Thursday, January 24, 2008


Bill Gates agrees with me.

I've mentioned privately to family and friends that I thought capitalism as we know it has a really big problem: it maximizes profit. Not just "makes a decent profit." Not even "makes a killing." Maximizes. The modern corporation basically only decides to leave a penny on the table because it would harm their public image and future profits if they took it. Many times, they don't even think that far and take it anyway.

Maximizing profit means that everything else is secondary and almost accidental. While taxes are part of civic duty for an individual, it is no different than any other expense for a corporation to minimize, and therefore there's nothing wrong with spending $100,000 to lobby for a $1,000,000 tax break from the government. It means that AIDS drugs cost just as much in Africa as they would in Europe and America. We're not individually as naked as Gordon Gecko's "greed is good," but that's basically what we do as a collective.

The problem is that we're really bad at judging what is maximum profit. Maybe it's saving 20 million lives from AIDS in Africa and allowing them to become rich enough to buy Viagra later! This kind of math is just too hard and requires too much foresight to be practical. Also, CEO's don't get to take credit for profits that the company makes after he or she leaves the job, so why sacrifice today's profits for tomorrow's bigger ones?

Gates says, "Such a system would have a twin mission: making profits and also improving lives for those who don't fully benefit from market forces," which is exactly where I think we need to be. There's no justification for a corporation made up of individually moral people to be amoral or immoral. The twin mission doesn't have to be helping the poor, it could be preserving the environment or any other concrete cause.

This is not a charity or non-profit, by the way, just one that's not single-mindedly trying to optimize for profit. Profit is still important because that's what keeps the twin mission going indefinitely. It will judge itself not only on profits and loss, but on the social impact it has on the world. Its owners - which in this age refers to mutual fund managers and individual shareholders as well, not just a few tycoons - must share this mission.

I think that'd be nice.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Old Fart Time

I just sold an old computer on craigslist, which got me thinking of all the computers I've sold before.

Our first computer was a fake Apple ][+ (with lowercase modification!). It had 64 KB of RAM, 1 MHz MOS Technology 6502 CPU. We could afford one floppy drive, but had to hook it up to the family TV. We eventually bought a green monitor, an 80-column card, and a Z-80 card. Pretty sure we sold this one to somebody in the end.

The second computer was a PC clone, with a 10 MHz NEC 8088-2 and 1 MB of RAM, and a turbo button to switch between 4.77 MHz and 10 MHz. I can't remember what happened to this one. I think we replaced parts piecemeal until we ended up with a 33 MHz Intel 80386 with a 20 or 30 MB hard disk and a VGA monitor. I sold that to a student just before leaving Manila.

For grad school, I bought an 66 MHz Intel 80486 laptop with 8 MB of RAM and 512 MB of hard disk. To call it a laptop was kind, because it weighed nearly seven pounds. I didn't have enough money to get more RAM and a color display, so I settled for a 256-shades-of-gray display that looked more like 3 shades of gray. I ran Slackware Linux on it, and it had just enough RAM to run X and nothing else. StarOffice was impossibly slow, so I had to dual-boot back to Windows for word processing. I eventually broke the laptop somehow, probably because I kept opening it up.

We replaced that with a 350 MHz AMD K6 computer, with I think 128 MB of RAM and 10 GB of hard disk. I later overclocked it to 400 MHz, and decided to do a burn-in test, which was a bad idea. I replaced the motherboard with one bought from a Geoworks fire sale, and this computer is still around, but unused.

Then we bought our first Mac, which is a 733 MHz Power Mac G4. This eventually got pretty souped up, with WiFi, Bluetooth, extra hard disks, extra USB ports, and even a TV tuner card. This served us for several years, and I sold it yesterday.

Our main computer is now a dual core 2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMac with 2 GB of RAM, which finally let us break through to the GHz/GB world. Because of Mabel's video editing needs, it has a 150 GB drive internally, a 500 GB external drive, and a 320 GB Time Machine backup drive. Add that 120 GB external drive that's just sitting around, and we have over 1 TB of storage in the house.

So in about 20 years:

CPU: 1 MHz to dual 2 GHz superscalar, let's say at least 4,000x better.
RAM: 64 KB to 2 GB, 32,000x better.
Disk: 140 KB floppy disks to 1 TB hard disks, more than seven million times better.

That's quite something, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Do Not Taunt Unhappy Zoo Tiger

A tiger killed a young man and wounded two on Christmas Day at San Francisco Zoo. According to CNN, the police are now investigating whether the tiger was attacked or taunted.

Why would that possibly matter? What we have is a zoo that is unable to keep its animals inside the displays, which it must do regardless of the nature or amount of taunting. They failed at that job, and should be prepared to pay for the resulting damages. If the negligence was to a criminal extent, then those responsible need to be charged and punished as well.

Who cares if Tatiana, the poor (it was later shot by police) 350-pound Siberian tiger, was taunted or not?