A Ball Of Blue Flame

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

I didn’t speak before now about my last exam. The thing is, I’m really not sure how I did.

It felt good. I left the exam hall exhausted, elated, as if I’d given my all.

I just wish I could be sure that my all is the all they wanted.

I have no complaints about the paper. Couldn’t really have been better from my point of view. I was able to avoid the cost analysis question I dearly wanted not to do. It wasn’t a hard one; basically it’s just a sum. The problem was those two words – “cost analysis”. I had to stay alert through a whole exam, and just looking at them makes my eyelids droop.

The systems theory question on the other hand was all too exciting. Yes, seriously. It involved concepts that have interested me for a long time. Visualising the world not as discrete objects but in terms of interacting systems, flows of activity and information. Emergent phenomena – how all the complexity and wonder of life arises out of apparently simple chemistry, or indeed solid matter out of ephemeral probability. The danger with this was that I could easily blow the entire two and a half hours if I got hooked on a wild-eyed Idea.

So I began with the case study question, which retrod a lot of ground we’d covered in our projects. This made it easier, but had the downside that my head was preloaded with too many things I could say. And I think I said too many of them, because I spent over an hour on that one.

Thankfully, next was what’s known as a decision table. These distil a complex decision-making process into a simple table you can look up. You might – as in the example – be a college book shop trying to decide whether to keep some old titles in stock or return them to the publisher. There are a bunch of factors involved, how do you decide? Well here the table shows that if, for example, an edition is no longer current. but has been requested by staff, then the correct response is to keep it. Simplicissimo.

Condition USER RULES
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Edition Is Still Current N N N Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Old Edition Requested By Academic Staff N N Y
Any Copies Sold In Last 3 Months N N Y Y Y Y Y
More Than 15% Of Stock Sold In Last 3 Months N N Y Y Y
More Than 20% Of Stock Sold By Mid-Semester Y N N
Sales Manager Believes Book Will Still Sell N Y N Y N Y N Y
Return Remaining Stock X X X
Consider Returning 75% of Remaining Stock X
Keep Remaining Stock X X X X X X

Why is the table so small? Having six conditions, each with two possible values – Yes and No – you’d think it would need (2x2x2x2x2x2=) 64 columns instead of 10. The trick is that some conditions make others redundant. Look at what happens if the Sales Manager decides a book will still sell. Their word goes, making all other considerations moot. By examining the logic in this way you can reduce the table to its essentials.

The problem then is making sure you’ve done it right. Do the rules really cover all possible situations? Could two different, contradictory actions be invoked by the same set of conditions? That latter is particularly significant because tables like these form the basis of computer programs, and when a computer is stuck between two conflicting responses it explodes.


Examining a table for logical consistency sounds scary, but when you boil it down it’s a puzzle not unlike a Sudoku. Having practised, I’d got the knack of solving them visually. Well, simple ones… That saved time which by now I badly needed. I’d left myself barely more than half an hour for all the theory. Things were now officially intense.

So I don’t recall clearly what I wrote… I do know though that somehow I got stuck on aspects of systems theory that bug me. Couldn’t I write a happy answer about the many aspects that I think are cool and interesting? No, apparently I can’t do that.

Really it was one particular lecture slide I was hung up on. This had compared science to the systems approach, contrasting them as analytical versus holistic, qualitative versus quantitative, so on. In other words presenting the systems approach as a counterbalance, even an alternative, to science. That struck me as just wrong; overshooting the holistic and heading into homoeopathic country. Or “needlessly messianic”, as I described it. (Which incidentally was the second entirely pointless Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy reference I found myself slipping into these exams.)

In particular it described science as “reductionist”, which to me is to misunderstand it completely. Sure, science takes things apart and examines the components. But it doesn’t do that to understand the components; rather the objective is to see how they all work together – as a system. As a whole.

Holism is right there in science. To claim otherwise is to traduce humanity’s most important philosophical tool for one’s own obscure – or obscurantist – motives.

OK I didn’t say that last sentence, thank God. I was having a bit of a head rush but I still knew better than to condemn the subject I was being examined in as an evil conspiracy. I’m not doing English lit any more. And I don’t think that of course. What I hope I managed to convey is that I find systems theory attractive, but at the same time worry that this very attractiveness may make it dangerous. Is it a useful way of looking at the world, or a friend to fuzzy thinking? Well, I’m not sure – but I want it to be useful.

Maybe my suspicions were refreshing, maybe I’ll be marked down for insufficient imbibing of the Kool-Aid. In short, yet again I am certain that I either (a) did a really good exam or (b) plunged off the cliff in a ball of blue flame. One or the other.

At least it’s not dull.

Should Apple & Google Pay More Tax In Ireland?

Apple I at the Smithsonian Museum
As far as we can ascertain, this is all Apple actually made in Ireland


OK maybe I should expand on that a little.

Hell No.

All right, let’s break it down: Should Apple and Google pay more tax?


Should they pay that tax in Ireland?

Should they shite.

They ought to be paying the tax in – ooh, I don’t know – the countries where they actually owe the tax? The places where they did the work and made the profit. As opposed to giving it to us for letting them pretend they do their business here. Apple and Google are not the only examples of this of course, and I’m sure that they’re far from the most egregious. They do actually do some stuff here, unlike hundreds of companies that have their brass-effect plaques in the IFSC. But they are immensely profitable and we are helping them keep more of those profits for themselves. For a cut.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with offering a slightly lower rate of corporate tax to attract business, especially if it’s a loss you’re willing to take in order to compensate for another disadvantage – a fairly peripheral location, for example. It could, and I’m sure it once did, attract people to do real business and create real employment here that they would not otherwise have.

But when the rates are so low that they tempt corporations to just start trucking money through the country, and when we provide them with “pro-business regulation” that doesn’t check excessively carefully to make sure all that money is really being made here, then we are stealing. It’s as simple as that. Those companies should be paying taxes to the people of other countries, but we’re taking it.

And ultimately, it does us no good. Just look. This easy-money attitude helped create a soufflé economy that grew and grew and grew until it wasn’t there. Some people made billions out of it of course, but all most of us have to show is debt, negative equity, unemployment.

To this we can add international pariah status. Did you not notice Eurovision?

So now we begin again. What if we try to rebuild the economy on radical principles – like proper regulation, reasonable taxation, and actual value?

Creeplove Salvation

Captured from Twitter:


Love it. It neatly captures the Catholic Church’s schizophrenic morality. Insinuating itself into public and private life, offering its creeplove salvation.

The “Sindo” by the way is the Sunday Independent newspaper. They like to run polls. I seem to have voted in one just now by clicking on a link in fact. At least it thanked me for voting – I still don’t know what the question was. So I wouldn’t give too much weight to the results, I don’t think 22% of people today would really prefer a woman to die than have an abortion.

I wish I could be sure though.

You Owe The Bank Nothing

House prices in Ireland as a multiple of average income. (Source: Morgan Kelly, Finfacts)
House prices in Ireland as a multiple of average income. (Source: Morgan Kelly, Finfacts.ie)

Somebody on the radio saying they’re going abroad to declare bankruptcy. A different holiday idea I suppose. Naturally others soon phoned in to object to this “moral hazard“, as the banks would like us to call it. It was wrong they said to walk away from your mortgaged home just because you owed more on it than it was worth.

That got me thinking about what debt actually means. Is there a moral obligation to repay?

Well of course there is. It’s a matter of trust, which is what morality is basically all about. If you’re in a business, you were given materials and help by your workers and suppliers. You are obliged to pay them so they in turn can pay their helpers and suppliers and so on. The wheels of the economy keep turning and everyone gets fed. A financial debt is a promise like any other.

However there is one important qualification. You are only indebted when and if you actually receive something.

The banks will argue of course that they gave you money when you signed that mortgage so you are obviously obliged to repay it, along with the agreed interest. But the thing is, did they actually give you money?

No. They never gave it to you, because they never had it to give to you.

I don’t mean they didn’t have it in their vaults; we all know that’s not how finance works. All loans are borrowed, when it comes down to it, from the future. They’re based on the reasonable prediction that most of the time they will be paid back in full and with interest. But when the banks decided instead to start making ludicrous loans for several times the value of the houses they were raised against, thereby further escalating the price of housing and so allowing them to offer even bigger loans, they knew that ultimately the whole thing had to blow up. The loans were fake. There was no money in the future to borrow from.

When the inevitable crash came the banks of course had a parachute: They were too big to fail – or so at least they managed to convince themselves. And with themselves convinced they had little trouble convincing the political parties they were going out with – who effectively promised that they would make this impossible future money somehow magically become real money.

Or to be precise, they promised that we would.

The money you seemed to get from the bank ultimately came therefore out of your own pocket. You were tricked into lending it to yourself so that they could take a cut. It’s immoral to stop repaying that? It’s probably immoral to keep going.

ESRI public debt
The surprising result of neo-liberal economic policy – massive public debt.

Besides, you will only be a little ahead of the crowd. It should come as no surprise that even with all of us working together we can’t actually afford to turn the banks’ lies into reality. The State itself is going to default at some point. That is as inevitable now as the property crash was. Our public debt is soon going to be 200% of GDP, and the harder we try to pay it the less we will be able to; we are being crushed in fact by the burden of trying. Actual people being crushed, by imagined money.

The sooner we all default the better.

Gas Escaping Like The Crippled R101

R101_illustrationComing down, fast and floppy, from the exams. The week  since the last (an account of which I still owe you) I’ve spent oscillating between nervous energy and nervous prostration.

There is so much I want to get done over this summer, but for now I’m mostly doing calm, therapeutic tasks. As I put it in a mail to a friend earlier, I’m  reassembling myself. Plunging sinks. Designing CD covers. Configuring Linux. Oddly varied, when I think about it. Began summer work on my mother’s house. Planted some flowers – blue pansies. Cut the grass for the first time this year. Felt more like shearing a green sheep. And finally started to varnish the window frames, a job that’s been looking accusingly at me almost since last summer. It’s interesting, I’ve never varnished something before. Except the truth of course.

The Varnished Truth wouldn’t be a bad tag line for this blog, come to think of it.

The Criminalisation Of Dissent


College year being over I can think again about other aspects of reality. Such as the mess it’s in. I made it to a meeting about economics and change, and we were discussing why in Ireland we seem to be just letting this shit happen to us. The conclusion was that it is not just inexplicable passivity on the public’s part, all sorts of pressures are placed on people to make them keep their heads down. Some of them subtle, some brutal.

Somebody used the memorable phrase “The criminalisation of dissent”, and I had to draw this.

Stop, Press: For some protesty goodness, why not try these two short plays at the Town Hall Theatre? They’ll be followed by (optional) discussions with real historians and economists about the parlous state of the parlous State.

IP, 3D, Open Source, and Me

Intellectual Property and YOU
Intellectual Property and YOU (Photo credit: Thomas Gehrke)

Another exam this morning. Christ what a paper. Answer three questions out of four; was going to be out of five but they had to cancel a lecture or two so they curtailed our choice to compensate… Which meant that being weak in even one area was a big risk.

And I was weak in one. This paper was Information System Innovation, a strange mix of investment decision-making, Intellectual Property law, and Open Source idealism. At all costs I wanted to avoid a question on business metrics, the tedium of which makes my brain cry.

I got lucky. My favourite area – Open Source Software – came up in two questions. If anyone on the course had been trying to avoid Open Source on the other hand, they were pretty much stuffed and mounted. And this after they told us explicitly that there would be no overlaps.

My only real problem with the paper was that there wasn’t time to say all I wanted to say. So strange to be answering questions about the likes of Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, people who before this seemed more like figures out of folklore. Weirder still to think that when I graduated with my primary degree, none of the stuff on this course had happened yet.

So despite the stress I actually enjoyed the exam. This may not be a good sign, as it means I managed to go on at some length about things I have opinions on. Apple versus Samsung, Menlo Park versus Xerox PARC, IP in an age of 3D printing. Did they even want opinion? Did I show I was fully engaged with the material, or rave about stuff that was only tangentially related? Essentially, I can only have done either a brilliant or a disastrous paper.

But I have the whole summer to worry about that.