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Morality and Fundamentalism

On my morning walk, I found myself thinking about morality and fundamentalism.  I was wondering why we do certain things and refrain from other things, as well as how this related to fundamentalist movements.  Usually, I’m watching birds, rabbits, and squirrels, but this was different.  A few months ago, I had read Karen Armstrong‘s book The Battle for God.  Its subtitle was Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Perhaps that was the reason.

Morality is important to all of us.  All religious texts contain rules of morality.  An obvious example is the Hebrew bible, known as the Christian old testament.  It includes the ten commandments of Moses, beginning with “Thou shalt not kill”.  The Christian bible, the new testament, likewise provides moral instructions in the sermon on the mount and many other places.

Morality is simply a set of rules for getting along with other people.  This includes your family, your tribe, and your society.  It may not extend to other societies, enemies, or groups that are deemed evil, terrorist, or immoral.  Morality is something that all of us learned while we grew up.  To reinforce it, we might be praised or denounced by our family or honoured or punished by our society.  If I beat up my little brother, my mother would be angry with me.  I’d get the message pretty quickly.  I’d be unlikely to kill someone in my family, but I likely heard about somebody in my society who killed another person.  Society would exact punishment.  I’d get that message pretty quickly too.

While we were growing up and learning morality, we also developed concepts of right and wrong, or good and evil, based on following the rules of morality or violating them.  These concepts, as well as morality itself, were generally the same as in the scriptures.  Of course, they do change with time; moral behavior of 2000 years ago is not the same as moral behavior today.  There is also a trend to expand morality to include more groups of people, even those traditionally considered as enemies.

There’s also a complicating factor:  all religious texts contain contradictions.  The Hebrew bible, for example, contains both the ten commandments and a set of instruction on how to attack an enemy city.  It tells you to kill all the men, rape all the women, steal all the gold, and enslave all the children.  The two sections are clearly in conflict.  Likewise, there are two different and contradictory creation myths in Genesis.  The conflicting accounts may have been written in completely different circumstances, have a different scope, or may have been written by different authors.  These conflicts are one reason why religious texts always require interpretation.

Therefore, it’s important to heed religious scholars.  They are the ones who know how to interpret scriptures.  Their accumulated knowledge and experience may be called scholarship, received wisdom, or the teachings of the church.  In any case, it’s valuable and worth considering.

Religious fundamentalism implies a return to the original principles of a religion.  The leaders are looking to scriptures for moral guidance.  Karen Armstrong’s book shows that when a group is suppressed, it can become a fundamentalist group.  Recent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, have read their religious text in jail, making their own interpretation of it.  Of course, this interpretation is one that’s appropriate for people who are under threat by the government.  Fundamentalists also ignore the religious scholars or rebel against them.  When they are opposed by moderates, they feel even more threatened, and can become militants.  They can even find moral permission to force religious conversions and to kill non-believers.  Are you thinking of Islamic militants now?  Remember that Christians did this too.  That was the whole purpose of the Spanish Inquisition.

Still, I enjoyed my morning walk.  Like a dream, my thoughts seemed more clear and complete than they do now.  I hope I at least recalled the gist of it.


Budget For Free Software

A chat with a former colleague led me to consider this topic.  He told me that morale was at an all-time low where I used to work, and that management was laying off technical people and contracting out the work.  Now, it’s obvious that the budget for free software should be zero dollars, but apparently that’s not how it works.  I recall being told about an incident a few years ago.  I wasn’t involved in this one, but people seem to remember it because it was so ridiculous:  apparently a group was prepared to obtain a free software product, but because they couldn’t figure out how to budget for it, they bought a commercial product instead.

One incident I was involved in was a meeting to select a DNS and DHCP control system.  I assume I was invited because I had installed the original DNS and DHCP servers, both free products.  The purpose of the meeting was to review the RFP (request for proposal) that had been prepared by a manager.  I attempted to pursuade the people there to consider free products in addition to the commercial ones.  The manager and some of the participants wanted to see product documents and wanted to review responses to their RFP.  In the case of free products, there was nobody to respond to the RFP.  Ultimately, the manager considered only commercial products, and chose one of them.

This futile activity was only a symptom of a deeper problem:  managers were ranked by the size of their budgets.  They were recognized for spending money, but not for saving money.  This scheme leads to an even deeper problem: management by budget.  I have no expertise in management, but I can easily see that the number of dollars in a budget is a poor measure of the value of a group of people.  In the worst possible case, a department could be doing absolutely nothing but still consuming millions of dollars.  It’s because budget is a measure of input, but it’s the output that’s important.

Why do we even have management by budget?  At the highest levels of an organization, budget may be all there is.  When the leader has to reduce costs, they may ask all of the managers to reduce their budget by a certain amount.  That sort of action betrays a lack of knowledge of what the organization actually does.  I have no doubt that directors and managers are aware of these limitations, but they still seem to do it.

The alternative would be to consider output rather than input, to consider production rather than budget.  This alternative may well be a radical change.  How do you even measure production?  It would be easy for a sales department.  The number of items sold or their dollar value might be enough.  It might be very difficult for a support department.  What is the product?  How do you measure it?  How do you aggregate it?

I used to work in an IT department.  Everybody I knew there was busy.  Some were so busy that they put in unpaid overtime just to complete work that they considered important.  What we did was expressed in vague statements and doubtful metrics.  They were quicksand while budgets were firm ground.  We should be able to do better than that.

The only way to assess output in that sort of situation is to take the viewpoint of the consumer.  A support department must respond to demand from the consumer of the service.  One group I worked with required an owner for every service they supported, but I suppose they should have required consumers instead.

In order to determine output, the technical people (I was one) must provide details of their work.  They might resist.  (I would have.)  They might produce too much information.  (I might have.)  They would certainly consider such a request as a restriction on their freedom or an attempt to micro-manage them.  The important question is what are they doing that is of value to the department.  The only way is to make them aware of the input-output problem, and let them participate in finding a solution.  Management will have to trust that they have the ability to do this, and that they have the interests of the department at heart.

Of course, managers must also account for their work.  The benefit is generally indirect, as their role is to manage the people who do the actual production.  They too would have to somehow measure their contribution to the product of the department and the satisfaction of the consumer.

This radical change sounds difficult and complex.  Wouldn’t it be easier to lay off everybody and contract out the work?  No doubt it would be easier, but what is the value for money from the viewpoint of the consumer?


The Great July Flood

It’s unusual.  We do get floods in the spring some years, but this time it was in July.  I’ve been hearing reports on CBC radio and reading news articles about the flood in southern Manitoba.  Last weekend, when I went to Brandon, one of the two entrances to the city from the Trans-Canada highway was closed because of flooding.

Most of the complaints I heard about were about large man-made flood control structures.  All of these are operated intentionally during a flood event.  People complained that they caused an artificial flood, and that the government did this to protect other areas some distance away.  There are three of these structures in Manitoba.  The Winnipeg floodway protects Winnipeg by diverting Red River water around the city.  The Portage diversion also protects Winnipeg by sending Assiniboine River water north into Lake Manitoba.  The third one is quite new.  It’s the Lake St. Martin channel, which provides an outlet from Lake Manitoba.

The argument seems to be that these structures are completely artificial, creating an artificial flood.  This is the same argument that’s used for food products.  Somehow, natural food is good for you, but artificial food is bad for you.  Would they rather have a natural flood?  There’s no such thing.

The major rivers in southern Manitoba are the Red River, flowing northward from the US border and emptying into Lake Winnipeg, and the Assiniboine River, flowing eastward from the Saskatchewan border and joining the Red River at Winnipeg.  People in Manitoba, at least the western part, blame Saskatchewan for the flooding this summer.  It’s true that there were heavy rains there, but that’s only part of the problem.

All of the agricultural land in Manitoba and Saskatchewan has been drained.  That’s a major contribution.  Farmers want to get the water off their land as quickly as possible, especially in the spring.  Because of the short summer, they want to complete seeding as early as possible.  The land has to be dry for seeding.  In addition, drainage increases the amount of arable land on each farm, and accomodates large machinery.  It’s almost impossible to prevent farmers from draining their land.

Winnipeg is at the centre of the ancient Lake Agassiz basin.  All of this land has been drained, some over a century ago.  When I was doing research in Soil Science, I remember discovering a layer of peat at the surface of a piece of land just east of Winnipeg.  Clearly this land had never been cultivated.  At the time, we were studying lead levels in soild adjacent to roadways.  The peat layer was a vivid reminder that all of the Lake Agassiz basin had originally been a wet meadow with tall grasses and other marsh plants growing on it.  Now this entire basin is covered with a network of drains, all leading into the Red or Assiniboine Rivers.  It’s entirely artificial.  Undoubtedly this drainage contributes to the rapid rise of these rivers during the spring melt and in response to rainfall events.

It’s going to get worse.  Climate change is going to lead to more extreme weather events.  We’ve created a situation that’s going to cause devastating floods every few years.  What should we do?  Do we protect people or protect land?  Do we flood the upstream end or the downstream end of the hydrologic system?  Do we compensate people who have lost their homes or lost their income because of flooding?  Do we force people to move to higher ground?  Regardless of what we do, there’s going to be a cost.


New Anti-spam Legislation

When e-mail first became popular there was a saying: “The best thing about e-mail is that strangers can send you messages”.  Later this changed to:  “The worst thing about e-mail is that strangers can send you messages”.  Our new anti-spam legislation aims to reverse this change of attitude, at least to an extent.  It prohibits commercial e-mail without consent.  In positive terms, it limits commercial e-mail to include only those people who have requested it.

Specifically, it states that senders must obtain consent from recipients, and that senders must renew this consent periodically so that it stays current.  Some information on the new legislation is available from the CBC web site.  Responsible companies already comply with this new law.  Obtaining consent for commercial e-mail is not a new principle.  It’s been a best practice for some time.  Still, some businesses and charities complain about this change.  Consumers also complain, in great numbers.  Enforcement of the new legislation relies on complaints from consumers.

When it comes to spam, much depends on your point of view.  To the consumer, like you, spam is anything that you don’t want.  They also forget that they requested something several years ago, and now consider it to be just more spam.  People find unwanted e-mail to be very intrusive, much more so than flyers or newspaper advertizing.  They want their privacy to be respected.  They want control over commercial messages so that they get them only if they requested them.  To the business, on the other hand, e-mail is just another way to attract and retain customers.  E-mail is also less expensive than other forms of advertizing.  It’s a very attractive technique for marketing and market development.

Commercial messages are the main problem, rather than inter-personal messages.  Senders of these messages just want them to work without a great deal of effort or expense.  To achieve this degree of convenience, they may ignore non-delivery reports or may obtain e-mail addresses without consent of the owner.  Building lists of e-mail addresses is the focus of this new legislation.  People who have requested commercial messages certainly have consented to receiving them.  Customers, though, may have consented, but this needs to be verified.  Visitors to a web site, perhaps attacted by sale prices or contests, are even less likely to have consented.  Finally, purchasing an e-mail address list or building one by harvesting addresses is clearly unethical, because none of the people involved had the opportunity to give their consent.

Let’s review some of the statements I’ve seen from organizations that object to the new legistation:

  • We don’t send spam.  You certainly do by the consumers definition of spam.
  • There is no spam problem.  You say this because spam control products have become so efficient.  These products are not as accurate as people may think; they may block your messages too.
  • Only sexual dysfunction drugs and body part enhancement messages are spam.  This is not correct.  It’s all advertizing.  Only the products are different.
  • We can’t obtain consent.  This must be because your existing software doesn’t have that ability.  You need a new software product that complies with the legislation.
  • We don’t have an IT person.  No doubt you contracted with an IT company to set up your system initially.  You’ll have to do that again.  It’s quite normal that software products get out of date periodically and have to be replaced.

In June, I received several e-mail messages asking for my consent to continue receiving their messages.  Most were from companies where I was a customer.  One was from a charity where I was a donor.  In all cases, I decided not to respond because I didn’t want their e-mail messages.  I also get regular messages from other companies where I’m a customer.  Generally, I ignore these messages, although I did appreciate a recent notice from Netflix.  It told me that new episodes of a series I had been watching were now available.  I suppose I could unsubscribe from the others, but it depends on how annoying they get.

In general, I have little sympathy with companies that complain about the new legislation.  It seems to me that it’s the unethical ones that will complain the most.  I do, however, agree that companies who have an established business relationship with their customers should be able to send them e-mail messages with relative ease.

When I’m looking for a product or service, the first place I look is where I obtained it the last time.  I may also look at the company’s web site or search on the web for the item.  I don’t generally look at offers made to me in e-mail messages.

With this new legislation now in force, it will not be possible to use e-mail for general advertizing.  This change will certainly affect companies that sell directly to the public; they’ll have to find a way to comply.  The legislation is also a step on the way toward making e-mail a pleasant way to communicate once again.


Advertizing is more Annoying

A recent article I read described how advertizing on TV had adapted to techniques that people used to avoid advertizing.  This got me thinking about my own habits and about how advertizing affects me.  I hate advertizing!

Many recent changes have affected the advertizing industry.  Newspapers and magazines, in fact anything printed on paper, are in decline.  Opportunities for advertizing there have disappeared.  At the same time, new media such as web pages, mobile devices, and electronic signs have been growing in popularity.  Opportunities have shifted to these new media.  Of course, radio and television broadcasting is still going strong, although their formats are changing.  Advertizing strategies seem to be keeping up with these changes.

I attempt to avoid advertizing as much as I possibly can.  I don’t watch television at all.  I do watch movies and TV series on Netflix, all without commercials.  I’m quite willing to pay a few dollars a month to avoid advertizing.  I thought I was unusual in my attempts to avoid advertizing.  I thought other people tolerated commercials or even liked them.  Sometimes they even talked about them with delight.  Now I see that everybody shares my hatred of commercials, or at least finds them to be a major annoyance.

The article I mentioned earlier says that many people have purchased PVRs with the express purpose of avoiding commercials.  I didn’t know that, but I did know that PVRs are extremely popular.  It also describes how companies are using product placement to embed advertizing in TV programs so that viewers cannot escape it.  I hadn’t noticed that on Netflix, but I did see that some TV series had product sponsors to ensure that only their products appeared in the episodes.

I do read all of my news on the web.  I have noticed that some advertizing on news web sites have become more obtrusive lately.  They used to be static images, but some of them are now animated.  Some of the images jump around on the screen now.  Clearly they are meant to be eye-catching.  I find them to be distracting and annoying.  My response is to scroll the page as soon as I can to make them disappear.  I don’t think I’ve ever clicked on an advertizing link.  Does anybody do that?

I’m sure we are in for more of the same as companies look for ways to make their advertizing more effective.  I’m sure that I’ll continue doing whatever I can to avoid advertizing.  I know now that I won’t be alone in this activity:  Everybody else will be doing it too.  Some of us will even pay to get content without advertizing.


Are We All Animals?

I recently noticed two articles, reporting on scientific discoveries, that demonstrated that simpler animals displayed subtle emotions of the sort that seem restricted to humans.  Once again the old question arises “How are we different from animals?”.  There’s a long history of researchers using scientific methods to show that we are different.  All of these attempts have failed, but still people keep on trying.  They do so in spite of overwhelming evidence that we are the same as other animals.

In the 1800s there was a great debate over the shape of a tiny cavity in the brain called the hippocampus minor.  It was something that appeared to be unique to humans.  I read about it in one of Stephen Jay Gould’s books, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of WormsWikipedia has a good article on this debate.  Needless to say, the hippocampus minor turned out to be present in other animals as well as in humans.

Perhaps learning and memory are something only humans have?  Anyone who has a pet dog knows the falsehood of that statement.  My parents had a dog that would periodically stop at the base of a tall cabinet, looking upward and whining.  Years before, my father had hidden the dog’s toy way up there.  The dog never forgot.  Even simple creatures like insects have the ability to learn.  When you think about it, you realize that memory must go along with learning.  After all, the only way to profit from learning is to remember the result of learning so that you can use it again and again.

Then there’s those two articles I mentioned earlier.  Regret certainly seems to be an emotion that only humans could experience.  Yet, this article demonstrates quite clearly that rats can feel regret when they make wrong decisions.  Anxiety is another emotion that seems limited to humans.  Anxiety is the anticipation of something threatening or frightening.  According to this article, even crayfish can experience anxiety.  Even more surprising, the same drugs that diminish anxiety in humans do the same thing in crayfish.  Now, the arthropod line, which includes crayfish, separated from the vertebrate line, which includes us, about 600 million years ago.  In all that time, the function of the nervous system, and the emotions associated with it, have remained the same.  This is indeed remarkable.

There’s no doubt that we are animals, like all the other animals.  We are built of the same stuff, according to the same plan.  Animals are physically different, of course, and have different strategies for living.  The search for something that differentiates us from other animals has been a failure.  All of the differences are matters of degree.  Everything we have, physical or emotional, occurs to some degree in other animals.  It’s time to stop this futile searching and admit that we are the same.


End of Home Delivery

According to their recent announcements, Canada Post will be phasing out home delivery of mail over the next few years.  Only long-established urban neighborhoods have home delivery now.  I live in one of those neighborhoods that do have home delivery.  It’s to be replaced by group mailboxes located within a block or two of any home.  The exact distance will be determined by consultation with people in the neighborhoods and by trials with community mailboxes.  They have already designated two areas of this city for the first trials.

As I mentioned, I live in an urban area that has home delivery.  I’ve certainly noticed a decrease in mail lately.  I don’t get very much mail in each delivery.  Sometimes there’s none.  Perhaps there’s only mail in my mailbox three times a week now.  Sometimes it’s all flyers, which Canada Post calls ad-mail.

The reason for this change is pretty clear.  It’s electronic access and electronic delivery.  Personal mail is decreasing as people switch to e-mail for much of their correspondence.  I use e-mail instead of letter mail whenever I can.  About the only time I use the post office is when I have to sign a document and send it back.  That’s only because I don’t have a scanner.  The number of statements that are mailed is also decreasing, as people switch to electronic access to their statements.  I’ve certainly done that, although I still get a few in the mail.  Flyers are also decreasing in number, being replaced by web sites.  I used to get a bundle of flyers in my mailbox once a week, but that’s stopped now.  I believe the flyer company went out of business.  I still get a few from Canada Post.  Most of those go directly into my blue box.  I assume that flyers are just not an economic means of advertizing anymore.

What do all these changes mean for Canada Post?  I’m expecting them to stop home delivery in my area within a couple of years.  By then the changes I just outlined will have proceeded even further.  I’ll be getting even less mail.  I may only check my mailbox in the community mailbox twice a week.  Depending on the weather, I may only check it once a week.  If I’m expecting something, I’ll check it more often, of course.  Postal mail will become less convenient, especially if they decide to space the group mailboxes more widely.  I’ll also tell Canada Post not to send me ad-mail.  Electronic access and electronic delivery will become more attractive to me, so I’ll arrange for more of it.  If I order some product from a web site, I’ll choose a courier for delivery because they will deliver the package right to my door.

The way things are going, I may not need Canada Post at all.  Likely I’ll be in the majority.  I wonder what Canada Post will do with community mailboxes that are empty most of the time?  I wonder what they’ll do without the revenue from ad-mail and postage stamps?  Oh, I forgot that there are people who don’t have home computers and Internet.  They’ll still rely on Canada Post, although it will become less and less convenient.  They’ll also be unable to correspond with me.  At least there’s still the telephone.



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