NHS Reform & Other Privatisations

With the passing of the NHS reform bill in the UK last week, I’ve been reflecting on the discussion that went on between the conservative supporters and almost everyone else in the country who was deeply worried about any bill which would seem to meddle with a system that was fairly ok and doing quite well.

The frightening proposition is that health in the UK would be privatised. Not just like the system in the USA, but having to possibly pass through a system far worse in order to finally be dragged towards the regulated compromise the Americans have found themselves in.

The point we’re told from conservatives over and over is that capitalism and corporate business practice can bring many efficiency gains to the way health businesses operate. Competition is sighted as a key mechanism to achieving this result. Much needed capital could be found in the private sector and the whole system would be closely monitored to make sure it kept on curing people and setting broken bones.

But, as readers of my blog will know, I’m not really attached to any particular mechanic in achieving what we wish to happen in society. If a privately capitalised, for-profit business which takes it’s organisational strategy from Cadburies really is the best was to set up a hospital, then so be it. But on the other hand if you believe in capitalism in your heart, but not in your head; then one’s politics might be driven towards operational and funding mechanics which might be ill fitting. Politicians who probably aren’t evil or even that naughty, get confused by positive bias and fallacies from popularity and especially group think and persistent ideas.

Really thinking about the simple rules which allow such a mechanic to work well enough to provide all those great examples isn’t simple. Let’s start with a simple rule of markets: ‘Buyer must have the option not to buy’, do we think that health is something we can opt out of? Do we get a choice not to be saved if we’re in an accident and picked up by a private ambulance? That’s the unsettling thing about the USA’s ‘fairer’ health care bill, forcing people to buy products isn’t right there and it wouldn’t be in the UK either.

Here I’d like to slide into a wider concern. Health is something of an important system, without this service the economy would be very quickly loosing people to illness and injury. The pain felt in the USA is not just by individuals, but keenly by companies big and small. They often pay for some or all of the health coverage for all their employees because having employees without health care would be detrimental to their own operation. So clearly some functions are so important, that organising them collectively has great benefits.

Then there’s competition. Is it a good thing? Well the first thing to ask is what competition hopes to achieve. In market terms, competition is a group selection process which hopes to push forward the fitness of each organisation as it strives to out bid other organisations for available resources, other organisations that can not claim enough resources are deemed unfit and are allowed to fail. This system of evolution does require (system-wide) a larger amount of resources to invest. In organisations which will fail and organisations which will perform activities outside of their core function to innovate. It’s a bet on the future which requires a trade off between cost today and expected organisational innovation tomorrow.

But with a system like the NHS, which will always be tightly controlled. Will there be added resources to cope with this new evolutionary requirement? Will there even be the flexibility to change the organisation in such a way as to find new and brilliantly innovative organisational methods?

Then I see we have a combining. If I like the idea of competition, does it follow I have to swallow private capital funding too? So often we fail to be able to articulate well when we’re talking about funding source and the organisation’s market forces. The lack of distinction and separation of the two probably doesn’t allow us to come up with more interesting rules or more innovative funding ideas. Although it’s amazing to think that the Government of a G8 country, can’t seem to put the money together for anything any more.

In conclusion: When the government says they want to privatise a working public service, what they probably mean is: “We don’t have the money to make it better and we don’t trust the current public sector operators to know their job well enough to improve it’s operation.” and not “We have some added cash to turn this inappropriately publicly operated function into a number of well functioning business concerns.”

Sculpt vs Mold Programming

I really like the idea of test suites, they give me a positive feeling that the code I’m making is probably going to do what it’s supposed to do. Not only that, but I feel far more confident about hacking the code to pieces in a random fit of creative genius if I know I can run a set of unit tests at the end and make sure all my designed APIs still work from the outside.

But why should I feel so good about tests? Isn’t writing the tests just like writing the code? except for the second time?

Well the logic of tests may mean that you have to do all the same kinds of logic, but it’s not really the same logic. You’re telling the computer what you expect to happen, not what happens. Take the analogy given in the title: If you were to carve/sculpt a masterpiece, you could be expected to gain some great notoriety for being a genius artist; alas much like code without tests it’s a one shot deal. As soon as you try and change the work, change it’s material and reproduce it for more customers you suddenly find yourself with lots of work making, remaking, fixing and refixing.

Any hired programmer will recognize the situation. Conversely software with complete testing (of all three kinds) will be much more like a mold, given any language with enough consistent code you could fill the mold many times to arrive at the same quality as before. The tests aren’t the same as the original sculpting, they’re much more like the framework that shows how to reproduce the work with ever tighter testing resulting in ever more accurate reproduction.

This assumes of course you imagine programming cycles as if they were mass production units.

Enough waffle! what do you think?

Replacement vs. Reinforcement

I came across an idea about how machines interact with people while watching some TV. They were joking about Sat-Nav devices and all the silly voices they can make when it occurred to me that Sat-Nav devices are indeed replacing our natural abilities to navigate and know where we are and how to move around in our urban areas. (Most of us have long since lost our ability to know where we are and how to get around in the wild)

This is an example of a device which replaces a natural talent so well, that we find we don’t need our mental functions any more. But of course the one great evil of this is that we no longer know how to operate without them, thus Sat-Nav will always be required by people who use Sat-Nav a lot. (forgetting of course people who couldn’t operate at all until Sat-Nav came into being)

Picture showing a set of microschips on the left, a nerve cell on the left.

So what’s the alternative to technological replacement? I think one idea is technological reinforcement; the idea that the best technology improves the human operator through it’s use. Take Wikipedia; the fear is that no one will never need to remember anything and we’ll all forget to remember everything. But using Wikipedia seems to do the opposite, reinforcing information and making us more certain about some of the billions of facts we can hold in our heads. (but maybe it hasn’t been around long enough to show it’s effect)

So this got me thinking about what I would like a Sat-Nav device to do, to help me reinforce and hone my skills navigating the streets. Partly it could help by always stating the names of the roads when you’re in a local or frequently visited place. “Turn Left” is an instruction but “Turn Left at Washington Street” is educational and reinforcing if I take that route a lot. The information is certainly being presented at the right time for me to combine it with other sensory information so I can call it back up later. Another idea is to mention the absolute direction, North, South etc so we get a feel for the absolute direction we’re traveling in.

Of course none of this might work, so to test we could see how Sat-Nav devices effect people’s ability to judge medium and long distances. Most devices mention how many yards/meters it is until a junction so it’s already going into our heads and reinforcing something in there, but maybe we can’t process it because we don’t really have a sense of speed (in a car, I do on my bike of course). Maybe the brain just throws all the information away, but I find that hard to believe since brains are really good at learning to understand all sorts of data.

What do you think?

Please Upgrade My Phone like Ubuntu

Ubuntu gets bad rep for having releases which have an unfortunate number of bugs which is partly due to the higher number of users and partly due to the size of the testing community compared to user number. But give me a flakey Ubuntu release any day of the week compared to Android…

This new phone I have (Samsung Vibrent) I love, it does a bunch of useful things and has been one of the first devices I was excited to own and test out. So don’t get me wrong when I say:

I’m mightily annoyed that I can’t upgrade it from Android 2.1; at least Canonical doesn’t stop me upgrading Ubuntu even if it will break, at least they don’t stop the community getting involved to fix issues with getting the latests and greatest software working on the latest and greatest hardware. This is particularly poignant since the GPS on this phone under Android 2.1 is known to have a serious bug which can place with hundreds of meters away from your location. Bit of a flaw there.

Anyway, I’m stuck because tmobile, samsung and google all have their own little plans for what I should be allowed to do with my phone and how much they want to put into upgrades for phones they’ve already sold. I am now as convinced as ever that the mobile phone sector is not the greatest opportunity for linux, but the greatest danger to freedom if we as a community can not hold tightly onto some of out even basic rights to install what we like, modify as we like and mess up our stuff and paint it black like the punks of yore.

Update: I wanted to make clear that this is a rooted phone, but what use is that for installing upgrades to devices when there are no releases, no installers or guides. It’s pretty much every man for himself and everyone must be a programmer to get these things upgraded. The phone networks and manufacturers have created a drag on the economy with this sort of thing and I have half a mind to say that it should be illegal to put any sort of lock on any sort of hardware or software owned by the customer.

Your thoughts?

Angry Birds

God damn this game and it’s attractive graphics and addictive game play physics.

There is another game that we designers and game players could learn from when it comes to addictive and attractive qualities in software interfaces. I mean take a look at the way the interface is laid out:

It’s a selection of levels, you can see how many you’ve got to go through, enjoy, it’s not too many like a giant block of levels like you would see if every level was present at the same time. And most importantly it’s cute and attractive with drawn graphics on everything and decorating every space.

Your thoughts?

Birthday Today

Taking the day off really from doing much… or I would be if only I hadn’t booked myself solid with community work. Alas it never ends.

I did have a wonderful breakfast and dinner made by my lovely wife who I adore. And not just for occasions like this, but these warmest of events do fire the whole adoration somewhat more than say a ham sandwich would.

SysAdmins in the Clouds

So you’re an admin eh, and you find yourself out of work or just down on your luck?

Perhaps there is a way to satisfy the hunger that small businesses have for properly maintained systems by using the cloud, the power of the canny businessman and Free and Open Source software and target customers which none of the big dogs are chasing. Basically the plan is this:

Use your nouse to get together a bunch of SMEs, charities or other orgs and nail down some simple requirements for services they could very much do with having. Sign them up for a time share in yourself or some other sys admins that could do with the cash and set them up everything from email and authentication to storage and version control.

No service is too complex for FOSS and no help page too long to read to get the job done.

With the cloud you can set each of your customers up with their own dedicated and secure “machine” and run their services in non conflicting ways. The users are happy because they have all their services delivered by contactable and usually local businesses in a way that doesn’t open them up to much of a security problem (if you do it right of course). And sys admins are happy because they get to eat more than pot noodle and beans on toast.

Extra bonus points for hosting it in a very reliable location and super extra bonus points if you have terms in your contract with your customer that allow them to move providers and take their instances with them.

Your Thoughts?

P.S. I just got back from Orlando and UDS so my brain _is_ a bit fried and this entry isn’t as edited or refined as some of my readers are starting to expect.

Do Artists Use Ubuntu?

To celebrate the 500th member of the Ubuntu DeviantArt group. I’ve put together some stats for Operating System Use based on self stated use on profile pages:

Windows 7/Vista/XP – 410,000 (76.9%)
Mac – 87,700 (16.3%)
Ubuntu – 20,300 (3.7%)
Linux – 16,000 (3%)
Total: 533,300

These results were compiled by using a strict google search for deviantArt profile pages with the “Operating System: X” as a term. The number of found results were given as the size of the population. Windows and Ubuntu varients (XP/Vista/7) and (Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu) where folded in.

Kubuntu actually accounts for 25% (5k) of the artists who use Ubuntu. 5% use Lubuntu and Xubuntu with the rest saying they use just Ubuntu (not specifying).

Windows Vista and Windows 7 have equal populations with 100k each, 210k is left for windows xp users.

We have a long way to go to attract for artists and creators to Ubuntu and making the open source ecosystem of tools the creators choice for their work. Although these stats may not be reliable, only half a million users out of an estimated 9 million deviantArt users had specified what os they use on their profile page.

Note: Linux is a compound of “Linux”: 3,700, Slackware: 3,160, openSuSE: 2,970, Red Hat: 1,220, Debian: 937, Fedora: 344

Your thoughts?

Happy Halloween?

I keep seeing this message over and over as Boston moves into the week before samhain, you know that Irish/Celtic time of the year when the vale between the living and the dead is at it’s thinnest. When you’re likely to hear the wail of lenanshee or be visited by long lost relatives.

this is the time to be scared our of your pants, mourn the passing of friends or respect the life of the spirits. There is very little jollity in this Christmas sense to be had. And jet these plastic jerks keep trying to make Halloween into some Clinton card picturesque event that you’ll remember with nostalgia when you’re all grown up.

If you want to have a chilly spine this samhain then pop on over to Celtic Darkness and read some of this years stories: http://celticdarkness.com/stories.html

And comment here about what you think about plastic eventing.

Copying Ideas is Not Theft

In a recent yahoo blog post about Apple in the hock for patent infringement here. The story itself is fairly typical of the growing nuclear destruction that’s going on in the technology world, as meaningless patents are created and enforced on purely mental and mathematical designs and not inventions in the useful arts as was originally bargained for in that sort of Faustian way societies do sometimes.

What gets me is the language and manner of the commentators. Yes I know I shouldn’t let someone on the internet who is wrong keep me up all night. But these people are not just wrong, they’re wrong headed even when fighting each other.

Firslty we have the Apple fans. People who don’t just buy Apple products, they believe in Apple’s reasons for existing in much the way Simon Sinek describes. They don’t want to hear about Apple offending anyone or being immoral or perhaps even doing something as base as stealing. These comments are blandly giving Apple a pass for no other reason than them being Apple and the maker of the beloved products. No other reason.

Then we move onto the other set of people. The “every idea is owned” brigade that think that patents are for “encouraging innovation” and that using ideas or inventing similar ideas in the process of working on problems are somehow theft. Parents aren’t for encouraging innovation, they’re for ensuring inventions are documented in the public domain so progress isn’t locked away behind trade secretes.

It’s also not theft. Stealing is the re-appropriation of a fixed property, the possession moves. Copying ideas (even if you DID copy ideas instead of just inventing the same ones again) can’t be stealing because the idea is still in your head and not just in mine. The copying process means it _can’t_ be theft.

Patents are a social agreement who’s time is past. Society no longer gains anything from them and I have no faith in their original purpose. No inventor or programmer reads patents, they don’t ensure the progress of inventions any more. Sure software patents shouldn’t have ever existed, but more than that patents in all other areas have caused major problems and just silly regressions in progress and standardisation.

You thoughts?