Don't Tell Me About It : Arms-lengthing [MT120]

David Noel
Ben Franklin Centre for Theoretical Research
PO Box 27, Subiaco, WA 6008, Australia.

When the system is operating perfectly, no decision need ever be made
-- Sir Arvi Parbo, Chairman of BHP, 1991

The Barbados Telephone Directory

The Barbados telephone directory has an unusual feature. It lists people with silent telephone numbers.

Of course it doesn't list their actual numbers, if it did they wouldn't be 'silent'. Instead, it gives their address as normal and a note about their number, for example:

Rampton, Mrs P....The Villa, Plantation Rd Bridgetown .......Silent Number

What is the point in this? The thing is, the Barbados telephone company is giving you some information, but not all. First off, you know Mrs Rampton exists and has a telephone. Then, you know where she lives, so you could write to her, or, if it was an desperate matter, you could travel over and knock at her door. If you were ingenious you could maybe locate one of her friends and ask them for the number, or ask them to pass a message on to Mrs Rampton to phone you urgently.

So there is enough information available for anyone needing to contact Mrs Rampton to do so, but not enough for anyone completely unknown to her to ring up and annoy her at will.


People often assume that the more they know about a problem or situation, the better they will be able to handle it. Often this assumption turns out to be quite unjustified.

First there is the matter of information overload. This can be a problem with many computerized information search systems. If you choose your topic and put in a request for a listing of all documents on that topic, you may be stunned to receive a document several hundred pages long to plough through -- and that is just the references to the documents, not the documents themselves

This problem can be alleviated, but not eliminated, if the search system is an on-line one. If your first request merely tells that the system knows about 15,000 publications which refer to your topic, you can try and define your topic more and more narrowly until you reduce the number of documents to a manageable number.

There is a real skill in this, and inevitably even the best searcher will eliminate some references which might have been useful, and end up with some 'false drops', items which appear to refer but are actually irrelevant. Once I carried out such a search on 'edible nuts' and ended up with several references to doughnuts.

But more important than this, is when you end up knowing more than is good for you.

Ignorance is Bliss

Computer programming is one of the basic information sciences, and its development and evolution has taught us a lot about how people think and how information may best be handled. A great deal has been learnt, not just about the actual techniques of programming and system design, but also about ways in which huge developed software packages or 'suites' may fare in a real and changing world.

Out of this experience has come the technique of 'Information Hiding'. This is a technique where the person or team programming one module of a large package is not allowed to know about the inner workings of other modules. They are told what sort of information will come into their module, what the module is supposed to do in processing it, and what sort of information is to be passed on to other modules or outputs in the system.

Computer programmers include some of the most creative, eclectic, and eccentric individuals in the world, many of them live far out on the fringes of the Matrix. Computer programs are in a class like nothing else previously developed by man. Some of the more complex ones do approach the status of being living systems, of representing simple non-biological systons.

In some ways, a computer program can be thought of as a snapshot or projection of part of the mind of a programmer. If the programmer never thinks about people with Asian names, his program may not be able to cope with them satisfactorily. Hence the story about an Arab student in an American college, the enrolment system processed and transliterated his details in the prescribed manner, thus reducing his name to just a comma.

I once attended a talk given by a computer company programmer who had written what was called a Cobol Compiler -- this was a program used by the computer itself to convert a program written in the Cobol language, into that used internally within the computer. The interesting thing was that when the speaker talked about how his compiler worked, he referred to the program, not as 'it', but as ' I '.

Time is of The Essence

In MT105 I mentioned the struggles of programmers in working with limited resources, such as small computer memories. When interactive graphical programs, for example video games, were being developed, one of the real limitations was in response time. Images on a screen had to change at a rate comparable with the users' response times, else they would walk away from the excessively slow program in disgust.

To get the required response times, programmers would take liberties with their programs. Instead of restricting these to the 'authorized' facilities in the manuals, they would make little raids into unauthorized, private parts of the machine operation. If they were writing a program in a high-level language like Fortran, they would add in little subroutines in machine language which would dive in and out of the operating system, where Fortran was not allowed to go. Also, any real computer has features which are not specified in the manuals, little tricks by which things can be done more quickly, but not according to documented facilities. Programmers would find out about these undocumented features and use them.

In a way it was like somebody who wanted to get the freshest bread, and who found out that if he waited at traffic lights near the bakery gates at a certain time, he could pull a hot loaf out of the back of the bread delivery van and replace it with the money, while the driver had turned his head to watch the girls going into the high school. Effective, and probably not illegal -- assuming the driver was just going to sell the bread on his rounds anyway.

But all things change, and while computer manufacturers and programmers exert some effort to make their products transferable to improved equipment ('upward compatible'), these efforts do not extend to 'undocumented features'. The bread company was under no obligation to see that its new delivery van had its doors at the back, like the old model, and not at the side.

The result of this situation was that even though the programmer might have built a program which was quick and effective, that program would be very vulnerable to incidental changes elsewhere, as when the operating system was patched or a new disc drive was added. If the programmer had stuck simply to writing his program on standard lines in the authorized language, then his program would have been stable and should have worked through whatever upgrades were made to the equipment, the operating system, and the program compiler.

Hence the need for 'Information Hiding' in programming practice. Don't tell the programmer what other parts of the system are doing -- or at least force him to ignore what he knows.

Only Touch it with a Barge Pole

In the legal profession, and now in many other areas, transactions carried out between two parties who are at pains not to have connections, other than those needed for the transactions themselves, are said to be operating 'at arm's length'.

It seems to me that such a principle of insisting on 'arms-lengthing' of operations could be a very valuable feature of MT designs. In MT116 it was mentioned that arms-lengthing was one of the principles consciously used in designing the United States Constitution, under the heading of 'Separation of Powers'. It would be the MT view that this principle would be a significant reason for the subsequent achievement of pre-eminence by the United States.

The same principle has been called for in many other places. The usual requirement is to avoid 'conflict of interests'. Thus, in town and shire councils in Australia, councillors are required to declare 'their interest' in matters under consideration by the council, and not to vote on such matters. Perhaps this might involve a councillor who owned property in an area due for rezoning from residential to commercial, which might increase the value of the property.

On the personal level, such conflicts of interest are common and can lead to moral dilemmas. A businessman who owns a small manufacturing plant might have to choose between two alternatives, one of which would benefit his company to the detriment of his family life, and the other the converse. A Minister in a state government cabinet position can be pulled many ways -- between the perceived good of their Department, of the Cabinet as a whole, of the Goverment, of the State, of their State Political Party, of their national Political Party, and, of course, of themselves.

All these examples are actually examples of conflict of interest between systons. The MT response to this situation is to suggest that the first thing to do for the party involved in the conflict is to identify the systons involved, and then determine which syston they are supposed to be standing in. They can then act in the interests of that syston.

This sounds a simple enough move, but in practice is much easier said than done. Suppose a state cabinet minister believes a certain action will be to the benefit of the State, but if implemented, will most likely lead to their party losing power at the next election to the Opposition Party, which would not be the benefit of the State, let alone themselves. What should they do? Another major problem, where there is inadequate arms-lengthing, concerns corruption, personal fallibility, and uncertainty of conditions. Let us look at a real example.

The Black Hand Strikes Again

Look at the following news item, relating to business migrants to Australia (Figure 120.1).

Fig. 120.1. News item from 'West Australian', 1991 December 18

Let us put aside for the moment the view that the action described in the article is the most crass and linear-thinking approach, certain to scare off any prospective business migrant who might consider investing half a million dollars in Australia. Instead, pull back and look at the article with MT eyes.

There are these people who currently live outside Australia, and who might want to migrate to Australia, right? There is a particular Person in Australia who will have his representatives look at such people, investigate the accounts of their businesses to check turnover, look at their birth certificates to check age, see how well they speak English, and check their bank statements to see how much money they have, OK?

If this Person in Australia likes what is found out about a particular Applicant, he may write 'Possible' on his belly and let him into Australia. Then, for the next three years, this Person will 'extensively monitor' the Applicant and fine him if the Applicant does something the Person does not like. And if the Applicant doesn't do something the Person thinks he should, the Person just writes 'Reject' on the belly of the Applicant and on those of his family, and sends them all back where they came from. But first he deducts the money for their fares from their bank accounts, most likely. Have I got it right, now?

It's Too Dreadful to Even Think About

The situation just described would be widely condemned as unfair, unworkable, and acting against the interests of all concerned, even from a conventional view. From the MT viewpoint, too, it has everything against it.

First, there is a total lack of arms-lengthing. One person within Australia is responsible for deciding, on a day-to-day basis, the thousands of tiny details of the treatment and fate of large numbers of other human beings, decisions which could be made purely by whim and without appeal.

Then, there are all the possibilities for Things to Go Wrong with the process as set up. Corruption and bribery are clear possibilities. Mr Hand himself may be totally incorruptible, but can he guarantee that all his agents, and his successor, will also be?

And again, it does not have to involve money, just prejudice. If the father of one of Mr Hand's agents died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma, is it not a possibility that this agent might 'exercise his discretion' and give a Japanese applicant rather lower marks than might be awarded to a Norwegian?

Finally, there is the uncertainty of it all. There are no clearly established, written, independent, repeatable procedures to go through, no definite and obvious benchmarks to be attained. Groucho Marx once said that he wouldn't want to belong to any club which would accept him as a member. I would think that the financial competence of any businessman who would be willing to put half a million dollars or so into such a risky migration assessment would be under such doubt as to rule him out automatically.

Tell It to Me Straight

Recent revelations on the operation of the White Australia policy in former years have been very sobering. Former immigration officers have recounted how 'black-balled' applicants were simply ruled out by repeated application of the European-language dictation test. So, if the applicant passed the test in Spanish, they would be given the one in Dutch, and if they passed that, on to Finnish, Romanian, Greek ... Who could survive such tests? No-one.

There is still a perception, particularly in Asian countries, that a covert White Australia policy operates. Australia has many migrants from southern Africa, but I have yet to meet a single one who is black. There is still a perception of bias in immigration, a perception which experience tends to support. Such a bias may be normal -- SIOS appears everywhere -- but it is not likely to diminish unless the rules are clear, open and unbiased and their operation is divorced from personal prejudice.

Save Me From Myself

There is another aspect of this problem. It would be an MT assertion that lack of arms-lengthing in its operations will disadvantage a syston. But what about the people involved in a conflict of interests? Is it fair that they should have to make heart-rending decisions? Is it good for their syston if such dilemmas are widespread?

There is currently some controversy in Perth over the role of the Perth City Council, which has oversight over the central business district and a few, not all, of the suburbs. The Lord Mayor has complained that with the large number of councillors and the complexity of decisions, everything is slowed down and many useful projects are just stopped in their tracks by the inertia of the current process.

In an ideal world, city councillors would not need to make decisions, the situation outlined in the quotation at the head of this article would be attained. There would be no conflicts of interest, no need for councillors to 'declare interest' and withdraw, no discussions on whether this project or that project should be 'allowed'. Only application of the rules would be needed.

Of course, we are not in an ideal world, and any given current set of rules would need amending in the light of future changes. But it would be possible to work towards establishing such Rule Structures, to work to make them continually more simple, wider of application, more varied and open to voluntary adoption as Rule Structures, and subject them to continual refinement and testing. That is what MT design is all about.

In summary, this article has presented logical reasons why arms-lengthing is good for society. It has been suggested that it reduces the possibilities for corruption and for bias, eliminates the stress on individuals having to make difficult decisions, and forces the clarification of the rules so that they can be operated at arms length, rather than decisions being made 'on the run'.

We can note that rule clarification and stabilization implies a decrease in uncertainty, and hence an increase in infocap. In assembling the only Proposition of this article, we can forget the reasoning which has led to it, and present it purely as an item for testing.

Proposition 120A***. Arms-lengthing of the interaction of its systels will advantage a syston.

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