Friday, November 25, 2011


A meritocracy sounds like a great idea. After all, it supposedly lets the best people rise to the top, the ones that have the most merit. Unfortunately, it seems to rarely work that way.

Merit ideally comes from what people have actually done, their contributions in a specific area. But the visibility of merit comes from self-promotion. That is, if you do a lot of work, but nobody notices, then it is unlikely to be recognized.

As such, to get a lot of merit one has to make sure their peers are aware of their contributions. This naturally favors extroverted people, those that like interacting with others. Introverts on the other hand, are more likely to keep their heads down and just quietly contribute in the background.

In time, the personality bias would work itself out. That is, the strength of the contributions would over shadow the self-promotion. Well, except that there are many ways to ‘game the system’. The most obvious and most common is for extroverts to take credit for introvert’s merit. Since the introverts are quiet, and shy away from conflict, this is easily accomplished. Thus you get a lot of things like ‘visionaries’ that aren’t, since that is a very easy way for someone to steal credit from the people else.

Since the scorecard is really based on self-promotion, another way to game the system is to minimize the contributions, while maximizing the promotions. That is, you do something small, trivial and hastily, then just spin it into something big. We also see this all of the time. A deep investigation into many people with significant merit reveals that their claims are wildly disproportionate to what they actually did, and how successful it really was.

Of course, general human decency is believed to be why people don’t routinely game the system. However, if you look again at the personality types, not only are they extroverts but they are also staggeringly over-confident. And it’s this over-confidence that allows them to maximize their self-promotion and claim credit, even when it is detrimental to those around them. They simply justify it to themselves as deserved, so it is no longer such a bad act.

You’d think that underlying metrics can counter-balance this, but few meritocracies are actually based on real facts, and even then without concrete proof, real facts can be fabricated or spun. Thus it comes right back to self-promotion.

So it would seem that meritocracies are not generally based on contributions, but rather on the claims of contributions, and that it makes more sense if you want to get to the top to spend one’s effort on making claims, rather than the actual contributions. In time, more and more people figure this out, so that any meritocracy will eventually degenerate.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Complexity is an odd beast. As it grows it encompasses more and more stuff, eating it up like a ravenous dinosaur. And it’s all these little tidbits -- things that vary -- that combine to become the real underlying problem. If you don’t understand these ‘variables’ then you can’t truly tame the complexity; bend it towards your goals.

But our species has always had a problem in dealing with too many things at once. We can take only a few select issues into account; we can’t fathom the whole picture. We do not see the beast for what it has become and as such we simply focus on a leg, or a tail, or some other part in seclusion from the whole. We narrow down our vision, while convincing ourselves that we can see the whole thing. But we can’t.

When you seek to change a complex multi-variable system -- particularly one that is massive, ugly and hugely chaotic -- simply fiddling with a small piece of it will always generate unpredictable results. That’s OK if you’re expecting it, but only if you are expecting it. If however, you’re convinced that you ‘get it’ when clearly you can’t, then that delusion blinds you to the results. And that blindness most often makes the problems worse, not better. There are -- not surprisingly -- many more ways to make bad changes in this world then there are good ways. So a change without understanding is likely a change for the worse. If it isn’t obviously bad right away, then it might just be more fuel for the complexity beast to devour. To grow and get worse.

For some rather short-sighted reason, we’ve become collectively convinced that action, any action, is better than the status quo. But action without thought, without a real understanding of the the complexities involves, is action that is most likely to feed the problem, not solve it. But now we have a great many “leaders” bent on acting. And as a consequence we have a rapidly growing beast to deal with. One that gets worse every year. One that gets larger every year. One that includes more and more variables every year. And one that nobody really understands anymore, or can manage.

So it is not action that we need. It is not change that we need. It is simply a way to get the beast back under control and to simplify our circumstances back to a point where we can act again. Where we can make changes that aren’t stupid, careless and risky.

We need to stop taking wild guesses, stop narrowing our gaze and start accepting that we’re in a mess. A huge mess. A mess that nobody knows how to fix, that no one wants to fix, and that is going to be painful to fix.

A mad rush forward of ideas and action is a mad rush over the cliff. It’s what we’ve been doing so far, and I honestly suspect it’s what we’ll be doing right up until the moment we are in flight. Our species after all is a wee bit smarter than some of the others, but collectively were not very bright.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Knowledge Dissemination

A while back I asked one of my frequent readers -- Mark Miller -- if he had any suggestions for possible posts. His reply was:

The only topic suggestion I can think of right now is how universities at the undergraduate level are focusing more on career training, and are getting away from their core mission to cultivate "good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, and steadiness of view,” and, “[the] force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect,” which would enable people to enter “with comparative ease into any subject of thought” and take up “with aptitude any science or profession.”

It’s a good issue for me to discuss right now since I’ve been delving into various works of cognitive sciences. My recent set of inquiries has been driven by a reoccurring interest in how our intelligence relates back to mathematics and computer science. The three all share some fundamental properties, but that is probably a topic best handled in my other blog The Programmer’s Paradox. I’ll get around to it someday, but I’ve got much more to learn and digest before I can discuss it reasonably.

In terms of how we learn, I’m probably not a good example. I struggled with boredom all through high-school and it wasn’t until I got past ‘introductory’ level courses in university that I became engaged. For computer related issues I prefer to learn on my own, but for theoretical ones a good lecturer often leaves a more lasting impression.

I definitely agree with Mark that the role of university should be towards teaching people how to think clearly and to inspire a need to continually learn throughout our lives. A higher, more theoretical curriculum helps to give us a stronger set of skills that are transferable as the state of the world changes underneath. A necessity in any field that is still growing and changing.

I remember one friend being disappointed with a more theoretical curriculum in university, and so choose to change to a more applied program at a college. In the short term it helped his job prospects, but as time wore on it worked against him. Much of what he learned in college quickly became obsolete and since he wasn’t taught the skills necessary to absorb the changes quickly, he soon fell behind.

Applied knowledge may be more immediately useful, but we have seen great advances in our knowledge and technologies, particularly with computers. To be able to keep up with these changes one needs to understand the high-level ideas that drive the practical applications. Expertise in a very limited, specific area is great, but we no longer expect that any such domains will remain static for long. We’ve moved into a period of humanity were we have more time and more people available to focus on extending what we know. We have better tools and can disseminate our understandings widely to larger audiences. All of this means that what is applied knowledge today, runs a real danger of being obsolete tomorrow. Things change quickly.

Internally I believe we form models of the world around us. Many of them often contradictory. Sometimes we are able to bring these together, but generally they just litter our brains with disjoint fragments. Getting a good theoretical foundation, however gives us a solid place to hang our applied understandings. It also makes it easier to generalize our experiences, or to creatively link related ideas.

Knowledge is only such if it changes the way we react to the world around us. That is, if you memorize a book of facts, it is only useful if you can do something practical with them. They might help you in a game of trivial pursuit or provide an interesting conversation in quieter moments, but unless they alter your behavior with respect to being able to accomplish something specific, they remain as facts, not knowledge.

In some sense it doesn’t matter what the facts are, it only matters in how they’ve changed your thinking patterns. One thing that was clear from my university experiences was that it forced me to put some structure over how I think. If nothing else, being able to decompose problems into their basic elements and then reassemble them into something coherent is a powerful lesson learned from the more abstract, difficult disciplines like pure mathematics. When that structure has been opaquely hidden in the incoming facts, it is harder to realize its importance and to learn deeply from it. Understanding the structure is as important as understanding the facts themselves.

Our long and distinguished history of learning perhaps started when our ancestors began messing with fire. No doubt it went from being a dangerous and mysterious substance to a ‘technology’ that they could utilize. As this understanding evolved and spread, we became increasingly able to shape the world around us. As we added further ancient technologies to our roster -- clothes, housing, farming, etc. -- we built up higher levels of our internal models and increased our abilities to pass them on from generation to generation. This trend towards manipulating the world around us has increased in peaks and valleys over the millennia. And as it has grown, to continue being able to pass it down, we’ve had to abstract it to higher and higher levels. It would be too much to comprehend if we just listed out every conceivable circumstance, fact or special case. Theory, generalization and abstraction are what have allowed us to continue this intellectual growth, accelerating as we go, to each next technology.

So in a long-term perspective, not only is it important that a significant portion of our population learn first at a higher level, but is is also very important that we continually abstract farther up the ladder with each new generation. Specialization is necessary given how much we currently know as a species and how deep it goes, but the more we can bring diverse fields together, the better we can creatively find the patterns that apply to the whole. We must continually go higher towards a more advanced model of the world around us. The details are always important, but fitting them into the overall context is necessary to be able to go beyond them. This construction of vastly superior mental models has been such a long and slow process, often extending over many generations, that few people perceive it or its course. We often assume our knowledge is just a smooth linear process from our ancient perspectives, but it actually ebbs and flows across generations, evolving as it goes. If we are to improve the lives of future generations then we have to increasingly learn how to pass on such a massive volume in bite-sized abstract chunks that are easily digestible. That process, which has been ongoing since our first tinkering with fire, is vital for our species to continue the path it has embarked upon.

So, not only is it better for our higher institutions to focus on teaching more generalized curriculum, it is also a necessity for our species to continue to grow and thrive. We need to teach more people how to learn, and how to abstract what they experience into coherent understandable ideas that can then be disseminated. It’s a continual process.

It is also easy to see that in some of the more hostile parts of our world today, a key ingredient in the turmoil is the lack of education. Civilization clearly depends on insuring that people don’t just blindly follow the strong, mean or confident. To keep things from spiraling out of control there has to be a large enough population that can look beyond what they are told to what really lies beneath. An uneducated population is easy to corral, while an educated one can often see through the propaganda. Education, in this sense, is often see as an obstacle to control. And control is what underlies power. The more control you have over the masses, the more power you have acquired. Thus powerful people often seek to constrain education, since it is in their best interests.

Another factor that is growing in importance is the commercialization of knowledge. With the invention of computer technologies, mediums like the Internet make it easy to quickly access facts, but as already stated, facts are not knowledge. The Internet simply parrots what we’ve typed in, without being able to build on this base. The ready availability of cheap facts drives a lot of people to mistake this for a genuine understanding, but also puts pressure on academic institutions to compete. If you can just skim it quickly on the Internet, why spend any effort really trying to absorb it in an expensive course? This transformation of course, will cause more and more problems where people act on too shallow of an understanding. They may have access to a larger array of facts than ever before, but failing to understand the overall context or the depth will always allow for unexpected side effects. Thus we’ll see more instances where the people in charge will horribly oversimplify the situation and thus make it far worse, not better. A trend that will no doubt last a few generations.

All in all, it is better for both the individuals and society to teach higher-level skills. Education times will be longer of course, but we need knowledge in order to be able to adapt quickly to the world around us. As we create a more complex world, we’ll need to adapt to it at a faster rate. Skills that teach better learning, thinking and communicating capabilities are considerably more important than just limited applied knowledge. We need to learn to learn before we can successfully master learning about our shifting environment.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Bad Day in the Park

The park was oddly quiet. Deserted in fact, which was strange given how nice a day it was. Normally there would be people.

We had been there for hours, but we were now on our way out. My wife and I were just getting to the top of the valley. Our dog, as usual, was a few feet ahead scouting out the path. It was a beautiful day -- quiet and relaxing -- but that was all about to change.

As we came around some bushes, to our left there was a group of eight or ten people looking somewhat out of place. We continued along the trail as a young girl broke off from the group and approached us.

“Do you know where you are?” she said in an authoritative, but slightly condescending voice.

I started to answer, but then I noticed that she was wearing a rather elaborate outfit. Although it was warm, she had on a vest over a number of different layers. She had a backpack, and I think water bottles strapped to her side. With her hat, she looked like a cross between a guide in the outback and one from the Rockies; like someone ready to lead a month long trek through the barren wilderness. It was a little out of place for this park. Pinned to her vest was an overly large badge with some official looking writing on it.

We’ve been hiking in the park for years. It’s a serenely peaceful place and like many of the nicer parks and valleys in Toronto it’s not packed with people. You do find hikers and dog-walkers there, but not a lot of them. Most come because they appreciate nature and want to get out of the city to enjoy it. They’re generally happy, friendly and very relaxed.

Ignoring my silence she continued. “You not allowed to have your dog off leash, it’s a Toronto by-law”, she scolded.

The “dog issue” has been going on for some time now. There is a small, yet vocal segment of Toronto that hates dogs. Sure, there have been incidents with a few careless owners, but most people in Toronto love their dogs and are over-protective of them.

Life in the city for an animal is not always the best, so those of us that treasure the health of our pets want them to do what they were born to do. Run, explore, sniff and generally enjoy themselves. Leashing them is a cruel compromise sometimes necessary on city streets or when there are lots of people about, but not in a wide open (and oddly empty) park.

The guide however, clearly didn’t see that perspective. Even through she was dressed as an outdoorsman, she was uncomfortable around our dog. I found that very unusual since the old girl is usually a magnet for animal lovers. She is a strong, happy animal that is very affectionate and most content when getting pet by strangers.

Still it was a beautiful day and I wasn’t in the mood to argue. I called our dog. She returned to us and sat patiently as we leashed her. We had already been out for several hours, so her city angst had melted away into a peaceful calm with nature. She was tired, and it was time to go home.

The guide continued “You’re not allowed to walk there”. She pointed back to the trail we had been following. “You have to stay on the trail!” She pointed to the old service road that her group had been walking along.

I’d always considered that service road to be a blight on the landscape. It was built when the area was still a strip-mined quarry and those industrial scars have yet to heal over. It gently wraps around the old toxic mining pits, which someone flooded and are now homes for the occasional bird family. I had to bite my lip as this guide somehow insinuated that any such remnant of a violent industrial past was somehow a trail. It was wide enough to allow two ATVs side-by-side and covered in old wood-chips. It was the least desirable part of the park, but it is convenient for getting from one side to the other.

A trial is a line of dirt or compressed leafs that is followed by people and/or animals. From the width of the trail, you can see its popularity. Over time, old trails fade and new ones emerge. The best trails are the faintly marked animals trails because they lead to the most interesting places. Well-trod areas are paths and something covered with wood-chips is a road. Neither of these are trails, and I doubt the sincerity of anyone dressed as a guide if they can’t distinguish that not too subtle difference. We had been following a trail.

She continued on with a rather condescending speech about how tromping around in nature will somehow break it. Apparently her organization has figured out nature and in order to allow it to be ‘natural’ people shouldn’t interact with it in anyway. We should stay on the road and only take pictures from a distance. In this rather narrow philosophy, people and dogs are no longer natural.

She had concerns that our dog might eat the animals, break sticks or otherwise interfere with her organization’s attempts to control the landscape. I came to realize that her backers might have been the people responsible for the recent alterations we had seen. Someone put up signs, poster boards and an oddly misplaced emergency life buoy far from water. Some of the trees had been prematurely cut-down. They apparently have a vision for the landscape, although the landscape has its own vision, which they don’t seem to like.

Then she gave me a pamphlet that had a map on one side and a set of rules on the other. The map showed that a group called the “Rouge Park Alliance” has laid claim to the half of the park that overlaps Toronto’s borders. Dogs have to be leashed, and people are no longer allowed to go beyond the “marked trails”. The pamphlet also points to a website on it with more information:

At this point we parted ways. My wife, dog and I headed back to the car, while the guide rejoined what I now understand to be a tour that she was leading. I controlled myself in her presence, but an examination of the group’s website revealed that other similarly accosted people -- the ones who are generally relaxed and friendly -- erupted in anger and frustration. That’s not surprising.

I supposed I could have tried to argue, but her arrogant tone quickly convinced me that any rational argument would fall on deaf ears. Critical thinking is never behind a choice to drive out the people using a park so that they can be replaced by tours. Logic isn’t used in a decision to wall off a common area. An understanding of nature isn’t driving the desire to turn a wild landscape into a manicured garden. This authoritarian agenda may be cloaked behind the cover of the green movement, but it has little to do with improving our world.

I suppose I could try to bring this to someone’s attention. I did try the Toronto Star, but with the major media under assault, they’ve drifted away from investigating the truth and over to more sensationalist coverage. It would be unwise for them to run articles that questioned any green endeavor, no matter how poorly it was conceived. It might not help to sell papers.

The city itself is unlikely to listen or care. Bureaucrats here play a vicious tug of war with each other for control of the wealth. It’s abstracted from whether or not things need to be done, or whether they are right. It’s just a game they play without regard to the consequences. Some days money flows in one senseless direction, only to be abruptly switched the next day. They play, while our city falls apart at the seams.

In the end, I doubt there is anything to do that could change this trajectory. They’ve taken over.  We’ll have to find somewhere else, farther from Toronto’s borders. Our park is becoming a walled garden available only for superficial bus tours. However in its isolation there can only be trouble. Abandon spaces tend to get filled in big cities. But the type of foresight to understand that is not something you find commonly in Toronto these days. Although I think Joni Mitchell would understand when she sang in “They Paved Paradise” the lyrics:

“They took all the trees, and put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Hi, my name is Paul and I have a problem...

I care. I really do. I know it’s inappropriate in this modern age to care, but I can’t stop myself.

I go to work, but I am unable to drink the cool-aide. Unlike other employees, I can not reach that nirvana of a zombie-like state that lets me say things like “it’s not my job”, or “it’s somebody else’s problem” or even “it’s always been that way”.

If I see something wrong, I want to fix it. If I’m wasting my time with useless work, I feel bad.

I watch our society, steeped in unnecessary complexity, decay and shallow deceptions, but I am unable to turn away. I can not say “it doesn’t matter”, or “we shouldn’t help people who can not help themselves”, or generally just funnel money, power or opportunity to my friends, while others are left out in the cold.

I try to be more self-centered. I really do. But my delusions keep getting dispersed by empathy; by thinking; by caring.

Now I realize that I’m in a minority. Most people can find happiness by blindly following the herd; by refusing to question even the most obvious stupidity. They can just put their heads down and go with the flow. And they are happy. Happy redirecting their focus on little gadgets. Happy lounging around on the weekends. Happy doing meaningless work. Happy in the knowledge that is not their job, not their responsibly and they are doing what they are told even if it makes no sense, makes the world a crappy place, or contributes to an inevitable disaster. They are happy because they don’t care.

But I’ve decided to do something about my affliction. I’ve forming the IACA, which stands for “I Actually Care Anonymous”. It is an organization for those few of us afflicted with caring. Each week we can gather, and through group effort, we can learn to shut out the world. To blindly follow, and not question. To act without thinking. To turn off our compulsive need to fix things. We can chant things like “”That’s perfect”, “Yes, I want a Performance Review”, or “Wow, isn’t it great that I can re-do the same work many times over and still get paid”.

We can reiterate the lack of need for common sense; for things to be functional; for work to be have some real value. We can learn to be “pro-active” without thinking, or to apply wafer-thin “team-spirit” in place of results. We can learn to shut out that nasty reality, and narrow our focus down to something trivial.

Through a dedicated effort we can learn the ultimate power of sheep, and to blindly follow where no sheep have gone before. And that should make us happy again. Secure in the knowledge that whatever bad things befall us, they are not our problem, even if they were preventable. We can learn to take marketing literally. We can learn to believe even the lamest of executive ploys to distract us from that fact that things are dysfunctional and that we aren’t being respected. We can learn to be happy.

So, stop caring today. Join us in finding true and mindless happiness. Learn to baaaa like you don’t care. You’re only prolonging your pain if you don’t.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Keys to Success

Forget all of those dainty platitudes that you’ve read on the web, if you’re really interested in success there is only one proven way to achieve it.

Stop worrying about everyone else. Stop worrying about the rules, or laws or whatever they’re called. You’ve got to go out there and take what’s yours.

True unapologetic selfishness and absolutely no empathy for others. That’s the only way!

And it starts with the little things. If you’re in a car approaching a stop sign late at night, why bother stopping? There’s no one there to catch you.

If people are getting off the bus, out of the subway or out of a doorway, why not just push your way past. They’re not even worth a grunt. And you could shave a valuable minute or two off your precious time.

If the others in the organization aren’t paying close attention, why not bend the rules a little. Or even better, break them out-right. It’s not like you’re going to get caught. And it’s not like they can charge you, even if you are discovered.

And don’t forget, while you are busy humiliating the staff of a restaurant, to short them on the bill. Tips?! Ha! Those are for the weak. And you want to be successful, don’t you? At any cost.

It’s not like you need friends or family talking to you. Use them for whatever they’re worth and split them out again. You’ll feel better, and you can always buy some new loyalty later if you’re in the mood. After all friendship is cheap when you have money. Lots of money.

You can’t let these “little” people get in your way, they are meaningless to you. Mindless simpletons at your disposal, so crushing them is not only satisfying it also keeps you entertained while you’re counting your riches, over and over, and over again.

Cause we all know: money is the solution to every problem, and only action-oriented, proactive, take-no-prisoners, motivated, determined souls that fear no repercussions and live life to the fullest are the ones willing to do what it takes to grab life by the horns and shake that money lose from whatever losers are currently clinging onto it. After all, you need it more than they do, even if it was for food or shelter or something pathetic like that.

And what you can’t buy with money, you can just take. Your time is more valuable then theirs, you’re more important than them, and they always fail to appreciate how you’ve left them a crumb or two to subside on. After all, you could have taken everything, couldn’t you.

So that’s it. To get successful, all you have to do is crush everyone you meet, treat people like dirt, alienate those close to you, break all the rules and stab your way to the top. And once you get there, you’ll have it all to yourself, so there won’t be any namby pamby sharing, or niceties to worry about. The whole heap will be yours; yours alone.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Contempt of Parliament

Actions speak louder than words …

The only issue that matters in the upcoming federal election is whether or not we are willing to protect our democracy by ousting governments that show a profound disrespect for our system, our values and our people.

Just saying ...