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Journal: Bob Cringely Meets Big Brother (a.k.a. "Patriot")

Journal by algebraist

Bob Cringely's weekly column this week dwells on the implications of Cold-War-era-style surveillance empowered by the Internet and energized by the Patriot Act. He is panicked, not only because the Big Bad Guys In Washington are now capable of eavesdropping on salacious e-mail sent between People Married To Others, but because, according to Cringely, the base system is locked down so poorly the same vehicle is available to All Kinds Of People, some more nefarious.

Lest you think I am simply revealing my true nature as your local representative of the Village Voice or the Boston Phoenix, consider that I really do not care what the consequences of these laws are, Patriot or otherwise. My personal experience with these kinds of folks and their manner of data collection suggests what they gleam from these sources, however reputable and damaging it may be to innocents in U.S. courts, is at odds with reality. Being so, the users and believers of this data run risk of having reality impose itself most unpleassantly upon them, as reality often does to folks who ignore it or somehow feel they are above it, whether they are mere psychotics or members of the National Security Council.

If an opponent, whoever he or she be, should understand the reality better than these personages, they will necessarily have an advantage. There is no unpatriotism intended here. Nor do I want to see the United States in any way diminished or set back. But, like all of us, I have limits, including a finite amount of time and interest to achieve and influence. Should the People's Republic, for instance, understand and access these resources better than do our own, while I may mourn our country's loss because of it, if I am being really objective, I can only consider the outcome it to be proper, suitable, and deserved. This is also why I do not get upset over our collective propensity to ignore global warming.

Incidently, that exemplary entity, the PRC, of course, suffers its own disconnects with reality. The Chinese treatment of Tibet and of Tibetan Buddhists is reprehensible at best.

It is possible this attitude is simply an extension or corollary of my distaste for political polarization. But it also may be indicative of my gaining increasing respect for the ideas of Lawrence Lessig, increasing sympathy for his Creative Commons projects, and of my search for another place, space, and vehicle to express my concerns about America's capacity for innovation, particularly as evident in what should be a huge driver of technological spending, the entertainment sector, but isn't.

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Journal: Practice, not only theory

Journal by algebraist

/. is running a story about a simulated impact of foam debris on the leading edge of a Space Shuttle wing which gave astonishing results. There is a more detailed story available as well.

While there are many questions that can and could be asked, most of which the CAIB will address in their report, there are questions of overall approach and technique and a philosophy of nature which, it seems to me, need addressing.

In particular, the wing impact experiment recently done is something that might have been done before. The looming question is Why wasn't it attempted? Anyone familiar with NASA's comprehensive approach to engineering and safety knows it must have been considered.

The answer, I believe, reveals a disconnect or fracture along lines distinguishing between "hip pocket engineering", or systems engineering as it is sometimes called, and experimental technique, science, and true engineering. During the Challenger disaster and subsequent investigation, the disconnect between these worlds became apparent, as well as those with decision-making authority having a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and application of statistics. In many ways, this is astonishing since all engineers are trained in the same basic syllabus and have access to the same techniques and outlook.

In my opinion, based in part upon 17 years of work with the now defunct IBM Federal Systems Company and my own decision to leave its successor for ethical reasons, engineers starting in many commercial concerns working in defense and aerospace engineering learn their advancement and success depend crucially upon their putting aside their engineering outlook and its associated ethics, as well as those of allied professions. The needs and terms of the business and of business dealings are discussed and recommended by mentors as more important. Designs are elected, not based upon superior service to a client, their needs, or their mission, but rather to the profitability of the company bidding a job and to their economic success in the long term. Designs which demand continuing and expensive upgrades are preferred, as are designs which are inflexible and difficult to replace.

This grounds my suspicion that in the long run, while capitalism goes well with engineering and scientific applications, corporate capitalism is incompatible, both in terms of ethics and safety, and in terms, ultimately, of its inability to innovate.

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Journal: Shrinkwrap Revisited

Journal by algebraist

I've written elsewhere about the sea change that's come over the software industry, principally in a move en masse to "shrinkwrap" software for even enterprise scale applications. This benefits both customers and the software developers because the cost of developing and maintaining the software is amortized over N customers. If N is sufficiently large, in terms of immediate cost this is a clear win. Evidence is available that this is a much bigger factor causing the shrinking labor market for software developers than, say, competition from overseas developers or H1B folks. For one thing, even India is experiencing a slowdown. (This reference is available upon request. It was originally on Reuters.com, but they have since pulled the article and I am not aware of any Reuters archive.)

I understand entirely why businesses are doing this. In a nearly deflationary economy, with major sectors already experiencing deflation, the best financial option is to hold cash. It will be worth more tomorrow.

In information technology this deflation is aggravated by the continuing improvement in processor and memory performance per unit cost, meaning demand is down for everything from semiconductors to replacements for software that exploit higher performance hardware. But, like most things in life, we're learning there are other costs, less immediate but real nonetheless.

First, just like costs are 1/N of what they might otherwise be if a business wrote their own software, it's sensible that the vendor's sensitivity in terms of response to problems or requests for customization at a customer site is also 1/N of what it might otherwise be. Actually, it is probably less since the more a particular customer demands fixes or customizations without paying for these the less valuable that customer is to the vendor of the shrinkwrap. It is the most profitable customers, the ones who can use the software just as is, who are the most valuable.

Second, and more recently, centralization on a handful of shrinkwrap applications incurs legal and other risk. I am, of course, speaking of the PeopleSoft-J.D.Edwards-Oracle battle and of SCO-versus-the-world, notably IBM.

In the case of Oracle's predatory attempt to take over PeopleSoft, when the takeover was first announced, they loudly they would discontinue the PeopleSoft product line should they succeed. Worse, they said they'd fire PeopleSoft's employees. This message is actually being focussed upon PeopleSoft's customers. Mr Ellison must want to damage PeopleSoft's market position even if he does not acquire the company. PeopleSoft's customers must now feel they made a poor choice in going with PeopleSoft, but the same outcome might await them if they went with anyone's pre-packaged solutions, including Oracle's.

These clients now base their central business processes depend upon that solution. It is in danger of disappearing and, even under the best of circumstances, should Oracle succeed the client's own customers are likely to suffer poorer quality of service during the changeover.

One might blame Oracle for this situation, as the management of PeopleSoft and J.D.Edwards are clearly trying to do with their lawsuits, and it is odd that Oracle is essentially punishing customers for going with PeopleSoft, but actual responsibility also falls on the decision to use shrinkwrap for essential business capabilities. The forces which are driving companies to outsource are the same which are driving consolidation and acquisitions. Mr Ellison of Oracle might say this is inevitable with his pronouncements about the end of software as we know it. But despite his opinions, Oracle isn't immune from these tactics either.

In the other case, that of SCO going on a rampage to renege its licenses for everyone to use Unix, also poses a risk, however less likely the SCO suit is to succeed than Oracle is to buy PeopleSoft. The idea of IBM's AIX being suddenly unavailable to thousands of businesses must have their CIOs have waking nightmares. It is also a price of centralization. IBM may have pockets deep enough and legal talent strong enough that settlement is the most likely outcome, however far off in the future that settlement might be. But there will be costs in that case, and I cannot see IBM doing anything but somehow passing these onto users of AIX. There are, too, also many other licensees of Unix who may not be as robust as IBM and who really will be damaged along with their customers.

In summary then, there are some pretty ugly possibilities facing businesses who have consolidated their software functions in an ERP like PeopleSoft. If common sense has its way, the markets, the government, and the courts will see the harm which the Oracle predation and the SCO litigation frenzy would do if they succeeded. But, then, this is management trusting the future of their businesses to an outcome determined by greedy and fickle markets on the one hand and a justice's whim on the other.

No, I don't think I'd like to be a CIO right now, certainly not one managing an ERP solution. Imagine if someone tries to do something to Oracle?

User Journal

Journal: On Laws Limiting Consumption 4

Journal by algebraist

That it is possible for someone to accumulate enough wealth to the damage the community of which they are a part is actually an old idea. That people don't realize this occurred to me when I was reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War during warmups at a gymnastics meet. (How Greek a place to do it.)

A guy noticed the book and asked why I was reading it, and something new I had learned from it. I told him about sumptuary laws. He opined it sounded communist. It is not, of course. It may be socialist, although that is an anachronism, and sumptuary laws were enforced as much by social custom as legislation.

At the time these notions arose in Western history, they weren't called that. The first true sumptuary laws came later, at the time of Greece's invasion by Macedonia. (See Note 1 below.) Well before then, at the time of Solon, one of the first archons, the idea of moderation was promoted as the key to wisdom and happiness. This applied not only to behavior, practices, and policies in individuals, but also to a commonwealth such as a Grecian city-state, like Athens. Much later, Aristotle wrote a good deal about this, regarding wealth and other things. Moderation or the golden mean was the keystone to Aristotle's system of ethics, which coincided with what Greeks liked to believe about themselves.

It is hard to imagine such an attitude about wealth in today's consumer- and consumption-oriented society, let alone justify it. To these ancients, a individual or family could not achieve wealth without the support, protection, and social services, however procured, of the commonwealth in which that individual and family grew. Craftsmen teaching trades and tutors may have been paid out of the family's pocket, but the availability of the tutor in that city-state or region arose in some measure because it was attractive for the tutor to come there. Whatever knowledge and skills the tutor or craftsman had arose because their community collectively created an environment for this to be possible.

Because of this, the degree of wealth held and displayed and how it was used became an important factor in politics and business. Merchants shunned ostentatious folk. As some vaguely specified limit of financial capability was approached, the commonwealth, the public, fellow businessmen, and political leaders had strong expectations about what such wealthy individuals and families should do. Otherwise the up-and-comers were deemed social boors.

For instance, it was expected these people would commission comedies, tragedies, and other public entertainments, free for public viewing. It was expected that these people would participate in helping underwrite public improvements, whether for defense or civil works. This was done in addition to what the treasury of the commonwealth provided. In particular, in case of attack or military campaigns conducted in the commonwealth's interest, it was expected that these individuals paid out-of-pocket for construction and maintenance of ships and wages for their crews. (See Note 2 below.) In short, it was acceptable to flaunt wealth if you will by doing public works but not by giving lavish parties or erecting huge houses.

The idea was that the wealthy had the most to lose if the commonwealth did not do well so they should support its policy beyond what a less well-heeled citizen would. The less wealthy citizen might otherwise decide to remain home because their needs were more immediate.

He doesn't specifically address this as a law, but you can see these values at work in a part of one of Pericle's famous speeches recorded by Thucydides:

I am of opinion that national greatness is more for the advantage of private citizens, than any individual well-being coupled with public humiliation. A man may be personally ever so well off, and yet if his country be ruined he must be ruined with it; whereas a flourishing commonwealth always affords chances of salvation to unfortunate individuals. Since then a state can support the misfortunes of private citizens, while they cannot support hers... .

Moreover, Thucydides himself writes of Pericles, illustrating his character with a tale:

While the Peloponnesians were still mustering at the Isthmus, or on the march before they invaded Attica, Pericles, son of Xanthippus, one of the ten generals of the Athenians, finding that the invasion was to take place, conceived the idea that Archidamus, who happened to be his friend, might possibly pass by his estate without ravaging it. This he might do, either from a personal wish to oblige him, or acting under instructions from Lacedaemon for the purpose of creating a prejudice against him, as had been before attempted in the demand for the expulsion of the accursed family. He accordingly took the precaution of announcing to the Athenians in the assembly that, although Archidamus was his friend, yet this friendship should not extend to the detriment of the state, and that in case the enemy should make his houses and lands an exception to the rest and not pillage them, he at once gave them up to be public property, so that they should not bring him into suspicion.

And Thucydides reports regarding Alcibiades, son of Clinias:

... [T]he position he held among the citizens led him to indulge his tastes beyond what his real means would bear, both in keeping horses and in the rest of his expenditure; and this later on had not a little to do with the ruin of the Athenian state. Alarmed at the greatness of his licence in his own life and habits, and of the ambition which he showed in all things soever that he undertook, the mass of the people set him down as a pretender to the tyranny, and became his enemies; and although publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.

But it isn't as if moderation and sumptuary law were limited to the classical Greeks. The Romans had sumptuary laws, too, at least for a significant time. The Jewish Talmud, interpreting the Five Books of Moses, institutes its own sense of propriety and sumptuary law.

Not surprisingly, many of these notions extended to more modern times, including Scotland and colonial Massachusetts.

The idea of a consumption-based society is a new feature, arising with the collision of the industrial revolution with a vision of the United States as seen through the eyes of its nineteenth century pioneers and expansionists.

Even when Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations criticizes sumptuary laws, he does it because he says they are imposed upon the great public by people of power, wealth, and influence, and they are exempt from them. He is saying sumptuary laws, as known, are hypocritical.

A full-blown revolt against non-capitalist and non-monetary values demands the thoughts and arguments of Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. He writes about it in his essay on Wealth, originally written in 1860 and revised significantly in 1876. It is a true reflection of its times:

Success consists in close appliance to the laws of the world, and, since those laws are intellectual and moral, an intellectual and moral obedience. Political Economy is as good a book wherein to read the life of man, and the ascendency of laws over all private and hostile influences, as any Bible which has come down to us.

Money is representative, and follows the nature and fortunes of the owner. The coin is a delicate meter of civil, social, and moral changes. The farmer is covetous of his dollar, and with reason. It is no waif to him. He knows how many strokes of labor it represents. His bones ache with the day's work that earned it. He knows how much land it represents; -- how much rain, frost, and sunshine. He knows that, in the dollar, he gives you so much discretion and patience so much hoeing, and threshing. Try to lift his dollar; you must lift all that weight. In the city, where money follows the skit of a pen, or a lucky rise in exchange, it comes to be looked on as light. I wish the farmer held it dearer, and would spend it only for real bread; force for force.

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Wealth brings with it its own checks and balances. The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply. Do not legislate. Meddle, and you snap the sinews with your sumptuary laws. Give no bounties: make equal laws: secure life and property, and you need not give alms. Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue, and they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands. In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile, to the industrious, brave, and persevering.

Today, using ideas from modern economics and applying modern sensibilities, it is possible to assign the appreciative value of a community to the increase in the price of unimproved land as its surround is developed, schools are built, and public services are added. To our way of thinking, it is already accounted for in that increase of value and, so, does not need to be accounted for again. But that assumes the only reservoir of value is money or its surrogates, and that in itself is unsound economics.

Notes

  1. The incidents which moved the passsage of the first true sumptuary laws were a pattern of increasingly elaborate funerary statues in the Athenian cemetary, some so expensive they bankrupted the families erecting them. Macedon seized control of Greece both because of weakened resources and military skills due to city-state infighting, and because of Macedon's superior military, a professional army which knew how to maneuver rapidly in a fight and to use a superior weapon the tharissa.
  2. Wages were paid both to mercenaries, a rarity at this time, and to people who voluntarily enlisted in the service of the commonwealth, unless they could afford to pay for their own outfitting and helots on their own. Wages were seen as payment in compensation for loss of labor and earnings to the soldier-sailor's family and in place of earnings he could have had if he had not gone to fight.
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Journal: The Bush tax cut and deflation 4

Journal by algebraist

Y'know, there may be a method to George Bush's "madness" about the tax cut. There's agreement it is too small to stimulate the economy much. So there's a puzzle.

But the main problem facing the U.S. economy is deflation, a spectre that's haunting other world economies as well. After a point, central banks can't do too much about deflation. One way to handle it is create some inflation. Printing money is one not-so-good way of doing that. The other way is to have the government spend more than it has.

Maybe the Bush tax cut is a way to arrange that.

A Republican can't come out and argue for bigger government spending, even if it is a good idea. It gives their big spending Democrats too much to praise. And there are folks in his own party who would fight it -- the fiscal conservatives, the same folks who are balking but compromising on the tax cut. So, knowing the Congress can't resist overspending some -- the pork must flow, y'know -- how to arrange that? Take some of their money away.

So maybe a bigger tax cut would be better, for roundabout reasons.

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Journal: The jollies of Microsoft Word, at least on WinXP 2

Journal by algebraist

On the whole, Microsoft WinXP seems to be an okay system, if you forgive its shortcuts mania, occasional loss of communication with a LAN, and intolerance for certain PC games. [Hint, 'though: Definitely invest in copies of Karp, et al's Windows XP Annoyances and Windows XP in a Nutshell put out by O'Reilly Press.]

But Microsoft Word for WinXP is something else.

I have a resume: Nothing fancy, just a one page thing. If I edit it in WinXP's Word it balloons in size to 632K. If I take the exactly identical .doc file, transfer it to my Win95 machine, add a space, delete the same space, and save it, it becomes 175K. I can open it just fine in WinXP Word, as long as I don't save it. Amazing.

Oh well, gives me a reason for keeping my Win95 system around, along with all the excellent software I've invested in and on it.

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Journal: The Misperception

Journal by algebraist

A contemporary ad for a telecommunications company says, in major part,

Business is about relationships. Technology is the easy part.

I say, "Bullshit."

Such is a huge misrepresentation of the nature of enterprise, and of reality, for that matter. New technology does not grow on trees. New technology is not about wrappers or presentation. New technology is hard to get, hard to win. New technology does not come without patience and investment in time. New technology is based largely upon science, and both are in large measure dependent upon luck, however educated.

The idea that cashing technology in demands the placation of gatekeepers, the involvement and appeasement of many who sit between an idea and financial success does not empower them. To the contrary, it shows them for the leeches and worthless wall-dressers they are, and, to the extent our culture praises them, however implicitly, the degree of its perversion.

What happened to the admiration for the Wright brothers, or George Westinghouse, or Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, or Thomas Edison, however single-minded on financial success he was, or for the strange but admirable genius of a Nikola Tesla?

It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)

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