Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Zen-like patience - James May re-assembles a lawnmower

An introduction to developing a Zen-like patience.

If you like this sort of thing, this is a perfect exemplar of precisely the sort of thing you will like. If you don't, ditto.

This lawnmower has 331 bits. I doubt this is intentional. Neatness would either have added an extra two bits, washers would have done, to get an even 333, or left out a bit, one must be otiose, to get 330.

I'm not sure if there's any connection to deep complexity, but the human body starts with 206 bones (well, at the arbitrary point of birth, clearly the zygote has none), and ends up with 350. For a lawnmower to come in at 331, does, if you're suggestible in this way, suggest some lawishness must be involved somewhere.

I could never do this. The number of fiddly bits and stages involved would drive me to distraction. That James May had only one period, of a mere 30 minutes, involving blasphemy, does, indeed, establish that his patience is close to that of a zen master. If you haven't the patience even to watch the demonstration (compressed), of deep patience, it was the piston rings that led to the blasphemy.

It's also a good demonstration of masculinity. It's unlikely that many people find masculinity puzzling, as James observes, it's more femininity that has that reputation. Still, if you do, this helps.

There's the huge grin, showing deep inner peace, at various stages, where a sense of completion is achieved. This may not simply be masculinity, but part of the 'Do' ( Korean 도, Japanese 導 or Chinese 道 [or 道], the 'way-of' or 'path to' working. The way-of-working needed to do something, in this case, long and fiddly.

There's also the 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' style use of the assembly, and stages of the assembly, as metaphors for life.

The sharp blade is supposed to cut business cards. It would have been sufficient to cut just one card, just the once. It is, of course, impossible for anybody who started life as a boy, to do this. He had to cut it three times - for the camera. Probably two or three more times for himself, off-camera.

The film also, incidentally, complies to the Dogme 95 dogma.

Thanks to James Gander  for introducing this to me.

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

I probably shouldn't be impressed by the Cape Town water department, but I am.

I probably shouldn't be impressed by the Cape Town water department, but I am. No doubt they were only doing their job, but I think we can still be impressed by a job well done.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a Saturday, a water main burst in Observatory. It was at the top of Station Road, just below the traffic lights on Lower Main Road. Somebody who saw the damage said that it looked like the aftermath of a small earthquake. We don't get earthquakes in Cape Town much, the last minor tremor was in Tulbagh, 121km away, in December, and, the last big earthquake, the biggest in South African history, was a 6.3 in the same place, in 1969. So he must have known what they looked like from photographs.

It must have been in the early hours, because we still had a trickle at six in the morning.

I'm not sure the first time they were told about it, but they had the area cordoned off, with men working on it, by nine. When we went past at midday, the men had dug a deep trench. When we came past again, at three in the afternoon, they had a huge back-hoe digging an even bigger trench.

The water was back on again at about five.

We are very short of water, at the moment, not, fortunately, anything like as bad as further North, where there is a terrible drought, but the dam water levels this year are the lowest they've been over the past five years, though the levels did build up considerably in February, despite it being the dry season. There's a picture of the levels at our largest reservoir, 'Theewaterskloof' below.

So it's important that bursts are repaired quickly, and good to know just how quickly they can be repaired, and how good our water department is at their jobs. Congratulations!

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Hateful Eight - Quentin Jerome Tarantino's film

Naming a film, 'The Hateful Eight', in order to remind anybody watching that this is your eight film, isn't the act of a modest man, but, if anybody were concerned that Mr Tarantino had been replaced by a  doppelganger, this, along with the extreme, and, somewhat, gratuitous violence in the film, ought to put his mind at rest.

Though Mr Tarantino doesn't credit Laurence Sterne for the smashing of the fourth wall as an art form, he does do it as well as Mr Sterne does in 'Tristam Shandy'. I think he'd call it 'post modern', as, too, no doubt, he'd also label the other devices found in 'Tristam Shandy', like telling the story in a peculiar order, and adding lots of clever self-reference. Odd, really, that such, albeit unconscious, homage should be given to a book published in 1759, by a chap so keen to be hip and 21st Century as Mr. Tarantino, but there it is.

It is a sound point that the animosities of wars, particularly of civil wars, continue for a considerable time after the mass killing has been stopped. He might be right, but I'm not sure if the possible implication this film intends is really accurate. Do so many current American problems really have their ætiology in the Civil War? He certainly does make a good stab, if you excuse the term in this context, at making that point.

The ghastly characters in the film are nicely drawn, and the dialogue between them is often funny. Their perspectives are sharply drawn, and it's interesting to see what things they appear to hold in common. As far as I can see they hold these views in common:

- Guns are a really good thing
- The Civil War was a really bad thing, but certainly the other side's fault
- Lying is a bad thing, particularly when practiced by somebody else
- Lying is, however, not only inevitable, but ubiquitous, so only actions can be believed
- The pecking order is: White male -> White female -> Black Male -> Black Female -> dog -> Mexican
- Capital punishment, in particular, public execution by hanging, is a good thing. Not for everybody, but essential for some.
- Might is right

The film is evidently, at least at some level, intended to be satirical, so, clearly Mr Tarantino believes some, probably most, of these are not only wrong, but currently ubiquitous enough to require satirical treatment.

The well worn device of having the unlikely collection of characters isolated, in this case by a blizzard, works well. I'm not sure that the indulgence of such a long running time is justified. Certain aspects of the plot, signalled with crystal clarity in the first quarter of the film, are only revealed, as if an amazing surprise, a couple of hours later. I think the film could be much improved by reducing it to normal length.

Roy Orbison's song seems apt as a description of the Civil War, Tarantino films generally, and the problems that he highlights, quite well, all in all:

Now the old folks will remember
On that dark and dismal day
How their hearts were choked with pride
As their children marched away
Now the glory is all gone

They are left alone
And there won't be many coming home
No, there won't be many coming home
oh, there won't be many
Maybe five out of twenty
but there won't be many coming home


Friday, January 23, 2015

Moral Copyleft - can open source be closed to immoral use?

The Open Source movement is one of the great modern humanitarian triumphs. There are a number of different licenses that are used to enable the free use and distribution (not necessarily cost-free) of software source code. In particular, it enables the availability of code that can be proven to be free of malicious code (malware), something impossible with software that's distributed 'closed source' in binary.

One important side-effect has been the production of various licensing systems to enable a common pool of intellectual property that's free for everybody to use, not necessarily cost-free, and, usually, modify and redistribute, as long as the licensing follows the changes.

Though it is a humanitarian triumph, and has been championed by humanitarians who objected to the locking away of intellectual property by conventional copyright, there are some problems with it. In particular, it places no restriction on who can use the IP. So it can be put to evil, non-humanitarian uses - something almost certainly not the intent of the humanitarians who put their property under a creative commons or copyleft license.

I propose an alternative license, derivative from copyleft or creative commons licenses. The final license would need to be drawn up legally to avoid as many unintended consequences as possible. However, the idea is simple.

A 'Moral Copyleft' license would, allow free use, modification and distribution, but only for moral uses. For example, a 'Moral Copyleft' license could refuse permission for any arms manufacturer or dealer or organisation that promotes the non-consesual killing of human beings - states that practice capital punishment, or that export terrorism, or practice slavery, or supply drugs or other equipment for use by executioners or armies.

This would prevent a future linux-like platform from being used in military drones, or to manufacture poison gas for use against humans.

There is no reason, today, why somebody should not license work for that cannot be used to promote the eating of meat or working on Sunday or any of the many things individual people might be against.

The difference with this proposal is that, as with creative commons licenses, a free, easy to use, license would be available to any humanitarian who wished to make IP available to everybody, but not at the expense of humanity.

The license would need to reference some body, or bodies, that register immoral usage. Amnesty International, perhaps, or the Campaign against the Arms Trade could keep a register.

Whether other organisations that deliberately kill human beings, such as tobacco companies, would fall under the prohibition of such licenses would be part of the debate needed during the design of the license(s). There might be various levels of moral license, with the basic one being against weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, with more stringent ones available for activities less generally recognised as immoral.

The first step would be to canvas support for this proposal. If there was support, an Aunt Sally license or licenses could then be drawn up for comment and discussion. After that, with sponsorship, a watertight license could be drafted and made available, under its own license (not much of a limitation as it'd be a strange weapons manufacturer that would wish to have a moral license!).

The license could also prohibit use by organisations that act against responsible environmental behaviour - companies that contribute to irresponsible logging in the Amazon, say.

This would enable a moral philanthropist in the future, to donate money to a trust for the development of software or hardware for humanitarian use to have the application of a moral license a condition for funding.

Commercial companies wishing to enhance their environmental and moral image could also use this license for their commercial open source products.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why do people spend money when they can get something much better free?

This is something that I find very puzzling. I do understand why somebody might wish to buy a diamond, rather than a cubic zirconium - even though it takes an expert to tell the difference, and the subjective experience is identical (well, not quite, because you can have a much bigger cubic zirconium for much less), and there's the benefit of being certain that you haven't bought a blood diamond, the reason people buy them is precisely because they are expensive. De Beers has spent a fortune in marketing, and the world's diamond miners ensure that diamonds only trickle into the market so the price can be kept high.

Do people buy software because it's expensive, though? Is there really some social benefit in announcing that you've been ripped-off? I don't see it.

Many, many, years ago Hewlett-Packard had an e-mail server. Quite a good one. It needed upgrading to deal, but it was basically sound, it was also popular, and sold quite well. However, HP decided to throw the product (HPmail) away. This was simply because, by so doing, they could get a deal with Microsoft to pay much, much less for their software licenses. This was before the days of Linux, and before the days of Apple's OS/X, so, as they saw it, they didn't have much choice, other than to use Microsoft's desktop. It does explain why there aren't many companies offering competitors to Microsoft exchange, though.

However, as everybody knows, well, everybody technical, you don't need exchange at all. You can give your users Outlook as their client, if they really want that, rather than the better solution of Mail on a Mac (much, much cheaper to support, much more reliable, much faster and much easier to use, of course - so, actually, hugely cheaper in terms of ROI an TCO), but use Linux, free, instead of exchange and have a much faster system.

Also, we know from Edward Snowden, even with a firewall, your exchange server is an open book, a complete security disaster, if you worry about security at all, you'd certainly not have one.

Are there any kickbacks? Do IT people who manage to get their employers to buy Exchange get any money or other inducements from the distributors or from Microsoft?

I'd truly like to know, because it's important to know from a governance perspective. A company is obliged, under governance, to make the best use of company assets - paying for an inferior product is poor governance. If this happens, or has happened, a company is also in danger of prosecution under the UK bribery act - if it has any offices in the UK.

The pharmaceutical industry has paid thousands of millions of dollars in fines, over the past few years, for bribing doctors, hospitals, psychiatrists, chemists and others to promote their drugs and force expensive, and often inferior, drugs on us.

Is it likely that the IT industry is completely free of this sort of thing?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Should investment companies or funds be allowed to vote as shareholders?

This is a philosophical question, with implications for jurisprudence. A company is given the status of a corporation (from 'corpus' a body) in the legal fiction that it is an independent agent that can, like human beings, own things and enter into contracts. One question, raised in the 'Unity of the Mind' (ISBN: 9780312120177) is whether there is such a thing as a 'group mind', that would mean that, like Hobbes Leviathan, companies would be genuine agents. This question is connected, but different.

If you own shares in a company, you, as an owner, can influence the direction the company takes by voting at general meetings. That's what that sense of 'ownership' means. If, though, you buy shares in a fund, an investment trust, say, then you're buying a company that buys companies. You're effectively authorising the fund to act as your proxy when voting as a shareholder for the companies that it has bought.

So far so ordinary. The effect this has, though, is to take the control of companies away from direct human control. If most of the shares of a company are owned by other companies, then the directors of the company no longer need to appeal to all their shareholders in order to achieve what they want, they only have to convince the few people, who have the effective proxies from thousands, that it is in their interest.

That's where the temptation to corruption arises. Instead of the stock market helping companies become more open and effective because they are controlled by the will of many shareholders, instead, a few individual humans, who don't own any of the shares themselves, but make a living out of charging those they hold shares for in proxy, make the decisions, because only a few of them are the shareholders.

So the power of these institutional investors tempts companies to court them, rather than the actual shareholders. Instead of needing to, for example, make the company more environmentally friendly, in the interests of many shareholders, they can simply take one person out to expensive lunches or, if they're less scrupulous, bribe directly with money, an not bother.

If voting shares could only be held by natural people, not corporations, investment companies could still make money from owning shares, but the distortion of the control of companies by companies would be avoided. Not completely, because institutional investors could still manipulate companies by taking rewards for buying or selling shares, but this would be less dangerous as there'd still be individual stock holders to prevent the corporation from acting wrongly.

If you see corporations not as legal fictions, but as actual entities, with the same rights and power as individuals, then none of this is a problem.

There is, though, the problem that, since they are not individuals, companies cannot be put in prison. The sanctions open to controlling people are missing.

If you hold that companies should only be owned (in the sense of controlling ownership) by natural persons the danger that rogue companies pose to humanity, by, for example, turning a country into a corporate plutocracy by bribing the governments to act in the interests of the companies, rather than natural human owners, is much reduced.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Art, performance, composition and work - thoughts after watching 'Tim's Vermeer'

A fascinating film. If X -> Z and Y -> Z is X <-> Y?

That's the question. If it is, then Vermeer used almost exactly the same optical equipment. I wasn't convinced before, but, now, it'd take some amazing evidence to convince me that Vermeer didn't.

I warmed to Tim over the film and, somehow, it is necessary (and fun) to watch the film to get the full picture, so to speak.

With Beethoven, you don't get the conductor and orchestra modestly saying that they'd just 'copied his composition' - rather you admire the performance.

Before today, I thought that performance art was a load of tosh. I've now seen Tim perform a work of visual art that really was a magnificent performance - almost like watching Beethoven's 5th being performed.

It reinforces, too, the point that the value of money is not that it brings leisure. For years there was the question about what people would do if there was no 'need to work' for money... but the question was mistaken. We have a need to work, that's far more fundamental than doing it for the money. Yes, of course, one needs money to live - but it was a persistent illusion that that was the reason for work.

The real motivation for work is delight in the work itself. It's been known a long time - karma yoga is the 'yoga of work'. It's proven by the massive amount of hard work that's produced wikipaedia - all of it done for no monetary reward. It's shown too by open source software being so much better than software that's written commercially.

Eliot could have been talking about the rediscovery of work:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

What will we do with all the 'leisure time' that computers, machines, robots and the like bring us? We'll work.