Feedback (positive)

When I was a kid, my cousin had a tape-recorder just like this one – it had a microphone with a yellow sponge. Putting the microphone in a nearby (empty) pot produced this wonderful echoey noise that grew to a delightful – to my ears – whining whistle.

The whine grew slowly at first, but the louder it got, the faster it grew before maxing out, ending when you took mic back out (you could hold it constant by holding the mic just at the mouth of the pot) or when an irritated parent had had enough.

Here’s a diagram of what’s happening:

(wikipedia)

There a lot of ways this happens in the rest of life too, for good and bad:

  • The virtuous circle of a team doing better work, getting better customers, who ask them to do better work, leading to more opportunities…
  • Technological innovation
  • Investment, reinvestment and compound interest
  • Population growth
  • Environmental destruction
  • Cattle stampedes
  • Bad sleep, leading to bad decisions and more work, leading to worse sleep…

Feedback loops come with a caveat:

Positive feedback tends to cause system instability. When the loop gain is positive and above 1, there will typically be exponential growth, increasing oscillationschaotic behavior or other divergences from equilibrium. System parameters will typically accelerate towards extreme values, which may damage or destroy the system, or may end with the system latched into a new stable state.

Wikipedia

Learning for the future: fundamentals

Your stick

Here’s a first try on the importance of fundamentals in learning.

Imagine you are holding a long stick – better yet, a sword or lightsaber – representing your ability to make a difference in the world.

The far end of the stick is the part that you’ll make the greatest impact with. It moves fastest, reaches furthest, hits hardest.

But it’s useless if you don’t know who or what you’re fighting for (and/or against).

And everything the end of the sword does depends on what happens at the handle. You need a good grip, and the part closest to the handle needs to be – I think – the strongest part of the sword (armourers?).

A small change in the person holding the sword, a small movement of the hilt, makes a huge difference to what happens at the pointy end.

The rest of the sword is just an amplifier.

Learning

Here’s a theory of learning:

  1. A person**…
  2. meets something new…
  3. has some kind of interaction with it…
  4. and is changed in some way.

I think these are the bare essentials. You can’t have learning with less, and everything else is detail under one of these headings. 

** Or animal, or…

Some rules for future success

  • Know what’s important
  • …and know what’s for you (and what isn’t)…
  • … and act accordingly – NOW.
  • Be ‘on assignment‘ – make stuff happen, get stuff done.
  • Really – determinedly, doggedly get stuff done. Done is better than perfect.
  • Find the right people. Say the words. Collaborate. Coordinate. Lead.
  • All the time, be learning.
  • In particular, identify and work on foundations and fundamentals.
  • Communicate clearly and well.
  • Be attentive to feedback of all sorts.
  • Be able to use the best tools of the day to facilitate the above.
  • Be kind.**

** This might sound a bit limp at first pass, but really – If nothing else, what would you hope for in your interactions with yourself, family, friends, strangers?

A downhill slope (find others)

If you’re in a book group, social pressure is going to get you to read that book. The act of joining the book group is the hard part. Once you’re in the book group, the books are going to get read, because now you’re playing a game. It’s a game you’re enrolled in, it’s one you want to move forward.

The easiest way to start creating this game dynamic is to form a group. To find others, to find others and challenge those others to play the game with you. Because we all know that solitaire might be a little fun, but solitaire isn’t the kind of game we dream of when we dream of games.

We do better when we do it together.

Seth Godin – Akimbo – The Wedding Industrial Complex

.

Make it happen. Find others. Say the words.

Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder


Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways:

Progressive. Conservative.

We all have change that we’d like to see in the world.

There are things we’d like to abolish. There are things we’d like to see start or grow, and take their rightful place in our culture.

We’re all progressive – maybe even radicals.

And we’re all conservatives too.

There are things we want to protect, changes we want to prevent, or reverse.

It’s a shame that we can’t agree on what these things are. That is to say, it’s a shame that other people don’t agree with what I think those things are.

You know, the right things.

Family and community, taking care of people, responsibility, freedom, goodness.

Things like that.

Today’s status quo

On the other hand, doing something a particular way because that’s what everyone else does – or because it’s how it’s always been done – is a recipe for stagnation and frustration.

And if you’re doing it for a place in today’s status quo, you might be heading for disappointment: tomorrow, the status quo will have moved on, and what you did might not mean what you thought it did.

Here’s Seth Godin:

Are you making these choices simply because of today’s status quo, knowing that tomorrow the status quo won’t even be what it is today?

Seth Godin – Akimbo – The Wedding Industrial Complex

Conservatism and the status quo

Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek make good arguments for leaning towards conservatism (small c).

For all its problems, the relatively stable equilibrium we live in is a blessing. It depends on a lot of intertwingled factors. It wasn’t planned or made: it evolved and accrued.

The faster the world changes, the more valuable stable touchstones of culture, family, relationship become.

Which parts are of the social structure are held up by the piece you’re pulling away at? Is it a keystone?

Who else depends on the type of person you’re disrupting? Are they a keystone species?

Look before you leap.

** Russ Roberts‘ Econtalk is a great place to go to hear a well-intentioned person working from this point of view.