I promised (so many times before ) to tell you in more detail what my PhD is about, what puzzle I want to solve, and how. Today I will start. I’ll have to do it in instalments since I’ll have to gather my thoughts as I write. Also, I have to find a way not to bore you to death with philosophical jargon and references. You will tell me, I am sure 🙂
Have you ever witnessed a discussion between security experts? I have, many times. To their credit, they don’t argue when there is an emergency. In a crisis, all security professionals transform into firefighters, rolling out their hoses and putting everything on the line to save whatever must be saved. But other times, you’ll hear them argue about how important it is (not) to put a certain policy or measure in place, or how exactly it should be done, and they’ll practically behead each other. Often, the discussion is about the meaning of a particular regulation. And that surprised me. Because those regulations are supposed to be written by experts for experts.
Aside: forgive me for saying "they". The discussions I was privy to involved me as a security expert too. I was part of what I witnessed. If there is any guilt to be shared, then I am equally at fault. However, I don't think there is any guilt. As my dissertation will eventually show, there is an explanation which does not have anything to do with being argumentative, or lacking knowledge, or, heaven forbid, any psychological cause. In fact, these men (there are lamentably few women in this profession) are quite right to argue. But that will take me years to prove, so let's start.
I will cast the puzzle in terms of a dialogue. The reason for that will be come clear later (and not in this post). Illustrated with a picture:
What you see here, are regulators, such as an ISO committee, sitting together high up somewhere, working on the text of a new standard or regulation. This is a highly structured and monitored process, with many reviews and voting. The experts themselves are selected from the member countries.
When they are finished, the standard or regulation gets published, i.e., becomes a book or a paper. These are then made available to the experts below. The experts need these standards, either to conform to (the standard is mandatory) or as a best practice. As you can see in the picture, there is not much interaction between the regulator (the “speaker” in this dialogue) and the security experts (the “hearers” or “listeners”). The conversation is a bit one-sided, so to speak. Note that this “broadcasting” model is like the Herald proclaiming the King’s wishes-more of that below.
Two different readings of the same text
Suppose we open up one of these standards and we read the text, as shown below. It is about utility programs. These are intended for the exclusive use of IT-personal because you can do a lot of damage with them. However, such programs are sometimes given over to or appropriated by end-users.
Let’s now assume that this text can be read in two different ways. These are polar opposites, but they also serve as a good illustration of the types of discussions security experts might have. The first reading is by a security expert who has a lot of expertise:
The second reading is by a security expert who has much experience:
Why multiple interpretations?
I’m guessing that you don’t have to know much about security to see that these two ways of looking at it will lead to very different actions. And that’s the whole point. Standards and rules are put in place to make sure that the right safety steps are taken, to take the guesswork out of security implementation.
So what are we to make of multiple interpretations? Is the text unclear? Are those readers, the security experts, unable to comprehend the text through a lack of knowledge or experience? This is highly unlikely, given that we are dealing with experts on both sides of the dialogue. But I admit, in the beginning, I thought so too. So much so that I stepped up my training and qualified for CISM. But it made no difference.
Unfortunately, this is the standard picture with a standard solution to go with it: knowledge and training. The regulators should learn to write more clearly, concisely, and engagingly. The security experts should be better qualified and better trained. Needless to say, neither intervention helps. Regulators can write perfectly well, and security experts are, well, experts 🙂
Other interpretations: the security experts’ worry
One possibility is that the security expert in the second reading is concerned about what will happen when he informs users that they can no longer use their utility programs. The interesting thing is (also something I will come back to in the future) that this worry seems to influence the way he or she reads the text almost before he reads it. Split second.
Other interpretations: the regulators’ worry
On the side of the regulators, there is also something going on. Regulators work to specifications. If no one asks them to create a standard, they are out of a job. So it is not in their interest to produce a standard that cannot be lived up to in practice. Also, if they disagree amongst themselves, there is a tendency to use abstract language to circumvent the disagreement. Again, they cannot show themselves to disagree amongst themselves, because this would inevitably erode their credibility. I don’t know this, of course, for certain, but there is quite a bit of research on how such consensus processes work. So here we have the regulator’s worry
If this regulator’s worry affects text clarity, I wonder how I might detect this in text. As part of my research master, I took a course in computational linguistics. I suppose I could ask the professor if she could point me in the right direction.
Lack of feedback
Another point of interest is how standards and regulations are communicated. We still use the old way of the Herald proclaiming what the King wants. No answer is needed or even welcome. The Herald leaves after the message is sent out. There isn’t much difference between this and putting standards and regulations in a book, newspaper, or online. The problem with not being able to react is that misunderstandings cannot be cleared up. The problem with not being able to check reactions is that the effect of the proclamation is uncertain. I wonder why we modern humans still use this model, as it is so obviously defective, but we do.
You’ve probably noticed that so far I’ve only told you what the problem is and what some of its features are. In the next post, I’ll try to explain how I think the puzzle can be solved. In several steps.
Spring is here, and so are all of its delights. My small garden is full of roses I have planted over the years. I used to order one every year from a specialist rose farm. Some of them survived, others did not. The ones that survived are spectacular. I feed them, Husband prunes them, and they are just everywhere around the house. Even our grocery delivery person comments on them. My biggest success and my biggest failure is no longer with us. Husband had to kill it, alas. It was a Kiftsgate Rambling White Rose. Have a look at the original here. It is gigantic, encapsulating three trees.
“Kiftsgate” quickly covered our small patio in the back garden and attracted a million bumble bees. For a couple of years. But it just kept growing. And growing. I suppose the worst thing about this rose were its thorns and its stems turning to rock-hard wood. Of course, the disclaimer said “not for small gardens”. Which is sound advice if your back garden is only about 5 x 5m like mine. But I sort of overlooked that in my enthusiasm. Well, it is gone. Somehow “Kiftsgate” inspired our honey suckle into a growing spurt, covering the patio, so all is well.
Another delight that really is not a delight and hence must be resisted, is hay fever. It was staved off by the rainy weather but now all grasses seem to have bloomed at once. It is terrible. The Dutch hay-fever-radar sites colour a deep red, which is the worst there is. I have good hay fever pills now, keeping me from the worst, but this years is really quite extraordinary. I have to cover my eyes in vaseline and preferably stay indoors with all of my air-cleaning equipment turned on. And the tiredness! Even Husband complains, although he does not have a sneeze in his non-allergic body. Son, however, is still in denial, buying hay fever tablets off the counter, just this once … Well, hay fever is a predictable reaction. Once you pass a certain threshold of pollen, and start reacting, that is it. For years. But I suppose what amuses me most is his denial. He is so like me :-). Like: if I don’t wear my glasses, no one can see me (that was my favourite at his age). Anyway, the hay fever will be gone by July.
We live quite near Paleis Het Loo, which is the palace where Queens Emma and Wilhelmina and young Juliana lived before the war. It is being restyled – a many-years project which is already overextended. We walk the outer grounds every night. The coming week I will visit it properly, on the inside, with Husband and my good once-red-haired friend who has just come out of chemotherapy and a friend. Anyway, as they were also restructuring the landscape around the palace, putting in what looks like wild-flower areas, I just could not resist. I adore poppies. They are wild and beautiful and resilient. So I ordered a pile of seeds ( a few thousands) and threw them about on the newly prepared fields. Son did his bit as well. So far, only few have come up. So then we planted about 40 poppy plants which were sent to by the nursery I bought my seeds from (thank you!). And I have ordered more seeds. And more. In a few years, the whole place should be incandescent with poppies, I have decided. It will be my heritage. Much nicer than money or material things.
There are lots of other wild flowers on those fields surrounding Paleis Het Loo. I know because we have been using this app called “obsidentify” to get to know flora and fauna. It is quite remarkable. Like playing Pokemon but for the elderly. Much easier to use than my old Flora. At some point, I will use it to find edible greens and mushrooms. But already I am enjoying being able to identify plants and flowers and trees. Amazing what I remember from early childhood – I must have had a great interest in nature, because I can still identify so many plants off the top of my head; fortunately, with the obsidentify-app, I now have the means to check and find new ones. For instance, the yellow plants (weeds) growing in my front garden are called “stinkende gouwe”, i.e. “smelly gold”. I now have much fewer qualms about pulling them up.
Another disruptive thing I did was to have my hair cut. It had grown long throughout the Corona years when I did not dare to go to the hairdresser, so I just left it – well, Husband cut it for me to one length once. It grew way down my back, getting heavier and hotter every day. But I had this idea that with long hair I would turn into this patient, wise woman, such as below (the third woman from the left). The wild wise woman. Something my sister Sigrid is becoming in her amazing priest training, which is nearly finished now.
But alas, it is not for me, the long hair or the temperament! So I went to my old hairdresser who was amazed to see me – she thought I had gone elsewhere until they saw the length of my hair. Very amusing. Even more amusing is that my curls have returned. After 10+ years! Really tight curls that won’t be tamed. Which makes a mockery of the sleek, stylish hairdo I had selected, but who cares? I regard those re-emerging curls als evidence of my inner rebel – yes , the theme of this blog.
The decision to cut off my hair came at the end of a lovely holiday. We usually take one during the first or the second week of May. I don’t like to be home on my birthday because it is Remembrance day, and also because May is such a wonderful month. Spring, not yet hot, there is no pollen, everything a lush green and flowers everywhere. We rented a wonderful little house at the edge of a wood near the beach. Son came over on his bike because we were near Leiden where he lives, and we celebrated both our birthdays. We also did a lot of walking and photography and walking along the shore. One day we went to the Keukenhof. I had always wanted to go, and now I had turned 60 I felt I had a right 🙂 Husband was a true sport and came along without grumbling. Took a million pictures, but one will have to do for this post.
The holiday marked the beginning of my return to health. If you remember my last post, things were pretty bleak on that front – my worst CFS flare up in years. But I should have remembered, just when I start to cry that I just cannot go on, things always get better. I had ordered a pile of supplements which might counteract the CFS bad-fuel problem, the anaerobic metabolism that causes my muscles to behave like they have run a marathon. The science is all here, in a PostScript. Anyway, I have been taking these supplements for two months now, and they are really making a difference. I don’t have more energy, but most of the aches and brain fog and stiffness have gone. Husband says I seem to get stronger. Great. I aim to be a super fit pensioner. That is still seven years away, so I might make the deadline :-).
Whilst on holiday, I took some time to think about work. Normally I don’t, because there is not much I can change, but I was experiencing some kind of inner revolt which was bothering me.
- Revolt against our political system, which I feel has been eradicating the social fabric of our society for the past 20-odd years. In civil service (the day job), such changes become more and more visible in the way we deal with the public and vice versa. I loathe neo-liberalism beyond anything I can put into words.
- Revolt also against my day-job, which is about (information) security. I had been researching the threat landscape, both at work and for my PhD. It looks as if citizens are becoming squashed between criminal organisations and governments, neither of which can be defended against. So what is there for little me to do against all that?
A bit bleak, eh? But there is nothing for it, other than to look the monsters squarely in the face, take a deep breath, and do what I can in my own little world. Or so I resolved. I must find some more colleagues to pass on my experience and knowledge on. That is a much better idea than running around, trying to save the world by myself. Meanwhile, I keep an eye on the lottery, but I never win. Well, as they say, lucky in love unlucky in gambling, which is fine with me.
Another thing that was worrying me is whether we should move house. We have very steep stairs, so if we become old and feeble, we won’t be able to make it upstairs. We had the stairs measured for one of these chair-lifts, and it will fit! Well, you would have to duck your head a little, but it fits. So that is one problem less. Time to revamp the place, coz it is a while since we did any painting. We will need help this time around. So Husband and I have decided to save up a bit before we start. We will start on the study. Husband has already made a maquette to scale. Exciting.
The PhD is also back on track. My professor advised me to stop reading and start thinking. Which turned out to be very hard advice to follow – whenever I think up something, I am inclined to check if someone else has thought of it, and what they said, and how they developed the thought, etc. And this habit was making me feel as if I was catching snowflakes. It is strange, somehow just thinking does not feel like work whereas reading does. It is the Protestant Work Ethics lurking inside me; I suppose. Anyway, I have been “just thinking” for over a month now (with a bit of reading on the side, I will admit), and things are progressing again. I have developed a mini theory which I am expanding on. I have also run into some interesting contacts.
- A German guy who is introducing companies to autopoiesis. The thing is, it seems to work and they are ecstatic, but no one seems to worry about why it works. Autopoiesis is about living cells. Organisations are not.
- Some interesting IT guys, external contractors, approached me. They have developed a new way of approaching problems, which is a bottom-up empowering style, rather than the traditional top down “blue” design thinking. I like them and their style very much, but for now I cannot make much sense of what they are doing: it seems to be a pot-pourri of original thoughts, sound scientific theory, well-thought out personal style and agile-style hypes. Must find out more. The conversation continues.
- Then there is this interesting guy, a business architect like me, but much more the suave boardroom type. He is clever, well read, and a self-styled philosophy with fixed ideas about language, the type of ideas that many people in the IT business have – they think that either language has a fixed meaning (being comprised of words) or that meanings come from intentions. If I can explain my ideas to him and get him to understand, that would mean that I have achieved sufficient clarity myself.
- Also talked to two security professors now. Both want to help me. One is offering to co-author my literature research on security professionals. Not too much work for him, but it would validate the paper, as I am a philosophy researcher, not a security one, despite the day job. So sharing authorship seemed ok to me. My professor agreed. Better to be generous.
I am a bit hesitant, but in my next post I will try to outline some of the ideas I have been working on. Must start somewhere, so I will start with you.
I have signed up for the reading challenge on Goodreads. A 100 books this year. I am heavily into “noir detectives”, and I don’t read, I listen. All the time. I have also been listing to some other stuff. This one: the Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber (anthropologist) and David Wengrow (archeologist). It is “is a reimagining of the history of humanity, based on new discoveries in the worlds of anthropology and archeology. According to the authors, new findings challenge what we thought we knew about hierarchies, inequality, property, and the state”. David Graeber, who died unexpectedly last year, was actually kicked out of Harvard for his anarchistic ideas, so that sparked my attention. A whopping 24 hours listening, but a fascinating book! The book is very detailed, so I will repeat the experience at some point. Recommended. For my Dutch friends, there is a Dutch translation: “het begin van alles”.
Make that one of those months. Some things are not going the way I want them to. At all. So if you are in the mood for some complaining, do read on. It is all self-centred drivel, but that comes with the privilege of hosting your own blog. Where to start? Well, there are a couple of things in my life that are not moving forward how I had hoped: The PhD. The job. The health. The future house.
Let’s take that list backwards. The Future house is a concept. It might be the house I am living in. The idea is, that we need to look making the house elderly-proof, if we want to stay here like forever, or even 20 years. Or we need to move. In either case, we need to do something. My husband is considerably older than I am, and my health (next paragraph) is not great in some respects. So we must not leave decisions until too late. Start some long overdue maintenance on the house and check if a stairlift can be fitted at some point. Or look seriously for another house. We slanted towards the latter (because a wonderful option came along), but recently, with the housing market and the uncertainty introduced by the war in Ukraine, it looks like we will stay put. But we have not decided definitely on anything, and I hate that. I want to know where I am going.
Health – now I know where I am going with that. Nowhere. If I am lucky and careful and diligent, I might well keep my CFS at bay. I am getting more pains and more minor impediments, but slowly. Sometimes I hate the way I have to live – no room for adventure of even straying from my schedule. Only feeling energetic in the morning or after a glass of wine in the evening to get the blood flowing again (I get colder as the day progresses). Two weeks ago, my son came over, and we spent three late nights in the kitchen, just talking and not even that late. It took me a week to feel ok again.
Next I got corona. I am just getting out of that now. I know I should be grateful, only a mild case, coz of all the vaccines and boosters. Also, I feel bad about complaining because one of my dearest friends got diagnosed with something aggressive. I cannot stand to lose him and desperately hope I won’t. Meanwhile, I just want my old energy and flexibility back. From when I was 45. Ain’t going to happen. But sometimes I forget.
Work was truly terrible the first few months of this year. So bad that I seriously considered changing jobs. So I opened up my LinkedIn Profile and wrote some emails. Since then, I am bombarded with jobs, some very attractive and all very well paying. But I am no longer sure that I want to change jobs at all. I managed to change some things at work, my colleagues are helping, and I am wondering what the point is of changing just 7 years before I get pensioned off. Is that sensible of just cowardly? I don’t know. Mind you, I hardly have time to think about it, because it is a madhouse out there. The social and political climate is such that we are bombarded with questions about security – and just answering those questions seems to take more time than actually doing the work.
The PhD got off to a false start. There, I have said it. There was some delay after I finished my research master, which I did not quite understand, wrote about it a bit in a previous post, here. Then, after this winter, I felt was not really making much progress. Also, I could not make sense of what my supervisor was asking me to do: to research general misunderstandings, which are only vaguely connected to my research topic. However, that caused me to do a lot of work which I now know will not go into my PhD research. Hence also the form for collecting misunderstandings on this site, which I will take down soon, because it is far too general for my purposes.
Anyway, I finally figured out that my supervisor might not remember or perhaps had never fully understood the details of the problem I want to solve. So I created a presentation with lots of pictures and used that in the next meeting to talk him through it. It worked, which was a great relief. He even talked to another professor about it (who was doing his own second PhD in our faculty and turned out to be a great guy with lots of interesting ideas). At my supervisor’s suggestion, I wrote up my presentation as a problem description with a bit context. It was difficult, because I had to digest a lot of academic articles on IT security and then summarise them to be understandable to a general public. The connection to cyberwar and the war in Ukraine did not help, as the gift from my stepfather (2nd generation camp syndrome) got in the way pretty badly until I decided to watch no more television to avoid images. But I completed it. My supervisor said my text was perfectly understandable, so mission accomplished. I thought.
Other than that, neither my supervisor nor I seem to have much idea yet about how I am going to find other academics to support my research. This is required , but as my research involves or touches several other disciplines, this is also requires careful thinking. These other academics will want to their pound of flesh, corresponding to their own academic interests, so inevitably they will interfere with my work, steering me in other directions, wanting more or less detail, etc. I must admit, I am worried about this. I have now experimented with telling my research story to people from various disciplines, and every time it takes a great deal of time and effort to explain what the problem is and how I want to tackle it.
There are quite a few disciplines touching on my research question, but it is difficult to find someone to talk to. Philosophers tend not to be interested in real-world problems, that is not their job. In Psychology, there is so much useless research, it is extremely difficult to find what you are looking for, alone find a kindred spirit. The IT world still thinks of words and data as components of a logical language, i.e. that everything can be programmed or otherwise made predictable. In IT security, there is virtually no academic tradition, nor much natural inclination to look beyond itself. I believe that “business” or “management” is an academic field nowadays, but from what I can see, it is merely an industry of hypes and market opportunities (I might have to eat my words, but this is how it looks to me at the moment). I am not familiar with linguistics or communication as academic disciplines, but I am touching upon those as well, and I have no academic connections there.
I was not going to worry about this, thinking these problems would solve themselves as I went along, but then I had an unpleasant experience. I asked an IT security professor at my university to validate a few pages of text, in which I had tried to explain the context of my research- the very text I had created following the presentation to my supervisor. I just wanted him to check that I had not written nonsense, as I am knowledgeable but don’t have an academic degree in Information Science. Did not exist when I grew up 🙂 But for some reason – perhaps in haste – this professor read my text as if it were my research proposal, and then proceeded to hate it, even correcting the odd spelling mistake in the process. This was expressed by scribbling across my document, making remarks as they occurred to him, without even waiting to read the next sentence, as if I were a nine-year-old being graded for a school project. My husband shook his head upon hearing this, and said it should have been perfectly clear this was not a research proposal, it did not tick any of the boxes, and also I had said it was not. But it happened anyway. My supervisor, however, said it was my fault for doing this by mail. I should have arranged a face-to-face meeting, and this is how I should make contact in the future. Yes. Of course. I agree. But even if I made a communication mistake, there is a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this is not ok. Academic professors probably think this normal behaviour, but I hope I do not act in this condescending manner when, in my day job, I am asked for help or advice.
The trouble is, I might be making an implicit and possibly unfair comparison between two worlds: one I know well, where these things don’t go wrong because I the rules so well; and the academic environment which I don’t know well enough, so I have to be extra careful. Which I will do in the future. It is just more good old stakeholder management, which in this bright and clear academic world I naively had hoped to do without – endless grooming for the sake of building beneficial relationships. I know how to do it, but I hate it. There are days where I don’t mind too much, thinking that this is how the world works. Other days, I get nauseated listening to these academics thanking each other profusely for their interesting talks, just before baring their teeth and going for the kill. I detest articles that seem to be written for the sole purpose of putting someone else down. The problem is, I am much too vulnerable myself. If anyone says something purposely scathing to me, particularly if it is about something I have done my very best for, it may take me days, even weeks, to get over it. Not a very efficient way to be, I concur. A character trait which renders me totally unsuited to an academic career. But an academic career is not what I want. I want to understand something more than I do now, and if possible, share that understanding to make things better. The rest is not so important. There. This thought helps. It quietens me down.
I have just read back what I have written so far. I suppose I just wanted to say to myself that it is ok, sometimes, to lose heart. For a few minutes, that is all. It is allowed. And also, perhaps, that sometimes I might take a break. Watch a silly movie with Husband, which he lovingly selects for me from the 6+or 12+ range because I cannot handle anything more adult. Bake a cake. Plant herbs. Slow down. Complain. Drink chai. Commiserate with my few remaining girlfriends and lovely, wise, nearly priest sister who I am proud of. Natter with my son about every topic under the sun. Fondly remember some people I have lost. Reconnect with some friends that seem to drift away. Listen to my favourite noir detectives. Take mini breaks. Enjoy the wood fire at night, again courtesy of Husband. Wait for my Sunday mails on blogs that I really like. “Life is like a box of chocolates”, says Forrest Gump in the movie that we are watching, “you never know what is inside”.
I will leave you with this hopeful ending – the temporary end of my complaining. I wish you a box of chocolates too.
PS (The next day) This is perhaps some weird reverse psychology I am subjecting myself too, but this morning I woke up thinking I should kick myself into action and take charge. Nobody is going to do it for me. So I checked out on what other Dutch universities are researching on information security. Found two very interesting top professors who are interested in governance and behaviour, and who do or supervise actual research. I wrote to both of them, not bombarding them with information, but explaining I need advice on how to integrate my IT security literature study in a language philosophy dissertation, and would they be prepared to talk to me about this? Yes, I have taken my supervisor’s advice to go for a face-to-face meeting. Has to be a digital meeting, though. I cannot manage the travelling, well, not much. First, see if they respond. And if not, there is an entire world out there.
PPS (a week later) I periodically check for new CFS research. A useful perk of my studies, because I can access all the medical journals too. I came across into a whole new line of thinking that seems to fit my condition exactly. The hypothesis CFS patients cannot burn carbs (well) and therefore their starving cells switch to whatever fuel is at hand. Which is ineffective (tiredness), depletes some important amino acids (long recovery) and saddles the muscles with lactic acid (pain). Exactly, that is how it feels. The same is found in healthy people after intensive exercise. The medical articles are difficult to read, but there is a beautiful write up here. Some comments make for an interesting read – people get angry because the article describes how they feel without providing a solution. But I think these researchers are well underway to solve the mystery – perhaps another 5 years? Here is hoping ..
Quiet moments – I don’t get many of these. So I am savouring the moment. It won’t last – by tomorrow morning, or probably as I prepare to go to sleep, things will have moved again at great speed. But for now, things are quiet. After the weekend and after having completed another 2 1/2 week stretch on my research project, and just before I go back the day job. Bliss.
Speaking of the day job, I came back to it in the second week of January from my gloriously long leave. There were hundreds of mails, and more pouring in. Most were either requests for knowledge or attempts to involve me in some project. Hmm. I worked late in order to get rid of them. Must find a way to prevent that from happening again. Or perhaps, as a colleague suggested, come a back a day early and not tell anyone 🙂
Between those, this is my own very secret project: trying to make the Dutch Tax office, or even better, the country, a safe(r) place. In terms of digital information, that is. You probably think that this would be an impossible task for me by my lonesome, and you would be right. But still I try. I will be pensioned off in 2742 days from now and I would love to look back at that point and think that I made a small contribution. Or at least have not made things much worse. So much work, so little time. I will return to it tomorrow. For today is my official old-crone-leave day which I spend on academic things.
Today was my 3-weekly meeting with my supervisor. I send him status reports a few days beforehand, but I think I may be sending them in too late, because I think he had not been able to read it all. Mind you, I speak to him more frequently than I ever did before, so perhaps it does not matter. Or perhaps the way I present my information does not resonate (lots of diagrams). Or he is simply too busy. Anyway, most of our talk today went to repeating and explaining what I had been doing, and when the ideas are new, I always find it difficult to express myself. I think he wants me to start collecting hard evidence, and so do I, but I need, must have the general picture in my head before I can start. We are agreed on the kind of work that needs to be done: locate those bits – traces; I suppose – people put in our conversation which are not about information, but about the relationship with the audience. It is just that I need a framework to start investigating – just noting that a conversation is “face-to-face” simply is not enough.
So what did I find by the way of theoretical framework? Well, I ran into this guy called Watzlawick who was inspired by Bateson (who invented the double-bind) and in his turn inspired Janet Bavelas who spent her life trying to prove that Watzlawick was right – with some tweaks and alterations. I spent nearly 3 weeks dissecting his 1967 book, and it taught me a lot, apart from what Bavelas is on about, which I still need to investigate further. The basic idea is this:
What I like about it, it that preserves both the relationship side (what I or you must do, believe, think, avoid whatever) and the factual information side (he calls that “digital” because it its on-off character). In fact, according to Watzlawick, many misunderstanding and disagreements come from misreading the most important side – the relationship side (he calls that “analog”) or confusing the two. Did you know that when reading out a simple list of words, we automatically check if they are appropriate to our audience? Hence, we are much slower in reading out words we think are offensive to whoever is listening. Not mind blowing, just to show that both sides of the message count.
Why is it important? Well, it had not occurred to me that there may be a common base to conflict and misunderstanding from getting tangled up and confusing the relationship and the informative side of a conversation. Experienced negotiators know this, of course, but I did not :-). I seem to recall that such styles play a role in business communication ( see: thinking in colours) and in autism. Must investigate.
There is also a nice bit on paradoxical communication – not my subject, but still fun:
There was one other thought that hit me: misunderstandings are something you cannot agree upon between you. The misunderstanding would instantly disappear. You could agree in retrospect that there was a misunderstanding, but not at the time it is happening. Which is weird. It also means that you could be wrong about the nature of the misunderstanding you had with someone, even if you are both agreed on it. Which I suppose could also be true of disagreements.
If you feel like it, start sending in misunderstandings. I created an English and a Dutch form on the opening screen of this site, under the heading “misunderstandings“. There is some stuff about not putting in private information, but that is obligatory these days – you understand, I am sure.
I had intended to dive straight into my PhD, follow my research proposal, complete it, etc. But for some reason my professor insisted on delivering cautionary tales. About how a phd never turns out according to its initial proposal (even if he thought it was very good on another occasion). About how in my particular case and quest, I would have to look at other disciplines beside philosophy. About how I might as well take six years and never publish anything as long as I enjoyed myself. Well … I think I understand what he meant – rephrased his sentences several times and rechecked – but I am not at all sure why he said these things, other than that he appeared to want me to slow down. So I thought I’d think about it a little bit first.
Without throwing my research proposal at you (although it is here if you want to read it), I must admit that it is far more complex to explain why something does not happen (understanding) than why it does happen. Because, in order to explain what does not happen, you have to understand exactly what it is that does not happen that could have happened. A bit like why it takes much longer not to find something in your pocket. So, I embarked on some thinking-by-myself, in the wild, so to speak.
I had been worrying about two publications (well, books-n-papers) in my day-job field (information technology), and it would not leave me alone. So I decided to investigate further.
One is on Archimate. That is a open-source modelling language used by digital architects to make blueprints of business environments. It was developed primarily by Mark Lankhorst, but there were some other researchers involved in connecting up Archimate with the theoretical background, including philosophy of language, in this paper: Arbab et al (2015). Actually, the claim they make is not so terribly large, it seems. They refer back to the meaning triangle proposed by Morris (1946) which really is not by Morris at all, but goes back to Ogden & Morris (1923). Basically, it says that there is a relationship between things in the outside world and our thoughts, and that we connect they two using symbols. They then use symbols (in a modelling language) and thought/reference (the meaning of those symbols, presumably as expressed or understood by the modellers. Presto: meaningful diagrams. To be honest, there is not really very much philosophy of language in this theory. I have written to one of the researchers to ask if this claim should not simply be taken out – as it eats no bread, as they say.
The other theory is by Jan Dietz and colleagues, called DEMO. It is a modelling and design language, which was conceived in the early 90s and still going strong. It claims ( Ettema & Dietz, 2009) to be firmly rooted in philosophy of language, as opposed to Archimate, because it is based on a more-modern-than-Searle conception of speech acts, as advocated by Habermas, which envisages speech acts not just as information carriers but as coordination devices. Sounds much like Brandom’s normative inferentialism. Habermas’ insight into speech acts was not so different from the currently mainstream idea: speech acts are not just for passing on information. Speech acts also have a social component related to the speaker/hearer’s role – as a human being, as a member of one or more groups. It turns out, Brandom and Habermas met and agreed on much but also disagreed vehemently. I collected papers on the Brandom-Habermas debate, but there was no quick way in – and quite a few philosophers professed not to understand it either. Must be some fine point of philosophy, which I will return to if I must. But for the moment, I cannot imagine this controversy – which many philosophers profess not to understand – would have any impact on the conception of DEMO.
I must admit that I spent a happy evening tracing back all the theoretical components that are supposed to make up DEMO, and were fitted with big Greek letters accordingly. It had a distinct shopping spree feel to it – a stack of theories from everywhere, incorporated because they seemed to fit, a sort of build-your-own-theoretical-foundations-toolkit. Not in a million years would I be allowed to construct a theory on such a basis. But, I find DEMO interesting because it seems to explain how an organisation can help itself to new facts, truth, whatever you want to call them. Which is exactly what we do in speech acts, when we talk to each other. So I have written to ask what DEMO’s attachment is to Habermas. I personally think, there is none. Brandom would do just as well. Or even Grice, as nothing seems to be said about the motivation to coordinate actions. The point is, I think that in creating DEMO its authors may have understood specific felicity conditions for speech acts, and I want to find out how and what and where, because such notions may point to conditions for avoid misunderstanding, even in a highly stylised environment such as a business. Also, the fact that DEMO thinks of language in terms of coordination and collaboration rather than information exchange is still quite revolutionary, even though it was developed nearly 30 years ago. I want to know where the ideas came from.
I was happy to receive a reply on both counts – invitations to talk further. Great. Meanwhile a ideas has been brewing in my head. Might it be the case that modelling languages like Archimate and DEMO are in fact natural language-extensions? They are not mathematical languages, I am quite sure of that. They are not natural languages, they are made with a specific purpose in mind. Their elementary concepts constitute an elementary grammar plus the idea that whatever we want to happen (be it a process, a decision, an action or whatever) can be expressed in that grammar – i.e. stripping additional meanings, context etc down to a bare, model-able minimum.
The other side of the problem is the relationship between computer commands and “truth”. I need to find the right academic sources, but I am pretty sure none exist. I crossed checked with Husband coz he has actually written machine code where I hovered just above in my RPGII. Code simply instructs the processor to load two values, compare them and then take some action defined by you. There is no truth to it in any philosophical sense, other than whatever comes out of the comparison and taken as a starting point for action.
Just to make sure I don’t miss anything obvious, I have also been reading up on philosophical truth in all its variations. I found that that Habermas was a staunch supporter of the consensus theory of truth: whatever a specified group believes to be true, is true. There are other theories – correspondence, coherence, constructivist, pragmatic; and then there are the so-deflationary theories which say that truth is not a property of statements. I was surprised to learn that Strawson (1949) had proposed a performative theory of truth which characterised truth as a property of the speaker’s intentions, in response to Tarski who invented the concept of a object language to solve the liar’s paradox. Sounds like an early beginning of speech act theory to me!
An open door, yes: always a good idea, to think first. And yes, thinking is what philosophers do. Or they think about what others have thought. Or both. But that is not the kind of thinking that I mean.
I am in search of a documentation and retrieval system for my thoughts and notes and everything that goes into future publications, phd, whatever. I suppose having spent most of my working life in information science, I have a penchant for organising (although this does not extend to my very large, ever messy desk).
The problem is, Philosophia must have the largest number of digital illiterates of any discipline. The modus operandi does not seem to have changed in thousands of years: reading books and holding forth. Ok, so the reading may be on a computer and the holding forth via zoom – but that is as far as innovation has touched philosophy. In fact, philosophers seem to think that because their thinking led to the Computer (see Aristotle introducing it below), they are under no obligation to do anything with it. That is for the people. Somewhat like how the policy makers in the Hague look upon us civil servants to do the actual work (sorry, the day job crept in again).
I started off making mind maps. This is something I really like doing, and I found it worked well with short essays of the type that we were set during year-long skills seminar. One of my professors once saw one of my maps and professed total admiration – how had I done that? I did not have the heart to tell him that children get taught this at school nowadays, and that there are many many people who are much better at creative mind mapping than I am. Which I love coz I love infographics – see here. But the problem with mind maps is that they become incomprehensible when they get larger. So much so, that I would find a really nice mind map of some complicated problem on my hard drive, and think: “now where did I get this from” ? Only to remember a while after that I had made it myself – some weeks before. Ok, so not a good memory aid, that much is clear.
Zotero and Calibre
I had a look at my citation manager, Zotero. Which is a nifty program, and getting better all the time. It can do a lot (see here) but beyond storing articles in different collection, it cannot help me much. This is because all of its features, like tagging and grouping and linking are the level of the individual paper, whereas I want to organise the text content. Calibre is not an option either – it is wonderful for organising ebooks, but it cannot even handle papers properly.
Next I started to create my very own Wikipedia. The software that created Wikipedia is called mediawiki, and I managed to install in a subdomain to this blog. I then spent an inordinate amount of time tweaking the installation and teaching myself how to use it, how to create boxes, use colours, deploy pre-programmed templates and generally make my DIY wiki look pretty and interesting. Then I went to fill it. I spent a long time thinking about the categories (Mediawiki-speak) I would organise my information, and eventually came up with this: Philosophers – Positions – Arguments – Topics – Definitions. These two features of mediawiki really helped: hotlinking to another page and relating any page to one or more categories. I started pouring stuff into my wiki, but gradually slowed down. The problem was that wiki-pages are great to make – once you have finished with the material you want organise and you know exactly how. By the time I have worked out all of that, it is time to move to the next paper. I concluded I needed something that would help me create an organising system on the fly.
Next my love affair with Atlas.TI. I got the idea from architectural modelling in my day job. I even used archimate once to model autopoietic enactivism. Atlas.Ti is much more flexible than archimate, it is really quite wonderful. I got it for next to nothing in the student webshop, and later found out that the university distributes it for free. I also bought a competing program, MAXQDA plus. Both programs help you to annotate texts and then organise the labels into a scheme for easy retrieval and analysis. The philosophy behind them is different – there is a good article here, explaining how MAXQDA is based on qualitive content analysis, whereas Atlas.TI works allows you to find patterns in a text, using your own codingin system – more akin to grounded theory. Atlas.TI seemed to fulfill all my needs – for a while. I was so happy with it, I even bought an upgrade to the version 9 because I could not wait for the university to supply one for free (which of course by now they have done). Below you can see how it works. You annotate a paper through codes. Codes can be reused across a project – this project contains 135 papers.
You can then use the codes to create network diagrams, like so:
I have done some really nice analyses with this tool – for a presentation in my ReMa course in Amsterdam on advanced language and logic I worked out how my professor’s articles are related to various concepts he has investigated, and also for the last Philosophy of Mind seminar, when I investigated how various philosophers used different words for common ground. I also used the Atlas.TI network diagrams in my research logbook, which really looked wonderful. The only problem was that after a few months, I could not longer read the complicated diagrams I had made myself – well, not without rereading the entire paper, which sort of defeats the point. The other problem was that Atlas.Ti is not really geared toward the kind of use I make of it, nor do they plan to. The autocoding feature (which allows for automatic coding throughout a large set of documents) does not work in reverse. That means that your coding system has to be ready from before you start reading the papers. Ough. Same problem as with mediawiki. The other problem is that it cannot handle more than say 50 documents or books in any one project at one time, and you cannot interrelated projects or their codings systems. So alas. I wrote to Atlas.Ti. a couple of times, hoping to hear that they would build in the features I need, but they won’t – text annotation is not their core business. Pity.
Yet another search for philosopher’s tooling yielded a surprising result: one philosopher actually created his own tooling to dealing with philosophical research: organising and retrieving philosophical statements, knowledge, insight. Quite impressive, a philosopher-cum-programmer. The software impressed me as well. Until I tried to use it. I watched all of the instruction videos several times (there is no manual), but was not able to distill a workflow that was right for me, and the look-and-feel of the program felt awkward. Also, I did not like the manual zotero integration much. But my main worry was with becoming dependent on the author. Yes yes, the database is all readable XML, but I am not a modern programmer – I just manage procedural language programming (only in my sleep as it is a long time ago that I actually did any programming), and I positively loathe the object-oriented stuff. So what would I do with bunch of XML files? Too many worries. I needed something else.
Obsidian, my second brain
I had seen references to Obsidian before, but ignored them. Mainly because I did not know what markdown is, so I could not image why anyone would be interested in organising a bunch of markdown files, however prettily. But as it turns out, markdown is just plain text plus. Since its inception, many different versions have appeared, but they are all html-convertable and will be readable als txt files forever. Obsidian gives me all of the advantages of mediawiki without the disadvantages. It is fast and flexible. It integrates with zotero. I can link and tag notes and files. I can edit files on my PC and on my mobile devices, using icloud. The only thing that is missing is being able to publish to website (other than the paid version). But that will come, I am sure.
I started out with a work problem – a huge text that needed cutting up, the ISO27002 guidelines. This I needed to do anyway, so it seemed a good place to start. And yes, I was able to deconstruct the document and then put it back together again, although the learning curve was a bit steep – as it always is with these things. I will write up a post on the configuration(s) I arrived at and publish it on the thinking tools page, at some point. See below a snapshot of my folder structure, and a graph based on the word enacted.
Obsidian has a great online support community and extensive documentation. There are many plugins. It also integrates with Zotero. Cannot wait for the new Zotero release! Anyway, I think Obsidian may be it for me. The hierarchical tagging system is particularly helpful, because of another problem which I will describe next.
Towards a metamodel or a taxonomy of philosophy
Actually, there are not that many who tried. There are a few lone papers. This one is the best I came across: Grenon, P., Smith, B. Foundations of an ontology of philosophy. Synthese 182, 185–204 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-009-9658-x. It did not receive much attention. But I thought I’d try and model the ontology component they recommended in UML (nice reason to update my visio license), as a data model.
The problem is in the centre part. Grenon and Smith assume two things:
a) concept, proposition, argument, theory and method are disjunct
b) the philosopher’s workflow is like so: think a concept, propose whether it is true or not, supply argumentation, and then develop a theory using a method.
Unfortunately, philosophers are agreed on neither. They are not even agreed on the meaning of terms like concept or theory.And there is the addition problem of nesting – ad infinitum. I was a miserable when I saw this. And then I thought: who cares that philosophers don’t agree on their definitions or way of working. This is about my work, and I can define terms and workflows in whatever way I want. And I do want, because I need to store and retrieve.
So I decided to organise philosophers into single authors, groups and main fields (branches). I also have terms, topics, theories and approaches. See the image below. For my folders, I use the Johnny.decimal numbering system (which I have also started using at home and at the office). Folders and some notes are displayed on the left. I use aliases for my notes (at the top, with the metadata) so I can refer to them in different ways (with or without capitals, etc). I use a hierarchical tagging system, shown on the right.
I have already harvested my best essays in this system and am now in the progress of harvesting whatever may be useful from my diy wikipedia before I close it down forever. Let’s hope Obsidian will support me through the next few years, but I am hopeful. I also enjoy watching the videos Tall guy Jenks makes. He is a self-proclaimed ADHD sufferer, and he says the only way he can live and work is by outsourcing his information management as much as possible. Wow. I suppose the same is true of me, but with me coz of a not-so-young-anymore memory and too many things to do in a day.