Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tech: Is a degree worth the paper it's printed on?

Matt Moran at IT Toolbox started a nice little earner :) by arguing against degree qualifications. Did he really argue against going to university? Yes. If people acted on the basis of “your degree is nearly worthless”, nobody would be spending that money and taking time off their valuable productive capacity by skiving for three years.

There are some who argue that any degree is worthwhile, for a number of reasons: the knowledge learnt, to learn how to learn, for the discipline or the work ethic attained. Then others will argue that there’s nothing there that can’t be learnt on the job – and it’s paid.

There’s an element of truth to both perspectives, although I suggest that the greater formalisation and depth of knowledge purveyed at university are hard to beat.

But my focus here is on Information Technology degrees (how many of those graduates do you see behind the counter at MacDonalds?). There’s the argument that IT degrees provide a more structured, comprehensive body of IT knowledge than could be gained on the job over a far longer period. To counter that, there’s the argument that what’s learnt in an IT degree becomes largely redundant in five to ten years.

There’s an element of truth to both those perspectives. There’s times I feel there’s little in my degree that survives, either in the industry or in my brain. Yet there’s other times I think back to the databasing elements for some general principles; even some of the programming elements, despite the fact that my business is business intelligence (and databasing) and I try to avoid telling people I ever do coding.

I know for a dead fact that it was, and still is, easier to get into the industry with a degree. I would say, too, that your chances of progressing – in the early years at least – are better not only when applying for jobs, but also when applying a more structured body of knowledge to your work than could be simply absorbed on the job.

Matt Moran’s simple point is that degrees count for very little; that what counts is ambition and drive.

Hmm. I guess that makes a big whopping difference. If I had sufficient ambition and drive, I might already have run through half a dozen startups, rather than toiling away in a corporate environment.

Then again, all those startups might have been failures, if I didn’t have a) the business nous; b) the business training (aha!); c) the temperament. And my family would be suffering right now. (I think back to an ancestor of mine who, on available evidence, wasn’t particularly successful despite trying his hand at several things, and finally left his family (with promises), to die in the goldfields.

Ambition and drive certainly count for something. I’d argue, though, that that’s a temperament thing, tempered by one’s upbringing. People have it in varying degrees, to varying effect.

At the start of one’s career, an IT degree does make a difference. Later on, you stand or fall on your merits. Some go back to university to pick up what they missed, some don’t want to and some don’t need to. Those that don’t need to have probably got to a point of diminished returns for what they would now get out of it.

I could say to my kids “the one thing you must have is ambition and drive” – but that might not do the trick of itself. I could also say to them “ambition and drive are important for realising your goals – whatever they may be. Get some education. You will get a lot more from it than you think. And an industry-focused degree can put you ahead of the pack. But if you’re temperamentally unsuited just yet, or you reckon you can go it alone, wait a year or two and you’ll find out.”
To many, ambition and drive is the adjunct: it will – or won’t – come naturally. It won’t be taught at universities (but some learn it there anyway…)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

World: Bloody Photons

As one might expect intuitively, the history of physics discovery is like peeling back layers of an onion: there’s another layer beneath, and eventually you have to cry.

Newtonian physics makes sense. But when you hit the 20th century, everything becomes counter-intuitive. That is, it’s susceptible to logic, but within particular, peculiar frameworks, and with peculiar exceptions – especially at the fringes, the very small (subatomic) or very large (close to light speed). The weeping begins when you hit counter-intuitive critical mass.

This discussion was brought about by C’s efforts to analyse photons in a Newtonian framework, and subject it to theoretical situations, such as sub-light travel. But there are limits to what you can do with photons – or, at least, what’s been done with them so far. Maybe if someone slowed down a photon to sub-light speed, they’d also discover time travel. We just don’t know what other frameworks are yet to be discovered; we just know that what we have so far accounts for most phenomena.

Photons, as we know, are discrete quanta of light, ie the smallest indivisible unit quantity when light is treated as a particle (in fact, all electromagnetic radiation exists as photons). They can be created or destroyed by interactions with other particles. Whereas most matter exists at sub-light speeds, and can never reach the speed of light because its mass would increase infinitely, photons are the flipside, which (to my knowledge) exist only at light speeds. They have momentum and energy, yet have no mass. In that respect, Newtonian analysis at sub-light speeds makes about as little sense as speeding up a finite mass to light speed, then analysing it. You can do the analysis, but it doesn’t have meaning (at least in our universe).

Photons are the carrier of electromagnetic force, one of the fundamental forces of nature. (Along with gravitational, it is a long-range force; the other two, strong and weak nuclear forces, act only within an atomic nucleus.) A photon’s energy is calculated somewhat differently from sub-light physics:
E = hu
Where h is Planck’s constant and u is the frequency of the light (more correctly, of the radiation). This is the photon equivalent of
E = m c(squared)
Here, an object with greater mass has greater energy; with photons, one with a higher electromagnetic frequency has greater energy.

So, the framework for photons is such that they:
a) can’t be slowed down to sub-light speeds
b) have no mass, yet have momentum and energy
Although their velocity is always constant, large gravitational forces - such as stars – can affect them in two ways: bending the path of the photon (and thus momentum), and stealing energy – this results in a gravitational redshift effect.

Photons can, of course, be swallowed by black holes, which are massive gravitational forces, where practically nothing can escape. Being photons, they would continue to travel at light speed until engulfed. (Read this for further detail on the interaction of photons and black holes, according to General Relativity theory. In particular, Relativity accounts for the fact that photon paths are deflected more by gravitational fields than could be accounted for by Newtonian physics.)

Of course, all this opens up a number of other questions, for C and others to ponder. I’m happy to field those questions, since I want to understand better myself, and this is a learning process for me.

Lafferty P & Rowe J: The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science, Helicon, Oxford, 1994.
Black Holes (from Astronomy 162 at University of Tennessee):

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Pers: a Very Feeble Discourse on some Lemony books

If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “I warn you right now, there will be spoilers, so read something mundane and tedious, such as “If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “If you were looking for something interesting or wise, you might find it very disappointing to read something mundane and tedious, such as a paragraph that begins “If you have continued this far, you must be quite persistent – or you missed the hidden warning. The Series of Unfortunate Events, by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett), is a strange melange of books. The intended audience is murky, although I’d settle for 8- to 15-year-olds who are persistent. The text is – dare I say? – a schizophrenic mix, alternating between a tedious litany of unpleasant circumstances and a surprisingly inventive “author’s voice” – Lemony Snickett’s, that is – which uses and subverts various literary devices (such as the above) to infiltrate the story. In fact, as we find, it’s not only the author’s voice, but the author’s own narrative gradually infiltrates too, in isolated dribbles that make it unclear how much of that metastory is, indeed part of the protostory. The series has to be treated as a whole: the books are each relatively short, and at first tend to follow a laborious archetype, where the three orphaned Baudalaires find themselves in an impossible, intolerable and tedious predicament, only to extricate themselves in equally impossible fashion. One has to persist through five books of this before the real mystery appears, in The Austere Academy. Thereafter, they are plagued by VFDs of one sort or another, beginning with a job lot of Very Fancy Doilies. Only at the eighth book, The Hostile Hospital, do they even escape the pattern of suffering at the hands of successive, risible guardians, who usually run their own equivalents of salt mines to suffer the children through. However, thereafter the real plot blossoms, a tale of villains, VFDs, schism and arson that finally rewards that cursed persistence. Yet that’s a tad unfair, because the humour, literary devices, and author’s voice do help sustain through the preposterous predicaments. All the signs indicate the series was carefully plotted as a whole – but does it work as a whole? On the one hand, there is a certain vapidity to each book taken in isolation. As if there is little to show for the labouring. And the real plot takes several books to gain momentum; it’s easy to imagine that many people – adults and children – would not have the patience to wade through the earlier episodes. And then, some who did would not find the rewards sufficient. Perhaps it depends how sympathetically the protagonist Baudalaires are received, but I for one get a little weary of the tying up of the ribbon (Violet) and the impossibly useful teeth (Sunny). On the other hand, there are riches to be had for both adults and children. The characters develop – well, Sunny does in particular - and that gradual change is done well. The humour and devices are quite enjoyable, and sometimes particularly ingenious. The lessons learnt are pertinent, such as the perils of trusting what you read in the newspaper, or fighting fire with fire – and often quite subtle, such as the perils of believing someone to be wholly good or wholly bad. Structurally, the series could have been tightened, particularly in the earlier episodes. But while tinkering at the margins may help, I get the feeling it’s possible to defend most aspects of the series as a literary work. Particularly if you regard persistence as a virtue.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Tech: The Dilbert Principle: how to engineer a philosophy backwards

The Dilbert Principle is a book written by Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams. I suspect the reasoning behind the book went something like this. The Dilbert cartoons seem to be saying something about corporate life. How about wrapping that something up in a book, illustrating with examples from the cartoons? The thought could have come from his publisher, himself, or at a party when there was too much alcohol around. Either way.

So he invented a philosophy to encompass a satire of those management how-to fad books. And that philosophy? “No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot”.

Well, he’s a cartoonist, what do you expect?

Still, the book works well on several levels. Best as just a funny book with very funny cartoons. Next, as a satire. Finally, as a serious how-to (or how-not-to) book, I’m sure some people will be assigned it in a misguided effort to teach its principles. It’s not that comprehensive/coherent on that score, but it certainly helps burst a few balloons on management behaviour, and holding it up as a mirror can surely promote some humility amongst those who could do with it.

The milieu is certainly high-tech, but the specifics vacillate with remarkable fluidity, so sometimes Dilbert and colleagues seem to be hardware engineers, sometimes software engineers. Adams actively canvasses for examples of corporate stupidity, which helps explain the incessant parade of stupidity, which nonetheless retains that precarious whiff of verity.

- “We’ve been asked to reduce our budget. I’m going to offer to cut your project because it’s the most critical. The finance guys won’t dare…”
- “Problem: our product development process requires buy-in from managers who’d all be happier if we died. My solution is to created executive oversight groups who don’t understand the issues and don’t have time to meet.”
- “I’m happy to report that the “excellence in teaming” read-out is nearly ready. It’s taken forty people from a dozen departments to complete the study. We finally got buy-in.”

Absurd? Sometimes it doesn’t need to exaggerate to make the point. I suggest a regular dose for executive managers; they have the most to learn from this. If they’re smart enough to pick out the lessons.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Tech: technology going private

Startup companies litter the world of Information Technology. An executive – or a student – has an idea or a product, and forms a company to develop it. The startup needs capital, people and technology. Capital is often the bugbear; however, at the other end of the equation are the venture capitalists, companies (sometimes individuals) formed with the specific intention of investing – often in startup I.T. companies. Despite shuddering memories of the post-2000 tech wreck, there is a lot of money to be made, and VCs are investing more cautiously, knowingly.

I often hear that going public is the crowning achievement for some startups. There’s a few reasons for this, not the least of which is the opportunity for those at ground zero to realise some of their profits. However, past the venture capital phase – which is, after all, provided only as a kick-off to the profit-realisation point – there will remain a need to raise capital, for marketing, growth, and further investment in R & D. And this comes from going public. The boiler-room of capitalism is the stock market of public listed companies. Its strength is the ability to attract capital, distribute profit and thereby attract more capital.

So why do we hear of some companies going private? This article paints a picture of a strong trend, but I think the journalist just needed an angle. Nevertheless, it is happening. The article points out the flipside to the public listing: the market’s voracious demand for profit, and its short attention span. Specifically:
- there is a large industry of financial analysts feeding the market’s demand for information;
- there is an increasing, and increasingly out-of-balance, demand for results in a shorter and shorter time frame.

In effect, quarterly results are heavily scrutinised, and any failings are punished. Yet three months is a very small manouevring space. The point is made that going private can ease that pressure, while a company restructures, re-invests, looks at its belly button. This is, in fact, a battle between managing a company with short-term or long-term vision, and public listing so often cripples long-term vision. [The same can be said for shorter electoral terms crippling a government’s ability to focus on long-term outcomes.]

Successful longterm vision can be promulgated where a company has sufficiently won the confidence of the markets – and the analysts in particular – with either a robust record, robust management, or robust underlying figures. Restructuring undermines this, and a company that can benefit from being turned around outside the constant market spotlight is ripe for taking private.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tech: Outsource to your level of incompetence

Why do we outsource? By we, I mean they, because it's not my bandwagon.

But it’s big talk in the Information Technology industry: there are magazines and websites devoted to it. Yet it first took hold in other industries and sectors - in the 1980s - and I.T. is a relative latecomer. Remember when corporations and government departments were outsourcing cleaning services? Cleaning wasn’t their core business, and who wants to deal with yet another bolshie workforce, where you can just sign a contract with a service provider? (sidestepping the fact that unions are weak and industrial issues are relatively minor in low-skilled industries like cleaning). The contracting company can do it cheaper with a focus on a single area of expertise, a uniform set of inputs and, let’s face it, a new workforce comprising casual workers with fewer rights than permanents.
The key is that where a given service is easily commodified, it is ripe for outsourcing.

With successes under the belt for the paradigm, managers push the envelope – and will keep on pushing until they overstep, like any management fad. Where returns are neutral, it isn’t really failure and, well, it’s an ideological success. Where returns to outsourcing are negative, that’s when heads roll and services are brought back inhouse. That’s certainly happened in I.T. But the failures have to be quite stark for this to happen, as I doubt there are many full – and honest and independent – cost-benefit analyses done.

Which brings me to India again. Ahh, India. Where the workforce isn’t bolshie – they’re hungry. They’re increasingly skilled, too, which widens the eyes of executives with a sackful of toy fads. If they’re familiar with the technology you’re using, and you can commodify your requirements (a support task here, a project here and a project there), and the labour is much cheaper, and they speak English!, it’s quite tempting.

Anecdotal experience here. I saw this happen at a place I worked. We had a few communication problems, and a few timezone problems, but that wasn’t unheard of in this global organisation. I was a contractor, and so not privy to the cost-benefit studies – if they did any. The quality of output suffered (albeit less than I’d expected), the development capacity suffered, but it was oh so cheap compared to Australian workers.

Now the experience isn’t always going to be that way. The consultants stress that managing the outsourcing is paramount to success, and that as collective experience with the process improves – at both ends – the results will improve. That future tense suggests we’re not out of the woods yet.

But the outsourcing initiative is usually driven by a cost-cutting imperative. Companies that care about quality are certainly more cautious about outsourcing. Personally I don’t think the management expertise is there to be particularly confident about the process even now – except for those areas that were always very commodifiable.

But the ball will keep rolling, and I do see the day when the lower end of I.T. functions are heavily outsourced. H M Winning asks “what will we do then?” [actually, she asks “when will those better jobs show up?”] Well, if we’re the ones performing those tasks, we’ll be making way for a younger generation that’s been trained in other things.

As far as cross-country outsourcing goes, I can’t argue too much in a global sense, as we tend to be crossing to non-OECD countries that could do with the crumbs. So in that sense, it’s a global good. And, HM, when that country is all up to speed, there’s always another waiting in the wings, hungry. And once the world’s fully developed? …go ask Karl Marx. (We certainly won't be around either.)

When will clients really get nervous about sensitive company data and systems going out the door? When there’s a big scandal caused by outsourcing, and not before. Don’t imagine that privacy agreements alone will do the trick. Managers work through fear of the real, not the imaginary, didn’t you know?

Have I broadly answered your questions, HM? (PS on testers: they have little real interest in what they’re testing; only the real business users care. Outsourced testers compound this issue.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

World: Which way will interest rates go?

This is not an academic exercise: I need to re-fix the rate for my mortgage repayments. As with most Australians concerned with interest rates, this is where it hits me most.

Whereas US interest rates have been rising persistently for some time, Australia has experienced a similar period of static rates. Apart from the fact that this pushes the rates closer together, it should be expected that the Australian dollar should fall relative to the US. This has not been the case recently: it was threatening to dip below 70c US; now it’s pushing 75c. That may not sound like much, but the swing hasn’t been so pronounced for some time. I believe the answer lies in the commodity boom. Despite our efforts to diversify – and some real progress on this – Australia always rides high with commodities, being such a mineral-rich country.
And again, I’d put at least some of the responsibility for commodity surges with China.

On an anecdotal note, I remember noting with interest the size of China’s GDP growth being constantly in double digits. For decades. But until recently, there’s been no obvious effect on global activity. It looks like China’s finally hit the point where its economic activity is having a noticeable impact on the outside world.

Also anecdotally, my brother was in China recently, and noted vast stretches of highway being built - along with all associated infrastructure, such as regular service stations - seeming to go to nowhere in particular. All deserted. I noted that to get a good understanding of a situation, it pays to do the reading _and_ to visit - see the signs. In this case, I suggest they have some vast industrial project planned... somewhere. It is impressive that they can marshall the resources to develop such extensive infrastructure so far in advance of the project’s commencement. Yet there’s a danger the facilities will start to deteriorate too early in the project, so co-ordination remains an issue.
In any case, we’re starting to notice China, and consistent with burgeoning economic activity anywhere, we shouldn’t expect interest rates to come down any time soon.

World: Don’t expect Rumsfeld to resign

It’s just not done for serving military men to criticise the command chain. That’s why the only ones in a position to do so would be those who have recently resigned. That’s why the recent criticism of US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld by a number of retired generals – who served in Iraq - should be viewed with such interest.

Personally, I think that once the US had committed, the worst mistake they made (apart from Abu Ghraib and the like) was to not secure the infrastructure and resources as soon as they hit the ground. But that’s spilt milk.

The generals are unequivocal: “We need leadership up there that respects the military as they expect the military to respect them. And that leadership needs to understand teamwork” (John Batiste). Rumsfeld is “incompetent – strategically, operationally, and tactically” (Paul Eaton). Those are the clearest possible indictments of command. And this is not just a military matter, but it reflects upon all of the US’s military engagements in the world, as well as on the international conduct of the Bush administration, given Rumsfeld’s cabinet stature.
I expect it to be due to Rumsfeld’s high degree of self-conviction, which manifests as both ideology and arrogance.

I can’t see anything coming of this generals’ outrage - except for the history books. Bush won’t fire Rumsfeld. He has a strong record of not dumping his mates - which is certainly a weakness. Neither will Rumsfeld go of his own volition - he’s definitely not that type, and he has an ideology to fervidly persue.

This happens in the corporate world, too. Sometimes the offender goes sooner, sometimes later. And the longer they hang on, the worse the fortunes of the corporation.

Pers:Video umpires are just not cricket - but they should be.

Big furore when Ricky Ponting asked the umpire to look at the video replay in a recent match against Bangladesh.
He was correct, as it transpires - but that’s not the point.

Never thought Ponting would become captain of the Australian cricket team. “Captain of Australia!”, as a (cricket-obsessed) one-time manager of mine would say. Ponting first caught my imagination with some spectacular run-outs in England in the late 1990s. It takes particularly good hand-eye co-ordination - and a good sense of location - to be able to catch a ball on the run and instantly swing around - as Ponting did - to catch the wicket. Yet despite cricket being a statistics-obsessed game (probably akin to baseball in many ways), stats on runouts aren’t collated. Any suggestions why?

Not that I’m a cricket tragic. Really. In fact, I think too much cricket is played at an international level - surely much more than in the past - to the point where it’s a debasement of the currency.
Why the recent chatter over the video replay? Because, of course, you shouldn’t question the umpire. And rightly so. Especially if you’re the captain of the top team in the world, playing against real minnows. But ignoring clear video evidence is a nonsense. Cricket administration is, by and large, a very establisment affair, not given to rapid change - such as with the advent of video. In the interest of patent fairness, though - and avoiding any perception of bias - there should be some capacity to refer the umpire to the video record. In the interest of pacing - and maintaining the sanctity of the umpire’s position - that capacity should be limited. For example, one appeal to video allowed per captain per innings.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pers: customer service in hospitals

I had an episode in a hospital - Prince of Wales, Randwick - a few days ago. Fortunately, just a kidney stone, so it wasn’t chronic, systemic, or lengthy. Just an isolated incident, there and gone.

I was put under the care of a specialist, a professor – but I never saw him. A Korean-looking underling (registrar?) was the one I saw, and his manner was… terse. He asked me questions and gave me the bare bones of information.

I saw a parade of people in and out of my emergency room: I had no idea what most of them were doing there. Of course, I was in considerable pain at the time, and all I wanted was a diagnosis and for the pain to ease. It did, after a few hours and quite a number of painkillers. No whooziness afterwards, so they must have given me just the right amount of drugs.

I did say to one of them: “I’d like to know who the people are, and what part they are playing in this situation”. But it was too much for me to keep asking.

On the one hand, it would possibly be a hindrance to stop and explain to the patient what was going on, beyond the basics. Besides, there may be a limit to what information I can absorb while coping with the pain.

On the other hand, quite a number of people popped in and out. A little disconcerting to an orderly mind. Beyond a certain point, hospitals are probably not very concerned with keeping patients – their customers – in the loop. Although my industry - Information Technology – has largely adopted a customer service philosophy, hospitals are not all the way there. Yet nor are we: shocking customer service is a daily occurrence in some IT departments.

I never found out why my acute pain began in an unrelated area. Yet I can’t say the hospital service was shocking at all. They did (eventually) provide pain relief and diagnosis. I can't really complain about treatment; it was efficient. And perhaps most patients only want to be told the basics.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tech: The future of Business Intelligence

In yet another Business Intelligence consolidation, Microsoft is buying ProClarity (see ITToolbox's report). ProClarity makes front-end, visualisation tools for use with Microsoft technology. This buyout makes sense, but it will no doubt scare other BI vendors - as does everything Microsoft does in their space, no doubt.

My feeling has been that the major BI products have been converging for some time, in terms of both look-and-feel and functionality. Apart from Microsoft, who has always had the muscle to go it alone. Yet this should scare the vendors more than most. Traditionally, Microsoft's solutions haven't really been solutions: they've been technology, which then needs to be implemented. Typically, Microsoft recommend one of their partners to actually design and implement a solution, which entails a fair bit of coding and tailoring. Sometimes a customer will have their own team of Microsoft programmers - with SQL Server 2005, .NET-based development plus the customer's inhouse database resources will normally suffice. However, the implementation will certainly take time and resources.

With the takeover of ProClarity, Microsoft will now have a better front-end - ie something more presentable for the customer, something that should take less time and resource to implement - albeit probably with increased training requirements.

I've said consolidation is good; it helps technology converge, and clears the field somewhat. I may be in the minority on this, as a Data Warehouse Institute poll has a majority of opinions saying it's bad for customers. But DMReview has a more sanguine view that simply points out the need to be aware of impending upheavals as mergers take hold.

For my money, we don't need a rash of competing technologies requiring evaluating customers to get their heads around a disparate range of tools. Ideally, we're moving towards more intuitive paradigms that don't require expert training, and convergence helps this. To date, though, convergence is going to snag on Microsoft vs everyone else. Indeed, we should expect more vertical consolidation (Microsoft+ProClarity, Hyperion+Brio) than horizontal (Business Objects+Crystal), simply because standalone BI vendors will need to seek shelter within an umbrella solution, rather than Business Intelligence in isolation. Why would customers really want the pain of selecting a database tool, then ETL, then BI, performance management, etc. At least Microsoft has that right.

I think the era of standalone BI vendors rising above niche markets is drawing to a close.

Pers: It's a joke - Bush

Oil prices have spiked again, on the back of reports of the US planning a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, which would disrupt global supply.
White house spokesmane Scott McClellan said journalists might be misinterpreting normal military contingency planning.
That’s a bit of a joke, considering Bush’s admitted propensity for spreading information via leaks. At this point, it sounds just as likely they were testing the water.

That’s not the joke, though. Here’s one from Vince Sorrenti, that I’m repeating simply because he doesn’t seem to have set it at large since a 2004 conference I attended, and I think it deserves a wider hearing.

George Bush give a talk at a primary school. When he finishes, he asks if there are any questions. Little Jimmy gets up and says:
“Yes, I have three questions.
Why did you invade Iraq without a UN mandate?
Why did you find no Weapons of Mass Destruction?
And why did you torture those prisoners at Abu Ghraib?”

Just then, the bell rings, and they all go out to recess. When they get back, Bush asks again if there are any questions. Little Tommy gets up and says:
“Yes, I have five questions.
Why did you invade Iraq without a UN mandate?
Why did you find no Weapons of Mass Destruction?
Why did you torture those prisoners at Abu Ghraib?
Why did the bell ring 40 minutes early?
And where’s Jimmy?”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

World: That election’s a farce – and that and that and…

At last count, Berlusconi was running scared. And rightly so, too. He had pushed through legislation giving himself immunity from prosecution – as long as he was still Italy’s Prime Minister. But the numbers look bad, and it’s not simple to resume his career as media baron and Italy’s richest man. He has a few corruption charges to face. Yet there are seats in parliament reserved for overseas Italians, and they might help shield him – anecdotally at least, absentee votes tend to favour conservatives. If that fails, he can always go back to his old tricks – only a few opposition MPs need to be bribed for the numbers to fall his way.

Not like the election in Thailand. Thaksin – Thailand’s equivalent of Berlusconi – just won an election because the opposition didn’t run, in protest over corruption and conflicts of interest. That gave Thaksin’s party “Thais Love Thais” (!) a clear run, because candidates are home and hosed unless 80% of their electors specifically vote “none of the above”. Still, constitution crisis remains if any seats remain unfilled, as happened. So Thaksin offered to stand down. But rest assured, he’ll have a comfortable hand on the reins behind the scenes. Ultimately, no change. Again.

Then there's Belorus. Lukashenko got a clear run, simply because he made it so (the election wasn’t “free and fair”). Simple when you know how.

What about the horse-trading in Israel, Japan, and elsewhere? Any whiff of corruption? Certainly deals are done. Life is much simpler when you have a two-party system, isn't it? You have stability, which is good. Yet you don’t have all voices represented, and you have to toe the party line (generally). Which is bad.

But aren't party systems an abasement of the notion of proper representative democracy? Shouldn't democracy consist of a bunch of unaligned representatives thrashing it out until they get consensus? Or at least a majority decision? But what about the minority voices? And won't that take forever to get anywhere? How can you win?

Well you can’t, according to Kenneth Arrow. Arrow’s Theorem. One way of expressing it is that in any group where there is no dictator, it is impossible for an election to express the group's wishes. In a nutshell, it proves that democracy - as we commonly know it - is impossible. Which might explain why we often feel underrepresented. And why we might have felt that the last election we voted in was a bit of a farce.

Monday, April 10, 2006

World: Cooperate! or be forced to.

A study has found that people are better off when they cooperate - but only if penalties are involved.

Published in Science magazine, the study was conducted by European scientists and written up by Joseph Henrich of Emory University, Georgia. It took the form of a money game played by a total of 84 people. They could choose to play a version where there were penalties for not contributing to a collective fund, or one where there were no penalties. They were given money each round, which they could keep or donate to the central fund, where interest was earned, which was equally shared.

Two thirds of people first opted for a “no penalties” game. At first, those people were ahead. But as time passed, generous donors were finding they were carrying freeloaders, and scaled back their contributions. Then rewards decreased, and most people ended up joining the game where there were penalties, and those people were better off.

Sounds like it mirrors the evolution of human society. That’s what we’re like: some will contribute to for the good of all. But people benefit more - as a whole - when they’re obliged to cooperate.

This has implications for a wide variety of human activity. It doesn’t account for people who act altruistically without any direct reward. That’s an individual choice some of us make.

But there is a warning on issues that need global action, such as climate change, deforestation, etc. Some countries will forge ahead for the betterment of humanity, but the outcomes are an awful lot better if we had global agreement. We have no better tool for cooperation than international treaties. (the only alternative is violence or its threat.)

On a personal note, I have to reiterate that the refusal of Australia’s Howard government to sign Kyoto - and its abrogation of several other international agreements - is thoroughly disgraceful.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pers: Would you like to be a pioneer?

How would you like to go where few have gone before? My great great grandmother Frances Shayle George wrote an article about her experiences when she and her family first settled in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1850. This was a mere 12 years after the settlement was established.
She wrote a piece that sounded fresh, exciting - which it would have been, compared to the lives in England that many escaped. She described “a day such as only shines upon the South Seas”, a “magnificent harbour”; the air is “pure and balmy”, the children are “chubby and clean”.
The emphases throughout provide an unspoken contrast with her homeland: dirty and smelly, crowded and claustrophobic, grey and cold.
That’s fair enough, the contrast was quite real for the many who migrated. But there were countervailing burdens, only some of which she mentioned.
First, the journey. All she said was that it was a weary journey, and the sight of land was welcome. But how she described the primitive state of her first dinner in new lodging - a farce, yet the most thoroughly-enjoyed meal of her life. Must have been soo grateful to get off the ship.
I’ve been inside the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour. It’s really quite small. I guess the Sir Edward Paget, as a passenger ship, would have been bigger, but on the basis of what I’ve seen, four months aboard a cramped, swaying sailing ship must have been particularly claustrophobic. And they had a baby with them.

And when they got there: it was a “rude” home and “work, and work hard” for someone “accustomed to pass my time as I pleased”. It was a single sealed road; winter mud up to the axles of carts; “gloomy and solitary grandeur”, and a great scarcity of any hallmarks of culture that couldn’t be locally made.
I suspect they had no idea what they were in for. Despite the bright and pleasantness of a new land, I suspect they longed for modern civilisation after a while, and at times they must have really clung to the vestiges they could muster. As with a lot of people, she named a later house after the place she grew up (Clifton), and must have had a real yearning at times.

Still, she wrote a very attractive description, one that had Charles Dickens (who published the article) expressing a desire to travel to New Zealand. Propaganda it was; she was openly encouraging labourers, farmers, capitalists to come, to help build up a critical mass – as much as anything so that she could feel more at home. She appealed in particular to people who were not “doing well in the old country” – this must be the prime audience: why else would you make such a long and hazardous journey, leaving your world behind? I’m sure most settlers didn’t know what they were in for. Yet there was that brightness, that adventure, and the prospect of making something, with hard work.

I wander the streets of my area, and periodically come across a house that must have stood magnificent in its day. But the land around it has been chopped up, sold off, so the house itself looks out of place, hemmed in so closely all around. Civilisation has a way of creeping up and swallowing, rendering mundane what once must have been so impressive; what once must have been worked so hard for.

I’m a city boy. I like the amenities of a large city. The adventure, the open space and climate are still to be had – if you go far enough from the city. But we don’t, do we? Never far enough that we can’t get home.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tech: subatomic particles: why you don’t know much (and nor do I)

This is a test.

1. How many subatomic particles are there? (name them)
2. How many elementary particles (ie can’t be divided)?
3. How many stable particles?
4. How many different properties categorise them?

How’d you go? I wanted to clarify what I thought I know, which is why I read up on them. I scored poorly, so don’t feel bad. Answers at the bottom.

Sub-atomic particles are, of course, particles smaller, than an atom. Off the top of your head, you’d surely remember protons, neutrons, and electrons. Well, you’d already be two up on a lawyer I just asked. You’d remember the periodic table, where different elements had different numbers of those three. Maybe you could say that ions are atoms with a few electrons added or removed, and isotopes are atoms with a non-standard number of neutrons. Like me, you may also have heard of quarks, neutrinos, mesons, gluons… and then get confused. Well, here goes a quick count.

First I should warn you: nearly every particle has a corresponding anti-particle. This is anti-matter. However, I doubt you could put together a glob of scary anti-matter as in Star Trek. Most of these particles only exist separately for brief periods of time, in small amounts, within labs.

Sub-atomic particles are categorised by five types of properties: mass, electrical charge, spin, magnetic moment, and interaction. The only stable ones are electrons, protons, and… neutrinos. The neutron is stable only inside an atom’s nucleus.

The most elementary particles are the sets of quarks, leptons, and gauge bosons. There are six types of quarks: up, down, top, bottom, strange, and charm. For each, there is an antiparticle, and they come in three different varieties. In total: 36 types of quarks (protons and neutrons are each made of three quarks). There are 12 leptons: electron, muon, and tau, their neutrinos: electron neutrino, etc – as well as their antiparticles. There are four gauge bosons: gluon, photon (yes), weakon, and graviton.

This is only the start, but I think that’s plenty enough. The answers are:
1. Over 300!
2. 52!
3. 8, by my reading
4. 5.

So much for protons, neutrons, electrons. Why didn’t I know all this already? I suspect that most of this wasn’t commonly accepted when I was at school/university, and/or most of it was post-grad stuff. At least I know why I’m confused now. Despite knowing more.

Reference: Lafferty P & Rowe J: The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science, Helicon, Oxford, 1994.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tech: Take copyright out of their hands!

Remember the stoush over blank cassettes? All kinds of threats of legal action against little 12-year-olds (like myself) who were taping songs off the radio. It was ultimately solved upstream, at the technology end, rather than consumer end. The solution – which may have been more of an uneasy industry truce – was to add a royalty component to the cost of the tape.*

So what happens now? Very minor players (consumers) are made an example of, to scare everyone else. A little girl in the US gets sued for tens of thousands of dollars that she doesn’t have.

Napster and other large peer-to-peer players were driven to the ground by copyright suits; Napster has re-emerged with a legitimate paradigm where royalties are paid.

But even today. I have a friend who mentioned an old track he liked (by Fetus Productions). His flatmate searched for it via LimeWire. And promptly found it. A very obscure track. I was amazed by the power of the tool. LimeWire is a peer-to-peer network where that track just happened to be made available by someone who just happened to have the original. If you can find that with LimeWire, surely you can find most things. (which begs the question: why is LimeWire alive and well where Napster was hounded to submission?)

But my point relates to the bloke who found the track. I asked him about copyright issues. His response: well, it’s there, I can get it, so I get it. Simple.

It was a copyright infringement, but it was simple.

Why don’t the publishers apply the same principles as for blank tapes? Incorporate a royalty into every medium, every exchange?

Every aspect of the problem is wrapped up in the fact that we're dealing with emerging technologies. Taping a song on the radio wasn’t a high-tech enterprise, and tape, being a contact medium, would deteriorate every time it was played (I can vouch for that). However, CDs, and computer files, are non-contact, and generally reproduce perfectly. Further, although royalty costs may be built into blank CDs, I doubt that they’re yet built into MP3 players and the like.

The technology emerges, is unleashed, so rapidly these days that the large corporations and their lawyers can't keep up. I say large corporations, because that's where the battle lies, and that's where the average punter's sympathy dies. We see so many fresh new bands these days are making their songs available on the web for free, simply to get the exposure. And from that small end, it's a great marketing tool.

Getting the message out that copying is illegal isn’t enough. If it’s there, and easy, people will do it. The LimeWirer’s attitude above is mainstream, especially for under-30-year-olds, who are the main consumers. Exemplary prosecutions are unhelpful victimisation. It needs to be handled upstream. At the distribution points, the reproduction technology, royalty needs to be incorporated.

Australia is lagging so much that we don’t even have the fair use provisions that the US has. We can’t even make a backup copy of music we legally bought. Well I have, for example, made a backup of The Sporadic Recordings by Durutti Column mainstay Vini Reilly. Only 1000 copies were ever produced, and I won’t find it (nor most of my other CDs) in my local CD shop.

An aside: the downside of downloads
The advent of downloading has actually pushed down the price of CDs, but there are downsides:
a) Cherry-picking the most popular – not the best – tracks from an album can mean few people hearing an album in its entirety. Everybody loses.
b) You lose the high-quality packaging that comes with a CD.

Another aside: film
The film industry is particularly worried. Not because someone will wander into a cinema with a video camera and pirate the film. Those pirates are shocking copies and insufficient threat. However, plans have been underway for some time to fully digitise film, so those large metal canisters won’t need to be whizzed around the world. Cinemas will eventually project computer files rather than film reels. So far, the holdup has been the large capital costs of the new equipment for every cinema. But they also have to deal with computer files that are widely distributed and thus can be loosed on the world, in perfect quality. Will cryptography be sufficient? I doubt it.

*However, what is then done to this is insidious. The following also applies to mechanical royalties – those paid by radio stations for broadcasting the music. Royalties are pro-rated according to sales, then just sit there waiting to be claimed. Artists typically sign to publishing companies which are, for the most part, not really publishing companies. They mostly just collect royalties from the big bin that is put aside for them. My beef is that smaller bands don’t get a lookin. I once worked for a community radio station; every so often we were asked to complete a survey of the tracks played on a given hour/day. However, that wouldn’t have been representative enough, because the variety was so wide that some bands missed out. Bulk royalty collection really work best for big selling, high rotation artists, who probably need the money less.

14-May-06 Update: Fair Use provisions imminent
The Sun-Herald reported today that federal cabinet had approved changes to copyright law, to allow "format shifting" in personal collections. Slow, but at least they're getting there. Now what about legalising personal backup copies?
15-May-06 Here's an article on this development, from the Herald.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

World: how to test security laws with mental illness

News report overnight regarding the 14 people recently arrested under Australia’s new terrorism laws.

Apparently, two of those fourteen have mental illnesses, and another two are on anti-depressants. At least one of them hears voices.

Are the new laws that draconian that they punish mental instability?
Are the intelligence agencies over-keen to exercise their new-found powers – or are they over-keen to demonstrate their commitment to the government line?
Is the existing framework for recognising and treating mental illness inadequate to identify and treat these people before they are taken as trophies by other government agencies?

Other news dealt with the plight of the longest-serving immigration detainee – a Bangladeshi man who has been incarcerated for six and a half years. Scant days after release of a scathing Ombudsman’s report, he’s been released into the community. You guessed it, mental illness again. Community release wouldn’t seem to help, though, since he’s more recently been consigned to a hospital for his illness (over six years late), and won’t be going anywhere. Of course, if Immigration were doing their job, this man would have been treated rather than incarcerated. But privatisation of detention services has certainly made that harder, if not impossible without outside advocacy, which is what happened here. (see yesterday’s entry regarding privatisation.)

As mentioned before, there have been significant failure at a State level [throughout Australia] in the treatment of mental illness.
Regardless, mental illness is the perfect test for the operation of detention laws at the margin. If they don’t recognise and deal with mental illness as such, then they are inadequate.

Monday, April 03, 2006

World: Ownership: you think they’re providing a service; that’s not what they think

A survey conducted by the Australia Institute made an unexpected discovery: going by what the carers themselves thought, childcare in corporate-owned centres was significantly lower quality than in other forms of childcare.

The study, wanted to “probe the views of child-care workers generally on the quality of care.
“But as the responses came in the differences were striking and could not be ignored”, said Institute director Clive Hamilton.

If you think this is all pretty obvious, hear me out and you may be surprised.

The Institute surveyed 578 workers in three general types of childcare: community-owned and run, privately owned (independent) centres, and ones that were owned by corporations, who typically ran a number of centres and were listed on the stock exchange. The general breakdown of attendance in Australia of children who go to childcare is: 30% to non-profit centres; 45% to independent private centres, and 25% to corporate chains.

Responses include:
Is there enough time to develop relationships with individual children? Responses were positive for:
54% in non-profit centres
49% in private centres
25% in corporate centres

Would you avoid sending your own children to such a centre (because of quality concerns)?
4% in non-profit centres
6% in private centres
21% in corporate centres

Does your centre hire more than the regulatory minimum staff?
40% (approx) in non-profit and private centres
14% in corporate centres

The last is telling because studies in the past have consistently shown a direct correlation between quality of care and number of carers.

The margins are similar for most questions, with corporate centres coming off significantly worse, and private centres slightly worse than community-owned centres.

It’s to be expected that when a service is run wholly for the good of the community, the community is the focus and the service is better. However, this also suggests that where profit is involved, the results are only slightly worse, because the owners are closer to the action – typically they will run the centre. Where ownership is entirely divorced from management, the service is significantly worse.

So in general, the motivation for supplying a service makes a difference. But when the managers are (legally) obliged to serve someone else’s profit requirements rather than their own, the service is significantly worse. I guess managers are more willing to sacrifice a little of the profit for the sake of professionalism, a better service, because they're closer to the ground, or somesuch.

That is, of course, a strong feature of the evolution of capitalism: the increasing divorce of ownership from management.

The biggest implication for today is regarding the fad for privatisation of government services. If you care about the service sufficiently, don’t privatise: the service will worsen.

A small diversion
This has interesting applications – if a few years late – for my area of postgraduate study, demutualisation. That is, where a non-profit organisation has transformed into a joint-stock – and thus profit-oriented – company. NRMA, St George Bank, AMP, etc. – most large member-owned organisations in Australia have gone down that route. Typically, the move is pushed entirely by management, who are concerned to improve the ability to raise further capital (for expansion, takeovers, or protection from takeover). I suggest that when a mutual organisation gets large enough, management and ownership are sufficiently divorced that the quality of service is no longer on a par with community-based organisations, with the added detractor that managers do not get the same level of steerage that joint-stock owners give, simply because the ownership is so dispersed. Managers managing for their own ends. With joint-stock companies, there are usually large enough agglomerations of shareholdings that institutions – typically – steer the boat. Note that when St George privatised, they added a sunset clause to ensure that in the first few years, no institution was allowed to own a significant shareholding. It gave the managers a few more years in the sun to better raise capital, without the interference of pesky owners. Never forget that managers and owners have divergent interests.