Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Declare victory and move on"

That headline was the most sagacious political advice I got from my mentor in quality management. When I can't make headway on anything I've set my hand to - most probably, because of a complete lack of give-a-damnedness from above - the correct procedure is to announce that I've succeeded in my aim, and find something else to do. (I can rationalise this as "well, if management don't want any changes, clearly that means they're happy with what I've already achieved. Ergo, I've done my job. QED.")

It works in other contexts, too. No matter how disastrously a project has failed to reach its stated goals, there's always something you can take away from it - experience, if nothing else. So take that, and treasure it as your spoils. Tomorrow is another day.

Sadly, I've never been very good at it. It smacks of denial, of refusing to face the truth. But in a corporate context, "the truth" is, probably, that no-one really cares very much - "what you do next" will always matter more than "what you did last". You are judged on activity, not results - because no-one really knows how to measure those.

I'm not surprised Donald Trump follows the same philosophy. You can see him practising it today over trade talks with Mexico. If anyone knows how to define any outcome as "success", he does. And perhaps it explains his promise to make Americans "sick of winning".

It also explains why he gets mad when other people won't let him "move on". That's why he sacked Comey, and why he spends ever more time on his comical bawling about Mueller's "witch hunt". When people insist on examining the past, they're apt to find things that cast doubt on the brilliance of his victories. Why can't they just take his word for it?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Surrender, again

It's a curious thing, but whenever I think I've finally resolved my doubts about whether Britain should remain in the EU, the Europeans invariably hit upon some new way to disappoint me.

This week it was Jean-Claude Juncker throwing a lifeline to Trump by, basically, capitulating to his trade war. So much for the EU's vaunted "bloc strength" in negotiations. What exactly is the point?

EU-US tariffs are already very low, or at least they were until Trump started his evil little trade war. So "working toward zero" - even if "zero" is eventually attained - will have very slight impact anyway. But handing Trump a PR victory? - that's just fucking stupid. It's like giving a toddler an ice cream to stop them from throwing a tantrum.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Worst. Negotiation. Ever.


I expected the US-NK talks to be thin on detail. I didn't expect Trump to capitulate unreservedly to all of Kim's demands, in exchange for a boatload of bones. But that's basically what he's promised.

Of course, we've seen before that what he promises and what he does are two quite orthogonal things. Just ask Mr Trudeau.

But at this point, he's shaken the hand of another despot, and pronounced the South Korean and Japanese alliances dead. Not for the first time, he's signalled that the USA has no real interest in what goes on around the Pacific Rim. South Korea and Japan now have two options: to apply to the Chinese for protection, with whatever foreign policy shifts that might entail; or to develop their own nukes, because clearly that's the only thing America respects.

But not to worry. There are very, very few countries in the world with less resources than North Korea - which suggests that if they can build a nuclear capability to hit the US mainland, anyone can. We'll see how Mr Trump feels about countries taking responsibility for their defence when Venezuela gets the bomb.

Don't it just make you feel safe?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Crystal ball says

So, at this moment, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are having their historic meeting. The world holds its breath.

Spoiler: it's going to be a big success. DJT will emerge and tweet triumphantly about his "HISTORIC agreement that NO OTHER PRESIDENT managed, Kim is a very reasonable guy who just wants to be left alone." Because why wouldn't he? We already know he (consistently) gets along far better with despots than with elected politicians.

And, importantly, he hasn't taken any advisors to this talk - no-one who actually knows what a nuclear weapon or rocket looks like, much less how to inspect them. So they can't even discuss any actual inspection/enforcement regime. They both have nothing to lose by emerging and trumpeting their respective victories.

It won't be until after the midterms that it becomes obvious that the "agreement" had no actual content, it was nothing more than a handshake. Short-term effect: poll bump for Trump, quite possibly long-lived enough to see his party through the midterms. All the people who might have tried to pour cold water on the HISTORIC AGREEMENT are conveniently cowed (other Republicans who know what they're talking about), replaced with Trump toadies (the CIA), discredited (Democrats, the press), or simply silenced (McCain). Long-term effect: nil.

Enjoy the spectacle. Here's the president of the richest and most powerful country on earth, sucking up to a dictator who makes Charlie Chaplin look statesmanlike. He's eliminating a supposed threat to the mightiest military the world has ever seen, posed by a country with the GDP of Wiltshire. All it really needs is Peter Sellers, and the world would recognise it for the comedy it is.

Friday, April 13, 2018


I'm pretty sure the Facebook hysteria now qualifies as a moral panic. We've named a problem ("loss of privacy"), identified it with a public enemy (Facebook is obviously tailor-made for this role; Google might be an even better fit, but - well, they drew a long straw this time), abused tens of thousands of innocent words on describing and discussing and distancing ourselves from The Problem. Now we're at the stage where lawmakers have got in on the act, and Congress is grandstanding at Mark Zuckerberg.

That's worrying, because moral panics generally end in new laws to crack down on some pastime that had, up to now, been classed as - if not exactly virtuous, then at least not harmful enough to be worth the loss of freedom entailed by passing laws about it. Think legal highs, dangerous dogs, alcopops, motorcycle gangs. And the pastimes at stake here - communicating with friends and family, networking, personal publishing - are, basically, everything that is best about the internet. If politicians come to see "social media" as something that needs to be clamped down on, then it's hard to imagine any result that would leave blogs like this one untouched. (The British government is already going this way: its recent changes to press regulation are clearly designed to stifle independent comment, while keeping the press barons onside. It's not, in itself, fascism - but it's one of its building blocks.)

I imagine, by now, just about every country with any kind of commercially-driven media sector has had its say on the Facebook panic. Here is what someone who passes for a media commentator in New Zealand has to say. And I think it's an instructive study in how moral panics - as well as their direct dangers - are also susceptible to hijacking by special interests.

Look at the headline: "Govt needs to protect Kiwis from Facebook's power". Explicitly calling for government action (i.e. new laws), explicitly aimed at Facebook. The writer criticises Facebook - not for collecting data, nor for slinging "targeted" ads, but for doing all this from abroad. "Fundamentally", he says, "we need to have a voice with these overseas organisations who are increasingly playing such an important role in the daily life of New Zealanders". On the other hand, you can "trust local retailers and organisations who have no agenda apart from being useful and understanding you".

Yeah right.

The author, one Ben Goodale, is a frequent contributor to the New Zealand Herald. More germanely he's described, in an easily missable footnote, as "the managing director of justONE". I didn't know what "justONE" is any more than you do, but its website describes it as "New Zealand's pre-eminent data-driven marketing, CRM and loyalty agency".

So no, the stench of self-interest that rises from this drivel is not just our imagination.

Note to every legislator: Facebook is a publisher. (Zuckerberg denies this, on the grounds that Facebook doesn't create the content, and it's "a technology company". In other words, he doesn't know what a publisher is.)

You know how to regulate publishing. You've been doing it for hundreds of years. Don't let the new technology and associated gobbledegook blind you to that simple fact: Facebook needs to be treated exactly like every other publisher. How would you react to a publisher that surreptitiously gathered data on people, then carelessly shared that data with third parties?

NZ already has a perfectly good privacy law that covers that scenario, but for some reason nobody has ever thought to apply it to Facebook. We don't need new laws, and we don't . We just need to enforce the laws we've got.

Monday, March 19, 2018

More in sorrow

Dear Mozilla,

I've been using Firefox, loyally, since before it existed. I used it when it was called Firebird, and Phoenix, and before that I was using the Mozilla browser. Occasionally - maybe once a month or so - I'll fire up some other browser for a specific task, but Firefox has always been my standard, everyday, all-purpose browser. The interface is clean and simple, the extensions are beautiful, I like the focus on privacy and putting the user in control. It just - works the way a browser should.

Until now.

The Quantum leap was, for me, not a good thing. True, pages rendered faster. But that performance came at a price: pages sometimes crashed, or slowed the whole system to treacle (Trello was particularly badly affected, presumably because of something in their Javascript - but whatever it was, it didn't affect other browsers). Nevertheless, I persisted. I told myself that Quantum had been a huge change, and teething problems were only to be expected. The next major update, I thought, would cure some of these ills.

Sadly, the opposite has happened. The "next major update" has landed, and while it has cured whatever ailed Trello, it has reduced several other sites to "completely unusable". As in, it simply no longer renders the page content at all. It will load a frame, or maybe a background image, but not display the content; or the content will disappear when I scroll. This happens across multiple sites and multiple computers, with and without extensions enabled; so I'm picking Firefox as the culprit.

(The content is loaded, it's still "there". It's sometimes possible to select it, by clicking and dragging with a mouse, and sometimes when this is done it will remain visible after deselecting. But sometimes not. At any rate, this is not an acceptable workaround.)

It is therefore with a heavy heart that I have decided, I can no longer wait for Firefox to get this excrement back together. Right now I have little choice but to adopt Chrome at work; for home use, I will probably prefer Vivaldi. A lot of people speak highly of Palemoon and Waterfox; I may give one or both of them a try within the next month. But Firefox, most sadly, is a broken vessel.

Goodbye. I wish you nothing but the very best of luck in the future; but from today, I'm no longer a user. I just don't have the time to deal with this level of crap.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Dumb meters and dumber journalism

This post was inspired by a bunch of press coverage last month of a Dutch research paper, which found big differences between the measurement of certain "smart" meters and a regular (old-style) electromechanical meter. Here is one of the more sober reports. Choice quotes:

Smart meters are giving readings up to six times higher than the energy consumed by households when connected to energy-saving light bulbs, according to scientists.[...]

It is the first ever proof that smart meters, which the Government wants in every household by 2020 to improve the accuracy of people's energy bills, are producing readings which are too high.[...]

So called "green" devices such as energy saving light bulbs, heaters, LED bulbs and dimmers change the shape of electric currents which can result in a distorted reading, it said.

The whole article illustrated by a picture of a pensioner's hands, clutching on to the last of their meagre savings in front of a log fire. Heartrending stuff, obviously. But nothing on the really hysterical coverage:

Smart meters can give readings almost seven times higher than the actual electricity consumed – particularly in homes when energy-saving bulbs are used, a study found.

Modern devices including dimmer switches and LED bulbs can confuse some smart meters, leading to massively inflated readings and higher bills.

All this is based on a paper published in the IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Magazine, from research conducted in the Netherlands. The University of Twente's press release is here, and the abstract is here. (In theory you can buy a PDF of the full paper for the modest donation of US$33, but the IEEE's portal defeated my best efforts to give them money. I eventually managed to read the paper from my local academic library.)

Now, the first thing to note about the above coverage is the heavy emphasis on household bills. The Telegraph article mentions the word "household" twice in the first three paragraphs, and backs it up with that scary picture. The Mail unabashedly talks about "homes" and "massively inflated readings and bills". But as even the paper abstract makes clear, it's not about household meters. Your average household has a single-phase electricity supply and a single-phase meter to go with it. Here is what the paper has to say about single-phase meters:

Several single-phase static energy meters were measured in various setups. [...] The results can be summarized in one sentence: no deviation beyond the specification could be observed; no influence of interference due to interfering or distorted voltage, and no influence caused by interfering currents were observed.

No, all the headline-grabbing results concern three-phase meters, generally used in large commercial and industrial premises. That poor old pensioner with the fire? Not affected. "Homes where energy-saving bulbs are used"? Not affected. (Well, to be completely accurate, it's not unheard-of for a home to have a three-phase supply. But unless you've got a welding station in your garage or something, it's pretty unlikely.) The household meters? - those took everything the researchers could throw at them, and ticked along like clockwork.

So, about those three-phase results. The Torygraph makes the connection to "So-called "green" devices such as energy saving light bulbs, heaters, LED bulbs and dimmers". In fact, to get the big anomalies, you need to be using both a dimmer switch, and energy saving (CFL/LED) bulbs - and not just a handful of them either, you need dozens of the things, all connected to the same dimmer switch. And then you need to turn the dimmer switch to 135°. If you leave the dimmer switch alone, or turn it to a mere 90°, you actually save money. Here is the, pardon the pun, money chart from the paper:


So you need a three-phase meter and a whole lot of low-energy bulbs that are connected, in series, to a single dimmer switch that for some reason is permanently melted into position at 135°. And then you'll get inflated readings?

Well, maybe. It's still far from a sure thing, because only some three-phase meters show this effect - and the researchers, bizarrely, decline to name them. They do say that the offending meters use Rogowski coils (a century-old technology) for measurement. But no-one seems to know, and the researchers aren't telling, which meters those are.

Which brings me neatly to my topic for part 3 of this series: what really is wrong with smart meters. For now, what I can tell you for sure is that if your bill has gone up since you got a smart meter installed? - there is no reputable evidence to support the idea that it's the meter's fault.