Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Some Links I Liked

I found myself responding in a thread somewhere today when I should have been making paper hats I've promised to make. I'm afraid my comment will annoy the few who will read it there. I generally don't cross-post, in part because where I wrote it there's an odd wiki mark-up convention which means I have to fiddle around with the text. Not meaning to annoy, in fact I liked these links and wanted to share them.

This discussion of scaling is interesting. As some of you already know I've stopped thinking by myself and just think links these days ;-)

The rise in inequality is something that concerns me a lot, and I think there's lots of reasons too much inequality is a very bad thing. I also think constructal theory is pretty cool. So I groaned when I read The Tea Party's weird science in the Washington Examiner.

The Examiner is owned by Philip Anschutz, a really rich guy, who we might say is "all about scaling."

I think it gets a bit tricky when physical laws are applied to social systems. I think physical science informs the social, but it's a common hazard not to see the trickiness. Anyhow I am discomforted that the Tea Party bigwigs have discovered constructal law and the rule of thumb: “few large, many small.” But I go along with the usefulness of the rule.

Robert Patterson has a really great piece on scaling Twitter and the Dunbar Number. Lawrence Goodwyn pointed to Thomas Jefferson in an article The Great Predicament Facing Obama about scale and democracy:
I refer now to Jefferson's understanding that democratic relations need a political home that was literally close to home. He advocated for what he called "ward republics" to be organized across the land. He suggested that each republic be kept small, not more than 100 people, so that in the aggregate thousands of them could form the structural base of the political nation. In fact, his most elegant term of description was not "ward republic" but rather "elementary republic."
When we think of scale and enterprise most of the time we think about the right size and arrangement of people in the company. The reference between the company and customers is thought to be adequately conveyed in terms of a measure of money. I think this view falls short, indeed it is the essence of greed.

The focus is "You can't manage what you don't measure." That quote is generally attributed to W. Edward Deming. The Wikipedia article on Deming points out that Deming didn't say that and in fact gets what Deming did say wrong.

The thing is in systems and organizations there's a constant interplay between Structure/State and Flux/Event.

Ivan Illich made an important observation about schooling, which applies to how we think of business too:
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success.
Deming was keen for businesses not to be so confused.

Implicit in the Washington Examiner piece about the Tea Party and constructal theory is an argument in favor of inequality. Or to put it another way that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a measure of success. Such inequality reveals a natural law!

Deming knew that much of what matters most cannot be measured. He knew that wisdom makes a difference. That dollars don't add up to wisdom, wisdom isn't quantitative at all.

Control in the Tea Party version of business and Government is often seen as the function of the big men--most often men--extracting rents by virtue of size--they are the key nodes of a vascular system. In contrast, Deming and later-day system thinkers know that control is actually an interplay between feedback and calibration; an interplay of form and process. "Scale" isn't the same as "size." Sometimes less is more. Escalation does not always lead to success but to often to catastrophe.

Wisdom lies in not confusing process with substance. And in not focusing too much on processes without regard to form, or the other way around. Wisdom isn't out there hard and fast. Wisdom is like dancing, in the interplay and relationships.

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