Monday, June 14, 2010

Documentary Epiphenomenalism

Back in the days when I was studying philosophy, one of the things that came up was epiphenomenalism.  It's a concept that I liked, and made sense, and has made even more sense on the back of some of the works of popular neuroscience that I've read in the last few years.  (No really, there are works of popular neuroscience, such as John Ratey's A User's Guide To The Brain.)

It was never really a concept that I had thought to discover in my daily work, though.  However, some recent experiences have forced me, in reaching for a suitable concept to describe a work-related phenomenon, to rely on epiphenomenalism as a very accurate description of something that goes on a lot in the corporate world.

The trigger for this realisation was a process modelling tool that I have been obliged to use in my current work.  It is terrible.  One of the world such tools I have ever encountered.  It has a rich feature set, and it allows the creation of models that go all the way from very high level abstract enterprise models, right down to individual software components within the solutions intended to support those enterprise models.  The problem is, the tool is not good for visualising.  It's output tends to be too big and cumbersome for the screen, and too ungainly to print out.  And if you can print it - which perforce involves the use of a huge plotter - it is still too big to be useful.  If you are looking at the process maps on the screen, it isn't always obvious where and when you can drill in for more information, and you can't tell at a glance how deep or complex a particular area is without going through every individual jot and tittle and drilling down to the n-th degree, basically doing a manual walk through the entire tree from root to every node.  It sucks!

And yet, this is the recommended tool.

It is so bad as a means of sharing information that I have mentally branded it an "information diode".  You can put loads and loads of useful information into it, but get bugger all back out.  (I'm sure my semi-conductor physicist friends will appreciate the fact that there may be a miniscule trickle in the opposite direction, which only goes to strengthen the analogy rather than undermine it.)

It got me thinking about business documentation in general.  So much of what gets written isn't actually used.  It is created because someone thinks it has to be, often created by people whose time is expensive, so the resulting documents are works that cost the organisation a lot of money to create.  And yet, once created, it is never referred to at all - not even once!  It strikes me that a lot of business writing, therefore, is an epiphenomenon of the business.  It is generated by the business.  It has no causal value, to input back in to the processes that created it.  It shapes nothing of the future.

And knowing that this is the case, I am now determined to ensure that, as far as possible, nothing that I create in my job will fall into this category.  But that is sometimes very difficult, and often determined at the whim of one's managers.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bow to the inevitable

I bought two new bow ties yesterday.  Bow ties are cool.  Much cooler than Matt Smith's new Doctor, even though his proclamation to that effect caused an upsurge in sales.

Often a little ahead of the sartorial curve, I had been toying with the idea of wearing bow ties to work for some time now.  About 18 months ago, my friend Lee Hathaway learned how to tie them, and in doing so discovered that they are popular with gynecologists because they don't get in the way.  That was the seed of the idea that maybe I should do the same.  Indeed, maybe everyone who works in IT should do the same.  I often get irritated by my tie trailing on the desk, and needing to push it to one side or under the desk (where it gets wrinkled).

Then came my gig at Madame JoJo's.  I perform there every Saturday, doing magic around the tables before the main show (or shows, when they are running more than one).  They asked me to wear a bow tie, so for weeks and weeks now, I've been donning one of my standard little black ones and doing my magic thang for the general public.

And then came the latest series of Doctor Who, with Matt Smith's spiffing little neck adornment and accompanying declaration.

Since then, I have been commenting that bow ties are the next big thing, having noticed that David Tennant's doctor led the way in recent years to the huge upsurge in popularity currently being enjoyed by Converse baseball boots and shoes of similar style.  Apparently, I've not been alone in saying that, and the link above seems to bear me out.  As does the fact that one of the shops I visited yesterday was sold out of bow ties.

So, I bought a couple, I'm wearing them to work (one yesterday, one today), and I'm curious to see whether they catch on.  Even if they don't, the fact that they are so much less hassle than regular ties is inclining me towards making it a permanent thing.  I like them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My Documents, My Lord

I have long had something of an issue with the inclusion of personal pronouns within labels used to identify elements of a computer interface. In other words, I don't like "My Documents", "My Photos", "My Music", or any of the other "My ..." things that have been increasingly evident on Windows machines.

On one rather naive level, it's good interface design.  It's simple and intuitive. It tells you what is in there, and it does it in a friendly, personal way. That's find until you have to describe anything to do with it, or provide any sort of support. Then you end up referring to things like "your My Documents folder", because the kind of people who need that kind of support tend to get confused if you say to them "click on My Documents". They are likely to ask "How can I click on your documents?" It's a mess. A disaster. It's horrid.  It's up there with my dad's response when I was trying to help him with a PC problem once over the phone:

"Are there any other windows open?"

"Hing oan a minute ..." (long silence) "Aye, the wan in the kitchen."

"My" and "our" are relative references. What they refer to changes depending on who is saying it. And therein lies the potential for confusion.

Another example of this struck me the first time I visited Thailand, towards the end of 2000. I had never before given any thought to people using the phrase "Our Lord", until the tour guide at the Royal Palace in Bangkok mentioned "Our Lord Buddha". And it struck me that I had never questioned that phrase when used in a Christian context, but actually, I find it quite objectionable, because when someone uses it, they are subtly implying that both the speaker and the listener are both serfs of the lord in question, be it Buddha, be it Jesus. So, when someone says "Our Lord Jesus", or simply "Our Lord", I feel obliged henceforth to say "He's not my lord. He might be yours, but he's not mine."

Maybe I should make a point of doing that for Lent. Or perhaps for lent I should give up believing in bronze age myths. Ah, who am I kidding - I stopped believing in them a long time ago. Both the old myths (christianity, etc.) and the new myths (new-age nonsense of any description) are now completely consigned to the dustbin of my past. And good riddance.

Friday, January 08, 2010


I've been on a severely calorie-restricted, low-carb diet since the 2nd of January, and I am losing flab at a rate of 500g a day. In five days, I have shed 2.5 Kg (5.5lb). I expect by the end of today to have pushed that up to 3Kg (6.6lb, or almost half a stone). Obviously, in addition to the low-calorie diet, I am also working hard at the gym every day to make sure that I continue to make demands from my muscles, thereby convincing my body to shed flab rather than to use up muscle mass.

Not surprisingly, I am delighted with the results so far. It's a very good start to the new year, to the regime by which I am determined to get in shape, and to my short-term goal of shedding 20Kg by the end of March. I know I'll lose more weight in the first week or two and after that the weight loss will slow down, but I can't help but be delighted with how things are going so far.

But there is a price, of course. I am forcing my body to use its overly generous supply of stored flab as a source of fuel. Consequently, I am in ketosis, and generating measurable amounts of ketones (I wee-weed on one of my Ketostix this morning and it turned quite a dark pink almost right away) as my liver breaks down my flab and converts it into fatty acids and ketone bodies. Unfortunately, the spare ketones don't all end up in the wee. Lots of them are turning into acetone and being exhaled.

My breath smells like I just ate a big shit.

The bizarre thing is that I can't smell it at all. If I try to catch a whiff of my own breath, it smells normal to me, presumably because the receptors that would detect the acetone have been saturated and are no longer sending any signals to my brain. So all the other receptors, which are detecting the normal stuff in my breath, and functioning fine and returning "normal breath smell" signals. But the reality is that I need to be very careful about talking closely or breathing closely to anyone.

Still, I'm on target to lose 3.5 Kg by the end of week one, which is more than half a stone. I might have pongy breath for a few weeks, but it will be more than worthwhile by the time all the flab has gone and my abs are looking marvellous.