Malek's Moorish Tales

Meanderings about life and technology

regular meaningless expressions revisited ....

right now, I am working on a project in France. Although being in France is not the most thrilling experience I can think of... by far! I still have the chance to be working with some very smart people, and the conversations we`re having are of certain interest.

One conversation I had with Minh was quite illuminating...

One coworker came around and asked "ça va ?" ("How are you ?"), and I automatically responded "ça va!" ( "I`m doing fine! thank you"). It might have been the way I said it, or maybe he was really making the point I am trying to make here. Anyhow, Minh just went "huh? Does anyone ever respomd to that question any differently ?". We had a good lough as I went about the fact that it actually does happen that somebody actually responds to the question and says something like "Well, I am not doing so good. this and that are wrong yada yada yada..."

Thinking about it a little more, since the only way I had ever thought about it was in very general terms, and that we are here talking about work relationships, it came to me that the very generic exchange can actually play a role. It doesn`t touch close because in my situation in the current project things are going at least as good as I wanted them to. Actually probably much better than I could have hoped for. Still, I am quite convinced that, even though responding any different from the way I did would have been a shocking experience for the guy, he actually was (at least possibly was) trying to get a feel of how things were going in the project....

So was my answer the right way to respond? Assuming he was curious about how the project was going, I probably should have answered that things were doing great. Possibly even stating that it was much better than expected.

Another possible assumption would be that the guy is worried about my role in the said project being a single point of failure for the near term of the project, and was worrying about my capacity to carry on, and thus about my health and morale, and my answer should have been reassuring that I am in good health and that the distance from my family is not an issue at the moment.

So, when asked how you are doing, I recommend actually answering the question, even if you cause some lough, as it might be meaningful to the person asking the question..... 

Microsoft is missing the opportunity here ...

In Morocco, and up to now, Windows 8 devices and PCs have not yet hit the market. The shopping season will pass without them...

What is a constitution ?

The events in egypt right now raise a big question: What is a constitution ?

Basically, the legal basis for subjecting people to laws need to be based on consent. A person is subjected to the law of the land because he actually consents to be subjected to it. In theory at least, this must mean that a constitution can only be adopted unanimously.

It is not enough that a majority of the people agree, otherwise, no country will ever grant any minority rights, and no individual rights that go against the view of the majority.

In the begings of early democracies, one could argue that people cannot live in ways that are rejected by a majority people of the country. That argument could hold when people have the right to move away to a more accepting community, or form a community of their own. Especially when there was plenty of legally unclaimed territory. But even then, constitutions like that of the United States of America required adoption by super-majorities, to ensure that at least, sizeable minority were not out of the equation.

Nowadays, people cannot move out of the country, as they are not allowed to by immigration laws of the destination countries. Therefore, there is no legal escape from having uninamity before a could set the rules for the legal and political systems.

Unanimity is practicly impossible to achieve in any universal vote. That is why most new democracies universally elect constituting bodies to draft the constitutions. Those bodies can then deliberate and negociate until they can reach unanimity on a text (unanimity in this context usuall means they believe that is the best they can get, not that they all agree on everything).

This particularly important after revolutions, as there is no basis for legitmity to speak on behalf of everyone. In reforming monarchies particularly, there is historical legitimacy for the monarchy to speak on behalf of the people (without going into much detail, people in a monarchy, at least in theory, have accepted the monarchy to represent them unanimously. Those that didn't accept could hve long ago left the community or the country, or revolted).

Because those representatives unanimously adopt the draft, it is ok to submit it to a universal vote that needs only some form of majority or super-majority to pass.

Now, in Egypt, there is the dangerous situation where those that drafted the constitution only represent a portion of the society, albeit a majority. That is not enough, not by a long shot, for having the right to draft the constitution that will define the rights of the individuals and of the minorities.

Putting such a constitution to a popular vote, and letting it pass if it gets a majority, lacks the legitimacy for subjecting individuals and minorities to its content. Those that will not have been represented in drafting the constitution have every right to reject it, and will only be left with one option : civil disobedience...

Should growth be a business value ?

One concept I didn’t think much about before joining Microsoft years back, although I had managed businesses for over a decade, was growth as a business imperative.

During my years in Microsoft, I realized how much of an obsession growth can be.

To be clear, I do understand that any business should grow its net benefit at least to much inflation, so as to keep its appeal and inflation adjusted value (to be worth the same buying power). What I don’t really understand is why a business should eternally grow.

To put it macro-economic terms, it is obvious that a developing country should develop, i.e. grow its economy beyond purchasing power adjustments. That is the only way it can, over time, bring its people to a standard of living that matches that of developed nations, and to make its people achieve the currently achievable level of well being. However, why would a developed nation need growth? off course people always want better than what they have, but is it worth it to have more if that means you have to work so much harder? Doesn’t that hardship annul completely any benefits?

It is the same in micro-economics, or if you prefer at a single business’s level. As someone who has for most of his life owned shares in businesses (if you are wondering, nothing big I should say), I am quite satisfied if the money I have put in can bring me a steady return (in purchasing value) while maintaining the value I put in. My main concern with any shares I have is whether the return is good when compared to the risk, not if it is getting better over time. I am only looking at whether it is getting better when it is not quite satisfactory to begin with. More often than not, that happens when the business is in its beginnings (which can take various amount of time depending on the nature, and the potential for returns of said business), i.e. in its growing phase.

It only starts to make sense when you add two factors:

  • Most businesses today don’t want to distribute their benefits (it is normal to withhold part of benefit, especially when you have an important R&D component). Many global businesses today simply think of benefit as automatic reinvestment, and because they do, they go looking for growth potential and reinvest the benefit in pursuing that potential. I think that is way too convenient, and way off mark. When I, as an investor invest in something, I want to know exactly what I am betting on. I don’t want CEOs and their team making those decisions for me (Actually, Even when I am the one managing the business, I wouldn’t want me in that capacity making that decision for me as an investor). The problem is not an investment, an economic, or a commercial one. It is simply because those that manage the business, not those that own it, have the most to gain when they do it the way they do now (any contract I signed as an investor would fire with no compensation any one that would act against the interests of the owners).
  • Most businesses that are in any stock market, or more generally, that have large tradable ownership, have a balance of decision power in favor of a few that own a plurality of shares (often at ridiculously low proportion of the total) and those they put in charge (because they are the only ones that own enough to have influence). That means you can own 5% of a big company, and have everyone else forcefully invest their benefits into what you want to invest in. The only constraint in that model is that the value of company, should you ever want to dispose of that 5%, is based on the trade value of the shares, which in turn is based on how people perceive the risk you are taking and the benefit redistribution you will be making. The easiest way out of redistributing anything or giving any control over what you will be investing next is obviously growth. Show enough growth and everyone will be reassured that, regardless of investment decisions, and regardless of benefit redistribution, the real value of the company is growing, and therefore their shares are bringing value.

Why have I bothered you with all these macro and micro-economics stuff? simply because growth of business, and even growth of economies, has become such an enormous factor of stress that it accounts for most of the degradation of how people live. I have been on both sides, and I think I an talk about both (not accounting for any side effects of megalomania and other similar diseases that I know so little about). But when I see how business growth drives an increasing need for growth in productivity, and an increasing drive for off-shoring, to the level where humans can no longer cope, I start asking questions. Is it worth it? Is the next million worth all the suffering it will cause?

The picture gets blurred somewhat when you sit, like me, in a place where people depend so much on that million being made in this part of the world where we need the proportion of it that will stay here so much, as local investment has dried up.

The only point I want to make is that growth is the way the powerful will maximize their return. Not really something that benefits the mass of workers or investors. I can even more confidently say that for every penny of growth, much suffering is generated. Shouldn’t humanity be more concerned about some more meaningful value for all of us ? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the growth of the general well being ?

The judiciary should be about Justice, not laws…

What is happening in Egypt right now brings me to a discussion I have had many times with friends. Should the Judiciary power be basing its decisions on what is just, or on what the laws say ?

To be sure, it is dangerous to have a power with no constraints, because it will never fail to become arbitrary, and therefore totalitarian.

However, if judges issue decisions based on the laws of the moment, then the judiciary is not all that different from police or other law enforcement; Except may be if the judges themselves are more honest and morally irreproachable than the rest of law enforcement.

On the other hand, if judges base their decisions on the ideal of justice, then in many cases, no two judges will agree on any decision, as ideals are by definition evasive and their perception quite personal.

In my opinion, the ideal of Justice becomes quite practical when it is seen as constrained by a social and moral contract between all citizens of a country, usually called a constitution. Beyond that, laws can be just or unjust, and applying the law doesn’t guaranty justice by any means. For that reason, laws should only constrain the decision of a judge if he believes those laws to just in the particular case he is looking at. If someone steals goods from somebody, it could be deemed just to force him to return what he has stolen and compensate for the physical and psychological harm and for the hardship or inconvenience he caused; It could also be deemed just to have him pay for all the damage and hardship including the value of the goods, and to imprison him; it could even be deemed just to cut his hand in addition to repaying all he cost. It is ok that a judge bases his punishment on what the law says, as long as the damage done is paid. But if a law says that whatever is stolen is lost, and that the only punishment for the thief is prison for example, I think it is normal that judges will not use that as the basis for their decisions, as it is unjust to the rightful owner of the stolen goods.

Of course, for all people exposed to the history of English speaking parts of the world, the struggles for human rights come to mind immediately, particularly the Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King.

To come back to Egypt, I believe that the decision of the president to forbid the judiciary from rescinding any decisions he has made as president (keep in mind that in the absence of a legislative body, his decisions are laws), would have had no effect if the judiciary power was based on Justice instead of laws. They would still, regardless of his latest decision, be able to reject any decision he makes or has made based on its injustice. However, in Egypt, Judges are bound to make their decisions based on law, which allows for the extremely dangerous situation where the president can actually have all powers in his hands. That is more power than anyone ever had in at least the last half a century (it arguable whether Hitler had more power or not).

What would have been a much better situation is, in the absence of a constitution, for the judges to be constrained by the clearly adopted values of the Egyptian people, and to seek justice in their decisions, taking laws into consideration when they believe they are just (in the case of making a decision that could allow for different just outcomes, they abide by the law) and not taking them into account whenever they believe the law(s) are unjust. Morsi would have had no ground to make such decision, and some of what seems to have pushed him to that extreme would probably never have happened in the first place. I can hardly think that anyone, leave alone a prominent Egyptian Judge  (Egypt, even though has been for long a dictatorship, has kept a fairly incorruptible judicial system), would have thought that it is okay to dissolve the legislative power because of technicalities, when there was no reasonable interim. I believe that decision was made because Judges are bound by laws, and laws are very technical. Had that decision not been there, two things would have happened :

  • Morsi would not have had the power to make his latest decision
  • There would have been no ground for such decision in the first place, as it would have had no effect.

I believe that societies without governing bodies are almost the worst thing that could happen (absolute arbitrary power is the only exception I can think of).

I believe that power needs to be, but that it needs to be balanced.

I believe the ultimate constraint to any power is justice. I just can’t comprehend how Justice can be controlled by laws that are, in the best case scenario, made by a majority (practically by a plurality, as even in the most representative system, i.e. a proportional representation, very few free elections have participation and result that actually give a majority of all adults to any side. When laws are made by a legislative body, laws are made by a majority of those elected, and one would have to account only for the percentage of the parliamentarians in favor out of that majority/plurality).