Friday, June 29, 2012

Redistributing Wealth in the Eurozone

I find the dynamics of the expectation of countries having to bail out other countries in the Eurozone quite interesting.

Normally, inside a nation, say France, you have wealth distribution since politicians and the public can, through taxes, take money from the rich in order to help the poor. This works where the notion exist that it's fair to take money from the rich, because the rich are rich because of luck or power, or whatever and the poor are those who are less fortunate.

Now it gets interesting where you get the same dynamic in the Eurozone, where the countries that can't manage their economy well because of their bad policies, corruption, incompetence, etc. want to get financial assistance.  They want countries that have managed their economy well to bail them out.

It gets extra interesting, since Germany is a country where wealth is not something that was created because of imperial conquest or the likes, or because of abundant natural resources. They lost a war, and half of the country was even under communist rule until two decades ago. They achieved their wealth, and Merkel in particular don't see having to pay some kind of achievement guilt tax as being fair.

The real irony here is that the countries that are in financial trouble, are mostly so because of taxing success and cushioning failure.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Piracy Crackdown Doesn't Need a Strong Case

In New Zealand news today it is reported that the warrants for Kim Dotcom's raid weren't exactly legal.  There have been a lot of reports of the weakness of the charges brought against Dotcom.

The reality is, having a strong case was never a priority to the FBI.  It's just part of a crackdown effort.  This tactic is not new, and has worked in the past.  I'm thinking of a piracy crackdown about 20 years ago. Back in those days, it was a network of dial-up bulletin boards, and people who would commit phone fraud to upload and download data, operating as couriers, in groups. The boards would often fund their hardware through credit card fraud, and many of them made money selling tapes full of pirated material.

The crackdown involved raiding the boards, getting the user details, tracking the phone numbers of the users, and getting various people raided in various countries.  A lot of the time the cases would collapse in court on various technicalities, but it would be a year before people would get their seized computer equipment back.  The authorities in all the countries involved also learned who these people are, and how they go about their ways.  The crackdown was a success.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Baby Boomers and Generation X and Y in the Workplace

Some people try to categorise the behaviour of people in the workplace with what generation they are.   Like Generation X people do this, and Baby Boomers do that.  Personally, I think that behaviour at work have little to do with the period that people grew up in and more with the age these people are at the moment.

When you're young and start working, you have grown up spending most of your teens being exposed to the latest trends in information distribution, whether it's computers and the internet now, television before that, radio before that, newspapers before that, books before that. You have a hard time comprehending the world without these sources.

There is always a new source of influence for a newer generation. Any group, regardless of generation type, usually benefit from better access to information and education and mental stimulation than anyone before them.  Whether they use it is a different matter, but the options are there.  The point is that what decade you grew up in influences your taste in music and fashion more than your attitude to work and behaviour in the workplace.

When you're done with formal education (or simply done with being a adolescent) you still want to question a rigid work environment and still want something more like your student environment where you were surrounded by people who wanted more freedom. It's normal to question large organisations and culture, partly because you're at an age where you are not in control of the business world or government yet.

After that, you're at the age of having a family. Then all of a sudden giving the best to your family matters, and you start to work hard. The baby boomer thing is a mostly Anglo-Western society thing, where there was population increase. If you look at any area with large populations in Asia, middle class people are very competitive and have to work very hard in order to maintain their class level.

When you're younger, being loyal to an employer doesn't matter so much, because your nature of exploring makes you change your job, friends and surroundings, and you move around a lot, in order to have more experiences and find what you like. When you get older you don't seek this excitement and you seek the comfort of your family and children and grand children and an established community

You realise how much of your money during your life you have wasted on entertainment and depreciating material goods. You also realise soon you'll be at the age that you won't be able to work any more, so being efficient with money is important. You also realise that you won't be in the position to move easily if your environment changes, or be in control of your society any more, so for you a stable society is important.

You are tired of the stresses of having to think up new solutions to the same old problems, and do things slower and in a pragmatic and disciplined fashion as you have developed through your life.  You start to become more conservative, and even your political opinions shift this way.

These attitudes to life and work isn't determined whether you grew up in the swinging 60s or are of Generation Y, it's just simply how you progress as you age and how you act your age at work.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Random Visitor

One evening, many years ago, when I was living in Johannesburg, I was sitting talking on the phone when I saw movement on the side of the house where no one ever walks. Next thing I know, this blonde woman, not bad looking and nicely dressed, walks into my house.   Past me and my housemates, into my bedroom and climbed into my bed and promptly fell asleep.

A few hours later she got up, walked around the house a bit, and realised she didn't know anynobody. She introduced herself as Dr Conneley and seemed somewhat embarrassed. We told her it's fine, we don't know her either. She went back to sleep in my bed.  My one housemate was out, so I slept in his bed instead.

The next morning she woke up and realised she was so drunk the night before, that she walked into the wrong house one street away, and promptly left.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Receiving Signals from a Distant Civilisation

I think receiving signals from a civilisation, that has gone extinct by the time we received it, would still be a very exciting.   Mainly because if we're lucky we might receive hundreds of years worth of signal, and we can learn a lot about them, e.g. their culture, their technologies and language etc.

It's going to happen regardless, if we pick up a signal we can assume the society has either died out already or advanced significantly. We'll also know it's likely a very long time before they'll even be able to detect that we exist

In other words there's no point for making contact, but the amount we can learn from it will be tremendous.  It will also change society dramatically knowing that we are not alone, and would put more importance on space travel for us.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Online Gambling Industry

I've worked for a very large online gambling company for a couple of years, and I wrote this during my last week employed by one.  This was in response to someone commenting about the fact that they have an IT job at a land based casino in Vegas and really shouldn't be in that job because they don't know what they are doing, but get paid fairly well anyway.

I think this kind of thing is normal in the industry. First you have an industry where many land based casinos have little competition because of license restrictions making it hard for new entrants, and many online casinos had little competition because they were brave enough to operate in a legal gray area that any well run business wouldn't dare enter. That's apart from the fact that it's a type of business that takes money quickly off the majority of people who mistakenly think they're luckier than probability theory determines.

The industry is slowly maturing and the margins are getting lower. For land based casinos it's purely because of the credit crunch. For online casinos it's both the economy and because of increased legislation and the enforcement of it.

What you end up having are two things: One is that many of these companies were founded by people who would likely fail in other businesses but somehow ended up in this one that made lots of money easily. For online gambling this includes a lot of young entrepreneurs who did well but actually have no experience in how to keep a business running when margins are considerably tighter. The second thing is that just like the actual product, people in this business have a bit of a gambling mentality themselves. They took a risk and it paid off.

What is happening now is that as the profit margins are coming down dramatically, you have budget constraints so a lot of cuts are being made. Then you have people with no experience in making things more efficient when margins are lower, so the cuts are generally in the wrong place. It's all due to a lack of experience or even the ability to manage budgets and risk properly which is incompatible with a high risk gambling mentality.

The result is that you have lots of people with no experience and no contribution getting high paying jobs not doing much, and this lasts for a while before the company is really able to weed these people out. People with real skills and experience are surrounded and outnumbered by these types. It's hard to fix. It actually requires a dramatic culture change which is a very hard thing to pull off in companies that have been enjoying very big revenues and have people involved who developed egos over this and can't let go.

One good thing comes from this. It means there's a lot of gaps in the market for companies that can offer a better product with lower overhead. We'll see both this happening, and the big players merge and consolidate to get some efficiency gains.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Swimming in post-Apartheid South Africa

I grew up in South Africa as a white boy and saw the whole end of apartheid thing. Because of the previous regime a town would generally consist of white suburban neighbourhoods not unlike you'd expect in the US with a commercial centre with malls and whatever, and then just outside of town would be a black 'township' that had dirt roads and most people lived in metal and wooden shacks and basic brick houses and would take the bus or minibus taxi into the main white town if they had work.

The town I lived in had a public swimming pool, and as facilities were being opened to all races this was opened too. The white population of the main town was about 8,000 people and the township had about 25,000 people in it. The black kids from the townships were obviously very keen to try out this swimming thing, especially since they had no pool up in the townships. The pool became very busy with lots of black people. None of them had any swimming experience but the whole thing went without any major drowning incident. The white families were very freaked out by this influx of black skin and stopped going to the pool. They also spread stories about how the pool is now 80% urine and all sorts of stuff, which my dad could debunk easily since he actually specialised in municipal sewerage systems.

Anyway, by the next summer the whole swimming novelty wore off for the black kids, and most of them stopped going to the pool. That summer was great. It was a massive pool with diving boards, and every afternoon we were about 4 white kids and 8 black kids that had the entire pool to ourselves. We all got on fine and had a good time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Trip Down a Gold Mine.

I travelled down a gold mine once. A proper gold mine in South Africa. First we went down 2.3km, changing elevator half way because one elevator can't go that whole way. Once at the bottom, we got onto a little train that travelled 6km down a little tunnel to where one of the more profitable parts of the mine was, it produced 40 grams of gold per cubic tonne of rock. We saw the people working there and had a go at the drill ourselves.

Apart from it being very hot and humid, the most striking thing to me about the whole trip was not the depth and engineering achievement of all of it, but the people. This mine worked around the clock, 8000 people worked down there in a 24 hour period. They did very hard work, and very dangerous work. This affected them psychologically.

We travelled down the elevator with some miners, and with them was a guy who tried to kiss everyone in the lift. Like a crazy person. We were told that's not unusual, there are people that would try to beat you to death if it looks like you are going to touch one of the bolts that holds the elevator together.  Accidents happen, people lose friends, people are trapped underground in absolute dark for many hours at a time, sometimes they don't make it in the dark, or their friends don't

People of all races worked in the mine, they all got equal treatment based on their input, and they go through all this for a piece of metal which is hard to think of being worth that cost.  I'm sure conditions are a hundred times better for workers in these mines nowadays compared to decades ago, but they're still no picnic. As long as there's a worth, mines would offer an employment package that would make people choose to work in these conditions.  The more we're going to start valuing the human cost of mining, the more expensive these materials are going to get.  That is, until we innovate to get this work done with machines instead of humans.