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No? Well lucky you!

Olivia spends most of her work time on: tax matters (local and overseas), government compliance (superannuation, OH&S), insurances of bewildering variety all requiring extensive paperwork, accreditations with industry associations… all of which processes are affected by what I discuss today.

Let me recount a short story from Friday. With paperwork in hand I went down to the government shopfront where one transacts business like renewing your license or a transfer or renewal of registration. Such was the case in this instance: I have bought a vehicle from a friend and I had not noticed that the registration papers listed my friend’s mother as a co-operator. Accordingly, when I finally made my way through the large queue of people waiting to do similar tasks (about 45 minutes, listening to the ‘bong’ of the machine that notifies the waiting humans that their turn has come; there will be a special place in Hell, I hope, for the inventor of these devices, along with reversing alarms and leaf blowers) I was told that I needed to have the co-operator’s signature on the registration documents, as well as my friend’s.

A phone call to my friend revealed that not only did the mother reside in Queensland but that she was senile, living in an aged care facility, and was physically unable to sign anything. This necessitated my friend having to call his sister who has power of attorney for her mother. I needed to drive home and to fax the registration document to the sister who very helpfully signed it and I thought to ask her to include the power of attorney document—all 11 pages of of it—and fax that back to me, too.

After going back to the government shopfront I presented the paperwork to the greeter/helper (who was absent when I visited the previous time). If only she had been there before, because her first question was ‘did I also had  the power of attorney documents?’ The greeter escorted me to the window where I had attempted to transact this business before. Another woman then entered the lengthy amount of information into the system that the transfer registration and the renewal of registration requires. About two thirds of the way into this process the system reported an “integrity error”, a cause of great concern, and which needed a supervisor’s assistance to resolve.

No explanation was forthcoming for the integrity error but it took about 10 minutes of frantic keystroking by the supervisor to recover the process to the point where I then was asked to use my credit card to pay  the fees. I recall that while working in the logic department at the Australian National University many years ago I had written a short paper with the title Unintended complexity functions. In it, I argued that as computing systems become capable of handling more and more complex tasks there will be unintended interactions at the software or the hardware level that no one can predict but which inevitably will occur, and which will stop the intended operation of the device, or corrupt its calculations. I use complex software daily, and I marvel daily at how well they work!

There is a further problem of great significance for customers: it is almost never the case that the programmers of these complex system have any interaction with the front of house staff whose job it is to use them; this is a second order problem, the interface with the other group of humans. “The system won’t let me do that” is a common refrain.

Unintended complexity functions are a predictable consequence of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, I argued in the paper, and these need to be explicitly factored in to the system’s outputs. This is because of the implication of the second theorem, that states that these systems cannot demonstrate their internal consistency. In other words, unintended consequences are completely to be expected. How well, and how often, are they planned for in the systems you interact with daily?

There is a temporal/historical dimension, too (and as an aside, I note that classical logic, that form of logic most appeal to when saying things like, ‘that’s not logical’) cannot factor in the passage of time: classical logic, by definition, can only be a snapshot of an instant in time. It is almost never the case that the complex software is developed from scratch by a single team, tested with the people who will use it and against the people on whom the system is being used. I remember a senior manager of the Commonwealth Bank  telling me that they were then presently running 18 legacy systems in tandem, and unintended interactions between the systems were one of their daily nightmares. The point is that historical systems (often written in different languages) are an operational fact of life in most complex systems these days.

Olivia often spends days at a time dealing with these unintended complexities. None of her effort and ingenuity adds any value to the actual work that we are in the business of teaching and selling. So much has this fact become a problem for us (that she is not available to actively contribute to the projects that we’re both trying to create) that we’re putting two half days aside this week in an effort to decide which complex systems can we abandon? or is the solution to employ a second person? In other words, how can we spend less time on (for example) tax reporting requirements and similar work?

I have spoken to my Mother about this; we grew up in the country and went to town once a week; there were no computers, no mobile phones and, in our house, no hot water or flush toilets. We read by the light of kerosine lamps—no TV either. Were we deprived—certainly we didn’t feel so. The point of mentioning this is that both my Mother and Father spent almost no time in the sort of activities I describe above. What about you?