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Our government and its intransigence.
Oct 20, 2013 Sat

The latest Washington D.C. row over differences, shutting down the government over the debt ceiling (a bad law) among other things, has prompted many, it seems, to question how our form of democracy is doing and how our representitives are also doing. Is all of their behavior responsible?

I say that democracy in our country is working as the founding fathers intended it to work. As Fareed Zakaria on this blog, Global Public Square has stated that "the American system is designed to allow for easy gridlock", and has many ways to keep one group or person from gaining control. America is unprecidented in its gathering of many ethnicities and heritages in one country in the history of the world. We should not be surprised that conflict and disagreement are prevalent, given that countries with much less diversity are also filled with conflict. This recent incident is a good illustration that our system is designed to bend with instances of unhappiness, but also that responsible heads do prevail. There is always a possibility that the government could have defaulted, but it seems that those we send to Washington are not fanatical in their dedication to their ideals to the point of deeply harming the U.S., but wish to make it known they believe that we cannot continue with our system the way it is. True, there was economic harm done, but not as deeply as it might have been.

This is not a democratic issue, nor is it an issue of any particular political system or philosophy of government: it is a human issue, and the strategies we adopt when we form those systems that help us work together and avoid the violence that plague many countries.
America's system is based on freedom, and a constitutional document that outlines principles we believe in, and we create laws that help enforce those principles, in an attempt to keep people's behavior within those principles and avoid violence in the pursuit of their lives and their ideals. This is third-grade stuff.

What is not so third-grade is the tendency of most of us to believe in things that give us the emotional impetus to go beyond the rulebooks in getting what we want. Any government has to be structured around compromise. When government becomes comprised of those who are not willing to compromise, the process is hindered - things do not get accomplished. This is exactly what should happen in any system that purports itself to be inclusive.

America is promoted as an inclusive system: allowing groups that may be excluded in the process to participate, to have their voice heard. It will never be a perfect system, given the nature of human beings. But it is a system that helps keep us from resorting to the violence that has plagued nations the world over, and still continues to plauge some.

Many nations have adopted totalitarianism to put a lid on its peoples desire for inclusiveness. People want more freedom to pursue their lives with the talents they possess, and the talents they can garner by gaining the help of other talented people. America formed because of this, and has attracted people from non-inclusive societies ever since.

Our human capacity to see the merits of others arguments and the imperfection of our own is the basis for compromise. Each party to a gathering needs to be listened to, and the merits and the true meaning of what they are seeking needs to be worked through with dialogue, appreciated, and accomodated into the process of solution, to the degree that is possible. But there must be flexibility and compromise.

To those who say we must 'fix' Washington D.C., that means we have to 'fix' humanity: good luck with that. The dyfunctionality we have witnessed is the dysfunctionality of humans themselves. The problems we face, things like Americas welfare state, healthcare, the debt the government has accumulated, have all been a long time being created, and making things better will also be a long time in happening. That is the nature of these problems. Welfare 'reform', healthcare 'reform', and reduction of debt are all problems not solvable by simplistic policy and laws from Washington. Obamacare is simplistic policy, addressing symptoms and simply changing management, not addressing fundamental causes of the problem. Washington needs to change its approach to issues like this, addressing the more fundamental issues. But given the short-term nature of the thinking there, it would take a fundamental restructuring of how government operates (but not a restructuring of democracy and the constitution).

With people fighting each other over the proposed solution, we are not garnering the synergies of all parties in coming up with a true solution. One big trouble is, a true, quick solution would require many to take a 'haircut', something that is holding Europe back from true reform, and also holding them back from recovering from the world-wide recession. The wealth (and jobs) of many are dependent on the current system. To institute instant 'reform' would endanger large parts of the economy, and as a result the solution will need to be gradual, allowing people and their systems to adjust while maintaining economic viability, allowing entrepreneurial innovation to find better ways.

There is no easy or rapid solution to the problems we face, because so many economic entities have based themselves on the systems and policies we have developed to make things 'better'. They cannot change quickly, so expecting quick change from the time frame of one or two administrations or congressional terms is foolish. To expect Washington politicians (or local ones for that matter) to institute long-term reforms given the short-term nature of their tenure is also foolish.

I hope to have more on this soon. But one writer can only have so much influence. Our learning from each other needs to lead to action, not simply more knowledge. A better, long-term culture in Washington would be a big help, but the incentives work against that. A free-market approach to government leads to different dysfunctionalities. If we are to do better with our institutions we will need to change our approach to working together. But that is what America was formed for.

Our world and its direction.
Sept 27, 2008 Sat

I went to hear Wynton Marsalis speak at Wharton Center on the Michigan State University campus a few days ago, and I thought his talk about music was wonderful. But what he said during much of the dialogue did not strike me as much as his answers to a question posed by a member of the audience.

I don't recall the wording of the question posed; it was somewhat broad and rambling. It had to do with music and the world and the problems we face. Mr. Marsalis answer was very insightful and impressive. He stated that he has seen thousands of students and parents over the years, and his impression of what is happening now is that the people who are running our institutions like banks and government grew up in a world different than one he grew up in, that they are more focused on gaining wealth than on doing the right thing or making a sustainable business climate.

From what I have seen in my almost 30 years in the business world, I believe his view is a correct one, though perhaps the degree to which this is true is open to debate.

Yes, the banking scandal on wall street (note lack of capitalization...they get *my* respect when they *earn* it) shows that many people in high places (including washington, d.c.) could not find it in themselves to do the right thing when the right thing was needed.

There have always been those who look out for themselves and no one else. They will always be with us. It is one of the prices of freedom. If we do not guard the doors to our economic system, however, how certain can we be that the doors to our political freedom are adequately guarded as well? Does the current generation in business and government today have the background and wherewithal to perform the safeguarding freedom requires?

It's plainly obvious that the Bush administration was lax on regulation. I feel one of the few ligitimate purposes of government is to protect citizens from predation. The current scandal (and many historical ones preceding it) is predation, plain and simple. Predation of American citizens by other American citizens. If the rule of law holds any meaning in this country, those who broke the law by abusing their responsibilities to enrich themselves should be the ones to pay for it. This goes beyond mere retribution or revenge. Those who have done this in the past were rarely held accountable due to their 'privileged' positions as 'captains of the economy'. It takes more than captains to run any economy. Without the trust of their crew, captains are little more than self-righteous blowhards. It's time our 'captains' earned back our trust, both on Wall Street, and on Pennsylvania Avenue. It will take awhile.

Good Design and usability.
July 16th, 2008 Weds

I discovered The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman (Basic Books, New York, 1988) over the weekend. What he says is very true about usability; it is particularly true about computer software systems, my specialty. Giving people feedback about the state of the system and about what they are doing is crucial to usable systems. Most good developers know this, perhaps instictively, but many just know it's a good idea.

He mentions in the book that software developers tend to look forward, not backward, and it keeps them from learning lessons.

I can see that being true about many developers; but it is also true about humans in general - it is not endemic to developers.

Design and development of user interfaces is considered by many developers as the red-headed stepchild of software development. Many developers now consider it like report-writing used to be for developers of my generation and seems to be given to new programmers as some kind of rite of passage, being considered grunt work that was to be done by developers without experience.

This is lazy, short-sighted, egotistical, and drives people out of our profession. While it used to be workable (but was still a bad practice) when the U.S. was the only choice for young people, it is a foot-shooting practice today. Give these people challenges. They may surprise you.
I know many managers will say this is a slam to the people you already have. Maybe those people who feel slammed need to take a longer view (or just get off their high horse), and learn that very few of us are god's gift to the programming world. Those that are have proved to be much more humble (and grateful).

Software development - big failures.
July 15th, 2008 Tuesday

We hear about software system failures much more often than we hear about the successes.

Some recent bombs are:

The FBI's Virtual Case File System: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3

The Canadian Gun Registry: Link 1, Link 2

The U.S. Census Bureau handheld $3 Billion boondoggle: Link 1, Link 2

There is a good article from IEEE about why software fails here.

I believe good management is a big key to success. Good management involves communication, organization, regular interaction, respect for everyone involved, and things like code reviews. Design is of the utmost importance; so many projects seem to fail due to poor design unilaterally imposed. Don't get me started on Model I vs. Model II thinking....

Another key is finding the right people. Test your interviewees by role-play to see if they will work both as good individual players and also as good team players. This is not easy, but it is needed. Keep it real.

I've heard it said many times that managing developers is like herding cats. While this may be true, it is also true that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Treating developers like fungible line workers appears to be a common practice in my experience (line workers these days are far from fungible, but that has always appeared to be the attitude that management has taken). It's time we treated everyone in the organization as valued and deserving of respect. This gets much lip service, but in practice, it falls far short.

Culture and Technology.
July 14th, 2008 Monday

This blog will be about culture, management, and technology; it will contain observations, suggestions, and maybe an occasional rant.

You may ask, what is my justification for adding yet another blog (y.a.b-ing) to the existing cacophany of blogs that no one could expect to read or digest in a single lifetime ?

It's been said that all art implies a privileged view of life; although my view may not be that privileged, it may be unique and insightful and help someone. If people do not find this to be true, it will be apparent soon enough. In any case, stimulating intelligent dialogue is always a good thing.

But adding another voice to the blogosphere is the great promise and peril of the internet and the world-wide-web; if the incredible experiment that is the United States of America means anything, it is that a voice need not be of a privileged class (whatever that is...) to be listened to.

However, all is not truly egalitarian; to be listened to, a person needs to be experienced, respectful, and above all, have something to say that will help others. I'm hoping this will be true with this blog.

Last modified: 2008.08.22

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