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?
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.
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.
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 Worms. Wikipedia 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.
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.
Lately I’ve been hearing or seeing words or phrases that seem to have taken on a new meaning. They are short words or phrases that no longer have their original meaning and are used in a specific context. Most people do know the real meaning, but don’t intend it when they use the words in this manner. Of course, phrases always invoke mental images. In order to communicate accurately, all of us must agree on the associated mental image. In these cases, the mental images are new as well.
I’m not being critical of this new meaning. I’m not complaining that people are using these words or phrases incorrectly. I’m well aware that language changes all the time. I’m only pointing out some words or phrases that I’ve noticed being used in a new way. Here are some examples:
- Smart phone means any hand-held mobile telephone. It doesn’t imply that the phone is a true smart phone, one that has thousands of applications that can be installed from an applications store. A feature phone, with a fixed number of applications, can be called a smart phone as well. In this country, the term cell phone is used interchangeably.
- Chemicals means any food ingredient with a name that you don’t recognize. It might also mean anything that a chemical laboratory might purchase in a jar from a supply house. For instance, sodium chloride in food would be a chemical, but sea salt would not be, even though they are both the same substance. People who understand science realize that everything in food is a chemical, but that’s not what people mean when they use the word now.
- Natural means any food ingredient that seems to be traditional. People seem to believe that anything natural is good for you, but anything unnatural is bad for you. Unfortunately, the world is not that simple. Poison mushrooms are completely natural, for example, but they are definitely not good for you. People believe that butter is more natural than margarine, even though butter is full of saturated fat. Food manufacturers confuse the issue even further by calling almost everything natural.
- Community means any identifyable group of people, regardless of whether they actually associate with each other. It seems to be used in place of the term ethnic group or religious group, always a minority, by saying that a person is a member of a specific community. Perhaps it’s less offensive by putting it that way, although it still conveys the same message. What community would you specify for a member of the majority?
- Optics means how something appears to others. It has nothing to do with prisms, lenses, or rays of light. I’ve heard it used to describe the public perception of a person’s activities. Something could be bad on the surface, but good or necessary on the inside, for example. Part of public relations is making sure that all activities have positive optics.
- Graphic means shocking or offensive. My understanding of the word is that it simply referred to a picture of any sort. However, I’ve heard an interview on the radio described as graphic, even though there were no pictures. I’ve also seen portions of a TV program described as graphic, even though television consists entirely of pictures. Clearly this word has a new meaning.