Session 2

Preface - Application Holy Wars theme and why it was written

February 19 5:30 PM

CQUni Melbourne (Central Queensland Uni, Melbourne Campus)

In this second introductory session, I'll discuss how evolutionary biology (PhD Harvard 1973) and 17+ years managing engineering knowledge led to this new kind of "book". In the process I'll introduce some key ideas from my life history that resonate throughout the book. Download presentation for Session 2 here.

Evolutionary Biology and Other Stuff

Born in 1939, I grew up in Southern California where my family lived on a boat and I became familiar with the vast array of marine life in habitats from polluted estuarine harbors and pristine offshore islands. I started college as a physics major in 1957 and proceeded into my third year before my dyslexia with numbers forced me to reconsider my career. I eventually graduated in 1964 with a BS in Zoology, and ended up completing my PhD in Evolutionary Biology at Harvard in 1973 on "Comparative population cytogenetics, speciation and evolution of the iguanid lizard genus Sceloporus".

Along the way to Harvard I dabbled with successive generations of computer technology. I worked in a primate behavior lab and spent a spent couple of years as a research technician in a leading neurophysiology research lab. I had sole responsibility for teaching a university level course on invertebrate zoology and evolution, and even before Lynn Margulis, I was one of the first in the world to write about the endosymbiotic origins of eukaryote cells (see "Is the Plastid an Endosymbiont").

After Harvard I taught all kinds of biology ranging from comparative vertebrate anatomy, genetics, and cytogenetics through to marine invertebrate zoology for three years at the University of Puerto Rico; spent two summers and a year at University of Colorado reorganizing and updating their massive introductory biology course, and also taught genetics from classical and molecular points of view and a postgraduate course on genetic systems, evolution and speciation.

For two years from 1977-79 I was a University of Melbourne Research Fellow in Genetics, where I hoped to work on formally publishing my PhD research. However, because my ideas broke an established paradigm of species formation and I used unfamiliar approaches to introduce them, trusted reviewers of my draft papers questioned whether my writing was even scientific. To understand if my reviewers might be correct, I spent most of these two years in Melbourne studying the theory of knowledge and the history and philosophy of science trying to understand and validate the methodology of my comparative approach to studying evolutionary processes. In researching these problems, (a) I discovered Karl Popper’s evolutionary theory of knowledge that validated my scientific approach and (b) Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about scientific paradigms and revolutions that explained problems people had understanding my work. A 1983 paper explains what I learned about knowledge and science from this episode. An invited review article I wrote for a special journal issue in 2010 on the genomics and cytogenetics of reptiles presents the results of my thesis and its contribution to evolutionary biology.

Following the Melbourne Uni stint I returned to the US for a year on a half-time contract to teach evolutionary and vertebrate biology at University of Maryland.

Thoroughly burned out academically and concerned with the already developing political madness in the US, I immigrated to Australia in 1980 with my Australian wife, bought a prototype personal computer, and more-or-less fell into the ferment in Melbourne around the emerging world of personal computing. I soon found myself teaching about and documenting the new technologies, and progressed through a mix of freelance computer journalism, sometimes paid technical communication and documentation management roles in a small software house, and from 1988-1989 a real job in the fledgling Bank of Melbourne that was implementing its first computerized banking system. My early journalistic efforts already highlighted the importance of understanding impending impacts of the revolution in personal computing, both where society was concerned (1984), and in business (1985).

Industrial Knowledge Management and Organization Theory

From 1990 through mid 2007 I worked as a documentation and knowledge management systems analyst and designer for Tenix Defence, Australia's largest Defence prime contractor in the early to mid 2000s. During this same 17 year period, in a $7 billion project Tenix designed (with German help), in a constructed and delivered 10 state of the art ANZAC Frigates to the navies of Australia (8 ships) and New Zealand (2 ships). Somewhat uniquely for large defense projects around the world, each ship was finished on-time, on-budget, against a stringently fixed-price contract and for a healthy company profit and customers still happy with the reliability and availability of these ships.

From around 1995-2000 I was largely responsible for understanding our contract requirements and for analyzing and designing the systems that assembled, authored and fed engineering technical data and maintenance documentation into the navies’ on-board computerized maintenance management systems. This system solved a major problem with mismatchs between the fallibilities of human authors and relational databases where all data must parse exactly. Because many of our early data and documentation deliveries didn’t link properly in the maintenance management systems, the Client threatened to refuse the major milestone delivery of Ship 05 that would have directly cost Tenix tens of millions of dollars in liquidated damages, and untold added costs from schedule delay and reputational damage.

My solutions, based on structured authoring based on SGML (now XML) and product lifecycle management systems not only delivered higher quality data than the navies had received from any prior project but, reduced Tenix's ongoing costs for support engineering and technical authoring way below what they were budgeted for in the contract. The solutions also still contribute to the on-going high reliability and availability of the ANZAC Frigates compared to other ship classes.

Because of the revolutionary differences between paradigms for structured authoring and conventional word processing, Head Office never approved or funded implementation of the solution for reasons explained in a 1998 presentation. It was only implemented at the last possible moment because the Operations Manager diverted funds from his budget to pay the supplier on a time and materials basis to implement it.

A 2001 paper describes the information processing and delivery problems and the structured authoring solution. A 2003 paper describes how the solution worked to capture, formalize and test organizational knowledge. A 2008 paper describes how support and operational knowledge is built and managed over the entire life-cycle of a fleet, and how this contributes to the reducing fleet support costs while increasing reliability and availability of the assets.

By mid 2000, once Tenix's problems with support engineering and maintenance management were solved, I had time to spare and my managers over the next seven years prior to my retirement were happy for me to spend company time following my own interests towards solving other problems and extending my understanding of knowledge management and organization theory. This was when I got involved in the flame wars that started me working on this book.

Flame or “Holy” Wars over Technological Revolutions and the Definition of Knowledge

Given time at work to explore the emerging internet, I joined discussions in a technical writers’ forum related to different kinds of computer applications used to author technical documentation such as user manuals. These became acrimonious when participants tried to compare structured authoring applications based on marking up plain text with SGML or XML tags for later processing, versus word processing applications like Microsoft Word that directly applied visual formatting to text for printing on paper. What most of the participants failed to realize was that the two approaches are paradigmatically incommensurable.

In structured authoring, as I implemented it at Tenix, text being entered into the computer is marked up with computer readable tags to show the sequence and hierarchy of logical elements forming the document in ways that can be processed later in a variety of different ways. Downstream applications could be used to apply formats to a printable document, as elements in a database, or even for the controlled use of various parts of the content in a variety of output documents. By contrast, word processing applications like MS Word apply formats directly to the text so it displays on the computer screen the same way it will when printed onto paper (i.e., what you see is what you get). In word processing there are so many different ways to apply similarly appearing formats that the logical structure of the text is incomprehensible to computer systems. The emotional difficulties even those who used the technologies every day had in understanding their differences caused me to think deeply about technological paradigms and revolutions.

My first attempt to explain to the forum the fundamental differences between "structured" and "paper" paradigms expanded into the first draft of what became the first three Episodes of my book and introduced the main topics captured in the book’s title (see “About the Application Holy Wars Book”). In this I discussed Thomas Kuhn’s ideas on revolutionary changes in human understanding (that can also be applied to technological change) and the nature of knowledge and how it grows and changes based on Karl Popper’s evolutionary theory of knowledge.

The interaction of ideas from my background in evolutionary biology with those from my practical work as a knowledge manager made it clear to me that revolutionary changes in paradigms and technologies for capturing and sharing of knowledge, had revolutionary impacts on human cognition (and vice versa), human ecology and for new ways for applying knowledge in the world. The association of these revolutions in technology and cognition are briefly discussed in a 2006 conference paper. I found that the recursive interactions technological and cognitive revolutions could most easily be discussed and explained in a fugal structure.

Another peek into the infinite complexity of the Mandelbrot serves as cover art for the resulting book.

Book cover