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Sanitizing the Past

The other day, I heard a news report on CBC radio about an application that was able to search social media.  It would analyze images and scan text, looking for anything that was potentially compromising.  I believe that each search would cost five dollars.  People could then contact the posters of any such material and ask them to remove it.  My first thought was that here was another way to sanitize your past.

This news report also reminded me of the recent European ruling on web searches, generally called the right to be forgotten.  The purpose of this legislation is to require search engine companies to remove links to erroneous or outdated material.  It’s proven to be very popular.  Certainly, many uses of this service are legitimate, but some people are also using it to rewrite history.  Of course, the original material is still there, but it no longer appears in the search results.

Google is a victim of its own success in the web search arena.  People assume that if the information they want is not found in a Google search, it doesn’t exist.  In practice, they rarely look beyond the first page of search results, even though there may be dozens of pages of results.  With the links removed, they will never know about the missing information.

These attempts to rewrite history and to sanitize the past bring up images of George Orwell‘s book 1984.  It was twice made into movies.  I prefer the first one, in black and white.  Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for lies.  His job was to change the past.  Whenever one of the government officials was branded a traitor, he would receive a copy of a newspaper article that featured that official, along with a note that he was to rewrite the article with that official omitted.  Now this seems to be happening in reality, except that requests are coming from individuals rather than government ministries.  There must be better ways of handling situations of outdated or erroneous material in our new Internet-centred world.


Who Represents Us?

The other day, I heard part of an interview on CBC radio.  It was with a government official, regarding their relations with native bands.  He said that they had excellent cooperation at the local level, but the native leaders seemed to be bogged down in politics.  My immediate reaction was that the government had bypassed the leaders to deal with the local people directly.  Didn’t these local people elect the leaders to represent them?

When I read Leo Tolstoy’s book A Confession, published in 1882, I noticed that he encountered a similar situation.  Because of his status as a famous writer, Tolstoy was able to speak to leaders of several religious groups in Russia at the time.  He discovered that they had no time to care for the souls of their parishioners because they were busy defending their ecclesiastical territory from other religions.  Is that what’s happening here?

There’s some danger in dealing directly with the people instead of working with their leaders.  The obvious one is duplication of services.  More importantly, they may be dealing with only a portion of the local people, neglecting the others.  There’s also an implicit criticism of the way their leaders were elected.  This type of contact is likely to alienate the leaders.

From time to time, an elected representative seems to believe that they are better than their constituents, and that they know what is best for them better than they do.  In short, they are seen as arrogant.  They are also in great danger in being defeated at the next election.  To be sure, representatives should be better in some respects:  they should be able to represent the consituents better than they can do themselves.  They should also have the humility to rely on the views of their consituents.

It seems to be a general principle that when you examine any situation in detail, it becomes more complex.  In that environment, there are no simple solutions.  There are many different groups of people, many different objectives, and many different motivations.  One group of people cannot speak for everyone.  This principle comes into focus when a government is addressing themselves to people in another country, bypassing the leadership in that country.  They are usually dealing with a dissident group who are opposed to the government.  That might be an accident, but it’s usually the intention.

When should you bypass the leaders to deal directly with the people?  Perhaps it’s when the leaders are truely autocratic, not representing the people at all.  This situation may be revealed when they suppress the opposition or hold one-party elections.  It really requires a rigorous test, one that can withstand independant scrutiny.  After all, it’s easy to fabricate evidence.  In that case, look for an obvious ulterior motive such as access to oil reserves.  It’s complicated because some people or groups always believe that they are neglected by their leaders.  Beliefs like that certainly happen in Canada.  They do need to be considered.  Even just assessing the mood of the people can often be wrong.  Elections are the most reliable means of doing that.

When should you ban an opposition party?  Generally never I’d say, but sometimes this action is legitimate.  I’d restrict it to a fringe group that is employing violence to attain their goals.  A peaceful fringe group, no matter how vocal, will be defeated in the next election.

The best way to avoid all of these problem is to have a functioning democracy where the elected officials do represent the people.  Then just let it work.  As long as ordinary people participate, it will work.



No Lessons, No Morality

I recently read an article by a woman who had given up eating sugar two years previously.  She admitted that she still ate sugar occasionally.  She would share a sugary dessert between her and her two daughters.  Then she stated that sugar should be an occasional treat, as nature intended.  That statement got me thinking.  Perhaps it betrayed a misunderstanding of nature, one that’s all too common.  The only sugary food in nature is fruit.  That must have been what she referred to.  Trees that bear fruit, apple trees for example, don’t do it as an occasional treat for humans.  They do it as a means to disperse their seeds.  The sweet fruit attracts animals, us included, who pick the fruit, eat the pulp, and spit out the seeds all over the place.  That’s the apple tree’s strategy for living and producing more apple trees.  It obviously works for the tree.  In fact, the tree doesn’t care if we eat too much sugar and grow fat; it only cares that its seeds get dispersed.

There are no lessons for us in nature.  Creatures in nature look after themselves alone.  Aesop’s fables may suggest that we model ourselves on one animal and avoid being like another animal, but this is a message for us.  It’s not intended to be an accurate description of the behavior of these animals.  In truth, all possible lessons exist in nature, both positive and negative.  We can always find one that illustrates any story that we wish to tell.

There’s also no morality in nature.  A thousand years ago, people believed that everything in the world had morality, from all animals and plants to even ores ripening in the womb of the earth.  We don’t think that way anymore.  Inanimate objects don’t have morality.  Plants and animals compete with each other.  The ones that are successful in this process will continue in future generations.  There are many different strategies for living, but all of them must work if the plant or animal continues to exist.

We generally like certain animals and see them as morally good.  These are often grazing or browsing animals, ones that eat only plants.  Elephants and rabbits are good examples.  We also like animals that provide for themselves, as in the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  These animals all have chosen their strategy for living.  All have been successful, although the elephant is the one that may have made the worst choice.

We dislike other animals and see them as morally evil.  These are often predators like lions and tigers.  Of course, most people understand that these animals have to kill in order to eat.  We also see parasites as morally evil.  Parasites inspire feelings of revulsion.  Charles Darwin noted that cats will play with mice before they kill them.  We see this as cruel behavior.  Again, all of these animals have chosen a strategy for living, one that works for them.

Morality is a human concept.  We should not apply it to other creatures, by showing our approval or disapproval of them.  We can, of course, use them as examples, but the morality applies to us, not to the animals.  We have the ability to act in a moral manner.  We have the ability to learn morality from stories told by other people.


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.



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