Sunday, August 31, 2003

The Alchemy of Invention

A visit to the old mill in Thorp, WA is helping me puzzle through a conundrum: Where does wealth come from? Increasing affluence is the ultimate non-zero sum game; everybody seems to win. We have more possessions and longer lives than our parents, and they more than theirs, and so on back through the ages, allowing for occasional down swings and depressions. Plants use sunlight to build themselves out of air and water; entropy is reversed through the input of solar energy. How do we manage to create so much out of nothing?

In a word: Invention.

The first example at the Thorp Mill was the Samson Lateral Power Turbine. This water-powered turbine drives the mill, much like a water wheel powered earlier mills. The difference (I was told by Lexi, the excellent guide and curator) is that the Samson works by water pressure, and not water speed. It’s evident that it also extracts more energy, since the entire (horizontal) wheel is under water; it is powered all the way around its circumference, all the time, unlike a vertical wheel. The other advantage must have been that it was easier to install. A water wheel would have to be designed for the particular speed of the water in the available mill race; the Samson would work the same way everywhere. The Samson, in other words, replaced the dependency on the intelligence of many mill designers, one of which would need to found to design each new mill, with the inventiveness of Mr. Samson, who replaced custom design by encapsulating his insight in some cast iron and a set of installation instructions.

Tren Griffin came up with the term “software in a box” (recently written up by Bill Gurley) to capture his insight that the value of most devices is not concrete; it’s in the software that they embody. Samson’s Lateral Power Turbine is the nineteenth century equivalent of “software in a box”.

The value of intellectual property became even clearer when I saw the Bernard & Leas “Plan Sifter”. This device enabled a miller to extract 40% more flour per bushel of wheat than they were able to do with previous equipment. The legend on the side of the sifter proudly proclaim its inventor (one Carl Haggenmacher), that it was patented in May 27th, 1890 (patent numbers 428 907, 428 908, and 428 909), and the patent was reissued on June 28th, 1892 (number 11.252).

Patents must have mattered. For example, W. D. Gray’s Patented Noiseless Roller Mill was prominently labeled with 23 patents, issued between Dec 23rd, 1879 (number 222,895) and September 8th, 1891 (159,075).

Patents enabled the inventor and manufacturer to extract a temporary premium for their insight and investment. Even with the premium, the Plan Sifter made the miller more profitable, since he decided to buy one, and not use the old technology. In the long term, after the patents had expired, this knowledge was available to all; every subsequent sifter was more economical. We humans were able to use more and throw away less. It was as if we were now able to create more flour out of thin air. Alchemy, indeed.

Lessons from the Rodeo

This was my second Ellensburg Labor Day Week-End Rodeo. I love this thing; it’s pure American Heartland. The organizers and attendees do this for themselves, by themselves. They are keeping a culture alive without any PC baggage. Every Rodeo starts with the Yakima tribe coming down the hill into the arena on horseback. It could only have been embarrassing to someone from the Left side of the Cascades like me; the fact is, Ellensburg is located where the tribes in the region gathered every year since time immemorial to trade and have a good time, and the Yakima have been part of the Rodeo since its inception.

The Rodeo is part of the Kittitas County Fair. Half the fair-ground is taken up with the usual carousels, rides, and amusement arcades. The other half is the soul of the event: the 4-H livestock show where farm kids show the animals they’ve raised.

We wandered into a hall where cattle were being judged. A dozen children aged five to twelve stood in the show ring, each holding a steer many times larger than themselves. The judge – a serious young farmer, probably with kids exactly that age – was slowly working his way around the circle, studying the cattle, quietly talking with each exhibitor in turn. We came in near the end, I gathered from an overheard conversation, and stood watching for ten minutes. There were perhaps a hundred onlookers leaning on the fence, and sitting in the bleachers. Little was said; everyone was studying the livestock. At last the judge picked five contestants to move to the next round. He complimented everyone, encouraged the losers to work on the small points they were weak on, everyone got their awards, and the losers filed out of the ring. When we left, the winners from the previous elimination were filing into the ring.

Judging is an important part of this life. There are competitions for swine, poultry, rabbits, horses, roping, bronco riding, and beauty queen. These competitions seemed somehow more substantive than the ethereal concerns of white collar suburbia. These were real livestock, and the kids had to brush off their hindquarters from time to time; there were notices in every stall indicating who had bought the animal. The skills tested in the rodeo were clearly important to running a farm; and though they were pretty, the Royal Court (the queen of the fair and her princess) could ride a horse full tilt with the best of them.

White collar life is too complicated to distill its essential skills into spectator sport. It’s too specialized. And I’d rather observe beautiful young people perform athletic feats than watch a debating society or chess game. (The relative ratings of ESPN and C-SPAN suggest that I’m not the only one.)

The Rodeo is morality play about hard work and bad breaks. Everything turns on staying on a bull for eight seconds, once every day over three days; and if you stay on, it then depends on the quality of the bull and the whims of the judges. If you get a docile bull, you can’t get a good score. It’s about luck – but nobody uses that term. It may be to avert a jinx, but it may be deeper.

So many American sports are built on lightning fast contingency. A baseball batter sits around for ages, and then gets a few swings – then it’s back to sitting around. They fail more often than not; getting a hit on one out of every three outings is something few achieve. American football consists of bursts of activity interspersed with long periods of boredom. One shot at glory, then sit around and wait again. (Not a bad training for war.)

This unspoken obverse is a necessary anti-dote to the optimistic determinism that pervades American culture: “Anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough.” The world’s not like that, of course. Jaded Europeans know this too well; they pay the price of not even trying when they might have succeeded. American culture is built on the assumption that everything will work out fine in the end, whether one is losing weight, climbing the career ladder, or spreading American values around the world. The shadow of bad luck in rodeo, football and baseball is the hidden entry required to make the books of reality balance.

This Dark Twin can be found everywhere in all cultures. Americans’ openness and friendliness is the flip side of a fear of strangers – be nice to everybody, you never know who’s going to pull a gun on you. The pervasive Christian spirituality in America is belied by the profound secularism and lack of religiosity in every day life. Almost everybody goes to church, but one has to look very hard for religious symbolism in everyday life and language.

Sometimes the Hidden Twin is the bright side. Jaded Europeans constantly remind each other that the world is a vale of tears, and that all efforts are doomed in the long run. Of course – but then one pays the price of not even trying when they might have succeeded. The hidden side is optimism – not much spoken of, but the foundation of the inventiveness that has been most visible, commercially, in the Nordic countries in recent years.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Forgive me Father, it has been seven days since I last blogged

Writing a personal blog has a distinctly confessional feel to it. You're saying things that other people might read - or worse, things that they might dredge up nine years from now when you need to be on your best appearances. It's almost a diary, but it's public.

In the old days, confession in the Catholic church was a public affair: you had to stand up in front of the congregation to confess your sins. The box-confessional is a new-fangled piece of furniture; even earlier confessionals were simply chairs where people could kneel, in the full view of all, on either side of the priest.

Saying things in public is different. It matters more, even if nobody's listening. It reminds me of being at art school. You're experimenting and no-one else really cares, but you still have to put your work up in a place where anybody can criticize it. There's a frisson, a little adrenalin that simply making something for yourself wouldn't have. We're such social animals that we have to construct a society for ourselves even when we're alone.

There's also a self-consciousness which true performers can turn to their advantage. Hey, look at me, dammit! I'm pouring out my soul here, you owe me your attention! Most of us just end up faintly embarrassed. Perhaps that's why Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are so wonderful: they were personal diaries, not intended for publication. If they had been, perhaps Marcus would not have been so profound.

Just like confession, blogs also carry a good weight of guilt. Have you neglegted your obligations - again? How could you say something so inane? Didn't you realize that you were rehearsing the obvious? How dare your write with a style that's like a bean counter trying to waltz? Cross-linking is like saying ten Hail Mary's; a duty that washes away the sin, leaving your soul fresh and clean, ready to be soiled again.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Note to Self (1)

Follow a train of thought to its logical conclusion, and then beyond.

The man who showed me how to photograph work at art school taught me about 'bracketing'. Don't just pick a nice angle and be done with it - you may miss a better one. Move the camera up, until it's too high; then move it down until it's too low. The right angle is in between. Likewise, pan to the left and the right until you've established the outer limits before composing the shot.

One has to go beyond the limit in order to find something interesting. In a world of ideas, stating the obvious has no value. (OK, that's false, but I'm not thinking of polemics, politics, and self-help books here.) To make a contribution, one has to find a new perspective.

(And once found, say it succinctly. The Economist's style guide advises against tired metaphors; "they will tire the reader." Finding new metaphors, just like finding new ideas, is hard work.)

I realized the other day that...

I heard this morning on NPR that...
I've believed for years that...
It's just struck me that...

I've noticed in the last week how often I preface remarks with time qualifiers. Other people do so, too. Why?

At the very least, these warm-up clauses establish one's turn in the conversation, and prepare listeners for the main course. They draw attention to the speaker, and allow one to get a sentence going even while others are still speaking.

But they're also more than simply eloquent versions of "Uhhh..." I feel the need to provide the context for my statements. It's an attempt to be better understood; for some reason we believe that listeners care about when we had an insight.

That's a way of saying, It's the Ego Talking. I'm at the center of my world, not only in space but in time. All events need to be defined in relation to my personal now. It's a way of orienting ourselves to event, anchoring our consciousness in the stream of events. Since memory has to be constantly be reconstructed, it may also be a way of creating consciousness.

In some cases, it's also a way to claim priority. If you hear someone starting a sentence with, "I've always said that ...," it's a cue that they're claiming that they've known something that others haven't. It's a way of reinforcing the me/them dichotomy, and showing that the Us is better than the They.

Starting statements with qualifiers of any kind is a sign of insecurity. It shows that the speaker has to establish their presence, and feels uncertain about their right to speak, and even about the value of their contribution. Big Egos seldom preface their statements; to them, their opinions are eagerly awaited, self-evident statements of universal truth. The Little People aren't so sure. Here are some of their most commonly used opening qualifiers, with translation:
"I believe..." - statement of faith
"I think..." - personal opinion
"I suspect..." - uncertainty
"I'm certain..." - statement of faith
"Perhaps..." - uncertainty

Homework: Watch out for your use of time qualifiers. Examine if they add any explicit information. Examine your hidden motivations were for using them. Are you a Big Ego or a Little Person?

Friday, August 22, 2003

Quotes (1)

Christopher Ireland, the person who inspired me to start this blog, suggested I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. It's a wonderful book. I'm only 31 pages into it but it's rekindled my love of travelogues. I really enjoyed reading various of Jonathan Raban's books some years ago, but after a while the insistent description/sub-text combo wore me down. Least Heat-Moon is telling a story, too, but his language is so poetic that one could dip into any few pages just to savor the words.

In Chapter 9 he quotes a contention of his father's, William Heat-Moon: "[A] man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make him and remake him."

A little further, in Chapter 15 (they're very short chapters), he quotes Madison Wheeler, a man who lives in Nameless, Tennessee: "Factory work's easier on the back, and I don't mind it, understand, but a man becomes what he does. Got to watch that. That's why I keep farmin', although the crops haven't ever throve. It's the doin' that's important."

I realized recently that I wasn't looking outside my head enough. I had thought the problem was that I was too wrapped up in the world, spending all my effort on other people's priorities; I thought that I needed to turn inward, to find my own creativity. I was wrong. The problem was that I was living inside my head, and not paying attention to the world. I had forgotten how hard, and how invigorating, it is to simply look and keep looking at the clouds, or a tree, or another person. It's so easy to spiral into self-absorption.

Being self-absorbed isn't the same as being centered. I struggle to sit quietly for more than a couple of minutes. I think I'm running away from the possibility that I have something important but unwanted to say to myself. Learning to attend to the world outside is hopefully an intermediate step in attending to the little voice inside.

The little voice likes the quote about becoming what one does. It's not sure it likes what I'm attending to, or what I'm doing. I'm not sure it's right, but we're going to have to talk about it, sooner or later.

This will help you more than than it'll help me

Yes, I am a freeloader. But no, that's not going to stop me complaining.

I don't have kids, and probably won't have. People who do have children, and who spend the time, energy, and money to raise them, are contributing to my happy retirement - those kids' taxes and productivity will pay for my declining years. Still, I'm dismayed at the way so many children are being raised in the United States.

Jeffrey MacDonald reports in the Christian Science Monitor that American parents are spending $2.8 billion a year on educational toys for infants and pre-schoolers. Like all parents, they're trying to give their offspring a jump on the competition; they hope that these toys will make their kids smarter. The trouble is that there's no evidence that these toys make a whit of difference to IQ. The experts do agree that children should be immersed in a rich, interactive, multi-media environment. The best way to stimulate all their senses is to, gasp!, spend time with them.

Now you see the catch - people don't have time to spend with their kids. Both parents have to work in order to give the kids the affluent lifestyle they deserve. Consequently, children are parked in front of videos for hours on end. I'm sure parents feel bad about having to do this. How much better, then, to believe that the videos are in fact helping the child, rather than giving a breather to the adult.

The alternative, that one parent devotes the best years of their life to raising their children, is not an easy one. My mother did this, and I'll be eternally grateful to her for that. However, in doing so she sacrificed a promising academic career. Many low-income parents have no alternative; if the adult doesn't work, the kid doesn't eat. However, I don't accept that middle class families absolutely need two incomes to raise a family. Sure, one needs two incomes to pay for the balloon mansion and the two SUVs and the wide-screen entertainment system and all the extra-mural classes for the kids - but those are luxuries, not necessities.

I respect dual-earners' choice to have the VCR baby-sit their off-spring; they think much harder about whether they're making the best choices for their kids than I ever will. At the core we're all selfish. I wouldn't want to give up my work in order to look after toddlers (and so I haven't). My dismay at way the middle and upper classes raise their kids stems from my own self-interest: children raised on videos rather than human interaction will be less productive, and the society they build will be less caring. This will be bad news for me when I'm old and decrepit and looking to dividends and hand-outs for sustenance.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Louise Jacobson of the Washington Post reports on the emerging discipline of "synchrony". That's the fancy word for stuff happening together: fireflies flashing, heart cells beating, and even the moon always having the same face to the earth.

The story refers to a book that seems worth reading: Steven Strogatz's "Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order". The basic premise, says Lissa Harris in her review for the Cornell Chronicle, is that order is not just possible, it is inevitable: Any system of coupled oscillators will self-organize.
There are two kinds of people in the world:
- Those who divide the world into two categories
- and those who don't

When I heard an executive described as someone who was "often wrong but never in doubt," it occurred to me that there was another category of people: those who were often right, but always in doubt.

I'm in the second category, which is one of the many reasons why I'll never be an executive.

We definitely place a higher value on those in the first category, perhaps because there is already so much uncertainty in the world. Having confidence also enables one to motivate teams to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles. Still, as a recent HBR article described, CEO over-confidence has lead to many corporate disasters. Three words will suffice here: AOL Time Warner. OK, while I'm at it, here are two more: Bernie Ebbers.
SSO (Susan the Significant Other) found the new translation of Aurelius at the bookshop yesterday that started me thinking about his Meditations again. She also noticed that the suggested shelving category of the book was "Philosophy/Business". That's rather sad - the publishers felt that their best shot at getting decent sales was to get the book on the Be Better At Business section.

I'm probably being too snobbish, though. The Meditations have survived because successive generations of educated people (educated men, until very recently) have found them applicable to their lives. And many, if not most of those men were in management: managing the church, managing feudal estates, and now, managing businesses.

One might also speculat that the Philosophy/Business categorization is an attempt to straddle the female/male self-help market. I have no data for this, but I suspect that 80% of the readers of business self-help books are male, and 65% of the self-actualization (which is what so much of the "philosophy" shelves are about) market are female.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Thinking on Aurelius' Meditations

Susan prompted me to buy Gregory Hays' new translation of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I thought that commenting on the meditations would be good grist for the blogging mill.

Marcus Aurelius Book 2, 2

Yes, I am flesh, and thinking, and a little spirit. Yes, books are a distraction. Looking inward into the world of my own thoughts, and even easier, looking inward into the world of thinking about other's thoughts is a distraction. I should not allow myself this, but I can't avoid it. I am jerked around by the mess of blood and bone that is my body, and the mess of guilt and fear and jealousy that is my social self. Yes, my mind is a slave, and I shouldn't allow it to be the puppet of selfish impulses. Still, selfish impulses are what make my self, and that is the core of what I have. But I can try to fix on what's outside me; while just as much in flux as anything else, it is the greater part than just the selfish self.
Everything said here is true.
Not everything said here is true.
I can't express my personal philosophy in five words, the way Chuq can. I like this taoist story, though:

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole was fishing in Pu river. The Prince of Chu sent two-vice-chancellors with a formal document:
"We hereby appoint you Prime Minister".

Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole. Still watching the Pu river, he said:
"I am told there is a sacred tortoise, offered and canonized three thousand years ago; venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk, in a precious shrine, on an altar in the Temple.

"What do you think: is it better to give up one's life and leave a sacred shell as an object of cult in a cloud of incense three thousand years, or better to live as a plain turtle dragging its tail in the mud?"

"For the turtle", said the vice-chancellor, "better to live and drag its tail in the mud!"

"Go home!" said Chuang Tzu. "Leave me here to drag my tail in the mud!"

I don't love technology. It fascinates me from time to time, but for its cleverness - nothing more. I'm surrounded by people who have (or affect) a passion for technology. It seems one needs to believe that technology will change the world for the better. I am persuaded that it does, on balance; however, believing that technology is intrinsically good is naive.

I do have a passion for creativity, though. It is evident just looking at the world that somehow humans have figured out alchemy. We can turn base metals into gold. We live longer and better than ever before. Few people would want to move to any time in the past. I wish I knew how this happens. It has something to do with invention; new ways to do things make the world better. At least, they create affluence and reduce pain. The Bessemer steel conversion process, anaesthetics, the wheel; once they've appeared, the world isn't the same again.
Christopher Ireland was inspired by Chuq von Rospach's bio. In turn, it inspired me to have a cut at mine, done in that fashion:

I'm middle-aged, male, and in the no-man's land between being a geek and a wonk. The most successful part of my career was passing exams in high school. The application of the generalized Peter's Principle led to a graduate degree in physics, and the realization that I wasn't any good at same.

At this point I was both over- and under-qualified for any real job. An entrepreneurial start-up fund manager took pity on my, and I worked for five years in what was at that time Britain's largest seed capital fund. The strangest thing is that I'm older now than he was then, and I still feel that I have some time to go before I have to have achieved as much as he had.

I ended up with some savings and the realization that I didn't want to do this kind of work - but no sense of what I did want to do. That much hasn't changed over all these years. I'm still from time to time assailed with doubt over my current job: Is not having anything better to do, an excuse not to change?

Three quarters of the way towards graduating with a BA in sculpture I ended up moving to the US to work for a software company. My only qualification seemed to be that I could think on my feet, and string jargon together in plausible sequences.

Like most people around me, I agonize about the fact that I "work too hard" and "don't have a life." In fact I seldom work much more than sixty hours a week, and I live a charmed life. I have a wonderful partner, a nice house, and the time to study learn Spanish and do tai chi. I prefer non-fiction to the heavy stuff; my favorite magazine is New Scientist.

I don't have a philosophy of life. I've never been able to do anything other than rather timidly put one foot in front of the other. I've been lucky to find myself in interesting places as a result. As a lower middle class kid who's made it to the upper middle, I live in constant fear that something will suddenly take away the good life I've been blessed with.

It was a gray but warm morning... Presumably there is a small number of standard ways in which people start off their first blog. They might be uncertain, or exhilirated. They might worry about spelling, or they might type furiously, straining to pour out everything they have to say. They might confess to be self-conscious, or they might be oblivious. This is one of those posts.