Conway’s “force” and the limits of self-awareness

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The other day I read Melvin E. Conway’s How do Committees Invent for the first time. The main thesis of his article is that “organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” So, for instance, during the time of the Apollo programme, one expected to find one teams for each of the three propulsion stages and at least two teams for the lunar module and the command module. Interestingly, Apollo’s stages were not only designed by different teams, but they were even produced by different companies at different locations in the US.

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Let’s get started

Dear all,

Wish you all a happy new year (but only if you adhere to the Gregorian calendar :) ).

Just wanted to let you know that I am quite comfortable with the newish publishing frequency of one blog post roughly every fortnight. Work life looks less crazy in 2016, and I intend to keep up with this publishing frequency for the time being.

So what is up next? I am in the midst of penning a blog-post series about technical artefacts. Currently I am looking at four parts, but the series might grow whilst writing it. After this series I’ll probably pen some lighter blog posts about, among others, what I have learned from Hollywood apocalyptic films.

In case you would like to engage me on topics previously not covered in this blog please contact me.

Take care!

Cloud Atlas, the epistemic version

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The other day I saw the novel The Known World on a book pile in my friend’s apartment. The title intrigued me for a reason unrelated to the content of the novel: what constitutes the known world is an interesting epistemic challenge, in that knowledge is highly fluid. Our world, right now, will soon be history, and soon most of what we know now will be forgotten. However, one can also claim that, over the last ten thousand years, the body of our collective knowledge has increased. But that is a somewhat narrow view, for humanity not only has gained knowledge (for instance about the existence of other galaxies), but we also have replaced old knowledge with new knowledge. One example for this is medicine: even in cases where we still use the same active agents for treatment (think aspirin), our explanations for what ailments to use it for, and how to use it, have changed quite a bit over the millennia.

While entertaining the above line of thought, an idea for a very different novel emerged. This novel would illustrate the historic change of knowledge, and how knowledge changes who we are, how we act, and how “facts” affect us. In a sense, it would resemble the novel Cloud Atlas in one central aspect: that of historical constants. While Cloud Atlas loosely subscribes to the idea of reincarnation, i.e. the continuous rebirth of “persons” and their long path toward “redemption”, my novel would address the fact that some things have not changed over the millennia but how we frame them has. Examples for such constants are death and physical violence. Instead of following a handful of persons throughout their reincarnations, as is the case in Cloud Atlas, my novel would look at the reincarnation of events, and how they are modulated as a result of our changed knowledge. Think, for instance, how murder has been contextualised throughout the millennia.

The change of the operational knowledge operational of a society would change many aspects of murder: how it is justified; how it is carried out; how the murderer tries to escape persecution. The unchanging event “murder” could be investigated in a series of shortish detective stories. In each chapter and respective time period, the same type of murder would take place. Each time, the murder would accomplish the same ultimate goal, for instance the inheritance of wealth, and each time the epistemic base would be different. Let me explain the “epistemic base” with a few examples. In biblical times, the justification for the murder could be a perceived command from the gods. In totalitarian times it could be the “otherness” of the victim: the murdered could be framed as a capitalist traitor in the former Soviet Union, and the victim’s past dealings with Jews could be the trigger in Nazi Germany. So, the ultimate effect of the murder, i.e. enrichment of the murderer, would always be the same, but the justification would change quite a bit. But not only that: say, for instance, that the murderer’s justification (for instance racism) is not shared by the prosecuting authorities and that the murderer will thus face grave consequences. What then? The murderer could, for instance, try to obscure who committed the murder. Obscuring the murder would, among others, rely on the approach of the investigating and prosecuting authorities and their capabilities. For instance, obscuring a murder becomes a different kind of enterprise after the advent of finger-print technology and DNA analysis. How the murder is committed is strongly dependent on the utilised knowledge of the investigating authorities.

In summary, my novel describes a murder  that is carried out over and throughout the millenia, but how it is framed, how it is perceived, how it affects everyone involved, would change dramatically.

If you like this idea and want to develop it further please contact me.

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Despotism at work, Max Weber, and the explanatory power of decision theory

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Recently I attended an international meeting, and while trying to find suitable recurring web-meeting dates for future interaction among the members, I motioned to block as few nights in advance as possible. My motivation for this motion was quite simple: I have a private life and I want to keep a maximum of evenings open for plannable leisure-time activities. The second I had uttered my request, I got a reply that was only partially meant to be funny: “You have a private life?”

Well, in the end we settled for a compromise (two nights each week), and that might be the end of this little anecdote. But, as usual, to me there is more to this story than immediately meets the eye.

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Subconscious propaganda, anchoring, and the law of unintended consequences

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Recently I watched several episodes of Unforgettable, a New-York-based crime show from 2011+. This show centres on a detective who has hyperthemesia, i.e. the ability to remember almost everything she ever has experienced. While this condition itself is intriguing and could trigger a look at what makes us human, it was one of the seemingly minor characteristics of the show that caught my attention: the subconscious propaganda of the benign surveillance state. Continue reading

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