Politically charged

Someone has sent me a link to a quite emotional but interesting article by Tim Bray on why the world of enterprise systems delivers so many failed projects and sucky software while the world of web startups excels at producing great software fast. Tim makes some very valid points about technology, culture and approach to running projects. It is true that huge upfront specs, fixed bid contracts and overall waterfall approach are indeed culprits behind most failed IT projects, and that agile, XP and other key trends of recent years can help.

However, I don’t think they can really cure the problem, because we are facing a deeper issue here: the overall overcomplexity in our civilization.

Main drivers of this overcomplexity are bloated states and economy dominated by corporations. Both states and corporations have IT systems today – and the complexity of those IT systems has to reflect the complexity of organisms and processes they try to cover.

The IT system for a national health care system or a state run compulsory social security “insurance” is a very good example. It must be a complex mess because what it is trying to model and run is a complex, overbloated mess – in most cases a constantly changing mess. And it can’t be launched early because it is useless unless it covers the whole scope of what it is supposed to do: because most of what it covers is regulations and laws you can’t deliver a system that meets half of the regulations or 10% – it can’t be used. By the very nature of the domain the system has to be launched as a finished whole.

Plus, on top of all that, comes the scale. If you can imagine a completely privatized health care no system will ever cover all citizens – each doctor, hospital, insurer etc. will cover just its clients, a subset of the population. A system like NHS has to handle all of the UK’s population by design.

Same problem with corporations, especially those that have been around for long (by long I mean decades, not years): scale and mentality. You just can’t manage 75 thousand people easily, especially if they are spread around the globe, in a simple and agile way.

Just think of all accounting requirements global corporations have to handle with their IT systems – but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Whole world economy floats in a sea of legislation – legislative diarrhea of the last decades produced a legal swamp which is a nightmare to understand let alone model a system to comply with it. For a global corporation multiply that by all the countries it is in and stick some international regulations on top of this. This is something corporate systems have to cope with.

What is also important – much of that overcomplexity is computer driven: it would not have been possible if not for the existence of IT systems and computers that run them.

Take VAT tax – it is so complex I always wonder what idiots gave the Nobel prize to the moron who invented it (well, I used to wonder about that when Nobel prize had any credibility). Clearly, implementing it is completely impossible without computers & systems everywhere.

Same about the legal diarrhea I mentioned – I think it can be largely attributed to Microsoft Word. Ever wondered why the EU Constitution (now disguised as “Lisbon Treaty”) has hundreds of pages while the US Constitution is simple and elegant? Well, they couldn’t have possibly written a couple hundred page document with a quill pen which forced them to produce something concise.

But going back to the key issue of whether the corporate IT systems can be better: they can, but a deeper shift in thinking is needed. Instead of creating huge, complex systems corporate IT should rather be a cloud of simple, small systems built and maintained to provide just one simple service (exactly what web startups are doing – each of them provides simple a service, together they create a complex ecosystem). However, this shift would have to occur on the organizational level too – large organizations with complex rules should be replaced with small, focused entities with simple rules for interaction between them.

But to get there we would need a world-wide “agile adoption” reaching well beyond IT. But that means a huge political change, that is nowhere on the horizon. Unless, of course, one other enabler of our civilization’s overcomplexity fades: cheap, abundant energy.

Departing from my usual topics I want to share an observation on the big picture that we are being fed by politicians, mainstream media and most of the Internet.

This big picture is – in short – that we humans are damaging the planet Earth, causing catastrophic global warming driven by CO2 emissions due to burning fossil fuels (mainly in cars), as well as having kids, eating meat etc. We are also facing a huge energy crisis, economic crisis, swine flu pandemic and terrorists. Doom is just around the corner, there is no hope unless we submit to a whole portfolio of totalitarian policies proposed by the very same politicians in the very same media outlets.

Apart from whether all of this picture is true (most is not) what is interesting here is a complete lack of any positive program for our civilization.

It seems the only thing our elites can come up with is downsizing humanity by all means possible from contraceptives to choking off industrial production with this whole "carbon tax" scheme. But this is not a positive program, it is at best an idea on how to prolong status quo for those left, especially those on top of the chain. Let’s suppose we will cut human population by 90% (as some "ecologists" – or rather antihuman madmen – are suggesting) – what next? Where is the path upwards, not downwards?

What is amazing is that people in general are not noticing this lack of any long term prospective. They seem so scared of (mostly fake) dangers they see in the media each day they don’t see our leaders have no idea what to do. Or, worse, they have an idea, but it doesn’t include most of us.

All of this is extremely short sighted. Notice that in all of those doom scenarios Earth is being presented as a limited, closed environment – something akin to Eco Spheres. Global warming models, for example, generally don’t factor in the influence of the Sun, space radiation, Earth orbit cycles & changes and so on. So do those who talk about energy and resources scarcity.

The fact is, however, that Earth is just a part of the unimaginably huge and complex system called the Universe. This is our world, not just this tiny rock. And universe is full of energy and matter. Even our own solar system is full of energy and matter way beyond anything we humans may need for centuries. Just the solar energy descending on Earth in the visible spectrum every day is way beyond all energy needs we have or may have in foreseeable future.

Also, as it has been shown, the limit of Earth’s atmosphere is as much a hard limit for life as the water surface is for fish. Fish can’t walk on the land, we can’t get to space without lots of energy and technology – but it doesn’t mean the world just ends there (like they thought flat Earth ends in Middle Ages). Even the limit of Earth’s atmosphere is just an arbitrary line drawn by humans to simplify things – in fact it is a changing continuum between the dense atmosphere on the ground and the vacuum of space above it (and even that vacuum is not completely empty). And that space influences what happens here on Earth in a powerful way – much more so than anything we humans can come up with.

How all that relates to the current picture of doom and gloom? Well – my question is: if we know we’ll run out of resources at some point why we are not trying to get to the resources beyond what is available on Earth? And since when did we forget that for any sane human being fellow humans should come first, before whales and bats? Why instead of trying to kill off humans (or prevent them from being born) – which is what our leaders seem to be busy doing – we are not trying hard to make sure that a) everyone is fed and b) we can have a future in space?

It’s not a problem of technology or money. The technology is there – we have heavy lift rockets, most are just not being produced anymore (like the famous Russian Energia). We even have nuclear technology that could give even better lift and could propel us further than just the Low Earth Orbit, but it never was really used. In fact it seems that when it comes to space technology we are not advancing, not stagnating, but actually falling back.

The money is also there – just the bailouts for the “too big to fail” would have funded NASA for years. This is not mere rhetoric. NASA’s budget for FY 2008 is approximately $17 billion or 0.6% of US Federal budget. The bailouts did cost between $4 to $8.5 trillion according to different sources. That is between 235 and 500 years of NASA’s funding. Or 29 to 63 Apollo programs (cost of whole Apollo program is estimated at $136 billion of 2005 US dollars). And some say the total cost of bailouts etc. is $23 trillion – you can calculate yourself how many trips to Moon, Mars and elsewhere would that buy – even at NASA, known for its wastefulness and reckless spending on bureaucracy etc.

Those numbers show how mad this is, how we risk our collective future by massive misallocation of resources. Can you imagine how much technology and knowledge we could have obtained if just a fraction of those heaps of money wasted on Wall Street would have been allocated to space exploration? How many good, real jobs would have been created – jobs that actually create something, not “service” jobs that mainly mean people flipping burgers and waiting tables?

So something just doesn’t add up here. Either all our leaders just never look up into the sky at night and can’t use their brains for anything other than campaigning – or there is a barrier there we are not being told of. In any case instead of pursuing the only positive path we are being told the best thing we can do is planet-wide civilization suicide.

Which is why I’m sick when I see attempt by mass media and major corporations to create an illusion of grass-root support for the Copenhagen meeting and tax on breathing they want to impose there on the whole world (like this one). What’s really sickening is that this scam seems to work, that people do believe in this whole heap of lies they are being told without questioning them, without thinking. And without realizing there is a positive path – we just don’t follow it, we don’t even consider it.

So Obama did get the Nobel Peace Prize… Amazing! They could just as well give him the Nobel Prize in physics – after all, he didn’t do anything there too but just as well may make a groundbreaking discovery in the future.

I think Nobel Peace Prize’s credibility is now completely gone as the committee could sink no lower. Giving it to someone just based on hope he will do something, just based on his slick talk even before he could really take any significant action, is so wrong and stupid it pains.

But it may be a good thing overall. I just hope the absurdity of this idiocy will help more people wake up from their media-induced slumber.

Someone sent me a link to a recent Michael Shermer’s column on people believing in conspiracies – “Paranoia Strikes Deep“. An interesting article that reveals more about its author’s biases and limitations than its intended subjects.

Basically, Mr. Shermer thinks that people who believe there may indeed exist some secret groups – especially within government – conspiring successfully to influence politics, society and economy on a large scale are basically irrational idiots not thinking straight. According to Mr. Shermer such conspiracies are very improbable, because in a large conspiracy maintaining secrecy would be next to impossible. Doing that within government is especially hard, because bureaucrats are incompetent and stupid:

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off, and so many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the Men in Black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. So there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.

(my emphasis)

Seems like a very good argument: if someone famous for failing at conspiring says it is hard it must be true, right?

But, seriously: is it really the case? Is it really impossible to create a big, successful secret operation within government – and keep it so for a long time – because people will talk? Let’s examine this claim carefully.

First, it is absolutely clear that such a rule would apply at all only within the context of modern, Western democracies. In Soviet Russia, for example, everything was secret and classified by default, from genocide and mass resettlement of whole nations through the whole portfolio of weaponry development projects to civilian plane crashes. Same happened in Nazi Germany and routinely happens to this day in modern totalitarian states. Who knows, for example, what Chinese government is up to? Certainly not the Chinese people – or shall I call them ‘subjects’?

But even within the Western world large scale secret operations were successfully hidden from public for decades. My favorite example is the Ultra/Enigma case.

Everyone knows the basics – during the Second World War Allies were routinely reading much of German encrypted radio traffic and were distributing intelligence gathered to dozens of Allied commanding officers giving them incredible advantage over their German counterparts.

What’s interesting here is that after the war ended no one knew anything about it until 1973 when Bertrand’s book was published providing the public with its first glimpse of truth. Movies were made and books were written – including scientific research in the fields of history and military tactics – analyzing allied victories in numerous battles without that crucial knowledge. Amazing, but somehow for 28 years everyone involved, on both sides of the Atlantic, was keeping their mouths shut.

And we are not speaking here about a small group of people. Hundreds if not thousands were involved in the operation and knew the Ultra secret. This includes the Bletchley Park staff of a couple of hundreds cryptologists, analysts, technicians and clerks, then hundreds of soldiers in the SLU units distributing the information to commanders (and taking every dispatch back!), commanders themselves and numerous politicians and intelligence officers both in the UK and the US. Not one of them spoke about it for 28 years after the conflict was over.

This makes it even more interesting. It is easier to understand why everyone involved was not talking while the war was ongoing. All were in the military, penalties for loose talk were harsh, press was censored anyway – plus all involved did understand their mission was important and didn’t want to compromise its security. But why after the war? Especially 10 or 15 years after? Germany was divided, part of it was already considered an ally in the Cold War. But somehow no one said a word.

Amazing, isn’t it, Mr. Shermer what Her Majesty’s government was able to do? Maybe they were not as inept as Mr. Liddy?

But even in the US some bureaucrats were much better than Mr. Nixon and his staff at hiding secrets. Let’s just take the case of NSA. NSA – arguably the biggest sig-int organization in the world – was officially created by Harry S. Truman in June 1952. Again, not only the general public, but also large parts of US government – including the US Congress – didn’t even know this organization existed yet alone spied on Americans until 1975 Church Committee hearings. And we are not speaking here about a small organization – NSA employed thousands and its operations spanned the globe with listening posts in Australia, UK, Turkey and other places.

I think those two examples show very well that Mr. Liddy is wrong and so is Mr. Shermer. Conspiracies can be pulled off by government agencies without being compromised for quite a long time even in Western societies of recent time.

Someone may say that both cases are from the secretive field of cryptology and military intelligence. Can there be conspiracies of a different type – ones with political and social agendas on huge scale?

History, again, serves us with an excellent example – Soviet Union and unprecedented social engineering that took place there was exactly a product of such a successful conspiracy. Lenin and his pals were able to use destabilization of Russia following the First World War to grab power, ruthlessly eliminate opposition – and then implement the crazy social agenda they all firmly believed in. No place to explore the details here, but it is a very interesting story in itself.

And yes, it can happen again. One of the fallacies of the modern world is to think that old problems of humanity – wars, dictatorships, cruelty etc. – are a thing of the past, because we are modern – mainly more technologically sophisticated. But technological advancement doesn’t change the human nature which remains strikingly unchanged through recorded history (which is why Greek tragedies are so understandable to us thousands of years after they were written) – it just makes the damage we can potentially do bigger.

Does it mean that 9/11 was an “inside job”? No. It just means arguments of those who say so should be looked at and discussed, not them snared at just for asking questions or having doubts about the official version. History shows that a conspiracy on such a scale is hard to pull off and thus improbable – but definitely far from impossible. But first, of course, one has to know history – without that it is easy to fall for naive simplistic arguments like the one made by Mr. Shermer. Ignorance strikes indeed deeper than paranoia…

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