Improving Wetware

Because technology is never the issue

Some thoughts about the media

Posted by Pete McBreen Sat, 29 Oct 2011 03:55:00 GMT

Seems strange to be linking to an article in Slate

The mainstream media thrives on simple solutions. It has no idea whatsoever of how to report on a story that isn’t about easy fixes so much as it is about anguished human frustration and fear. The media prides itself on its ability to tell you how to clear your clutter, regrout your shower, or purge your closet of anything that makes you look fat—in 24 minutes or less. It is bound to be flummoxed by a protest that offers up no happy endings.

Definitely no easy fixes when three slow moving changes are coming together - concentration of wealth, climate change and peak oil – it is as if we are running into the Limits to Growth

Even the Onion gets on on the act

Posted by Pete McBreen Wed, 07 Sep 2011 17:51:00 GMT

Dealing With Aging Infrastructure

Posted by Pete McBreen Sun, 10 Jul 2011 03:28:00 GMT

Now that the last shuttle launch has taken place, and with no replacement yet available, it is sobering to think that some bits of infrastructure are even older than the Space Shuttle.

Car and Driver have a report on the state of the interstate highway system and it does not sound good.

Now massive sections of the interstate, including almost all of  them near major cities, have reached the end of their useful life; the interstates were designed to last 20 or 30 years, but now some areas are pushing 50 years and handling far more traffic than their planners anticipated. But as we reach into our wallets, we run into our generation’s big dilemma: We’re nearly broke.

In many ways the interstates are like the space shuttle. The design lifetime has been known for a long time, but the political will to put in the necessary investment to get a replacement available in time was not there. While the lack of a space shuttle is not critical, it does have major implications for the International Space Station, which can now only be reached by Soyuz rockets that were designed even earlier than the space shuttle.

Crumbling interstates and bridges are a much bigger concern since they affect how well the overall economy runs. Lose a major bridge as the Car and Driver report highlights, and suddenly life in a city grinds to a halt as people have to find alternative routes.

  • What other bits of our infrastructure are aging and soon going to need replacement?
  • Have we done the necessary investment to be able to build the replacements in time?

Magical Thinking

Posted by Pete McBreen Wed, 08 Jun 2011 05:12:00 GMT

There is a constant refrain that occurs whenever people try to achieve anything

There must be an easier way

We learn this lesson at an early age and never forget it. The toy problems we are “challenged” with while learning always have an easy solution. Sometimes the easy solution is non-obvious and hard to find, but there is always a trick that makes solving the problem easy.

Unfortunately the world does not work this way — but we want to be tricked into thinking that it does.

Some examples:

  • Finding the one food that will help the pounds melt away
  • A pill that will cure all diseases
  • The invisible hand of the market
  • Buying a CASE tool to improve code quality
  • Adopting Extreme Programming
  • Thinking that Requirements Traceability makes systems better

Whether we think of these as “Silver Bullets” or a “Technological Fix”, it seems that we are hardwired to seek out simple solutions. In part this could be because we are so good at pattern recognition that we see a pattern where none exists.

All of this makes progress in software development difficult, because collectively we don’t want to believe how hard it is to deliver reliable systems. There has to be an easier way …

Story About The Start Of Scientific Management

Posted by Pete McBreen Thu, 21 Apr 2011 18:04:00 GMT

An older article from The Atlantic, on Management Myths. Telling comment from the viewpoint of Scientific Management

the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

Worth a read if only for the historical perspective.

The Economist Gets It Wrong Again

Posted by Pete McBreen Sat, 02 Apr 2011 03:25:00 GMT

Not sure what it is about the magazine, but it seem to be incapable of reporting the implications of actions. A stunning example of this comes from their Babbage Blog reporting on the delays in the acceptance of the reports that CO2 is warming the planet…

Erring on the side of extra caution is not a bad idea, and various efforts are underway to develop, corroborate and better to underpin the work on temperature records that has been done to date.

Erring on the side of extra caution for climate change would suggest that we take steps to reduce CO2 emissions, not that we do yet more studies on whether the planet is warming and how fast. We already have the warming data, and it does not look good. “One sure bet is that this decade will be the warmest” on record – James Hansen

Celebrating 15 years of the Sokal expose…

Posted by Pete McBreen Fri, 04 Mar 2011 17:58:00 GMT

In the Spring of 1996 the Alan Sokal had his article Transgressing the Boundaries published in the Social Text journal. To coincide with the article’s publication, Sokal arranged for another article to be published A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.

The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is – second only to American political campaigns – the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. – Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

For some years I’ve been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I’m a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The overall result of the experiment was that the parody article was published as if it were a valid work of scholarship in the field.

Hoax or Expose?

Sometimes it is not enough to just question something, sometimes you have to go further. Yes, Sokal’s experiment is often labelled a hoax, but my take is that it was an expose of many things that are wrong with out current social and political discourse.

TL;DR Soundbites Are Going To Kill Us

Posted by Pete McBreen Thu, 03 Mar 2011 06:14:00 GMT

TL;DR If you let other people tell you what you should think, don’t be surprised if you end up doing things that are not in your own long term interest.

Niel Postman was right, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Soundbites cannot communicate nuances of ideas

For whatever reason, few people take the time to really find out what is going on in the world, being happy to be few a soundbite by a politicain or demagogue. Since I have the CO2 level shown in the sidebar, a good soundbite to use as an example is “CO2 is Plant Food”. Yes, CO2 is required by photosynthesis in plants, but the role of CO2 is much much more complicated than that.

Television and Radio news rely on soundbites, and as such are destroying public discourse about important matters that as a society we need to deal with. And yes, I know that TV and Radio news have some value, but that value needs to be considered in the light of what it also does to our understanding of science, technology, economics and the political choices facing us in the 21st Century.

When the Low Cost Supplier Stops Supplying

Posted by Pete McBreen Wed, 23 Feb 2011 02:59:00 GMT

A parallel to the outsourcing debacles is what is currently happening in the supply of Rare Earths (mainly the transition metals if you remember your periodic table). The rare earth metals are commonly used in high tech components, often for the super strong magnets, but also for lots of other electronic components.

China used to be such a low cost provider that it managed to capture most of the market, all of the other suppliers basically closing their mines. Now China, which produces 97% of the world’s supply of rare earths, slashed its exports to a trickle to feed its growing domestic needs. The link goes to a feel good story about a mine that is trying to ramp up production quickly, but there is still a measure of reality in the storyline

“Bottom line, we fell asleep as a country and as an industry,” Smith said. “We got very used to these really low prices coming out of Asia and never really thought about it from a supply chain standpoint.”

In more and more areas we seem to be bumping up against problems when demand starts to exceed easily available supply. It is not that we are running out, it is just that demand is larger than expected so there is not the production capacity, so the price in the market becomes unstable, with large spikes and then resulting drops as some customers leave the market for alternatives.

Mainstream media is catching up with outsourcing

Posted by Pete McBreen Wed, 16 Feb 2011 17:41:00 GMT

The LA Times is the latest to report on Boeing’s costly lesson on outsourcing. They have an interesting lead to the story

The biggest mistake people make when talking about the outsourcing of U.S. jobs by U.S. companies is to treat it as a moral issue.

Sure, it’s immoral to abandon your loyal American workers in search of cheap labor overseas. But the real problem with outsourcing, if you don’t think it through, is that it can wreck your business and cost you a bundle.

I don’t agree that many people thought of outsourcing as a “moral issue.” The conversation was more about the balance between short term economics and the long term implications of outsourcing. Short term the numbers can look better, but long term organizations lose the ability to do the work. The end result is that in the end the supplier becomes dominant, captures most of the available profit, and the outsourcer ends up being responsible for the downside risk.

See also Outsourcing too much part II