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Archive for January 2007

mind the gaps

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If, like me, you have an interest in demographics and the state of the world, Google has just the tool for you: The Gapminder. Basically, it plots demographic data on a chart that is animated to let you plot changes over time.

For a sample of what makes this an engrossing tool, try the following:

  • select Population on the x-axis, and Life Expectancy on the y-axis;
  • hit Play to animate the chart over the period 1960-2004;
  • watch what happens during the early 1990s; a little dot plummets to the bottom of the chart, then pops back up again;
  • what country is that? Scroll the chart till the dot reaches bottom, and select it;
  • the country is Rwanda, the stats for the point you select are shown on the axes.
  • Play the chart again: Rwanda’s basic demographics are plotted as a line that bucks the expected upward trend.
  • Not only does the Life Expectancy plummet to just 24 in 1992, between 1990 and 1995 the population drops from around 7 million to under 5½ million.

The dip in Rwanda’s population is, of course, the Rwandan Genocide; that is now part of history, but Zimbabwe’s Life Expectancy has been in the news. Mugabe’s repressive regime puts the Leader and his Ideology over all other concerns, including the basic health of Zimbabwe’s people. Sure enough, selecting Zimbabwe on the map lets you follow the country down, to a Life Expectancy of just 34 in 2004.

There are more stats in there now, and surely more to follow. I ought to find up some positive stats too, just to stop me getting too fatalistic, but positive stats are going to be hard to find in there. OK, Ireland now has the highest per capita earnings of any country in the world – but do I see any of that bounty?

Written by brian t

January 30, 2007 at 9:38 pm

gayband! gayband!

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News just in: a Christian website has published a list of “gay bands”, here. Besides the grammatical error – some are solo artists, not bands – the list makes for hilarious reading. The author appears to be listing bands submitted by readers, without further examination.

There are artists on the list who are gay, and bands that have gay members, which is to be expected: Erasure, k d lang, Judas Priest, Depeche Mode. Others listed are completely off the mark: Motörhead, Eminem, Björk, Jay-Z, Nickelback. I’m surprised AC/DC aren’t on the list; the least gay band in the world, formed in suburban Sydney, Australia, by teenagers completely unaware what that name meant in the red light district.

Now, while I’m not a fan of “camp”, of the type displayed by the Village People, Erasure, and more recently the Scissor Sisters, I’m still not convinced that has any influence on the listener’s sexuality at all. In other cases, you wouldn’t know an artist was gay unless he or she pointed it out. Certainly, people had suspicions about Rob Halford for years, given his fondness for leather and studs on stage, but I would never have outed k d lang, a singer I quite like, since her music isn’t anywhere near as risqué to my ears as that of her fellow Canadian, Joni Mitchell.

It’s all a little pointless, and a particularly American view of the world. I wish all these Yankee moralizers would stop and read their own country’s Constitution. Take particular note of the part guaranteeing all citizens, of any particular curvature, the inalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Written by brian t

January 29, 2007 at 2:18 am

Posted in humour, music

storage matters

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There’s been very little happening on the home front since my return from points East. It’s been almost four weeks, filled with little more besides work, sleep, and watching the final series of The West Wing.

Of The West Wing, all I will say is: those critics who claim the quality declined in later series’ are blowing bubbles; sure, things changed, quite radically, but it reflects the reality of what happens in the US Government (Executive Branch) in an Election year. Each Presidential term is a real roller-coaster ride, from which only some of the characters climb off at the end, having earned the privilege of walking away in the certain knowledge of a job well done. Highly Recommended.

It’s happened before that I’ve gained new insights on a topic by writing about it here; it’s at least as useful to talk about it, to a bunch of people who may have a different take on the subject. That was the case last month, when I gave two weeks of consecutive training courses to my company’s new recruits in Bangalore, on our Storage product line. Some of them had worked for our competitors, and it was fun to see the contrasts between product ranges that came out.

Sometimes it was “oh – our stuff couldn’t do that” or “we charged for that, you gave it away free”. On other topics, they had experience at an “Enterprise” level that I just don’t, and customers with Enterprise budgets. On at least one occasion my natural response, to a question like “why doesn’t this product do X?”, was something like “sure, it’s possible, but why would you want to, here? It would be hard to manage, and cost too much”.

Technological advances have a way of turning last decade’s impossible in to last year’s unworkable, then in to this year’s impractical, and next year’s you-should-be-doing-it-already. Without going in to too much detail here, one of the topics of contention in our discussions was that of “storage virtualization”. I have a certain take on it, from my work on our mid- and low-end product ranges, that is focused on the nuts-and-bolts of how getting spinning metal platters to do what the customer needs. The first difference between a standard PC and a Server is the use of multiple disks, how they need to be arranged to work, quickly and reliably, without costing the earth. Beyond that you get in to dedicated external Storage systems, which is where I make my living.

There’s another level beyond that, an additional layer of virtualization that hides the complexity from the customer and allows them to treat storage as a utility (like electricity or water), but that comes at huge financial cost, without actually removing the underlying complexity. I would use a vehicle analogy; modern cars, with all their engine management and monitoring, can run reliably for longer than old cars can. That is fine when they’re working, and a real problem when they go wrong, since the driver doesn’t have the knowledge or tools to fix it any more. There are people who do, but they’re expensive, even with service contracts, and that leaves you at the mercy of the service personnel.

Worse, this dumbing-down of the end users leaves them unable to make fully-informed decisions about their next purchase. My company has Storage customers who are the technological siblings of SUV-driving Yuppies in cities; they fall for the sales pitch and a misplaced conception of safety. Others buy the equivalent of a VW Golf from us – great for its purpose, but these customers then turn round and complain to us that it doesn’t perform as the sales pitch said, after they pour diesel in the petrol tank, and load up the back seats with a ton of cement. They have a service contract, so we must fix it. Right?

Anyway, to get back to the main point: I’m going to have a go at writing up my ideas on Storage, starting with the most basic abstract view of what it is and isn’t. There are so many storage types, real and virtualized, and while it can be confusing, you can cut through it all with a solid grounding in the fundamentals. What I write will appear under the “storage” heading under Pages, not as blog entries in the usual way, though I will refer to them at times. It won’t be quick!

Written by brian t

January 27, 2007 at 8:55 pm

plane thinking

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At the beginning of 2006 I speculated that I would be doing less travelling. That suited me, simply out of general consideration for the environment. I didn’t need news headlines , or the European Union, to tell me that air travel is not good for it. So, I imagined, 2006 would be a quieter year for me, with fewer flights.

The reality turned out to be very different:

  • April = 4 flights: Dublin <-> London, Dublin <-> Lisbon
  • May = 1 flight: Dublin -> Copenhagen
  • June = 5 flights: Copenhagen -> Dublin, Dublin <-> Amsterdam <-> Lyon
  • July = 2 flights: Dublin <-> London
  • November = 2 flights: Dublin <-> London
  • December = 4 flights: Dublin <-> Dubai <-> Bangalore

That makes eighteen (18) flights in one year; eight of those for work-related reasons, the other ten for no good reason. By way of comparison, I calculate that I took nine (9) flights, half this year’s tally, in my first 25 years. Must do better this year – the environment needs me to cut back on the flying!

Besides, the romance has gone: RyanAir is working hard to make flying as exciting as taking a bus, and even though I didn’t fly with them last year, Aer Lingus are not that far behind, out of competitive pressures. I think I’ll take the ferry next time I visit the UK.

Written by brian t

January 5, 2007 at 8:23 pm

my first philosophy

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It’s a new year, and getting close to five years since I started this blog (even though not all posts are up here yet). In that time I don’t believe I’ve ever said anything about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, or if I have it was a long time ago, so this is a good time to recap my position on it.

I first encountered Objectivism through the band Rush, specifically their lyricist Neil Peart, who adapted Ayn Rand’s Anthem for their 1976 breakthrough recording 2112. It’s hard to gauge just how “serious” he was about that, though he did express concern about how it led to attacks from journalists, in the UK in particular, where Individualism is associated with Capitalism. It made him persona non grata to Socialists. Peart’s writing has come a long way since then.

I’ve come to view Objectivism as a “starter philosophy”, or “my first philosophy”: one that doesn’t “scale” as one grows philosophically. This is not a bad thing in my view, since Objectivism serves the important purpose of introducing fundamental philosophical questions to an audience who might not think about philosophy at all.

I haven’t read all of Rand’s writings – far from it- but one important point I took away was the importance of living for oneself. At times she specifically cited pure altruism as a negative proposition, for example, and promoted a kind of “enlightened selfishness” that has clear roots in free-market economics. Take the “invisible hand” of laissez-faire economics as a principle, and apply it to ethics and actions, and the human race will improve its state and potentialities, according to Objectivist theory.

This is where philosophy collides with reality, in my opinion, since the human race has shown a distinct lack of competence in deciding just what is in its own self-interest. I’ve written, previously, on my opinion that people sabotage their own lives by excessive breeding. The growth of fundamentalist religions, especially Islam, show how people are prepared to accept restrictions and irrationality in the name of stability. (I’m just back from Dubai, where I was left wondering just how much genuine belief there was in Islam, outside the law, official statements, and social mosque attendance.)

Taking command of your personal philosophy is not a trivial matter; Christians would have you believe that morals will decline without the biblical dogma, so if you were to become an atheist, the onus would be on you to live a good life without biblical guidance, as an example to others. Can you be “selfish”, putting yourself first, while still being a good person and law-abiding citizen?

Selfishness does not preclude charity or other good works, since both benefactor and beneficiary gain something from donation. If your country is under threat, and you would suffer at the hands of an enemy, you have a reason to fight. The part that bothers Objectivists is the idea of being beholden to others where there is no benefit to you; slavery, blind faith, sacrifice in the name of duty or religion alone. If you take advantage of others, or commit crimes against them, have you – your personality and core beliefs – really benefited?

It follows, therefore, that I don’t quite understand how people can ever get so attached to Objectivism that it becomes canon or dogma. The term “Randroid” has been used to describe serious Objectivists, and there have even been “schisms” in the study and interpretation of Ayn Rand’s work. Is that what she was hoping for – a cult of personality based around her and her books? I don’t think so; in my view, this is against the spirit of free thought and personal growth she was aiming for. In her own words: “a blind follower is precisely what my philosophy condemns and what I reject”.

If living for yourself is a good thing, then so is thinking for oneself. If this takes you far away, philosophically, from Rand and Objectivism, would Rand object? If the philosophy you develop is anathema to some Objectivists, it is nevertheless yours, and if Randroids have a problem with that, it is their problem; not yours.

If I have one wish for 2007, it is that everyone in the world takes some time for serious thought, on their own behalf, about who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and – most critically – why, without blindly accepting the word of any “authority”.

Written by brian t

January 1, 2007 at 1:17 pm