Wednesday, 29 July 2009

God's Sabbath

This morning, I was reading Leviticus 26. In this passage, God reminds Israel of the blessings of walking in his statutes and observing his commandments. He also warns of what will happen if they fail in their observance. What interested me was the emphasis placed on the Sabbath for the land. This passage clearly says that Israel would be removed from the land so that the land could have is Sabbath rest if Israel failed to observe God's statues and commandments.

I am usually reluctant to claim that current events such as the recession are a sign of God's judgement or wrath but I do believe that the economic system that we operate under will result in boom and bust (recession) cycles. It seems clear that from this passage, if the land is not farmed sustainably then we should expect periods of low yield or see times when the land needs its Sabbaths. God's command to Israel was that every seven years, the land should be given its rest. We are also told to take every seventh day as a Sabbath rest. The land and us need these times to restore our productive ability. When we fail to maintain these Sabbaths, productivity falls.

I want to extend this to my own current situation. We made the move to the UK believing that God wanted us to come here. We also believe that there is a task that he wants us to do but we are not really seeing the opportunities opening up a present. Our engrained experience says that we should ensure an income before moving forward with our vision. God's desire is that we move forward with the vision and trust him for the income. This isn't our default mode of operation. Because we have failed to act on God's vision maybe we are having an enforced Sabbath rest to allow us to learn to trust in Him and to focus on the vision ahead of the desire for income and security.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cycling photographer

I was a late starting in competitive cycling and have now reached a point where I am happy to help run events and a commissaire. However, I like the idea of being a touring cyclist provided I am not riding an overloaded bicycle. One of my thoughts is to carry my camera gear and take a series of photos from a cyclists perspective as I travel through countries It is so easy to travel the tourist trails and not to see the real beauty of a place or the struggles of its people. The idea would be to travel the roads that are less travelled especially by cyclists and vehicles. It would take in some of the mountain bike tracks and back country roads.

I had started to plan such a journey around New Zealand before we left. I hope that I will still get the opportunity to do it although that could be ten years from now. In the mean time, it would be nice to take such a journey around countries in Europe.

How would I finance such a journey and would I do it simply for my own pleasure? My original thought was that I would produce a photo book revealing some of the beauty of God's creation in these less travelled places. To some extent, this would still be the first priority but I am thinking of

  1. highlighting the destruction caused by man in the name of progress
  2. highlighting natures fight back
  3. revealing the struggle of people against man made systems
  4. revealing the freedom of living by alternative systems aimed at providing for the good of all
  5. raising awareness needs and alternative ways of thinking
  6. raising funds for a charity

An Economic Philosophy

As I remain without an income, I have had time to think about what it is that I would really like to achieve over the coming years. I find myself at a point of contradiction. My desire is to see a system in place that uplifts people and offers encouragement and yet we have set our priority on finding an income and establishing a base here in the UK. Are these two goals in conflict? I look back over my life and see how earning money or the employment that I have has tended to influence what I achieve. Sure there have been other things that I have been involved in but it is employment or the need for an income that has really set the tone of our lives.

Over the last few months, I have been thinking through these issues and trying to see what alternatives there are. There are some deep questions when you read of those in poverty because of systems that drive them from their lands to scratch for survival amongst the rubble of large cities (Grigg 1984). Why does our economic system caste some people aside like rubble?

Douglas (1974) argued that the economic system that he was observing was based on productionism and not consumerism. What he argued is that although it was producing product in theory for consumption, a lot of that production was actually going to waste. Products were built with obsolescence in mind. This is a trend that continues today except that I would argue that we are in monetarism. We do anything including gambling on exchange rates or future trades if we believe it will bring us in more money. There is little concern for the impact of our monetary focus.

Examples are investment companies who take risks with others money in the belief that high risk projects will maximise the return on investment. The company collapses losing most of the money invested in it leaving many without what they thought were their retirement incomes. What went wrong? The standard answer is that the company invested in high risk projects. The problem is that the focus is on money ahead of people.

Knight (1981) in commenting on Leviticus 25:25-38 says that it has the emphasis of “people come before property” (p 155). He argues that “money is not a commodity in its own right. Money is only a means whereby you may feed and clothe your family and show your comparison for the needy and unfortunate” (p 155). Knight takes this perspective because in this portion of Leviticus, the rules for dealing with property and people who are in need are spelt out.

In the Leviticus rules, the concern is that people should never lose the right to their fields or their home. If they seemed force to sell because of poverty, it was always able to be redeemed. Their relatives where to help ensure that their property was redeemed. For fields, in the year of jubilee, the land reverted to its original owners. For houses in the city, they could be redeemed within a year of sale. The concern is that a person should never be permanently separated from their ability to provide food or shelter. People came before property.

In Leviticus 25:8-24, it describes the year of jubilee. The pricing of land is based on the years of production to the next year of jubilee. The purchaser is buying the crops and not the land. The land is seen as belonging to God. Douglas (1974) argued that the plant used for production should be seen as common property (this isn't the same as common ownership) and that it's cost shouldn't be included in the price of the product. The plant and its use was purchased through a community credit arrangement. The purchasing power is distributed to people based on human time-energy units. In Douglas' perspective, he saw people reducing their hours of work as the efficiency of plant improved but retaining their purchasing power since they would be producing more.

The biblical perspective in Leviticus has the land having a Sabbath rest ever seven years. This is to allow the land to recover. There is also the principle of not reaping to the corners of your fields so that the poor and sojourners in the land may reap for their needs. The biblical perspective promotes sustainability and concern for people over efficiency and maximisation of profit.

Reading this material has lead me to think in terms of some principles for economic systems.

  1. We are stewards of the land and all resources. This means that we should be looking at sustainable practices rather than exploitation. If sustainability is the goal then we should also avoid waste in production, promote recycling, and avoid obsolescence of products. If products are replaced by new releases then there should be a plan to recycle or upgrade previous products.
  2. We are to ensure that all people are provided for. All should be able to live. The method of distributing purchasing power should ensure that all are able to have shelter, food, and clothing. There needs for living should be satisfied.
  3. The distribution of purchasing power should be sufficient to allow all product produced to be purchased without incurring debt and not be tied exclusively to hours of work. Douglas (1974) proposed a scheme that encouraged increased share to those who helped improve the efficiency of production.
  4. All should be given the opportunity to contribute to the good of society. Those who work to help others should receive a fair portion of the purchasing power. We should be concerned about the welfare of all people and the economic system should encourage this.
  5. We need to ensure that prices are fair. Since we are distributing purchasing power, the system should ensure that prices reflect the purchasing power distributed and not add a cut for additional profit. Having prices exceed the available purchasing power simply leads to debt and inflation.
  6. The means of determining value and of trading (currency) should not be something that is traded in. There can be no stability in pricing if there is no means of establishing value of a product.

I recognise that the last of these principles would rule out much of our financial system but I see it as an absolute principle if there is to be stability and sustainability in the system. How would a system operate that was based on these principles.

Reference

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Grigg, V. (1984). Companion to the poor. Sutherland, NSW: An Albatross Book.

Knight, G. A. F. (1981). Levitcus. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Intelligence and Insight

I have trouble believing in the value of intelligence tests or believing that those who do well in quiz shows are necessarily brighter than others. Intelligence isn't about how much you know. Intelligence is about seeing things in different ways and coming up with new and innovative solutions.

In a previous post, I mentioned Altshuller (1997, 1999) who proposed ways in which to foster innovation. He didn't see his proposal as being a tool only for those judged to be intellectually superior. His principles are available for all to use if we are willing to develop the skill to use them and to look at problems from new directions.

Another who fosters innovation is Goldratt through his theory of constraints. Goldratt's initial focus was on improving manufacturing (1993) but he later applied his theory to other contexts (1994, 1997). His techniques involved identifying the underlying problem and the root cause of the problem. By resolving the root cause, what appear to be innovative solutions are proposed. For manufacturing and project management a core idea is that scheduling should be based around the constraint or bottleneck. It sets the pace for the activity so if we want greater productivity, we need to look at how to modify the restrictions caused by the bottleneck. To do that, we need to know what is causing the restriction and not try and fix the surface problem.

There are many other sources that talk of innovation and creativity. It is something that can be fostered but more often it is stifled, not by the innovator but by the society of the day. Berkun (2007) says “Every great idea in history has the fat red stamp of rejection on its face” (p 54). Once society has gained the benefits of an innovation then it forgets that it once rejected it. We want to stay within our comfort zone. Berkun goes on to say “Innovation conflicts with this desire. It asks for faith in something unknown over something known to be safe, or even pleasant” (p 56). It isn't just the desire for safety and comfort that restricts innovation. We invest heavily in certain processes or systems. That investment is something we don't want to lose so when someone comes with an innovation that might put our investment at risk, we move to protect the investment (p 61-62).

Kuhn (1996, 2000) documents a number of scientific advancements that struggled to gain currency because they didn't fit the paradigm of the day. He argues for paradigm shifts as the foundation for innovation and advancement in the sciences.

I have seen this when talking about the need for a fundamental rethink of our financial processes and our competitive society. To suggest that we should look at methods of collaboration or of justice in the distribution of wealth is to threaten the investment that so many have made in building their personal wealth. A recession may cause the wealthy to write off some of the value of their assets but it doesn't hurt them as much as the person who loses all of his or her income and may lose even their home. Only innovative solutions that challenge the self protection interests of those who manage the financial systems will bring a lasting solution to the bust and recession cycles of our economic system. Further proposals are there if we will only open our eyes to see them or move outside out comfort zone and utilise new paradigms to review proposals.

Innovation and creativity draw on being able to synthesise ideas from different areas. To see the commonalities and the differences. To create solutions that don't quite fit the current mode of thinking within the domain to which they apply. To foster innovation means that we have to foster the ability to think in new ways rather than to conform to existing practices and behaviours.

I write this as a software developer who utilises design patterns (proven solutions to programming problems) to create software. From my research (Thompson 2008), I recognise that the best programmers see the design patterns more as a tool for thinking about solutions rather than as solutions. They are not restricted by a programming paradigm or by conventions in the use of a particular programming language. They create solutions by drawing on past experience and ideas drawn from a wide range of areas. A good programmer doesn't simply have a list of languages, tools, and environments on their CV. They have the ability to adapt and keep on learning. They are able to utilise new languages and new techniques even when they haven't seen them before. They are able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the tool set that they are currently using and expand that tool set within the constraints of the project that they are working on.

My thesis (Thompson 2008) describes hierarchies in the way that software developers are aware of what they are creating and their design approach to the development of software. At the lowest levels, the awareness is restricted by narrow definitions of the nature of a program or by a particular programming language or paradigm. At the higher levels in the awareness hierarchy, the developer is thinking in terms of interactions between components in a system and is applying ways of thinking about design that draw on a range of languages, programming paradigms, design principles, and programming practices. They tailor their approach to the programming task based on the problem at hand and the tool sets available. Innovation is simply what they do on an every day basis.

The next stage of my research is to develop courses that help foster these ways of thinking while building the basic skills required to program. Yes, the programmer needs to know a programming language but they need to see it as a tool and not as the constraint on solving the programming problem. I briefly propose an approach in my thesis but the time constraints inherent in that work stopped me progressing further.

Innovation comes from an ability to think outside the constraints of the predominant paradigm of the field. We should foster such thinking in our education systems. Have the computer scientist read some philosophy and study languages. In assessing work, don't just look for the obvious answer but look to see the connections the learner is making and the way that they are drawing ideas together. Encourage them to have a wider focus but also lay a solid foundation in the principles and techniques of the domain.

Such a philosophy shouldn't simply apply to computing education. It should apply to all education. The economist needs to understand more than the economic thinking of our time. The engineer needs to be able to see alternative design solutions. Foster creativity by encouraging our learners to draw on ideas from other domains and to reason about the problems they face from as many perspectives as possible. Remove the threat of failure if they fail to conform to the existing norms of the discipline. You never know we might actually get solutions that are real solutions.

Reference

Altshuller, G. (1997), 40 principles: TRIZ keys to technical innovation. Technical Information Center.

Altshuller, G. (1999), The innovation algorithm: Technical Information Center.

Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media Inc.

Goldratt, E. M., & Cox, J. (1993). The goal : a process of ongoing improvement (2nd ed ed.). Aldershot: Gower Publishing.

Goldratt, E. M. (1994). It's not luck. Great Barrington, MA: North River Press.

Goldratt, E. M. (1997). Critical Chain. Great Barrington, MA: North River Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

Kuhn, T. S. (2000). The road since structure. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North. Available at: http://www.teach.thompsonz.net/img/Thompson2008PhDThesis.pdf

Monday, 20 July 2009

Perceptions and misunderstandings

Having failed to obtain yet another lecturing position, I have been thinking again about perceptions and how it is easy to end up talking past each other. With a core part of my research being based on the principle that people are aware of phenomenon in different ways (Thompson 2008, Marton 2000), you might think that I am used to the idea that we need to clarify what a person is referring to before we assume that we know how to respond.

In my thesis (Thompson 2008), I explore the perceptions that software development practitioners have of an object-oriented program. My results produces two outcome spaces; a set of categories that express the different expressed awareness of the phenomenon. The first outcome space relates to how they perceive the nature of an object-oriented program and second to how they perceive the design characteristics or constraints. Each of these provides a range of perspectives used by practitioners.

What I am conscious of is that I am not necessarily picking up the intent of the questions in an interview nor am I ensuring that I am clarifying the interviewer's intent. The result is that we can end up talking past each other rather than talking about the same issues. Of course, it is a while since I last had to go through an interview process so I should have taken time to ensure what the focus of the question was and ensure that I was answering the question required.

However, this same concept applies more generally. In computing, we can see the developer and the customer appearing to use the same language but making assumptions that mean that they fail to communicate. A husband and wife can end up doing the same thing.

In international affairs the situation is possibly worse. Different cultures means different assumptions and different suspicions. The negotiators might appear to agree on the surface but the underlying cultural differences mean that they are actually assuming a different implementation. The two parties then come into conflict for not having fulfilled their side of the bargain.

What is worse is when a particular party endeavours to force their perspective on the other. This I believe is what we are seeing in the application of one model of economic thinking to the resolving of problems in every country. When the model is already shaky and is really designed to enslave then there can be confusion when the rhetoric is that of freedom and democracy. There can be no freedom when I am indebted to another party but again, am I talking past the promoters of the current economic models because I am looking at the requirements of the system from a different perspective or level of awareness?

Reference

Marton, F. (2000). The structure of awareness. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 102-116). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University Press.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North. Available at: http://www.teach.thompsonz.net/img/Thompson2008PhDThesis.pdf

Sunday, 19 July 2009

HDR photo experiments

While in Hong Kong, we took a bus tour of Hong Kong Island. This took us up Victoria Peak. I had left my camera bag with the filters in the bus when we got on the tramway to go to the top. With the difference in brightness between the sky and the foreground being quite large, I decided to try taking three images and different exposure values. I set the camera's automatic exposure bracketing to ±2 stops and to aperture priority (Av). The camera (Canon EOS 300D with an EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.) was hand held as tripod wasn't in the luggage that we had with us in Hong Kong.

An HDR image (high definition range) allows for a greater range of variance in the exposure level giving an image that is closer to what the human eye would recognise. One of the references that I had read suggested locking the shutter speed and allowing the aperture to adjust. This would ensure that each image had a different depth of field. A fixed aperture as I have used in these sequences retains the same depth of field.

The first two sets of photos also go together to form a panorama although I wasn't consistent with the focal length. The three shots for the first set have and ISO of 100, a focal length of 41 mm and aperture of f/11. The shutter speeds are 1/100 sec, 1/400 sec, and 1/25 sec. The combined image is the last in the sequence.

The three shots for the second set have and ISO of 100, a focal length of 34 mm and aperture of f/11. The shutter speeds are 1/100 sec, 1/400 sec, and 1/25 sec. The combined image is the last in the sequence.

I completed the building of the individual HDR images using Photoshop CS4. I made a slight adjustment to the brightness for each image and then stitched them to form the following panorama. The left image obviously had more light that the right hand image. Photoshop automatically adjusted the images for the difference in focal length.

A third set of images took the scene from a slightly different angle. Part of the problem in taking panoramas hand held is that the camera doesn't rotate around the nodal point of the lens. This can cause objects closer to the camera to appear to move in relation to objects in the background. In this case, I moved quite significantly before taking the third set of images.

The three shots for the third set have and ISO of 100, a focal length of 39 mm and aperture of f/11. The shutter speeds are 1/100 sec, 1/400 sec, and 1/25 sec. The combined image is the last in the sequence.

It looks like I should have taken more photos with a smaller gap in the exposure value differences. One suggestion is to use a difference of 1 stop between images and to take five or more images. Further experimentation will occur once I have all of my photography equipment together again.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Economic Revision

I recently posted a response to a discussion on the need for Computer Science Education in the ACM SIGCSE member forum. The issue that I raised is that anyone that is looking at education in a specific context has to be able to talk to both the education community and the community in the discipline in which they are attempting to apply education thinking. I can't claim exclusive rights to this idea. Fincher and Petre (2004) also make this claim.

A response that I received also acknowledged this difficulty but the author went on to talk how innovation often requires cross discipline application of knowledge. Altshuller (1997) suggests that to come up with innovative solutions requires looking at a problem in a different way.

Having just visited Paris and seen those hawking souvenirs or tricking visitors out of their money, or those living on the streets or begging on the pavement, I was challenged again to think about our economic system and how the current recession is hurting people. Add to this the G8 discussions on combating the green house effect and the concerns about the need for aid dollars and you realise that our economic system is a failure.

Money alone can't solve the problem but when there are solutions available and they aren't used because the money isn't available then we need to rethink economic systems. At the ITiCSE conference, one of the working groups was investigating issues of sustainability and one of the considerations was also economic revision.

The economic system is man created and it is failing to deliver on crucial issues. It is time for a rethink that comes from outside the realms of current economic thinking. The distribution of purchasing power can not solely rely on employment. Issues of social justice, sustainability, and environmental balance also need to be taken into consideration. Debit financing or borrowing against future productivity has to be replaced by a credit system that encourages useful production rather than production for redundancy and waste.

Yes, a revised economic system may cause major redistribution of wealth and eliminate some industries that are little more than parasites but changes are necessary if we are to really address the current economic and environmental issues.

I challenge all economists to think outside their current economic parameters and look to the real purpose of an economic system and what economic justice really means. Forget self interest and preservation of your own economic and cultural status and look at promoting a system that encourages cooperative rather than competitive development. Wealth distribution can't be based on having or not having. Exploitation of people or resources for the benefit of the wealthy has to stop.

Above all step outside your comfort zone and learn something of the pain that the systems that you foster and have helped put in place are causing pain and suffering to others and the planet.

Reference:

Altshuller, G. (1997), 40 principles: TRIZ keys to technical innovation. Technical Information Center.

Fincher, S. A., & Petre, M. (Eds.). (2004). Computer science education research. London and New York: Routledge Falmer, Taylor & Francis.