Wednesday, November 28, 2012

You are in a Dark Room...

"You are in a Dark Room. You sense there is only one exit."

Thus we wrote on the front of the card announcing the birth of our baby daughter, Megan Aisha Elisabeth Carels.

The way this text is written, as much as the text itself, is a reference to some old-skool computer games; Text Adventures like Zork, maze games like NetHack and Paganitzu. Often these fledgling adventures would "set the scene" in their introduction with a phrase like this.

Like the player in one such adventure, Megan has no notion of what lies ahead, no idea of what will be required of her, and whether there will be a cool prize when she reaches the finish (or if there will be a finish at all...). She will be embarking on her grand adventure, learning as she goes along, finding new depths and new intricate, interwoven, storylines at every turn. Hopefully ever-curious to explore and discover each of them.

But right now, she has just emerged from the dark room, and, proverbially, still blinking in the bright sunlight, is busy just getting to grips with reality around her.

Megan's parents grew up and "matured" (more or less) alongside the technology that enabled those old adventure games. Simple, text-based, things at first, but evolving into ever more complex and intricate epics.

For them too this is a reference to a new adventure that is to begin. Or at the least the latest and grandest twist in their ongoing adventure so far. One quite unlike any they've encountered before. One, that will make all the adventures before it seem like mere scratchings on the surface. Or so we are assured by legion of other players, who seem to be collectively unable to be any more specific on this claim.

So both Megan and her parents at this point have no idea of the story ahead of them, or even the new  "interface" it came with. Though I feel this is not something we should be scared of. Indeed, to stick with the computer game analogies, a long, long, time ago, when my father got some new game on the old C64, it was my "job" to figure out how it worked and in turn explain it to him. To figure out the unknown, to find what "makes the world tick".

Like I hope Megan will face the world with an eagerness and outgoing curiousity, so I hope we will be eager and curious about getting to know her.

In many ways, how I feel about this moment, is perhaps best captured by a quote from Dr. Seuss's "Oh the places you'll go"[1].

They're the last lines, from his last book. And you can kind of imagine them fitting as you, the adventure player, exit the proverbial Dark Room.

They say...

"You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So... get on your way!"


Monday, October 15, 2012

Chaos, or Anarchy?

As some may have noticed, I've been visiting Egypt a few times recently. And one thing about Egypt that most Westerners will immediately notice is the traffic. Especially around Cairo. It's quite simple, you do not mingle in Egypt traffic, as a foreigner, unless you have a death wish.

Roads around Cairo (or more specifically the use of them), at first glance, seems a total chaos. Lanes are largely disregarded, everybody merges wherever they like, there seem to be no rules on right-of-way and traffic lights, if present, are just a colourful way of lighting the tarmac.

Accidents are rife, and often terrifyingly tragic. And the ones that aren't still have consequences that are difficult to oversee as there cannot be any insurance on these roads. Conflict as result of damaging one's property needs to be resolved with the parties involved and right on the spot.

Yet, it's not true chaos. Of course not, there are humans behind the wheel. Humans can be irrational, emotional and illogical, but they also tend to be predictable. So, if not Chaos, then within the confines of my blog's context, it follows that I'm implying that Anarchy rules the Cairo Highways.

Anarchy, in one popular meaning, is a state of lawlessness and disorder. With the latter more or less by consequence of the absence of the former. For many a orderly society, the prospect of falling into anarchy is a near worst-case scenario.

But in another meaning of Anarchy, it implies a functional method of governance in a society... Namely one without the need of a hierarchically enforced, coercive, and authoritive set of rules. The anarchist's idealism proposes that people "voluntarily" living together in a society will tend towards a form of respectful working equilibrium.

In all fairness the roads around Cairo are "not entirely" without authoritive oversight. But the police is rather understated, understaffed and ineffective in the role as enforcer. About the best they can manage is to clean up the worst of accidents, some minor traffic-management during the worst rush hours and stage the odd checkpoint now and then, causing the general motorist to quickly put on their seatbelts to prevent a dressing down and providing extra income to the State.

And the "voluntarily" part of the anarchist's definition is pretty much substituted with "necessarily". The majority[2] of people here have a car, and a cellphone, but no hope or means of truly getting out of here.

Back on the roads around Cairo, as the driver brings me from A to B, I still cannot determine a set of rules, but I can sense they are there. There is a certain rule, a certain pattern, a certain signal in the noise, that these people on the roads are tuned in to, but that my antenna is failing to pick up.

Perhaps there's something a little more than "mere" anarchy. The ancient Egyptians had a philosophy of Ma'at [1]. Ma'at was the embodiment, the spirit, of truth, balance, order, law, morality and justice. It was a philosophy of living rightly and properly, embodied in 42 confessions (hieroglyphs on papyrus had a slightly higher data density compared to stone tablets, hence the Egyptians had space for more than 10, I guess). Old habits, old morals, die hard.

Whether the Cairo highway is a huge field-experiment in benevolent anarchy with 15 million participants, or a side-effect of a deeper ancient social-cultural disposition, I can't really tell. And it's pretty easy to see where the system has deep, and often fatal, flaws. But, there is one. And one that springs forth from the mere tiniest sliver of rule-of-law and nothing further than the common goals and necessities of man living together in close proximity.

A weave and evasive maneuver of the car breaks my reverie,
and I see we're close to our destination.

Time to go to work.

[1] Wikipedia page on Ma'at
[2] Edit: This I need to correct after reading an article on fuel subsidies. The huge traffic load of cars on the roads is caused by a very small minority of the people. Less than 5% of Egyptians own a car.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

This bickering is(n't) pointless.

A long, long, time ago, in a fishing village at the southern coast of The Netherlands, I sat, mesmerized, watching the events on the screen unfold. There, in a conference room, a collection of serious looking gentlemen were having a discussion that was quickly heating up. Just when the debate seemed to really start to throw sparks, an elderly-looking gentleman came in and confidently declared...

"The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I've just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away."
Gasp! OMG! The Senate has been dissolved! The Old Republic is dead...

It is funny, really, how the movie could convey so overwhelmingly a sense that this, what had just happened, was "A Bad Thing"(tm). How the imagery of the room so conveyed the message that these were "The Bad Guys".

But it is the thing that was said next that I have never before been able to judge on its real value...
"That's impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?"
Think about this for a moment... How often do we not wish we would have less bureaucracy? How liberating wouldn't it be to totally do without it... Was it a sign of their being ultimate evil that they actually wished for it to exist? To wonder how the Emperor could hold his Power without bureaucracy seemed to somehow suggest that there was a link between bureaucracy and the ability of evil dictators to gain, and hold, their position. Down with the bureaucracy I say! Out with the breeding ground for evil dictators!

Like we didn't have enough reasons to want to get rid of bureaucracy yet, there is more, as Jerry Pournelle has described it in his (admittedly apocryphal) Iron Law of Bureaucracy [1];
"In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely."
This touches on the tendency of (large) organizations to become self-perpetuating; to promote their continued existence as a purpose of its own, rather than for the benefit of the initial stated goal.

But here we seem to have hit a paradox. If the Imperial Senate were evil and corrupted to the benefit of the Emperor's position, would it not have been working solely for its own continued existence? Would it not have resisted being disbanded? And, if it were beneficial to the Emperor's position, why disband it in the first place? The only possible conclusion here is that there must have been something about this Senate, this Bureaucracy, that was impeding the further gain of power by the Emperor (and his cronies).

To gain insight into this, we may find some enlightenment in the very definition of a Bureaucracy [2].
"bureaucracy is a group of non-elected officials of a government or organization that implements the rules, laws, ideas, and functions of their institution."
And furthermore in the description of a "Representative Democracy"[3]:
"The power of representatives is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional democracy or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power"
The Senate, defining new Law and, being a part of the "other measures", scrutinizing it against existing Law, thus apparently acted as a voice of reason (or at least delay) and a roadblock for the Emperor implementing his every whim. Its disbanding leaves the Emperor as both Dictator and the Ultimate MicroManager, which is indeed confirmed by those present in the room.

While this movie I enjoyed so much as a kid is a piece of fiction, also in our real world we should not underestimate the importance of the "established" Institutions of State, which essentially make up the Bureaucracy.

In the not-so-fictional case of, say, Egypt, the country has recently chosen a new President. But the previous rulers had, mere weeks before the elections, disbanded the (newly elected) Parliament. And to add insult to injury, the only thing resembling a Constitution in effect was the permanent State of Emergency that the previous President had imposed for over 20 years.While there still is plenty of bureaucracy, it's mostly the kind you do want to cut out; corruption and the kind that is the result of "Pournelle's Law".

But at least in part, and an important one, it is the lack of a decent established framework of bureaucracy that is keeping Egypt from moving forward at speed.

Well, today, on September 12th, we're electing a new parliament, and, in theory, by relative fractional representation, also a new government. And, technically, we should be fine. With a decent Constitution, the proper measures in place to avoid democratic mob-rule, and (maybe just a bit too much) Bureaucracy to implement the laws, we should be set for the next four years. And yet...  
"I find my lack of faith... disturbing..."

[1] "Jerry Pournelle"

[2] "Bureaucracy"

[3] "Representative Democracy"

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the Division Of Labour

On recent travels, I've started to pick up a series of books, as in-flight entertainment, that entitled "50 ..... ideas you really need to know", where the "..." is basically any topic you can think of 50 odd concepts to talk about and explain them in a short "scratching the surface" kind of way.

Superficial, maybe, but entertaining, certainly. In this manner, I am now the proud owner of such a book on Philosophy[1], Mathematics[2], and, most recently, Economics[3].

One of the concepts the Economics book touches upon, is the "Division of Labour". In the book a couple of examples are used, like a pencil-factory (which apparently was one of the concepts that played at the time of the idea's conception), or the famous Model-T Ford production-line. However, nothing works quite as well to bring home a concept than really seeing it in action, first-hand...

Two of the cities I've visited in the last couple of months were Zurich, Switzerland, and Cairo, Egypt. The exact hotels where I stayed don't really matter, but a function of these hotels does; the housekeeping service.

In both cities I was staying over a weekend, so it happened that I was "in the room" when housekeeping came calling. Now, usually I don't like being around when they do. There's something very disturbing about other people cleaning up my mess around me. Generally, if this happens I go down to the lounge, or lobby, with a book or my laptop (like I am doing now) and have a cappuccino.

But, I digress. In both places, at at least one time each, I was there when housekeeping came by to do their job. It is the manner in which they did it, and the comparative differences, that were interesting, and something of an example of the division of labour.

In Zurich, when housekeeping arrived, I was, I would almost say, entertained, by one lady, asking me the usual hospitality questions (How are you doing? Did you sleep well? How is the stay so far? And can she be of any further service?), while a squadron of her colleagues swarmed in to perform the various functions required of their service. Their operation was executed with a near military discipline, and with the speed of a navy seals incursion. They were in and out in under maybe 5 minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire hallway takes them under an hour if there are but a few pesky guests lurking inside when they come by. In Zurich, when you're staying at this hotel for business, it is rather unlikely you will ever meet the housekeeping staff.

In Cairo, I've frequently seen the housekeeping staff. They're a polite bunch, saying customary goodmornings and howareyous (though it's a bit evil to have fun at their expense if you respond in ways they don't anticipate, as their grasp of the english language limits their flexibility in that respect), but importantly, I see them lurking along the corridors for the better part of a day (if/when I happen to be around at various times of the day).

When they (well, he...) arrived, there was a polite apology for disturbing me, and he set about his labours. For the better part of 20 minutes a number of activities were performed, followed by a thankyouhaveaniceday.

While the quality of the work-that-was-done is not under scrutiny, the inconsistency of it perhaps is. In Zurich, they were legion, each with specific tasks, and each with very little chance of them forgetting their task, as they had but one, or a few. In Cairo, the housekeeping generalist had to track all of the tasks on his own. And neither did he seem to keep a checklist. Resulting in me some days ending up without shampoo, or without papers for laundry service, or other small things like that.

So what could bring an efficiency of the division to the concept of hotel housekeeping? Perhaps, in Zurich, somehow the staff is not paid by the hour, but paid for "the job". Complete the job faster, your relative hourly rate goes up and you have either more spare time, or you can service multiple hotels (oohh, contractor-based housekeeping!). In Cairo, it seems, time isn't money, or at least not as much. So the hotel can afford to have staff hanging around for the better part of the day. And, since the relative cost is still so low, there's frightfully little incentive[4] to improve on this...

Did I pull the concept of Division of Labour out of it's context? Probably.

Or did I?

Switzerland is one of the most developed countries in the "developed world". Egypt is struggling to escape a number of issues weighing down its economic and societal development. On the one end is a developed and 'over-educated' society dealing with a menial labour service that is by necessity local and cannot be outsourced. On the other end is a huge workforce[5], but one that desperately needs to improve on education, and ambition. The example might not be a true one of division of labour, but it surely is one of the effects of globalisation, and, somehow, the innovation the Western world needs to display to deal with their own level of cost...

[1] 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know - Ben Dupré; ISBN: 9781847240064
[2] 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need To Know - Tony Crilly; ISBN: 9781847240088
[3] 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need To Know - Edmund Conway; ISBN: 9781848660106
[4] Rather, a counter-incentive is the apparent work-culture of long-hours-sedate-pace. It's something of an African thing I suspect...
[5] Demographics of Egypt

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Of an engineer, and his shoelaces...

One morning, slightly in a hurry to go catch my train to catch my plane to catch my plane (yes, plane, twice; I had a transfer), I realize that the shoelace of one of my hiking boots was, basically, not where it was supposed to be.

It was, actually,  blatantly lying beside the actual shoe, removed from the rings and clips that are the counterpart implement by which the lace performs its function (e.g. preventing the shoe from removing itself from my foot without manual intervention).

Now, I can almost hear you, dear reader, thinking; "Lace-get and you're on our way"...

Yet, "Slightly sheepish", may have been an accurate description of the look on my face when I grabbed the lace and, upon its inspection, realized that one end had lost its plastic cap. A result of which having been the horribly fraying of said lace's end. The actual sheepishness ensued upon the realization that catching my train and painfully re-threading a frayed lace were mutually exclusive propositions.

Quickly then, a short diagnostic was performed, to inventorise the options at my disposal. One that came to mind, was using the other end (which still had a plastic cap) to do a 'full backtrace threading'. Conceived, considered, and contended, as being a highly untested, and probably very timeconsuming, idea.

Somehow fixing the fraying end seemed a better option, but how to go about this concept...

As a true engineer I am taught to think both in solutions, and outside the box. So implementing these two principles, the Solution arrived upon was a chemical one, and out of the box I grab the Cyano-Acrylate. Known as nasty crap by some, and Super Glue by others, it offered the appeal of a fast and efficient measure and should put a solid edge on the frayed end which I intend to do the threading with.

Having applied the glue, then provisionally donned the shoe, got in the car and while being driven to the station (no, I'm not doing these things while driving myself) I realise that the, now hardened, end is far too thick to thread through the first set of rings.

By now a certain gloom is coming over me, the kind one gets when feeling scrutinized by Murphy just a tad too closely. Yet, not admitting defeat, it is decided that the next step would be to re-shape the solid end and form it into a narrower cone, which, is the intention, would fit through the metal rings...

Since no Dremel is part of my current standard travel equipment, and with little else at my disposal, I decide to use the tools nature has given me, and "bite down" on the hardened end to break the glue and flatten the shape. Surprisingly, this works.

Kind of.

A slightly-flattened, yet still-solid-enough-to-thread-with, shape, now exists, on the end of my shoelace that, to be fair, still doesn't fit through the first set of rings on my shoes. Additionally, the glue, which may form a bond that is super hard, apparently did not do so quite as super fast, and has left some interestingly tasting residue on some of my teeth. Staring Murphy in the eye, I refuse to succumb to the despair and resignation that are his hallmark. The teeth can be cleaned, and I still have a problem to engineer.

By now well into the trainride, and fiddling with the solid end on the shoelace I observe that a part of the lace will extrude from the ring, but it's not enough to get a grip on by manual means (e.g. my fingers) for effective pull. And the physical nature of a shoelace does not quite lend itself for a push-approach.

Confounded? I think not! From the depths of my System Integrator's Essentials I pull my trusted anti-static wristband. On said wristband resides a coiled wire. The coiled wire ends with a crocodile clip. A clip to securely make contact with an earthed object. ...Or the perfect tool to get a better hold on a slightly-exctruding piece of shoelace, for some serious pull and traction.

While I respect and heed Murphy, for to do otherwise would be folly, I, respectfully and humbly, declare victory over his schemes. The crocodile sways the balance in my favour and Murphy succumbs. The shoelace is through! And after this first significant victory, the home-stretch is almost too easy.

The lace was threaded, the shoe was worn, the train arrived, and my plane...

was late...