Donate

Categories

Advert

XHTML

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Dr Suelette Dreyfus LCA Keynote

Dr Suelette Dreyfus gave an interesting LCA keynote speech on Monday (it’s online now for people who aren’t attending LCA [1]). One of the interesting points she made was regarding the greater support for privacy protection in Germany, this is apparently due to so many German citizens having read their own Stasi files.

The section of her talk about the technology that is being used against us today was very concerning. I wonder whether we should plan to move away from using any hardware or closed source software from the US, China, and probably most countries other than Germany.

We really need to consider these issues at election time. I have previously blogged some rough ideas about having organisations such as Linux Australia poll parties to determine how well they represent the interests of citizens who use Linux [2]. I think that such things are even more important now. Steven Levy wrote an interesting summary of the situation for Wired [3].

At the end of her talk Suelette suggested that Aspies might be more likely to be whistle-blowers due to being unable to recognise the social signals about such things (IE managers say that they won’t punish people for speaking out but most people recognise that to be lies). It’s a plausible theory but I’m worried that managers might decide to avoid hiring Aspies because of this. I wonder how many managers plan to have illegal activity as an option. But I guess that having criminals refuse to hire me wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Length of Conference Questions

After LCA last year I wrote about “speaking stacks” and conference questions [1]. In that post I did some rough calculations on the amount of conference time taken by questions and determined that anyone who asks one question per day at a conference such as LCA (with about 600 delegates) is going to be asking more than 1/600 of all questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone shouldn’t ask more than one question in a day, but they should carefully consider whether their questions are adding value to other delegates.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is the length of questions which seems to be a separate problem and it seems that we should consider keynote speeches separately as they involve all delegates. The regular conference lectures involve 4 to 6 streams running in parallel which means that in aggregate more questions can be asked.

LCA has one keynote for each day including the mini-conf days, so that’s 5 keynote speeches in total. If each keynote has 20 minutes of question time (and most keynote speeches probably have less) then there’s 100 minutes of question time for the entire conference. For a genuine question (IE not a statement) that is non-trivial (anything that has a yes/no answer probably isn’t interesting to the whole audience) the answer is probably going to be about three times as long as the question. Given some overheads for applause etc that means that the amount of time spent asking questions would be something less than 20 minutes at keynote speeches over the entire conference.

If every delegate asked one keynote-speech question in the entire conference then that 20 minutes of questions would allow each delegate to spend 2 seconds asking a question. If 10% of delegates each asked one question and no-one asked a second question then each question could take an average of 20 seconds. Given the acoustic issues of asking a question from the back of the hall it seems unlikely to get a speaking rate of much more than a word a second, so 20 seconds of speaking would be in the range of 25 words (one tweet) to 50 words (if you speak at the typical speed of audio books according to Wikipedia). I think that audio-book speed isn’t going to work well so a question asked at a keynote speech should probably be of a length that would fit on twitter.

So if a question wouldn’t fit on twitter then maybe a blog post or a discussion after the lecture would be a more suitable option.

Before Asking a Question

I think that before asking a question at a keynote speech people should consider whether that question would fit on twitter. They should also consider whether it is strictly a question and whether it will be of interest to other delegates.

If your question is significantly longer than something that would fit on twitter then the next thing to consider is whether you are more important than other delegates. Because when someone asks more or longer questions than other people it will be interpreted as an implicit “I am more important than you” statement by many other delegates.

Some Disclaimers

Firstly I’m not making any suggestions here for people who run conferences. I’m making suggestions for delegates who are considering how they should act.

The next disclaimer is that the educational benefit of the conference has the priority. If you have a question that really helps other delegates learn something which takes a little longer to ask then that’s OK.

Finally I apply the same criteria to my own decisions. There were several questions I considered asking at the keynote this morning, but I decided that none of them met the criteria of being short enough and generally interesting enough. There is one issue I will discuss with the speaker privately and I’ll probably write at least one blog post related to the lecture.

Sound Device Order with ALSA

One problem I have had with my new Dell PowerEdge server/workstation [1] is that sound doesn’t work correctly. When I initially installed it things were OK but after installing a new monitor sound stopped working.

The command “aplay -l” showed the following:
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: Generic [HD-Audio Generic], device 3: HDMI 0 [HDMI 0]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 1: Speaker [Logitech USB Speaker], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

So the HDMI sound hardware (which had no speakers connected) became ALSA card 0 (default playback) and the USB speakers became card 1. It should be possible to convert KDE to use card 1 and then have other programs inherit this, but I wasn’t able to configure that with Debian/Wheezy.

My first attempt at solving this was to blacklist the HDMI and motherboard drivers (as suggested by Lindsay on the LUV mailing list). I added the following to /etc/modprobe.d/hdmi-blacklist.conf:
blacklist snd_hda_codec_hdmi
blacklist snd_hda_intel

Blacklisting the drivers works well enough. But the problem is that I will eventually want to install HDMI speakers to get better quality than the old Logitech portable USB speakers and it would be convenient to have things just work.

Jason white suggested using the module options to specify the ALSA card order. The file /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf in Debian comes with an entry specifying that the USB driver is never to be card 0, which is exactly what I don’t want. So I commented out the previous option for snd-usb-audio and put in the following ones to replace it:
# make USB 0 and HDMI/Intel anything else
options snd-usb-audio index=0
options snd_hda_codec_hdmi=-2
options snd_hda_intel=-2

Now I get the following from “aplay -l” and both KDE and mplayer will play to the desired card by default:
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: Speaker [Logitech USB Speaker], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 1: Generic [HD-Audio Generic], device 3: HDMI 0 [HDMI 0]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

Political Advocacy in Clubs

One topic that often gets discussed when it’s near election time is whether clubs and societies should be “political”. Some organisations are limited in what they can do, for example in some jurisdictions religious organisations can theoretically lose their tax exempt status if they advocate for one party. In practice any organisation that has a wide membership will have a variety of political views represented so a policy of directly supporting one candidate or party is likely to lose some members.

A common practice among some clubs is to send questionnaires to parties before elections. This might cause a policy change in the parties that do whatever it takes to get votes (as opposed to the parties who devise policy based on principle). But it also provides members a list of how the parties compare on the basis of the criteria that matter to the club.

I think that organisations such as Linux Australia [1] and the Linux Users of Victoria [2] should send such questionnaires and publish an analysis of the results. I previously suggested a few questions that could be asked [3], the last one received some negative comments for being too tabloid but the others got some agreement. But obviously there would need to be some discussion about which questions are in scope and how they should be asked. Such a discussion would take a while and would need to be started well before an election was called, I think if we start now we should be able to get it done before the next federal election is called.

There is one Australian political party that has a consistent record of having IT policies that are in line with the general aims of Linux Australia and which also has policies that meet the social standards that are generally agreed by most of the membership (EG opposing discrimination). But I know that there are some members of the Linux community who advocate various forms of discrimination and would vote accordingly so advocating for that party would get some negative reactions. But if someone wants to vote for a party that advocates discrimination against minority groups I don’t think that there’s any harm in providing information to allow them to vote for a pro-discrimination party that has a reasonable IT policy. In any case it doesn’t seem likely that we can get most of the membership of an organisation like Linux Australia to agree on what parties are unacceptable, so sending a questionnaire to all parties avoids that debate.

I would like to see this sort of thing done by LUGs for all state and territory elections. I will be involved in the process with LUV for the Victorian elections, but I have to just hope that my blog posts inspire people in other states and territories – if anyone has already started on this then please let me know. I will also be involved with getting this done for the federal elections with Linux Australia, hopefully this post will help get people interested in that.

The Nexus 5

The Nexus 5 is the latest Android phone to be endorsed by Google (and manufactured by LG). It’s getting good reviews and the price is good for the specs. I just bought one for my wife, I got her the 32G version because when I bought her a Nexus 4 at the start of the year [1] I chose the 8G version and regretted it ever since. The size of apps is always increasing (some Android games need more than 1G of storage) and higher resolution screens drives the use of high resolution video.

Appearance

back of Nexus 4, Nexus 5, and Samsung Galaxy Note 2front of Nexus 4, Nexus 5, and Samsung Galaxy Note 2

Above I have pictures of the Nexus 4, the Nexus 5, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. The photo of the phone backs captures part of the sparkling pattern on the back of the Nexus 4 and it looks much better in real life (IMHO) because it shimmers as you move the phone. The Nexus 4 looks so good that there’s even a transparent case specifically designed to show off the rear panel [2]. It doesn’t seem likely that anyone will design such a transparent case for the Nexus 5, it’s a good phone to cover up IMHO.

The Note 2 isn’t the most attractive phone, but I think it has a streamlined elegance of being optimised for it’s function. The Nexus 5 has it’s camera sticking out, it would be better if they had just made the entire phone thicker and given it a bigger battery but for people who don’t want good battery life I guess it’s a way of providing a better focal length without making the phone thicker. Sticking the IMEI number on the back of the phone will be useful on rare occasions (and might be a security issue on more occasions) but it definitely makes the phone less attractive.

Full HD

The quality of the Full HD (1920*1080) display is obvious. The text is slightly clearer when viewing maps and the graphics in Ingress look nicer. Before I used the Nexus 5 I didn’t think that there would be any benefit in having such a high resolution in a phone but now I realise that I was wrong. The higher resolution is clearly better.

Chris Chavez wrote an article for Phandroid about a rumored Samsung phone with a 2560*1440 display [3]. If such a device had a 6.6″ display (IE a new version of the Galaxy Mega) then it would have the same dot-pitch as the Nexus 5. If such a device had a 5.5″ display (like the Galaxy Note 3) then it would have a 15% greater DPI than the Nexus 5.

It seems that a higher DPI provides a real benefit and this is probably the biggest reason to choose the Nexus 5 over the Nexus 4 and most other Android devices.

Comparing with the Nexus 4

The Nexus 5 has the same amount of RAM (2G), a slightly larger display (4.95″ vs 4.7″), higher resolution (a big deal), faster CPU and GPU, and optical zoom. Faster CPU isn’t usually going to be a big deal (apart from the fact that more CPU power is needed as well as more GPU power to drive the higher resolution display).

The Nexus 5 can come with 16G or 32G of storage while the Nexus 4 has options of 8G and 16G. If you want more than 16G of storage then that’s a real benefit for the Nexus 5, but if you only need 16G then it’s not an issue.

It seems that when playing Ingress on a Nexus 5 it’s more likely that running another program (such as Google Hangouts) will cause Ingress to be reloaded than it does on a Nexus 4 or a Galaxy Note 2. While I haven’t done a good comparison of the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 5 in this regard I’ve compared the Galaxy Note 2 and the Nexus 5 well. My Galaxy Note 2 (which has many daemons running) is much less likely to cause a reload of Ingress (IE have run low on memory and terminated Ingress) than the Nexus 5 my wife is using (which has very little running). So it seems that the OS build on the Nexus 5 uses more memory than the Galaxy Note 2.

The Nexus 5 has Gorilla Glass 3 vs Gorilla Glass 2 on the Nexus 4. As my older Android phones with Gorilla Glass 1 (Galaxy S and Sony Ericsson Xperia X10i) didn’t get any scratches that matter I don’t think this is a benefit for me. Maybe if I lived near a beach I’d care more about this.

I think that the most significant benefit of the Nexus 5 over the Nexus 4 is the higher resolution display. The optical zoom should provide a theoretical benefit when taking photos, whether that results in better pictures in practice would probably depend on how you hold your phone, the available light, and other factors.

I think that if it was possible to buy a Nexus 4 at a sensible price (IE something less than the $250 that Google last charged) then for most people the Nexus 4 would be a better choice than the Nexus 5. But as ebay is full of Nexus 4 phones selling for a higher prices than the Nexus 5 it seems that buying a Nexus 5 is the only option. The range of phones that Kogan sells [4] doesn’t have anything for the same price that compares on features.

Heat

The heat produced by the Nexus 5 is significant and noticable. After some light Ingress playing on a cold day my Galaxy Note 2 with a gel case (that keeps it warm) reported itself as having a battery temperature of 34C. My wife’s Nexus 5 reported a temperature of 43C. While the thermometer in the phone might not be the most accurate I don’t think there was an accuracy problem, holding my wife’s phone was unpleasant and felt like it could burn my hand if I held it tight (40C is the minimum temperature for burns).

It seems that a Nexus 5 isn’t a good choice if you want to play Ingress in a warm part of the world (EG most of Australia in summer). Also heat dissipated is directly proportional to power use which is going to be a problem for a phone that doesn’t permit replacing it’s battery.

Conclusion

I’m quite disappointed with the Nexus 5. I expected it to be at least as good as the Nexus 4 in every way and better in many ways. Instead it’s not always as good as the Nexus 4 and the ways that it is better won’t necessarily provide benefits for everyone.

The heat and power use problems are really going to hurt the use of it. But I guess we can always hope that Google release a new Android build that reduces the power use, they might even have a new build that uses less RAM too.

I would not consider getting a Nexus 5 for my own use. For my use the Note 2 is clearly more suitable, the larger screen more than compensates for the clarity that the Nexus 5 gets from it’s high resolution display. Also I REALLY like having a hardware home button. I’ll probably get a Note 3 when the price drops, I’m not interested in paying $649 for a phone and I’m also not interested in replacing a phone that’s less than a year old. So maybe I’ll get a Note 3 in the second half of next year.

Links December 2013

Andres Lozano gave an interesting TED talk about the use of electrodes inside the brain (deep brain stimulation) to treat Alzheimers disease, Parkinson’s disease, and depression [1].

Daniel Pocock wrote an interesting post commenting on some bad political decisions being made in Australia titled “Evacuating Australia” [2]. You can read that as a suggestion to leave Australia or to try and make Australia better.

Marco Tempest gave an interesting TED talk about Nikola Tesla [3]. The presentation method is one that I’ve never seen before so I recommend watching the talk even if you already know all about Tesla.

Charmian Gooch gave an interesting TED talk about global corruption [4]. I think we need people to send the information on shell company ownership to organisations like Wikileaks. The punishment for leaking such information would be a lot less than Chelsea Manning is getting and the chance of getting caught is also low.

Rich Mogul wrote an interesting and insightful article for Macworld about the Apple approach to security problems [5]. To avoid the problem of users disabling security features they work to make the secure way of doing things EASIER for the user. That won’t work with all security problems but it’s something we need to think about when working on computer security.

Ray Raphael gave an interesting TED talk about the parts of the US revolution that don’t appear in history books [6]. He warns the listener to beware of the narrative forms, but another way to interpret his talk is that you should present your version of history in the narrative form that is best accepted. That lesson is well known and it’s easy to see history being deliberately distorted in most media outlets.

Will Wright gave an interesting TED talk about how he designed the game Spore and his ideas about games in general [7]. Spore is a really good game.

Chris Lintott gave an interesting TED talk about crowd-sourced astronomy titled “How to Discover a Planet from Your Sofa” [8]. He referenced the Zooniverse.org site which lists many crowd-sourced science projects [9].

Jake Socha gave an interesting TED talk about flying snakes, you have to see this to believe it [10].

Nikita Bier gave an interesting TED talk about his webapp to analyse economic policies [11]. Apparently 60% of people were going to vote in their best economic interest before seeing his site and 66% would do so afterwards – that could change an election result.

Anya Kamenetz wrote an interesting article for Salon about The Iliad Project which aims to use Indigogo to help identify new anti-biotics [12]. The current ways of discovering anti-biotics aren’t working, lets hope this one does.

Peter Finocchiaro wrote an interesting Salon article about how right-wing politicians in the US were opposed to Nelson Mandela [13] – racism meets anti-communism. Katie McDonough wrote an interesting Salon article about Rick Santorum and Bill O’Reilly comparing “Obamacare” to apartheid while supposedly honoring Nelson Mandela [14], Katie also notes that Nelson enshrined universal healthcare in the South African constitution – something all countries should do.

Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a Salon article about Susan Boyle’s announcement about being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome [15]. Not a surprise though, some people can be diagnosed with Autism by merely watching them on TV.

Amelia Hill wrote an article for The Guardian/The Observer about the educational results of Home Schooling [16]. Apparently Home-Schooled kids learn significantly more and “home-educated children of working-class parents achieved considerably higher marks in tests than the children of professional, middle-class parents and that gender differences in exam results disappear among home-taught children”. Wow, Home Schooling beats gender and class problems! I’m sure it’s even better for GLBT kids too.

Robert Reich wrote an interesting Salon article about the way rich people in the US give tax-deductable (taxpayer supported) donations to “charities” that benefit themselves [17].

Dan Savage wrote a very funny review of Sarah Palin’s latest Christmas book, one classic quote is “why should I have to read the whole thing? Lord knows Sarah Palin didn’t write the whole thing” [18]. He makes a good point that we should use the term “happy holidays” instead of “happy Christmas” just to show that we aren’t assholes.

Dell PowerEdge T110

In June 2008 I received a Dell PowerEdge T105 server to run in my home for a client [1]. That system has run well for over 5 years for the purposes of my client and also as my own home fileserver and as a workstation. But now it’s getting a bit old, while it was still basically working the cooling fans were getting noisy, faster systems are available, and it was crashing occasionally which could have been due to hardware or software.

On the 7th of November I got a new Dell PowerEdge T110. It’s got a i3-3220 CPU (speed of 4218 according to cpubenchmark.net) which is a lot better than the AMD 1212 (speed of 982). It takes up to 4*3.5″ SATA disks (as opposed to 2 disks) and has more options for memory expansion. Next time I run out of disk space I’ll add another RAID-1 pair of disks instead of buying new disks.

Generally this system is much the same as the one it replaces. It’s a cheap server which unfortunately lacks sound hardware and usable video hardware. Sound is a problem I already solved with USB speakers but for the new system I bought a PCIe video card. Fortunately the system has PCIe*16 sockets (which apparently only have PCIe*8 wires) which avoids the problem I had in the past trying to obtain a suitable video card.

The crashes turned out to be due to BTRFS and now that I’ve made some tweaks everything is running well.

I’ll probably buy another Dell PowerEdge in about 5 years time.

A Basic Income for Australia

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the concept of a Basic Income (Wikipedia), largely due to the efforts to change the Swiss constitution to provide a Basic Income [1]. The concept of a Basic Income is that residents get a fixed payment without having to be sick, disabled, looking for work, or eligible for other forms of social security.

A Basic Income wouldn’t replace all other forms of social security, one of the most obvious examples is that sick people will often need money for medical care in additional to living expenses. Also I believe that it shouldn’t be means tested in any way. I think that one of the problems with current payment schemes is that there are complex eligibility criteria which require effort for the applicant and for government agencies to prevent accidental or fraudulent over-payment. The tax rates could be raised slightly to make it revenue neutral.

Newstart

In Australia the main form of social security for unemployed people at the moment is called “Newstart” [2]. Currently Newstart payments range from a maximum of $501 per fortnight for a single person ($13,026 per annum), to a maximum of $699.90 per fortnight for someone who is a carer.

The Newstart payments start to decrease if the recipient earns more than $62 per fortnight. The minimum wage in Australia is $16.37 per hour for permanent work or $20.30 for casual work [3]. So if someone works for more than 3 hours at a casual rate (and I can’t imagine 4 hours a fortnight being anything other than casual) then their Newstart payments will decrease. The payment decreases are fairly significant, for every dollar that is earned about 50 cents will be deducted from the payments. That’s a great incentive to either avoid opportunities to do part-time work or to do cash-only work that’s outside the tax system.

The most obvious way of implementing a Basic Income would be to replace Newstart. Then anyone who is in that situation would be free to just not get a job – which would be OK IMHO as people who don’t want to work probably wouldn’t do a good job if the government forced them to get a job. People who are unemployed who want to work could work as much as they want and scale up according to what their employer asks and how much money they need.

Currently the full-time minimum wage is $622.20 per week (I’m not sure exactly how they get that from $16.37). That’s almost 2.5* the Newstart allowance for a single person (but less than twice the Newstart allowance for a carer). While Newstart (and the other forms of social security) don’t provide a great income, it seems that the difference between Newstart and the minimum wage isn’t that great – particularly when you consider that working involves some expenses for travel etc. There doesn’t seem to be a great financial incentive for someone to leave Newstart and get a minimum wage job.

People Who Want Social Security

Some people think it’s great to get government payments while others find it embarrassing to need such payments and won’t necessarily apply if they are eligible. I think that the current system of forcing people to apply for social security is a way of discouraging people who find themselves unexpectedly in a difficult situation but doesn’t discourage people who are happy not to work. This seems to effectively reduce the incidence of payments to the people who most tax-payers would regard as the most worthy recipients.

Economics

Charles Stross wrote about some ideas related to this [4]. He suggests that as the workforce participation has been steadily reducing due to technology we should move to a social model that isn’t based around working to live but working to buy luxuries that aren’t covered by the Basic Income.

One of the many economic changes related to a Basic Income is that the minimum wage could be smaller than it might otherwise be. For example if the minimum wage was decreased by the same amount that the Basic Income provided then the minimum income would remain the same while employers would pay less, this would affect the viability of certain types of contract work web sites if they were subject to minimum wage laws (currently they just ignore the minimum wage laws by paying based on job completion instead of hours worked). I don’t think that the minimum wage should decrease that much though, currently employers are able to run viable businesses with the minimum wage laws and I don’t think that a Basic Income should be used as a way of helping corporations avoid paying their employees.

If we had a Basic Income then there’s many ways that it could be used to stabilise the economy. If people could pay their rent even if they lost their job then a down-turn in one area of the economy wouldn’t immediately affect other areas. Also if rent payments were deducted automatically from an account used to receive the Basic Income then landlords would be more likely to rent to poor people as they could be guaranteed to receive rent payments (it would be easy to have a contractual agreement for rent to take priority and have bank computers enforce that).

The Implementation Problem

I don’t think that my idea would have any significant negative effects. It wouldn’t decrease government revenues if tax was adjusted accordingly. It wouldn’t make people stop working as people who don’t want to work already avoid it. It would help people who are out of work to get work by reducing the barriers to entry in terms of paperwork and of unreasonable cuts to Newstart making it bad value to take part time work.

I think that the big problem with implementing it is people who want to prevent poor people from having opportunities. They want to reduce social security and minimum wages even though such changes will in the long run only give less tax revenue and greater expense in law enforcement. It seems rather ironic that such hostility often comes from people at the low end of the middle class whos jobs are most likely to be at risk from new technology.

As on-going technological development reduces the number of workers that are required to keep things running we need to have some form of payment to the people who aren’t doing enough work to survive. A decent Basic Income is a much better option than giving Newstart payments and forcing a significant portion of the population into a degrading search for jobs that don’t exist. As that’s the inevitable future I think we should make political changes to deal with it sooner rather than later. However a Basic Income might be implemented now it’s surely going to be a lot better than what might happen if we wait until the majority of the population are unemployed before doing something about it.

A Better University

I previously wrote about the financial value of a university degree [1], my general conclusion is that the value is decreasing for most fields of employment that don’t have a legal requirement for a degree. In the past I wrote about some ideas for a home university [2], basically extending the home-schooling concept to a university level.

I recently read John Scalzi’s post about being poor [3], many of the comments address the difficulty of getting to college and how it impacts career possibilities. From reading that it seems that my ideas about a “home university” are mostly based around what middle-class people can afford. Also getting a job afterwards will probably be a lot easier for someone who was born into the middle classes.

It seems to me that a large part of the problem with the university system is the expectation that they will both provide for academic research and train people for jobs. Dr. David Helfand has some great ideas for running a university to give the higher education that a university is supposed to provide rather than the work training that most universities actually provide [4]. His ideas aren’t theoretical, they have been implemented and proven to work. Note that Dr Helfand’s talk starts slowly, the second half is the best (for those of you with short attention spans). The fact that most people think of a university degree in terms of getting a job seems to be a failure of the university system to fulfill it’s original aim.

If Dr Helfand’s ideas take off then it would really address the problem of universities not educating people. But that still leaves the issue of job training.

Is a Degree Mandatory?

I think that to some degree people expect that a university degree is necessary job training even when it isn’t. I wonder what would happen if it was generally agreed that the right thing to do was to search for a job between the end of high school and the start of university, then anyone who got a suitable offer could defer their university course and see what career success they could achieve without it. When I was at school the general idea was that after completing year 12 everyone just had a holiday until the start of university as the entire point of school was to get into university. While hiring managers prefer candidates who have degrees they also prefer to hire people who will accept a lower salary, so hiring an 18yo with no degree may give better value than a 21yo who has a degree.

I believe that making university degrees more accessible has reduced inequality which is a good thing. But making degrees mandatory (which is widely believed by high school students and thus is the situation that they have to deal with) contributes to greater inequality. While university doesn’t cost much by middle-class standards it is still expensive for poor people.

If a university degree wasn’t considered to be mandatory then the number of people employed to teach at a university level would be smaller. This would hopefully mean that the average skill of university lecturers would increase (I hope that the least skillful lecturers would be the ones to find work elsewhere).

Preferring Not To

I’ve just read Bartleby the Scrivener which is a short story about a scrivener who refused to work saying “I’d prefer not to”.

It reminded me of some situations in the computer industry. I’ve never seen a single case where someone preferred not to work when everyone around them (colleagues and management) wanted them to work. But then the incidence of having an entire team and management wanting to work efficiently isn’t nearly as common as one might imagine.

In some cases it’s desired that someone not work, such as a former colleague who was hired as a sysadmin but did nothing but change backup tapes (a few hours work per week). Not having him login as root improved the general reliability of the servers but it was fortunate that we never needed to restore from backups…

One time I had a colleague who preferred to spend most of his time in the office searching the Internet for videos of street fights. I have often told colleagues that I would prefer them to work, but in the case of a guy who’s only hobby is street-fighting I decided to let it go.

Managing people can be difficult, particularly for someone who doesn’t like disagreements. Some managers that I’ve reported to seemed to prefer not to manage in an apparent attempt to avoid disputes. One time when I complained about a colleague not even having a suitable computer to permit doing any work a manager responded with the rhetorical question “what do you expect me to do?”. That manager didn’t do any annual reviews of staff for over a year, he only eventually did some reviews because he was told that his scheduled promotion was on hold until he got them done. I got the impression that at least two levels of management preferred not to work at that company.

Sometimes it just gets weird though, such as the occasion when I was the only member of a team and the manager who was supposedly managing no-one but me never seemed to have time to have a meeting with me. But he didn’t want me to bypass him and talk directly to other people in the company, so he preferred not to work and not to have anyone else do his job.

Most of the companies that I’ve worked for in a full-time capacity didn’t seem to have any effective technical interviews (note that I’ve mostly worked for financial companies and ISPs not free software companies). So it seems that anyone with minimal computer skills who wants a well paying job could just send out a CV to a bunch of recruiting agencies, get interviewed by enough companies to eventually hit one without a technical interview process and then find a job that doesn’t require work.

Depression

The Wikipedia page about Bartleby the Scrivener [2] suggests that Bartleby was depressed. I wonder how much of the lack of performance I’ve witnessed has been due to depression. There appears to be a strong correlation between work environments that cause depression and people preferring not to work.

Maybe managers should be considering how to make work less depressing to try and get more effective employees (in terms of quality and quantity of work). One example of this is the sysadmin team death spiral I’ve witnessed where no-one can automate solving problems (EG by cron jobs to manage resource usage and analysis tools to find minor problems before they become major problems) because everyone is dedicated to fixing things that break needlessly (EG systems crashing due to lack of disk space). When people start getting control over recurring problems and automating things then the work becomes increasingly about solving problems and less about implementing the same manual processes every day/week and it’s more fun and effective for everyone.

At the BoF on depression at LCA 2013 one delegate stated that many companies have people in HR who can arrange support for depressed employees. Apparently if you are depressed and you work for a company that’s large enough to have a HR department then it can be beneficial to talk to HR about it. That probably works well in the case where an employee is depressed but the company is working well. But in the case where the company isn’t working well it seems unlikely to help.

David Graeber wrote an interesting article about “Bullshit Jobs” [3]. He goes a bit far, I don’t think that late night pizza delivery is a bullshit job and actuaries are useful to society. But his points about the existence of useless jobs are reasonable.

Management Levels

I sometimes wonder whether there is some benefit in establishing social norms about working and then having management take little interest in how it happens. If a team works well together then management could just set deadlines (which would be negotiated with employees who know what’s possible) and let the team work out how to do it. Then instead of having one manager for each team of ~10 people who theoretically tracks what everyone is doing you could have one manager for a dozen teams who just tracks overall team performance – essentially remove a layer of management.

Valve is famous for having no formal management structure and for getting things done, unfortunately that apparently allows school-style cliques to block actions [4]. But I think that the Valve experiment is useful and provides some ideas that can be used by other companies. Maybe if instead of requiring consensus of the entire company for hiring decisions they only required consensus of the team things would have worked better.

Of course another down-side to such things is that hierarchical management can be good for avoiding discrimination and bullying. The article I cited about Valve compares it to high-school. It could be that Valve employees were all nice people who only hired other nice people. But if similar systems were implemented in many companies then some would surely end up being like a typical high school with all the bullying and mistreatment of minority groups that entails.

Michael O. Church wrote an interesting article in which he divides employees into four categories, “loser”, “clueless”, “psychopaths”, and “technocrats” (note that he didn’t invent the first three names) [5]. In his model the “clueless” category includes most middle-management. I think that there are some problems with Michael’s model and I’m not arguing for a “technocracy” (which is how this post might be interpreted in terms of his ideas). But I think he demonstrates some of the real problems in the way companies are managed and in his model the “losers” prefer not to work as long as they can get paid.

Conclusion

I don’t have any good solutions to these problems to offer. It seems that the best we can hope for is incremental change to make work less depressing, to have the minimal amount of management, and to avoid “bullshit jobs”.