Saturday, March 16, 2019

Planning, Systems, And Epiphenomena

     There’s a pervasive myth abroad that various human activities can be planned out a priori, and that the activity can somehow be compelled to follow the plan without deviation. Many persons in the engineering fields are aware of this myth by virtue of having had it imposed upon them from above, typically in response to a nightmare such as the ISO-9000 system.

     It’s a sham and a delusion. The reason for its illusory character is simple. Let it be known henceforward as The Curmudgeon’s Pessimistic Axiom:

No one knows what he’s going to do
Before he actually does it.

     There are a few exceptions, but they all relate to the simplest of simplicities, such as arising from slumber and going to the toilet. Nearly fifty years in software engineering has convinced me of this. Would anyone care to argue the point?

     But I’m not here to talk about engineering. Not really.

     This morning’s stimulus was provided by Mark “Mad Dog” Sherman:

     Is Income Inequality Fair?

     The point of income inequality is to give those learning to be productive an incentive and a goal. The progressive left wants to destroy these incentives because in the end some, but not all, end wealthy. At least this is the argument used. I doubt this is the underlying reason at all. I am more inclined to believe progressives want to control others and want a reason to confiscate wealth, and income for their own uses.

     Mark’s contention about the Left is, of course, absolutely correct. What piqued me was the suggestion that income inequality, which appears to be a feature of every economic scheme, has a “point:” i.e., a preconceived purpose that partially animated the “design” of the economic system.. Granted that, as Mark states, in a largely free economy such as ours, income inequality provides a spur to learning and the acquisition of valued skills. However, even in a system planned out as rigidly as the most absolute totalitarianism would permit, income inequality would arise. It always has. There’s no reason to imagine that that will change.

     Whether or not the planners plan for it, there will be income inequality. But why?

     The key word is epiphenomenon.

     An epiphenomenon of a system is a characteristic that arises unplanned from that system. It is a consequence of lower-level characteristics of the system…sometimes, of fundamental properties built into the laws of nature. There are sometimes means by which an epiphenomenon of a human-designed system can be altered, but in the usual case, it involves altering designed-in fundamentals of the system. That will always have other consequences, not all of them desirable or benign.

     Every system of any kind will possess epiphenomena. This flows from the Pessimistic Axiom, but equally from another important law of nature:

No action is without side effects. – Barry Commoner


You can never do only one thing – Marc Stiegler

     All causal reasoning must take this aspect of temporal reality into account.

     The point of this tirade is not to discourage people and corporations against planning their activities. Planning is yet another inevitability. However, the point of planning should not be to create a rigid blueprint for the action that follows. Rather, a plan should be viewed as a guide to optimal results under optimal circumstances…which we already know will not exist. The most important function of a plan is to stimulate learning and adjustment: the constructive acceptance of our fallibility and the recognition of necessary changes as we encounter them.

     Quite a long time ago, I had an intricate exchange with the C.S.O. about metaphysical fundamentals. The details, though fascinating, aren’t really relevant here. What was most memorable was when she summed up my argument in a single brief sentence:

“So it’s ‘God did it’ or ‘shit happens,’ is that what you’re saying?”

     And that is exactly correct, albeit with a small edit: replace the conjunction or with and.

     Yes, God did it. But shit does happen. Quite a lot of it, actually. People and things change in unpredictable and therefore unpredicted ways. We must cope. Sometimes we fail to do so adequately. One way or another, the consequences will include epiphenomena we did not plan for and might have hoped to avoid.

     Hearken to Theodore Sturgeon, from his magnificent novelette “Slow Sculpture:”

     Only the companion of a bonsai (there are owners of bonsai, but they are a lesser breed) fully understands the relationship. There is an exclusive and individual treeness to the tree because it is a living thing, and living things change, and there are definite ways in which the tree desires to change. A man sees the tree and in his mind makes certain extensions and extrapolations of what he sees, and sets about making them happen. The tree in turn will do only what a tree can do, will resist to the death any attempt to do what it cannot do, or to do it in less time than it needs.. the shaping of a bonsai is therefore always a compromise and always a cooperation. A man cannot create bonsai, nor can a tree; it takes both, and they must understand each other. It takes a long time to do that. One memorizes one’s bonsai, every twig, the angle of every crevice and needle, and, lying awake at night or in a pause a thousand miles away, one recalls this or that line or mass, one makes one’s plans. With wire and water and light, with tilting and the planting of water-robbing weeds or heavy root-shading ground cover, one explains to the tree what one wants, and if the explanation is well-enough made, and there is great enough understanding, the tree will respond and obey—almost. Always there will be its own self-respecting, highly individual variation: Very well, I shall do what you want, but I will do it my own way. And for these variations, the tree is always willing to present a clear and logical explanation, and more often than not (almost smiling) it will make clear to the man that he could have avoided it if his understanding had been better.
     It is the slowest sculpture in the world, and there is, at times, doubt as to which is being sculpted, man or tree.

     Systems, especially those that include living actors, are like that: difficult to plan and filled with epiphenomena, some of which will always run counter to the preferences of the planners. For we don’t know what we’re going to do until we’ve actually done it.

     Time to go furniture shopping. Enjoy your Saturday.


mobius said...

So do you discourage someone who thinks perfection is possible, or let them suffer for their art?

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Artistic perfection, or a close approach to it, is possible. I believe that and strive toward it in my fiction. But the subjects of planning and artistic perfection are orthogonal. Artistic perfection does not require planning -- not meticulous planning, at any rate. Sometimes planning thwarts the pursuit of high quality. I could tell you stories, but as they're about software engineering, I'll spare you.

Glenda T Goode said...

If you look at life as being made up of unpredictable actors then it is truly impossible to predict with any accuracy what will come. While this is true to an extent, many things in life we know well enough to fairly accurately predict an outcome.

The problem of planning is much akin to a chess match. At the outset you can foresee a myriad of moves and responses but the farther into the game to attempt to anticipate the greater the number of potential outcomes. It is the depth of logic required that separates the capable chess players from the amateurs.

The failing of planners is not in forecasting future events. It is when the hubris of a planner overwhelms the reality of random chance and probability. There is nothing wrong with attempting to plan a circumstance to a preferred outcome provided that the ability to re-plan or reformulate the plan on the fly is included.

Maddog said...

Thanks for the link!

The invisible hand works the market. But it is not really invisible, it is we cooperatively as a group, not as individuals.

I'll give two examples of how I decided that income inequality has a point.

1. Commodities are offered for sale, we don't so much look for one that wows us but which ones don't. Which commodities in my mind are less valuable, and, so, I choose a product negatively. I intend to help the best and hurt the rest financially.

2. On the other hand, are products like Teslas. While they do not appeal to me, they do to others, and the appeal of such products can be cultish.

From my analysis, it seems that the people buying Teslas are intentionally willing to pay more to reward Musk and Tesla because they love the idea of Tesla, the EV that will save the world. Individually these people are intentionally rewarding income inequality. The point of this is to reward Musk as a visionary and to encourage him to make more and better world saving Teslas.

A third example is me stopping at every kid's lemon aide stand I pass by. I know that the reward of people stopping and buying will be powerful to the young person, and, so, I stop.

If dozens like me stop and buy, or hundreds, or thousands, or millions is it not fair to say they intend to cause the seller to continue selling the product. Is it not reasonable to call this "invisible hand" action of the multitude a point or purpose? Does not income inequality so seen have a point?

Your mileage may vary, but there it is, the opaque part of my post clear as dirty water!

Income inequality should not be fair, it should reward the doers, and that seems to be what we intend individually, and collectively. I like the outcome!


Maddog said...

To Mobius Wolf:

"So do you discourage someone who thinks perfection is possible, or let them suffer for their art?
Only doers will be successful."

Only those who do will be successful.

My basic rule is to be a journeyman at anything you must spend a minimum of 1000 days performing the duties of the craft or trade. If you want to be excellent, you must expend ten times that amount of time. The rule is 1000 - journeyman, 10,000 - expert/savant.

I recently had a discussion with a deli counter clerk who wanted to be a writer. He told me he was working on the fantasy world his books would inhabit. I asked him how many hours per day he was writing. That surprised him, he had decided to create the world then write the books.

I told him to become a sellable author he would need a minimum of 1000 days of writing, not an hour per day but at least ten hours per day. He blanched white and fell to mumbling.

For most, success eludes because they don't do, they don't achieve. Instead they are distracted by trival desideratum. In this case, the failure to write and learn how to write by doing, would likely crush is ability to write later. He would have the fantasy world desideratum without the ability to write the stories.

I took the long way around to the fact that one cannot tell the outcome of another talents or gifts. If someone shows a serious desire to art, or writing I encourage them, but I do so grounded in reality. I tell them the above and let them decide whether they have what it takes - all 10,000 days of hard work to become the savant.