Wednesday, August 20, 2003

I have gathered my crafts pics together in two stand-alone pages, one with knitted stuff and one with everything else. I also finally took pictures of many things made before I had a digital camera but hadn't given away, so there's plenty of new old stuff.

Friday, August 15, 2003

I have real problems with Cella's TCS article on the prescience of Chesterton's and Belloc's views of Islam. His views are carefully couched to seem inoffensive but the more I reread the article the more deeply I disagree.

First, Chesterton and Belloc allegedly did "not delude themselves that all other peoples are just bourgeois Westerners in costumes." Although this sounds good, in fact Cella doesn't make the point that Muslims aren't the same as bourgeois Westerners in the important respects. Don't we on average enjoy the comforts of life much the same? You find sects and individuals rejecting bourgeois values throughout the world -- Mennonites in South Ontario, for example. And, you find astute traders and practitioners of commerce (bourgeois) throughout the world, too. Cella's argument is that the Muslim population cannot be understood as having the same motivations as Westerners, but this argument will lead to a greater rift and distance rather than greater understanding.

Next, Cella argues that our modern values of tolerance and plurality are "bluster" and "narrow". I don't think that's right. Although I agree that tolerance can harmfully take the place of judgement -- I don't tolerate a murderer, for example, I judge him -- I still think that tolerance is a virtue. It also seems pretty obvious to me that our increased modern tolerance is more than simply bluster, and that it isn't very narrow either. (It also seems self-contradictory to both argue that our "bluster about tolerance" is narrow and also argue that our tolerance goes too far.)

I won't go through the whole article looking for these kinds of things but finish by pointing out what first started to make me feel uncomfortable. Cella's basic point of admiration for Chesterton and Belloc is that they felt the heresy of Islam was dangerous. This is, as Cella admits, a deeply unmodern viewpoint and I'd prefer it stay that way. Chesterton and Belloc wouldn't have considered Ireland's Catholic Church as heretical, yet that didn't stop it from imprisoning young women and profiting from their labour as recently as the 1980s, as portrayed in The Magdalene Sisters.

Perhaps we do need to take into account the power of faith in driving people to suicide bombings and enslavement of others. However, we do not need to approve, nor does it help for some of faith to accuse others of heresy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Brian Micklethwait thinks the way I do, or perhaps to be more modest I strive to think the way he apparently does in this long blog entry on lawyers. I know so many people who view the actions of the other side (whether that other side is Al Qaeda or the Republicans, it doesn't matter) to evil intent and conspiracies. Instead, as Brian points out, "It's the good people you have to really look out for, if only because they are so much more numerous, and so much more persuasive." In order to understand all sorts of odd or even bad human actions you have to take into account sloppy thinking, sloppy execution, blinkered vision and mere accidents, far more often than conspiracy or a stand-alone desire to harm other people.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Jacob Levy wrote this on the Volokh Conpiracy yesterday:
It's hard to devote as much attention, as constantly, as is warranted to the issue of rich-country agricultural subsidies and protectionism.
Yet he does a good start making up for this with the directness of his explanations:
The policies... destroy an appalling amount of wealth and potential wealth in the developing world.
I agree wholeheartedly; it's hard to devote as much attention to this as it deserves, because nothing ever gets changed. You can't even get people to argue with you about this. You can foam at the mouth and rant that US corporate agro-business is stealing bread from the mouths of the poor in third-world countries, and even the softest-hearted left-winger shrugs and says "Yeah, but what can you do about subsidies for farmers..." Why is there so little upset over this? To me it seems more obviously unfair and more destructive than potentially invading a third-world country. At least if you get invaded by the US you get a fair chance of getting a reduction in tariffs from the US, but of course those agricultural subsidies and textile protections are still there.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

This article comparing Rush Limbaugh to bloggers really annoys me. I wouldn't post if I simply thought the author Dr. David Hill were wrong in his conclusion, but I find his arguments deeply stupid. For example:
Rush is almost always armed for his shows with reams of data and analysis from a wide variety of news and information sources. [...] By comparison, many bloggers’ preparations for their stream-of-consciousness commentaries seem limited to reading the ruminations of other bloggers and scanning Internet news.
This quote illustrates the first time where Dr. Hill compares the most successful talk-radio host ever to an unnamed cohort of "stream-of-consciousness" bloggers. Sure, some bloggers don't prepare before they blog. I'm sure some unsuccessful radio hosts don't, either. Dr. Hill does the same thing comparing Rush Limbaugh's production technique to the Web designs of "most bloggers... Few seem to care about the principles of effective Web design. Some even seem to consider the primitive style of their blogs a badge of honor. " And some have incredibly good Web design despite the Web's serious usability drawbacks.

He does it a third time: "Some bloggers use humor effectively to punctuate their commentaries; few exhibit Limbaugh’s comedic skill, timing and wit. " Well if a few bloggers do exhibit Limbaugh's comedic skill, timing (on a blog?) and wit, then isn't it possible that bloggers overall are comparable to talk-show radio speakers overall?

Then the howler: "Fourth, Limbaugh builds bonds with his audience. He provides enough details about his personal life that loyal listeners know something about his parents, brother, wife..." Ok, enough. This guy clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. We've even seen pictures of the Instawife and we know the day-to-day progress of Lilek's darling Gnat.

Dr. Hill concludes with "The bloggers have a lot of work to do to catch up with or surpass Limbaugh’s excellence in broadcasting and political communications." First, this conclusion but also the whole piece makes me wonder if Dr. Hill didn't get the article written for him by a Limbaugh publicist, it has that kind of all-positive feel. But with respect to the content of the conclusion: Although "broadcasting" isn't exactly what bloggers do -- it's more like publishing -- give them a few years. After all, Rush, and talk radio as a whole, has had a bit of a head start.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Which of these domain names links to a porn site, and which links to a blog?

Click here to find out safely.
I'll have to learn not to do this: When I'm jetlagged and have a cold, don't ignore the dizziness and blackouts that I periodically experience when I stand up quickly. This is what happens when you faint and hit the floor chin-first.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Good Experience had a recent column on the bad Web sites designed by large organizations. Readers responded agreeing and pointing out that it's not just Web sites. The discussion reminded me of Microsoft, where it seemed that the hierarchical distance (follow up the management chain and back down again, counting people as you go) between two teams was a huge factor to determine how well those two teams worked together. Physical distance was also clearly a factor but it wasn't enough to be in the same building if you didn't have the same management.

Take Office, for example, where it's a benefit to users (particularly a user who knows Word but doesn't know Excel so well) when the Office programs share many of the same controls, idioms, shortcuts and functions. Before the days of Outlook, Office users were very frustrated because the Exchange email client didn't feel like an Office application. The reason for that was clearly that the managers of the Exchange email client weren't the same as the managers of Office, so the teams couldn't work together and share ideas effectively.

In that case the problem was solved because Outlook was developed as a rival client by people much more closely tied into the Office software group management. Only that codebase developed different problems over time -- Outlook didn't work as seamlessly with the Exchange server, causing disruptions that frustrated users in different ways. Clearly this was because the Outlook managers had only distant links to the Exchange server management.

When Microsoft actively deals with this it's often through reorganizations. Clients are thrown together with clients in one reorg, regardless of the functionality. Then in a later reorg groups are made along functional lines, e.g. with Web technology in one area including both client and server. Each reorg causes huge disruptions and has high costs but eventually leads to better integration among the groups working closely together. The inherent problem of large organizations is that you can't have 40000 people working closely together. You must draw lines, only wherever you draw lines you are bound to create chasms.

In the email server group we heard reports of this problem from large companies who were customers. One customer quoted the figure of 70 feet -- the distance over which you couldn't work effectively with somebody else, the point in the graph where the efficiency most sharply degrades (although it continues to degrade as you increase distance, from one city to another, and again from one timezone to another). Of course our customers were looking to email technology as one way to address this problem but it was ironic that in developing this technological aid we were subject to the exact same problem.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Ahh, the pleasures of catching up on others' blogs: a sustained does of new (to me) Cosh posts. This made me splurt in laughter:
Newsday's Ellis Henican writes "This was an idea so patently gruesome and spectacularly stupid, when I first heard it I thought it had to be a hoax." I felt the same way when I heard there were newspaper columnists who heard new ideas and were incapable of forming any impression of them beyond their instinctual reaction. Hey, if I want to see a dumb animal recoil from a stimulus, I won't buy a newspaper--I'll throw firecrackers at my cat!
I concur in being unimpressed by peoples initial gut reactions, although it has become a philosophy unto itself in the hands of Leon Kass as "the Wisdom of Repugnance" and also to Friends of the Earth: I think people have an inherent gut level response to wanting to protect the natural environment, and I think that people have an inherent gut level reaction against genetic modification of people, plants and animals (Larry Bohlen, quoted by Mark Mooney).

Counting on one's reflexive reaction can be just plain wrong. Hmmm, here's a link to something that's been bothering me all week: my interactions with the black male population in Vienna. Travelling around Vienna alone for a week, obviously a tourist, I had several interactions with black male Austrians. It started with the guy on a bench in the park calling out to me about how I was, then what I might be interested in doing. It culminated with the one who stood too close to me on the escalator and noticed I was reading in English, then proceeded to ask many questions about where I was staying in Vienna and wouldn't I be interested in staying with or near him. While I didn't feel endangered and have no difficulty saying "I'm not going to answer that question" and "No, thank-you, good-bye now" I did start to feel my overall politeness wearing thin as I had to turn impolite in order to get rid of each of these importuners. My gut reaction on catching the eye of the black guy at the airport hotel would therefore have been to prepare myself to ignore him, not to hear him, or to move away so he didn't have a chance to say anything. However I'm glad I didn't trust my gut reaction, I forced myself to remain open minded. He politely asked which way the elevator was and politely told me how nice my skirt was, and then politely allowed the converation to end rather than attempt to force it to continue. How nice he was, and how wrong my gut reaction would have been.

I'm catching up on blog reading, and there's a lot about outsourcing increasingly high-paying jobs (here and here to get started). I know something about this. I'm an imported worker myself (thus my visa problems this past month) because I was a highly qualified, ambitious and skilled (and humble) computer engineer in a country that did not have a great opportunity for me (Canada). Now I work for a company where half the development is done offshore.

I'm not going to say anything definite about outsourcing good/bad. Sometimes outsourcing reduces the cost but also reduces the quality of the product or service, but sometimes it even increases the quality as well as reducing cost. It depends on the situation.

No, what I think is left unsaid in this discussion is that any trend in who is doing what jobs where is not inherently good or bad but just part of a global economy. "What goes around, comes around" one way to put it. I had employment for several years working on email software, thus my job surely contributed to the loss of mailroom jobs all over the world. Now that some of those potential mailroom employees in India and elsewhere are highly trained programmers instead, there's a theoretical risk that I could lose my job to them in return. I'd have to figure out some new way of providing a service or product that consumers are willing to pay me for.

I know this is highly obvious to some, yet it seems to be morally repugnant to others. I've never understood why. If you argue that my job should be protected from outsourcing, surely that also argues that those mailroom jobs should have been procted from email technology even earlier. Many industries *do* have regulations or other artificial barriers impeding the entry of new technology (the classic example is longshoremens unions opposing the introduction of container shipping). But if that email software had been illegal the world over to protect the jobs of mail room employees, then my job would not have existed, and those offshore programmers would not now have a chance to make a much higher salary programming in outsourced projects.

Now all of this has happened in only seven years (since I personally began working in the communication software field). The pace of change is itself frightening. It would take me several years to completely "retool" myself through obtaining a bachelor's degree in a completely new field or a master's degree in a related field. The disruption is painful. People's salaries have a ratchet effect because we come to rely on a high salary rather than treat it as a bonanza which may end, and we make commitments like large mortgages based on temporarily high salaries. I wonder if we'll ever accustom ourselves en masse to a more dynamic career trajectory where a typical person would go through several fields of employment, self-employment, and an income which could go down as well as up in a given period (obviously some adaptable people are already accustomed to that -- anybody who runs their own business, or sales people whose commissions vary widely by quarter).

Anyway, to try to sum up what strikes me about the outsourcing discussion is how quickly we see a situation as a given. We who joined the Silicon Valley boom accepted salaries which doubled in only a few years and moved to some of the most expensive areas in the world. The Times article that seems to have sparked this blog storm says Since [being laid off], Maglione has been able to find only temporary work in his field, taking a pay cut of nearly 30% from his former salary of $77,000. For a family and mortgage, he says, "that doesn't pay the bills." Obviously this is true given his family, his spending habits, and his mortgage. But taking that $77,000 salary for granted doesn't seem far-sighted, especially given that Maglione himself had his job producing software that automated keeping track of insurance agents -- thus reducing the demand for middle managers to keep track of those same agents.

One thing I am sensitive to is that the pace of change can be harsh. However, given how slow it seems for new technology to actually catch on (I've been watching Instant Messaging deployment for six years now and still hear managers complain about it and misunderstand it), I don't think we need many artificial governers to keep the pace down. Besides, those governing agents tend to turn into brakes very easily and they *still* don't work, they just make the change more abrupt when it finally happens. The pace is what it is, and we have to be adaptable.

So I'm in the Munich airport for a seven-hour layover. The good news: it's got wireless access, free during this trial period. The bad news: it has has only about one power outlet per 200 seats, and that outlet may not even be switched on. Oh, and forget about any power outlet being anywhere near any seat. Somehow the lovely fast free wireless makes the power situation seem all the more annoying.

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