Friday, October 31, 2008

Cause for Celebration

Well, the presidential election seems to be at the stage where people are betting on the point spread rather than on who's going to be victorious. Undoubtedly, whoever becomes the next president will fall far short of his supporters' expectations, and yet be vastly better than his detractors' worst fears. (I can use the masculine possessive with reasonable confidence here.)

However, Barack Obama's election would have an automatic symbolic significance that can't be ignored. No matter how much we convince ourselves we're not voting for racial reasons, the election of the country's first African American president will be a major milestone in our history. And though this certainly would represent an enormous accomplishment by Obama, it says more about the country than it does about the candidate. (Ok, maybe it says something about George W. Bush and Sarah Palin also.)

Should this come to pass, as now appears likely, it's a great cause for celebration, regardless of your politics or ideology. We can all celebrate the fact that our country has the maturity to take a giant step closer to the dream articulated by Martin Luthor King 45 years ago:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Of course, this is certainly not the end of racism in this country or elsewhere. Obama's election would not mean the end of racism any more than Bush's presidency marked the end of discrimination against the mentally challenged. Still, it's a good time to celebrate.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

White Knuckle Waiting

Anyone who's ever been a Red Sox fan knows the feeling ... your team's ahead, there are only a few outs or an inning left, and you just sit with clenched fists, hoping they don't blow it, as they have so many times before. Prior to 2004, at least, the Red Sox were certainly the champions at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Season after season, they were the "also rans" ... the ones who just missed ... the worst best team in baseball. Even this year, they came roaring back against the Rays in the ALCS, only to lose it in game 7.

So the fans got conditioned to this ... waiting and hoping.

That's what this election is starting to feel like.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mad Men

If you looked around the offices of Sterling Cooper, you'd find one man named Donald and another named Duck.


Friday, October 24, 2008

We Know So Little

Scotch tape, which has been around since 1930, emits x-rays when unrolled.

Transistors, which have been around since the late 1940's, produce a new state of matter, distinct from solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

Alan Greenspan, who has been around forever, says "oops." (Of course, in Greenspan-ese, it takes 3247 syllables.)

We know so little, even about the most commonplace, mundane things in our lives. And yet we strut around proclaiming this and declaring that as if we were all knowing.

A little humility would not be out of place.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Porting the Constitution

In traditional software development, as in other forms of engineering, the process frequently starts with a loose set of requirements. These are then reviewed and refined into a more precise statement of requirements. This is followed by a functional specification, describing the outward appearance of a product to meet those requirements. Next comes a design specification, detailing how the product will be built, and possibly even an implementation spec, with more low level detail. Finally, there is code. In a sense, there's a continuum from requirements to actual code, with high level understanding or philosophy at one end of the spectrum, and very specific implementation at the other.

Newer methodologies, such as agile development, appear to bypass some of these steps. However, these are still implicitly in place, although they may not take the form of written documents. Developers must still understand what problem they are solving, and then devise a possible solution, and refine that solution in more and more detail.

It frequently happens that software originally developed for one environment must be ported to another, perhaps with newer technology. In this process, the sequence described above may be reversed. Developers may initially try to port the code directly, possibly using porting tools to automate this. In places where this doesn't work, developers step back to a higher level statement of intent, so they can carry out that intent in the newer environment.

Our constitution can be viewed in this way also. The Constitution is a document that includes both high level requirements: order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...
and implementation details:

Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a law. But in all such cases the votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and nays, and the names of the persons voting for and against the bill shall be entered on the journal of each House respectively.
Unfortunately, it's a bit light on the functional description that might lie between the requirements and the implementation.

This very elaborate engineering document was ratified in 1789, over 200 years ago. During the course of that time, the platform on which the implementation resides has changed. Apart from the obvious technology changes of mass media, cars and assault weapons, the geography and demography have changed drastically. Instead of a skinny stack of 13 states, the U.S. now spans the continent east to west, plus Alaska and Hawaii. The populations include a wide mix of urban and rural, European and non-European, religious and non-religious cultures.

The Constitution does propose a means for its own amendment, and this has been exercised twenty-seven times. However, amendment is in itself an elaborate process, with many political remifications.

All this is by way of saying that in interpreting the Constitution, perhaps it's best not to take a magnifying glass to the original text, or to try to divine what the authors meant by this or that turn of phrase. Perhaps the most useful way to interpret this document is by inferring the functionality that was intended, lying somewhere between the goals in the preamble and the implementation in the following seven articles. Then we can try to achieve that functionality in the current operating environment.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Spread the Wealth Around

In the Oct. 15 presidential debate, John McCain mocked Barack Obama's desire to "spread the wealth around," equating it to redistribution, a conservative curse word. Republicans frequently refer to redistribution, or even class warfare, to suggest that their political opponents are fundamentally socialists.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the most dramatic redistribution of wealth has been going on for a while, mostly at the hands of Republican governments. George W. Bush, in particular, has accelerated that trend, as described on the eve of Bush's re-election by BusinessWeek here, and on the PBS program NOW here.

But this redistribution has been of the Reverse Robin Hood type ... the wealth flows toward the already wealthy, and away from everyone else.

So maybe instead of Democratic or liberal redistribution, we should speak of correction.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It's Greed

Greed is to blame for the whole Wall St. fiasco. At least, that's how John McCain portrays it. It's all those greedy, latte-scarfing, BMW-driving merciless Wall St. types who have mortgaged our country. They should be pilloried ... driven from town ... sent to a special place in hell for greedy financiers.

But don't raise their taxes!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why Products Succeed

I don't believe in manufactured demand. I don't believe marketers are ever so good that they make a success of a product nobody wants. People have to want it at some level, or at least to think they do, to make a product a success.

I was recently arguing with someone on an email list about the likelihood of success of a new 3D camera. He pointed to several examples in the past of 3D cameras that were introduced, but never caught on. All I could point to was a period in the late 1940's and the 1950's when certain 3D cameras were extremely successful, selling hundreds of thousands of units. To my mind, selling hundreds of thousands of 3D cameras, even if only for a brief period lasting less than a decade, indicates that there are people who want to create 3D pictures.

When a product fails, there can be many reasons for that failure. It could be poor pricing. It could be poor manufacturing. Bad marketing, bad customer service, inappropriate sales channels, and dozens of other factors could account for a product's demise.

When a product succeeds, however, there's only one reason: it's right. If the product does meet a (real or perceived) demand, and the production/sales/delivery process doesn't get in the way, the product will succeed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

McCain vs. Pork

Just to be clear, the "overhead projector" that McCain keeps referring to as an example of Obama's excessive spending is, in fact, a replacement for the planetarium projector at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. This was the first planetarium in the Western hemisphere, and has been a very popular instructional tool for students and other museum visitors.

So does McCain consider science education to be pork-barrel spending?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Most Qualified vs. Most Entertaining?

As a corollary to my previous post, Capitalism Depends on Greed, I think we'd have to conclude that the entire cast and the writers of Saturday Night Live will be voting for the McCain/Palin ticket. This may also apply to Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and others.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Capitalism Depends on Greed

Ok, let's get this straight. Free market capitalism is based on greed. That's the engine that makes it work. The entire basis of capitalism is that everyone acts in his or her own self-interest, to try to get as much as he or she possibly can. That fact is what's supposed to keep the players in check.

Don't get me wrong. Free market capitalism has many failings. The most obvious is the tendency of wealth to concentrate more and more into fewer and fewer hands over time. Another is that naivete and lack of education allow some people to be victimized by others. A third is that people often forsake their long-term interests for short-term gratification. ("I want to drive now. Who cares if the environment is a few degrees warmer in a hundred years?") Also, there's the unspoken collusion that allows, for example, oil companies to jack up prices together, ensuring higher profits for all.

But greed is not a failing of capitalism. It is the basis of it.

So for John McCain or Sarah Palin to say they're against greed is just to say they're against capitalism.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

My Unfair Lady

My Unfair Lady
(or Pygmalion)
Scene 1: A crowded street, evening.

McCain: You see that downtrodden governor? In six months, I could pass her off as Vice President of the United States!
Bush: Really? She looks nothing like Dick Cheney.
McCain: No, no. The next Vice President.
Why can't some parents teach their children to abstain?
For when they face temptation, they simply must refrain.
If they learned abstention, sir, at least till they are wed
... More states would be voting red!
(They leave.)
Sarah: (sings)
All I want is to be V.P.
Learning loads at my boss's knee.
And maybe someday be
Just P!
That would be loverly.

Lots of oil flowing through my pipes
Pays for diapers and baby wipes,
But soon these D.C. types
Serve me!
That will be loverly.

Scene 2: A room at the McCain mansion ... one of them.

McCain: Now try it again!
Sarah: The flack for Iraq? Just blame it on Barack.
McCain: Again?
Sarah: The flack for Iraq? Just blame it on Barack!
McCain: I think she's got it. I think she's got it!
Sarah: (singing) The flack for Iraq? Just blame it on Barack!
McCain: (singing) By George, she's got it! Hey, George, she's got it!

(To be continued ... maybe.)

You Didn't Phrase Your Response As a Question

The debate between the two vice presidential candidates on Thursday is really going to be a test of how much information the McCain team have been able to cram into Sarah Palin's head over the past week, and how well Joe Biden can keep his feet clear of his oral cavity.

Shouldn't this really be moderated by Alex Trebek?