Monday, December 08, 2008

The cost of individualism

Here in America, we tend to favor the individual rather than the collective in a philosophy known as individualism. We covet and admire the lifestyle of the self-made man, the millionaire who did it all himself, the Madonnas who created their independent fortunes and the rugged individualist. Few can attain such a status, fewer still can actually walk the talk for all their "independence."

So how has that been working out for us? Like many of us, I read the news everyday. Everyday, there is a new problem to be solved. But what is the source of the problem, individual or collective? Are individuals really capable of solving the problems we face, all by themselves?

There are three examples to explore today, in this blog: cyber-security, health care, and the environment. In each case, I attempt to demonstrate the cost of individualism vs. the collectivist culture.

I bring this idea up for several reasons. I had the good fortune to have visited Vietnam a little more than a year ago, twice. While I was there, I noticed something quite striking, in contrast to America: the Vietnamese value cooperation over competition. They seem to have recognized that although it's possible for one man or one woman to solve a problem or attain great achievements, everyone needs to get involved to overcome a challenge. What I hope to demonstrate here is that we need to heed the example of Vietnam and others like them.

In contrast to Vietnam, this country is in a state of hyper-competition. Everyone here is looking out for number one. Anyone who has taken the time to study the example of Microsoft will see that they are constantly at "war" with others. When Steve Ballmer does one of his pep-talks, he is literally boiling over with enthusiasm for his company, his products and his plans. There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm such as his. But many companies have partnered with Microsoft only to become the latest litigation carcass left over after Microsoft has accomplished their goal. Microsoft is the perfect example of competition at any cost as a corporation.

This one-man show, go-it-alone example doesn't do so well in the context of cyber-security. By now, some of you have heard of "botnets", a group of computers that have been infected by a virus or trojan and turned into a "zombie" computer. A botnet can contain hundreds of thousands of computers as a group commonly known as a herd. A zombie computer is a computer that, unbeknownst to the owner, has been turned into a servant of a secret network of computers. This network will send spam, distributed denial of service attacks and collect credit card and other personal information to be used for stealing money. All the known botnets run on Windows computers.

For many years, Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, has preached the virtues of proprietary code. Creating proprietary code requires a significant level of secrecy, and that requires independence. Yes, they are the biggest software firm in the world. And they have a nice chunk of liquid cash to prove it. But contrary to the image of independence they promote, they are supremely dependent on developers. So they create developer tools that increase dependence on Windows. And They create products that depend on Windows. A case in point is Silverlight, a competitor to the Adobe Flash software so commonly used in places like YouTube. Microsoft makes a point of making Silverlight only for Windows so that people will buy Windows. Yes, there is a version that will run on Mac and Linux (Moonlight), but as Steve Ballmer likes to say, it will run better on Windows.

Microsoft was basically asleep at the wheel when the Internet came up behind them and passed them by in the 1990s. Along came Netscape which scooped up 80% of the marketplace before Microsoft could blink. So what did Microsoft do? In order to buy time, they changed the programming interfaces for Windows without telling Netscape so that the Netscape browser wouldn't work properly on Windows. At the same time, Microsoft got to work building their Internet Explorer browser to compete with Netscape and gave Internet Explorer away for free with the operating system. Netscape is now only a shadow of what it once was. Netscape has been resurrected as open source software in products like SeaMonkey and Mozilla Firefox because the only way they could compete is as a free product.

As someone who works in IT, I've learned something about the "monoculture" in computers. Microsoft has created a huge monoculture of computers with a 95% market share for desktop computers. The weakness of a monoculture is that when all computers act the same, one weakness will affect all computers with the same program. This explains the success of viruses on Windows computers. And who is providing the updates to these computers? One lone source: Microsoft.

This monoculture might explain the problems discussed in this article, which states we are losing big-time in the cyber war against the rest of the world. Windows is turning out to be our biggest liability when it comes to security in government and corporate infrastructure. There is a long and rich history to explain why this is that I can't get into it here, but if you'd like to read more on the subject, go here (scroll down to Security for more).

On the other hand, with Linux, there are many distributions of Linux. Many features of Linux actually comes from Unix. It was created in 1969 by AT&T with the notion that no single user should be able to destroy the work of another user on the same machine. Security was baked in from the start. That is one reason why you won't see many viruses running on Linux. For a virus on Linux, propagation is very difficult, and death is very quick. This not to say that Linux is impervious to virii. Linux is just a lot harder to break.

All software comes from source code. When a programmer writes source code for software, he will include notes in the source that provide documentation on the action of a section of code. When the programmer is ready to test, run or distribute the software, he will run the code through something called a compiler. This strips out the documentation known as comments, and converts the source code into binary code that the computer can understand and run. This binary file is what you get with Microsoft. With Linux, you get the source code and the binary, free and open source software (FOSS).

Instead of being developed by one company, Linux is developed by volunteers all over the world. Instead of closing the source code for the software, as Microsoft does, the source code for Linux is free for all to see and licensed under the General Public License. Everyone, including programmers, is free to run the software for any purpose they desire. They can also look for bugs and fix bugs and to make improvements. They are also free to distribute the binary code as long as they make the source code available to the community. This sharing of the code is what makes Linux so powerful.

As Eric S. Raymond said, "A thousand eyes makes all bugs shallow."

I offer this example to show the contrast between competition, as embodied by Microsoft and cooperation, as embodied by Linux. Microsoft tries to feign independence while mooching off of the rest of world for support of it's operating system and while charging for it. Free software communities acknowledge the complexities of the software and the need for collective review, repair and upgrades of the same software. Their effort to create better software is shared. The result is used like a utility. It is any wonder that the fastest computers in the world are running Linux?

Now lets turn to healthcare.

We're in the worst recession in 75 years and we're fervently looking for a way out of the mess we created. 5 years of war, a bass-ackward tax policy going strong for eight years, and lax regulation of securities have contributed to the mess. All of them are based on the premise that the individual is more important than the collective. We did the war, essentially alone (sorry, England doesn't count), prompted by little or no evidence that the war was necessary. The tax policy was based on the idea that rich individuals would spend money rather than hoard it. And the lax regulation of securities (securitized mortgages, credit default swaps, etc.) was based on the notion that the securities industry would regulate itself. On all of these fronts, we have been proved wrong.

I saw this very interesting opinion article in BusinessWeek. The statistics cited in the article are disquieting if not downright alarming. Here's a sample from the article:
  • The country (US) spends a world-beating 16% of gross domestic product on health, yet in international comparisons it lags behind a number of key measures.
  • The U.S. ranks 29th in infant mortality and 48th in life expectancy.
  • The number of people without health insurance was 38 million in 2007, and that number is guaranteed to have risen in the meantime with the recession that began a year ago.
A lot of this stems from severe mismanagement of the insurance companies. Take AIG, for example. The excesses of that company has been well documented with their lavish parties and executive bonuses. Were they thinking of their customers? Probably not. Perhaps they were a bit too focused on the next tax cut. Evidently, the largest insurance company in the world was busy making insurance more expensive for the rest of us. And that includes health insurance.

The health insurance industry is so focused on profits that the list of pre-existing conditions will only grow longer. As more and more people are excluded from health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, the cost will continue to increase for those that can participate. And so on as more and more people are excluded on costs alone. I thought that the whole point of insurance was to distribute risk among a large population.

Worse still, a recent study suggests that about half of all doctors would quit their practice given the chance for an alternative. This is symptomatic of insurance and government policies driven to cut short-term financial costs of health care. Paperwork is being used to exclude treatments in the same way that pre-existing conditions are being used to exclude people from access to health care. It seems that not only are people being encouraged to go it alone, they are being forced to do so.

I've never really been a big fan of socialized medicine. I see the "other people" gorging themselves to oblivion on fast food, alcohol and tobacco. I see them raising my insurance rates, even though I try to take good care of myself. Why should I have to pay for their stupidity?

Some of you have probably heard of NASE. They have a very interesting concept: allow the premiums to accumulate as savings for each subscriber. When they turn 65, refund the balance after subtracting the costs for service. This is a great idea, since it encourages people to take good care of themselves so that they have a nice retirement fund when the time comes. But in practice, it hasn't worked so well for the company, probably also due to poor management. There have been some horror stories that paint an unflattering picture of the company. In an ideal world, I'd like to see something like this really work.

So, unfortunately, the facts do not bear out any clear successes for capitalist style health care in terms of distribution. Sure, we have the best health care in the world, but who can really afford it? Socialist countries seem to be getting along fine with lower mortality rates and lower customer costs for care. A recent New York Times op-ed article is making a very strong case for Universal Health Care where no one is denied and everyone pays in one way or another. This guarantees complete distribution of risk and funding at the same time. And there appears to be a way to reduce the paperwork by focusing on preventive treatment rather than exclusion.

Health is inextricably tied to the environment. Some of you might be old enough to remember that President Nixon of the Republican Party proposed and helped to create the Environmental Protection Agency. But for some reason, over time, two Republican presidents surnamed Bush, have lost their way and tried to emasculate the EPA. Our current president has done the most damage by restricting or eliminating the power of the EPA. Apparently the neo-cons forgot that they are stewards of the earth, and their creator may not look so kindly upon their achievements. In the last few years, I have read of their second thoughts about passing legislation that would limit or remove power from the EPA.

It's easy to see the schizophrenia of the Republican Party these days when it comes to the environment. They want to gut the EPA and let the market decide how to care for the environment. The market on the other hand, is not satisfied by a clean environment, it's satisfied by money. Obviously, polluted land doesn't have much value, even if you live in Palos Verdes, California. Since the neo-cons took control of the Republican Party, they seem bent on consuming and destroying as much of the natural resources as possible, you know, before the second coming.

For the last eight years, the United States has been loathe to sign any treaties that would help the environment, in particular, the Kyoto Protocol, citing potential for serious harm to the economy of the United States. Here again, the economy rules supreme above the environment. Apparently, there was no discussion of the green collar jobs that would be created given the constraints of the Kyoto Protocol.

And now there is a new treaty designed to replace the Kyoto Protocol. And again, the United States will not participate, yet. It appears that with a new administration on the way, there could be significant change in attitude and action. As a nation, we have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in protecting the environment, despite what other countries do.

As the world looks to us for leadership, they must be wondering aloud as to what we're thinking. Three countries, the US, China and India produce the majority of greenhouse gases. The US by itself uses 25% of the energy produced worldwide. And under the guidance of the Bush Administration, the US has proven to be unwilling to cooperate with other nations to limit greenhouse gases.

Global Warming and the consequences thereof, whether induced by man or not, is a problem we all face. The US cannot hope to solve the problem on their own without cooperation from other nations, and vice versa. Going it alone is not an option, particularly when we look at the amount of landmass we stand to lose from rising sea levels.

In the realms of cybersecurity, healthcare and the environment, we will need to work together to solve our common problems. I offer the foregoing as examples and incentive to work with each other, and to reason things out. We must work with others internationally, nationally, and locally to solve the problems we face.

Whether it's capitalism, communism or soclialism, no system seems to work perfectly for everyone. But one thing is certain: so long as we continue the idea that it's "every man for himself" and that men and women continue to pursue advantages and control over one another, no system will work. Under those conditions, people will continually game the system to assert an advantage or to attain a sense of security.

As soon as we realize and live as if we're all in it together, then we can solve all the problems we experience together. It is my hope that under the new administration, cooperation will be valued over competition.
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