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What do we tell the youth of today, anyway?

I picked this up on my twitter feed this morning.

If you were giving a talk to 16 yr olds about economy, would you be upbeat to inspire them or more downbeat to snap them out of complacency?

(Liam Delaney, Professor of Economics Stirling University. Research Fellow UCD Geary Institute, occasionally blogs here also.)

We’re talking about 16 year olds here. Complacency is not what 16 year olds do. They dream, and old fogeys put a lot of effort into getting them to attach to reality. Being downbeat is part of that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an utterly stupid way to go about things. Here’s the basic truth about economies. They generally trend towards improved life but they do it in wild cycles. There is not an economist nor a business man in the world who truly understands those cycles because those cycles are the collective output of a lot of small economies acting together in non-centrally planned ways. They are not rational and what’s more, they can be changed at the microlevel without any reference to any sort of economic theory about what the right thing to do is.

In other words, what you say to teenagers is Economies go up, economies go down, you try to learn to ride the cycle, and, although I am sure Liam might not agree with me on this, you can probably ignore economists dealing in economic theory because despite its pretensions, it is barely a measurable science, dismal or otherwise. The most interesting economists I know are not really economists; they’re statisticians.

Yes, ¬†Economies go up, and they go down and you, coming into a down cycle, difficult as it might look, have massive, massive advantages over those who come into a good cycle. You have the chance to be creative in how you deal with issues and difficulties. You learn to be resourceful. You learn to achieve an awful lot with comparatively little. And you’re in a good place when the good times come.

And you have dreams and with the resourcefulness that you can be delivering now, you can try to exploit them. Not everyone will be a pop star but I’ll bet Steve Jobs wanted to be a fireman when he was 5. Lives change. Different things, opportunities, people come along. The way you look at life now will change. So while you’ll need to plan for the future – this is where I say get a decent education – you need to look at how you’re doing now as well. Play that guitar. Do that gig. Never regret that you didn’t try something at least once.

What you do will make the economy of the future. The more you believe in what you are doing, the better that future will be. You may travel. Travel and temporary migration will be one of the best things that can happen you because the world will change, the lens you look through to see it will change. Some of the best things that have happened to Irish society happened because people left and came back. Societal change in Ireland was driven by the diaspora who came back. Look on it as an opportunity and another building block in your life and your future and not something to be negative about.

This is what I would be telling sixteen year olds if I were Liam Delaney. And I wouldn’t be thinking of being negative to kick the complacency out of them because if nothing else, that will destroy the economy and society for a further generation. We need them to build the future, not lie around wondering just how bad things are going to get before they get a job of some description.

Ireland has been poorly served by her experts and ruling class. We need to change that.

When you’re done, read this from Ronan Lyons, last August.

Bottling Silicon Valley

One of our TDs took himself off to Silicon Valley a while back to see what was special about the place and more to the point, could we create something similar here in Ireland. In a way, it was a laudable objective, and you can read the article he wrote subsequent to the trip here.

I honestly believe that collective will would allow something special to be created here; but that will isn’t something you’d find in SIlicon Valley. There are a couple of things which make the Valley special – I’m not necessarily going to go into this in detail but the following are obvious advantages:

  • proximity to high quality education
  • infrastructure
  • access to finance

There are a couple of other small items as well such as greater tolerance of business failure, and faster recovery from said business failure.

Eoghan Murphy didn’t really talk about these in detail except the business failure side of things; he concentrated on solutions that involved importing people, via programs of paying people’s salaries, for example.

I’m not sure this is the way to look at things. We need to teach people to have ideas, and the faith that they can carry them through. Ireland is appalling at this; I suspect, in part, because of the social judgmentalism which I think the Catholic Church gifted us. How we judge people’s success is depressing. It’s not often because they have created something special, but only because they went to the right schools, or, made money and talk to the right people.

In my view, the ecosystem which is Silicon Valley, or some functional equivalent, might be better grown here if we look at two key things:

  • education system
  • how we fund start ups.

We do neither particularly well. If you look at both Facebook (which I don’t like) and Google, both of them grew out college projects to some extent. In the early days of Google (and if you have not read In the Plex by Steven Levy you should), they got huge support from Stanford University. It’s the sort of support that not one university here could do because they don’t really have the money.

Via a ridiculous job creation scheme, the government appropriated money from pension funds to do something about our unemployment. If we want to create something innovative and special here, Job Bridge was not where we should have put the money; and nor is it in “trying to create Silicon Valley”.

We have some useful advantages here. We have the wherewithal to build decent data centres. We have the wherewithal to teach people to exploit them. That is where I’d like to see that money going; into the future and not just the present.

Hmmm…So..should we learn Chinese?

Via the Journal – a site I haven’t really worked out the purpose of yet – we have this little piece on whether we should all be learning Chinese.

There are a couple of key pieces of information:

Richard Barrett, who set up Treasury Holdings with Johnny Ronan, suggested from the audience that Irish people should be learning Chinese to equip us to fully embrace the possibilities for trade with the surging Asian economy.

I have issues with this, as indeed I have issues with anyone who pipes up and says “we should be learning X language for Y overly simplistic reason”. I may be wrong but I understand that Richard Barrett does a lot of trade in China which will probably explain his interest in getting our young people to learn China. But it’s not the sort of trade I want to see this country wasting any more money on collectively. Treasury Holdings was a development company and yes, some of its loans were taken on board by NAMA. In other words, this is not a sector of industry which would necessarily create a lot of sustainable economic growth for large numbers of enterprises.

I want to see our young people creating things; being given the freedom to create things. They will need communication skills as well – I will come to that in a moment – but above all, before they can trade with another country, they need something to sell. We are not teaching them to create stuff to sell in general. I’m sure there are people out there trying…individually – but if we were going to put any money and effort into the economic future of the country it should start with problem solving and creating things. So if we’re going to bring something new into the education system, it shouldn’t be ONE particular language, suggested by a property magnate.

I’d be in favour of much improved programming and design skills but that’s another argument later.

The thing is…we don’t trade much with China; not compared to how much we trade with France and Germany. And we already have problems getting our young people to learn to speak either effectively. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I am not going to go into the details now. To get our young people speaking any of the Chinese languages effectively out of school is a massive task when we can’t get them speaking an Indo-European language effectively.

One of the issues I have in Ireland is that it’s possible for someone like Richard Barratt to pop something like this out and have the Taoiseach have to respond to it without any real understanding of how possible it is – where are all these Chinese language teachers going to come from, for example – and how much is it going to cost given the rarity of the skill – and what directly is it going to bring the country if we don’t also – and more importantly – teach our young people to create something that we can trade with? Being able to speak Chinese and English is not enough. You need something to trade with.

Maybe I am missing something here.

oh and on the subject of the reading list.

Currently I am supposed to be reading Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – it is fascinating if you’ve any remote interest in maths by the way – and a couple of science books, one of which is Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries by Douglas Palmer. It’s been fascinating and it’s upping my knowledge of geology (desirable) without it necessarily being via a DVD narrated by some unknown with an ominous voice (serious – watch documentaries on the History Channel to get a vibe for what I am complaining about here). There’s a review from Popular Science here. Also in the pile beside my bed is The Science Book: Everything you need to know about the world and how it works.

I go through phases on the book but have found that, with some notable exceptions (Terry Pratchett being the most noticeable), most of my books are generally non-fiction and mainly drawn from science, mathematics, linguistics, history and travel. Oh, and photography. I have a monumental library of photography books at this stage, with a certain specialised interest in sports photography. And cookbooks.

I should probably stop digging on the pile of books front. Suffice to say, Kindle software and ebooks will be revolutionising my life the more the catalogue grows.

Things I wish could be real in every company

I’m not sure how it happened but Google+ seems to be working for me in the way that I want a social network to work; in the way that I wanted twitter to work (but it doesn’t) and in a way that FaceBook has just never worked for me. In the main, it’s pushing higher quality content to me.

One of the things which caught my attention this morning was this from Sergey Brin. It’s not for the amazingness of a hangout between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama although that in itself is a measure of how much the world of communications is changing.

The line which really got me was this:

Incredible. It was just a handful of months ago that +Vic Gundotra and I were at the office late one day talking about how to make communication on what was to become Google+ really dynamic. The discussion turned to the video conferencing technology that another team was building with a completely different product in mind.

“I bet you can just throw that into profiles with a couple of lines of javascript,” I said mostly sarcastically to goad him on. Sure enough about 15 minutes later we were participating in our first hangout thanks to some amazing engineering footwork and maybe a bit more than a couple of lines.

This is basically how video conferencing got into Google+. An off the cuff remark. It was in response to the dilemma of making Google+ more dynamic. I’m not sure what they were talking about there, but what interested me about this was the utter flexibility of the development model in Google that enabled them to do this; to take a piece of functionality that they were developing for one product and implementing it in another product without a convoluted mess of process to get permission to do this. In one way it is an example of that ultimate evil; project scope creep; in another, but more important way, it’s an example of recognising how to make a great product better without being hung up on bureaucratic process.

That takes vision.

Tools appropriate to the task

A couple of things cropped up today. Microsoft were looking for user feedback – I’m happy to give this for the most part so that was done.

Then there was *that* argument. I stopped reading Slashdot because of *that* argument and I think I’ve written about it before on previous sites. It relates to computer operating systems and the tribalism that goes with them.

I run iOS on my mobile devices. I run Windows on my personal computer, Windows is applied to me at work and as far as business systems are concerned, I have a lot of experience with an IBM mainframe.

*That* argument first raised its head in a discussion on mainframes. Put simply, a significant number of slashdot readers were of the opinion that mainframes were obsolete, and should be replaced by Linux server farms. I think that was the first time I came into contact with Linux fanboys to be honest and it was not a pleasant relationship. A key issue I had with the whole argument was that they were unfamiliar with what mainframes did, had to do, but assumed their shiny server farms could do it because they were expert in Linux and loads of servers and…

That’s not to say they couldn’t do what mainframes did. But because they didn’t know exactly what mainframes did, and what was required of said mainframes, they weren’t, in my opinion, qualified to comment one way or the other. *That* debate was interesting because you could see a key difference between basically two generations (I’m comparatively young and most mainframe experts are generally older than me). The older guys, the guys who knew large systems, took the view that there were many systems and many tasks and no system was appropriate for all tasks. That there were some things that mainframes did better, and some things that more modern server farms did better, and likewise on the desktop front. You could not argue that only one OS was able to do everything. It could but that didn’t mean it was any good at it.

Debates of this nature wear me out. Today it was desktop related. One key argument given in favour of anything other than Microsoft Windows is that it’s a) easier to configure and b) easier to use than Windows. In other words, Windows is the worst.

Again, and again, and again, it’s really not that simple. Windows is actually very easy to plug in and play. It’s when you want to do something outside the box that it can be not straightforward. But that lack of straightforwardness is often accepted as normal for Linux installs. And the software you might want to use may not have a Linux version. Photoshop is a key example.

It’s not that there aren’t functional equivalents, and in the Linux world, yes, there is the Gimp. But I’ve used it. And I have paid for Photoshop because it has been worth it to me.

Probably the easiest plug and plays are Macs. But if you’re a technogeek who likes messing around with the innards of an OS, it may not be the best choice for you. In fact, given the way Apple are going with their mobile devices it almost certainly won’t be in the long term.

Ultimately, the point I am making is that it is not true that Linux or Mac or Windows is the only answer to the question. Different OSs, different systems do different things better or worse. It’s almost like the laws of comparative advantage. So your main objective shouldn’t be to religiously devote yourself to one OS. I’m really not impressed if you say unto me that you do everything in Linux because in the grand scheme of things, that does not render you qualified to imply that everyone should do things your way or, indeed, that everyone needs to accomplish the same tasks as you. In other words, different tools fit different requirements and this is true even at the OS level.

Interestingly enough, as it happens, Microsoft, in their user survey today, were all about Google and not, for example, Linux or Mac. As noted by this particularly interesting xkcd:

Mac versus PC via xkcd

The game is changing, basically.

ETA: This post was written before I heard that Steve Jobs had died.

So the presents have started arriving from Open University

Twice in the last couple of weeks, I have missed package deliveries and had to re-arrange forwarding. Both were from the Open University.

Today’s one which was the third, and apparently final mailing for my first maths module, arrived today. It had books for every chapter, and the one that caught my interest – more than anything – was Block D. Block D concentrates on Chance/Probability and it’s what I remember most from 2o years ago.

Chance and probably is quite topical in the UK at the moment because a senior judge has recommended that Bayes theorem not be applied in expert statistical evidence in court cases. This has caused a lot of debate amongst statisticians and mathematicians (including the “he’s probably not qualified to make a call on that in his own right” line of reasoning.

One of the things which saddens me most about the generally low levels of numeracy in Ireland is that people aren’t equipped to have these debates; they’re not equipped to assess the likelihood of things happening based on prior data (like oh, house price crashes). While I’ve signed up for a degree in mathematics and statistics, Open University also does a degree in maths and maths teaching. Given a wider debate about the quality, and the level of qualification, of maths teachers here in Ireland, this is quite interesting.

For me, most of what this year consists of is modelling. I’m interested in this too because I have tangential interests in wave modelling and to a lesser extent, climate modelling. What’s great about all this is that it’s going to provide me with tools to do other things I am interested in beyond the day to day business of work and life. There’s a tiny undisciplined part of me which would really and truly like to hit on Part D before I do anything else because I remember probability from school and liking it very much (and scoring full marks in the probability question in my leaving certificate); but I recognise that some discipline is going to help me most through this.

There is always a lot to be said for learning something new, however, so this makes me quite happy.

How communications changed your view of the world.

Way back in a past life when I was a regular member of a library (when I had fewer plates to spin), I picked up a book called Krakatoa The Day the World Exploded. In addition to all the disaster details about the numbers killed, how they died and how Krakatoa differed to a lot of other volcanic eruptions in the area, one of the things which struck me was how the changes in communication technology at the time caused that to have greater in depth reporting in Europe than pretty much any previous similar – for a given value of similar given that the Krakatoa disaster was historically noteworthy – on account of the telegraph.

You could see this earlier this year when Japan suffered its megaquake and tsunami – the news spread like wildfire around the world because it’s just so easy.

About an hour ago, north western Canada was hit by a 6.7 (currently this is what the USGS is giving for it). It’s not a particularly highly populated area and the epicentre appears to have been some distance from the closest major population centres. I picked up the news on twitter which is where I get most of my news and from there went straight to the USGS. Another of my friends gets a push notification on his phone for any earthquake measuring greater than 5.0.

I’m not a geologist. I’m just curious about a lot of things sometimes and one of the things that catch my interest a bit more than normal is how the earth behaves, in particular, when things go wrong. Hence, I borrow books about Krakatoa blowing apart. And I read articles and watch science specials. I know, for example, that there’s a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park and that it blows at relatively regular intervals and is now running late. I found that fascinating. My flatmate was terrified. But I can’t change how that volcano behaves. I just want to know more about it.

I’m also fascinated in how information from the past is painstakingly collected and collated to tell a story. The earthquake in British Columbia is part of a story I find fascinating and it relates to the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Put simply, every so often, there is a major, major earthquake there. Because that area isn’t so populated, the record of those earthquakes is drawn from the earth. It’s also drawn from Japan because experts in tsunami history have been able to match up a mystery tsunami with an unrecorded earthquake in North America, unremarked there because of the very low population density there. That element of detective work fascinates me.

When the earthquake struck Canada this evening, it automatically flagged for me because I know about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the fact that historically it has generated some serious activities and some significant tsunamis. It’s based on the fact that I’m an information magpie sometimes. My friend who gets the earthquake alerts on his phone wasn’t familiar with this. I can’t remember whether it came to me via some documentary on a cable channel (possibly) although i was reminded of it in a piece I read on the site of a west coast America newspaper the other day, the main thrust of which was to highlight just how unprepared that area is for a major earthquake.

I’m not sure I’d know quite so much about these things if it weren’t for those sources of information like the library when I was younger and now, books on demand courtesy of amazon.com and the kindle software. Yes, I still occasionally watch these things on television because television has an interesting way of presenting information sometimes even if it can be a lot more superficial than the details you get in well written (and illustrated) books. And websites now.

I love that I can go to this amazing vat of knowledge and get what I want. When I ring my mother to tell her about things like this, she reaches for the radio because when she was my age, radio news was internet. For me now I reach for the USGS page and find out all I need to know (like where this thing was on map relative to the CSZ so as to confirm my suspicions).

So I’m back at college again.

I have spent a lot of the last three years trying to figure out what was the best way of getting myself back into a maths trip. I had looked at a possible part time degree in the Dublin Institute of Technology but the online documentation didn’t really attract me, so I waited another bit, searched another lot, and this year, I decided to sign up to start a degree in mathematics and statistics with the Open University.

I did my school leaving examination in Ireland in 1990 which is a frighteningly long time ago. I have been making noise about this for years but have delayed it for various practical reasons linked to normal life. This year, those considerations have not gone away and it doesn’t look like they were likely to in the short term so I decided that I wasn’t going to wait for things I can’t control to sort themselves out so that I could go off and do this. I expect to have forgotten a lot of this; and the revision notes are here beside me. I haven’t worked out how I am going to arrange all this from a practical point of view – I am surrounded by paper as it is.

I toyed with putting up a separate blog about this and how I was getting on, but in the end figured that the best thing to do was to put it onto this blog. So this is by way of a warning to note there will be bits of maths cropping up here.

Easy to use or not.

Rather unexpectedly yesterday I found myself in an online debate on Linux versus Windows. This doesn’t usually happen to me for a couple of reasons:

  • I obey the law of avoiding 386 situations. Arguments which are futile are avoided. Linux versus Windows is futile. There are more fun ways to spend my time;
  • I am a mainframe programmer and past discussions on slashdot.org (wonder if that still even really exists) have taught me that a) mainframe programmers understand different tools are appropriate for different purposes and b) Linux enthusiasts tend to have the fervour of the average recent religious convert (more zealous than the founders themselves and c) too many elements of the argument are subjective anyway.

The argument/debate/online fistycuffs centred on which was easier to use, Linux or Windows. At this stage I have to declare the following interest: I use Windows machines both at work and at home when I’m not TE into a mainframe environment. It’s not that I have anything against open source – philosophically the idea fascinates me – but that various things for which I require a functional computer also require that I run Windows. I have never owned a Mac, although I’ve used them from time to time. So I can’t actually make a call on whether it’s easier to use Windows or Linux. However, pretty much everything I have read suggests that if you’re not a technically minded person, Linux is currently nowhere near out of the box enough.

You could argue that Windows isn’t either, but typically, I don’t have to do much or anything to the box when I buy it, I don’t have to set up anything other than a wireless connection and then it, over a bit of time, sets itself up to a greater or lesser extent. There’s no messing around with drivers, there’s no messing around trying to get different pieces of software to run, you don’t usually have to actually install the operating system, regardless of how easy it may be to someone to install Linux to an empty box.

The reason I got involved was that someone came up with the idea that computers were complicated machines and if they were complicated, then they shouldn’t be easy to use.

I can’t understand this rationale in anything other than the terms of a guild protecting its own interest and mysteries. Lots of things are complicated, but they are easy to use. My example was cars – you no longer have to manually turn the engine, and things rarely go wrong with them (at least in my experience). Compared to how things were in the 1900s when people were practically building their own cars, cars are easy out to function. Likewise refrigerators. There’s a fridge-freezer just five metres away and I don’t have to do anything. I have no idea how it converts warm external air to colder air to keep my cheese from going mouldy and tomorrow’s breakfast at an optimum temperature for summer.

Philosophically, I can’t understand the idea that because, underneath the hood of something is complicated, the end product has to be difficult to use.

I have no doubt that if someone provides you with a Linux box that is all nicely installed and has email and a browser running okay on it, and maybe Open Office, the likelihood is that you’ll be grand, in the way that it’s more or less grand when you go and collect a Windows machine from your nearest retailer. But given that this option is difficult to come by for two reasons a) the OEMs would have to choose a distro and this choice would probably be castigated by some within the community and b) Windows machines are ubiquitous and they typically work out of the box for most people then for most people, getting a Linux box running is just not as obvious or straightforward as getting their Windows box up and running.

A lot of technically minded people have no idea what it’s like not to be technically minded. They miss that people just want to be able to email their kids in America and their boyfriends in Sweden or whatever, they want to be able to read FaceBook and order books from Amazon. I can’t see how this needs to be complicated.

In the grand scheme of debates over Linux versus Windows versus the Volcano, the idea that computers should be difficult to use is one I just can’t buy.