Man can indeed do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.

—Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Freedom of the Will


This is a previously unpublished essay I wrote earlier in 2016 in response to a challenge posed by a close circle of friends to articulate my compatibilist view on free choice.


Quid est veritas? What is the truth? I humbly believe this is the mother of all questions and not Hamlet’s beautifully phrased ontological question, “To be, or not to be?” Instead of inquiring the sources of truth, we often find ourselves asking questions, such as “If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world?” Or, even the more daring question, “If God exists, do we really have freedom to choose?”

It justly seems that if there is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God, evil should have no place in this world. That conclusion is due to the oft undisputed premise that God is inherently good, or, that God is not evil. Too, God alone would run the show without the obvious need of assigning choices to our lives. On the other hand, if God does not exist, nature would run the cruel show blindly and deterministically, without the proviso of free choice.

It seems there is no way out, whichever perspective you adopt. However, attacking the question with these two extremes — the first belonging to the Christian fundamentalist and the second to the atheist fundamentalist — is a myopic way of attempting to understand the story. (I define a religious fundamentalist, without loss of generality, as a person who absolutely holds the view that God exists; whereas the atheist fundamentalist is the person who absolutely holds the view that there is no God. Obviously, the two extremes are salient in our societies. More on these definitions here.) On one side, the Christian fundamentalist will paradoxically countenance the notion of free choice in the presence of God, despite the latter’s ability of foresight, by rejecting the deterministic world where the atheist fundamentalist dwells. On the other hand, the atheist fundamentalist will reject the notion of free choice in the presence of God because it is just impossible to attain, given God’s ability to control our lives with foresight.

Yet, both of these extreme views are pregnant with dialectical tensions once their proponents realize that the set of possible choices is finite (in the case of a deterministic worldview) or countably infinite (in the case when God runs the world) and that the definition of free choice must comply with the existence of such sets. It is my view that free choice is compatible with either worldview — deterministic or Godly. This compatibilist perspective yields a higher degree of free choice when the set of choices is countably infinite, as I shall argue below. Furthermore, I conclude that the problem of evil can be resolved once one assumes a compatibilist worldview with respect to free choice, but only in the context of the worldview that we, humans, are given a set of countably infinite choices from which to exert our free choice power.

Here’s the story. At every moment in time, before I take the next step, I pause to make a decision at my current state of affairs. That pause could be instantaneous, or could last much longer. Once I make a decision, I bring about my next state of affairs, hoping, of course, it is better than the previous. I go on making decisions until the end of my life. So do you. So does everyone else in this world, every other conscious being, that is.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to model life as a decision tree. Each node of the tree is a decision point at a particular state of affairs, a question that demands a decision. Each branch of the tree is a path yielded by the decision made at that point. At each decision point, you may choose to take one, and only one, of the possible paths, and walk onto the next decision point, and so on until you essentially reach the end of your conscious life. (It is redundant to explain here why solely decisions made consciously are relevant to the topic of the freedom to choose. When one is asleep or mentally incapable of making decisions, the concept of free choice does not apply; perhaps a model of random, Brownian motion-like choices would take effect.) At any rate, one’s life seems to be merely a path constructed from one’s decision tree along with the decision points that constitute that path.

That moment when you are about to make a decision is quite powerful. Which of the possible resulting paths is the right one, and what does ‘right’ even mean to you? What do you need to be equipped with in order to make the most reasonable decision? How do you know what your next decision point will be once you choose to walk on this, rather than that, path on your tree of life? Clearly, your decision is affected by a reasonably large number of factors, most of which you may not have even taken into account. In a mechanistic worldview, such as is the one where nature runs this worldly show, there are many deterministic factors that bring about a specific configuration of your tree of life. You couldn’t possibly have a tree other than the one you are in right now because of the inherent mechanistic nature of the universe: The Goldilocks constants, the universal laws of physics, the continuous biological changes on your life, the friend that gave you wrong advice, and a million other events happen to bring about a specific configuration of your decision tree, which seems to be unique to you. I have my own decision tree, which again has been molded by another large set of factors within the same mechanistic universe we both share. Consider, for example, the process of natural selection. Nature decides whether to let a cell live or not. Over millions of years of such decision-making processes, here we are in this great show on earth. Do you, then, have freedom to choose if, no matter what, some deterministic mechanism is constantly shaping your life? On the other hand, if God runs this worldly show and has the foreknowledge of which path of your decision tree is good for you, how can you have free choice with such predestination? Is there another explanation?

Suppose, for the sake of simplicity, the decision trees in our lives are binary. In other words, at each decision point we are presented with two choices – this or that, the left path or the right path, the right path or the wrong path, the wisely chosen path or the unwisely chosen path. We are, in a strict sense, free to choose this or that, despite the very limited number of choices (only two!). Next, suppose we have a finite number of choices to make at each decision point (for example, one hundred choices). We may conclude our degrees of freedom have increased, we seem to be more free to choose than before. Now, suppose we have a countably infinite number of choices to make. We could go on forever exploring the choices, but we would never get to the end because our life is limited by time. In this case, we would think we are truly free. But are we really truly free? Is there a difference between a binary decision tree and one with a countably infinite number of choices, be it in a mechanistic world view or in the presence of God?

The astute reader will conclude that whether we are presented with two, three, or many decisions, we would still be able, in theory, to enumerate them all before transitioning to the next state of affairs in our decision tree. In other words, we are given only that many options to choose from, so there really isn’t any free choice because we could potentially predict all such choices and they could potentially occur with some probability. We are constrained or confined to choose from an enumerated set of predetermined paths on our decision tree. Determinism seems to make free choice irrelevant. This situation could perhaps be explained by the following thought experiment. A prisoner confined to a tiny cell has a very limited number of decisions to make. He can walk around the cell until his feet hurt, he can read, he can sing, he can whistle, he can go on a strike, or he can do nothing but remain seated. Whichever decision he makes he can only find himself in one of a few states of affairs. Even more scandalous is the state of affairs of the prisoner in Plato’s cave – he has but one choice: to look at the shadows of the objects the pernicious philosophers are bringing about. In Plato’s cave determinism is obvious, but in the tiny cell the prisoner’s degree of freedom increases chaotically, but still within a deterministic framework. In neither case may we conclude the prisoners are free. They have no freedom to choose as they are limited by the enumerable decisions they may make. The prisoner’s experiment can be extended to apply to any of us living in a larger cell – planet Earth. In that case, the decision-making ability increases drastically, but is still confined to a deterministic universe. We are no freer than the prisoners in Plato’s cave.

The astute reader would also realize that even if God presented us with infinitely many decision points, we would still be able to enumerate them if we lived eternally. Determinism in this case would constitute the case when God, with His presupposed infinite knowledge, would determine which path out of the infinite possibilities we would choose. Therefore, it is logical to infer that some degree of determinism must necessarily be present in order for the freedom of choice to exist. This compatibilist worldview, where free choice and determinism coexist peacefully, is by no means logically inconsistent, as the discussion hitherto has highlighted. Whether it is the laws of physics or God, determinism is necessary for free choice.

As paradoxical as it may present itself, I conclude that we have the most freedom to choose when we are presented with a set of choices of practically large cardinality, and nature appears to be sufficient in providing such a large set as contrasted with the more daring assumption that God runs the show. Furthermore, the view I’ve presented happens to assist us in regards to the following question: How are we, then, to tackle the problem of evil within a compatibilist worldview? With all the misery in our world, where some lives appear to matter more than others, where unfaithfulness permeates even the sincerest of relationships, one cannot help recalling the question posed by theodicy: How are we to reconcile the our existence with the ubiquitous evil in the world, especially without the assumption of God (for, otherwise, we could claim that with God everything, including evil, is possible)? According to the compatibilist worldview, there must have been a decision point in the forest of decision trees, in which a decision was made to pursue a path on the side of the unjust, but which was provided to us as a possible path in the set of choices mentioned above. We have, therefore, the option to choose a relatively evil path given the current state of affairs in our decision trees. Because evil is not a separate antagonistic divine agency, but simply a possible path in our lives that causes grief to other fellows, then it is us who choose to pursue that path, rather than nature imposing it onto us. If nature eliminated that path from the set of decision points, we would be no freer than the prisoners in Plato’s cave. The strength of the freedom to choose good over evil empowers us with the ability to mature in wisdom so as to make a wise decision by suppressing the inclination to choose the evil path. When we choose an evil path, we tend to create a divine agency on which to blame it instead of attributing it to our ability to make a proper decision collectively.

The question of theodicy becomes, therefore, redundant. It is our choice that brings about a state of affairs where evil is present. The flow is based on the following arguments:

  1. We wield a set of decisions to choose from at a specific point in time.
  2. In that set, we have choices that may hurt us. Call them evil.
  3. We could potentially make an evil decision no less probably than we would make any other decision.
  4. Because we are free to choose from a predefined set of choices, whether it is two choices or infinitely many, then free will requires determinism. This is the compatibilist worldview.
  5. In a compatibilist worldview, we can conclude that evil, brought about by choices made from the predefined set, is compatible with the naturalistic worldview as we have gotten to observe it, and thus does not require any divine agency to explain it any further without complicating the matter.
  6. The elimination of evil from that set of choice would reduce the degrees of freedom to choose in an unfair way. Every choice should have the same chance to be considered in order for a fair treatment of the decision tree. As a result, evil remains a choice in the predetermined set of possible choices.
  7. Because we are free to choose anything, we are free to choose evil for whatever motivation. Consequently, the problem of evil is resolved.

From the conclusion, it is important to note that evil in the world can be diminished if we collectively avoid choosing that particular leading path at every decision point of our individual decision trees. A beautiful forest can be built only if the constituent trees are beautifully maintained. Hence the relativistic characteristic of morality.

If we are merely rational decision-making agents in a mechanical universe with or without God, in that we have to necessarily make a decision at every moment in time, then we have no other choice but to make a choice given the set of possible choices. The only time when we would not be required to make a choice is when we are unconscious, sleeping, catatonic or mentally challenged. In such cases, the next state of affairs would be brought about by random events rather than by conscious choices. Whether conscious or not, the determinism involved in providing the first choice is intrinsic. Only after you have determinism can you start to have free choice. Perhaps the latter proposition could serve as a good conclusion on its own right.

As a resident of the North Shore, I find it but deferential to explore the culture of the people on whose traditional, historical land I, a modern settler, am honored to reside.

The Squamish people, or nation, as it were, have been living here for centuries. While they live, their language, the Skwxwú7mesh sníchim, is nearly dead. That is why I invite you to learn it, or to promote and support its teaching.

As the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger puts it, Squamish is a ‘severely endangered’ language. However, the picture is not so gloomy. Current efforts to revitalize the Skwxwú7mesh language, and culture, include the amazing work by Kwi Awt Stelmexw, which has been collaborating with SFU for a full-time immersion program that produces fluent native speakers. Obviously, the venerable goal of this initiative it to ensure future Squamish generations speak their language and live their culture, as their natural, historical right.

As a passionate lover of languages, I was curious on how to read the language and how the Squamish people count, greet and give gratitude. Everyone gets curious — Why is there a ‘7’ in Skwxwú7mesh, the Squamish word for ‘Squamish’? That’s how I ran into Kwi Awt Stelmexw’s language resources page. As you shall see, it is challenging to produce some sounds, and it is sad that they have adopted Latin letters, since with such a small number of letters and such a larger number of phonemes, the alphabetic principle has been violated considerably. (Perhaps the Squamish people should develop their own script.) But that’s the beauty of this endangered language — the challenge to learn it, as well as the eerie fact that it is so ancient and so tied to the land and sea.

I then got a copy the Squamish-English-Squamish Dictionary, compiled by the Squamish Nation. It enumerates all possible terms the authors were able to collect and jot down. With a dictionary in place, the preconditions to allow the Squamish language to prosper have been set.

Despite my curiosity and passion to get interested into learning Skwxwú7mesh, what added to my motivation was this one well-articulated paragraph by Zack Simon:

If he would like to teach his children a language whose speakers have committed the fewest moral transgressions, Mr. Mullone would do well to browse through UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and choose from among those. Speakers of those languages have experienced history as a negative experiences its photograph. Consequently, their numbers are dwindling and their mother tongues are likely to find themselves in the dustbins of history by the conclusion of this century.

Which is why I invite you to learn the Skwxwú7mesh language.

This is an article off my M.Sc. thesis published in 2015 in the rather serious venue IEEE Transactions on Image Processing (PDF here):

In this paper, we present an innovative method for lossless compression of discrete-color images such as map images, graphics, GIS as well as binary images. This method comprises two main components. The first is a fixed-size codebook encompassing 8×8 bit blocks of two-tone data along with their corresponding Huffman codes and their relative probabilities of occurrence. The probabilities were obtained from a very large data set of two color images (binary) and are used for arithmetic coding. The second component is the row-column reduction coding, which will encode those blocks that are not in the codebook. The proposed method has been successfully applied on two major image categories: (i) images with a predetermined number of discrete colors such as digital maps, graphs, and GIS images; and (ii) binary images. The results show that our method compresses images from both categories (discrete color and binary images) with 90% in most case and higher than the JBIG-2 by 5% to 20% for binary images, and by 2% to 6.3% for discrete color images on average.

During my research work at IBM Ottawa in 2012, I had the opportunity to carry out ethnographic studies of software developers and testers in order to understand how they collaborate and how requirements are managed among them. From the large amount of data I was able to gather from interviews, developed work, and observations, I was able to coauthor “Openness and Requirements: Opportunities and Tradeoffs in Software Ecosystems” with Eric Knauss, et al. Download a PDF here.

A growing number of software systems is characterized by continuous evolution as well as by significant interdependence with other systems (e.g. services, apps). Such software ecosystems promise increased innovation power and support for consumer oriented software services at scale, and are characterized by a certain openness of their information flows. While such openness supports project and reputation management, it also brings some challenges to Requirements Engineering (RE) within the ecosystem. We report from a mixed-method study of IBM’s CLM ecosystem that uses an open commercial development model. We analyzed data from from interviews within several ecosystem actors, participatory observation, and software repositories, to describe the flow of product requirements information through the ecosystem, how the open communication paradigm in software ecosystems provides opportunities for ’just-in-time’ RE, as well as some of the challenges faced when traditional requirements engineering approaches are applied within such an ecosystem. More importantly, we discuss two tradeoffs brought about the openness in software ecosystems: i) allowing open, transparent communication while keeping intellectual property confidential within the ecosystem, and ii) having the ability to act globally on a long-term strategy while empowering product teams to act locally to answer end-users’ context specific needs in a timely manner.

Research presented in this paper follows preliminary investigations reported in another paper we published in 2012.

The dark corners of modern history ensconce an obnoxious event; one which deserves no less attention than the Jewish Holocaust; one which requires the same levels of awareness; one which cannot be denied; one which cannot be forgotten.

I am referring to the abhorrent Nanjing massacre, which ensued after fascist Japan invaded the city of Nanjing on December 13, 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. What makes this mass murder even more detestable is the very short period of time during which it occurred: six weeks. It seems as if the fascist appetite for human lives had been so unquenchable that they had to commit crimes which Hitler would have coveted. The no less abhorrent perpetrators — the Imperial Japanese Army along with their demigod, Emperor Hirohito — committed the following crimes in that very short amount of time:

1. Raping women
Or, I should say females, given that they made no age distinction, including children. As if raping weren’t enough, the Japanese killed the raped females by sticking bayonets or long bamboo canes into their vaginas. I reiterate, this included cutting infants into two halves — as barbaric as that — and not excepting pregnant women.

2. Beheading prisoners of war (POW) or burying them alive
Hirohito, convinced that his people were sufficiently brainwashed to think of him as a deity, went a step further and defied international legal frameworks by officially sanctioning the killing of POW. He delegated this bestial task to Prince Asaka, who was eventually downgraded to a mere general. A particular nauseous happening worth not leaving out in the cold at this point is a race between two Japanese officers as who could decapitate more Chinese. It even made the headline in Japan, as if some scientific discovery had been marked. More than 100 Chinese citizens combined were beheaded in that Japanese game.

3. Killing civilians
For a reason as simple as unpleasant demeanor, civilians were killed on the spot. A young man was reportedly killed for not taking off his hat. A photo of the perpetrator carrying his sword over the young man’s body was shot and promoted.

In total: 300,000+ deaths in 6 weeks, with the Yangtze River turning red! This translates to 7100 lives claimed per day.

When Japan shook from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it finally surrendered on September 2 thus officially ending WWII. Pursuant to the witnessed crimes, the Nanjing Tribunal of War Crimes was established. Alas, no member of the Imperial Family — not even the infamous Prince Asaka — were tried. Instead, US General Douglas MacArthur granted them immunity for strategic reasons (duh!). In that regard, I have prepared a list of people that meet my Hall of Shame criteria:

  • Emperor Hirohito and his entire royal circle
  • Iwane Matsui, who invaded Nanjing thus instantiating the barbaric rape
  • Prince Asaka, who witnessed the rape, but kept a blind eye
  • Every single member of the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanjing during those six weeks
  • Douglas MacArthur, for granting immunity to Prince Asaka and the imperial family
  • Officers Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda, who completed the contest to kill 100 people using a sword
  • Japanese intellectuals of the time, who opted for lip sewing instead of denouncing the massacre
  • Chiang Kai-shek, for his cowardice and collaboration with certain Japanese officers
  • Hisao Tani, who was at least executed (the only one)
  • Shōichi Watanabe, Nobukatsu Fujioka, Shudo Higashinakano, and other Nanjing massacre denialists
  • Ikuhiko Hata, Japenese historian who makes you almost believe that what you see in the photographic evidence is an illusion
  • Takashi Kawamura, mayor of Nagoya, who assumes a probabilistic argument: “It probably never happened.”
  • Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, on the other hand, makes the aforementioned argument absolute: “It never happened.”

This by-no-means exhaustive Nanjing Massacre Hall of Shame should be attached to its counterparts: the Jewish Holocaust denialist list as well as Armenian Genocide denialist list.

Iris Chang, who alas isn’t among us any longer, granted an interview on her bestseller The Rape of Nanking, which revivified interest in the almost-forgotten massacre. Chang was criticized by some academics for her failing to not avoid getting into the analysis of the Japanese psyche. With all due respect to such academic kerfuffle, I don’t see how a rational researcher exposed to the factual truth of such atrocities as those committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanjing can stop short of asking and analyzing: “Why would we, humans, even concoct such a brutal crime?”

December 13 is, as I wrote above, the 75th anniversary of the massacre. We must never forget what kind of calamity bigoted, vicious minds are able to incur unto humanity unless stopped in time.

Around September 2011, I decided to replace my existing system of personal organization with a new, much-publicized system known colloquially as GTD for Getting Things Done, developed by David Allen over a decade ago.

In GTD, Allen describes a personal organization system which purportedly increases productivity in a stress-free manner. (I’ll succinctly summarize the main points of that system below.) I write “purportedly” because it is in my nature to almost always assume a skeptical position when reading and examining a particular matter. Allen’s writing is based on an experientialist approach wherein the phrase “trust me because I’ve seen it” seems to be clued at incessantly throughout the flow of the book. (In fact, at some point, Allen does write: “…but in the meantime, trust me.”) Thus, I wondered whether there could be any scientific (neuro-psychological) basis behind the foundational claims of superiority of such an organization system.

I didn’t find a plausible answer to my question until I came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s seminal book “Flow.” It is my intention to elucidate on that answer in this post. First, I’ll illustrate Allen’s GTD system along its structural points. Next, I’ll attempt to use some psychological results from Csikszentmihalyi’s work to rationalize to a degree some, if not all, of Allen’s points.

To motivate the reader into his system, Allen introduces the concept of “incompletes” or “open loops” (pp. 12–15), which entail essentially “stuff” (thoughts, ideas, intentions, created or discovered information) that one has in mind that is occupying one’s mind. This stuff (or, commitments) need to be thoroughly identified (for one may not be fully aware of all of them) and manifested into some sort of tangible system (electronic or physical) so that one may then take the necessary action(s). Thus, the basic principle behind the GTD framework is to corral all the stuff that bugs your mind and decide whether and how to act on it. The trick to effectual organization is to keep reminders about such actions and consult (review) them frequently so one doesn’t miss doing any “incompletes.”

Furthermore, on pages 15–17, Allen discusses why “incompletes” are on one’s mind. In particular, he states (p. 16):

Until those thoughts [incompletes] have been clarified and those decisions [to act on them] made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can’t give up the job.

It is precisely the latter statement that I intend to rationalize moving forward.

Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system consists of five phases:

  1. Collect. One must always collect everything that is deemed as an incomplete in one’s mind. Every thought, desire, intention, extravagant idea or opinion that has a “…’should,’ ‘need to,’ or ‘ought to’ attached to it” (p. 26) needs to be expelled from the mind and written down somewhere outside the mind. On page 29, Allen allegorically states that one’s mind is like a computer’s RAM — it can only hold and process that much. Thus, one needs to “get it all out of one’s head.” Naturally, getting them out is not sufficient and efficient unless one processes them, which brings about the next phase.
  2. Process. Now that one has their stuff out of their mind, one needs to process what each elicited item means. Allen provides a nice, intuitive flowchart of this “algorithm” of his on page 32. In simple terms it works as follows: Take an item from your system and ask yourself what you can do about it. That is, what’s the next physical, unitary action you can take to do that item? If there is no action, trash it or incubate it for prospective use. If there is an action, determine what it is and if it takes less than 2-3 minutes, do it; otherwise, put a reminder somewhere in your system to do it in due time. How does one organize reminders, though? That’s the next phase.
  3. Organize. Here you want to separate actionable from non-actionable items. The latter can either be trashed if they have no value or incubated/referenced otherwise. The referencing should be general (e.g. file-folder-based). Actionable items posit a gimmick: if an incomplete you’ve taken out of your mind takes more than one action step to complete, then Allen refers to it as a project. Thus, you can’t “do”  a project, but you can only “do” the actions associated with that project. For instance, if item “Save the world before I die” was on your mind and you took it out, it most certainly needs more than an action step and is, therefore, a project. Allen advises one to keep projects in a separate list and the actions associated with them in another list for frequent reviewing, which yields to the fourth phase.
  4. Review. Now that you’ve organized your stuff, you must review them so that you actually do them. Reviewing starts from the most exigent element — the calendar — and proceeds with the next actions that you intend to do. Also, a weekly review of all you’ve got (including your list of projects) is essential to keep your system up and running.
  5. Do. The final phase of Allen’s GTD system is to actually do things, mainly based on your intuition, but also on the contextualization of your settings. For instance, if you’re on a plane using your laptop, you’ll most probably do things that can be done only on your laptop (e.g. email, write a poem, etc.).

The rest of the book goes at length to describe the actual implementation of this system and to get projects going through several tricks and tips based on the author’s expertise as well as on other practical knowledge.

Now, if you look back at the most critical point of this five-phase system, the first point, you might naturally ask: Why is it that one needs to get things done by first getting them out of their minds? That is, why won’t the brain give up the job? Why would one want to free up one’s psyche of stuff that bugs one? What’s the rationale behind this? Should I just trust the author and invest my time in implementing a system of personal organization with utter skepticism and risk to end up not leveraging it? These questions were sitting at the back of mind as I was reading and implementing Allen’s GTD system. These questions were the only “open loops” that thwarted me from assembling the system back when I finished reading the book months ago. But I answered them comfortably as I was reading Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” and I can reassure you that after implementing GTD with less skepticism it does work smoothly, overall. Here’s why.

The essence of Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” is about positive human experiences that enable one’s life to flow, i.e. to be exhilarating, vivacious, enjoying life, and so forth. Csikszentmihalyi (whose name sesquipedalophobics might want to eschew pronouncing) provides rigorous psychological arguments (based on decades-long research) on what flow is and how to attain and preserve it using a phenomenological, rather than anatomical/ biochemical, approach to the functioning of the nervous system and the mind.

After revisiting happiness in the first chapter, Csikszentmihalyi elucidates on the anatomy and limitations of consciousness interestingly in light of the information-theoretic concept of entropy (p. 25). On page 24 he writes:

A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness. […] To develop this trait, one must find ways to order consciousness so as to be in control of feelings and thoughts.

According to the author, information theory is relevant to apprehend what goes on in one’s mind through such a model of consciousness. This could be a valid undertaking because after all: “The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body” (p. 24). As such, consciousness may be construed as the central “clearinghouse” which handles sensations, thoughts, intentions, desires, etc., noting that intentions are what provides and keeps order in the consciousness (p. 27). And these intentions are organized in a hierarchy of goals/ outcomes (p. 28). Hence, we can freely control which outcome to pursue based on our subjective prioritization of objectives. In David Allen’s sense, these outcomes could be viewed as project outcomes, but also as the next actions to take to do whatever incomplete has been collected.

That being stated, consciousness has indeed a major limitation: it can process only that much information. The empirically observed bound of the amount of information consciousness can process at a time is at most 7 bits. According to Csikszentmihalyi (and, independently, Robert Lucky), the mind can discriminate these 7-bit chunks at every 1/18th of a second, which implies that an average human can process up to 120 bits of information per second. If we assume that a human is awake (“conscious”) for 16 hours a day and lives on average 70 years, the lifelong amount of information the mind can maximally process is roughly 185 billion bits (p. 29). Pretty fascinating!

To understand what that limit on the mind’s information-processing bandwidth implies think of the following scenario. If it takes a person 60 bits of information to comprehend what another person is saying, then theoretically one could be listening to two persons at the same time and understand both of them readily, since the total processing power of the mind is 120 bits (per second). Yet, we all have experienced such a situation and we all are aware of the practical impossibility of such an event. The reason lies in the fact that one’s consciousness is already occupied with existing thoughts, feelings, “incompletes” or “open loops”. Consequentially, if one liberates one’s mind by controlling one’s consciousness, then one could achieve flow. It exactly this conclusion that supports the ostensibly efficient system of personal organization put forth by Allen. In other words, if one frees up one’s mind by means of controlling consciousness (the processing unit of information), then one gives it the chance to process even more information (discovered or created), which one wouldn’t otherwise process. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, what Allen refers to as “incompletes” are, as a matter of fact, “things that occupy the mind and reduce its capacity of processing information” (p. 30).

This brings about the discussion on attention, whose intentional ordering of consciousness averts increased (psychic) entropy, thus reducing the chances of yielding disorder in the mind. On page 31 we read:

It is attention that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available. It takes attention to retrieve the appropriate references from memory, to evaluate the event, and then to choose the right thing to do.

Hence, learning where to direct attention implies controlling one’s consciousness. That is to say, one’s personal productivity could be flowing incessantly if one induces order in one’s consciousness. This is exactly what David Allen alludes to throughout his GTD book. (“The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” is, in fact, the book’s subtitle.)

In all, “The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life” (Flow, p. 31). If we can at least control what we want to get out of our brains and efficiently manage it through a working, actionable organization system, we should attain not only flow, but also professional productivity. Based on my preliminary evaluation of the GTD system, this has been indeed the case in my professional and academic life.

The main point to remember here is this: The reason why Allen claims you want to get things out of your brain is  what Csikszentmihalyi concludes: to free up your mind so that the information-processing power of your consciousness increases. If you (learn to) control your consciousness by steering attention attentively, then you bring about order in your mind (increased psychic energy). And, thereafter, flow comes into play and psychic entropy dissipates. Flow, in turn, provides for a stress-free life, which consequentially yields efficient personal productivity through an effectively implemented organization system, such as Getting Things Done. But the prime step to take is to corral “incompletes” in one bucket, whence processing, organization, reviewing, and doing follow. I highly recommend the reader studies both books, especially Flow.


Revised 2015.11.07

Following my ethnographic research work at IBM Ottawa, my colleagues and I published the following paper (PDF here):

IT ecosystems are large software systems that consist of various, constantly interacting and partly autonomous subsystems as well as stakeholders of the overall system. Because of these specific properties, such systems are a highly relevant research area in the field of requirements engineering. In this paper we describe our approach to investigate and to model the flow of requirements in IT ecosystems. We are currently applying this approach in a case study in the IBM Collaborative Lifecycle Management project. This project is of particular relevance to the requirements engineering community because of its open commercial approach. This paper contributes by highlighting challenges of requirements engineering in IT ecosystems, i.e. contextualizing requirements, mapping them to subsystems, and communicating them to stakeholders. We define research questions and describe a mixed method approach to answer them.

We had set out to understand three phenomena:

  1. How requirement mapping is done
  2. How context is captured during elicitation
  3. How teams coordinate and communicate during a project

If we make the strong assumption that life is ultimately political, given the multiplicity of interactions we have with the variety of people of various social statuses, then a long life would also entail political longevity. Such world-view, scurrilous as it may be, would seem to apply to Senator for Life and former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. But there is a lesson to be learned from Andreotti’s longevity amidst the myriad scandals that were stormed in his life in a Pandoran way. And that lesson is the reticent way he admixed his culture, intellect, and wit with power to secure his position and intents in life.

Andreotti started his political career in the late 1940s with Christian Democracy, the now defunct Italian political party that dominated Italian life until the early ’90s. In 1991, he was appointed Senator for Life, despite allegations and hints of his collaboration with Cosa Nostra, the infamous Italian mafia network. In fact, a criminal investigation and prosecution into the matter led to a less-than-a-decade trial against Andreotti, which ended with the latter’s acquittal amid popular controversy. Interestingly enough, not only did Andreotti enjoy uninterrupted political power for decades, but he remained in his own happy Catholic world well into his nineties.

What was Andreotti’s key to political longevity? Concisely, I believe it was his coveted — some would say ‘dreaded’ — private archive on top of his intellectual and cultural capacities.

The large archive was donated to the Luigi Sturzo Institute in 2007 and is being curated there for thorough examination by historians, journalists, academicians, and the public. It is subdivided into 15 thematic categories (e.g. Parliament, the Holy See, the Senate, etc.), and other files/dossiers sorted out chronologically or contextually. It includes sensitive documents pertaining to various scandals and plausibly crimes that occurred during Andreotti’s governance or political activity, such as the dark year 1978 when Aldo Moro, then head of the Christian Democratic Party, was kidnapped and assassinated by the Red Brigades. The type of information contained in the 3500 folders varies from simple single-page documents to photographs, voice records, videos, and some books. (There could have been more information entities of interest which Andreotti may have decided to annihilate for obvious reasons.)

In my view, this archive has been Andreotti’s aegis and unprescribed medicine to not dying early, as some of his political comrades did. He meticulously resorted to his intellectual and cultural strengths along with his ready wit in order to avert embarrassing situations, but above all to exert power on political adversaries directly through his position or indirectly through his influence. In a sense, he realized early on the importance of possessing and retaining information in various modalities for the purposes of wielding a vicious political power. In turn, this discipline donated him a pro-active and influential personality — which led to his longevity.

Put differently, this method of admixing individual culture and information seems to be an atrocious medicine you have to take in order to repel certain insects from stinging you. Nonetheless, such form of power is bound by at least two limitations inherent to social systems, as Andreotti himself acknowledged publicly: (a) insufficient financial means, and (b) insufficient political means to accomplish useful things.

Andreotti has certainly consulted his archive for “special” situations in the past, as it were. Such acts have constituted outright exertion of power rather than influence, although the mere existence of the archive had scared adversaries off. This latter instance is itself an indirect use of power via argumentum ad baculum.

There is a subtle difference between power and influence: Influence is an indirect means of exerting power with not necessarily malicious persuasions, such as the pernicious use of argumentum ad consequentiam. Schoolteachers tell us that influential people are generally respected. Power, on the other hand, constitutes wielding whatever you possess to attain the desired conclusion of an argument or the preferred outcome of a situation. As O\’Brien in Orwell\’s 1984 succinctly explained to a feeble Winston Smith, “Power is not a means, it is an end.” Schoolteachers tell us that powerful people are generally not respected.

I would tell you that preserving archives of everything is, to all intents, constructions, and purposes, a very wise move that costs you just a little bit of time and space. In return, it provides you a basis for building and wielding the kind of power that appears to grow slowly, and yet adds to your longevity.