Mitch SMith

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Are there limits to specialisation?

It is clear that there are massive benefits from specialisation.

But do we understand the limits of that?

Are there "diminished returns"?

For instance: do we sacrifice adaptability by adapting?

At what point does deep adaptation(specialisation) put us at risk of becoming too narrowly self-defined to withstand shocks the world presents from left-field?

What are the factors that govern the timespan of specialisation?

How much adaptive specialisation is humanity capable of? And have we already moved out of our league?

  • Sep 22 2013: Yes - when over specialization causes one to lose sight of the "big" picture or the end goal then it is a failure of the specialization.
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      Sep 22 2013: Hi Wayne - many thanks, this is helpful!

      So then, we get "big-picture-specialists" .. then there arises a trust issue.
      At some point, no "one" can truly know what is happening because it takes several lifetimes to understand what is happening in all the specialities .. and as they say "the devil is in the detail" - you could say that "the devil runs freely when humans lose the capacity to see the big picture".
  • Sep 21 2013: Yes one can always go too far in one direction.
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      Sep 21 2013: In day-to-day life, the general rule is: "If it's good, more is better".
      That is "linear-thinking" and it works out pretty good in the short-term.
      And when things are going steady, it works out really well.
      But when things get complex, it falls in a heap.


      I suppose I'm asking - how can we tell when we've over-stepped the limits?

      Case in point is the artificial leather/meat thing.
      If we accept it and replace factory-farmed meat with vat-grown meat - are we at risk of becoming critically dependant on an over-specialised industry?

      And, for that matter, have we already stepped over that line with factory farming?

      I am not convinced about the vegan assertion, I see that as just another over-specialisation - and I have seen evidence that rotational grazing not only improves meat quality but also actively re-generates biome-function:
      http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change.html?quote=2071
      (That guy has seriously gotta change his name).
      When I see Alan's talk stacked up against Andras, Andras looks like an infomercial for his business advantage.
      Business advantage is not always in the interest of humanity.
      Where do we look to detect this stuff?
      • Sep 21 2013: Thanks You have covered both sides of the issue.
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        Sep 21 2013: On what basis do you assert that in every day life, the general rule is that more is better? Are you saying that the concept of trade-offs and diminishing return is not reflected in people's choices? That people eat only their favorite dish or spend time doing only their favorite thing to do? Listen to music of only their single favorite band? Pursue only one form of recreation each?

        Are you saying that the idea of diversifying in one way or another is unknown or uncommon in culture or economy?
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          Sep 22 2013: Yes.

          Once a cultural balance has been achieved it stays that way until external pressures demand change.

          Archaeological evidence can identify specific cultures by the way they worked stone tools - these tool making methods remained static over very long periods.

          Common investment strategies remain linear until diminished return is observed - it may not be universal, but it's common to treat diminished return as an external factor.

          It's true that people seem to seek novelty, but favourites are .. favoured.
  • Sep 23 2013: Mitch, thank you for another interesting and informative discussion.

    To address the original question, I think there is a limit to specialization. On the small scale, that limit is part of the calculation every time someone is considering a new investment. You explained this very well. The small specialized market must provide a return that justifies the investment, also considering the risks inherent in the specialized skills while the rate of change is increasing exponentially.. Over time, the specialization limit is defined by the line between the successful and unsuccessful investments. A similar limit should be observable in the biological realm. If we could find a way to measure specialization, I think these limits would become clear.

    On a more macro scale, I suspect that you are right that the exponential rate of change will have a big effect on our future. But I think you are wrong about the ultimate outcome. People are already adapting to the rate of change in many ways. Part of "change" is that the globe is becoming more wealthy. Among the more wealthy, many people are slowing down and enjoying enough, rather than continually pursuing more.

    I agree that our relationship with machines and robots is about to radically change, but I do not think we will become a grazing crop. I think it is much more likely that we will become like pets of machines. If machines attain sentience, we will almost certainly become a subordinate species, but that relationship can be very beneficial.
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      Sep 24 2013: HI Barry,

      Thanks for your thoughts!
      I have been watching the machines and AI. As you know, I've been experimenting with AI for about 25 years .. and although it's a moving-feast, some principles are emerging.

      The problem with accelerated change is that it exceeds our capacity to adapt.
      Getting social adaptation revolutionised the speed of adaptation for humans - we can socially adapt in a decade to what a single species would take 10,000 years to do genetically, but just as genes got overwhelmed, so too will social adaptation.

      If that's going on with AI and machines, well OK, but I'd like people to actually know what social adaptation is first - before we get pwned, it would be nice to collect the trophy.

      People will adapt, but not within the old competition. If AI outclasses us, then we will not even perceive the new competition, we'll be just too damn slow.

      But if the new paradigm falls in a heap? We had better fully understand our fall-back position.
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    Sep 22 2013: This topic is central to my current central quest.

    Right now, I am considering "the singularity" .. this is important why?

    Well, I have discerned that 2.5% growth is equal to doubling human population in 2042 - that's only 29 years - the lifetime of your own children - and you will probably be alive to see them die.

    why are they going to die?

    Because we have already used-up all the planet - survival from here on down is in the margins of efficiency - not a lot, and that reduces with every year past 2012.

    But all is not lost. It is almost certainly over for humans - but what might develop is what survives after as - without eliminating us.
    For instance - we did not destroy cows, cows did not destroy grass.

    We must be prepared to become a grazing crop for the species that can survive in the accelerated change that humans cause.

    Those of us not willing to become a crop will have to reduce rate-of change, those who accept it .. well . you are probably already a crop being harvested by the new life-form.

    It can be identified by having an order-of-magnitude greater adaptability than humans .. the machines are looking good for this.

    If you want to survive as a human, and those humans you rely upon and care about - you had better re-visit the ethic of the Luddites

    This is a choice - slow down the rate of change? OR continue to speed it up. If you choose speed, kiss your children goodbye (they are no concern), and be prepared to watch them die. Review your loyalty to the principle of sacrifice - this means everything you are, have been, or will be)

    What are you able to stand? in geographical time, it does not matter.
    But it might matter to you.

    For myself, I am not willing to accept that rate-of-change is necessary - I want to live, and I want my son to live - and his son. (call me "old-fashioned" ;)

    How do we get this done?

    Or do we just do nothing and simply learn how to enjoy the flames of our immolation?
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    Sep 21 2013: To me there certainly are ... :o)

    Since I remember myself I have this inbuilt 'specialization protection mechanism', which made anything become more and more boring as longer I kept doing or focusing on it.

    It is as if I need scheduled 'time outs' to straighten my brainwaves again by focusing 'full stem ahead' on some other interesting topic.

    Of course this habit conflicts with our usual systems at school, university and in our professional life, and only for schools we have this nice categorization of 'late bloomers' ... They ain't late, just not finished yet with the variety they started... :o)

    In business, the air for 'generalist' or 'all-rounder' has become thinner over time, yet what shall we do about it? :o)

    About your example I would say, that 'adaptability' would only be sacrificed 'by adapting' if it stays frozen in that position and if it doesn't allow for any further change anymore. Unfortunately, this seems to be often the case.

    But I love to work with specialists, from as many fields as possible, yet only if they are willing to share their knowledge openly, which not all do. Firstly, because to have access to this knowledge is a 'time lapse' for a generalist like me and secondly, those people tend to know what they are talking about ... ;o)

    In my view, to work efficiently on the frontier of innovations a company has to have both types of people, specialists and generalists, as the creation of something 'new' is the combination of something 'old'. And as 'specialist' often struggle to leave their field of expertise to walk the open planes, a generalist is often good in doing right that.

    Its the combination of those types and their 'chemistry' which makes new ideas come alive.

    But I also worked with specialists who have been in their fields for 40 years, which was clearly 35 years to long and marked the date at which they have lost their curiosity... And if this curiosity can not be re-sparked again, I get them out of any team asap. ...
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      Sep 22 2013: Hi Lejan,

      Great observations!

      I had similar experience with teams and team-building. My big factor was knowledge-sharing. A team with high levels of unconstrained knowledge sharing is far more productive than one who's members guard their knowledge for fear of losing advantage.
      On the other hand, physical skills tend to be subject to traditional barriers. The possessor of fine physical skills has acquired them through a centuries-old lineage and will not impart them without proof of standard-bearing.
      There is a reason for that because fine physical skills take a long time to perfect under guidance, and the old master will not waste time on the frivolous dilution of his cultural investment and the investment of his ancestors.

      In that regard there seems to be a deep divide between cultural skill and commercial skill.
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        Sep 22 2013: Your eyes are well trained to see the essence of what can be observed!

        Yet all I found so far of our cultural skills seems to go extinct. Slowly but steadily, as most of them won't really fit into our balance sheets, our Roi's and such alike. Some manage to remain only by the help of enthusiasts, and those skills have to have some specialty about them, which isn't exchangeable by some high-speed stamping, casing or milling. Yet not all of these masters will find their apprentices, I am afraid.

        I once met an old blacksmith in his forge, quite a character, without doubt, And coming from a commercial background of material science, we had a beautiful talk, in which I realized for myself how much deeper he was in that very metal than me. Sure he didn't know all the names of phase-changes of the metal lattice he was forging. He didn't need to, because he knew them by their looks... He knew about their essence! And that, if anything, is what it is about!

        This humble experience didn't last long, as the next day it became clear that the time-target of one of my projects had just been tightened ... because of ... 'a customer' ... :o)

        Yet I also came across a certain type of people who just claimed to possess those skills of 'old lineage', but once I got to see behind their 'magic' it became all to clear that this claim was only used out of protectionism and nothing else.

        This can take on even the most bizarre forms, which a friend of mine and I used to call 'the little secret red book'. Working in an R&D department at a metal tube manufacturer at that time, I was often at 'production level' to learn from those who finally produce those things. As usual it took some time to break the ice, but once this was done, I learned a lot. Yet one thing was interesting to observe at shift change, by which the first thing the new crew did when they took over the production line was to change almost all parameters of the tube-welding line and this DURING the same running batch.
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          Sep 22 2013: Be of good heart - the standard bearers have not gone away, they are just very quiet by nature. The main media has no use for them - which creates a large margin in which they can operate (the cracks in the system).

          Tube-making, as it turns out, is an arcane art. Wheels are easy.

          Yes. Finding apprentices is difficult. I have a knowledge which. of itself, demands transmission. But if I fail, my master has invested in others. I am continually amazed at the global penetration he has achieved - everyone in my field knows this guy .. it borders on the "magical".

          But part of my current mission is to get this dynamic synthesised such that it will not be lost in the digital age.

          Did that operation use SAP?
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        Sep 22 2013: When ask why they did this the answer was always the same, 'You know, those guys just don't know how good tubes are made... ' :o)

        Unbelievable! Any crew met of course the requirements of a given specification, but all of them used their very parameter settings to meet them. And those parameters were written in those 'little secret red books', which not necessarily was always of red color, but books they were and neither lend nor shown openly to anyone...

        To any quality department and the head of production, this given habit was a true nightmare and they could never get rid of it.

        But then came 'lean production' and with it an upgrade program to equip any welding line with a set of sensors to protocol and monitor any parameter of the process to first learn from those data and then to decide for fixed standard settings.

        You may imagine that this system wasn't welcome at all, and to this day I wonder why this external company never really managed to get this data acquisition and analysis system to run truly reliable ... sabotage? who knows... who knows ... ;o)

        We are people after all and it does us good if the work we do gets appreciated. And if this appreciation isn't given, it will finds its way in different forms and may those just be the illusion to have 'the knowledge' ...

        McKinsey & Co doesn't seem to get that ... lol
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          Sep 22 2013: What comes to mind is a thing that is often forgotten:
          There is a massive gap between knowing and doing.
          The engineers go off and get the numbers exact, the designers incorporate the numbers into functional design and then it gets delivered to the shop-floor to make it real.
          The shop-floor guys look at the design and translate it into the intention, then they throw away the design and achieve the intention.

          We have such faith in engineering .. it is misplaced.

          Some things cannot be written. How can you write down a feeling?

          Here's one reason for it:

          My craft is absolutely reliant on fluid dynamics. This is a chaos math.
          With each and every unit I make, it is a new exploration of chaos - you have to feel it, or it just doesn't work.

          The true art of the master is in the doing, not the knowing.

          BTW - when true mastery occurs in a company it becomes "single-point-dependant'.
          Company hierarchies hate that because it can occur at any level of the hierarchy.
          Me and another once totally captured a fortune 100 company in this way. For about 2 years we enabled the share value to exceed expectation and introduced industry innovations beyond anyone's wildest dreams. this was in supply-chain. And now all you guys have to live with what we did. When they eventually threw me out, I shredded all the doing stuff and left all the knowing stuff - revenge is sweet.
          The share-price plummeted for about 4 years after that - I assume they have acquired new masters, but only by accident (statistical probability).
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          Sep 22 2013: Here's a thing:

          It is well worth our while participating in this forum.

          We can make a difference in the outcomes - and it requires more than usual influence.

          It is not a dream - believe in yourself - I believe in you. We are not nothing.

          And we are not alone.
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        Sep 23 2013: Thats why I always consulted with the 'shop-floor guys' during the whole process, as they knew what I didn't and vice versa. And when neither of us knew, we did our trial and error together. Thats just my understanding of teamwork and because I do not believe in artificial barriers in between different level of hierarchy. We are all just people and should have a common interest for our company in doing well.

        Fluid dynamics truly is fun, as it plots nicely the limitations of our mathematical models in non-linear calculations. And as further the iteration goes, as less likely it reflects any true behavior.

        As a student, this limitations saved my days, as my talent for mathematical models was limited yet I loved practical experiments on that topic.

        If I remember correctly, your craft now is related to pipe-making? If so, I could imagine that its in 'the feeling' for materials and geometry to get them sound right and that it takes a lot of experience and talent to finally get there.

        About 'true mastery' in companies I am sensitive about in terms of 'risk management', as this kind of 'single source dependencies' can have fatal consequences as you describe. Surprisingly, all companies I worked for underestimated those risks, which often grew out of 'single source knowledge' within 'old grown' company processes.

        There was this one and only guy I once met who was the only one to know about certain processes and who was consulted via phone often whenever he was on vacation. This by itself should have been a warning sign already, and this not against this very guy, but for the independence and security of the rest of the company. Whenever a single fatal car-accident was capable to bring the functionality of a company to an hold, this would be a sign of bad management.

        At the same time this form of exchangeability should not be misused to happily hire and fire people whenever needed, although I assume it definitely would...
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        Sep 23 2013: If we can make a difference, I don't know, but it surly helps to know not to be alone!

        Thank you!

        If I remember correctly, the software used to monitor the tube-mill was a self-made one by this external company who set it up and which exchanged the collected data into OriginLab for analysis. An SAP compiler was discussed yet not implemented when I left that company. I don't know what happened since.
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      Sep 24 2013: Hi Lejan,

      Reason I asked about SAP is because I met a brilliant skilled analyst/programmer doing SAP projects - he was easily 10 times faster and effective than all the other programmers. It was easy to justify paying him twice as much - so long as none of the other programmers knew what he was getting. In the end, a big military organisation out-bid me paying over twice the rate I was paying him - which was more than what I was getting, and I was easily one of the "1%" .. He had spent a few years working for a tube-making company.
      His greatest success was to avoid being "promoted to his level of incompetence".
      After he left, it became difficult to achieve projects on-time/under-budget.

      Having experience means almost nothing - some boast 20 years of experience, but I observe that it is only 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. This kind of experience is regressive to a company and locks it into old methods that become obsolete. The true master has no 2 years the same .. not even 2 days the same.

      The repetitive experience "expert" is stuck in a local minimum. That minimum exposes the political motive. A true master is not politically motivated. Politics may be part of the skill, but dominance is never the objective.

      A true master should never get trapped a company, it is clear to me that companies cannot achieve their bottom line without a certain number of masters. Masters overcome the fallacy of economic accounting because they are not motivated by "the bottom line".
      I have met a few masters .. they do "magic".

      Anyone can be a master - one must first abandon "job" in order to discover "work".

      I do hope you are not permanently attached to a company. One may use companies in pursuit of one's work, but a company is not good enough for a master - companies are very low-grade communities - there are much better places to be.
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        Sep 25 2013: Hi Mitch,

        don't get me started on SAP as I don't wish to collateral damage you by my rage wave reflex on this company ..., German company and as such, naturally resistant against good - even better - advice ... ;o)

        When I was working for this tube manufacturer and after some internal re-organizations I found myself against my will within a so called 'centalized' R&D department which as a whole happened to become a Beta-test ground for an at that time newly created SAP library, called xRPM = xperimental Resource and Portfolio Management. And that the 'x' remains until today and many years later, doesn't surprise me at all.

        So once we have been introduced to this new SAP module, we were asked to exclusively use it and to protocol any downsides and bugs we may came across while doing so. And so we did and as all of us were scientists and engineers we did it quite detailed ... :o)

        And to avoid overcharging SAP programmers, we collected all findings and input of ours, structured and prioritized them and also added short explanations why changes were necessary to our 'work-flow'. And not to be to 'single company' focused we also incorporated an more generalized approach and to skip 'nice to have' options if those didn't turn out to be of frequent request.

        All in all besides 'scientists and engineers' what better BETA tester could one wish for? :o)

        And the result? Nothing. Patches? None. Release-change? Not at all...

        xRPM stayed as flawed as it was in that company for more than five years of which I had track of after I left the company. I don't know what this SAP module is today, yet for the remaining 'x' I have some ideas already... ;o)

        And as much I grant talented programmers to earn a good living of their services, I found the SAP business model disadvantageous for many departments I came across in terms of 'user-friendliness' vs 'customization costs'.
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          Sep 25 2013: SAP began life as a logistics model developed by the Australia postal service over 20 years ago.
          It was assetised and sold off in accordance with the neo-liberal philosophy of expropriation of social assets - it was called "economic pragmatism" those days.

          The SAP company took it and turned it into an "ERP" complex.
          They focussed on structural functionality and did some logical additions and some insightful adaptive re-structuring.
          However, the back-end code became uglier and uglier - new object-oriented trends corrupted the efficiency and obscured the path to foundational update.
          From a corporate perspective, all of this became obscured by cost decisions. SAP and other consultancies, notably IBM, formed teams for rapid deployment in most industries - the big sales point was reduction in integration costs. This is a hard argument to ignore for any large business.
          As a program manager, I routinely chose SAP over superior products simply due to the tender process.
          I was glad to leave that world .. but on the up-side, it allowed me to directly observe the corporate process of destruction of value for profit.

          I have here a structural analysis of corporate business that shows the corporation as a kind of machine - all functional units are identified using a matrix that looks a bit like a brain-map .. some parts are not used in different business models, e.g. differences exist between make-to-stock and make-to-order, manufacture/retail, financial/logistical etc .. but the parts are all the same. I gave it back to the Australian postal service as part of a strategy to head-off further assetization and plunder of public infrastructure - infrastructure that my parents and grand-parents paid for - for me and my children.

          SAP sells credibility - not technical excellence.
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        Sep 25 2013: In almost all cases the SAP gui either remained 'standard', which meant to introduce additional notions against existing, long grown and also specific company terms, what forced any employee to constantly 'translate' those terms in between both 'worlds', which is a classical break in 'consistency of terms'. Or the gui was adjusted in notions, yet wouldn't ensure to be 'upgradeable' with newer SAP releases.

        In fact, I happen to experience an SAP upgrade by which all former customizations were rendered obsolete due to compatibility reasons. And because there was no budget to get those customizations installed again, the users had to life with the 'standard' from there.

        And as the business model of SAP is somewhat like those of desktop printer manufacturers, who doesn't earn much by the hardware yet by the overpriced ink they are selling, I wonder if a missing downward compatibility on existing customizations is purely coincidental ... at least nothing which couldn't be managed by properly designed programming guidelines and sufficient 'header' information to compile upon and 're-inject' by ... On this you probably know better than I do.

        ... see, you did get me started ... :o) lol

        Here is another SAP roadkill:

        Another company I worked for produced coil-coated steel strips and because of the large variety of colors used, they developed back in the days a pretty useful and robust 'speaking' numbering system to identify all available coatings. By this a multiple digit number was 'imaginative' split into segments, of which each segment represented specific properties of a given coating, such as color, glossiness, surface roughness, etc. and even described the main properties of the galvanized steel strip on which the coating was applied. So one you learned to read this 'code' by knowing all possible variations behind it, this number carried a lot of useful information for all people involved in the process.
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          Sep 25 2013: There's a lot of history and pain in the IT business.

          LOL! - I'd better not get started either ;)

          Suffice to say, Edward DeBono identified the fallacy of serial development - current requirements make historical structures obsolete. A total re-engineering always becomes necessary. This will kill SAP and all other over-structured machines.

          There are limits of scale.
          I imagine that a system built on self-organising cellular automata would be the best choice.
          But corporations don't like that - it's not proprietary enough.
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        Sep 25 2013: Then the system got changed to SAP and with it the 'speaking' numbering system got exchanged by randomized numeration for 'budget reasons'. The confusion was complete and much time wasted since for people to look up what material was in their hands ...
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          Sep 25 2013: Well,

          identity is a fundamental component of a business model.
          If you had access to the subschema, it can be changed easily - but large software companies are allergic to subschema changes - they just put interpretive "masks" over the top of general index objects - this abstracts them and makes them impossible to track.

          SAP is legendary in delivering over-generalised systems - it forces businesses to lose critical edge - they all eventually become the same company.

          I note that identity is part of tribal integrity - this goes all the way down to how you identify the physical objects important to the tribal totem. Corrupt the identifiers and you subvert the totem - it is the traditional way of enslaving a tribe and syphoning its surplus.
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        Sep 25 2013: I do not hate you for what you once did on the 'dark side' ... :o) I have been there myself. Not IT but similar ... lol

        It might just be that I am missing my line numeration since BASIC got out of use and I don't know how to address anything without ... ;o)

        But 'self-organising cellular automata' sound interesting, as long as I can name them as I like and they won't 'mutate away' another day ...
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          Sep 25 2013: After this amount of life experience, I am in a phase of abstraction.
          So a lot I say is not easily understood because I avoid clichés - I do this, not because they are wrong, but because they are disconnected from their causal roots. Most cliché has been hijacked by those who understand how to redirect perceptions. The word "freedom" for instance now means slavery.

          Your entire body is made-up of adaptive cellular automata - your brain is made up of hyper-reactive cellular automata. Our families act as cellular automata.

          Here is a crash course on it:
          http://www.ted.com/talks/stephen_wolfram_computing_a_theory_of_everything.html

          The whole idea of these things is mutate-away - that's the only escape from over-structuralization .. you have to let them do their work and not interfere.
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        Sep 25 2013: ' ... they all eventually become the same company.'

        Thank you for this insight, it truly seems to become that way ... what a beautiful playground for SAP viruses to paralyze this invisible hand of our economy ... ;o)

        On the 'how to' corrupt identifiers of a tribal totem we could learn from certain world religions, yet as those seem to have difficulties to get them to work on the I-generation, did they unintentionally prove the decay of our remaining tribal integrity?

        'I do hope you are not permanently attached to a company.'

        Currently not and I don't wish to in the future. So far I am in phase three of a 'manager's classic': Burn out / stroke / identity crisis ... and what will grow from there I don't know yet and thats how I know that I am still in phase three ...

        But I know for sure what I don't want anymore and this is better than nothing to start from... :o)
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          Sep 25 2013: Yes - life presents challenges without end.
          That's more of the new-experience that ultimately results in mastery.
          And mastery is realising that there is no mastery - it's not a destination - it's a road.

          Be careful to not get trapped into the repetitive.

          Another thing is - it helps to recognise that things change with age. As maturity progresses, it is best to let the young enjoy own their objectives, work more with influence than direct action. Seek company.

          It is a hard time in a world where exchange-value drowns use-value .. old men resorting to gambling instead of investing. There is something about producing use-value that brings contentedness.

          With the totems .. the internet has opened new avenues for everything - including cultural creation as well as totemic capture.
          I don't think totemic capture will be successful - there is too much hierarchical disruption. Mind you, the traditional corruptors are hard at work injecting advertising and IP-laws to re-capture their gains. We will see.

          Affiliation is vital for the ex-corporate - there is a void where the subservient reflex once existed - one has to get that replaced by healthy social motivation.
          Trying to become self-subservient does not work.

          Keep in mind that a corporation is a feudal structure that cares nothing for those contributing beyond capturing their advantage. Real community does not work that way.
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        Sep 26 2013: Thank you Mitch for your good advise and shared wisdom! It is very appreciated!
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          Sep 26 2013: Hope it helps - it's helped me, but then, I have other stressors to resolve beyond just being ex-corporate .. the rise in autism, and its impact on my family, has made integration with industrial humanity an impossibility for us .. one gets to see some things that are not all that visible to many.
          Life is amazing - the good and the bad.
  • Sep 21 2013: There are certainly disadvantages to specialization, and your posts have done a good job of explaining them.

    It is difficult to determine just how much is too much. I went to the mall yesterday, something I do just a few times each year. There was a store that sold nothing but caps, the type with bills, like baseball caps. To me, that seems too specialized to be able to survive, but perhaps it will. Imagine how narrow the skills and knowledge of the employees.

    On the macro scale, I think the primary disadvantage is that the economic system becomes vulnerable to even very small changes and fluctuations. Imagine a disruption in the supply chain for printing ink, or truck brakes. And we cannot forget banks that are too big to fail.

    Professional health care requires standards for each role, but it has become ridiculous. Trimming toe nails now requires a nurse, the aids are not sufficiently "trained" to perform a task that I learned before entering elementary school.

    Some of the inefficiencies of specialization occur on a huge scale. The USA must continue to build billion dollar war ships that are not currently needed, just to maintain a ship building industry, so the equipment and skills will be available if they are needed in the future. Then we spend more billions utilizing unnecessary ships.
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      Sep 22 2013: Hi Barry,

      Many thanks for the hat-shop example. My business is similar.
      It's a micro-niche within a micro-niche, just like the peak-caps - I have a micro market which could not possibly make sense without the internet to round-up net global demand.

      A large number of bricks-and-mortar shopfronts were killed by the internet, and oddly, some were saved.
      The world of retail suddenly changed.

      I suppose that rate-of-change is the true determinant of how much specialisation is good.

      If a specialist becomes locked into long-term investment of skills or resources, the risk of obsolescence is increased. When rate-of-change increases, investment decisions become very difficult.

      There's a couple of factors that must go into the decision - re-investment, and salvage/re-purpose.
      For instance, if my market collapsed, I would look for some other product that fits my tools and skills, and if I could not find such a product, I would first look at investment in new tools/skills - to shift to a related product. If no product demand existed close to my old tools/skills, I'd be in trouble. The investment barrier of a radical shift might be impossible.

      obsolescence/salvage value becomes a factor - a lot is wasted when long term expectations collide with short-term change.

      Rate of change is interesting, on the one hand-it can be induced by specialisation, on the other hand it induces generalisation. If change is going very fast, then no one will invest in long-term tools/skills, and short-term generalisation will be the correct strategy.
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    Sep 20 2013: By "specialized" are you thinking about those who do not know how to farm efficiently, build a water-tight house, weave their own cloth to sew their own clothes, or repair common household items? Are you asking whether there are certain specific survival skills we should all have rather than assuming that we could trade for them in an emergency situation?
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      Sep 21 2013: That would be part of the question.

      This relates to Taleb's observations - black-swans and fragility. Perhaps the nature of chaos itself.

      There seem to be discrete timespans which govern the trade-off between adaptation and adaptability.

      For instance, a tortoise will never fly, neither will a turtle, but a turtle can travel on land, while a tortoise cannot swim. The tortoise is too specialised to have the water-realm in it's field of potential agency. I imagine that many tortoises die in floods.
      The turtle/tortoise specialisation difference is defined by a timespan of genetic selection - that takes a few generations.
      Then we might look at slime-mould - a colony might be amorphous ooze, then become a mushroom, then become a slug and crawl away - social adaptivity within the lifespan of the mould-cell.

      Then we look at the higher sophistication of humans, we are not purposed to hunting as are most predators, we are not fast like most herd animals, we have no protective fur, we are not very strong, not impressively big, no camouflage - but we are amazing generalists. Not only as individuals, but as groups.

      It seems that the generalisation is in-built with some basic default skills, and that there are strata of specialisations that we call "skills".
      Some skills take half a lifetime to acquire - a master musician, for instance, may dedicate the bulk of that skill to excellence at the cost of other common skills (most notably: economic planning - I saw a lot of this as a professional musician).
      The rate of skill acquisition - when divided over lifespan yields an index of adaptability.
      This sets a limit to aggregate skill capacity - within that capacity, the acquisition of major skills will displace capacity for other skills.
      Then you can look at potentiation limiters:
      Some skills are fast to acquire and atrophy, some are intermediate and some are permanent.

      If we become socially dependent on individual permanent lifetime skills, what is the cost to adaptability?
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        Sep 21 2013: This is all easy to understand, in the sense of being consistent with even casual observation, but not what question you actually want to explore.

        People invest in learning some things and don't then make the time or effort to learn others. Different skills take different lengths of time to acquire and are differentially retained.

        Some people learn particular skills faster and better than others.

        Given all this variation across people and skills, I don't know what kind of general conclusions you seek about time and capacity. Some sort of average across people?
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      Sep 21 2013: Average across people would be cogent.
      But as a principle, it might be demonstrated to have non-linear outcomes - in all species.

      Another useful application would be in businesses.
      I spent 20 years designing and installing business systems for fortune-500 companies.
      This included not just computer/software but behavioural scripts - role definitions - business processes.
      My observation was that the resulting meta-machine froze the company into a past adaptation at the expense of market reactivity (adaptability) - This was ensured by the investment barrier of funding such large-scale adaptations.

      There are a couple of results from these examples of business adaptation:
      Firstly, the market stasis - large companies will supress market signals in order to win time to fund re-adaptation.
      Secondly, those seconded into the meta-machine (workers) saw a shift from high to low skill requirement - their skill capacity became massively under-utilised. This atrophy of potential skill acquisition represents a net loss of adaptive skill potential in the human community. One could argue that the workers could then acquire leisure skills, but the company had most their productive time, so they just atrophied. On top of that, the low-skills they did acquire became habitual with repetition - leading to strong resistance to the next change - leading to lower re-employment opportunity for them.

      There seem to be systemic repercussions to intense specialisation. Given that it is probably a chaotic dynamic, it might serve us to recognise limits - and be alert to when they are setting-in.
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        Sep 21 2013: I think the importance of building adaptive forms of institutional organization are now pretty well recognized. I am sorry you found yourself part of building inflexible, change-repellent kinds.
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          Sep 21 2013: I think "institution flexibility" is an oxymoron.
          Institution is, by definition, retrospective.

          Nothing has changed in the business community - it is still all done exactly as I described.
          Every now and then some consultancy will extract another few million peddling some new trendy socio-efficiency spiel, the workers all turn up and do the indoctrination, then go off and face the reality of hierarchical pseudo-society devoid of loyalty or genuine compassion.
          I may have retired from the business re-engineering community, but I still have contact with it.

          There is only one form of commercial institution that has any chance of breaking this form - that is the worker-owned-enterprise, and even then, it cannot operate if it exceeds the capacity for the individuals to know who everyone in the organisation is - plus a constitutional imperative to reduce executive hierarchy.

          There is an instrument in some states that recognises this - it is called "anti-trust". If it were applied to drive institutions to stable tribe-size (200 individuals) then it might be effective.

          However, the principle of ultra-specialised tribal units is yet to be demonstrated. From a distance, it might work by reducing adaptive inertia - but ultra-specialisation itself increases the likelihood of obsolescence. What do you do with obsoleted tribes?
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        Sep 21 2013: I second your observation.

        Involuntarily I became part of a 'task force' in two different companies to implement a miracle cure named 'lean production' in order to get their numbers right. Supported by external consultant agencies - who made a fortune, by the way - and a complete analysis of all internal processes, everything got changed into 'push/pull' circles, deliver on demand and just in time ideologies, which altogether are nothing but the framing circumscription of the term 'conveyor belt'.

        And by all this reduction of 'waste', time-wise and materialistic, the biggest waste of all which got created in the final outcome, was the waste of 'human talents'.

        This 'shift from high to low skill requirement', which you described has been profound, especially for the workers at 'ground level', which resulted consequently in a reduction of their contentment in this new situation.

        As I am open to the reduction of 'material waste', which should never have had a chance to accumulate in both companies in the first place, I wasn't able to prevent the over simplification of working conditions, as I was almost alone with my point of view.

        In one of the meetings we were shown a similar video like this:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUPji7L9aSs

        To which the external consultants referred to as 'top-notch' implementation of the 'lean production' concept.


        Up to this day I never got an answer from both 'lean specialists' I asked if they would like to work in those 'top-notch' conditions 8 hours a day, 5 days a week ...

        I suppose they haven't been paid for their 'empathy' ...

        It took more time and more other 'externals' to get the production back to a more humanized level, for both companies I worked for, because it seems to be difficult for some brains to imagine, that people are not just extensions of a machine.

        The money wasted on this kindergarten-insight , would have perfectly fixed the original problems just by itself.

        That much about experts. Any questions?

        :o)
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          Sep 22 2013: I observe that the girl in the video could easily be replaced by a robot.
          What is not shown is that she is also conducting quality control.
          Also not shown is tool maintenance.
          And .. oops .. every single one of those machines could rip the operator into small pieces with a mistake of just 5mm .. you would not want to distract that girl - cleaning the blood off the machines would be costly.

          My brother worked in such a place - the most common injury was losing a finger - plus tendons up to the elbow.
          .. and on .. and on ...

          I could get captured by this subject, but to abstract it a bit:
          The carrying cost of inventory is an investment in supply-chain resilience - rarely done.
          At times of increased rate-of-change, exposure to obsolescence is increased.
          Economy of scale reduces duplication but concentrates risk - it also reduces flexibility and increases monopoly. Monopoly reverses market price advantage for customers.

          It's the same old story - the current definition of corporations is corrupted by allowing externalisation. I also argue that exclusion of intangible benefits is a serious flaw.

          I use similar machinery in my operation (smaller scale of course) but as a sole artisan, I have no externalities .. I am in what Marx would call the "ancient" economic model.. it is profoundly different .. the work is not easier, not less boring, but the pace is right and I don't often have to work long hours.