About Jordan Peacock

Jordan Peacock is a Minneapolis-based technologist. His ribbonfarm posts ask what the gap between what is promised and what is delivers tells us: about technologies and the organizations of which they are a part. He lurks on Twitter as @hewhocutsdown.

We Have Them Surrounded in Their Tanks

“We have them surrounded in their tanks.”

So spoke Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the infamous Iraqi Information Minister in the first days of the American invasion. His missives should be an inspiration to public relations personnel everywhere; he was unshakably on-message even as the foundations on which he stood collapsed. His clueless investment in Saddam Hussein’s regime ended swiftly but not poorly (he was reportedly captured and released by the Americans, and is now living in the United Arab Emirates).

Muhammad was a true believer in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, and its collapse was inconceivable. In this respect his belief functioned much like that of those apocalypticists whose rapture passes them by, an evaporative cooling effect separating the doubtful from the doubling-down. al-Sahhaf was clueless to be sure, but clueless need not mean unintelligent, nor is the ability to stay on message dependent upon cluelessness.

[Read more…]

A Koan is not a Riddle

The following is a break from my Marginally Acceptable series. Venkatesh asked for a review of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition. This is what he got instead.

Philosophy has long had two distinct approaches, embodied in the approaches of ancient Mediterranean, China, and India. The first, and most commonly recognized, is that of positing answers to elusive questions, an approach that has given birth to religions and the sciences. The second, however, is oriented towards the transformation of the disciple, sometimes radically so. In many cases the two are conjoined: Socrates’ questions about the order of the world were entwined with questions about how to live; Buddha’s wheel of becoming was implicated in his guide to right living; the metaphysics of the Stoics grounded their prescriptions.

In later centuries, these two functions were less closely coupled. The success of the sciences after the Baconian revolution and Boyle’s experimentalism led to frantic, productive activities in the former philosophical method. The latter wasn’t simply left to the moralists, however, but was intellectualized. Kant’s writings on deontological ethics were intended primarily to persuade, rather than form. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that a philosopher explicitly privileged formation over intellectualization: Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values” was communicated in aphorisms and parables in part to make the reader complicit in the idea’s expression.

In the late twentieth century, Deleuze’s concerns and methods are likewise complicit; his method the embodiment of the ideas he hoped to make manifest.

[Read more…]

Power Gradients and Spherical Cows

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal had a comic recently explaining the argument against evolution based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics: “Life on Earth can’t get more complex because that would require energy, and the sun doesn’t exist.” The understanding of entropy is there, but conspicuously missing is the distinction between open and closed systems and the fact that increased entropy in the system does not preclude localized negentropic environments, such as those on Earth sustaining life.

This specific failure mode for thinking I call the Spherical Cow fallacy, after the classic physics joke. [Read more…]

Love Your Parasites

Parasitism is usually defined as a multi-party ecological organization in which one party benefits at another’s expense, and is contrasted with commensalism (the host is neither harmed nor helped) and mutualism (a type of symbiosis in which both parties benefit). Missing from this triptych are organizations in which a harm is partially offset with second-order benefits.

New research brings a little light to the subject in its analysis of the notorious brood parasites, the common cuckoo. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, externalizing the costs of raising its young to other species, which bear the burden of feeding and caring for the cuckoo chicks, who compete strenuously with their own. However, it was found that the parasitized nests thrived relative to those left alone by the cuckoo; and this effect was causally related to the cuckoo chicks themselves, as moving the eggs to other nests moved the beneficient effects as well.

It turns out that cuckoo chicks defecate a kind of black, tarry substance that is incredibly toxic and serves to dissuade predators, resulting in net improved fitness for the host species despite the costs.

Ecological thinking is transforming our understanding of the natural world, and is blurring many of the firm boundaries erected under the old paradigms that fetishisized ‘identity’ and assumed in advance the nature of benefit and harm. The world of software seems perfectly poised for ecological analysis, as many of its fundamental concepts parallel those of biological systems (source code as the genotype to compiled code’s phenotype, for instance).

So what would parasitism in software look like?

[Read more…]

The Poor Usability Tell

Work can be a delight when your tools and your environment are crafted in ways that enable you to focus on the task at hand. However, most people I suspect have only limited experience with this sort of situation; it’s rather common to see everyday tasks performed with sub-optimal tools. Software engineers are in a privileged position, parallel perhaps to blacksmiths of the past, in that the same skills used for their work may be deployed toward tool improvement. Correspondingly, they pride themselves on possessing and creating excellent tools. Unfortunately, most other roles in a given business are ill-equipped and poorly positioned to effect a similarly-scaled tool-chain improvement effort. Instead, they are reduced to requesting assistance from other departments or outside vendors, a relationship which Kevin Simler highlighted last year in a spectacular post entitled UX and the Civilizing Process. You should read the entire piece, but the salient portion for our purposes is the following paragraph:

You might think that enterprise software would be more demanding, UX-wise, since it costs more and people are using it for higher-stakes work — but then you’d be forgetting about the perversity of enterprise sales, specifically the disconnect between users and purchasers. A consumer who gets frustrated with a free iPhone app will switch to a competitor without batting an eyelash, but that just can’t happen in the enterprise world. As a rule of thumb, the less patient your users, the better-behaved your app needs to be.

Any given software project will be improved by increased usability. Nevertheless, we’ve all witnessed moments where “more cowbell” doesn’t seem to effect the desired improvements. An unalloyed good in its tautological form (better is better), it is in the specifics that we see usability as a concept fetishized.

This isn’t an accident; in fact, there can be an inverse relationship between the best user experience at the level of an individual or a small group, versus the best user experience for an organization or a network of organizations.

In poker, a tell is some sort of behavior which gives hints about the card’s in a player’s hand. Poor usability is a tell which may indicate that an organization’s and a user’s needs are in conflict, and that the organization’s needs trump.

[Read more…]