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The other day I saw a rather alarming report produced by MoneyWeek magazine, entitled The End of Britain, predicting an imminent financial apocalypse. The claim was simple: over the past few decades the level of debt in the UK (private, corporate and government) had ballooned; that the only reason that this appeared sustainable was that interest rates were unusually low at the moment; and that as soon as they rose it would be curtains for Britain.
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The other day someone asked me how I got into programming. This was an interview question. In retrospect it’s a surprise that no-one has asked me this before. The next time I have cause to interview a programmer, I’ll be sure to ask them the same thing.

My first degree involved a certain amount of programming, but it didn’t occur to me until quite late that I might have a knack for it. Other people on the course had computers of their own, and had been programming for years. I didn’t, and hadn’t.

Well, that’s not quite true. I’d had some encounters when younger, which I can illustrate with some photos I took yesterday at the newly opened Cambridge home of the Centre for Computing History.
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Some years ago, at an “all hands” meeting at a company where I worked, the head of the company enthused at length about Jack Welch’s famous ruthlessness. At the time I said to various people that if I wanted to work for General Electric then I knew where to find them. I wasn’t joking: GE have an office in easy walking distance of my house. However, I never set foot in there until last night, when I attended a talk by Richard Berry—part of their series of “agile talks”.

The talk was about management and leadership, and the differences in management style (command-and-control vs. facilitation) and the importance of different personality types in how teams work. Management theory, then. (And yes, there were flip-charts, and a 2×2 matrix, and book recommendations at the end.)

I’ve seen some disappointment expressed about the content of the talk. Surely this is all rather old hat: no-one now believes that command-and-control is a sensible way to organize a software development team. I’d have two responses to that, the first of which is that overt command-and-control may be rare but that the common alternative—insisting that people “take ownership” without giving them any meaningful control isn’t really the same thing as facilitation.

My other response would be that even if the broad outline of Richard’s talk didn’t hold any surprises, it’s possible to do this sort of thing badly or well, and Richard did it well. The last presentation I saw that covered this rough area was given by some ex-marketing guy who seemed to speak largely in clichés taken from trashy pop psychology books (“don’t sweat the small stuff”, “change is the only constant”, etc.). Regardless of the big picture being peddled, there were telling little details in Richard’s talk that, for me, showed that he knew what he was talking about. This wasn’t an occasion for buzzword bingo.
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Brevity

I’ve been wanting to write something about brevity for a while now. You know: the soul of wit, brevitas vs. copia, maxims and arrows, and all that sort of thing. I fear I may write too much whilst saying too little. Ho hum.
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Call me suspicious, but I’d hazard a guess that this might not be genuine.

A long time ago, when I was an undergraduate, I studied a module about Artificial Intelligence and philosophy of mind. It covered Searle’s Chinese Room argument, the Turing test, traditional AI vs connectionism. That sort of thing.

I think the main consequence of this was a realisation that I preferred intellectual history to that kind of philosophy. The impression I got was that debates trying to sort out the relation between “the body” and “the mind” didn’t appear either to have achieved their aim or to have said much of interest along the way. Better to relate a course of events and a line of thought. But that’s by the by.

One of the ideas mentioned in this course was that “the mind” was a Turing machine. I thought I had a pretty good argument for saying it wasn’t, but I never had the opportunity to state it. Now, let me see: how did it go again?
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Abusive language

One criticism of contemporary life is the tendency to treat everything, and everyone, as a resource to be optimized and exploited. This was part of the idea behind Ian Bogost’s satire on Zynga-style social games, Cow Clicker:

In social games, friends aren’t really friends; they are mere resources. And not just resources for the player, but also for the game developer, who relies on insipid, “viral” aspects of a design to make a system replicate.

Now, it’s one thing to treat someone like a resource, but it’s something else to use that sort of language about someone with their knowledge, even to their face. Yet it happens. It really is quite bizarre.
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