29 September 2006


In the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
The Tempest, II.i., William Shakespeare

Anarcho-primitivism (A-P) is a tendency of Anarchism founded on a repudiation of the origins of civilization, or (conceivably) our specific civilization. While there is no political movement that proposes to implement the aims of A-P, it remains an extremely influential ideology.

Many of my readers may share my bemusement at the way anarchism has different tendencies; the Wikipedia post on anarchism lists twelve different tendencies, of which primitivism is one; a 13th is "anarchism without adjectives," which apparently sensed the illogic of hyphenated disciplines of anarchism. The surmise that one would have, that people opposed to any form of hierarchy whatever are unlikely to form a serious challenge to state authority, is indeed born out by experience. In the 19th century, the tragic life of Sergei Nechayev exemplified the problems faced by the early anarchists: paranoia, unrealistic strategies of political action, petty factional quarrels, widespread contempt, profound alienation from the social lives of virtually everyone, and so on.

With A-P, the goals have shifted away from a direct abolition of the state (because that is not possible) to a critique of all forms of power structure. A-P being a critique, rather than an ideological goal, is necessary for several reasons:
  1. The A-P critique of actually-existing society is more extreme than any other; other extreme ideologies, such as Fascism or Communism, claim that their triumph would lead to well-being under prosperity and modern technology.
  2. A critique of a thing does not preclude using it or being it. It is not necessarily so that a person has to have a viable alternative to the thing she criticizes. For example, Christianity holds that all humans are sinful and require redemption by Jesus. It is absurd to demand that the Christian supply an alternative to being human; the lack of an alternative to being sinful is beside the point.
  3. Requiring a critic of a thing to be logically consistent by refusing to use or benefit from that thing imposes a Catch-22 on criticism generally: someone who points out the shortcomings of cars as transportation might object to the lack of alternatives to cars, but if she refuses to use cars she couldn't show up to defend her views. If A-P were a bona fide ideology (as opposed to a critique), no sincere proponent could appear to discuss it.
At its most intellectually rigorous, A-P amounts to the most radical exploration of possible alternative human possibilities that could occur.

My initial exposure to A-P stimulated utter disgust and contempt. It is common to praise the lot of the aborigines as "noble savages," but these people were taking the idea of nostalgia to absurd extremes. I was particularly irritated by the confidence of some of my pseudo-hippie classmates that people like the !Xung of Botswana were somehow happier than (say) we were. How could they know the relative "happiness" of people? They might surmise they could possibly be happier not knowing the conveniences of modern life, but how could they claim to be certain? It didn't help that the A-P philosophy was suddenly thrust into the public eye by the Unabomber. A disturbing aspect of A-P was that it seemed improbable that adherents would be content to remain a philosophical critique. The Unabomber, who claimed to act on behalf of a "Freedom Club," and whose manifesto (linked below) repeatedly invoked "freedom," insisted that he was fighting for freedom. But if so, it was the terrifying delusion of one insisting that our obvious preference cannot possibly be a "free" choice. Humans could only be free his way.

A-P philosophers mostly disavowed the Unabomber; it was obvious that his campaign of random assassinations was totally counterproductive. And indeed, the Unabomber's own manifesto has little by way of explanation for what he hoped to accomplish. However, it is true that A-P enthusiasts frequently have an apocalyptic view of society; they look forward (perhaps with the cheerfulness that phrase implies) to a massive die-off of humanity. That was a fairly common experience I had in college, when I encountered A-P's. In private, they maintained that virtually all humanity was going to die off, and they regarded this as a positive good. But they also insisted that this won't their fault, or, less trivially, that it wouldn't be a consequence of widespread acceptance of A-P; a lot of the more extreme peak oil theorists, while not remotely anarchists of any type, and visibly distressed by the prospect, also anticipate a massive crisis leading to a die-off of tens of millions. Likewise, they can always point out the non-human, or non-Usonian, population of the earth, suffers immensely from our lifestyle; it's unreasonable to complain about A-P's mordant world view when our country slaughters 100 million pigs annually [*]. What about increased mortality among humans caused by secondary water consumption of the US economy?

A-P critiques usually target technology as representing an insidious and necessarily coercive trend that is alien to wholesome human society. One of the problems of A-P is explaining how civilization became so pervasive if it is alien to human nature; and if it is not alien, but a natural tendency of humans to organize and develop tools, then how can such a bad thing be prevented? In response to this, many A-P thinkers have conceded that they don't wish to abolish civilization, so much as to radically transform it through analysis and example (Moore).

This has led to one major rift in A-P, between lifestyle anarchists who seek to replicate pre-industrial modes of living, and radicals who ignore the paradox of civilization's origins. The latter may be accused of not being thinkers so much as ranters, since they also tend to reject scientism as a feature of technology and civilization. Unfortunately, without the theoretical underpinnings of science, A-P ceases to be anything but a negation. There can be no philosophy of A-P since it lacks anything like an experimental or deductive method, and as a set of goals it is based on a romantic abstraction of actual social organization. The idea that human actions are aimed at addressing needs significant to the individual is incompatible with radical, normative A-P.

It is my observation that A-P tends to be a materialist analogue to chiliastic theology. The movement is impossibly fragmented and rejects any goal of creating a new society, yet the idea of a philosophical critique of civilization without any constructive action at all is rather pointless. So the result is that adherents tend to anticipate the obliteration of civilization by a crisis of its own making, such as a nuclear war or peak oil.
Aborigine: literally, "forest dweller"; nowadays, applied almost exclusively to the indigenous people of mainland Australia. Initially, the term referred to a primary category of socio-economic organization, that of the hunter-gatherer. The other categories were pastoralists (shepherders) and agrarians (farmers). There is an erroneous impression in some circles that "aborigine" is an ethnic slur, although this term is used by the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (something that would be unlikely if it were pejorative).

"Aborigine" is not a synonym for "Indian"; although it would be an accurate description of some Native American peoples at some periods of their history. Also, aboriginal peoples are not necessarily primitive; for example, many of the Pacific Northwestern peoples had highly advanced crafts, but remained hunter-gatherers. Many Inuktiut peoples are aboriginal while engaging in high-tech activities, such as cinematography. (I recently watched a movie made by an all-Inuktiut crew).

Secondary water consumption: every year the USA imports millions of tons of cattle feed from other countries, such as Guatemala. One point of view has it that this is a case of the free market making it easier for the agricultural sector to meet US domestic demand for beef, pork, and poultry. Naturally, if a population eats a lot of meat, then the livestock also must consume water and grains grown with water. As the populations of industrialized countries replace plants with meat, they increase their secondary water consumption by a very large amount. Typically, ranchers respond to the limits imposed on local supplies of water by importing feed from 3rd world countries, where ownership of water may be highly concentrated. Hence, the consumption of water by the US farming sector includes very large amounts that fell onto distant lands.

Another point of view maintains that the "overflow" of water demand, or effective importation of water from countries with undervalued currencies, sharply restricts the ability of Third world farmers to meet the demands of their own people for food. First world consumption of cash crops may supply the elites with foreign exchange reserves, but the need of the population for water is an absolute that no amount of increased GDP will replace; no amount of economic orthodoxy can change that fact.
ADDITIONAL READING & SOURCES: "A Primitivist Primer," John Moore; "Industrial Society & Its Future," Theodore Kacsinsky (AKA the Unabomber)

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28 September 2006

Notions of Quality (2)

(Part 1)

For convenience, I distinguish among these criteria of quality:

Quality of Conception:
When a product is proposed, is its function and motivation meritorious? The essence of kitsch is that it is created not to fill a need, but occupy some sort of emptiness. Kitsch I define as something that is unworthy in conception. It exists to create a distraction and idle stimulus of the senses. By virtue of its purpose--perhaps as a chit in a gift economy--it has little reason to be excellent. Or, in some cases, it is morally reprehensible in purpose--to be willfully vulgar, for example. Building facades erected to alienate and affront neighbors, or Hummers produced to advertise one's wealth and intimidate other motorists--these are monstrosities in conception.

It's more interesting, as always, to consider cases of flawed conception, rather than the extremes. In my view, quality of conception is where the good intersects with the just. A well-conceived tool reflects an genuinely ethical and sincere approach to the problem. The designer has done her research and is well aware of prior art. In the applied arts, quality of conception necessarily embraces not merely features of design, but also the precise application of the device. In architecture, the building ought not to be an affront to either its neighborhood nor to occupants. In the fine arts, the work of art ought not to trivialize the act of artistic creation (either as kitsch or as masochism or as recursive sarcasm.)

Quality of Design:
Much of very bad quality lies in poor design. Typically, poor design is accompanied by poor conception, but there are many examples of horridly bad design for which the conception was no worse than usual. A good example of this is Detroit's early attempts at small, front wheel-drive cars. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Vega were reasonably good conceptions--small, sporty, and reasonably attractive--but specimens of some of the worst engineering of that epoch.

Quality of Execution:
The purest illustration of QoE is when the same design is produced in many locales. The most widely produced complex design is probably the AK-47 assault rifle, slight variations of which have been produced in nearly every country in the world. The quality of a gun is dramatically affected by the quality of materials used and the precision of fit. Similar to this in concept is the auto design made by several different firms, such as the Renault 12. The Dacia 1300 (Romania) and Ford (?) Corcel (Brazil/Venezuela) were similar, although the Corcel had distinctive body panels. The Peugeot 206 & 405 are presently produced by Peugeot in France, but also by Khodro in Iran. Today, standardization of technique and terms of cooperation mean that the same design produced in several countries will likely be comparable in quality--the difference in productive regimes tends to show up in profitability.

More frequently, poor manufacturing quality tends to translate to poor conception and design of the manufacturing process, which has more recently come under the same intense scrutiny as the completed product. Prior to the 1990's, production was a highly idiosyncratic matter except for some aerospace and Japanese firms, and often taken as a reflection on national character.

Aside from exceptional cases such as these, however, QoE (isolated from quality of design) is a concern for projects whose "production" consists mostly of intellectual labor, such as software, publishing, fine arts, and publishing. It also arises in customized items, such as the construction of unusual or very large structures; or in services.
ADDITIONAL READING: with respect to quality of conception--"Lockdown at Ground Zero," James Westcott, NY Arts, Dec 2005 (via Wikipedia); "Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art," by Fred Ross (edited by Iian Neill; please scroll down to article);


27 September 2006

Notions of Quality (1)

One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.
"Conclusion," Walden, Henry David Thoreau

[Saladin] unsheathed his scimitar, a curved and narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was, on the contrary, of a dull blue colour, marked with ten millions of meandering lines, which showed how anxiously the metal had been welded by the armourer. Wielding this weapon, apparently so inefficient when compared to that of Richard, [...] he undid the sort of veil which he had hitherto worn, laid it double along the edge of his [scimitar], extended the weapon edgeways in the air, and drawing it suddenly through the veil, although it hung on the blade entirely loose, severed that also into two parts, which floated to different sides of the tent, equally displaying the extreme temper and sharpness of the weapon, and the exquisite dexterity of him who used it.
The Talisman, Sir Walter Scott, XXIII
In addition to varieties of efficiency, there are varied notions of what is meant by "quality." In Robert Pirsig's book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, quality is a major theme of the book, which purports to be an inquiry into values. It's been about 25 years since I read the book, and I was only a teenager at the time, so my recollection is imperfect.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it's actually not about either Zen or motorcycle maintenance, although Pirsig alludes to both often. Instead, it's a mixture of narrative journalism, introductory classical philosophy, and curmudgeonly rant on the spiritual shortcomings of industrial society.

Part of the book is addressed to a "metaphysics of quality," which he resisted defining. However, it is clear he is talking about "quality" in the sense of "excellence" or "meritorious." Quality is not so much an attribute or a degree of fulfillment, as it is the epitome of being. There is a continuum of aesthetic fulfillment, which runs from "dynamic reality" to "static patterns of quality"; this is an interesting blend of Platonic and Buddhist notions of ontology. "Static patterns of quality" corresponds roughly to Plato's forms; "dynamic reality" corresponds to observed & contingent reality, as, for example, what I am feeling at this time and in this place, given my state of health and mental activity.

Yet Pirsig's mental state and emotional reactions to the wilderness of mediocrity he perceives in post-industrial America is not at all recondite; he seems, if anything, to have been alienated and mortified by his world view, since the natural human desire to budget time in individual ways strikes him as monstrous. For example, it's natural for someone to perform a task he dislikes, or which is repetitive and unfulfilling, as quickly as he can. I don't like pulling dandelions out of my backyard, and I do it as quickly as I can. To an ordinary person, this is understandable; one wants to get the emotionally unrewarding, uninteresting tasks out of the way so that one can go do something exciting and fulfilling. It's not really a bad thing that humans want to hasten though the business of yardwork and housecleaning so that they can then spend more time flirting and making love, or perhaps even reading philosophy. Pirsig, after his years of brilliant intellectual accomplishment, is distinguished for being disgusted by this.

(Let me clarify: it's natural to resent paying for slipshod service or poorly-made items. But what's aggravating about this is being forced to deal with monopolies whose proprietors clearly understand that there's nothing one can do about it.)

In most respects, Pirsig's critique of contemporary life is that of all curmudgeons in all times; it's incompatible with his notion of quality, which (understandably and perhaps rightly) owes more to the atelier traditions of European applied arts, than to a revived Platonic ontology. One gets the impression he perceives quality--in this sense--to represent the virtue of, and perhaps ultimately, the moral worthiness of, the civilization that created it. A form of quality that he happens to have particular interest is that of machinery, such as motorcycles. He's irritated that people have a hostile attitude toward the technology that maintains them in their material well-being, but he has his own suspicion that excessive ease of use has led to a slipshod aspect to modern life. Hence, the connection between quality and technology: excessive mechanic abstraction from the material world (that is characterized by technique or quality) leads to a life of alienation from material accomplishment (which is what "quality" means, though Pirsig avoids saying this), which leads to the perverse combination of technical potential and disregard for quality we know as "schlock."

It seems to me that, despite the metaphysical component that never quite makes it into the text of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig's notion of quality is actually very intimately familiar to the Western mind. He mentions various attributes of quality when applied to things like a text, but beyond all these and unifying them is a motivation that pursues perfection. He describes his book an inquiry into values, with a rare precision in the choice of that word: values, or ranking of motivations. Enlightment, in this sense, would mean a relentless pursuit of excellence approaching the infinite and the everlasting.

(Part 2)

Narrative Journalism: a genre of books and essays in which the author uses a narrative format to present a body of information. The most famous example is Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder; John McPhee is another very famous (and very good) author in this genre. Unfortunately, it was adopted by nearly all journalistic outlets everywhere, who often tinted ordinary journalism with it; and naturally much of it lacks the sensitivity or interest of the masters, while lacking the usefulness or conciseness of ordinary journalism.

"Metaphysics of Quality": I am not an expert on this concept, but a group of Pirsig's fans posted this excellent essay by Matt Kundert explaining the probable motives and interpretation of Pirsig's combination of Classical (i.e., Platonic & Aristotelian) philosophy.
Etymologically it means “after physics” or “beyond physics.” What has come to be known as the discipline of metaphysics has more to do with getting “beyond physics,” rather than resting simply as a descriptor for the sequence of Aristotle’s books. Traditionally, metaphysics has named the enterprise in which we attempt to go “beyond” physics (which gets at all the apparent reality we deal with on a day to day basis) to the underlying reality that really structures the world as we know it.


Quality is Pirsig’s salve for the problems of philosophy. Quality is an event, experience itself, undivided reality and for this reason Pirsig famously leaves it undefined. Giving something a definition is an act of division, differentiating it from all other things, but Quality is all-embracing, from which everything else is derived. This is one of the principle lessons of ZMM and it is a point well taken. When Quality, i.e., reality, becomes the same thing as experience, we are no longer posed with the problem of trying to get our experience hooked back up to reality. As soon as you separate them, as the history of philosophy has traditionally done, you have to try and explain how we are to know when experience reflects the underlying reality.
There's a good deal more to the subject than that, but I'm not so sure that Pirsig really communicated that so much as his general frustration with the poor fulfillment of our industrial potential for quality.
SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig (1974; note: I last read this book in 1982, IIRC); "Narrative Journalism," Nancy Graham Holm, Update (2006); Phaedo, Plato (Phaedo, a disciple of Socrates, narrates the last hours of his teacher. Socrates defends his faith in eternal life using what has become known as Plato's theory of forms).


26 September 2006

Concepts of Efficiency

An important criterion of technology is that it allows for a more efficient version of the productive process. But what is efficiency? There are several conflicting definitions of this term.

Technical Efficiency:
This is the most straight forward definition of efficiency, and it boils down to carrying out the same task with the fewer resources. The application of the term becomes controversial over what defines "same task." Still, technical efficiency is usually the one variety of efficiency that is directly and empirically measurable. A more efficient gas turbine generates more work per unit of fuel consumed; a more efficient refining process requires fewer of at least some inputs, per unit of useful output.

Another term from economic usage is X-efficiency. X-efficiency is the degree of inefficiency in the use of resources within the firm: it measures the extent to which the firm fails to realize its productive potential. For a given set of inputs, productive potential is identified with the point on the production possibilities frontier. X-efficiency arises either because the firm's resources are used in the wrong way or because they are wasted, i.e., not used at all.1

Economic Efficiency:
This refers to the ability of an economic or industrial system to provide what consumers what, given their incomes. This is an idea that is almost unmanageably ambiguous, since "efficiency" implies a comparative virtue, and it is difficult to see how one could make a meaningful comparison between two economic regimes with competing claims to superior economic efficiency.

An immense amount of research into comparative health care systems has attempted to compare their relative economic efficiency, but usually founders on the definitional proviso, "given the consumers' incomes." All health care regimes (and, incidentally, nearly all aspects of all industrial systems), not just "socialized" ones, involve substantial transfers of costs based on the judgment of responsible institutions. In the United States, one form of transfer is between insured and uninsured patients; the latter are charged far more for identical service, but often default on payment.

Setting these stumbling blocks aside, the idea is helpful for understanding the goals of policymakers and designers: consumers want bundles of goods that vary depending on institutional choices of technology. For example, in the 1980's nearly all gas stations in my home state of California became self-service. Obviously, a large number of consumers had preferred full-service; on the other hand, it allowed gasoline vendors to reduce overhead, keep stations open longer hours, and keep stations in areas where the traffic was comparatively lower. As stations turned into petrol vending machines, price increases were somewhat mitigated, and consumers now had access to petrol 16-24 hours a day in the new suburban sprawls. Was the exchange an improvement? It seems highly probable that it was; if consumers had en masse felt otherwise, at least some full-service stations would be found in large, elegant neighborhoods. The self-service filling station was a technology that had to compete with the once-prevailing full-service station. Some consumers complained, but they voted with their dollars and their steering wheels.

I am pretty sure there is no plausible scenario of free choice in which people would chose MS Internet Explorer as their web browser, if an actual market prevailed for software.

Pareto Efficiency:
(Main essay on Pareto Optimization)
This is a more refined notion of economic efficiency. It is the condition where no one may be made better off without making someone else worse off. Put another way, all possible benefits from an economic system have been captured for the participants. Distribution may be very unfair, but it is not wasteful. There is no wasting of potential output due to disuse of labor or capital.

Distributional Efficiency:
This concept is highly dependent on the context. In many cases, distributional efficiency refers to the ability of an institution at distributing benefits to its intended beneficiaries. An example that springs to mind is the design of a very large housing development. Often the designers want to include benefits like WiF in the apartment complex, to make it attractive to renters.
Forever Geek (via Philobiblion): The end result? Residents with laptops can sit down beside the river and work or play online in a calm, scenic outdoor setting, with the same high speed access they have in their apartments. Residents aren’t stuck with dialup, and fixed income residents can now experience the Internet for free, a feature they very much appreciate. They can video conference with their grandchildren and research anything that strikes their fancy, at speeds averaging 4-5 times dialup in busy times.

It’s working very nicely, and the complex is full. Other units that have vacated have been filled, with the final selling point often being the free broadband. And the website has brought in a good number of residents and lots of inquiries about future openings.
This was a success, but other benefits of this nature are a disaster. The most common failures are events, like parties, in which the resident fees pay for a party. Another is the useless park, described here with illustration. Incidentally, in my part of the country (Washington) these "pods" are endemic, and presumably part of the hermetic philosophy of zoning laws in our society. There's several along my preferred evening stroll, and they're usually empty. Strange, because it's late summer and the weather is extremely pleasant. My point is that the design of either building codes or of development layouts have failed to consider distributional efficiency properly. Instead of successfully distributing the utility (goodness, usefulness, pleasure, fun) of the common areas, these developments have wasted about half a million apiece on land that no one uses. Residents drive past the pods, often with their children in the car--whisked off to the mall.

Another, more urgent matter, has to do with the distribution of scarce natural resources in a way that maximizes the utility to society. The most obvious example of this is water. Typically, in many 3rd world countries, water is monopolized by large landowners, who then sell it at a premium to politically allied small farmers, or to industries that avail themselves of the cheap water and opportunities to pollute. Another serious problem is the effect of pollution on water distribution. Usually 3rd world countries are popular as industrial locations (for re-export to the West) not so much because of the cheap labor, but the easy access to cheap water as a pollution receptacle. Historically, national governments are very favorable to mixed-use developments like the gigantic plantation-cum-pulp mill.2

These are examples of distributional efficiency that arise within a [nominal] market economy. In the case of the development, zoning laws mandated those useless "child pods" but then the clientèle of the estate demands insulation from children. In the case of a typical 3rd world rural economy, there is a strong tendency for property rights to be unevenly enforced, so that the country's nascent industrial system "exports" grossly under-priced water (as a pollution receptacle), the landlord collects rents in foreign currency at absurd terms of trade, and the paysannerie suffers a perpetual thirst. Capital accumulation doesn't occur, and the country[side] falls further and further behind the industrialized West.

A misguided objection to the concept of distributional efficiency is that such considerations support forcible redistribution of income. But it's not just college professors pondering issues of social justice that care about distributional efficiency; private corporations that provide services to a paying clientèle have to worry about the stuff they furnish to customers to satisfy them, like swimming pools and gyms in hotels. Most government regulations exist to protect property rights; how does one award property rights in natural resources fairly? Even the most devout libertarians have disputes about this when they are compelled to deal with this in real life.


1 Mark Casson, The Entrepreneur: An Economic Theory, Rowman & Littlefield (1982), p.364

2 gigantic plantation-cum-pulp mill: Chapter One of Death Without Weeping (Nancy Scheper-Hughes, 1993) dealt very effectively with the social impact of a huge industrialized sugar plantation. I have since returned the book to the library.

Additional Sources & Reading:

John Vidal, "Cost of Water Shortage: Civil Unrest, Mass Migration and Economic Collapse," Guardian Unlimited (2006);

Pallavai Aiyar, " Water woes," Frontline-India (2007);
Chandra Bhushan, editor "Not a Non-Issue," CSE India (2004)

SEE ALSO: The Expert's Dilemma

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18 September 2006

The Command Economy

"Command Economy" is a term of art usually confined to the economies of Communist nations. The last two plausible examples might be North Korea and Cuba, although it's often pointed out that in both societies, central planning broke down long ago. Other Communist systems, such as the CMEA bloc (Moscow-aligned), China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, and Albania, each had various strategies for coping with the impossibility of centralized command.

An economy which relies wholly on the movements of price to adjust volumes of output is usually known as a "market economy," and occasionally as "the price system." The latter term was used often by critics of market economies during the 1920's and '30's (e.g., The Technocracy Movement, Thorstein Veblen).

The Nature of the Problem
Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the
most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command.
It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society,
which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage
naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that
employment which is most advantageous to the society.

The Wealth of Nations, IV.ii, Adam Smith
It's long been a trivial observation that large numbers of people, pursuing their "best interests," and informed mainly by the prices of things, can plan an economy more efficiently or successfully than can any central agent. I put "best interests" in quotes because the term is used here in a specialized sense, to mean, directed by the need to maximize benefits given one's initial endowments of time and property. Economics emerged as a system of philosophical deduction, with some empirical methods thrown in, based on the concept that the natural response of producers and consumers in the market was to bring the supply of all commodities in alignment with demand using nothing but signals of price.

Usually, in basic courses on economics, students are presented a chart with two intersecting lines. Q* and P* represent the equilibrium price and quantity. If a seller tries to sell her output for more than P*, no one will buy it—they'll go elsewhere. So P* is the prevailing price. For ease of exposition, the blue line shows the correspondence between price and quantity supplied; the red shows the correspondence between price and quantity demanded.
This assumes a whole bunch of things are held constant. Why do P* and Q* ever move? Well, because either curve might move. If the supply curve moves the left, for example, then for every price, a smaller quantity will be supplied. The same is true for the demand curve. But why would either curve move? One obvious reason for the demand curve moving is that income might decrease. Another is that tastes might change. A third reason is that this is a market for something used in the production of something else, and either the technology has changed or else that something else has experienced its own decline in Q*.

In order to establish what P* and Q* ought to be for a number of goods, Walras argued, it was necessary to know the utility function for the general public; the quantity of capital services available to the economy; and the production function available to the economy for each good. Writing in 1870, Walras had hoped to simplify the analysis of his system by treating capital as a stream of potential services. In order to solve for the price of P* and Q*, in the illustration above (a partial equilibrium analysis) there existed a supply equation S = S(P), and another demand function D = D(p). So
Q*= S(P*) = D(P*),

and finding a solution is actually a fairly easy problem in algebra. But for a general equilibrium, there were many equations of multiple variables required to solve for multiple unknowns: the supply of any particular good was a function of all the capital inputs, plus the cost of intermediate commodities, plus some function of labor; while the quantity demanded of that good was a function of income and the price of all other goods.

Because it was inconceivable that humans would ever be able to solve an equation that realistically described these relationships, economists have mostly confined themselves to partial equilibrium analysis—in other words, holding nearly everything constant, and changing a tiny number of variable inputs. However, in the 1950's and '60's, with the work of Kenneth Arrow, Gerrard Debreu, and Piero Sraffa (PDF), it was now considered possible to examine alternative descriptions of general equilibrium mathematically, and make inferences about the results applicable to our actually-existing economy. Additional elements were introduced: economists such as John Muth, inter alia, introduced the role of the stochastic [random] technology shock in general equilibrium analysis. This was the foundation of Real Business Cycle (RBC) theory, which was coupled with another by-product of revived general equilibrium analysis known as Rational Expectations (RE). The RE/RBC model has evolved substantially since its initial introduction, and today is known as stochastic dynamic general equilibrium (SDGE) theory.

A command economy, in theory, could largely replicate the role of prices in creating an equilibrium in which all resources were utilized. Here, however, the utility function would be replaced by some new system of equations. The new system of equations could presumably allow for a sudden and drastic shift of production, accompanied by some catastrophic loss of capital services (say, as a result of either peak oil or a collapse of the US dollar against that of our trading partners). In the past it has been assumed that true command economies, in which managers calculated an optimal output of each commodity based on existing resources, would be technically static; this is not necessarily true. On the contrary, technical innovations in production or goodness of fit could indeed be introduced into the planning equations as soon as these innovations had been tested.

It also needs to be pointed out that command economies need not be centrally planned. Again, because of the experience with CMEA economies (discussed below), people assumed that command economies were necessarily planned from the capital city of the hegemonic power. That was in fact an erroneous impression based on Cold War ideology. A command economy could conceivably consist of many autonomous planning nodes which share information about planned outputs; the outputs, in turn, would supply the necessary variables for each other's general equilibrium. Difficulties might arise, however, when planning nodes had disputes over jurisdiction—say, if there were a hierarchy of planning nodes, with one for a particular state, subdivided into county nodes with different productive functions.

This is not to endorse any such scheme. First, if I did endorse such a scheme, I would be dismissed as a crank—no one would have the slightest interest in the idea. Second, there are many obvious problems with it.
  • The data processing overhead would be huge; detailed information on the potential output of all capital equipment would have to be available at all times; additionally, some clearing house of data on planned usage of each commodity or semi-finished good, combined with reliable estimates of output, would have to be available to all planning nodes.
  • A lot of the actual judgments required in real-world planning are subjective: morale of the labor force, elasticities of quality, the consequences of plan failures or delays, and so on.
  • Most importantly, humans would have perverse incentives to horde resources (causing plan failure, then a crisis-shortage and opportunities to profiteer); the most talented would tend to be punished by a system that was intent on stability and reliability; the system as described expects consistently average performance, rather than the actual norm of brilliance mixed with appalling ineptitude.
To sum up, such a system of "planning by matrix algebra" may describe mathematically how available inputs are used with maximum effect to met public wants; but it's an analogy of economic forces. Were such a mathematic analogy used in reverse, to proceed from theory to reality, then the heterogeneity of real life conditions and human performance would be like gravel in the gears. Employees very stupendously in the quality and diligence of their labor; subtle differences in quality can make a huge impact in the value of the output.

For the record, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) concept in software was created with the ultimate goal of allowing a company to integrate all information available to any of its departments for making decisions. My brush with the concept was as a purchasing agent for a large US-based airline. I read that an ultimate goal was that any information that reached the database anywhere could be used to make decisions everywhere. For example, when the Apollo booking system (which covers all airlines) registered another ticket purchase for a flight from LAX to SHA, that ticket purchase could be used to register information about future traffic patterns in that particular corridor, if the purchase was profitable (or would have been profitable) for our airline; if from the airline, the purchase could be used to register the increased load on airplanes servicing that route, and the increased need for staff at those respective terminals. Such data might contribute to information about replacement interior panels, increased hours of service by staff in some departments, and how much additional coffee to buy for the company canteens.

The record suggests that ERP's are still a very immature technology, and may never succeed in actually integrating information perfectly; but the interesting thing is that corporations remain, as they always have been, the testbed for a lot of the technology of command economies.

Communist Command Economies (references)

It may be surprising to learn that the Communist countries were not true command economies. In one sense, they were definitely command economies, since the political leadership was authorized to administer production by decree. However, the political leadership lacked the technology required to either make accurate judgments of economic activity, or make its commands stand. Only in certain pockets of the Communist world did conditions of command truly prevail.

The Communist world, of course, was actually quite heterogeneous. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or Comecon) comprised the USSR and other Warsaw Pact countries; Mongolia, Cuba, and Vietnam. Forms of membership were extended to all Moscow-allied countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and to Yugoslavia (after 1964). However, because of the overriding importance of the KGB in the Soviet system, the value of regimes' intelligence or military collaboration with Moscow tended to trump anything else. Cuba, for example, was extremely valuable and hence received immense assistance; South Yemen, conversely, had entered the alliance late (1970) and was known to be extremely unstable. CMEA served more as a useful expression than an actual component of the Communist command economy.

Still, Czechoslovakia and East Germany were exceptionally integrated components of CMEA. This was due in part to an ironic, but understandable, contrast between CMEA and its neighbor, the European Economic Community (EEC). First, the EEC was created by treaty with limited, but definite, supranational authority; CMEA was a shadow organization whose importance was eclipsed by the strategic considerations of the KGB. So while the EEC could make its decisions stick, CMEA could not. Second, despite being a group of market economies, the EEC was a sort of idealistic trust; it had a mandate to achieve greater solidarity through economic convergence. Hence, its policy of stimulating industrial development in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece (with considerable success). CMEA, in contrast, had insisted that there was no hierarchy in socialist economies; its organs wanted to stimulate the development of industry in northern members, where it was strongest, and have the southern members focus on services or agriculture. Under the Soviet style of command economy, this made sense, but it alienated the southern members. Again, strategy trumped economy and CMEA was sidelined.

However, even the most technically or ideologically advanced of the CMEA bloc were unable to implement genuine central planning. While the various organs of the CMEA produced an immense and increasing number of detailed economic decrees, these lacked the appropriate semantics of economic management. Rather than map the inputs and outputs to a system of linear equations, the most ambitious central planners used huge flow charts to plot the flow of commodities through the system. While unmanageably ambitious as plans, they were not fine-grained enough for firms to follow directly, so a shadow system of planning evolved instead. As early as the 1926 Scissors Crisis, the Soviet planners had relied not on a drastic revision of the structure of production, but an evolution projected forward from the pre-revolutionary economy. In other words, the Soviets planned for the 1932 economy to be a set of multiples of the 1914 economy; industry was essentially built with heavy subsidies from agriculture, and heavy industry from light industry. There were discontinuities, such as the collectivization of agriculture, the "coal campaign," the "battle of steel," and so on, but by the 1950's everything was geared towards incremental expansion. Waste and inflation were built into the system because accurate estimates of necessary inputs were impossible, but real planning was carried out at the enterprise level. Decrees were fulfilled by managers becoming brokers of phantom material or horded output; otherwise, the role of the central planner was to catch up with reality, not construct it.

For this reason, the Soviet system was known as "state capitalism" by critics, who noticed that was really managed by allocations of capital, not by planning. Social objectives were met by making them easier to fulfill; only military needs were non-negotiable.

Corporate Command Economies (references)

It's a bit harsh to liken Western firms to Soviet ones, but in many cases they are similarly clueless and unresponsive. Detailed accounts of Nazi economic policies (Guerin, 1939) within Germany reflect a determination to leave enterprise control mostly intact; executives of German enterprise mostly did not experience any sort of difficulties with Nazi rule. There was some grumbling about the immense debt that the Nazi regime ran up, but mostly the Nazis gladly left the management with increased control over their own enterprises. Following prevailing wisdom of the day, there was a plan to stimulate the economy by pushing prices upward through cartels. During the Great Depression in Germany (1924-1930), the Weimar Republic had bailed out companies by buying their stock above market. In many cases, the Nazi regime reversed nationalization of banks or firms by giving the management stock it had sold to the Weimar Republic (Guerin, p.211).

A particularly astonishing decree of July 1933 empowered the Minister of the Economy to prohibit the increase of output of existing enterprises or the founding of new ones (Guerin, p.214). The Minister was empowered to peg the output of plants to desired (low) levels. Also, he was empowered (instructed) to carry out the wishes of existing cartels to enforce compliance with cartel price and output decisions, particularly with respect to non-members. In this sense, the Nazi regime incorporated a command economy, in which management within each industrial sector issued decrees.

The Nazi regime was an extraordinary case of capitalist management establishing national command. However, during much of its evolution, enterprise in the USA was largely focused on mastering techniques of concentration and centralization. This took the form of industrial methodologies such as Taylorism, in which the old methods of factory-level management were replaced with central headquarters issuing directives to far-flung plants worldwide. In some cases, it was congressional policy to resist consolidation through anti-trust laws (Sherman Anti-Trust Act) or separation of sectors (Glass-Steagall Banking Act) or regional subdivision (McFadden Act). After 1953, this trend was reversed, and Congressional influence tended to favor domestic industry with restricts on capital exports. Around the 1970's, that ended as most capital exports were occurring within firms (from domestic to foreign branches).

The command aspects of US firms have tended to distinguish them from the more generally federal character of foreign enterprise. Large European or Japanese companies have only recently tended to meld internally; many of them were essentially cartels with a single firm name and integrated accounting system. While executives of the modern corporation would bristle to hear themselves likened to Soviet commissars, it must be noted that the technical obstacles and failings were often quite similar.

Communist Command Economies: most available information on Communist command economies can be found in the 4-volume work by Edward H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy (1969), and from Christopher Howe, The Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy (1990). The latter book is a documentary survey which can be supplemented by the very useful anthology Communist China 1955-1959: Policy Documents with Analysis (Harvard University Press, 1965). On the economic policies of the Nazis, there is Daniel Guerin, Fascism and Big Business (1939/63), which includes a very detailed documentation of the decrees—pp.208-252; also, Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1949/64); but the latter is not very focused on economics or management.

Corporate Command Economies (added 23 August 2008): Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction, Penguin (2008) describes in considerable detail the operations of the Nazi economy, forcing me to reassess drastically the relationship between party and industry in the Third Reich. The Nazi economy was in continuous flux towards a command economy, and by the time Albert Speer succeeded Fritz Todt as minister of armaments production (a position just below that of the Führer), in '42, the Third Reich was categorically a command economy. Interestingly, Tooze cites diary entries by Nazi officials lamenting that the USSR was a much more compelling example of a command economy; evidently, the military leadership tended to regard their own society as comparatively free, especially in the economic sphere. Nevertheless, the Reich remained emphatically capitalist.

Veblen/Price System: I have mentioned Thorstein Veblen's critique of what he referred to as the price system, The Engineers and the Price System (PDF-1921). Veblen was writing in the wake of the most intense depression of North American history, the post-WW1 depression that lasted for 18 months. The more famous Great Depression (1929-1939) was much longer, but less severe. For information on the Technocracy Movement, there is an excellent site by Prof. Thayer Watkins that describes the history of this curious political association.

Leon Walras: author of Elements of Pure Economics (1870). Walras integrated many then-new concepts in classical economics, such as the utility theory of value (and with it, the utility function) and the concept of general equilibrium. Between 1870 and 1930, this was orthodoxy in economics, and it has become orthodox again (since 1976) , with some minor adjustments. Here is a fairly easy-to-grasp introduction to the concept of Walrasian General Equilibrium (PDF). Walras was not supportive of a command economy; however, some of his less famous and later works tended to suggest an accommodation with socialist ideas (Roger Koppl, "The Walras Paradox" 1995). This has not interfered with his immense reputation among conservative orthodox economists.

Rational Expectations has been the topic of many books. The Rational Expectations Revolution (edited by Preston Miller; MIT Press, 1994) was one of my econ textbooks; it includes many of the crucial polemical articles written in the early years of the RE/RBC "revolution" in economics. Another book, recently revised, includes a later assessment of the RE/RBC revolution: Rational Expectations, 2nd Edition (Steven M. Sheffrin, Cambridge, 1996). Assessing Rational Expectations (Roger Guesnerie, 2001, MIT) includes analytical scrutiny of the variations of RE, reflecting the fact that, by the end of the 1990's, RE was less of a theory than a methodology.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): Christopher Koch, "ABC: An Introduction to ERP" (2007);

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15 September 2006

Object-Oriented Programming

Objected-oriented programming (OOP) is an enormous topic, in part because it embraces many collateral topics, and because it is a nexus among all those topics. Object-oriented programming incorporates objects, which are basic program "building-blocks." In conventional programming, the program consists of a single, very large, number of instructions to the computer. But in OOP, the program is a population of objects with discreet methods and communication nodes. Each object acquires data

A class of objects is united by basic standardized attributes or functions. Each system of OOP requires a system of classifications for objects, rather like biological taxonomy. The structure of classes will of course include subclasses for each class (and so on); a subclass is said to inherit the attributes of its class, and add others that differentiate it from other subclasses of the same class.

An example might be the database of a university, which has instructors, students, support staff, departments, and courses. There are three classes of objects: persons, organizations, and courses. The class of persons has subclasses of staff, students, and instructors.

The subclass of student inherits various attributes, such as possessing an address and phone number, but differs from the instructor in that the instructor teaches classes, and the student is enrolled in them. We might conceivably have all the violet boxes (classes) united under a class school, with attributes all of the classes inherit--e.g., all are members of an organization. I should mention that the semantics of computer programming is very different from that of spoken languages, and only occasionally coincides with that of math. So, for example, my example of a class system has unfortunately assumed human language semantics. Arguably a department might be defined as a type of person that inherits all person characteristics, but is distinguished from an instructor solely insofar as the instructor can only "have" one course at a time.

An obvious example of programming semantics violating either math or human language semantics is the command, x = x + 1; it merely tells the computer to replace the value x with (x + 1) in the register. In OOP, it is not unusual for incompatible geometric objects to be treated as related, e.g., the class circle belongs to the class point, with the additional characteristic that it has a radius. Presumably the subclass rectangle belongs to the class point as well, but has height and length.

A method is one of the things that the object does. As an object, we expect that the way in which an object executes its mission is encapsulated, i.e., hidden from the "view" of other computer programs. This means that computer programs are not expected to hack the behavior of objects, for altering their methods. A crucial component of methods is how they are bound to their variable. If the variable is defined in the code as (say) an integer, or perhaps a floating-point value, then it is statically bound to the object. If variables are declared in way that allow them to vary, they are dynamically bound.[*]

When objects communicate with each other, while they are encapsulated, there are also different levels of access; members of the same class will have more access than those that are not, unless they are friends--i.e., objects assigned special access by the programmer. Access allows the use of pointers among objects, or links to specific variables (specifically, pointers point to a section of memory space where a variable is stored; objects with pointers to a particular variable can monitor that memory space and "know" what to do with the contents.

Another aspect of objects is polymorphism, which is the ability of objects to take on the characteristics and responses of other objects. Typically, short introductions like this one use highly improbable analogies, such as referring to objects as dogs or cats; so I am especially grateful to Prof. Müller for giving us a break and actually explaining the concept seriously. It turns out there are two conceptions of polymorphism in OOP. One refers to the ability of objects to use multiple definitions of variables, so that a function can check for multiple conditions for a value being true in an single step (e.g., a number being within a desired range of another; which may require a test for it being in range, and being the number desired. This is actually something conventional programming languages can do, of course, but usually it is a bit more complicated.

The other form of polymorphism is the inheritance of pointers and methods. By this, we mean all the objects of a subclasses will inherit certain standard methods from their superclass, although the way these objects respond to the same stimulus will vary depending on the object. A subclass of objects will respond to the same pointers as those of the class above it (the base class). The purpose of this is to allow a formal array of permissions to variables created and stored by objects.

Benefits & Criticisms

It must be noted that while object-oriented programming is extremely common, it is not without controversy. What really pushed OOP into the mainst ream was the use of graphical user interfaces (GUI's); modern applications running in a GUI are typically miniature operating systems, with each of those drop down menu options or icons standing for a program. Click on the menu, and a new program is launched. Developers appreciate the ability to drag and drop many of these programs into the visual space of the integrated development environment (IDE). Virtually all tuturials or guides on the subject of OOP refer to the benefit of code reusability.

Another advantage, evidently, is that OOP semantics heavily favor multithreading computing. OOP concepts are usually explained by analogy with zoology [*]: the typical class is dog; dogs are a subclass of animals, and collies are a subclass of dogs. Instances of the class dog have a method known as barking, and collies inherit this class from dogs. Another tutorial used the scholastic example I have used above [*], but did so literally; I tried to de-abstract this using various articles on C++ linked below, and no doubt there are serious flaws in my exposition. However, it seems fairly clear that the most compelling advantage to OOP is that it provides a ready-made formal system for running program processes as a group of separate threads. One of the more economical ways that threads can pass messages to each other is by saving them to a common memory sector, something that requires a carefully designed (or standardized) syntax.

Criticisms of OOP are that it's a needlessly exotic, arbitrary, and costly constraint on programming procedure. Applications written in OOP languages are too large for what they do; OOP requires requires programmers to effectively adopt a novel syntax that is much too remote from ordinary programming, yet the method provides benefits that are inconsequential. The experience with Unix and GNU suggests that code reusability is not a real problem; programmers have managed to create immensely complex programs using bits and pieces of code from all over. Sealing objects off so that they cannot be hacked by other objects is regarded by some programmers as bizarre, and certainly unnecessary. Some have gone so far as to claim that OOP is doomed to go the way of other fads. OOP implementation is far too difficult and has failed to increase productivity.

In a way, a far test is impossible because (on the side of the skeptics) there's no way of knowing what other, more apt, methods of coding huge applications might have been made to work better if the energy had been spent on them instead; and (on the side of the defenders), I'm skeptical of the argument that this was a burn-the-ships fad. Clearly, there had been a problem developing robust code for ever-larger applications, and the approach broadly embraced OOP. This was across languages and included the open-source movement as well as a lot of firms (C++ was developed at Bell Labs in '85; C# is from Microsoft; Common Lisp was an international convention developed and supported by ANSI to unify many variants; ANSI also developed Fortran 2003; PHP 5 is actively developed by Zend Technologies in Israel; Smalltalk was developed by Xerox PARC, and inspired the development of Stepstone/Nextstep's Objective-C; Java, as everyone knows, was developed at Sun Microsystems.).

Political fads are the stuff of game theory, because they're about acting in groups. So history is full of dire political fads. But it's hard to come up with an example of a totally invalid scientific or engineering fad that had many different points of origin.

See also Unified Modeling Language (UML)

ADDITIONAL READING & SOURCES: Wikipedia entries for Object-oriented programming: OOP languages, Unified Modeling Language (UML), Executable UML; Aspect-oriented programming;

Peter Müller, Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming Using C++ ; "IBM Smalltalk Tutorial - Table of Contents"; Richard Mansfield "OOP Is Much Better in Theory Than in Practice"(2005); B. Jacobs, "Object Oriented Programming Oversold!";

BOOKS: An Introduction to Database Systems-7th Edition, C.J. Date, Addison-Wesley (2000), Chapter 21; Harold Abelson & Gerald Jay Sussman, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, MIT Press (1996; complete text online); Chapter 3;


08 September 2006

Java and CMS

I mentioned rather briefly my interest in Java-powered CMS (here). There are not many wiki engines written in Java, possibly because it's more demanding. Java is a program run by the web browser, which take is responsible for converting available data into a readable webpage. My impression which could be wrong, is that interactive webpages are more robust and less prone to unintended results when loading, since they are designed to actually interface with the web browser's virtual machine. In contrast, programs like PHP or JavaScript are designed to create another layer of interface by prompting the website's host to generate a page.
(I tried to discuss this in the prior post on CMS applications linked above. Basically, most CMS applications either generate static pages, which are created as stand-alone HTML files; or else they follow the database format, in which case every single distinguishing trait of each page in the website is saved in computer memory as a field in a database record. The later design is usually more efficient in terms of memory and searching, and is essential for very large sites like Wikipedia. In either case, however, the CMS application that powers the website must generate a file--temporary or permanent--that is read as HTML.)

Another reason why Java-based CMS's might be better is that they do not actually launch a server process whenever the user interacts with the application. Supposing it is a WikiEngine, for example, which is accessed by a large number of users. Each time a user wants to preview her new post, for example, the CGI application is required to launch a new process. But the Java app will only need to launch a new thread.

CGI versus Java: not a valid comparison!

It has to be pointed out that the dichotomy between CGI and Java is not valid. CGI is, after all, an open application programming interface (API); Java is a programming language. One can create a CGI application that is powered by Java, although this is not common. Generally speaking, Perl or PHP is used for programming CGI applications; Java applets are used for programs that run off the visitor's web browser.

However, in researching this essay, it became apparent that Java (unlike Perl or PHP) can replace many of the functions of a CGI application, while executing those functions in a way that is, in some ways, preferable to (and logically exclusive of) the CGI API. Conversely, most CMS's that are in common use were created in Perl or PHP (not Java!) because they are easily understood by people with a casual familiarity with HTML. Also, it is often unnecessary to have a costly Java application when mere HTML with a little JavaScript will do fine.
There are quite a few Java-powered WikiEngines, mostly of the database-orientation. Courtesy of WikiMatrix, I am aware of Clearspace, Corendal, Ikewiki, JAMWiki, JSPWiki, SnipSnap, and XWiki. In addition to these named, there are some systems developed for large organizations, such as SamePage, which I have ignored. XWiki (samples) seems to be oriented to professional developers, and I don't think it's really feasible for my purposes.

Ikewiki is a semantic wiki developed in Salzburg, Austria. Semantic wikis (SW's) differ from the usual type in that they have a peculiar logical structure of the data. So far I have found no implementations.

Examination of wikis created from these engines has been extremely time-consuming, but let's make some quick notes. Clearspace is a commercial product ($29/user) from Jive Software. It's evidently used in the BBC's website, TechRepublic forums, CNET forums, and Amazon.

JAMWiki is an interesting concept: it's a WikiEngine with feature parity to MediaWiki (the most commonly implemented of all, and used with Wikipedia). So far, the selection of implementations is very slim indeed. Janne Jalkanen created JSPWiki to develop and advertise coding tricks, but it's spartan and specific to the general purpose of JSP.

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05 September 2006

List of Wiki Engines

(The Varieties of Wiki Experience)

While WikiIndex lists scores of wiki engines, I wanted to narrow down the list of wiki engines to those that have widespread use or prominent implementations.

All of the wiki engines listed below except for Everything2 are free and open source
Wiki EngineDescriptionTop Wiki


CMS related to TikiWiki; written in PHP; modular; high traffic, custom web development.
Jive Software; written in Java;
BBC newsforums
Written in Common Lisp;
Corendal; written in Java; no wiki syntax to learn, a WYSIWYG rich text editor is used instead collaborative
DokuWikiSplitbrain Software; written in PHP;
mostly collaborative
Everything2Custom Wiki for Everything Development Company; programming language probably Perl
JAMWikiWritten in Java; feature parity with MediaWiki
MediaWikiOpen source; most widely used; developed specifically for Wikipedia. Written in PHP;
Banknote Wiki
C Language
CFD Wiki
Christianity KB
MoinMoinWritten in Python;
PmWikiWritten in PHP; mostly used for non-reference sites;
ITmission (Linux)
Leo Laporte
PukiWikiJapanese; written in PHP;
Mostly Japanese
TiddlyWikiWritten in JavaScript; weak on anti-spam, other security features; no preview; entire site stored in a single HTML file (that's how it's possible to be written in JavaScript)
Reasoning Well
Written in Java; enterprise wiki used mainly in France
"Collaborative" means that users have used their installations on organization intranets, as opposed to general access reference wikis.

BitWeaver and MediaWiki are database-oriented; the other wiki engines listed above are file-oriented. The difference is that, with a file-oriented wiki engine, each entry is its own file. In contrast, with a database, each entry is a record in a table belonging to the backend.

I was interested in some of the various alternatives, one of which was the commercial wiki engine Clearspace ($29/user). There I was surprised to learn that the BBC website is (evidently) powered by this product. Clearspace is written in Java, which is very interesting to me for several reasons I'll discuss later. Another product that I thought looks attractive is Corendal.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING: Gmap Package, Bitweaver organization; Wiki Popularity results, Wiki Creole; Comparison of WikiEngines (results for this table), WikiMatrix;

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04 September 2006

Integrated Communications Platform (ICP)

This is a buzzword for a software that links instant messaging, voice-over-internet (VIOP) telephony, and e-mail. The object is to coordinate all communications systems to minimize costs to a business client, typically by routing all communications through a corporate intranet. Getting reliable information is somewhat difficult since ICP is almost (but not quite) the name of a specific product put out by Mitel. Still, here's the basic concept:
IEC: An integrated communications platform allows for one-click communication. Instead of having to run through a list of home, office, mobile, and pager numbers and e-mail addresses, someone trying to reach another person could simply click on that person's name. The system would route the communication according to that person's preferences. While this kind of platform enables a new degree of reachability, it also provides more control over who has that kind of access. For example, calls from the boss could be automatically routed to voice mail after business hours.
This is made possible by VOIP, or "internet telephony." In essence, since all forms of telecommunications are to be routed through the same type of hub, it logically follows that the next step would consist of dreaming up some way in which coordination would make the ICP greater than the sum of its parts.

This turns us to the next question, that of evaluating ICP products.
IEC: One feature of most messaging systems is some form of presence awareness. At the most rudimentary level, presence awareness lets users know when other users, particularly those on their contact lists, are on-line and willing to accept messages. But when the IM system is part of an integrated communications platform, presence awareness can become more sophisticated. It can notify others when a user is on-line, willing to accept phone calls at a home or office number or has a mobile phone turned on. Users can even set presence messages so others trying to contact them will know that they've stepped out for lunch and will return at a certain time. [...]

This level of presence awareness does bring up issues, particularly that of privacy. Just as even the basic messaging systems of today allow users to make themselves invisible to other users when they are on-line or to block communication from certain users, more advanced messaging systems will have to provide a certain degree of control over presence awareness. Only the most trusted users would have access to location information, for example, so users wouldn't be broadcasting to the world at large that they're away from home.
Security is another issue, since the encryption system has to be reliable. There has to be a reliable segregation of different types of data streams--those available to web browsers from outside the firm, and those from different levels of security clearance.
ADDITIONAL READING & SOURCES: "IM as an Integrated Communications Platform," 2, International Engineering Consortium (IEC), 2007; "Single communications platform efficiently streamlines inbound call traffic," Jim Steenbergen, April 1994

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02 September 2006

Wikis used for Reference

(The Varieties of Wiki Experience)

The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, particularly the English, German, French, Polish, and Japanese language versions. However, there are many other outstanding reference wikis. Here is a short list.

PmWiki (complete listing)

One interesting, category-defying wiki is Pitfall, a collection of short-stories and screenplays by James McDuffie. This seems more like a blog created with a wiki format.

MediaWiki (complete list)

Oddmuse (complete listing)

JAMwiki(no list exists)
  • MobiGlam; PDA-based learning (admittedly, a very small, new wiki!)