in the 20s with Andrew Little as leader.

My response was to advise them to promote Jacinda Ardern to leader, and they did, and it worked because Labour are now in power with Ardern as prime minister. Of course, I don’t think they made that move solely on my recommendation, but I do have to share part of the credit… or blame!

And I say “blame” above deliberately, because I thought Ardern would make a good political leader, but I had no idea she would turn into the monster she has. I’m not the sort of person to just automatically blame her for everything which has turned out badly since she took power, or to say she hasn’t done anything good, just like I am not the sort of person to say that kind of thing about people on the opposite sode of politics, like Trump. But I do generally disapprove of her style and don’t think she is doing a very good job overall.

People might point to her quite high approval rating, which is far above any other politician’s, and say she must be doing a good job because of that, but I disagree. First, approval ratings just show someone is good at public manipulation, and Ardern is a master at it. The ironic thing is she is another example of the type of leader who is great at BS but very little else, just like John Key, our previous leader from the center-right party which is opposed to her. My second point is that there is no obvious alternative. The leader of the opposition does not show the leadership qualities we demand today: specifically, he’s not a master of BS!

So what has turned a moderately intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful person into a dishonest, manipulative, dangerous prime minister? Well, either she always had aspirations to power and was prepared to do whatever is necessary to gain and maintain it, but disguised it well until she got into that position; or power has corrupted her, in the way commonly portrayed in the epigram “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”, which is usually attributed to the 19th century British politician, Lord Acton.

Note that I realise that no one really has absolute power, not even dictators, so a better term would be great power or excessive power, however “absolute” does sound better!

As I said above, this is not unique to the current PM, and has been an obvious trend in modern politics around the world, and we did have a very similar style of leadership (all spectacle and no substance) with our previous prime minister. So it seems that this is the sort of person people are demanding to lead them now. Other examples, in places such as the UK and US, are obvious, the only difference is that Ardern is an example of this phenomenon on the left rather than the right where it is more common.

So what’s wrong here? Do we really deserve these sort of leaders? You could make a case to say the people deserve what they get, because ultimately it is the voters’ decisions which choose democratic leaders. But it’s really not quite that simple, because there is no real choice but to choose bad people because that’s all we ever get to choose from!

It’s the system which is at fault. Yeah, how often do you hear that from me! But I think it is true, because to become successful in our system of government, you first have to become the worst type of person and exactly the type who shouldn’t be there. Before I clarify this, I should say that the same process happens in most hierarchies: the people who get to the top are exactly the ones who shouldn’t be there. This includes leadership in companies, councils, boards, and other organisations.

Please note, that I did use the word “most” above because it’s hard to believe that there might not be a few good leaders out there, although I can’t think of any right now.

So to support my point, let me offer a small thought experiment. Imagine a room full of 100 random people from many different parts of society, with many different skill sets, and with varying philosophical views on the world as a whole. Now imagine it is decided a leader should be chosen from that group. The leader needs to take on many difficult tasks which require a sophisticated knowledge of multiple issues, an ability to consider all aspects of a situation, and the honesty to portray the true situation.

What type of person of person is going to volunteer for that role? Is it a technically brilliant person who does understand the complexity of the potential problems, who has a reasonable understanding of their own weaknesses, and who is prepared to present information realistically? Or is it a person who is overconfident of their own proficiency, doesn’t understand the extent of the difficulty involved in making progress, and who is prepared to offer superficial assurance to anyone who needs it?

It makes sense that the second type of person would be the one to stand up and offer to take on the leadership, and in general that’s exactly what we see in the real world. Leader after leader has been shown to be grossly incompetent and often horribly corrupt too. So, when choosing a leader, those who stand up with great confidence and offer to take control are exactly the people who should never be given a position of power.

This related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I have discussed a few times before, in “Too Stupid to Know” from 2018-08-21, “Dilbert Cartoons” from 2017-05-09, and “They Are Idiots” on 2016-05-11. Here’s the official short definition from Wikipedia: The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.

So it’s usually those who are most confident who are least competent. I think we should concede that this effect is a concern in a system like democracy where simple catch-phrases (like the PM’s “we are one”) are widely supported but a meaningful analysis of the true situation (because we, most certainly, are not one) is ignored by most.

And the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t just an example of some smart political rhetoric, or a convenient pop-psychology piece of trivia, it’s a real psychological effect supported by proper research.

So it seems that our current system is doomed to provide bad outcomes, but what is the solution? Well, I often advocate for no leadership at all. The main reason we have a prime minister at all is unclear. For that matter, why do we have mayors, CEOs, etc? these people are generally idiots, as shown by the previous CEO of the country’s biggest company, Fonterra, who was paid millions per year for creating a complete and total mess of a monopoly industry any reasonable person could have handled far better. He was the BS artist who put up his hand when the board (who are also grossly incompetent) asked for volunteers. He should have been thrown out on the spot!

So I would prefer a meritocracy or technocracy. But it should go beyond that too, because according to Acton, even those people might become corrupt after gaining power. So a far better system would involve group decisions by experts and interested groups. I would hope that almost every citizen could make a contribution of some sort to the leadership, meaning no one person would gain too much control and become corrupted by it.

I know this might lead to a situation where various groups of experts make contradictory decisions which might reduce the effectiveness of the paths they choose, but I think that is better than a single person making decisions and leading us down a definite path, which is usually the wrong one. Better to go nowhere than a long way in the wrong direction following some overconfident idiot!

It seems clear enough: absolute power really does corrupt absolutely, and the only way to avoid it is to avoid anyone getting into a situation of absolute power. That’s the only solution to “the problem of power”.

Software Problems

How can we fix some of the problems we have with technology today? Specifically, the subject for this blog post is how can the well known computer software and internet problems we have be fixed, or at least improved.

So to start with, let me list the issues as I see them. First, most software is unreliable, unintuitive, and overpriced. Why is this? Well, it depends on the exact circumstances, but maybe the most common reason is the commercial and management pressures applied to the software developers and teams. To be fair, there are undoubtedly some simply incompetent programmers as well, but I’m fairly confident that’s a lesser problem and not the one I am going to concentrate on here.

I talked about this general issue in several past posts, especially in relation to New Zealand’s school payroll system “Novopay” which is still problematic many years after its initial deployment. For older posts on this topic check out “The ‘E’ Word” from 2014-02-27, “Another IT Debacle” from 2013-06-27, “Corporate Newspeak” from 2013-03-21, “Doomed to Failure” from 2012-12-20, and “Talentless Too, No Pay” from 2012-11-24. Yeah, this is obviously a favourite topic of mine!

So its generally the corporate culture which is to blame for these disasters. In Novopay’s case it was the idea that they could produce something more easily, and therefore make a much higher profit, by hacking a few extra layers on top of a hopelessly antiquated travesty, which might generously be described as an early payroll system. I’m fairly sure most competent programmers would have seen that was a bad idea, but they would have been overridden by the greedy and useless management.

Now, to be fair, I do have to admit that I am reading between the lines here, and basing this appraisal on the information which has been leaked, and my knowledge of how this process usually proceeds. But we are never going to hear the real story because it is just too embarrassing, so some degree of speculation is necessary.

There have been many other spectacular failures of software over the years, including a police records system here in New Zealand, the bad code causing the new Boeing 737 crashes, and today I heard that the Airbus A350 has to be rebooted every 149 hours or some of its systems will fail.

Boeing in particular should be utterly ashamed of themselves, because their terrible code reputedly was produced by cheap programmers from India. I’m not saying Indian people can’t program – far from it – but those working in “sweat shops” designed to create the most code at the lowest price are unlikely to be the most talented people in that nation.

So, assuming this rumour is true, Boeing killed hundreds of people to save a bit of cash by outsourcing the programming to the cheapest bidder. Anyone could see that was a bad idea. Or should I say, anyone except the managers at Boeing. As I have said before: management is the most despicable, revolting profession on the planet. If they all dropped dead on the spot tomorrow the only disadvantage to society would be effort involved in ridding the world of their massed bodies! Note that this is a rhetorical point, and not a genuine wish for the death of anybody!

There are lesser problems too, but ones which affect a larger number of people. Almost all of the popular software and services we use today could use a lot of improvement. For example, Facebook is an abomination of crappy user interface design, slow and unreliable code, and utterly unfair policies and standards. And then there’s my other favourite target: Microsoft Word. To call this mangled together abomination of poorly thought out functions a program is really, really generous. I admit, you can do most things with it, but only if you are prepared to use the most arcane user interface features, work around the arbitrary limitations, and find needlessly complex ways to do things which should be easy.

At this point you might be wondering why I am picking on what are by far the most widely used social network and word processor in the world. Well popularity does not imply quality. In fact the opposite is probably true and I think I know why. As a product becomes more popular a bigger and bigger bureaucracy grows up around its maintenance and development, this gets more managers involved in the process and… well, you know my opinion of managers!

So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s really simple actually. What we need is some open, public standards for information exchange in all the major categories we use. We could have one for word processing data, for example, and for exchanging posting and messaging data on the internet. Everyone would need to follow these standards, so if people didn’t like Facebook from a technical or political perspective (for example, because of privacy) they could just use an alternative program which would have equal access to the underlying data.

So the files that Word created would need to comply with the standards, meaning that another software developer could access those files on an equal level to Microsoft. Plus, the underlying format could be made far more elegant than the hacked together travesty we currently have, which should increase speed and reliability. At the moment it is possible to read a Word file in a different program, but it rarely works perfectly because Microsoft has ultimate control over the file format, and has an unfair advantage.

And that would also mean that anyone could write a Facebook app which accessed the Facebook data stream in a far better form than Facebook currently does. And let’s do that with Twitter too, because that is hopelessly obscure and difficult to use. Again, there are apps which do this already, but because Facebook and Twitter control the underlying form of the data they have an unfair advantage.

This might not even be disadvantageous to the Microsofts and Facebooks of the world either. If the protocols and software code were open source then any improvements would be available free to the whole community, including the big companies. And don’t tell me they don’t want that because a massive number of the big companies’ existing systems use open source software, such as Linux, Apache, and MySQL.

It could be a win for everyone, especially the users – that’s you! But will it happen? Well, probably not, because the people that make the decisions – those managers again (boo!) – rarely make innovative decisions of this type, no matter how obvious and advantageous they might be.

So I guess we are stuck with using sub-standard software. I can avoid some of it (I never use Word, for example) but some I sort of have to use, such as Facebook and Twitter, because that’s where all my social media friends (and enemies) are. At this point, I’m still wondering whether I should avoid flying on an A350 or Boeing 737 MAX 8!

Show Some Respect

The manager walks into my office and abuses me about my failure to comply with the currently fashionable management structures which have been put into place. She cannot understand why I would not comply willingly with them, and demands to know whether I have respect for the system, and the people responsible for it, or not.

I say I cannot answer the question because it is not properly formed. I cannot give a simple yes or no answer regarding questions of respect because respect exists on a continuum from none at all at the bottom, to total at the top. It is unlikely – and maybe impossible – for anything to be at either extreme, so an evaluation of yes or no in regards to respect is not possible. A more reasonable question would be how much respect do I have, and how much should be expected.

By the way, the narrative above is purely theoretical, and doesn’t correspond to a real event, but I’m sure this sort of event happens often.

Why would my respect for management structures, rules, regulations, laws, policies, and other systems not be absolute? Well, there are many reasons I could give – again this is from a purely theoretical perspective and shouldn’t be construed as pertaining to any organisation, government, or company.

First, systems are invented by people and people never do things perfectly, no matter what other factors might be involved. They are always thwarted by their lack of experience, innate biases, ignorance of facts, political views, and other factors. So it’s hard to give any system total respect when everyone does (or at least should) admit that it cannot be perfect because of who created it.

Second, different groups of people see the same problem in totally different ways and arrive at contradictory answers. This is most obvious when a government of one type is replaced with a different one. For example a left oriented government might have different economic policies to one more to the right. Clearly these answers are very much a matter of perspective, so it’s hard to see why they would deserve the dedication and acceptance associated with total respect.

Third, the most accepted answer to a problem changes with time. Even the same person, group, or organisation might change their mind on the correct response based on what is currently seen as the best practice. Again, in politics, the same parties often swing from more neoliberal to socialist tendencies and back again. If what is seen as the best now can change so easily in the future it is hard to take the rules too seriously at any particular point of time.

Fourth, the people making decisions on what is the correct way to respond to a problem tend to be of a certain type. For example, in government there tend to be a lot of people from professions such as law, accounting, and business. While a case could be made to say that they might have the best skill set for the role, it would be equally easy to say that other skills, such as those associated with science and engineering, should also be valued. So it’s hard to take rules seriously when the people making them might not belong to professions or backgrounds you hold in high regard.

Finally, people tend to be self-serving. They might say they are working for the good of the people or the country or organisation they are responsible for, but there is almost always a certain element of self-aggrandisement there too. So when a decision is partly based on furthering a person’s power or increasing their income, it’s difficult to give that total respect.

Note that in all the criticisms above I’m not trying to suggest that the whole world is hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, or short-sighted, although that often seems to be the case when I am in a more negative or cynical mood! What I am trying to convey is that there are always compromises, errors, and judgements based on opinion rather than fact. So, given that the decision-making mechanism are so flawed, why would we give the results of that process total respect? And the same applies to the people involved in the process: they also deserve varying degrees of respect which are less than total.

So when that manager demands a response to the “respect question”, I should say something like: I have about 60% respect for the system, and about 50% respect for the people who created it. As a point of comparison I have about 50% respect for our current prime minister, about 90% respect for my most respected figures from history (say Einstein or Feynman) and about 10% respect for the greatest villains in history (Hitler, Stalin, etc).

I could tell her that I have total respect instead, but how respectful am I being by deliberately lying? In some ways, the more respect I profess to have, the less I really have!

And this is how that evaluation would affect my behaviour. Because I have some respect for the rules, and because from a pragmatic viewpoint it’s usually easier to follow them rather than risk conflict, I use them as a guideline for what I should do. But I don’t have total respect for them, so I will not follow them when I think they are wrong and if I can get away with it, or where it is worth the nuisance value of the conflict which might arise from my failure to comply.

But even if I follow a rule because I was forced to what has really been achieved? I have been made to follow a rule I only have 60% respect for by people I only have 50% respect for. Is that likely to increase or decrease my respect? I think the answer to that is quite clear.

So sure, I will “show some respect”, but how much will be determined by how much is deserved. But don’t ask me to say I will give you total respect, because by saying that I am, by definition, giving you less than you demand!

These Laws are Real

Recently I heard a witty aphorism in a podcast which I wanted some more information about. So I went searching on the internet and found some details and, inevitably, followed some links to other aphorisms which I also found interesting. Of course, that is one of the great things about the internet: seeking one piece of information often leads to the discovery of a lot more, and some of that is more interesting than the original subject of the search!

Anyway, after finding these witty sayings I thought they might make a good subject for a blog post, especially in relation to how true, or relevant in other ways, they might be. So let’s get started with a discussion of a few of these now…

The Ninety-ninety rule

This is a flippant rule which contains an element of truth, which is attributed to Tom Cargill of Bell Labs. Basically, it states that the first 90% of the work on a programming project takes 90% of the time, and that the second 90% takes the remaining 90%. Of course, the joke is that the numbers add to 180% and the last part of the project, which was originally intended to be only 10% of the total effort, really takes as much time as the first 90% did.

I have found some truth in this, although no one has ever calculated the actual numbers, as far as I know. It does make sense though, because most projects involve getting the basic stuff (which theoretically compromises 90% of the total) working first, then doing the last 10% of custom code, plus (and this is probably where the real problem lies) debugging the first 90%!

Wirth’s law

This is an adage concerning the relative performance of computer software and hardware. It states that “software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware is becoming faster”. It is named after famous computer scientist Niklaus Wirth, who discussed it in his 1995 paper “A Plea for Lean Software”.

Again, I’m not aware of any actual quantitative research on this, but there is certainly anecdotal evidence of its accuracy. The most obvious example to me at this point of time is Microsoft Office running on the Mac. Up until a few years back most Mac users used Office 2011. On decent hardware the components of Office, such as Word, took a few seconds to launch, or maybe just one second on a fast machine.

But in 2016 Microsoft released Office 2016, and it could take up to 30 seconds to launch on the same machine that previously took less than 5. Not only that, but the new version was arguably even more obscure and poorly designed that the earlier one, so the user was gaining little or nothing from the extra launch time.

Even on really new computers Office 2016 (and 2019) are slower to launch than Office 2011 is on much older hardware. This seems like a clear example of Wirth’s law in action, and from (arguably) the world’s most important (and maybe most incompetent) software company.

Hanlon’s razor

And maybe related to that previous observation, we come to Hanlon’s razor, which is an aphorism stated in different ways, but probably most commonly as: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It was probably named after a Robert J Hanlon, although the true origin is uncertain.

So in the example above I said that Microsoft programs have become very slow to launch. Some people attribute this to Microsoft deliberately crippling the Mac versions so that people might be more likely to use the Windows version of the programs instead. But Hanlon’s razor would suggest that this conclusion is unnecessary, because pure incompetence is a far more likely reason, especially when other examples of poor design, bugginess, and terrible user interfaces in both Mac and Windows products from Microsoft are considered.

Parkinson’s law

Parkinson’s law is attributed to Cyril Northcote Parkinson, and appeared in an essay he published in The Economist in 1955. It states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, and is sometimes applied to the effects of excessive levels of bureaucracy in organisations.

It seems to make sense in terms of human nature that this effect would exist. As more time is made available for a project it is tempting to involve more people in the process. This might be because a project with a long timeframe could be seen as more important, and therefore justifies more planning, whether that is really necessary or not. Or maybe it is just because of a general attitude of complacency where there might be the idea that plenty of time is available so why not involve other, possibly unnecessary, people.

Hofstadter’s law

Finally, I want to discuss Hofstadter’s law, which overlaps with some of the others I have already listed. This adage, coined by Douglas Hofstadter in his book “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” describes the widely experienced difficulty of accurately estimating the time it will take to complete tasks of substantial complexity, and states “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

The clever bit is, or course, the fact that the law refers to itself, and says that even knowing it exists doesn’t help to avoid it. So when a time estimate is made for completion of a project the person involved might think it will take a month, but knowing Hofstadter’s law, revises that to 2 months to compensate. Of course, in reality it takes 4 months!

I have been the victim of this on almost every occasion I have started a significant software project. I think a lot of this problem happens after the estimate is made, and it might be caused by both the ninety-ninety rule (the last small part of the project unexpectedly takes much longer than the first theoretically bigger part) and Parkinson’s law (the work expands to fill the time available).

So those are a few of the best laws I found. There were many others as well, which I discovered as I took related links to new pages, so maybe those might be a good subject for future posts. In fact, there is one in particular which I really liked and might deserve a whole post on its own, but that might take a bit of time to research: probably about a day, oh wait, I forgot about Hofstadter’s law, that’s 2 days… no four!