Farsighted Decisions

"Farsighted" book cover
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson

30 January 2019 – This is not a textbook on decision making.

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most does cover most of the elements of state-of-the-art decision making, but it’s not a true textbook. If he’d really wanted to write a textbook, its author, Steven Johnson, would have structured it differently, and would have included exercises for the student. Perhaps he would also have done other things differently that I’m not going to enumerate because I don’t want to write a textbook on state-of-the-art decision making, either.

What Johnson apparently wanted to do, and did do successfully, was lay down a set of principles today’s decision makers would do well to follow.

Something he would have left out, if he were writing a textbook, was the impassioned plea for educators to incorporate mandatory decision making courses into secondary-school curricula. I can’t disagree with this sentiment!

A little bit about my background with regard to decision-theory education: ‘Way back in the early 2010s, I taught a course at a technical college entitled “Problem Solving Theory.” Johnson’s book did not exist then, and I wish that it had. The educational materials available at the time fell woefully short. They were, at best, pedantic.

I spent a lot of class time waving my hands and telling stories from my days as a project manager. Unfortunately, the decision-making techniques I learned about in MBA school weren’t of any help at all. Some of the research Johnson weaves into his narrative hadn’t even been done back then!

So, when I heard about Johnson’s new book, I rushed out to snag a copy and devoured it.

As Johnson points out, everybody is a decision maker every day. These decisions run the gamut from snap decisions that people have to make almost instantly, to long-term deliberate choices that reverberate through the rest of their lives. Many, if not most, people face making decisions affecting others, from children to spouses, siblings and friends. Some of us participate in group decision making that can have truly global ramifications.

In John McTiernan’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, Admiral Josh Painter points out to CIA analyst Jack Ryan: “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan. Senior captains don’t start something this dangerous without having thought the matter through.”

It’s not just Russians, however, who plan out even minor actions. And, senior captains aren’t the only ones who don’t start things without having thought the matter through. We all do it.

As Johnson points out, it may be the defining characteristic of the human species, which he likes to call Homo prospectus for their ability to apply foresight to advance planning.

The problem, of course, is the alarming rate at which we screw it up. As John F. Kennedy’s failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion shows, even highly intelligent, highly educated and experienced leaders can get it disastrously wrong. Johnson devotes considerable space to enumerating the taxonomy of “things that can go wrong.”

So, decision making isn’t just for leaders, and it’s easier to get it wrong than to do it right.

Enumerating the ways it can all go disastrously wrong, and setting out principles that will help us get it right are the basic objectives Johnson set out for himself when he first decided to write this book. To wit, three goals:

  • Convince readers that it’s important;

  • Warn folks of how easily it can be done wrong; and

  • Give folks a prescription for doing it right.

Pursuant to the third goal, Johnson breaks decision making down into a process involving three steps:

Mapping consists of gathering preliminary information about the state of the Universe before any action has been taken. What do we have to work with? What options do we have to select from? What do we want to accomplish and when?

Predicting consists of prognisticating, for each of the various options available, how the Universe will evolve from now into the foreseeable (and possibly unforeseeable) future. This is probably the most fraught stage of the process. Do we need a Plan B in case of surprises? As Sean Connery’s “Mac” character intones in Jon Amiel’s 1999 crime drama, Entrapment: “Trust me, there always are surprises.”

Deciding is the ultimate finish of the process. It consists of finally choosing between the previously identified alternatives based on the predicted results. What alternative is most likely to give us a result we want to have?

An important technique Johnson recommends basing your decision-making strategy on is narrative. That explicitly means storytelling. Johnson supplies numerous examples from both fiction and non-fiction that help us understand the decision-making process and help us apply it to the problems we face.

He points out that double-blind clinical trials were the single most important technique that advanced medicine from quackery and the witch-doctor’s art to reliable medical science. It allowed trying out various versions of medical interventions in a systematic way and comparing the results. In the same way, he says, fictional storytelling, allows us to mentally “try out” multiple alternative versions of future history.

Through storytelling, we explore various possibilities and imagine how they might turn out, including the vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” without putting in the time and effort to try them out in reality, and thereby likely suffering “the fuss of mass destruction and death.”

Johnson suggests that’s why humans evolved the desire and capacity to create such fictional narratives in the first place. “When we read these novels,” he says, “ … we are not just entertaining ourselves; we are also rehearsing for our own real-world experiences.”

Of course, while “deciding” is the ultimate act of Johnson’s process, it’s never the end of the story in real life. What to do when it all goes disastrously wrong is always an important consideration. Johnson actually covers that as an important part of the “predicting” step. That’s when you should develop Mac’s “Plan B pack” and figure out when to trigger it if necessary.

Another important consideration, which I covered extensively in my problem solving course and Johnson starts looking at ‘way back in “mapping” is how to live with the aftermath of your decision, whether it’s a resounding success or a disastrous failure. Either way, the Universe is changed forever by your decision, and you and everyone else will have to live in it.

So, your ultimate goal should be deciding how to make the Universe a better place in which to live!

Why Diversity Rules

Diverse friends
A diverse group of people with different ages and nationalities having fun together. Rawpixel/Shutterstock

23 January 2019 – Last week two concepts reared their ugly heads that I’ve been banging on about for years. They’re closely intertwined, so it’s worthwhile to spend a little blog space discussing why they fit so tightly together.

Diversity is Good

The first idea is that diversity is good. It’s good in almost every human pursuit. I’m particularly sensitive to this, being someone who grew up with the idea that rugged individualism was the highest ideal.

Diversity, of course, is incompatible with individualism. Individualism is the cult of the one. “One” cannot logically be diverse. Diversity is a property of groups, and groups by definition consist of more than one.

Okay, set theory admits of groups with one or even no members, but those groups have a diversity “score” (Gini–Simpson index) of zero. To have any diversity at all, your group has to have at absolute minimum two members. The more the merrier (or diversitier).

The idea that diversity is good came up in a couple of contexts over the past week.

First, I’m reading a book entitled Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, which I plan eventually to review in this blog. Part of the advice Johnson offers is that groups make better decisions when their membership is diverse. How they are diverse is less important than the extent to which they are diverse. In other words, this is a case where quantity is more important than quality.

Second, I divided my physics-lab students into groups to perform their first experiment. We break students into groups to prepare them for working in teams after graduation. Unlike when I was a student fifty years ago, activity in scientific research and technology development is always done in teams.

When I was a student, research was (supposedly) done by individuals working largely in isolation. I believe it was Willard Gibbs (I have no reliable reference for this quote) who said: “An experimental physicist must be a professional scientist and an amateur everything else.”

By this he meant that building a successful physics experiment requires the experimenter to apply so many diverse skills that it is impossible to have professional mastery of all of them. He (or she) must have an amateur’s ability pick up novel skills in order to reach the next goal in their research. They must be ready to work outside their normal comfort zone.

That asked a lot from an experimental researcher! Individuals who could do that were few and far between.

Today, the fast pace of technological development has reduced that pool of qualified individuals essentially to zero. It certainly is too small to maintain the pace society expects of the engineering and scientific communities.

Tolkien’s “unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor” puttering around alone in his personal workshop crafting magical things is unimaginable today. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus character, who had mastered all earthly knowledge, is now laughable. No one person is capable of making a major contribution to today’s technology on their own.

The solution is to perform the work of technological research and development in teams with diverse skill sets.

In the sciences, theoreticians with strong mathematical backgrounds partner with engineers capable of designing machines to test the theories, and technicians with the skills needed to fabricate the machines and make them work.

Chaotic Universe

The second idea I want to deal with in this essay is that we live in a chaotic Universe.

Chaos is a property of complex systems. These are systems consisting of many interacting moving parts that show predictable behavior on short time scales, but eventually foil the most diligent attempts at long-term prognostication.

A pendulum, by contrast, is a simple system consisting of, basically, three moving parts: a massive weight, or “pendulum bob,” that hangs by a rod or string (the arm) from a fixed support. Simple systems usually do not exhibit chaotic behavior.

The solar system, consisting of a huge, massive star (the Sun), eight major planets and a host of minor planets, is decidedly not a simple system. Its behavior is borderline chaotic. I say “borderline” because the solar system seems well behaved on short time scales (e.g., millennia), but when viewed on time scales of millions of years does all sorts of unpredictable things.

For example, approximately four and a half billion years ago (a few tens of millions of years after the system’s initial formation) a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, spalling off a mass of material that coalesced to form the Moon, then ricochetted out of the solar system. That’s the sort of unpredictable event that happens in a chaotic system if you wait long enough.

The U.S. economy, consisting of millions of interacting individuals and companies, is wildly chaotic, which is why no investment strategy has ever been found to work reliably over a long time.

Putting It Together

The way these two ideas (diversity is good, and we live in a chaotic Universe) work together is that collaborating in diverse groups is the only way to successfully navigate life in a chaotic Universe.

An individual human being is so powerless that attempting anything but the smallest task is beyond his or her capacity. The only way to do anything of significance is to collaborate with others in a diverse team.

In the late 1980s my wife and I decided to build a house. To begin with, we had to decide where to build the house. That required weeks of collaboration (by our little team of two) to combine our experiences of different communities in the area where we were living, develop scenarios of what life might be like living in each community, and finally agree on which we might like the best. Then we had to find an architect to work with our growing team to design the building. Then we had to negotiate with banks for construction loans, bridge loans, and ultimate mortgage financing. Our architect recommended adding a prime contractor who had connections with carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so forth to actually complete the work. The better part of a year later, we had our dream house.

There’s no way I could have managed even that little project – building one house – entirely on my own!

In 2015, I ran across the opportunity to produce a short film for a film festival. I knew how to write a script, run a video camera, sew a costume, act a part, do the editing, and so forth. In short, I had all the skills needed to make that 30-minute film.

Did that mean I could make it all by my onesies? Nope! By the time the thing was completed, the list of cast and crew counted over a dozen people, each with their own job in the production.

By now, I think I’ve made my point. The take-home lesson of this essay is that if you want to accomplish anything in this chaotic Universe, start by assembling a diverse team, and the more diverse, the better!

Nationalism and Diversity

Flags of many countries
Nationalism can promote diversity – or not! Brillenstimmer/shutterstock

16 January 2019 – The poster child for rampant nationalism is Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly called the Nazi Party. I say “is” rather than “was” because, while resoundingly defeated by Allies of WW2 in 1945, the Nazi Party still has widespread appeal in Germany, and throughout the world.

These folks give nationalism a bad name, leading to the Oxford Living Dictionary, giving primacy to the following definition of nationalism: “Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” [Emphasis added.]

The Oxford Dictionary also offers a second definition of nationalism: “Advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people.”

This second definition is a lot more benign, and one that I wish were more often used. I certainly prefer it!

Nationalism under the first definition has been used since time immemorial as an excuse to create closed, homogeneous societies. That was probably the biggest flaw of the Nazi state(s). Death camps, ethnic cleansing, slave labor, and most of the other evils of those regimes flowed directly from their attempts to build closed, homogeneous societies.

Under the second definition, however, nationalism can, and should, be used to create a more diverse society.

That’s a good thing, as the example of United States history clearly demonstrates. Most of U.S. success can be traced directly to the country’s ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. The fact that the U.S., with a paltry 5% of the world’s population, now has by far the largest economy; that it dominates the fields of science, technology and the humanities; that its common language (American English) is fast becoming the “lingua franca” of the entire world; and that it effectively leads the world by so many measures is directly attributed to the continual renewal of its population diversity by immigration. In any of these areas, it’s easy to point out major contributions from recent immigrants or other minorities.

This harkens back to a theory of cultural development I worked out in the 1970s. It starts with the observation that all human populations – no matter how large or how small – consist of individuals whose characteristics vary somewhat. When visualized on a multidimensional scatter plot, populations generally consist of a cluster with a dense center and fewer individuals farther out.

Globular cluster image
The Great Hercules Star Cluster.. Albert Barr/Shutterstock

This pattern is similar to the image of a typical globular star cluster in the photo at right. Globular star clusters exhibit this pattern in three dimensions, while human populations exist and can be mapped on a great many dimensions representing different characteristics. Everything from physical characteristics like height, weight and skin color, to non-physical characteristics like ethnicity and political ideology – essentially anything that can be measured – can be plotted as a separate dimension.

The dense center of the pattern consists of individuals whose characteristics don’t stray too far from the norm. Everyone, of course, is a little off average. For example, the average white American female is five-feet, four-inches tall. Nearly everyone in that population, however, is a little taller or shorter than exactly average. Very few are considerably taller or shorter, with more individuals closer to the average than farther out.

The population’s diversity shows up as a widening of the pattern. That is, diversity is a measure of how often individuals appear farther out from the center.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection posits that where the population center is depends on where is most appropriate for it to be depending on conditions. What is average height, for example, depends on a complex interplay of conditions, including nutrition, attractiveness to the opposite sex, and so forth.

Observing that conditions change with time, one expects the ideal center of the population should move about in the multidimensional characteristics space. Better childhood nutrition, for example, should push the population toward increased tallness. And, it does!

One hopes that these changes happen slowly with time, giving the population a chance to follow in response. If the changes happen too fast, however, the population is unable to respond fast enough and it goes extinct. So, wooly mammoths were unable to respond fast enough to a combination of environmental changes and increased predation by humans emigrating into North America after the last Ice Age, so they died out. No more wooly mammoths!

Assuming whatever changes occur happen slowly enough, those individuals in the part of the distribution better adapted to the new conditions do better than those on the opposite side. So, the whole population shifts with time toward characteristics that are better adapted.

Where diversity comes into this dynamic is by providing more individuals in the better-adapted part of the distribution. The faster conditions change, the more individuals you need at the edges of the population to help with the response. For example, if the climate gets warmer, it’s folks who like to wear skimpy outfits who thrive. Folks who insist on covering themselves up in heavy clothing, don’t do so well. That was amply demonstrated when Englishmen tried to wear their heavy Elizabethan outfits in the warmer North American weather conditions. Styles changed practically overnight!

Closed, homogeneous societies of the type the Nazis tried to create have low diversity. They try to suppress folks who differ from the norm. When conditions change, such societies have less of the diversity needed to respond, so they wither and die.

That’s why cultures need diversity, and the more diversity, the better.

We live in a chaotic universe. The most salient characteristic of chaotic systems is constant change. Without diversity, we can’t respond to that change.

That’s why when technological change sped up in the early Twentieth Century, it was the bohemians of the twenties developing into the beatniks of the fifties and the hippies of the sixties that defined the cultures of the seventies and beyond.

Jerry Garcia stamp image
spatuletail/shutterstock

Long live Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream!

Seasons Greetings from C.G. Masi

Winterball image
Winterball — Acrylic on gesso board — 23″ x 20″

Winterball is a fun little exercise that first appeared in my Spherical Aberrations exhibit. It has no meaning beyond being an interesting surrealist scene. The red ball dominating the sky is often thought of as a Sun image, but really is just a red ball improbably hanging in the sky. The line of trees on the horizon is actually the result of a technical error, but it worked so well with the painting that I left it in. Similarly for the tiny “prominences” visible at the edge of the red-ball image.

Babies and Bath Water

A baby in bath water
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Switlana Symonenko/Shutterstock.com

31 October 2018 – An old catchphrase derived from Medieval German is “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It expresses an important principle in systems engineering.

Systems engineering focuses on how to design, build, and manage complex systems. A system can consist of almost anything made up of multiple parts or elements. For example, an automobile internal combustion engine is a system consisting of pistons, valves, a crankshaft, etc. Complex systems, such as that internal combustion engine, are typically broken up into sub-systems, such as the ignition system, the fuel system, and so forth.

Obviously, the systems concept can be applied to almost everything, from microorganisms to the World economy. As another example, medical professionals divide the human body into eleven organ systems, which would each be sub-systems within the body, which is considered as a complex system, itself.

Most systems-engineering principles transfer seamlessly from one kind of system to another.

Perhaps the most best known example of a systems-engineering principle was popularized by Robin Williams in his Mork and Mindy TV series. The Used-Car rule, as Williams’ Mork character put it, quite simply states:

“If it works, don’t fix it!”

If you’re getting the idea that systems engineering principles are typically couched in phrases that sound pretty colloquial, you’re right. People have been dealing with systems for as long as there have been people, so most of what they discovered about how to deal with systems long ago became “common sense.”

Systems engineering coalesced into an interdisciplinary engineering field around the middle of the twentieth century. Simon Ramo is sometimes credited as the founder of modern systems engineering, although many engineers and engineering managers contributed to its development and formalization.

The Baby/Bathwater rule means (if there’s anybody out there still unsure of the concept) that when attempting to modify something big (such as, say, the NAFTA treaty), make sure you retain those elements you wish to keep while in the process of modifying those elements you want to change.

The idea is that most systems that are already in place more or less already work, indicating that there are more elements that are right than are wrong. Thus, it’ll be easier, simpler, and less complicated to fix what’s wrong than to violate another systems principle:

“Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Sometimes, on the other hand, something is such an unholy mess that trying to pick out those elements that need to change from the parts you don’t wish to change is so difficult that it’s not worth the effort. At that point, you’re better off scrapping the whole thing (throwing the baby out with the bathwater) and starting over from scratch.

Several months ago, I noticed that a seam in the convertible top on my sports car had begun to split. I quickly figured out that the big brush roller at my neighborhood automated car wash was over stressing the more-than-a-decade-old fabric. Naturally, I stopped using that car wash, and started looking around for a hand-detailing shop that would be more gentle.

But, that still left me with a convertible top that had started to split. So, I started looking at my options for fixing the problem.

Considering the car’s advanced age, and that a number of little things were starting to fail, I first considered trading the whole car in for a newer model. That, of course, would violate the rule about not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I’d be discarding the whole car just because of a small flaw, which might be repaired.

Of course, I’d also be getting rid of a whole raft of potentially impending problems. Then, again, I might be taking on a pile of problems that I knew nothing about.

It turned out, however, that the best car-replacement option was unacceptable, so I started looking into replacing just the convertible top. That, too, turned out to be infeasible. Finally, I found an automotive upholstery specialist who described a patching scheme that would solve the immediate problem and likely last through the remaining life of the car. So, that’s what I did.

I’ve put you through listening to this whole story to illustrate the thought process behind applying the “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” rule.

Unfortunately, our current President, Donald Trump, seems to have never learned anything about systems engineering, or about babies and bathwater. He’s apparently enthralled with the idea that he can bully U.S. trading partners into giving him concessions when he negotiates with them one-on-one. That’s the gist of his love of bilateral trade agreements.

Apparently, he feels that if he gets into a multilateral trade negotiation, his go-to strategy of browbeating partners into giving in to him might not work. Multiple negotiating partners might get together and provide a united front against him.

In fact, that’s a reasonable assumption. He’s a sufficiently weak deal maker on his own that he’d have trouble standing up to a combination of, say, Mexico’s Nieto and Canada’s Trudeau banded together against him.

With that background, it’s not hard to understand why POTUS is looking at all U.S. treaties, which are mostly multilateral, and looking for any niddly thing wrong with them to use as an excuse to scrap the whole arrangement and start over. Obvious examples being the NAFTA treaty and the Iran Nuclear Accord.

Both of these treaties have been in place for some time, and have generally achieved the goals they were put in place to achieve. Howsoever, they’re not perfect, so POTUS is in the position of trying to “fix” them.

Since both these treaties are multilateral deals, to make even minor adjustments POTUS would have to enter multilateral negotiations with partners (such as Germany’s quantum-physicist-turned-politician, Angela Merkel) who would be unlikely to cow-tow to his bullying style. Robbed of his signature strategy, he’d rather scrap the whole thing and start all over, taking on partners one at a time in bilateral negotiations. So, that’s what he’s trying to do.

A more effective strategy would be to forget everything his ghostwriter put into his self-congratulatory “How-To” book The Art of the Deal, enumerate a list of what’s actually wrong with these documents, and tap into the cadre of veteran treaty negotiators that used to be available in the U.S. State Department to assemble a team of career diplomats capable of fixing what’s wrong without throwing the babies out with the bathwater.

But, that would violate his narcissistic world view. He’d have to admit that it wasn’t all about him, and acknowledge one of the first principles of project management (another discipline that he should have vast knowledge of, but apparently doesn’t):

Begin by making sure the needs of all stakeholders are built into any project plan.”

Social Media and The Front Page

Walter Burns
Promotional photograph of Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page

12 September 2018 – The Front Page was an hilarious one-set stage play supposedly taking place over a single night in the dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building overlooking the gallows behind the Cook County Jail. I’m not going to synopsize the plot because the Wikipedia entry cited above does such an excellent job it’s better for you to follow the link and read it yourself.

First performed in 1928, the play has been revived several times and suffered countless adaptations to other media. It’s notable for the fact that the main character, Hildy Johnson, originally written as a male part, is even more interesting as a female. That says something important, but I don’t know what.

By the way, I insist that the very best adaptation is Howard Hawks’ 1940 tour de force film entitled His Girl Friday starring Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, and Cary Grant as the other main character Walter Burns. Burns is Johnson’s boss and ex-husband who uses various subterfuges to prevent Hildy from quitting her job and marrying an insurance salesman.

That’s not what I want to talk about today, though. What’s important for this blog posting is part of the play’s backstory. It’s important because it can help provide context for the entire social media industry, which is becoming so important for American society right now.

In that backstory, a critical supporting character is one Earl Williams, who’s a mousey little man convicted of murdering a policeman and sentenced to be executed the following morning right outside the press-room window. During the course of the play, it comes to light that Williams, confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue speaking in a public park, accidentally shot the policeman and was subsequently railroaded in court by a corrupt sheriff who wanted to use his execution to help get out the black(!?) vote for his re-election campaign.

What publicly executing a confused communist sympathizer has to do with motivating black voters I still fail to understand, but it makes as much sense as anything else the sheriff says or does.

This plot has so many twists and turns paralleling issues still resonating today that it’s rediculous. That’s a large part of the play’s fun!

Anyway, what I want you to focus on right now is the subtle point that Williams was confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue.

Soapbox demagogues were a fixture in pre-Internet political discourse. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment explicitly gives private citizens the right to peaceably assemble in public places. For example, during the late 1960s a typical summer Sunday afternoon anywhere in any public park in North America or Europe would see a gathering of anywhere from 10 to 10,000 hippies for an impromptu “Love In,” or “Be In,” or “Happening.” With no structure or set agenda folks would gather to do whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. My surrealist novelette Lilith describes a gathering of angels, said to be “the hippies of the supernatural world,” that was patterned after a typical Hippie Love In.

Similarly, a soapbox demagogue had the right to commandeer a picnic table, bandstand, or discarded soapbox to place himself (at the time they were overwhelmingly male) above the crowd of passersby that he hoped would listen to his discourse on whatever he wanted to talk about.

In the case of Earl Williams’ demagogue, the speech was about “production for use.” The feeble-minded Williams applied that idea to the policeman’s service weapon, with predictable results.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century.

I haven’t been hanging around local parks on Sunday afternoons for a long time, so I don’t know if soapbox demagogues are still out there. I doubt that they are because it’s easier and cheaper to log onto a social-media platform, such as Facebook, to shoot your mouth off before a much larger international audience.

I have browsed social media, however, and see the same sort of drivel that used to spew out of the mouths of soapbox demagogues back in the day.

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s really nothing novel about social media. Being a platform for anyone to say anything to anyone is the same as last-century soapboxes being available for anyone who thinks they have something to say. It’s a prominent right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. In fact, it’s important enough to be guaranteed in the very first of th Bill’s amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

What is not included, however, is a proscription against anyone ignoring the HECK out of soapbox demagogues! They have the right to talk, but we have the right to not listen.

Back in the day, almost everybody passed by soapbox demagogues without a second glance. We all knew they climbed their soapboxes because it was the only venue they had to voice their opinions.

Preachers had pulpits in front of congregations, so you knew they had something to say that people wanted to hear. News reporters had newspapers people bought because they contained news stories that people wanted to read. Scholars had academic journals that other scholars subscribed to because they printed results of important research. Fiction writers had published novels folks read because they found them entertaining.

The list goes on.

Soapbox demagogues, however, had to stand on an impromptu platform because they didn’t have anything to say worth hearing. The only ones who stopped to listen were those, like the unemployed Earl Williams, who had nothing better to do.

The idea of pretending that social media is any more of a legitimate venue for ideas is just goofy.

Social media are not legitimate media for the exchange of ideas simply because anybody is able to say anything on them, just like a soapbox in a park. Like a soapbox in a park, most of what is said on social media isn’t worth hearing. It’s there because the barrier to entry is essentially nil. That’s why so many purveyors of extremist and divisive rhetoric gravitate to social media platforms. Legitimate media won’t carry them.

Legitimate media organizations have barriers to the entry of lousy ideas. For example, I subscribe to The Economist because of their former Editor in Chief, John Micklethwait, who impressed me as an excellent arbiter of ideas (despite having a weird last name). I was very pleased when he transferred over to Bloomberg News, which I consider the only televised outlet for globally significant news. The Wall Street Journals business focus forces Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray into a “just the facts, ma’am” stance because every newsworthy event creates both winners and losers in the business community, so content bias is a non-starter.

The common thread among these legitimate-media sources is existance of an organizational structure focused on maintaining content quality. There are knowlegeable gatekeepers (called “editors“) charged with keeping out bad ideas.

So, when Donald Trump, for example, shows a preference for social media (in his case, Twitter) and an abhorrence of traditional news outlets, he’s telling us his ideas aren’t worth listening to. Legitimate media outlets disparage his views, so he’s forced to use the twenty-first century equivalent of a public-park soapbox: social media.

On social media, he can say anything to anybody because there’s nobody to tell him, “That’s a stupid thing to say. Don’t say it!”

Who’s NOT a Creative?

 

Compensting sales
Close-up Of A Business Woman Giving Cheque To Her Colleague At Workplace In Office. Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

25 July 2018 – Last week I made a big deal about the things that motivate creative people, such as magazine editors, and how the most effective rewards were non-monetary. I also said that monetary rewards, such as commissions based on sales results, were exactly the right rewards to use for salespeople. That would imply that salespeople were somehow different from others, and maybe even not creative.

That is not the impression I want to leave you with. I’m devoting this blog posting to setting that record straight.

My remarks last week were based on Maslow‘s and Herzberg‘s work on motivation of employees. I suggested that these theories were valid in other spheres of human endeavor. Let’s be clear about this: yes, Maslow’s and Herzberg’s theories are valid and useful in general, whenever you want to think about motivating normal, healthy human beings. It’s incidental that those researchers were focused on employer/employee relations as an impetus to their work. If they’d been focused on anything else, their conclusions would probably have been pretty much the same.

That said, there are a whole class of people for whom monetary compensation is the holy grail of motivators. They are generally very high functioning individuals who are in no way pathological. On the surface, however, their preferred rewards appear to be monetary.

Traditionally, observers who don’t share this reward system have indicted these individuals as “greedy.”

I, however, dispute that conclusion. Let me explain why.

When pointing out the rewards that can be called “motivators for editors,” I wrote:

“We did that by pointing out that they belonged to the staff of a highly esteemed publication. We talked about how their writings helped their readers excel at their jobs. We entered their articles in professional competitions with awards for things like ‘Best Technical Article.’ Above all, we talked up the fact that ours was ‘the premier publication in the market.'”

Notice that these rewards, though non-monetary. were more or less measurable. They could be (and indeed for the individuals they motivated) seen as scorecards. The individuals involved had a very clear idea of value attached to such rewards. A Nobel Prize in Physics is of greater value than, say, a similar award given by, say, Harvard University.

For example, in 1987 I was awarded the “Cahners Editorial Medal of Excellence, Best How-To Article.” That wasn’t half bad. The competition was articles written for a few dozen magazines that were part of the Cahners Publishing Company, which at the time was a big deal in the business-to-business magazine field.

What I considered to be of higher value, however, was the “First Place Award For Editorial Excellence for a Technical Article in a Magazine with Over 80,000 Circulation” I got in 1997 from the American Society of Business Press Editors, where I was competing with a much wider pool of journalists.

Economists have a way of attempting to quantify such non-monetary awards called utility. They arrive at values by presenting various options and asking the question: “Which would you rather have?”

Of course, measures of utility generally vary widely depending on who’s doing the choosing.

For example, an article in the 19 July The Wall Street Journal described a phenomenon the author seemed to think was surprising: Saudi-Arabian women drivers (new drivers all) showed a preference for muscle cars over more pedestrian models. The author, Margherita Stancati, related an incident where a Porche salesperson in Riyadh offered a recently minted woman driver an “easy to drive crossover designed to primarily attract women.” The customer demurred. She wanted something “with an engine that roars.”

So, the utility of anything is not an absolute in any sense. It all depends on answering the question: “Utility to whom?”

Everyone is motivated by rewards in the upper half of the Needs Pyramid. If you’re a salesperson, growth in your annual (or other period) sales revenue is in the green Self Esteem block. It’s well and truly in the “motivator” category, and has nothing to do with the Safety and Security “hygiene factor” where others might put it. Successful salespeople have those hygiene factors well-and-truly covered. They’re looking for a reward that tells them they’ve hit a home run. That is likely having a bigger annual bonus than the next guy.

The most obvious money-driven motivators accrue to the folks in the CEO ranks. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett would have a hard time measuring their success (i.e., hitting the Pavlovian lever to get Self Actualization rewards) without looking at their monetary compensation!

The Pyramid of Needs

Needs Pyramid
The Pyramid of Needs combines Maslow’s and Herzberg’s motivational theories.

18 July 2018 – Long, long ago, in a [place] far, far away. …

When I was Chief Editor at business-to-business magazine Test & Measurement World, I had a long, friendly though heated, discussion with one of our advertising-sales managers. He suggested making the compensation we paid our editorial staff contingent on total advertising sales. He pointed out that what everyone came to work for was to get paid, and that tying their pay to how well the magazine was doing financially would give them an incentive to make decisions that would help advertising sales, and advance the magazine’s financial success.

He thought it was a great idea, but I disagreed completely. I pointed out that, though revenue sharing was exactly the right way to compensate the salespeople he worked with, it was exactly the wrong way to compensate creative people, like writers and journalists.

Why it was a good idea for his salespeople I’ll leave for another column. Today, I’m interested in why it was not a good idea for my editors.

In the heat of the discussion I didn’t do a deep dive into the reasons for taking my position. Decades later, from the standpoint of a semi-retired whatever-you-call-my-patchwork-career, I can now sit back and analyze in some detail the considerations that led me to my conclusion, which I still think was correct.

We’ll start out with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy. At the top is “self actualization,” which boils down to a need for creativity. It’s the need to do something that’s never been done before in one’s own individual way. At the bottom is the simple need for physical survival. In between are three more identified needs people also seek to satisfy.

Maslow pointed out that people seek to satisfy these needs from the bottom to the top. For example, nobody worries about security arrangements at their gated community (second level) while having a heart attack that threatens their survival (bottom level).

Overlaid on Maslow’s hierarchy is Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, which he published in his 1959 book The Motivation to Work. Herzberg’s theory divides Maslow’s hierarchy into two sections. The lower section is best described as “hygiene factors.” They are also known as “dissatisfiers” or “demotivators” because if they’re not met folks get cranky.

Basically, a person needs to have their hygiene factors covered in order have a level of basic satisfaction in life. Not having any of these needs satisfied makes them miserable. Having them satisfied doesn’t motivate them at all. It makes ’em fat, dumb and happy.

The upper-level needs are called “motivators.” Not having motivators met drives an individual to work harder, smarter, etc. It energizes them.

My position in the argument with my ad-sales friend was that providing revenue sharing worked at the “Safety and Security” level. Editors were (at least in my organization) paid enough that they didn’t have to worry about feeding their kids and covering their bills. They were talented people with a choice of whom they worked for. If they weren’t already being paid enough, they’d have been forced to go work for somebody else.

Creative people, my argument went, are motivated by non-monetary rewards. They work at the upper “motivator” levels. They’ve already got their physical needs covered, so to motivate them we have to offer rewards in the “motivator” realm.

We did that by pointing out that they belonged to the staff of a highly esteemed publication. We talked about how their writings helped their readers excel at their jobs. We entered their articles in professional competitions with awards for things like “Best Technical Article.” Above all, we talked up the fact that ours was “the premier publication in the market.”

These were all non-monetary rewards to motivate people who already had their basic needs (the hygiene factors) covered.

I summarized my compensation theory thusly: “We pay creative people enough so that they don’t have to go do something else.”

That gives them the freedom to do what they would want to do, anyway. The implication is that creative people want to do stuff because it’s something they can do that’s worth doing.

In other words, we don’t pay creative people to work. We pay them to free them up so they can work. Then, we suggest really fun stuff for them to work at.

What does this all mean for society in general?

First of all, if you want there to be a general level of satisfaction within your society, you’d better take care of those hygiene factors for everybody!

That doesn’t mean the top 1%. It doesn’t mean the top 80%, either. Or, the top 90%. It means everybody!

If you’ve got 99% of everybody covered, that still leaves a whole lot of people who think they’re getting a raw deal. Remember that in the U.S.A. there are roughly 300 million people. If you’ve left 1% feeling ripped off, that’s 3 million potential revolutionaries. Three million people can cause a lot of havoc if motivated.

Remember, at the height of the 1960s Hippy movement, there were, according to the most generous estimates, only about 100,000 hipsters wandering around. Those hundred-thousand activists made a huge change in society in a very short period of time.

Okay. If you want people invested in the status quo of society, make sure everyone has all their hygiene factors covered. If you want to know how to do that, ask Bernie Sanders.

Assuming you’ve got everybody’s hygiene factors covered, does that mean they’re all fat, dumb, and happy? Do you end up with a nation of goofballs with no motivation to do anything?

Nope!

Remember those needs Herzberg identified as “motivators” in the upper part of Maslow’s pyramid?

The hygiene factors come into play only when they’re not met. The day they’re met, people stop thinking about who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. Folks become fat, dumb and happy, and stay that way for about an afternoon. Maybe an afternoon and an evening if there’s a good ballgame on.

The next morning they start thinking: “So, what can we screw with next?”

What they’re going to screw with next is anything and everything they damn well please. Some will want to fly to the Moon. Some will want to outdo Michaelangelo‘s frescos for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They’re all going to look at what they think was the greatest stuff from the past, and try to think of ways to do better, and to do it in their own way.

That’s the whole point of “self actualization.”

The Renaissance didn’t happen because everybody was broke. It happened because they were already fat, dumb and happy, and looking for something to screw with next.

The Mad Hatter’s Riddle

Raven/Desk
Lewis Carroll’s famous riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” turns out to have a simple solution after all! Shutterstock

27 June 2018 – In 1865 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which his Mad Hatter character posed the riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Somewhat later in the story Alice gave up trying to guess the riddle and challenged the Mad Hatter to provide the answer. When he couldn’t, nor could anyone else at the story’s tea party, Alice dismissed the whole thing by saying: “I think you could do something better with the time . . . than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”

Since then, it has generally been believed that the riddle has, in actuality, no answer.

Modern Western thought has progressed a lot since the mid-nineteenth century, however. Specifically, two modes of thinking have gained currency that directly lead to solving this riddle: Zen and Surrealism.

I’m not going to try to give even sketchy pictures of Zen or Surrealist doctrine here. There isn’t anywhere near enough space to do either subject justice. I will, however, allude to those parts that bear on solving the Hatter’s riddle.

I’m also not going to credit Dodson with having surreptitiously known the answer, then hiding it from the World. There is no chance that he could have read Andre Breton‘s The Surrealist Manifesto, which was published twenty-six years after Dodson’s death. And, I’ve not been able to find a scrap of evidence that the Anglican-deacon Dodson ever seriously studied Taoism or its better-known offshoot, Zen. I’m firmly convinced that the religiously conservative Dodson really did pen the riddle as an example of a nonsense question. He seemed fond of nonsense.

No, I’m trying to make the case that in the surreal world of imagination, there is no such thing as nonsense. There is always a viewpoint from which the absurd and seemingly illogical comes into sharp focus as something obvious.

As Obi-Wan Kenobi said in Return of the Jedi: “From a certain point of view.”

Surrealism sought to explore the alternate universe of dreams. From that point of view, Alice is a classic surrealist work. It explicitly recounts a dream Alice had while napping on a summery hillside with her head cradled in her big sister’s lap. The surrealists, reading Alice three quarters of a century later, recognized this link, and acknowledged the mastery with which Dodson evoked the dream world.

Unlike the mid-nineteenth-century Anglicans, however, the surrealists of the early twentieth century viewed that dream world as having as much, if not more, validity as the waking world of so-called “reality.”

Chinese Taoism informs our thinking through the melding of all forms of reality (along with everything else) into one unified whole. When allied with Indian Buddhism to form the Chinese Ch’an, or Japanese Zen, it provides a method that frees the mind to explore possible answers to, among other things, riddles like the Hatter’s, and find just the right viewpoint where the solution comes into sharp relief. This method, which is called a koan, is an exercise wherein a master provides riddles to his (or her) students to help guide them along their paths to enlightenment.

Ultimately, the solution to the Hatter’s riddle, as I revealed in my 2016 novella Lilith, is as follows:

Question: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Answer: They’re both not made of bauxite.

According to Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition, bauxite is “a white, red, yellow, or brown amorphous claylike substance comprising aluminium oxides and hydroxides, often with such impurities as iron oxides. It is the chief ore of aluminium and has the general formula: Al2O3 nH2O.”

As a claylike mineral substance, bauxite is clearly exactly the wrong material from which to make a raven. Ravens are complex, highly organized hydrocarbon-based life forms. In its hydrated form, one could form an amazingly lifelike statue of a raven. It wouldn’t, however, even be the right color. Certainly it would never exhibit the behaviors we normally expect of actual, real, live ravens.

Similarly, bauxite could be used to form an amazingly lifelike statue of a writing desk. The bauxite statue of a writing desk might even have a believable color!

Why one would want to produce a statue of a writing desk, instead of making an actual writing desk, is a question outside the scope of this blog posting.

Real writing desks, however, are best made of wood, although other materials, such as steel, fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP), and marble, have been used successfully. What makes wood such a perfect material for writing desks is its mechanically superior composite structure.

Being made of long cellulose fibers held in place by a lignin matrix, wood has wonderful anisotropic mechanical properties. It’s easy to cut and shape with the grain, while providing prodigious yield strength when stressed against the grain. Its amazing toughness when placed under tension or bending loads makes assembling wood into the kind of structure ideal for a writing desk almost too easy.

Try making that out of bauxite!

Alice was unable to divine the answer the Hatter’s riddle because she “thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing desks.” That is exactly the kind of mistake we might expect a conservative Anglican deacon to make as well.

It is only by using Zen methods of turning the problem inside out and surrealist imagination’s ability to look at it as a question, not of what ravens and writing desks are, but what they are not, that the riddle’s solution becomes obvious.

How Do We Know What We Think We Know?

Rene Descartes Etching
Rene Descartes shocked the world by asserting “I think, therefore I am.” In the mid-seventeenth century that was blasphemy! William Holl/Shutterstock.com

9 May 2018 – In astrophysics school, learning how to distinguish fact from opinion was a big deal.

It’s really, really hard to do astronomical experiments. Let’s face it, before Neil Armstrong stepped, for the first time, on the Moon (known as “Luna” to those who like to call things by their right names), nobody could say for certain that the big bright thing in the night sky wasn’t made of green cheese. Only after going there and stepping on the ground could Armstrong truthfully report: “Yup! Rocks and dust!”

Even then, we had to take his word for it.

Only later on, after he and his buddies brought actual samples back to be analyzed on Earth (“Terra”) could others report: “Yeah, the stuff’s rock.”

Then, the rest of us had to take their word for it!

Before that, we could only look at the Moon. We couldn’t actually go there and touch it. We couldn’t complete the syllogism:

    1. It looks like a rock.
    2. It sounds like a rock.
    3. It smells like a rock.
    4. It feels like a rock.
    5. It tastes like a rock.
    6. Ergo. It’s a rock!

Before 1969, nobody could get past the first line of the syllogism!

Based on my experience with smart people over the past nearly seventy years, I’ve come to believe that the entire green-cheese thing started out when some person with more brains than money pointed out: “For all we know, the stupid thing’s made of green cheese.”

I Think, Therefore I Am

In that essay I read a long time ago, which somebody told me was written by some guy named Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, which concluded that the only reason he (the author) was sure of his own existence was because he was asking the question, “Do I exist?” If he didn’t exist, who was asking the question?

That made sense to me, as did the sentence “Cogito ergo sum,” (also attributed to that Descartes character) which, according to what Mr. Foley, my high-school Latin teacher, convinced me the ancient Romans’ babble translates to in English, means “I think, therefore I am.”

It’s easier to believe that all this stuff is true than to invent some goofy conspiracy theory about it’s all having been made up just to make a fool of little old me.

Which leads us to Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor

According to the entry in Wikipedia on Occam’s Razor, the concept was first expounded by “William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar who studied logic in the 14th century.” Often summarized (in Latin) as lex parsimoniae, or “the law of briefness” (again according to that same Wikipedia entry), what it means is: when faced with alternate explanations of anything believe the simplest.

So, when I looked up in the sky from my back yard that day in the mid-1950s, and that cute little neighbor girl tried to convince me that what I saw was a flying saucer, and even claimed that she saw little alien figures looking over the edge, I was unconvinced. It was a lot easier to believe that she was a poor observer, and only imagined the aliens.

When, the next day, I read a newspaper story (Yes, I started reading newspapers about a nanosecond after Miss Shay taught me to read in the first grade.) claiming that what we’d seen was a U.S. Navy weather balloon, my intuitive grasp of Occam’s Razor (That was, of course, long before I’d ever heard of Occam or learned that a razor wasn’t just a thing my father used to scrape hair off his face.) caused me to immediately prefer the newspaper’s explanation to the drivel Nancy Pastorello had shovelled out.

Taken together, these two concepts form the foundation for the philosophy of science. Basically, the only thing I know for certain is that I exist, and the only thing you can be certain of is that you exist (assuming, of course, you actually think, which I have to take your word for). Everything else is conjecture, and I’m only going to accept the simplest of alternative conjectures.

Okay, so, having disposed of the two bedrock principles of the philosophy of science, it’s time to look at how we know what we think we know.

How We Know What We Think We Know

The only thing I (as the only person I’m certain exists) can do is pile up experience upon experience (assuming my memories are valid), interpreting each one according to Occam’s Razor, and fitting them together in a pattern that maximizes coherence, while minimizing the gaps and resolving the greatest number of the remaining inconsistencies.

Of course, I quickly notice that other people end up with patterns that differ from mine in ways that vary from inconsequential to really serious disagreements.

I’ve managed to resolve this dilemma by accepting the following conclusion:

Objective reality isn’t.

At first blush, this sounds like ambiguous nonsense. It isn’t, though. To understand it fully, you have to go out and get a nice, hot cup of coffee (or tea, or Diet Coke, or Red Bull, or anything else that’ll give you a good jolt of caffeine), sit down in a comfortable chair, and spend some time thinking about all the possible ways those three words can be interpreted either singly or in all possible combinations. There are, according to my count, fifteen possible combinations. You’ll find that all of them can be true simultaneously. They also all pass the Occam’s Razor test.

That’s how we know what we think we know.