Why it does not work

or: the lack of cohesion-awareness.

In The Netherlands we have in our public transport trains the concept of silent compartments (quiet areas). Abundantly signalled in the compartments, the idea is that people are quiet in there, so that you can concentrate on work or just relax. There’s often people who pretend they have not seen the signals, or just because they do not want to acknowledge the concept, and talk or make other loud noises. Understandably this annoys other travellers. However the simple act of asking the perpetrators to be quiet has almost just as often the opposite effect. They become even more angry, and the conflict (as many conflict nowadays seem to do…) often escalates to dangerous levels. I was even suggested by the railway helpdesk, on complaining about this, that my best option would be to move to another compartment…

Another problem that irritates a lot of people is traffic jams. Sometimes they even seem to pop up out of nowhere and disappear just as silently. Of course most really large tailbacks are caused by accidents. What most people do not realise (because of the lack of cohesion-awareness) is that the net time to arrive at your destination can be minimised by a very simple trick: do not drive too fast!

I remember the (then) minister responsible for infrastructure saying she “could not explain speed limits”. I would say that explaining things like that is exactly her responsibility! Research has shown that a speed limit of 70 km/h on our congested roads would result in congestion disappearing and faster net arrival times. How can you not explain that?

As a small child my mother, as many mothers (and fathers) still do, took me to feed the ducks. Old and stale bread in a basket. I loved seeing the birds flock to get the food.

Near my office there is a pond with, surprise, ducks. I guess the ritual is repeated many times each day, only it is not just ducks that get fed. Masses of seagulls appear as well. The escalating problem that city councils face is that all this feeding attracts seagulls. Because of the abundance of food they start nesting on roofs, creating an awful lot of problems with their droppings and all. Most of the food gets spilled however, by sinking in the water, and gets to feed animals you definitely do not want to profligate in your cities and towns like rats! This food extravaganza is a potential cause of many diseases as well.

Complex systems are rife with feedback mechanisms. Most of these are very hard or actually impossible to detect and document. They are so much interwoven that it is impossible to see where one ends and another starts. It is the web of interconnected and interdependent things. However my impression is that not many people pay attention to those interdependencies. Or are even willing to consider that they miss most of them.

A story told by the “granddaughter of Chroestjev” Nina Khrushcheva (in fact she was his great-granddaughter) of a visit by a relative from her niece from Russia, in Vienna where Nina lived. They took a bus, and Nina stamped her ticket in the machine in the bus. Her niece exclaimed: “why do you do that? There is no-one to enforce that!”. That, Nina explained, is the difference between Russia and “the West”. “In Russia you only do something out of fear of getting caught, while I choose to pay for my ticket because I know that is what it costs to maintain that service on a level that, in the end, benefits me and everyone else.”

For Americans the fact that Swedish people actually want to pay taxes is incomprehensible. Their first priority is to minimise the amount they have to pay, and paying no taxes whatsoever is best. A deep and mostly subconscious mistrust of government seems to be behind this. For the Swedes the American attitude feels quite stupid: by paying taxes they are able to create and maintain a high quality of living for all citizens that they see is totally lacking in the United States.

On the last Dutch National Architecture Conference (LAC) I did a short survey in a session I did (called “Embracing the Future”) where the audience consisted of mostly architects. My question was how they responded to the road signs that are sometimes activated telling the drivers to maximise their speeds to 70 km/h. My expectation was that, being architects, they would be more than average inclined to actually comply. In practice we see that most drivers, especially when there does not seem to be a direct need to reduce speed, do not comply and continue driving with 120 km/h or more. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that it seemed that only a handful raised their hands. The reason I thought they would comply more, is that compliance would, overall, result in more efficient traffic flow and less congestion which, in the end, would also benefit themselves. And architects especially would be an audience appreciating these arguments, or so I thought.

Feitse Boerwinkel
Feitse Boerwinkel

A (Dutch) book from 1966 recently came to my attention, written by the Dutch cultural philosopher Feitse Boerwinkel, called “Inclusive thinking – a different time requires a different way of thinking”. A very small book (only 98 pages) it was maybe the most influential inspiration for a whole cultural and educational reform in The Netherlands, completely in line with the spirit of the time.

Feitse argues for a different way of thinking he calls “inclusive thinking”. I have talked about the shift to sequential thinking that took place over a long period from the classical Greece to the Renaissance. As does Feitse, I think we are now in an era in which we are again shifting our mental mode towards a non-sequential, inclusive, time-transcending way of thinking. The movie “Arrival” depicts an alien species that completely transcended sequential thinking and even tells the story of a language that is completely non-sequential.

Movie poster Arrival

Time-bound thinking is coming to an end. Jan-Peter van der Berg, the Dutch psychiatrist,devoted an entire book on this development, which he traces from the European Middle Ages to the (then: 1970) present: Dieptepsychologie (“Depth Psychology”). In the book he talks about the rise (after the Middle Ages) and fall (in the hippie years) of the subconscious part of our minds as a somehow separate or dissociated part of ourselves.

This development is one we are smack in the middle of, which makes it hard (and for many: impossible) to see. I think the evolution of humankind is mostly a mental one, and the direction in which we are moving is so very interesting.

You might want to read my article “Why software bites back”.

The Sense of a Proposition is the Means of Verification


This article contains a criticism of logical empiricism. Logical Empiricism has been shaping our thinking in the past century, with influential thinkers like Bertrand Russel and A.N. Whitehead. Usually we are not aware of these influences in a naive assumption that thinking is an objectively validated activity by itself, which of course it isn’t. For activities like business modelling it is imperative to dive into the philosophy of thinking. Why? Because our models will be fundamentally flawed if we do not.

The title of this article is a statement that is regarded as the essence of logical positivism, or a foundation of a Theory of Meaning. I was reading a book on Wittgenstein [1] when I encountered the following paragraph, which struck me as particularly relevant for us poor business modellers who are endowed with the responsibility to model complex domains because we are forced to do so in order to build a software system that actually supports the business instead of hindering it. The paragraph is reported from a meeting between Wittgenstein and Schlick and Weismann, two of the proponents of logical positivism around 1930.[2]

If I say, for example, ”Up there on the cupboard there is a book”, how do I set about verifying it? Is it sufficient if I glance at it, or if I look at it from different sides, or if I take it into my hands, touch it, open it, turn over its leaves, and so forth? There are two conceptions here. One of them says that however I set about it, I shall never be able to verify the proposition completely. A proposition always keeps a back-door open, as it were. Whatever we do, we are never sure that we are not mistaken.

The other conception, the one I want to hold, says, ”No, if I can never verify the sense of a proposition completely, then I cannot have meant anything by the proposition either. Then the proposition signifies nothing whatsoever.”
In order to determine the sense of a proposition, I should have to know a very specific procedure for when to count the proposition as verified.

What did I read in this paragraph?

First I think it may be relevant in this context to tell that Wittgenstein in this period of his life started to deviate seriously from the theory that he exposed in his Tractatus. He has been cited often for his disdain of what he called “chatter”: senseless talk without any real content or meaning. Talk can have meaning, but usually this is not the case, and in an extreme form he is known to have stated that the essence of a lifetime of achievement can be expressed in only one sentence. The rest is, as said: “chatter”.
But we are talking about meaning here, and a revealing conviction that no meaning can be hidden in statements that “leave a back-door open”. To me this is very rigid, one-dimensional thinking. It feels like Cartesian thinking, or Euclid’s Geometric axioms. Even though Wittgenstein in this period of his life already seriously moved away from Bertrand Russel, the idea that it must be possible to reduce meaning to its essence is still prevalent. At least to me, and I am hoping that readers will comment. It seems to me that Wittgenstein, and others employing this dialectic, is completely incapable of being aware of context. It reveals a mental model of the world that hacks the world into separate and disjoint components, the same mental process that was the origin of the scientific method of reductio that cut-up objects to “reveal” how they worked and what they were made of, but in the process destroyed what made these objects what they were: entities interwoven with their environment.

A statement (or a modelling construct for that matter) is never isolated and has no meaning on its own. It is the context that determines meaning, as far as there is one. Meaning is not isolated, a proposition can never be shown to have meaning in itself. For the book location statement, the only meaning that can be allocated to the statement, is that someone wants to read the book or get hold of it for some reason. In that context, the statement has meaning: the person is helped to find the book. Even that (and I mention this in the context of domain modelling because a trap the modeller can walk into is smugness of completeness) can often be not enough. The question should at least be asked why the asker wants to get to the book. We should continuously try to get as close to the original or authentic goal, and reason from there (Time Inversion Pattern) on the various ways to get there.

To summarise: a proposition has a continuous “meaning”, the value of which increases in growing models.

[1] Monk, Ray Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Vintage,  1991.

[2] Ayer, Alfred J. Language, Truth and Logic. Rev Ed. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1936.

Linear time

Through the millennia we human beings have developed a rich and amazing diversity of “mind things”, things that only seem to exist in our inner mental world. Most of those things seep out into the “real” world more or less. The concept of linear time for example may very well have been developed only about ten thousand years ago (“only”, because as human beings we have a track record on our planet I like to start one million years ago, which is one hundred times longer)1 . This mental concept may have come into existence in a certain period, possibly that of the first dynasties of Egypt, but it is very likely that it did not originate at a certain time or place, but that it came to be more or less synchronous at different locations in the same period. This can be inferred from similar events that cannot really be attributed to a certain “inventor” or originator, but that seem to have been “in the air”.

This concept of linear time was a very powerful concept. It arose in the same period as the first power states, and we wonder: can it not be that those institutions were able to acquire that power because they were employing this new invention, this new mental concept of linear time to base their empires on? With this thing, while being a purely mental concept, one could measure how long it took to perform a specific task, and hand out a reward accordingly. Being able to measure it and make it concrete, made it very difficult to argue against the injustice of giving more to another worker who did the same task faster. Especially not since this fact, this number, could be written down also, fixed into clay tablets or inscriptions on wood or some such medium.

People started to measure things, and this gave some the power over others. Measurement of time in particular. Egyptian priests developed the first clocks, the first mechanical instruments to help in dividing the day into hours and minutes and even seconds. They kept this invention to themselves, indeed, probably even ascribed magical properties to it in their vast magical/theological pantheon, so that one could employ these instruments only after a long and arduous period of initiation which of course had the convenient side effect that the initiate would use this powerful device only in support of the ruling caste of priests, safely embedded in their view of the world and consolidating existing power structures.

The division of time in larger chunks, especially months and years, has most probably been realised much earlier in human history, so the invention of linear time was not entirely without precedence. However, those remnants we have of prehistoric time tracking, suggest that people in those days did record time for quite different purposes. In fact, one could argue that writing and time recording have interesting associations. Both can be said to have existed in the two modes: prehistoric, and historic (that is, after the invention of writing). Prehistoric time recording concerned the lunar calendar. It may very well have been an invention of women, with the female rhythms closely resembling those of the moon. It seems clear that the use of “mechanised” time by Egyptian priests was exclusively male. Some prehistoric lunar calendars we have found suggest an advanced mode of recording, almost writing in fact. Still, as Mircea Eliade argued in The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, it seems that even until the classical period, people did not really think of past, present and future as we do now. These three aspects of time were connected in a very real sense, and the re-enactment of stories of the divine in the yearly rites was not just storytelling.

As the story of the final fight between Marduk and Tiamat (in the Epic of Gilgamesh) was told, people may have experienced this in the very real now. We still do. Stories are so powerful that they sometimes break down the barrier between past, present and future, between the “real” and the “unreal”. When The War of the Worlds was broadcasted on radio in the Unites States, a nationwide panic broke out because people thought the Martians had really landed. When we listen to stories our mind switches to a mode millennia old, and I always envision our ancestors on the African savannahs, listening to these stories, repeatedly told over long long periods of time, stories the remnants of which I am certain still survive in our contemporary legends, myths and fairy tales. In fact the length of period of time I am talking about here is virtually incomprehensible. Hundreds of thousands of years people have roamed the savannahs of Africa, especially from the coastal regions it seems, since humans have some interesting biological traits that can almost exclusively be originated from extended periods in or near water (our relative baldness, subcutaneous fat, eyebrows, our nose, and most interestingly: our diving reflex – I can state from my own experience with freediving that it is relatively easy for human beings to overcome the breathing reflex and spend many minutes underwater, almost rivalling the diving capacities of whales)2 . We speak of periods of time extending the longest stable periods in historical times by factors of magnitude. Modern research indicates that the image of those “primitive” people as people primarily concerned with struggling for survival in a hostile environment is fundamentally flawed. More probably they had vast amounts of spare time in which to exercise their human creativity in many different ways.

  1. Aveni, Anthony. Empires of Time. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002.
  2. Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
  3. [amazon_textlink asin=’0062316095′ text=’Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2011.’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’reflektis-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c7f0605f-3eed-11e7-abab-412b9576e465′]