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All posts for the month December, 2011

I don’t really see any worthwhile debate – the buzz of turf-wars may keep the subjects in the headlines, but there is no definitional problem not already adequately sorted by the data > information > knowledge > wisdom stack. (Thanks to David Gurteen’s tweets prompting this post.)

Anyone with strong allegiance to any one part of the stack will widen (blur) their definitions into the adjacent layers, but anyone interested in the whole stack can see worthwhile (pragmatic and valuable) distinctions, each being a layer of patterning built on the previous layer.

  • data – is about significant difference – bits and bytes being distinct from one another, at any level of granularity from fundamental physics upwards to whole books and libraries.
  • information – is about the significance of those data differences, their semantics – what the patterns of data mean.
  • knowledge – is about how that information is applied to add value, valuable patterns of use, applied information.
  • wisdom – is about understanding (knowing, experiencing, appreciating) value and the fact that it depends on how the whole stack works, and the pragmatic need to balance interests and priorities across (two-way) interactions between all levels of the stack. A more “holistic” view, if that’s not a dirty word.

Personally, like anyone else who’s given the matter any thought I guess, the aims are always towards the higher level – wisdom – whatever our (current) level of activity as a practitioner. In my particular case as an engineer I started and worked for 20 years in the applied space – learning and using knowledge of how to apply information to specific ends. It’s all about “decision-support” of course – all worthwhile activities involve decisions, so that truism in itself doesn’t add much to any definitions. One of the things you learn – wisdom you gain – is that those practitioners in the data and information layers can, by inadvertent presumptions about decision-making and use-in-action, create constraints on usage in the knowledge layers. So for the last 12 years or so, I shifted my focus down a couple of layers to understand the presumptions and how (unnecessary) constraints can arise.

I have to say in the process, I’ve developed a huge respect for librarians. Anyone who thinks it’s “just” thorough record keeping – some clerical admin task – misses the need for good strategies and architectures for how data, meta-data, information and relations between these are organized. We benefit from some types of “constraint”. The more virtual our libraries become, the more we need to avoid librarianship becoming a dying art.

Ubiquitous, real-time, interactive connectivity is not necessarily entirely good in and of itself.

Piece by Peter Benson in Philosophy Now (posted on Facebook by ex-MoQer David Morey) – Marshall McLuhan on the Mobile Phone.

Unsurprising to find McLuhan on the money when it comes to the social effects of our communications age but, for me, a couple of interesting points on value and memetics.

Print is the technology of individualism” (The Gutenberg Galaxy pp.157-8) whereas with [mobile technology and the net], the tendency is once more towards interconnected thinking in a community of minds, and so perhaps less ‘free ideation’.

Less free, notice. It’s the usual Darwinian call for evolutionary balance between fidelity and fecundity. If it is too easy to copy patterns of information in hi-fidelity it is harder for mutations to be introduced in ways that create new value. Too hard is obvious, but too easy is not good. Less is more. Life’s just complicated enough. McLuhan continues:

It is important to recognize the subtlety of McLuhan’s views. He is not saying that modern technology distorts an original human nature, which must be protected from such distortions. Instead, from the moment humans began to create tools, our nature was shaped by the tools we used. The silent reading of texts proliferated after Gutenberg’s invention. This activity is not ‘natural’, in the sense of resulting through evolution from the necessities of survival; but it can be regarded as having value, conferred on it by our judgement as individuals and as a society. [His emphasis]

It is entirely possible that a future society could reverse this judgement; but in the interim we need to give consideration to the potential change in our values due to actual changes in our dominant communications media. [My emphasis]

Did we ever need a little conservatism to moderate mediation in the mix. The art of editing.

Interesting, after all the press buzz last week about possible hints and indications that might suggest the speculative Higgs Boson (all designed to sell Cox’s book in time for Christmas no doubt), that this week the paper published indicates a new “Chi_b(3P)” boson, whatever that is.

What is really interesting, given yesterday’s post about the workings of science, is the paper itself appears as a 17 page PDF, 13-1/2 of which are the acknowledgements and references to the LHC Atlas team 2590 individuals (excluding deceased!) and 212 institutions by name. What is the point?

I read this Ben Goldacre piece a couple of weeks ago. The problem one always has to ask is … is this kind of bad science accidental or in some sense deliberate – a skilled incompetence either by the practitioners or their managers / editors / reviewers, or both in a kind of tacit collusion. In situations of complex human endeavours some hypocrisy is inevitable, to balance motives and goods across multiple levels, and a degree of trust is therefore also inescapable. Science is no different, taken as a whole “business”.

Personally, I’m more against bad scientism, using science badly in situations that are far from scientific – rather than good or bad science per se. With infinite time and resources you could argue all situations can be reduced to science, but the reduction can discard the real world value. Statistics is of course one of those techniques used to bring the vagaries of human behaviour into the scientific space in quantifiable chunks. This adds another level of complexity to the whole exercise leading to more possibilities of evaluating the wrong things, and/or evaluating them wrongly.

Ben’s story above is about the statistical methods, this story today in The Scholarly Kitchen (via David Gurteen and Stephen Downes) is about choosing the wrong inputs for the wrong motives – citations, again. Proves the point that science is a messy business, parts of which are far from scientific.

And of course, the “Measuring the Wrong Things” headline is one a long line including Einstein’s “Not everything that counts can be counted.”

Interesting having posted twice about the Air France A330 disaster (including just yesterday) to see this Slashdot story (via Johan on Facebook) about a Quantas A330 problem around the same time, 3 years ago. The comment thread is interesting, kinda reinforces my comment of yesterday:

A. … the number of [computer bug] accidents will likely still be fewer than those caused by human drivers.

B. Which is actually [why] Airbus relies on sensor input over the “pilot”. Boeing believes in the opposite. I’m inclined to believe Airbus in that the majority of accidents are human error over computer error.

C. The problem with aviation accidents is the relatively small sample size. With cars [in the Google auto-driving story] there will be much more data points.

I guessed B’s point yesterday, though I have no specific knowledge. The point is really this, fly-by-wire or not, pilots and the automation technology together form one complex “system” – the behaviour of one affects the other. The people and the software are both subject to (imperfect) testing and validation. Even with fly-by-wire, the total system (including pilot behaviour and psychology) can be designed with greater total inherent safety – fewer failure modes that lead to loss of control.

I’m a big fan of Airbus, but these are, as I said, scary problems.

I blogged this link the day the story came out, to Facebook and/or Linkedin, but of course that doesn’t preserve it in my database, so I’m repeating it here. What is really scary is not the persistent pilot error: The inexperienced co-pilot may well have been disorientated or even in some kind of “personal mental autopilot” denial as to the true state of the aircraft despite clear and specific audible and verbal warnings. Schoolboy error to pull the stick back under those conditions, let alone a qualified pilot. I would say it must count as a design fault in the A330 (and presumably all the current generation Airbuses) that the crew do not get any direct feel or instrumented feedback of the control surfaces. The experience in the cockpit then counts (counted) for nothing. How is that “averaging” stick behaviour design rationalised ? Do two wrongs somehow make a right !

02:13:40 (Co-Pilot) Climb… climb… climb… climb… 
02:13:42 (Captain) No, no, no… Don’t climb… no, no.
02:13:43 (Co-Pilot) Descend, then
(Whilst all the while the other co-pilot has his stick pulled back anyway ?!?) 

Fly-by-wire is great until the pilots are unaware the various overrides – that prevent them doing stupid things – have been switched-off.

[T]he crash raises the disturbing possibility that aviation may … be plagued by a subtler menace, one that ironically springs from the never-ending quest to make flying safer. Over the decades, airliners have been built with increasingly automated flight-control functions. These have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty and danger from aviation. But they also remove important information from the attention of the flight crew. While the airplane’s avionics track crucial parameters such as location, speed, and heading, the human beings can pay attention to something else. But when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer decides that it can no longer cope—on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land—the humans might find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what’s going on. They’ll wonder: What instruments are reliable, and which can’t be trusted? What’s the most pressing threat? What’s going on? Unfortunately, the vast majority of pilots will have little experience in finding the answers.

Very, very scary.

Been re-reading a number of “anthropic” pieces – prompted subconsciously I suspect by the death of Christopher Hitchens raising the god vs rationality debate in my mind again. And looking back at the Paxman / Hitchens interview from a year ago; Paxman suggesting that Hitchens own anti-theistic atheism is so dogmatic, it too is (was, sadly) a religion.

The seminal work on anthropic factors in science is Brandon Carter 1973. This quote sums up the dogmatic angle:

Copernicus taught us a very sound lesson that we must not assume gratuitously that we occupy a privileged central position in the Universe. Unfortunately there has been a strong (not always subconscious) tendency to extend this to a most questionable dogma to the effect that our situation cannot be privileged in any sense.

There ARE things weird about our position in the Universe that deserve explanation, rather than just being blown-off as self-centred anthropic delusions. See the Larry Kraus quote here. The reason to extract the Carter quote above is so I can throw it back at anti-anthropic arguments of that kind.

@GeorgeGalloway Contrasting two posts today.

This morning George Galloway tweeted his cynical disbelief that the execution of a Saudi woman yesterday for “sorcery” had gone unreported in mainstream (BBC) news. (He was right, it was easy to find reports elsewhere, even CNN, but it didn’t show up in BBC news searches.) Again whatever the morality of the death penalty, and notwithstanding it appears her “sorcery” case may have been genuinely criminal fraud of some kind – I couldn’t help thinking the response @GeorgeGalloway was – because with 75 such Saudi executions per year – one was hardly newsworthy.

Contrast that case for example with this one (from the BBC) later today:

At the [coal] industry’s height in the 1920s, 1.2m men were employed in the pits and approximately 2,000 died in accidents every year. Today there are only about 3,500 miners but each time there is a death it is national news. [There were “just” 17 UK pit deaths in the last 10 years.]

Never been a fan of management metrics – it’s all too easy for lazy managers to measure what is easy to count, and not deal with what really matters. Even Einstein said “not all that counts can be counted”. However this Forbes piece by James Slavet nails five valuable “metrics” worth assessing subjectively – starting with “Flow”.

[M]ost managers only measure outputs, not inputs, which is like telling a Little League team to score more runs, rather than actually explaining how to swing a bat and make contact with the ball.

BTW I couldn’t believe that the “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” adage could have originated with Peter Drucker, at least not outside some particular context. Good to see I’m not alone in seeing that message as alien to Drucker’s style. I certainly couldn’t find it as an attributable quote – sounds more like an adage created to justify Taylorism to me.

Good to see the actual quote (in a comment response):

“What you measure is what you get.”

As Ed says, “that is very different from the attributed quote. In fact, it is right on target. If you measure billable hours, you will get more billable hours”. You treat people like children / monkeys, you get children / monkeys. (I recall my Master’s thesis concluding something about the need for multiple objective and subjective measures in order not to skew behaviour towards narrow measures.)

Also like this from another actual Drucker quote:

Reports and procedures should be
the tool of the man who fills them out.

A particular bug-bear of mine is reports like time-sheet and expense report systems with UI’s that are formatted the way the report user wants to see things, not the way that is useful to the reporter – eg allocation to cost-centres or breakdown-codes before recording as line-items is a common fault designed to make form-filling twice the chore it needs to be. Reports should always be – this is what I did from my perspective as I report it – with the tools automating the re-presentation of the same information in whatever format management requires.

I only “rediscovered” Drucker relatively recently, since his death in 2006, and largely because I was taken by his debt to Mary Parker-Follett.

In the making of this film. MML The Movie created as a promo for Modern & Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge Uni. Good to see the old lanes and backs, but also to realize I recognized most of the quotes. Thanks to Andy Martin’s blog Ink. Most recent quote – Steve Pinker:

Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like an apple.

Must seek out some other of Andy’s books. It was his Beware Invisible Cows that caused me to link to his blog.

[Post Note: Interesting to see the press and comments linked in Andy’s blog, regarding the film. Sad and mean opinions varying from pretentious (life’s not really like that) to desperate (Cambridge must be slipping in the Oxbridge rankings). Interestingly, as an 18 year old I’d have struggled to fit in at Cambridge, I was put-off by (and unsurprisingly failed) the selection interview way back then. My appreciation for it (and places like it) is the result of mature, wiser experience of the place and its output. The film ? – quite right, even in modern languages, love is all. Education is (can be) wasted on the young.]

Died a couple of weeks ago, though I didn’t notice until I saw the pieces in the current edition of The Edge.

I like Dawkins comment:

I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’ ….  theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology ….

She was Carl Sagan’s first wife (of 11 years). I find myself pretty well aligned with Sagan as a Spinozan.

Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.

When it comes to Gaia, Dawkins is ruthless in pointing out the fallacy in seeing progressive Darwinian processes at the level of the whole earth as organism, even though any number of complex adaptive systems could be explained that way – provided they are subject to selection pressures as part of a larger competitive environment. Dennett is more balanced – sure, evolution involves collaborative processes, important processes in the long run, clearly, but they cannot be the primary process.

And Gaia again in Margulis own words …

Lovelock would say that Earth is an organism. I disagree with this phraseology. No organism eats its own waste. I prefer to say that Earth is an ecosystem, one continuous enormous ecosystem composed of many component ecosystems. Lovelock’s position is to let the people believe that Earth is an organism, because if they think it is just a pile of rocks they kick it, ignore it, and mistreat it. If they think Earth is an organism, they’ll tend to treat it with respect. To me, this is a helpful cop-out, not science. Yet I do agree with Lovelock when he claims that most of the things scientists do are not science either. And I realize that by taking the stance he does he is more effective than I am in communicating Gaian ideas.

If science doesn’t fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu! If we are involved in science of which some aspects are not commensurate with the cultural milieu, then we are told that our science is flawed. I suspect that all people have cultural concepts into which science must fit.

I’d say, Gaia is a useful analogy, but not a scientific explanation. And I’ve said before, science is its own cultural belief system. Some excellent corollaries in there, not least that not all helpful things in the world need be amenable to science. And of course mitochondria organelles are the focus of Margulis key work in evolution, coincidentally the subject of the Hunter Gatherer diet piece below.

(Quite a few straw men to disagree about about what she says other evolutionary biologists believe in her “Gaia is a Tough Bitch” piece. Why do people feel the need to use that kind of rhetoric to set up a fight ?)

Amazing that so many scientists are reported as denying Darwinian evolution. Steve Jones in The Telegraph.

The growing tide of fact‑denial is a statement of failure, not by students but by their teachers, up to and including those at university level. We do our best, I think, but faced with schools or faith groups that get their ignorance in first, we seem to be fighting a losing battle.

Well, I’d say they need to start by teaching quality, rather than claiming to be “right”. Science is always incomplete and contingent, but there are places where science has no value (first-cause) or limited value (psychology, for short, or any metaphysical philosophy of science).

Even theist Francis Collins says:

Evolution is as solid a theory as gravity.