Caribbean Stories


Radio Sistema Tropical

Cardinal Points

Oregon Trail


Diego Azeta

18 February 2019

© 2019 Diego Azeta  ※  All Rights Reserved  ※  Derechos Reservados
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The PDF edition is the final (edited) version of the story.

HELLO AND WELCOME to Cardinal Points. Ever since airing our inaugural episode, we at Radio Sistema Tropical have been trying to finish our interview with programme co-host Teriaki without much success. This time around, we will not attempt to complete the interview but simply cover a bit more ground and see where that will take us. For the benefit of our new listeners, Teriaki is a cultural systems analyst experienced in geopolitical and global organizational problems. He has worked as a professional expert at the United Nations and in private practice as a consultant to major transnational corporations. Teriaki is a citizen of the Republic of Kiribati in Oceania and hails from Kiritimati atoll in the central Pacific, better known as Christmas Island. Good morning, Teriaki.

Teriaki:  Good morning, Shahrazad. I must add that our other co-host, whom I am honoured to work with in this programme, is this charming young lady, the  Managing Director of Sistema Tropical World News, who doubles as resident expert in international relations and global affairs, philosophy and ethics, world history, public economics, Orwellian media, and critical thinking.

Shahrazad:  Oh, Teriaki, please.

T:  She makes sure we deliver cogent presentations. She is also gorgeous!

S:  Teriaki!

T:  I’m referring to the brilliance of her unparalleled performance, naturally.

S:  Thank you, sir. But some of our listeners may find certain comments to be, shall we say, not pertinent to our thematic discussions?

T:  Context accentuates content. In media lacking a visual dimension, as is the case with radio, a measure of elaboration on the operating ambiance becomes a competitive necessity. Sincere apologies extended, of course.

S:  No apologies required. For you, my dear sir, are a gentleman.

T:  Whoa! Eat that, whining critics. Ahem! So, where should we start?

S:  Last time we left you in New York, at the UN building.

T:  Waiting for a cab, possibly? A yellow Checkers Taxicab, surely. Took them to go uptown to City College. Roomy.

S:  You studied at CCNY?

T:  No, I used to give invited lectures on UN decolonization efforts to the City College community. They were popular with students of social science.

S:  Any memorable stories?

T:  Lots of pleasant memories. One day, though, checking over some postings on a hallway bulletin board, I saw a notice about a systems science programme being offered out in Oregon. That intrigued me immensely. Let me do a bit of recollecting here. On my freshman year at USP, in Fiji, I discovered Norbert Wiener’s classic, Cybernetics. That book motivated me to study mathematics.

S:  A positive influence. Please explain the gist of cybernetics, Teriaki.

T:  Wiener defined the term cybernetics as “communication and control in the animal and the machine”. Cybernetics is the science that studies the theoretical basis of dynamic, goal-seeking systems. Cultural systems analysis then applies the cybernetics paradigm to the study of collective human behaviour.

S:  In ordinary parlance, the word cyber is associated with computer systems.

T:  Yes, there is a strong linkage between cybernetics and computers. In order to “communicate and control”, a system must engage in computation, to wit, it must process information logically. Quickly. Which is what computers do.

S:  A computational substrate. But they are distinct fields, separate disciplines.

T:  Yes, computer science and, eh … what, systems theory? Control systems? There is no single name in general use for the field of systems science.

S:  Wouldn’t systems science itself do?

T:  Yeah, I suppose. But it never really caught on. It’s ironic that for a field that strives to systematize systems thinking, no systematic name was agreed upon.

S:  A little fuzzy area there.

T:  Literally. There is a subspecialty in the field called fuzzy systems.

S:  I’m not surprised. Do tell us about Oregon’s systems science programme.

T:  Yes. I had this notion, based on sheer ignorance, that Oregon was a bucolic place with vast evergreen forests and magnificent snow-capped mountains. Not a wholly incorrect image, but not factually descriptive of what Oregon is really all about. This state has a thriving economy, excellent educational institutions, high-tech industries galore ―Silicon Forest― and enterprising denizens. They had instituted a uniquely innovative programme in systems science at Portland State University. Left the rest of the nation in the dust, just about.

S:  They are children of the pioneers who trekked west in covered wagons with their families. Audacious. Like their forebears, Oregonians do bold things.

T:  They certainly do. It’s inherent to their local culture. An outlook materially different from the one prevailing back east. Most stimulating, the academics in systems science at PSU as well as my experience in the tech industry.

S:  You worked while studying for your degree?

T:  Yes indeed, and once again, in a very innovative employment arrangement. One day, a classmate of mine, John ―I’ve forgotten his surname― came over and asked me if I’d be interested in working at Tektronix for the summer. Tek, as it was known everywhere in the engineering world, was the industrial jewel of Oregon, the state’s largest private employer and finest technology company.

S:  So you said yes.

T:  Immediately. This was truly an offer no one with half a brain would refuse. Tek had attained a reputation for excellence in their products worldwide. To be a Tektronix employee was something special. People were proud of their work and their role in making this company outstanding. I have not seen this fervour of personal identification with and fidelity to a corporation and its fraternity of fellow coworkers, as a team, anywhere else in the world. It was unique.

S:  Team Tektronix. Impressive. Was John employed at Tektronix?

T:  No, he was not. John just happened to have the good fortune of being in a class with Bill Kapps, who struck up a casual friendship with John. Bill was an older guy who had signed up for the systems science programme as a part-time student because of his penchant for lifelong learning. He was also a manager at Tek. And he had some innovative ideas about what management was supposed to be. So here he was, mixing business with intellectual pleasure.

S:  A true-blue Oregonian.

T:  And a great human being. At the end of the spring term, Bill asked John if he would be interested in working at Tek in the summer. John, of course, said he was. Bill then asked him if he could suggest three other classmates of his to join him at Tek. So John wound up with the power to select among the student body at systems science who would be initiated into the legendary firm.

S:  Big man on campus.

T:  Very much so, although no one knew. John was discreet; he approached his quarry in complete privacy. I found out there were two other students involved only when all of us showed up for work the first day.

S: A prudent headhunter. Tell us more about your fellow “chosen ones”.

T:  The chosen ones according to John. This John was working on his MBA as well as PhD in systems science. An undergrad physics major, he’d served four years in the Air Force, three at Torrejón Air Base just outside Madrid. What a lucky guy! Torrejón was the most coveted tour of duty available in the US Air Force. This was not a Thule, Greenland or Minot, North Dakota or some other bleak, freezing outpost in the middle of nowhere. This was Madrid, España!

S:  ¡Olé! John the fortunate hit the jackpot.

T:  Always did. Needless to say, he loved the Air Force. Next there was Al. A Latino with a master’s in computer science, he developed statistical forecasting systems for managerial decision support using Tek’s acclaimed high-resolution graphics terminals, all from scratch. Fine piece of work.

S:  Put the company’s star products to work.

T:  You get extra points for that. And lastly, I was thrilled to discover that John had the good sense to invite Laura to the team.

S:  Mm… Tell us about Laura, Teriaki.

T:  Oh, she was so pretty! Laura was a Madison-Wisconsin alumna. Smart and articulate, I still think she would have been the ideal spokesperson for Tek. She had class and wonderful looks. And brains. I had a crush on Laura.

S:  So I see. Did you tell her?

T:  She knew. She had a partner from back home. A very fine fellow. One day they got in their covered station-wagon and also trekked west to Oregon.

S:  The new Oregonians.

T:  Trailblazers. Very fine people up there. You should visit sometime.

S:  I bet you remember her surname.

T:  Yes, I do.

S:  … So what did you guys do? Aside from Al.

T:  We were all given the title of systems analyst. Bill kindly showed us around, introduced us to everyone in his unit, pointed to where the cabinet with office supplies was, and assigned our desks on the open floor. A little while later, Bill was nowhere to be seen. It soon dawned upon us that no one was about to give us an indication of what we were supposed to do for work.

S:  Bill had just given you guys your first task.

T:  You would have fit in perfectly with us on that morning, Shahrazad. Al had it easy; his desk was right next to a minicomputer connected to a Tek graphics terminal. He asked Les, the unit’s regular programmer/analyst, if he could do a bit of tinkering with their equipment and Les gladly created a user account for him. Les was a permanent employee at Tek. Swell guy, about our age, perhaps older. Al kept tinkering with the two machines for the next year and a half.

S:  Cyberman. What about you, Teriaki?

T:  My desk did not have a computer nearby. So I did a bit of brainstorming. I realized a barren desktop was a no-no, so I got a writing pad, a pen, and some pencils from the cabinet and jotted down some notes about whatever.

S:  Mental block.

T:  Lasted until lunch. Bill reappeared and took us downstairs to Building 58’s cafeteria. In reality, it was a world-class deli offering scrumptious sandwiches and awesome burgers and gourmet salads and zesty pizza and savoury dinners. Never did it cross my mind to skip work lest I miss out on a fine lunch at Tek. Tektronix could have diversified successfully into the restaurant business.

S:  The way to an employee’s heart…

T:  Their motto said it all: “Committed to excellence.” In everything. At table, big round ones that sat up to eight and were often used for work meetings with freshly brewed coffee available during business hours, Bill acquainted us with Tek lore and customs, and reminded us that he was always available to discuss whatever was churning on our minds. That really took the pressure off from all of us, who were desperately trying to come up with a job description of sorts.

S:  I doubt he expected one by the end of the day, think you not?

T:  Now? Sure. Back then, things seemed radically different. At any rate, when  lunch was over, I accompanied Bill back to our unit and told him what I had in mind for my initial project: an analysis of Tek’s company culture with the goal of structuring the lessons gleaned from its corporate history and customs into a working theory about how to optimally manage high-technology firms.

S:  You thought that up while Bill talked of lore.

T:  You bet, kiddo. No man is an island. Woman either.

S:  What did he say?

T:  He loved it. No need to write down a proposal. Just do it.

S:  Was everything conducted so informally at Tek?

T:  No, no. We spent much of that afternoon at human resources, controversial as the term may be, filling out all the paperwork. But within our experimental habitat, in our cushy incubator of unfettered innovation, there were virtually no constraints curbing our freedom of action. Like Tek’s office space: no walls.

S:  The entire floor was open?

T:  Apart from two plexiglass conference rooms, yes! All 100,000 square feet per floor on both floors. Cafeteria kitchen excepted. You wanted to talk to the president, say hello? Stroll down to Building 50 and walk up to his desk.

S:  No way.

T:  Oh yes. The Tek way. It was a whole different ball game. Zen.

S:  And the art of Tektronix. Just like in stuffy New York.

T:  One day, Oregonians will dump New York. And DC. Mark my words.

S:  Can’t wait. Badly needed. Wall Street and DC are wrecking the country.

T:  We shall devote a full episode to that problem. There is a lucid explanation for that mess. But there are a few things we have yet to discuss to explain it.

S:  I await the dénouement with bated breath.

T:  C’est ce que Laura aurait dit.

S:  Elle a certainement fait une impression profonde sur vous.

T:  Peut-être. But we must get back to our programme. Tek also had this policy that firmly cemented the relationship between company and employees: profit sharing. Every six months, a lady would announce over the PA system a single number: the percentage of one’s semi-annual salary that every employee would receive as extra cash in their next pay cheque. Come to think of it, those were the only times I remember the public-address system being used.

S:  Socialism! the neoliberals would rabidly decry.

T:  Wrong, troglodytes. Simply a way to keep private enterprise from going the way of the dinosaurs. The days of lush tropical vegetation are numbered. What these reactionary dorks don’t understand is that 18th century economic dogmas are worthless in a world confronting sudden depletion of resources.

S:  And an educated work force. Too complicated for their narrow minds.

T:  It’s ridiculously simple: Those who fail to adapt, disappear.

S:  Too disturbing for their insatiable greed, I should say.

T:  Egoism is the curse of these idiots. They all jump for joy at the edge of the cliff, bragging they’ve cornered the markets and gamed the system. They don’t see that the Dickensian capitalist system is teetering on the brink of collapse.

S:  Blind to reality. Well, our friends the economists also fail to see that.

T:  What can one expect from these voodoo-scientists who failed to predict the Great Recession of 2008 that imploded their free market system?

S:  I must point out that a few economists did issue warnings. Nouriel Roubini, whose prediction was roundly ignored by virtually everyone in 2006, as well as Ann Pettifor, Steve Keen, Dean Baker, Raghuram Rajan, and Peter Schiff.

T:  Thank you, Shahrazad, for your apposite observation.

S:  There may be more. And thank you, Cameron Cooper of InTheBlack.com for the informative article. Incidentally, Ann Pettifor pinpointed the root of the problem: “Economics is driven by ideology, not science.”

T:  Bingo! Let’s see if the Nobel committee is at all capable of grasping that.

S:  Were the people at Tek concerned about dwindling resources back then?

T:  Not really. This was the latter '70s. Despite dire warnings from The Limits to Growth, peak resources was not depriving people of their sleep. The reason for profit-sharing and many other progressive policies, such as Tek’s employee stock ownership plan, was the values of the founders of the company. Two of the four founders, Jack Murdock and Howard Vollum, were humanitarians and philanthropists. It was because of their principles that Tektronix became what I, as well as a good many others, consider the best company to work for.

S:  Their principles are absent in neoliberal ideology.

T:  The road to baseness is paved with egoism.

S:  What did John and Laura propose to do for their respective projects?

T:  I don’t know. We never talked much about our work amongst ourselves. All our work discussions were with Bill, and these were not very frequent. Bill had a strong preference for talking about the broader panorama of things under the sun. The influence of Latin grammar on modern English was a favourite topic of his. As was the significance of prehistoric art as evidence for the innateness of aesthetic sensitivity in our species. And boy, did he know his stuff!

S:  How interesting. A polymath.

T:  Yet most unpretentious. It was Bill who through his chats introduced me to Peter Drucker, in my view the top authority on management in modern times. Drucker’s classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, provided my education in the field, in accordance with Bill’s unbeknownst guidance.

S:  Always the dedicated autodidact.

T:  Habits are hard to break. Of course, I immediately recognized the function of management as a cybernetic device for communication and control in every organization. John studied management solely as a business function, which is far too limited in scope. Every organization that aspires to succeed at whatever it is that it does depends on effective management to reach its goals. For-profit, nonprofit, private or public, capitalist or socialist, all societies and associations: if an organization establishes goals it intends to accomplish, it has to develop a realistic management component to do so. And here is the clincher: any culture  pretending to succeed insofar as its constituency is concerned has to induce the development of rational managerial systems in the society it emerges from.

S:  So anarchy is out.

T:  If you want to attain pre-defined goals in the face of restrictions, definitely. But if you’re willing to accept random outcomes, anarchy works just fine.

S:  But how does an abstraction such as culture induce development of rational systems? Cultures cannot think and devise as humans and many animals do.

T:  Cultures progress the same as nature, evolutionarily. It is vanity to presume that we can design a future in the present because no one in the present knows what challenges the future will bring. The most one can do is establish flexible goals and adapt them to the circumstances one confronts as time goes on. The culture, to be resilient and successful, must endow its human constituents with the capacity to perceive and comprehend this reality and the ability to put into practice the managerial structures necessary to design and implement policies  that will increase the likelihood that the desired aims will be attained. Certain cultures evolve sufficiently to allow this. Others, to their detriment, do not.

S:  So rigid, doctrinaire ideologies are out.

T:  If a huckster wants to sell you a prepackaged ideology, shoot him. Or her.

S:  Oh my!

T:  Metaphorically speaking.

S:  The great masters taught integrity, values, and principles, not ideologies.

T:  It’s the only way to do things: the right way. Drucker said, “Management is doing things right”. Whoever tells you otherwise is a crooked opportunist.

S:  Or is ignorant of the teachings of the wise, Drucker presently included.

T:  Adherence to values and principles is not just a moralistic precept. There is solid mathematical evidence showing that in order to obtain correct outcomes, things must be done right, which is to say, in a principled manner.

S:  Interesting. Mathematical ethics.

T:  These are the things one learns in systems science. Here’s the story: I took a course with Devendra Sahal where we discussed classic papers in the field of systems theory. Dev was a remarkable person. Not much older than I, he held three degrees in different branches of engineering and in addition was a maven in statistics. Dr Sahal published a research paper in refereed technical journals every two weeks during the two years I was at PSU. A paper every fortnight!

S:  Amazing. He was a veritable publishing machine.

T:  And a wonderful friend. Dev used Walter Buckley’s influential sourcebook, Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist, for the main readings. I was rather disappointed to read in Buckley’s preface that he had not included any papers on operations research because these “require[d] a greater degree of mathematical treatment for meaningful exposition than the average social scientist is trained for or of a sentiment to tolerate”.

S:  He told it like it is for the most part. Did he not?

T:  Well, that told me I had to take the introductory OR sequence to learn this important approach to systems analysis. So I did. What I could not understand then, or now, is that Buckley’s close collaborator, Anatol Rapoport, a towering figure in applied mathematical science, allowed this to happen. Inexplicable.

S:  Anatol Rapoport the eminent game theorist, you mean?

T:  Among various other fields, including mathematical biology, mathematical psychology, social networks, peace and conflict studies ―nuclear conflicts― and general systems theory. You were talking of polymaths, Shahrazad?

S:  Not any more.

T:  Rapoport should’ve argued for including a paper containing something like this: Operations research is the home of mathematical programming. MP is a family of procedures ―algorithms― used to allocate scarce resources among competing activities such that a given objective is optimally attained. Got that?

S:  Wait, what?

T:  Seriously now, let’s begin in the beginning. In the beginning, nature created possibilities and limitations.

S:  I never realized mathematics could be so sublime.

T:  Well, God is a mathematician, you know. Now man and woman saw things around them in paradise and gave names to the two types of systems they had inferred existed: open systems and closed systems. The latter are closed in the sense that no matter or energy is exchanged between the system and the rest of creation, which they called the environment of the system. An open system, on the other hand, is one that is not closed.

S:  It exchanges particles and waves with its environment. Strictly speaking.

T:  Eh, yes. There are two types of exchanges: inputs of matter and energy into the system from its environment and outputs from system to environment.

S:  You make systems science so easy to understand.

T:  Systems are conceptually easy to understand because they are logical. Now, the system itself takes inputs and converts them into outputs by means of some process. That is all they do. Closed systems are posited theoretically but are in reality physically nonexistent. Nature abhors a processless system.

S:  Either you work or you’re out. So all systems of interest are open systems.

T:  As far as we can tell, yes. It might be that things like dormant black holes qualify as closed systems, but we don’t really know. Hawking radiation might nix that. Or a black hole lurking in our universe could be the input component of a wormhole associated with a white hole elsewhere. At any rate, all systems of practical relevance for humankind are IPO systems, or input-process-output systems. And that is the kind of systems that MP deals with: systems that input and process resources to produce stuff or information or phenomena.

S:  So MP has universal application.

T:  In principle, yes. Now for the sake of simplification, I will limit my talk to one particular kind of MP models: linear programming or LP. This is to avoid unnecessary complications due to nonlinearity and stochasticity and a bunch of other things that have no bearing on the point that I want to emphasize. This is why Buckley excluded OR papers from his sourcebook: too complicated. It is better for us to exclude the complications and focus on the fundamentals.

S:  Sounds good to me. Whew!

T:  Okay, given an IPO system, a batch of inputs, and a procedure specifying how the inputs are processed into outputs, LP can determine the best possible solution consonant with a given objective, these being maximizing advantages or benefits, or minimizing downsides or costs. LP finds optimal solutions, as they are called, that could not previously be calculated for complex problems.

S:  Ah, progress!

T:  Titanic progress. IPO problem solving has two epochs: BLP and ALP. But finding optimal solutions to intricate problems is just the beginning. Turns out that LP will provide a complete diagnosis of system inputs and outputs.

S:  Omigosh! That’s what managers are paid to do. Fantastic!

T:  Indeed. LP determines optimal solutions plus a wealth of other information because it searches for solutions in a specially built multidimensional space.

S:  Translation, please.

T:  Certainly. We all live in a three-dimensional physical space with an added dimension for time. Known as space-time, it was created at the Big Bang.

S:  In the beginning.

T:  Right. Being creatures stuck in the fabric of space-time, there is no way for us to perceive higher dimensions. However, there is no reason, mathematically, for a space to be limited to just three dimensions.

S:  There is nothing prohibiting higher-dimensional spaces, you mean.

T:  Correct. This problem was expertly tackled by Edwin Abbott Abbott in his wonderful classic, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

S:  Highly recommended for our listeners who have not yet read it.

T:  Truly. LP creates a multidimensional Euclidean space in which to navigate. Euclidean means that the space is flat; it has no curvatures. A Euclidean space of two dimensions is the familiar Cartesian or X-Y plane. A three-dimensional Euclidean space is used in solid geometry, analogous to natural physical space. Physical space curves, though. The dimensionality of the space that LP creates is given by the number of categories of output the system can produce plus the number of structural constraints that bear on the system.

S:  Structural constraints, you say.

T:  Yes. A constraint is any condition that hinders the system from fulfilling its objective. An IPO system can produce different classes of output, alternative product types, if you will. But mathematics dictates that the maximum number of product types that an IPO system can optimally produce be limited by the number of constraints that specify the technological and economic structure of the system. This production technology determines what can be produced.

S:  Whoosh! Way over my head. Why does mathematics dictate that limit?

T:  To answer that, we would have to delve into the theory of linear algebra.

S:  Mm. Maybe we can do that some other time.

T:  Good idea. But let me sketch out the reason why with a loose analogy. We began by noting that nature created possibilities and limitations. You just can’t do whatever you want. There are limits. This is a universal law of nature.

S:  Oh, but I see people doing whatever they want all the time.

T:  Sometimes that can be done but at a cost, which is quantitatively predicted by LP. We’ll get to that shortly. In IPO systems, possibilities lie with the input resources, for these are processed into outputs that contribute to the objective. But the processing must conform to the rules of the game, the constraints. Let me continue based on this premise and I’ll revisit the issue later to examine the consequences if constraints are violated or ignored.

S:  Okay.

T:  To determine the value of the desired objective, the LP model has to keep track of which outputs have been produced. But at the start of the production cycle, nothing has been produced. To produce anything, every constraint must be satisfied. So the LP model starts out by keeping track of the constraints.

S:  Which are the only things the model has to guide it at that point, right?

T:  Right. So LP defines a subspace in which to search. The dimensions of that subspace are given by the number of structural constraints, one dimension per constraint. The optimal solution must conform to that solution subspace, which can be immense: real-world problems can easily have hundreds or thousands of constraints. No human mind can conceive such a hyper-gargantuan space.

S:  No wonder optimal results were all but impossible to find in the BLP era.

T:  You got it. LP starts producing a product until it hits a constraint that halts production of that product. Actually, LP doesn’t produce anything; LP models only plan the production, they programme production runs. Now watch this: on reaching a production limit, LP removes the constraint from the subspace and replaces it with the output dimension of the product it decided to produce.

S:  It swaps dimensions in the solution subspace, you mean?

T:  Exactly. The binding constraint is swapped out while the produced product is swapped in. You don’t need the constraint anymore because that information is already embedded in the product’s production level. That is what the model was looking for, so there’s no need to keep the constraint in the subspace.

S:  But isn’t that mixing apples and oranges in the solution subspace?

T:  Ah! Here’s how LP deals with that. LP recomputes the entire mathematical profile of the problem as if it were starting anew but with the selected product “structurally” included. Apples and oranges are treated as generic fruits, so to speak, a higher-level category that encompasses both constraints and products. Mathematically, LP is just manipulating vectors in a vector space. No big deal as long as the properties of the vectors makes them compatible. Which is what the problem profile recomputation ingeniously accomplishes. Voilà!

S:  I stand humbled and in awe of the beauty and power of mathematics.

T:  God spent six days perfecting the mathematics. The rest derives on its own.

S:  … Teriaki, I’m afraid we have run out of time. We will return to Oregon to complete this marvellous journey, maybe next week if The Chump doesn’t do one of his customary stupidities and invades Venezuela. To our listeners, thank you for joining Teriaki and me at Radio Sistema Tropical. Cardinal Points will return next week at its scheduled times. I am Shahrazad Boyko signing off and wishing you a pleasant morning, afternoon, evening, or night, wherever in the world you may happen to be.

This is Radio Sistema Tropical, the Antillean world broadcasting system.


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