Dear Aunty Satoshi

Dear Aunty Satoshi

I’ve been brought up a strict Ethereuem-Calvinist, but I’ve recently met a wonderful boy who is smart, reliable … and a Bitcoin-Lutheran. I don’t want to shock my parents and friends, or even leave the memeplex, but I know he’s the one. I’m ready to write a contract. How do I tell them I want a bimetallic marriage without breaking their hearts?

Conflicted in Kadoma

Academic Cheating Markets and Global Merit

Cheating students have created a vibrant black market in assignments, as covered in this recent piece, and numerous others over the last few years. A common academic observation is that cheating students are following the outsourcing logic of the neoliberal university by buying their assignments off, eg, a well-read Kenyan graduate needing some extra cash.

Well, perhaps. I feel like those who identify this market as neoliberal have not really been paying attention: what neoliberals really love to see is not just markets, but clear established rules, merit promotion and global trading. The black market for assignments is far too grubby and ad hoc.

In a well-functioning market, outsourcing vendors are only rewarded for the value they add, and students cheating violate all manner of contractual terms. Following the neoliberal logic more rigorously, this could be a valuable market discovery mechanism for finding talented, financially needy scholars from non-traditional backgrounds, and cutting out low-value middlemen. The university could offer recognized credit on a pro-rata basis in any subject where you can prove you really did the work for someone else. If enough credit was accumulated, vendor scholars could earn a full degree.

Penalties for cheating would still apply, to the cheater, for failing to add value. Sanction and expulsion could be reserved for the worst cases. A better approach would be cancelling credit for the subjects where cheating was employed, and doubling the cost of credit points obtained towards their degree, retrospectively from the date of cheating, as needed. This would recognize global talent while reducing plagiarism demand, by increasing downside risk for the enrolled student.

Complete equivalence to existing degrees might reduce their value in the reputational market. To differentiate, any award achieved using such credit could have the suffix “by Stealth” applied, as in “Bachelor of Science with Honours Class IIA by Stealth”. The “by Stealth” suffix could even accrue a certain “school of hard knocks” cachet over time, sought out by companies who value both talent and street cunning.

It’s what Milton Friedman would have wanted. I am available for lectures and consultancy on this topic, at forward-looking universities, at reasonable market rates.

Modern Ornament

There is a landing, on the river side of the Queensland Museum, and above the Queensland Art Gallery, which is reliably mostly empty. It faces a large, busy cafe, often full of daggy and aspirational Brisbane parents and their noisy, curious kids. It is near walkways and stairs for people walking either way along the river. This corner landing repels people. People stop there for a moment, wanting to do something, and move on quickly.

The museum and art gallery is a reinforced concrete structure, built in 1982-86, according to the style at the time, echoing the Barbican in London or the Lincoln Centre in New York, a monumental grey and light brown culture production machine. The staff make clever and lively use of the cavernous spaces inside. There is an enormous fossil of hundreds of mud footprints, capturing a dinosaur stampede, against one cliff-like wall. Nearby, outside, full-scale models of humpback whales hang overhead, while whalesong pipes through discreetly placed speakers.

The whole building is a bit like that landing though, at least on the bare concrete outside. It has a striking concrete slab geometry, all rectangles. It is unshaded in the glaringly hot summer sun and humidity, and open to thunderstorms. In the bright Brisbane winter, the glare remains, but the heat is substituted for a chilly draft, seasoned with city grit and dust. You can’t talk to people, read a newspaper, eat a sandwich, or even check your phone, really. So on busy days, there is a steady stream of people needing a moment’s rest, not finding it, and disconsolately moving on. Perhaps I am misreading the building, and this is by design, like the seats in McDonald’s that are placed a distance from the table precisely determined to make you uncomfortable after five or ten minutes.

Queensland Art Gallery and Museum

Queensland Art Gallery and Museum by kgbo (cropped)

There’s a part early on in The Timeless Way of Building where Christopher Alexander meditates, in a somewhat angst-ridden way, on how problematic he finds contemporary (1970s) architecture. Very well, he relates, I must face that I am a conservative. (Horror of Berkeley horrors.) He then talks himself out of it, deciding that he is not against new buildings and materials so long as they learn from the beauty of old patterns, and that their design is in the hands of the communities they house.

Alexander has had an influential career, including inspiring the design patterns movement in software, but was never quite embraced by the mainstream of the architecture profession. He did get an award from the arch-conservative US National Building Museum. And there is that not-all-wrong, definitely reactionary, article by Rennix and Robinson on ornament and modern architecture that does the rounds on Twitter every few months. The article highlights a 1982 debate between Alexander and Peter Eisenman on beauty. It’s a debate that seems more important to conservative partisans (alt-historical 1980s youtube videos on how Alexander DESTROYS Eisenman flick before one’s eyes), but really is about technical expertise and the way it causes pain, the way we overwhelmingly live in an ecosystem of industrial creative destruction.

From the very beginning it is clear that Alexander and Eisenman don’t really even share a common frame in which to debate. Alexander’s early work, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, is highly mathematical, and Eisenman also makes heavy use of repeated geometrical forms. But Alexander, as always, advocates for a sense of wholeness and harmony, like the way the senses are comforted by detail related at different scales, which he thinks can be got at mathematically. Eisenman is fonder of ideas of deep structure from literary postmodernists like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida, and distrusts these feelings of comfort.

My design sympathies are with Alexander – it’s certainly a better default – and yet, if we zoom out, Eisenman isn’t all wrong. Sometimes technical experts need to inflict pain. The Hippocratic oath doesn’t stop surgeons from using a bone saw, just when they decide it’s worthwhile.

Peter Eisenman: Moneo’s courtyard … was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in.

Christopher Alexander: Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony.

PE: What I’m suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything’s all right, Jack, which it isn’t. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn’t all right.

So sure, art does need to do that, sometimes. It sounds like an awkward place to live, though. The residents of Eisenman’s House VI thought so, too – they even wrote a book about it.

The point of inflicting this pain – disharmony is pain – is usually that you go through it in order to become something else. The danger of a disharmonious building is surely that it is so permanent, that on even a generational timescale, it is a destination, not just a transformation. All pain and no amputation. Let alone the prelude to a cyborg prosthetic upgrade, or whatever mutant response to machinic modernity you might need.

Arizona State Football Stadium

Arizona State Football Stadium, by MCSixth

Eisenman is a prolific theorist, though I haven’t dived deeply into his writing. He has had a successful commercial career, too; it’s not all frozen museum pieces like House II. The curves of modern steel and autocad construction have been kind to his later work. His firm built the Arizona University football stadium. It’s a blobby magic schoolbus shape; a cutely monstrous gladiatorial arena.

PE: [Palladio’s Palazzo Chiericati] … makes me feel high in my mind, not in my gut. Things that make me feel high in my gut are very suspicious, because that is my psychological problem.

I guess he got over that. Of course you don’t live in a stadium, either, and they’re not meant to make you comfortable.

Eisenman is probably most famous for another late work, the 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. The design was selected by competition. As described by James Young, one of the reasons the previous round of competition had failed acrimoniously was the previous winning design was too much of a kitschy ornament. The very concrete elements: the giant tombstone, the specific numbers of boulders, and so on, all become points of disappointment and interrogation, inadequate symbolism under the scale of industrial murder; an enormous snow-globe of death.

This piece by K Michael Hays, part of a lecture series, gives a sense of the project and its institutional reception.

It is a field of many abstract and minimalist stone pillars, without a single defined entrance-exit path, variations in the height of the pillars and the gradient of the ground creating an uncanny, disturbing, maze-like effect amongst the tallest pillars, at the centre. 

It’s hard not to connect the earlier criticism of Eisenman with the strengths of the memorial: “reminding people that everything wasn’t all right”. The memorial to industrial genocide is human-repellant, unheimlich, uncanny, un-home-like. That’s the point. Though when pressed, Eisenman doesn’t even commit to a meaning that concrete; he even considers it might be used by skateboarders, or in a spy film.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have a favorite monument?

Eisenman: Actually, I’m not that into monuments. Honestly, I don’t think much about them. I think more about sports.

(Spiegel Interview)

 

Lehman on Software, Models and Change

The modeled and evolving quality of software comes to the surface when thinking about software maintenance. A classic paper on this is Lehman’s 1980 paper Programs, life cycles, and laws of software evolution, which lays out the territory with great clarity, then confidently strides off in the completely wrong direction.

Model

Lehman introduces a distinction between 

  • S-programs, that implement a formal mathematical (s)pecification, such as the travelling salesman problem
  • P-programs, that solve some messy (p)roblem arising in the world, such as actually scheduling real salespeople and their ambiguities and partly-known preferences, and 
  • E-programs, those (e)mbedded in and changing the world they directly model, such as in air-traffic control.

For P-programs and E-programs, “the acceptability of a solution is determined by the environment in which it is embedded.” The distinction is in the programs relationship with its origin story: between top-down and bottom-up; transcendence and immanence.

Lehman goes on to note P-programs are also in a feedback loop arising from their use in the world. Their execution is observed, even lived, by their users, and this results in demand for change. 

This is a cybernetic view, though Lehman doesn’t use the terminology. The paper sketches some more complicated loops, particularly where a specification intermediates between the P-program and the world. It is that intermediation, rather than feedback, that is foregrounded in the difficult and famous statement on code:world relations:

Any program is a model of a model within a theory of a model of an abstraction of some portion of the world or of some universe of discourse.

Lehman drops this on page two, before defining S-, P- or E-programs, and never gets around to defining theory or model, or otherwise directly elaborating, disconnected sagelike pronouncements being an expected feature of software engineering papers of the time. Cook (and a team including Lehman) later link this to the social process of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts – renaming P-programs to (p)aradigm-programs and E-programs to (e)volving-programs.

Weisberg’s work on the crucial role of models in science could also help. For Weisberg, a theory maps a model to the world through (mostly explicit) construals. This plays a similar role to “abstraction” in Lehman’s definition. (Bit more on Weisberg here.)

It’s also worth throwing Naur’s “Programming as Theory Building” into the mix, though his paper does not make much distinction between model-as-code and theory-as-code.

Lehman also introduces “laws” of software evolution, which did have some empirical basis, but appear hard to reproduce. They might be compared to more recent work on meaningful descriptive code metrics, or properties of software as a material.

The Rivers and The Lakes That You’re Used To

After accelerating through insight after insight into the fluid and evolving nature of software, Lehman closes off the theory section by casually inventing microservices (in 1980), then taking a screaming left turn at the Process Street T-Junction, crashing through a railing and tumbling over a cliff. For over that cliff flows a process waterfall, and in the structured programming era, there’s nothing more attractive.

Like the rest of the structured programming crowd, he has factory envy: “An assembly line manufacturing process is possible when a system can be partitioned into subsystems that are simply coupled and without invisible links … Unfortunately, present day programming is not like this.” Lehman goes on to emphasize the care and structure needed when writing separate elaborate requirement and technical specifications. You get the idea. The remaining process recommendations I’m just going to skip.

It is easy to be wise after the fact in 2019. Agile practices and literal miniature software assembly lines (continuous build infra) now exist, and have made us much more sensitive to the damage done by scope size and delivery delay in large software systems. Trying to solve complex problems with more upfront planning was a high modernist worldview going out of fashion, but still very much in the intellectual water in 1980: Lehman gave a lecture in 1974 referencing both city planning and the Club of Rome report Limits to Growth. Perhaps it would be fairer to point out that thinkers who advocated short simple changes as a response to complex systems – like Jane Jacobs, or John Boyd and his OODA loop – were always tacking into the intellectual wind.

References

Cook, S., Harrison, R., Lehman, M.M. and Wernick, P.: ‘Evolution in software systems: foundations of the SPE classification scheme’, Software Maintenance and Evolution Research and Practice, 2006, 18, (1), pp. 1-35  
Lehman, M.M. , “Programs, cities, students – Limits to growth?” Inaugural Lecture, May 14,  1974, ICST Inaugral Lecture Series, Ed., VOI. 2, pp. 147-163, 1979. vol. 9, pp. 211-229,  1970-1974; and in Programming Methodology D. Gries, Ed. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1979,  pp. 42-69.
Lehman, M. M. (1980). Programs, life cycles, and laws of software evolution. Proceedings of the IEEE, 68(9), 1060-1076.
Naur, P. (1985). Programming as theory building. Microprocessing and microprogramming, 15(5), 253-261.
Weisberg – Simulation and Similarity.

Ancillary SYN-ACK

Ancillary Justice is a cyborg soldiers and AI spaceships novel (with complications) in a space opera setting, built around a soldier called Breq. Think Iain M Banks but with the Roman Empire instead of plush toy communism. The complications are both cool and fundamental to the characters, and I won’t spoil the slow reveal of the first book here, even though it’s all over the web.

The trilogy is completed with Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. After the galaxy-spanning wandering of the first book, racing towards the capital, the second and third books focus back on a particular system. Breq muscles in as a fleet captain of a capital ship. Aliens, ships and stations join the cast of characters. Interpersonal and gunboat diplomacy ensue.

The heavy Space Roman Empire vibe of the first volume evolves into something a bit more Space Girls Boarding School Naval Academy in the later books. Though both have their virtues, I always tend to favour first books, and the thick vertigo of new ideas is denser in Ancillary Justice than the other two volumes. I still devoured all three at speed and with pleasure.

The Ancillary trilogy is, at some level, network space opera, about synchronization, replication, latency and packet corruption. The empire exists because it successfully replicates itself over distance and time. And then it stops: packet loss and fragmentation.