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Posts Tagged ‘management’

The Inverse Square Law

June 20, 2018 Leave a comment

The inverse square law is well known in physics. It states that some physical quantity becomes less strong at a rate relative to the square of the distance to the source. For example, if one planet is twice as far from the Sun as another, the gravity of the Sun won’t be half as strong, it will just be a quarter as strong, because a quarter is a half squared.

And the same applies to the light from the Sun. If one planet gets 1 unit of light, then another planet 10 times closer won’t get 10 times as much light, it will get 100 times as much, because the difference in distance is a factor of 10, and the difference in light is 10 squared, which is 100.

Basically it means that as the defining number (in this case distance) gets higher, the resulting number (gravity, light, etc) doesn’t just get lower, it gets much lower.

Of course, this blog post is not a lesson about physics, it is a rant about modern society. By the way, if any of my readers would prefer a lesson about physics please leave a comment because I know my basic physics fairly well!

Anyway, to get back to the inverse square law in relation to society. I always think of it in relation to large organisations and why they are so hopelessly inefficient.

If one person is responsible for getting a job done there is a good chance that it will happen fairly quickly and reliably. But add another and suddenly misunderstanding, miscommunications, poor relationships, and poor procedures suddenly become an issue.

Add another person and the total sources of issues increases exponentially. Imagine the two people situation (let’s call them A and B), then A could interact poorly with B or vice versa. There are just 2 sources of problems. But with 3 (A, B, and C) A could have issues with B or C, B could have them with A or C, and C could have them with A or B, additionally A could have issues with C via B, etc. The total chance of poor communication becomes high very quickly.

Now imagine an organisation where 50 or 100 people interact!

Yes, it’s not surprising that large organisations rarely work efficiently, is it?

In fact, this is far worse than an inverse square law because the number of interactions between a certain number (and therefore the potential confusion and inefficiency) is related to a factorial law, not a squared law. So a squared law would say that 10 people are 100 time as confused as one but a factorial law would say they are 3.6 million times as confused!

Of course, I’m not really saying that there is a simple mathematical law describing human behaviour in groups, I’m just saying the general principle applies in a general qualitative way instead of an exact quantitative one.

Now it’s time for an example. We haven’t heard from my friend Fred (not his real name) for a while, but just to remind you, he works in a large organisation in a similar role to me, so I sometimes identimes identify with his difficulties. Anyway, here’s the story…

A staff member needed help with a technical issue (I need to be vague here to avoid any repercussions to Fred or his employer). The staff member called the helpdesk which, after confusing the client with irrelevant questions, logged a call which went to a coordinator. That person forwarded it to someone they thought specialised in that area but that turned out to be the wrong person so they sent it back to the coordinator who then forwarded it to Fred.

Fred received the request and tried to contact the client, who was away and not answering their phone. He left a message in the system which the client didn’t notice, because the system is horrible to use and totally user-unfriendly. Fred got on with other work while he waited for a response from the client.

After about a week the client called the helpdesk again for an update and the request was sent to Fred (they got the right person this time). Again Fred could not contact the person but he left a voice-mail message, instead of using the system, which the client replied to the next day.

So Fred asked about the problem which turned out to be quite different from what was recorded in the system. Once he figured out the real problem he organised a time to visit the client. Unfortunately they didn’t have any time until the next week, but then Fred did meet the client, and figured out what needed to be done.

It turned out the client had to get her HOD to organise the required service, but because of her limited technical skills she asked for the wrong thing and the HOD sent the wrong information to the helpdesk. A request was sent to another support person who eventually figured out Fred was involved and sent it to him instead.

Fred corrected the information and re-submitted the request. When the helpdesk person received it they cancelled it because they thought it was a duplicate of the previous request which had just been corrected. So the wrong service was supplied, or at least the right service with the wrong settings.

After a while the client asked for another update from the helpdesk who gave the wrong information on how to fix it. When this didn’t work another request was sent and luckily the client mentioned Fred this time so the request ended up with him.

Fred visited the helpdesk staff in person and figured out who had made the error, which he then asked to be corrected. That went to the admins who ran that service and they assigned it to a technician who eventually got the service working properly. They noted this in the system. Unfortunately Fred was busy and missed the notification that the change was done.

So the client called for another update which went to Fred (they were getting used to who was coordinating it by now) and he organised another visit to undo all the wrong stuff which had been done after the first attempt, and to set up things correctly.

The total span of time was about a month and about 10 different people were involved. The client had to delay their work for that period because the service they needed wasn’t available. I cannot imagine what the total cost to the organisation was, but it could easily have been tens of thousands of dollars.

And do you know how long it would have taken if the client had been allowed to contact Fred directly, because he had an established working relationship with the client, and if Fred had been allowed to make the small change to settings to the system that was required? Fred estimates it would have taken about 5 minutes.

And this is the inverse square law in action: involving 10 people instead of one means it takes 100 times as long. A month is about 40,000 minutes. Fred estimated 5 minutes, so in fact it was a lot worse than the inverse square law, although I do have to admit this was an unusually dysfunctional interaction. On average, and allowing for somewhat more efficient examples, the inverse square is probably not too far off.

But if our systems are so obviously inefficient why doesn’t somebody create something better? Well first, I have to say that not every system run by a large organisation is as bad as what I have portrayed here, although they are all fairly bad. And sometimes the people involved in the day to day running these systems are not particularly skilled, or well-trained, or motivated, usually because they are not paid very well and not treated with much respect.

But the real problem in most cases is that the people who design these systems are idiots. They are the failures in life who can’t do anything except become managers. They have no ideas themselves and are not prepared to listen to those who do. Instead they just regurgitate what they see in a management magazine or what they learned in their MBA course. In other words: mediocrity and ignorance begets more mediocrity and ignorance.

Corporate processes tend to go through phases. Managers just latch on to the latest fad and blindly follow it. Eventually the pendulum might swing back to more sensible systems again, but who knows how long that might take. Until then we are all victims of the inverse square law!

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A Jury of Citizens

May 28, 2018 Leave a comment

In the past I have supported the idea of direct democracy, but critics claim the idea is unworkable and would result in poor decisions because of the lack of experience and skills of the “average person”.

I often respond to this by saying that, even if the people make a bad decision at least it is a decision they can own, and they should have the freedom to make bad decisions if they want to. Additionally, many elected representatives also make bad decisions so would we be any worse off anyway?

A recent podcast I listened to was quite pertinent to this issue, I think. It described a research project involving a “citizens’ jury”. This involves a group of people, selected at random, and asked to decide on a contentious issue after hearing information from experts.

The issue on this occasion was the law on voluntary euthanasia, specifically whether there should a law change to legalise “assisted dying”. In the past similar juries were asked to consider the age at which breast screening should start, and whether identifiable medical data should be available for medicine safety research.

In the breast screening example, people were asked whether the age the screening started at should be 40 or 50. The experts supported 50, and the advocates favoured 40. You might ask why not start at the earlier age, because that would detect a few cases which might be missed otherwise, and this is exactly what the all woman jury thought initially.

But after the experts revealed some points against the younger age – such as the increased risk of false positives, and the extra cost which might be better spent elsewhere – all the women on the jury, except one, changed their mind and supported the older age.

While all this happened the government decided on a compromise of 45, but if the jury had made the decision instead the superior option of 50 would have been chosen. The age of 45 has stayed the same for many years since, and I have to wonder how many extra lives could have been saved if that 5 years worth of wasted money could have been spent on other health-prevention measures.

There are some important factors here: first, the jury was made up of individuals from the affected group (women); second, they changed their minds after hearing the expert evidence (apart from one, and there is always likely to be a few unaffected by facts); third, the decision was reached after three days, instead of months or years; and finally, they made the right decision, instead of choosing the easy option or making an unnecessary compromise.

As far as I can see from my limited knowledge the citizen jury worked far better than the government did, in this case.

The next example asked the jury to consider the issue of whether it should be legal to use identifiable medical data for research into the effectiveness and safety of medicines. At the time it was up to ethics committees to decide whether the data could be used, but they were uncomfortable with that role.

Again, there was an obvious answer which the majority believed before the exercise: that was that privacy should take priority and the data should not be made available. But after hearing the experts’ information on the subject everyone changed their mind and decided that the use of the records should be allowed.

And again, the right decision was made, because the small chance of leaked data after the safeguards were put in place, was outweighed by the huge potential public good.

The final example was the most recent one, and the one that was the main subject of the podcast. It was: is legal voluntary euthanasia OK? Clearly this is a very emotional, difficult, and controversial subject, and one where there might not be a right or wrong answer.

Of the 15 people chosen, initially most were in favour of the change to allow euthanasia, and only 1 was strongly against it. After hearing the evidence from experts this changed somewhat to 10 in favour and 5 against.

I do have to say that the reasons in this case might have been less logical than the others. For example, one person said that they rejected the law change because once euthanasia was allowable for terminally ill people who were fully informed and in sound mind, then in future it was likely this would be extended to making euthanasia available for the disabled without their full consent.

This is the classic “thin end of the wedge” or “slippery slope” fallacy, and while it isn’t impossible, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use it as a reason to reject a carefully controlled law which would never be triggered for a disabled person.

But even in this situation the process was relatively brief, well considered, respectful, and uncompromised. In this case no one was right or wrong, so it’s impossible to say if the “right” conclusion was reached (just for the record, I strongly believe euthanasia is an option everyone should have). The more important factor is that everyone saw both sides of the story and generally had good reasons for their conclusions

So it seems to me that “normal” people can make good decisions. Maybe decisions should be made this way based on random selections of citizens who are given brief (a few days) background information on all aspects of a topic under consideration. Maybe that is the answer to the “leader problem” I often discuss (that is that leaders rarely make decisions which are genuinely good for the people they lead).

Hey, it’s worth a try!

Goddamn Sucks!

April 29, 2018 Leave a comment

There are many conspiracy theories which attempt to explain the behaviour of big corporations. Some particular favourite victims of these theories are pharmaceutical companies and chemical companies, especially Monsanto.

But how true are these theories? Do big corporations really indulge in all the dirty tricks we hear about? Do they encourage the use of their products even though better ones exist? Do they use the legal system to lock people into using their products? Do they market products even though they know they are dangerous or ineffective? Do they use genetic engineering and other technology to force the use of their products? Do they gain patents on technology they have no real right to, then ramp up the prices after creating a monopoly?

Well, yes. I’m absolutely sure all of these things, and probably many others I haven’t even been devious enough to think of, happen quite often.

So does this mean we should stop using products made by these corporations? Or should the governments of the countries they are based in (mainly the US and Europe) use legislation to control them? Or should they just be shut-down completely?

Well, no. I am no defender of the current economic system, but until we come up with something better we should accept the bad with the good. Because there are many good products which have been created by corporations. For example, despite the plethora of bad publicity, Roundup is actually a really effective, and relatively safe product. Is Monsanto a well behaved and moral company? Hell, no! It is most likely guilty of most of the “crimes” I listed above.

But Roundup (and other glyphosate-based herbicides which have appeared since the patent expired in 2000) are useful products. Many of the claims against it: that it causes cancer, that crops genetically modified to resist glyphosate have a terminator gene to prevent farmers re-sowing them, etc, are not supported by good evidence. So Monsanto might be “evil”, but not as evil as that!

What about pharmaceutical companies? Well, many people prefer to take “natural” remedies instead of synthesised medicines because they are natural and therefore safer, and because they provide a way to escape the influence of the big corporations who manufacture the conventional drugs.

Except they are failing on both counts. Here are the facts: first, the vast majority of natural remedies don’t work, or at least there is little or no evidence to show that they do work; second, many natural remedies can have serious detrimental effects if they aren’t used carefully; third, many natural remedies either don’t contain the active ingredients they say the do, or they are in much different concentrations, or they contain potentially dangerous contaminants; finally, most of the natural supplements and remedies are made by big corporations, usually the same ones who make the conventional drugs!

So it makes a lot more sense to just accept the negative aspects of the pharmaceutical industry and make use of the fact that they produce many useful products which have been carefully tested and contain exactly what they say they do, in the concentrations they state, unlike many of the natural alternatives.

Despite what I have said so far, I do think large corporations need to be controlled far more than they are now. The free market does not provide good incentives for corporations to develop the drugs the world really needs, nor does it encourage fair pricing and good competitive behaviour.

Drug companies spend a lot of money on frivolous products which are not really necessary but can be sold for good profits, while ignoring important research on new antibiotics, for example.

How do I know this sort of behaviour exists? Well, recently investment and banking company Goldman Sachs produced a report of their clients in the biotech industry. One of the questions they asked was: “is curing patients a sustainable business model?”

Basically they were noting that a drug which cures a disease permanently does not result in a recurring revenue stream for the company from that product. Drugs which treat but don’t cure diseases, and might need to be taken for the rest of the patient’s life, are far more profitable.

Specifically they noted that a new hepatitis C cure will make less than $4 billion this year. They also noted that new gene therapies – which many people might think are an exciting new development – might lead to curing patients, but is this a sustainable business model? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no”.

Would a normal, profit-based company work to develop new cures where they could make far more from treatments, or even supplements which do nothing and are subject to very little scrutiny of quality and efficacy? That seems unlikely.

Journalists have contacted Goldman Sachs for comment, but while they confirmed the content of the report, they declined to comment.

So it seems that the “evil” corporations really exist. It also seems that taking “natural” supplements instead of conventional medicines is probably the worst thing you could do if you want to thwart their evil ambitions. So what should we do instead?

Well, there’s not an awful lot you can do really, because our whole society is built around capitalism, and capitalism specifically rewards this “evil” behaviour. Capitalism is all about maximising profit at any cost. How often do we hear the platitude “that’s just business” after a person or company has done something of a highly doubtful moral standard?

But within the system – which many people say is the best of all possible systems – this isn’t actually bad at all, which is why I always put the word “evil” in quotes. If capitalism leads to the greatest efficiency, the greatest reward for hard work, and the greatest prosperity for the majority, then any perceived evil is invalid. Of course, it has become increasingly clear that the trickle-down theory doesn’t work, and that capitalism has many flaws, but whether any other system is better is open to debate.

My usual recommendation at this point is to keep capitalism but control it carefully, and that conclusion hasn’t changed. I think the word “evil” can genuinely be applied to many aspects of capitalism, and that tendency must be carefully controlled. In particular we need to understand that the free market will never provide for the most important needs of society. For that we need people motivated by something other than greed. Universities do that quite well, but we need to be careful not to apply the same “evil” incentives to them.

What we can do is try to change the zeitgeist. It should *not* be OK to have greed as your primary focus. Greed is *not* good. If you want to change society then change as many people’s opinion on this topic as you can. Show them that capitalism is evil, but try to keep it real.

The alternative is not communism or some happy but impossible utopia – it is, at least as a first step, capitalism with its worst excesses – those espoused by companies like Goldman Sachs – eliminated. In fact, let’s eradicate companies like Goldman Sachs who are responsible for the evil side of capitalism. They should have no place in any decent society.

Goldman Sachs? Should be Goddamn Sucks!

The End of an Error

March 10, 2018 Leave a comment

About 4 years ago my wife decided she would leave teaching (mainly because the school she taught at was managed by a bunch of incompetents, and the roll had reduced so much that some of the teachers were made redundant) and open a business of her own, in this case a cafe. Now, anyone who has been involved in owning or managing a cafe at this point is probably already thinking “bad idea”, and in many ways they would be right.

Why? Because it seems to be almost impossible to make any money from that kind of business, plus for the privilege of making little, if any money, the owner/manager has to work 12 hours a day – starting at 5 in the morning – 6 days a week.

But that’s not the worst of it either, because maybe an even more overwhelmingly soul-sapping aspect of owning a small business is the excess of mindless bureaucracy involved which results in very little of any value.

Of course, Inland Revenue is probably the worst offender, closely followed by other organisations like the local City Council. Then there are a collection of lesser parasites like insurance agents, body corporates, various health and safety organisations, lawyers, business experts, and advertisers.

I have a “real” job but also helped with running the cafe, especially with administration and accounting. Yes, you read that right: I helped with the tasks I most despise. While I felt as if most of them were a waste of time, at least I did gain a few skills in that area – but skills I hope I never have to use again!

On the other hand I did learn some more interesting stuff too. For example, at one point I was doing some baking and managed to make some pretty decent batches of scones and muffins. I never quite perfected making consistently good coffee though – that is a lot harder than you might think!

But getting back to the admin tasks. I had some major issues with those, so let me list a few of them here.

First, tax. Now I know that the two most onerous tax activities – GST and PAYE – are not actually costing me anything because I am just collecting tax for the government by adding an extra amount to prices and wages, but I do object to the amount of effort involved in doing that work. If the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) want to collect tax on sales of goods and services and on wages why don’t they do the work and collect the money themselves?

If I took the amount of time people spend on tax gathering activities (on behalf of the IRD) and multiplied by the number of businesses in New Zealand, it must come to a truly horrendous amount of time. How does IRD get away with this travesty of bureaucratic time wasting? Because they can. They can make whatever rules they like – whether they are fair or not – and impose them on whoever they want.

Note that I am not against tax, in fact far from it. It’s not paying the tax that worries me, it is the amount of time a person like myself, who is talented in many areas, wastes on doing IRD’s work for them.

And other government agencies are maybe even worse. We had to collect a payment from one employee, who had been incorrectly paid a benefit, and process the payment for the department involved. If we didn’t do this – even though it was nothing to do with us and had happened before we even employed the person – we would be fined. Again, this is an arbitrary and unfair law which was created simply because it could be.

Then there are the other forms of bureaucracy. The local council’s hygiene regulations are particularly silly. My wife took that very seriously and she maintained high standards, but I know that the inspection is more to do with paperwork being filled in correctly rather than any real measures designed to optimise food safety. I know other cafe owners who had terrible standards but kept the paper work up to date and achieved the top rating as a result.

My advice is to ignore the hygiene rating you see displayed at food premises, because that is just a measure of how well the person does documentation. Instead, have a look around any place you visit and search for signs of neglect.

It might seem to many people that running a small business is a truly worthwhile undertaking. Small businesses employee a lot of people and contribute significantly to the economy. And the government spends a lot of time talking about how important small businesses are, and how they want to encourage people to start one.

But they sure have a strange way of showing their enthusiasm. If they really wanted people to start a small business, why can’t the government and other authorities make the whole process a lot easier?

I’m sure that people running a cafe would rather make use of their talents in areas like baking, cooking, and hospitality instead of wasting hours every week on meaningless paper work. And I’m sure a struggling business where the owner is effectively making less than the minimum wage while working 70 hours a week would appreciate not having to pay provisional taxes on money which hasn’t even been earned yet.

I am contemplating becoming self-employed myself in the near future, but the advantages of being free of the stupidity of ignorant and dogmatic management decisions are at least partly negated by the dread I have of processing GST and other time-wasting accounting.

People might say that spending that time on tax calculations is just part of their “civic duty” as a citizen, but is it really? Would it not be better for the country if people spent their time doing what they’re good at? Why is accounting considered something everyone has to do, or pay an exorbitant fee to some accountant to do for them.

So yes, the end of our cafe means the end of processing payrolls, GST returns, tax payments, employer returns, hygiene certificates, building safety checks, and various other nonsense I can’t even bear to contemplate right now. It’s like the end of an era… or should that be end of an error?

A Better West

March 3, 2018 Leave a comment

In my last blog post I talked about how most economic and social indicators show the superiority of Western civilisation, but I also mentioned that I recognise that it has real problems. Today I want to talk about one of the biggest problems: our work environment.

This seems to be a major flaw in our society because the majority of people feel disillusioned with their work, and because work is still the most important part of many people’s lives, this seems to be an immediate issue which we should be paying attention to.

As I have said in previous posts, there will probably be no need for most people to work at some point in the not too distant future, so the problem might go away then, but no doubt that will introduce a whole pile of new problems as a result. But that aside, what can be done about work dissatisfaction until then?

Before I answer that I should mention another significant issue with modern society: inequality of pay. It is not unusual to find situations where CEOs, and other high ranking position, are paid at a rate which is hundreds of times more than the median rate for the company they are in charge of. I would say this is unjustified because I see no reason to think that most CEOs are doing a lot more than what any reasonably intelligent person could do, but even if it was justified from that perspective, would it be desirable anyway?

Also there are the biggest barriers to people enjoying their work, according to many surveys: lack of autonomy, incompetent and excessively authoritarian management, and micromanagement and unwarranted bureaucracy and paper work. Note that many studies indicate these factors not only prevent people from enjoying their work, but they prevent the organisation working efficiently as well.

Finally, there is a common situation in many companies (and other types of organisations) where the staff are not motivated to put in extra effort to make the company work better, and this is often related to the other points I have made above. If a person is dissatisfied with their work and is being paid poorly, what motivation do they have to put extra effort into their work?

As you will probably have guessed by now: I have an answer for all of these issues.

Every person in an organisation should take ownership of the day to day operations. Yes, I know that word “ownership” is often used as a business bullshit buzz word and has lost most of its meaning as a result, but I am using it here in a more literal sense.

What I propose is that every person’s pay should be made up from a base rate, plus a bonus depending on how well the organisation is doing. That would encourage people to work more enthusiastically because they would be motivated by their own best interests. They would literally have ownership of the organisation and its profits.

And, of course, because jobs will become increasingly unnecessary, people will get the base amount whether they work or not.

Many companies complain that they cannot afford to pay their workers the minimum wage, especially when there is a call to increase that basic amount. This idea would remove that barrier because everyone would get paid according to what the organisation can actually afford. There would be no false stories about how little is available for pay increases, because they would just naturally occur as a result of the company being successful. And if there was a genuine case of hardship that is allowed for as well, because the everyones’ pay will decrease to compensate.

And decisions could be made based on this system as well. No managers would be necessary because all the parties involved in a decision could be part of it. The vote could be biased towards the higher paid members (because they got that pay through being more highly valued), or to those who have worked there the longest, or maybe towards those who have made successful decisions in the past. Of couse, this would be a computerised voting system so all the details would be accounted for automatically.

Note that there are a few of issues which need to be tackled to make this system work.

One difficulty with this idea comes when the organisation might be (perhaps temporarily) running at a loss. Should the staff then have their part of the loss deducted from the base? I think not, but maybe they should have it deducted from future gains, so that no one ever gets less than the base amount.

Second, the financial position of the company needs to be made known to all interested parties, including the employees. The secrecy which surrounds this stuff nowadays is unnecessary and can too easily be used for dishonest purposes, so I think it should be dispensed with anyway.

Additionally, organisations which are not primarily driven by profit, such as charities, government services, etc, would need to find a different way to evaluate their success. And financial success should not be the only measure of success, even for private companies.

Third, there needs to be agreement on what the minimum base is for everyone and what percentage of profits each member of staff gets. I would suggest a vote amongst all members of the staff assigning value to each position.

You might think that everyone will want to give themsleves all the extra pay but I doubt whether that would happen, because people to have an innate sense of fairness, plus they know that id certain key staff leave as a result of low wages the company will fail.

Fourth, how can his fit in with the current model we have where part of the companies profits are distributed to shareholders? Well, I would like to dispense with that aspect of capitalism completely, because I think the people working at the company should be the only shareholders. Obviously this cannot be done too quickly or suddenly but it should be a long-term aim.

Needless to say, these requirements, especially the second one, present a few difficulties, but every system has difficulties, and I think we need to try new ways of managing work, despite the risks involved.

If everyone is part of the same team, and everyone can gain or lose in the same way that should fix, or at least significantly improve, the problems I listed above. It wouldn’t be easy to do, because the current power elite have a lot to lose, but it’s something which must be done.

Trust Experts

January 8, 2018 5 comments

I recently listened to a podcast which discussed the trust (or lack of trust) we have in experts, and how that might have become a more significant issue in recent years. Many people interpret the election of Trump as a rejection of the “elite experts” in society, for example. Trump represents the average person – he was not a politician – but Clinton represented an experienced politician who had spent most of her life as part of the “political machine”, and she was rejected.

Experts which are usually trusted include doctors, scientists, and (dare I mention) computer professionals. In most cases people will trust what these people say. For example, the majority of people go to a doctor and trust the treatment they are recommended. But there are a significant number who don’t have such a high level of trust and prefer to be diagnosed by “Doctor Google” or be treated by a local practitioner of some form of alternative medicine which often has limited credibility (homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, etc).

In general it is best to trust the opinion of experts, and in most cases people do. But everyone has their weaknesses and there might be times when anyone would reject expert opinion or advice. So I started wondering which experts I might have trouble accepting and I think I have thought of a couple.

In fact, anyone who reads this blog should already know the areas of expertise I have the most problems with. The first is management, and the second is economics.

So am I just as bad as the person who ignores the facts presented by experts about global warming? Or am I just like the creationist who ignores the conclusions of experts in biology and evolution? Or am I just another conspiracy theorist who ignores the opinion of experts and thinks the WTC could not have been destroyed by an aircraft collision?

In some ways, yes, but there is one critical difference. Look at the example I gave in paragraph two where some people prefer to trust a homeopath instead of a conventional doctor. Is that person really rejecting expert opinion? Maybe not. Maybe they are accepting the opinion of one expert (the homeopath is presumably an expert in homeopathy) and rejecting that of a different expert (the doctor).

So this isn’t so much a rejection of expertise per se, it is more choosing which expert to accept as better.

And this gets to my three main points regarding trust in experts: first, not all experts are equal; second, not all fields of expertise are equal; and third, even the greatest expert in the most credible field can make mistakes and everyone should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism.

So accepting the expert homeopath’s opinion should be rejected based on point 2, above. That is, while it is true that homeopathy is a field of expertise, it is not one which can be taken seriously because homeopathy has been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be ineffective.

The other points might also have occasions when they are important. For example, there is a geologist (who is presumably an expert) who thinks the Earth is only 6000 years old even though he knows all the evidence shows it isn’t. His opinion is clearly warped by religious faith so, even though he is an expert, he does not have the same status as experts with no bias. And there have been many occasions where the greatest experts failed to assimilate new evidence and rejected new theories which later turned out to be true, so no expert is infallible.

But the main point of this post is to discuss point 2, the fact that some areas of expertise have less validity than others making rejecting opinions of experts in that area more reasonable.

The big problem is trying to establish which areas are trustworthy and which aren’t How would we know? Should we ask an expert? That sort of just gets back to the same problem we had at the start!

I think there are various, fairly unbiased, ways we can evaluate different areas of expertise. These include their philosophical framework (are they based on empiricism, logic, faith, etc), has scientific research on the subject shown it to be viable, and a general evaluation of its practical contribution to society.

So with homeopathy I would say its background is highly questionable. There has been little positive empirical research, there is almost no logic in it, and the whole proposed mechanism for its action is nonsense. And research on homeopathy shows almost no positive results above placebo level which is exactly what we would expect if it was fake. Finally, using homeopathy has some significant negative consequences, including people wasting their money on remedies which don’t work, and using homeopathic remedies instead of real ones which leads to worse health outcomes.

Because of this, I think it is clear that a homeopath, no matter how expert he or she is on the subject, should not be taken seriously because the subject itself lacks any credibility.

But how does this apply to my two areas of skepticism: management and economics?

Well, I would say neither of those are totally based on a firm philosophical basis. I do have to say that some forms of economics, especially behavioural economics which uses a lot of psychology, do have a quite high degree of credibility, but economics in general not so much. And I’m fairly sure there has been a certain amount of empirical research applied to management practices but in general they seem to be uniformly corrupt, both morally and intellectually.

So I think I have some rationale in being doubtful about the opinions of many economists and managers. Sure, they are experts in their respective fields but those fields have limited credibility. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are always wrong and can safely be ignored, but it does mean that the default position should be neutral or even negative rather than being positive as it would be with other experts.

If a doctor recommends a certain treatment I would normally accept that unless I have good reason not to. I might have already tried it without success, or I might think it is bogus in some way for example (some doctors recommend alternative medicine which has poor scientific support).

But it a manager recommends a particular action I would be very doubtful from the beginning. In fact, I would begin with the assumption that it is a bad idea. Of course, I should also try to look at the idea fairly and accept it if it turns out to be the exception to the rule.

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and expertise to research all the knowledge we needed for ourselves, but that is totally impractical, so we do need to trust experts to some extent. And that trust should be moderated by some doubt. And that doubt should be apportioned according to the validity of the field of knowledge under consideration.

Everyone’s estimation of this validity will vary but there should be certain areas which are always out in front and some lagging far behind. Here’s an example of some fields of knowledge rated from highest to lowest: maths, physics, chemistry, biology, climate science, medicine, psychology, general social science, philosophy, economics, business, management, politics, marketing, alternative medicine, mysticism, religion.

Note that I’m not saying the stuff near the end of my list is less valuable or less interesting, just that it is less trustworthy.

In summary: you can trust experts, but trust some a lot more than others!

Is Apple Doomed?

December 20, 2017 5 comments

I’m a big Apple fanboy. As I sit here writing this blog post (flying at 10,000 meters on my way to Auckland, because I always write blog posts when I fly) I am actively using 4 Apple products: a MacBook Pro computer, an iPad Pro tablet, an iPhone 6S Plus smartphone, and an Apple Watch. At home I have many Apple computers, phones, and other devices. I also have one Windows PC but I very rarely use that.

So the general state of Apple’s “empire” is pretty important to me. Many of the skills I have (such as general trouble-shooting, web programming, scripting, configuration, and general software use) could be transferred to Windows, but I just don’t want to. I really like the elegance of Apple’s devices on the surface, combined with the power of Unix in the background.

But despite my enthusiasm for their products I have developed an increasing air of concern with Apple’s direction. There is the indistinct idea that they have stopped innovating to the extent they did in the past. Then there is the observation that the quality control of both hardware and software isn’t what it was. Then there is just a general perception that Apple are getting too greedy by selling products at too high a price and not offering adequate support for the users of their products.

These opinions are nothing new, but what is new is that people who both know a lot about the subject, and would normally be more positive about Apple, are starting to join in the criticism. Sometimes this is through a slight sense of general concern, and other times through quite strident direct criticism.

I would belong to the former class of critics. I think I have noticed an increase in the number of errors Apple is making, at the same time as I notice an apparent general decrease in the overall reliability of their products, and to make matters worse, these are accompanied by what seems to be higher prices.

You will notice I used a lot of qualifiers in the sentence above. I did this deliberately because I have no real data or objective statistics to demonstrate any of these trends. They might not be real because it is very easy to start seeing problems when you look for them, and negative events often “clump” into groups. Sometimes there might be a series of bad things which happen after a long period with no problems, but that doesn’t mean there is any general trend involved.

But now is the time for anecdotes! These don’t mean much, of course, but I want to list a few just to give an idea of where my concern is coming from.

Recently I set up two new Mac laptop computers in a department where there was a certain amount of pressure from management to switch to Microsoft Surface laptops. The Surface has a really poor reputation for reliability and is quite expensive, so it shouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate the superiority of Apple products in this area, right?

Well, no. Wrong, actually. At least in this case. Both laptops had to go for service twice within the first few weeks. I have worked with Apple hardware for decades and have never seen anything remotely as bad as this. And the fact that it was in a situation where Apple was under increased scrutiny didn’t help!

In addition, the laptops had inadequate storage, because even though these are marketed as “pro” devices the basic model still has only 128G of SSD storage. That wasn’t Apple’s fault, because the person doing the purchasing should have got it right, but it didn’t help!

Also recently Apple has suffered from some really embarrassing security flaws. One allowed root access to a Mac without a password, and the other allowed malicious control of automated home-control devices. There were also a few other lesser issues in the same time period. As far as I now none of these were exploited to any great extent, but it is still a bad look.

Another issue which seems to be becoming more prominent recently is their repair and replacement service. In general I have had fairly good service from Apple repair centers, but I have heard of several people who aren’t as happy.

When you buy a premium device at the premium price Apple demands I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect a little bit of extra help if things go wrong. So unless there is clear evidence of fraud, repairs and replacements should be done without the customer having to resort to threats and demands for the intervention of higher levels of staff.

And even if a device only has one year of official warranty (which seems ridiculous to begin with), Apple should offer a similar level of support for a reasonable period without the customer having to resort to quoting consumer law.

Even if Apple wasn’t interested in doing what was morally right they should be able to see that providing superior service for what they claim is a superior product at a superior price is just good business because it maintains a positive relationship with the customer.

My final complaint regards Apple’s design direction. This is critical because whatever else they stand for, surely good design is their primary advantage over the opposition. But some Apple software recently has been obscure at best and incomprehensibly bizarre at worst, and iTunes has become a “gold standard” for cluttered, confusing user interfaces.

When I started programming Macs in the 1980s there was a large section in the programming documentation about user interface design. The rules were really strict, but resulted in consistent and clear software which came from many different developers, including Apple. I don’t do that sort of programming any more but if a similar section exists in current programming manuals there is little sign that people – even Apple themselves – are taking much notice!

So is Apple doomed? Well probably not. They are (by some measures) the world’s biggest, richest, and most innovative company. They are vying with a few others to become the first trillion dollar company. And, in many ways they still define the standard against which all others are judged. For example, every new smart phone which appears on the market is framed by some people as an “iPhone killer”. They never are, but the fact that products aspire to be that, instead of a Samsung or Huawei killer says a lot about the iPhone.

But despite the fact that Apple isn’t likely to disappear in the immediate future, I still think they need to be more aware of their real and perceived weaknesses. If they aren’t there is likely to be an extended period of slow decline and reduced relevance. And a slow slide into mediocrity is, in many ways, worse than a sudden collapse.

So, Tim Cook, if you are reading this blog post (and why wouldn’t you), please take notice. Here’s just one suggestion: when your company releases a new laptop with connections that are unusable without dongles, throw a few in with the computer, and keep the price the same as the model it replaces, and please, try to make them reliable, and if they aren’t, make sure the service and replacement process is quick and easy.

It’s really not that hard to avoid doom.