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.

Australian Fires News

A few weeks back the sky here in New Zealand was coloured an ominous dull yellow by the smoke from the bush fires in Australia, two thousand kilometers away. The lack of light and general eerie feeling was almost apocalyptic, and the end of the world – brought about by climate change – seemed like a real thing.

But since then the smoke has gone from this area, although the fires are unfortunately continuing unabated back in Australia. So, if you ignore the news and some social media, you wouldn’t even be aware that anything is happening.

But even if you did follow the news, you might be somewhat mislead about the phenomenon. A younger person I talked to the other day told me “Australia is on fire”. I said, it is certainly bad, but saying Australia is on fire is a bit of an exaggeration. She told me the fires covered at least half of Australia, according to reliable maps she had seen.

I was skeptical, and said that, as far as I knew, only a few percent of the continent was directly affected. I’m not trying to minimise how serious the fires are, I just want the facts. So I did some research today to find out exactly how much of Australia is affected by the fires.

I found the area affected from the BBC. I used that because that company takes climate change very seriously and was likely to overestimate rather than minimise the problem. So this number was likely to be the worst case, and it was also at a point of time (8 January) and the fires are still burning, so it will get worse, but those caveats aside, the number is 10.7 million hectares.

Then I looked up the total land area of Australia, which is a well established and uncontroversial number, and is 7,682,300 square kilometers. A hectare is 100 x 100 meters and a square kilometer is 1000 x 1000 (you’ve got to love the metric system) so the area of Australia in hectares is 100 times the area in square kilometers, or 768,230,000.

Do the division and it turns out that about 1.4% of Australia has been affected. That’s not what is burning now, it’s what has been affected during the whole period of the fires existing this season. I’m not saying that it’s all OK, because just over 1% doesn’t sound like a lot, but I am saying that the common perception, encouraged by misleading maps, is overly dramatic.

There are other controversies associated with the fires too. The first is the connection to global warming. Many people point out that the fires started as a result of conventional events, such as lightning strikes, accidents, and arson, and that these have nothing to do with climate change. Well fair enough, that is true, but the conditions which lead to the fires being worse than usual have been exacerbated by the climate. To pretend that climate change isn’t a major factor in the magnitude of the fires is delusional.

Another controversy involves the claim that regular clearing of excess trees and undergrowth has been neglected, and that if regular controlled burning had been allowed the fires might have been able to be controlled. Additionally environmentalists, and especially the Australian Green Party, are blamed for this lack of clearing, because they see it as unnecessary destruction of native forests.

This claim is a bit more difficult to evaluate. There is still some clearing going on, but not as much as in the past. That might be because of pressure from environmentalists, or it might be due to budget cuts by the current government, or it might be because controlled burns are far more dangerous to perform now than in the past. Most likely there is some contribution from all of these factors.

Some people have partaken in a certain amount of schadenfreude at Australia’s expense, because of the contribution their coal production makes to CO2 emissions, which in turn has increased the damage from the fires. Australia does produce quite a lot of coal, of which 90% is exported. But the 481 million tonnes produced last year is only 6% of the world total of 7727 million tonnes, and only about a third of global carbon emissions come from coal. So if Australia stopped coal exports now, it would make very little difference to global warming and to the severity of fires.

Finally, I was told that New Zealand’s prime minister had been secretly sending her own money to help the victims of the fire. I could find no reference to this happening, but it might be a story confused with the NZ government sending resources to Australia to help, just like every other government has done in the past. It is possible that the PM has contributed small amounts to various appeals for help, but the majority at least seems to come from the taxes which we all pay.

So 5 minutes of research – all from reputable sites I should emphasise – has showed me the real facts, rather than the propaganda, deliberately misleading stats, conflation of real and imagined events, and outright lies prevalent from the news and social media. It’s not that hard, really. I’m not saying ignore those sources, because most of the time they are roughly correct, but a little bit of extra research from neutral sources sure can change your perspective!

Movies and TV Suck!

Movies and TV are an important part of existence for many people. When new movies are released a lot of people get quite excited about it, and TV series seem to be a highlight of some people’s lives. But when I am asked what I thought of the latest movie or TV series I usually say something like “I didn’t see it because I’m just not interested” or “I saw it and it was rubbish” or “I sort of half watched it on Netflix while surfing the web looking for some technical information, arguing with someone about politics on social media, or reading an article about World War II tanks on Quora”.

The mainstream media seem to spend more time than they should covering “news” about movies and TV, and especially celebrating the lives of the actors and directors who make them, so that might be one reason why these forms of entertainment seem to hold a more important place in society than they really should. But what am I really saying here? Basically, that I can’t be bothered with this stuff and I think a lot of people would be better off if they joined me in my dismissive and apathetic attitude.

So, why am I so negative? Well, there are several reasons. First, watching TV and movies is just so passive. Second, most of the material is very unoriginal, especially what comes from the “sausage factories” like Hollywood and Netflix. And third, the majority of the stories we see are extremely tame, predictable, and (you didn’t think I would get through a post without mentioning this, did you?) politically correct.

I particularly dislike some of the more popular genres today, such as superhero movies. The problem there is that there are generally obvious good and bad characters and the good guys almost always win. This means I know the outcome before it happens, making the whole experience rather mundane, and making me feel like the writer or director is insulting my intelligence. And in these movies, along with others in the fantasy genre, there are no laws of physics to worry about, so the plot often involves the lamest “deus ex machina” contrivances, further making me feel like I’ve been insulted.

The next questions which should be answered regarding this subject are: even if this stuff is as bad as I say, what is the harm; and what should people do instead of watching movies and TV?

To answer the first question: the harm is that people spend a lot of time watching without gaining many benefits. They are wasting time that they could spend doing something more creative or active. And they are influenced in subtle ways to acquire the beliefs and attitudes of the people who made the programs, meaning they are being assimilated into the extremely “woke” culture of the entertainment industry.

And here are my thoughts on the second question: people should do something creative or at least guided by themselves instead of by whatever societal trends might be popular at the time. The best option for me is to create, which I do through writing for this blog, recording podcasts, or building web sites. Of course, there are plenty of other possible creative endeavours too, such as writing or performing music, participating in an inventive hobby, or playing a game or sport.

In fact, computer games are a great alternative to movies, in my opinion. At least they involve some input from the player, so they aren’t completely passive. Actually, maybe I’m not the only one who thinks this way, because computer games are rapidly overtaking movies as an entertainment industry.

But games don’t suit everyone, so what other possibilities would I recommend? I believe YouTube is a better source of material than conventional TV or movies (and these include streaming). YouTube offers a huge variety of material and, while its censorship rules are far from perfect, at least a variety of opinions can be found there. The “Up next” section has some great, unexpected material, so its possible to accidentally find some excellent videos which might never be viewed otherwise. And because a lot of YouTube material comes from “amateur” sources the bias and predictability found in standard TV and movies is often absent.

So the internet offers options whatever your tastes. You can watch the mundane stuff churned out by the conventional sources (and that includes Netflix now) or you can choose something different and more participatory. Of course, you can also do both, because watching inane drivel on mainstream broadcast TV or Netflix isn’t all bad. We should just leave some time for doing more interesting and creative stuff too.

They Think They’re Right

I’d like to tell you about three aspects of human behaviour that I have particularly noticed recently. First, many people like power. They like to control others, and tell them what they can say and do. Second, people like to belong to a group of others who they agree with and who give them support. And third, people like taking on issues which they feel strongly about, and often they like to tell others what to do as a result.

I have often wondered why so many people feel so strongly about various social issues, which don’t really affect them personally, and may not even be a particularly big problem to those who are affected. For example, why do so many people of European descent care (or at least pretend to care) so deeply about the alleged disadvantages of black and indigenous people? And why do so many straight individuals want to make so much effort to support the rights of those in the LGBTQIA+ community? And why do so many men identify as feminists?

It’s possible that there are cases where the person exhibiting this behaviour is totally genuine, but I doubt whether that is very common. I have watched the way these people act, and I think there are other explanations, which maybe even the person involved might not truly be aware of.

As you might have deduced from the introductory paragraph of this post, I think the first two factors explain the third. In other words, people like to participate in social justice issues for two primary reasons: so that they can control others, and so that they can gain recognition and affirmation from their allies in the relevant cause.

There is one further factor which I need to mention at this time, which elevates these groups from annoying to dangerous. That is that they are totally convinced they are right, and that they are “doing the right thing” and that anyone with contrary opinions is inferior in some way; especially that they might be ignorant or evil.

Being convinced you are right is an almost sure way to provoke extreme behaviour. I mean “right” in two different contexts here: first, right in the sense that they think they are correct, that they have some special knowledge that others either have never discovered or refuse to accept; and second, that they are taking the moral stance and that they are right in the sense of being ethically superior.

Anyone who thinks that they are not only factually correct, but also have the proper moral position might be excused for taking a fairly strong stance in supporting their own views. But the problem really arises when we consider the initial assumptions that they are right in the first place – and even if right and wrong, or right and unjust are the proper way to think about many social issues.

We should all be able to think of examples where people might fit the description I have offered here. If you are a leftist you might think of people on the right who want to control women’s right to an abortion, for example; and if you are on the right, you might be thinking of rabid leftist mobs who shut down discussions on gay rights and who have people banned and even fired for offering an opinion on that topic.

So let’s look at the abortion example. Those who support abortion really believe they are right and that a woman should control her own body. But their opposition are equally convinced that they are right because they are protecting an unborn human from being killed. When both sides are so convinced that they understand the facts, and hold the moral high ground it’s not surprising that they find anyone with opposing views problematic, or even reprehensible.

And in this case at least, I think that both sides can make a good argument supporting their views. All other things being equal, a woman should control her own body. And in the most simple case, killing an unborn child is an immoral action. But note that I qualified both of those points, because both arguments are superficial and are only valid in their simplest form.

Because a woman can control her body, but in the case of abortion a second body is involved, which she doesn’t have the right to control completely. And terminating a pregnancy is the most moral action in many cases, such as where the mother’s life is credibly threatened by the pregnancy. So both groups, who are totally convinced they hold both the correct and the moral view, are wrong.

But, in this case, am I falling onto the same trap by saying that I know the truth and have the most moral perspective? Well, no. I am pointing out the nuance in both sides of the argument and showing how neither extreme view is correct or moral.

By doing that I am not going to exert any control over anyone. I’m not saying that abortion should be legal or illegal; I’m saying that there are situations where both views have merit, but more importantly, that neither is a good perspective to take. And I’m not going to get a lot of support from other people holding the same position as I do, because they aren’t the types to indulge in that sort of behaviour. It’s generally only people with more well-defined views who build communities around those views.

In fact, in the rare cases where I do get positive feedback for my position I feel almost embarrassed. I don’t comment on contentious issues to try to control people, or to indulge in the cordial sociability of being in the in-group. And I definitely don’t feel completely confident that I am right. It’s more fun debating subjects I am less certain about. That’s why I am constantly reviewing my thoughts on so many different subjects.

Except free speech. I’m moderately convinced that I am right about that one. Why? Because that is the basis for all other discussions. We need free speech to allow reasoned discussions on every other topic. It is a sort of meta-phenomenon: an undertaking which allows progress to be made on other subjects. So, in that context I do want to control others, I don’t mind if I get support from others with the same belief, and I think I am right. Hey, no one’s perfect!

Get Some Perspective!

The world seems to be getting more out of touch with reality with each passing day. Specifically, by that I mean, more people seem to be becoming more outraged by less. You might think that isn’t a big problem, because it’s easy to ignore these phenomena and just get on with life, but I don’t think it is that easy, because the more time which is wasted on trivial stuff the less time remains for subjects which are more consequential. And there is a constant danger for anyone offering certain types of opinions to find themselves dragged into a time wasting controversy over that opinion.

Let me give a few examples of this effect…

Recently, my local newspaper published a cartoon which referenced the measles epidemic in Samoa. The cartoon showed two women leaving a travel agency and the caption was this: “I asked, ‘what are the least most popular spots at the moment?’ She said, ‘the ones people are picking up in Samoa’.”

So the text was a play on words, where the word “spot” has a double meaning (a place you might holiday in, and a mark on the skin caused by measles). Is it a particularly funny joke? Well, no. Is it an example of brilliant satire, or deeply meaningful political commentary? Again, no. Is it insulting, vicious, or an attack against any part of society? Of course not.

Yet this cartoon lead to a noisy protest outside the newspaper’s office, an official apology by the editor, an inquiry into the selection process for cartoons, the suspension of that cartoonist being able to publish work, and a nation-wide sense of outrage, including a “news item” on the subject leading the TV news that day!

You know, there’s only one word for this: pathetic. Even if the cartoon crossed the line into bad taste, so what? The cartoonist is well known for pushing the boundaries, and it’s inevitable in that case that sometimes he might go too far. Whether he went too far this time is debatable. I personally don’t think so, but even if he did, was the reaction in proportion to the “crime”? If you think so, then I believe you really need to re-examine your sense of proportion!

I spent quite a lot of time that day debating with people about the cartoon and the reaction to it, and a lot of other people also spent a disproportionate amount ot time talking about it. But, instead of debating something so utterly trivial, why were we not holding the Samoan government to account over their failure to implement an effective vaccination program? And why were we not asking why the victims (or, in most cases, the parents of the child victims) of this disease were often against vaccination and often preferred traditional natural “cures” (which are ineffective) instead?

To be fair, that has happened to some extent since the cartoon furore finally calmed down, but even then it seems that there is less condemnation over those failures than there was over a harmless cartoon.

There’s another example, which happened a few months back, which I was just reminded of today. Well known astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, tweeted this after a weekend where there were two mass shooting in the US: “In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose… 500 to Medical errors, 300 to the Flu, 250 to Suicide, 200 to Car Accidents, 40 to Homicide via Handgun. Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”

The numbers are difficult to establish with any certainty, but they do seem roughly correct, so any debate over this isn’t a matter of whether it is factual. But Tyson was slammed on social media and eventually issued an apology. Here’s a widely quoted reaction: “Smash Mouth: F OFF!!!! There’s your data!!!!” (the full word was used, not just “F”, but I try to avoid “offensive” words in this blog, which is sort of strange, now that I think about it!)

Notice that the reaction isn’t really a reaction at all, it’s just mindless cursing. I presume other people made more coherent criticisms of the tweet, but why? First, he acknowledged the mass shootings were bad when he said “the USA horrifically lost 34 people”. Then he quoted some facts which were relevant to his point. Then he made a comment which is an interesting basis for discussion.

So I think he did make a good point. People do have an unreasonable fear of shootings in the US, even though they are far more likely to be the victim of other forms of harm. Of course, mass shootings are a terrible thing, and we should be aware of them, but how aware? Well, it’s not going to be easy to know what the most sensible way to react is if we can’t even talk about it!

And here’s another point I should make: those same people criticising Tyson – who were primarily leftist social justice warriors – criticise others for paying too much attention to terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. That form of mass murder is conveniently minimised, and the motivation and relevance freely discussed, but apparently applying the same standards to events not inspired by Islam is put into a different category.

My final example happened just today. Apparently some minor celebrity (who featured on a TV reality show called “Married at First Sight”, so he really is minor) posted an Instagram selfie with the caption “I might want some Airpods”. His “crime” was setting his location to White Island, the location of a volcanic eruption which resulted in several deaths that same day.

Again, social media went crazy, and the “news” even leaked into mainstream media. It’s barely possible to believe, but this seems even more pathetic than the cartoon example above!

What is wrong with people? Are they really so utterly fragile that they cannot handle anything which looks like it has even a peripheral relevance to some unfortunate event? Are we all supposed to react the same way, with fake comments involving “thoughts and prayers” or “deep sorrow of all people” or other inanities which seem to be part of a script? Do people not see through this extreme sense of concern? Is it not obviously just a way to virtue signal to your followers?

It would be a very sad world if everyone reacted the same way to traumatic events. I welcome alternative views, even if I disagree with them. Surely a range of different perspectives is valuable in these cases. Yet, if anyone dares to transgress against the politically correct standards established by the self-appointed arbiters of good taste, they are bullied until they apologise, are fired, or suffer other forms of social vilification.

There are many things wrong with the world today, and we should be discussing these problems in a mature and candid way. If the only way we are allowed to refer to disasters is to ramble on about how sad it is, and make the same fatuous comments we have all heard a dozen times before then what’s the point? We could just design a program to choose a few random phrases like “words can’t describe how sad we feel about this whole disaster” or “I can’t believe these atrocities keeps happening. Our thoughts and prayers to those affected”, or “we need to make sure this won’t happen again”.

But you know what? Unless we can discuss these things freely, they probably will happen again. Everyone should choose their battles, and listen to alternative views, even when they aren’t PC – in fact especially when they’re not PC. And please ignore cartoons and social media posts – try to get some perspective!

The Wisdom of Age

From “OK, Boomer” to “pale, male, and stale” to “how dare you?”, there seems to be a lot of bigotry aimed at older people today. Of course, it is also aimed at white people, and males in particular, but on this occasion I want to concentrate on the ageism we regularly see demonstrated today.

Before I am accused of being one of those extremely privileged people who still complains about the exact thing I criticise other people for complaining about, I do want to say that I’m not really doing that. I think people should be free to say that older people’s opinions are invalid, or should be ignored, or whatever else they might want to say, just like I want the opportunity to challenge social justice warriors in a similar way. But I do think that I have the right to answer those comments, and to point out where they are wrong.

But are they wrong? Well, it actually goes beyond mere wrongness. You might say they are not even valid enough to be wrong, because these arguments are so superficial and meaningless that they are neither right nor wrong… they are nothing. If I offer an opinion on a controversial subject, like free speech or abortion, and my thoughts are rejected through a comment like “oh, you’re just an old white guy, you can’t comment on that”, then is that an effective riposte to my thoughts? I don’t think so. We haven’t actually learned anything from that response because it isn’t a counter to anything I have said – it’s just irrelevant.

If a young person had made the same comment as I did – and that is possible, because some younger people do share my views – what would the response have been then? It would need to be something different, which shows the person isn’t really honestly answering the actual point; instead they are offering a meaningless ad hominem, which many would say is the most basic type of logical fallacy.

So I think it is clear that those types of responses are worse than no response at all. The fact that the person has to resort to an attack on the person, rather than the point that person is making, to me shows how weak their opinions really are. At least if they had remained silent we might generously assume they have real arguments, but the personal attack suggests maybe they don’t, because if they did wouldn’t they have used them?

So I think it is clear that attacking a person based on their age instead of trying to counter their ideas is grossly lazy and intellectually dishonest. So the next question might be, do older people’s opinions make sense; are they relevant; and are they applicable to the current time, or are they out of date?

As an older person myself – having just celebrated my 60th birthday – I unsurprisingly am going to say they are relevant. In fact, I think older people have more wisdom from the experience they have gained over their lives, and might be less susceptible to group thought – in other words they are far less likely to base their beliefs on what is currently trendy, and more likely to think for themselves.

There is a well-known phenomenon where people in their teens and twenties do put a lot of effort into fitting in with their peers, so after growing out of that tendency a person’s thoughts are more likely to be their own. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are more likely to be right, but it is a factor to consider when you see younger people all parroting the same platitudes.

Numerous studies show that older people have better judgement and make better decisions, based on the lessons they have learned during their life. This compensates for a reduced ability to learn new information – in fact it exceeds it and means older people actually have an advantage. It also just makes intuitive sense that an older person will have had time to consider more ideas and will have a far greater sense of nuance than someone who is younger. Of course, this is just on average and I’m sure there are some every wise younger people, and some ignorant and unreasonable older ones.

In my own case, I know that I have a more subtle and reasonable view on the world than I used to, and I am certain that I am less affected by what my friends and colleagues think, and that most of my views have come from personal experience and thought. My blog goes back almost 17 years and a reading of that demonstrates this principle quite well. I have definitely drifted towards being more conservative, but I also recognise the good and bad aspects of every political philosophy far more than I did in the past.

And that is an interesting point: as people get older, they often do become more conservative. Why is that? Some might say it is because older people are less able to accept new ideas and want to return to the past. Others might say that they gain advantages from the system staying the same, so their selfish response is to resist change. But I think it is because of a more reasoned and nuanced approach. I have better understood the role that conservatives play in society recently. I also understand the role liberals play. So it’s not so much that I am a conservative, it’s that I am rational and can see the good and bad aspects of both political views.

And I really think it is a simplistic, dogmatic view that the younger people have which leads them to favour more radical ideas and to reject those which have already been proved to work. Of course, we should welcome change when it can be clearly shown to be advantageous, but change for the sake of change is generally not a good strategy.

Finally, don’t assume that this means that older people are more boring. In fact, you could make a case to say that it is the others, who jump on every new fad with the predictability of mindless automatons, who are really boring. I can still engage in a political rant like the best of them! But I just do it a bit less often now, and am self-aware enough to know that my rant is fairly humorous, because I don’t take myself too seriously any more.

So, it’s not so much that I have changed my mind on most issues, it’s more that I can now see both sides. For example, I still think democracy is a deeply flawed system, but it has many good points too, and those shouldn’t be ignored. Similarly for capitalism: it has caused a lot of harm, but a very good case could be made to say that it has resulted in a lot of good too, and states practicing more pure forms of socialism have been an obvious failure in every case (at least, as far as I am aware). And political figures I don’t like aren’t automatically wrong about everything. I have doubts about Donald Trump’s presidency, but I think the Trump bashers are often wrong, and I admit when he does something good. The same applies to our PM, who I don’t like as a person, but I am prepared to admit that some things her government have done have been quite beneficial.

These attitudes might sound just like common sense, and you might ask what’s the big deal. Well, here’s the deal: they are common sense, and that is exactly my point, because many people don’t use common sense in forming their opinions, they are too swayed by popular trends and dogma.

And maybe I was in the past too, but not any more. I am now enjoying the wisdom of age!

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!