Sunday, November 30, 2008

Define: "Busy People"

This is something that has massive significance in my life, so I assume you're all interested to hear about it.

There are two kinds of people, Ghandi was told by his father: the people who do the work, and the people who get the credit for it. Try to be in the first group my son, said Ghandi Senior - there's less competition there.

Half a globe and several decades away in Australia today the same concept is true. There are Busy People and the rest. It's a well known concept that if you want something done right you need to ask a Busy Person, so here are some helpful tips for finding them.

First, a brief definition.

The rest spend their mornings in bed, their day time at work earning a living, their afternoons stuck in traffic listening to the radio, and their evenings glued to the TV.

The Busy People (I think I'll call them BPs from now on) spend their mornings frantically reading meeting minutes over breakfast, their day time at work earning a living, their afternoons composing replies to the minutes they read that morning, and their evenings on the phone to other BPs working out exactly how to move their mutual organization forward into the future, bearing in mind that there are a dwindling number of BPs in the world.

The trouble is, BPs are invariably fairly modest about their efforts and achievements, and almost NEVER mention their selfless sacrifices of "life" (whatever that might be). So spotting them (in order to get something done, as above) is often quite a challenge. Here are a few clues.

First of all, you ask them if they saw the footy last night. This doesn't always give a 100% correct answer because some BPs are excellent multithreaders (mothers are almost always BPs, but even in males there's a genetic correlation between BPism and multithreading ability) and can listen to sport on the radio while composing submissions in response to a set of minutes as distributed. Of course if they happen to mention that they only heard bits of it due to the fact that they were concentrating on their submission you have your answer, but most BPs are fairly self-conscious about the image they present to The Rest so they'll usually fudge an answer on the spot. Incidentally they're always fairly good at that sort of thing, it's another genetic correlation.

The next test is to ask them (on Monday morning) how their weekend was. If they talk about washing the car or planning their end of year holiday, it's a fairly good indication that they are not BPs - although again this isn't perfectly reliable because they might have done that for half an hour on Saturday and be maintaining a "normal person" (ie The Rest) type of image in order to fit in with society. Remember that bit about where the competition is?

Further and more accurate tests really need to be done over a fairly long time and a closeish relationship like a workmate in a team of no more than ten people.

The specific tests vary from subject to subject, so I'll just give a sort of word picture of the BP and you can all work out some tests from that.

Structured thinking
The true BP can analyse a situation down to its essentials in less than 3.14159 seconds. We want to save theatre hire overtime costs by bumping in on Monday night instead of Sunday afternoon? We'll need to hire a truck instead of using a van at mates' rates, and we'll lose two hours of our tech run which we'd scheduled on Monday. Will it be a false economy? Circle yes or no. BPs often make snap decisions (although not always) but they're always well thought through and usually the right course of action in the situation.

Operating economies
I've already touched on the way BPs use time economies by doing useful work while eating. They will also create cost economies by using their best buying power (ie what's on special at the shops) to benefit their organizations. Surprisingly, this doesn't actually create much overhead on their brains. They simply have the organization's mental thread running in the background almost all the time. Remember the multithreading ability of most BPs.

Also, they know the limits of their own expertise and will very readily handball matters to other BPs whose expertise matches the situation. Protocol overheads (ie the headers and footers of the job, which have to be spelled out in full when handballing anything) are always very light when matters are moved between true BPs (especially those who have worked together for more than six months), because they know they are working with the same baseline of operating parameters and only specific details have to be conveyed. In handballing situations between The Rest, the "come on, you owe me a favour" packets can sometimes take up more bandwidth than the actual job information itself - an obvious ineconomy.

BP Tools
BPs come in almost every industry so the range of tools used is quite diverse. Pens and paper are almost universal, as is some form of device that allows writing while on the move (laptops, mobile phones with application support, clipboards and pocket notebooks are the most common). BPs also know how to use their tools to the full extent of their capacity, and sometimes even beyond by knowing when the usual safety rules can be broken without actual danger. The downside of this is that the tools of a true BP will usually wear out faster than those used by The Rest. The amount spent by BPs (out of their own pockets, almost invariably) on replacement tools after their unpaid activities have effectively destroyed the originals has never actually been calculated but is thought to be a significant factor in the national economy.

The BP at work
Where does a typical BP work? What kind of companies are worthy of so valuable an individual? Anywhere, actually. Even in government departments, major banks, ASX-listed insurance companies, telephone sanitising contractors and supermarkets. They do all kinds of roles (without exception) and can be spotted in situations like these:

The BP is the one who, while everyone else is taking a tea break, is refilling the sugar and then cleaning the bench where it spilled.

The BP is the one who, while The Rest are clocking off to go home, is making sure the customer is fully satisfied with their purchase.

The BP is the one who, when the building floods because it actually rained for the first time in two years and the drains were full of leaves, wades into the water and rescues a $1500 laptop from the display stand before teaching everyone else how to shovel water into a bucket using a dustpan and brush.

The BP is the one who, if a delivery is delayed, spends extra time clearing the decks for action rather than taking an extended lunch break.

These are just examples by the way. Hopefully by now you're getting enough of a picture to be able to fill in the blanks yourselves.

The BP's appearance
This is actually quite significant.

The BP's car is the rust bucket on wheels, minimum five years old, washed whenever the BP has to go somewhere during real rain. BPs often carry passengers, but if they don't then committee minutes etc will be all over the back seat.

The BP's clothes will seldom if ever be stylish but invariably be highly useful - for instance, there will be pockets in abundance. Large numbers of small pockets are preferred due to the BP's structure of thinking - the phone goes in THIS pocket and the pen in THAT one, because fumbling around looking for the right tool is a useless waste of time. Oh, and ties are only worn on special occasions or where there REALLY is no choice.

BPs will often have glasses - large amounts of time spent reading and writing in evenings take their toll on natural eyesight.

Grey hair is also fairly common. The brain, I'm fairly sure it has now been proven, acts like a muscle - the more it is used the larger it gets. It is said that hair grows inwards as well as outwards. When it strikes grey matter, it turns grey. Thus it stands to reason that BPs, with their significant levels of brain usage, will go grey before The Rest. And besides, almost all BPs are over 40 anyway...

A BP among BPs!
I would like to say a few words about Mr V.A. Cant. I know he will be highly embarrassed to be picked out of all the rest of the BPs, but I can say with sincerity that he stands head and shoulders above the rest.

He works hard enough for ten other people in his paid employment, which is signing the locks on public toilet doors worldwide. But as if that wasn't enough, he holds or has held down roles of significant responsibility in almost every volunteer organization I have been involved with. President, secretary, treasurer, ordinary committee member, and a host of other roles (with or without titles) have had his name beside them.

In closing may I urge you all to do what Ghandi's father told him - become a BP, there's less competition. Find a role currently held by Mr Cant and take it over, allowing him to devote more energy to the rest. The rewards aren't obvious in terms of money, career advancement, horsepower or screen inches, but come in the sincere thanks of other BPs, who will almost invariably become the best friends you will ever have.

With thanks to FOLDOC "Real programmers don't use PASCAL"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SIGN MY PETITION - for to have more interesting stuff and less politics

I think it's pretty self-evident. I for one am TOTALLY SICK of seeing nothing but boring politics when I need a fix. Please all sign your names below and next Saturday I'll send the petition to the author and see if we can't persuade the idiot to pick up his act.

The petition is:

We, the undersigned, are sick and tired of hearing nothing but politics on - which is after all an essential service provided to the public for the benefit of all who suffer from the killer diseases melancholic pessimism and terminal ennui, and the psychological disorders political disillusionment, humour impairment and gunzel withdrawl symptoms.

We would like to point out to the author that it is his philanthorpic duty to deliver light, punchy humour bites individually tailored to the patient's nutrition and pleasurable sense data.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Google Chrome rocks - in a limited fashion

I've been using Chrome for a while now. Coming from Firefox it's a bit of a shock to the system in some ways (eg the "standard elements" that should be the same on any window, eg the close button, aren't the same) but once you get over that it's good.

Probably the best thing about it is the sheer speed of its Javascript execution. Anyone who uses heavy Javascript sites is a prime candidate for the switch. That includes GMail (and Google Reader, Picasaweb, etc), Youtube, Facebook, The Register, and of course anything with lots of ads and stuff. Today I happened to have Firefox up so I used it for my Google Reader stuff, and I was thinking the whole time "WHO HAS STOLEN MY P4 AND PUT A 486-33 IN ITS PLACE?!?"

Speed of opening is good too. It just flashes straight up as if it was minimised. I don't think it's one of those rogue programs (like Adobe Photo Downloader) that stay in memory even when they're closed, because it's like that all the time, even after a reboot.

The default opening tab, which shows the nine most used sites, is a good feature but I'm guessing it will soon be copied by other browsers.

There are some bad points though. I can't seem to get Firefox-style middle button scrolling to happen, even though I'm told it's supposed to be available. Ditto for Thinkpad middle button scroll, which is a hardware feature and should usually work on anything.

Also, it (so far) only runs on Windows. Sooner or later they'll make an EMX Unix version which will run on OS/2, and THEN we'll see the chips fly.

All in all, it's worth having - but don't throw Firefox away yet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Midga aims his guns squarely at the finance industry in general

They've had a few squirts in passing as they happen to walk through my line of fire, but now they're going to get it and get it good. Lawyers, mosquitoes, professional dole bludgers, bloodsucking leeches, underworld crooks and the inventors of CD shrink wrapping just aren't in it. Politicians are getting close, but only the very worst of them and only in the way that Napoleon was close to being like Hitler.

(Anyone trying to invoke Godwin's Law will be heartily Bromaged - this is not a discussion forum so Godwin's Law doesn't apply. If you don't know what it feels like to be Bromaged, don't ask, you don't want to know either.)

As I said somewhere else, I don't have a problem with banks looking after our savings for us. It's way better than hiding them under the bed you know. I have a slight problem with the fees some banks put on that sort of thing, but hey, it's no skin off my nose, if you want to use Commonwealth instead of Maroondah Credit Union, it's your funeral. You pay your $5 a month and you get ATMs in every shopping centre.

I also don't have a problem with them lending that money to other people until I need it. Recent accusations of pushiness in encouraging people to take bigger loans than they can pay back may or may not be true, I don't know and I don't care, but whatever, every industry has its pushy salespeople and people need to get a fact or two and look behind the marketing soft soap.

What I hate with a passion about the finance industry is:
1. The over-inflation of prices with no real addition of value
It happens mainly in the stock market. What does the price of a certain share really mean? What someone is willing to pay for it. That's fine, it means the free market can value a company based on its perceived future worth rather than on something tangible like its last year's earnings - but it gets the wikipedia problem. Anyone can buy shares and affect the price. They might be right, they might not. If they're not, eventually the price will drop sharply and people who have paid over-inflated prices will effectively lose their money. If it happens in a large enough scale the shrapnel from the bursting of that bubble can fly around in all directions and burst other bubbles. Bad news for lots of people.

2. It takes up the attention of management
A company needs money to finance some expansion. What does it do? Walk up to a bank, ask for a loan. The bank wants to satisfy itself that the business model is sound and that the company will be in a position to make its repayments, but apart from that you get your money, do your project and then start paying it off.

But if the company thinks it's smart, it doesn't go to a bank and pay hefty interest. Instead it appoints a finance manager (who has a huge salary and a company car) who has the responsibility of selling shares in the company to raise capital - and making sure the share price stays up.

Now this finance manager has a duty to get as much as he possibly can for the company. He has to be a real salesman. How should management support a salesman? VERY well. He brings in the money that keeps the company afloat. All good companies should look after their salesmen.

But the finance manager can bring in a lot more in the short term - after all that's what he's there for, to bring in money on a scale that "ordinary" sales couldn't. So management will tend to look after finance more than they look after true sales. How will the stock market react to our announcement to expand the factory? How will the share owners treat us when we tell them we upgraded the air conditioning in the operations office and there's no money left to give them a bonus dividend?

Bob Ansett in his book "The Customer" postulates that businesses tend to think like the people that lend them money. But a bank can only deny a loan when you need it - a stock market can blow you out of the water on a whim.

3. It encourages ridiculous executive salaries
I don't usually take jealous swipes at people who earn more than I do, but with some of the salaries going around you have to ask questions. How can one person give $3 million of value to a company over a year? That works out to $10,000 a DAY! There is no way a CEO can create that much value in (say) encouraging the employees and inspiring them to bring in more customers, or personally overseeing the big expansion project and preventing cost blowouts, or revising internal processes to streamline the company.

The only way it can possibly be justified is that the appointment of a "big name" CEO will drive the price of stock up because people believe he will do wonderful things for the company - and that way the company's own stock increases in value and the paper loss they took last year will turn into a paper profit. To me, that just sounds like throwing good money after bad... or buying time to gamble on more sales later on with which to buy back what they're spending now.

4. It turbocharges the ups and downs of the economy
In the absence of a finance industry, the economy consists of the sum total of what we produce. If we start producing something people want and can do it cheaper/better than the rest, we can make a profit. If costs blow out we make a loss. The way to stop making a loss is to fix the problems and look after the customers. Well and good. Stability. Customer service.

But for a company that exists on the stock exchange, a bit of bad news can spook the market and make a small loss into a massive one. Then that loss leads to a drop in confidence and a vicious circle of losses. Enough of that happening can cause companies to actually go bankrupt (which is where the real trouble starts because a paper loss turns into a real one).

And unfortunately it's not as if they're only losing what they had previously gained by getting onto the stock exchange. The only way to get back to being a privately owned company operating out of the back of a warehouse is to do a management buyout, and even then the debt levels might kill them.

5. They work business hours
OK, I'm *not* being serious here. Some months ago I had a rant on one of the various transport related forums about the problem of peak time. The people who cause peak congestion, I said, are the most useless people in the country. The kinds of people who do real work (nurses, transport workers, food processing factory workers, etc) almost invariably work different hours. In that rant I spoke of reducing peak time services to encourage these useless middle managers to do a real job, and got slapped down for it fairly hard. I probably deserved it somewhat. But anyway, get on any overcrowded tram at 5:30 and look around you - how many of those people shuffle paper in a large financial institution? A goodly number. Get a job which involves carrying people's groceries from the warehouse to the shops you lot, and leave the tram for me to get to my evening meetings.

Rant over, I'm being serious again.

6. They encourage people to get something for nothing
Gambling is a recognised social problem. Poker machines usually get a mention in political speeches, but what about the ads that say "Hey everyone, if you had invested $1000 three months ago we would have just mailed you a cheque for $130,000! Get on board today!"?

It may be true that under ideal circumstances people can make fairly vast amounts of money in the finance industry. But where does that money come from? Usually from the pockets of the people who have lost their investments. Or else from the increasing size of the bubble of hot air - which effectively means from the pockets of the people who will later lose their investments by being caught in the bursting of the bubble.

Get rich quick schemes, no matter how they're dressed up, are always a problem. King Solomon said in about 1000 BC that people who chase fantasies will always be hungry. Nothing has changed.

7. It encourages size rather than service
Takeovers make big news, they hit the headlines in the Financial Review and journos put direct quotes from the CEO into the article. That sort of thing drives the price of stock up.

Encouraging organic growth by changing recruitment policies to bring in people who will give outstanding customer service doesn't do anything of the sort. It might get a minor mention at the bottom of page 21 if it's a slow news day.

But which one actually does more for the country? Not the takeover, not by a long shot. That's why we have an ACCC to (supposedly) make sure takeovers only happen when it's not going to hurt the country. Currently it's a toothless tiger, but that's a separate issue.

I would really like to see at least a DOZEN major players in most fields. Supermarkets for instance - currently we have two major gorillas and two smaller but growing monkeys. Competition on price is there to a greater or lesser extent , competition on product range is almost nonexistent, competition on service is completely nonexistent.

Or what about banks - we currently have four big ones and a few smaller ones (I can't keep track of who's merged with who else) and that's protected by law. But if the Big Four were each split in half to become the size of the second tier ones, do you think they'd be passing on the entire interest rate cuts? Quite possible...

Transport I won't mention because I'd start using language that isn't appropriate for a public blog. Regular readers will know my views on the matter. Others may trawl through my Railpage posts from the time of the death of FCL.

So there you have it. Six and a half reasons why the finance industry is bad for Australia. If you're in it, get out. If you're looking for a job, don't get in. $45k a year and work/life balance in a simple office job is nothing compared to the regret you'll feel when you retire, look back on your career and realise all you've done in life is funnel money from one place to another in the hope that the numbers on one side will add up to more than the numbers on the other side.

Don't forget there are employment application forms at the Service Desk of every Officeworks store. A career in rescuing lovely maidens from having unprofessional looking party invitations is a career worth having.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mandatory censorship of the Internet??!?

Chairman Rudd you must think you're still in China! What on earth could give you such an idea?

To set the record straight at the start, let me say I'm totally AGAINST the sort of things he wants to block. Kiddie porn, incitements to crime (including terrorism), email spam and phishing are BAD things. I symathise with His Kevinship's wish to have them gone - but this is not the right way to go about it.

Let's weigh it up against the two criteria which should be employed in assessing just about any new move (and not just by governments).

1. Will it work?
Does any government intervention on the internet work? Hardly ever (to coin a phrase). The internet is full of geeks who know so much more about packet routing protocols and all that guff than any lawmaker will, that they'd look like an ant on a runway looking up at the cab of a 747-8I. So all Australian ISPs are ordered to block certain IP addresses and test every packet to see if it might be suspicious? I'd estimate that a good geek will take all of five minutes to script something completely legal, completely according to all the Internet standards documents, completely convenient to use, which will get those packets through.

The nature of the internet is that it doesn't recognize national borders. (That's one reason why spammers can operate with relative impunity - they just do it from a country where it's not illegal to spam people. Even if it is illegal, the international laws concerning a crime in one country which affected people in another country are something of a grey area and require a lot of work in the courts, which nobody is prepared to do.) So all the geeks have to do is have the banned material whitewashed - by some offshore ISP so it can't be legally prosecuted under Rudd's censorship laws.

2) Will it have harmful side-effects?
Censorship is a difficult topic - again we have to balance the government's role of protecting the people (that's why we have police and a defence force) with the people's freedom.

To say nothing of the people's convenience! Mr Rudd apparently admitted that the filter would slow down our internet "a bit". No I'm not going to suffer reduced internet speeds just so you can have a press conference hailing yourself as the grand protector from terrorists and pedophiles! Go stick a length of Cat-6 up your nose!

Once again Krudd has shown himself to be completely clueless and unwilling to get a fact or two before opening his mouth. I'm getting to the point where I think Costello would be a better PM...