Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Refine, Test, Refine More. Test More

A pattern is a much less rigorous form of a scientific theory. That is to say that the pattern is extracted from experience in an attempt to explain it economically. And the pattern, like a theory, must be hardened through testing. So, if you find a useful pattern you must test it in two ways. First, you must make sure that it does, indeed, explain the phenomenon. Second, you must use the pattern to predict future events and see if it holds up under that requirement. Supposing that it does, you must keep looking for ways to refute your pattern. Over time, if you cannot refute the pattern then it is probably a pretty good pattern. And if you do manage to refute, you might try refining it. However, as you attempt to refute your theory, you must be aware of some troublesome cognitive biases. That is we are inclined to accept evidence that supports our theory or pattern while dismissing data which refutes it. We want our pattern to be correct. But, in order to make it correct, we have to view it critically, rejecting aspects of it that don't fit and continuing to challenge the parts that seem to fit. Over time, if you objectively challenge the pattern, you will strengthen it and increase its utility.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

How to Get a Clue or How Can You Get Better at Recognizing Patterns?

If you follow the stock market, you might notice that when stock prices go up too fast or go up for an extended period of time there is a good chance they will tumble back down at bit. The tumble may be minor or significant. But, we can see a pattern here which we will call "What goes up, must come down".

This pattern does not just apply to stocks. We can see a very similar pattern in the careers of celebrities and politicians - riding high one day and in free fall the next. It also happens with hit music, fashions and fads. It might even happen in your love life or your job. It is a useful pattern that we see in many very diverse situations.

The "What goes up, must come down" pattern is simplistic but it is a place to start. Once we recognize this pattern we can refine our understanding of the phenomenon which the pattern describes. We can ask questions like - do difference situations have a different pattern in their rise and fall. Do some things go up fast and fall just as quickly while others grind up slowly and go down like a beach ball filled with water? Are there elements of situations that give us a clue regarding which rise and fall pattern they might fit? Once we have one pattern, no matter how simple it may be, we can expand it into a whole family of other patterns.

Are there different patterns that describe the same situation? For example, we just used the "What goes up, must go down" pattern to describe your love life. Maybe other patterns will do just as well. Let's say we have a pattern of "Initial euphoria, disillusionment, accepting reality" which also applies to your love life. Perhaps this pattern could apply to corporate mergers, or peace treaties.

The point here is that the more patterns you can recognize the more situations you can apply them in and the more nuanced your understanding of phenomena can become. So, start looking for patterns and when you find one try applying it to other situations. And begin creating more nuanced patterns for specific situations. Over time you will develop a collection of patterns that you can apply to a variety of situations. But that, it only the beginning.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Beware: Clues are Only Possibilities

Although I have provided several clues that led me to believe that we are moving into chaotic times, you shouldn't believe this simply based upon clues and neither do I. Clues lead to possibilities not certainties. Just because you find a resonate pattern to organize your thoughts does not mean that you have it right. You need evidence and the more evidence you have the more you can believe you are on the right track.

So, how do you proceed? Step One is, of course, recognizing patterns. If you are not good at recognizing patterns, you will have to rely on patterns that other people have recognized. But, given that you have a pattern to work with, there are some additional steps you can take in both discovery and validation.

An initial validation step is needed to make sure the pattern is valid. For example, let's say that you become aware of the economic pattern that the top 1% of the wealthy in the United States control the majority of the wealth. The first question you have to ask is - is this really true?

There have certainly been a lot of news stories claiming this so you should read and listen a little more critically as news stories are often spun based upon the beliefs and worldview of the journalist or newspaper. I don't mean to suggest that you are being misled. I merely mean to point out that there is no objective view of a social phenomenon and any analysis represents a particular interpretation. 

For discovery purposes, ask if this pattern is occurring elsewhere.  So, let's say, for example, that you become aware of the economic pattern that the top 1% of the wealthy in the United States control the majority of the wealth. Is this occurring in other areas as well?  Are the top 1% of researchers or artists producing the majority of the research or art? Are the top 1% of politically active families producing the majority of the politicians?The more places you can find the pattern, the more useful the pattern might be.

You can try explaining the pattern to other people. Some will reject it simply because it is not what they think. If this is the case, you should be polite but not waste a lot of time with them. Some will find legitimate flaws in what you have said and will express them. You need to reconcile these flaws with what you believe to be true about the pattern. If you cannot then the pattern may be flaws. You might be able to adjust it or fix it. But that will require some work. If the work isn't worth it, you should drop it. If you do manage to reconcile the flaws, you have probably gained, along the way, greater insight into the pattern and the phenomenon it represents.

Finally, you need to make a sincere attempt to disprove what you believe about the pattern. Ask yourself what could be true that would disprove the pattern or what thing might happen in the future to dispute it. As time goes by, if you are sincerely trying to find evidence that the pattern does not work and you fail to, it is probably a pretty good pattern.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What To Do in Chaotic Times

Let us assume for the moment that I am on to something with this dichotomy I have identified with normal times and chaotic times. This is not a forgone conclusion, but I will come back to that later.

How do you behave differently to be successful in chaotic times? As it turns out, the answer is quite simple, at least superficially. In normal times, you set goals, make plans, and pursue your goals. In chaotic times you cannot set goals and make plans because things are in a state of flux. This, after all, is what got me to thinking about this initially. Instead of setting goals, you have to look for opportunities. You may not know what is going to happen. But, when suitable opportunities arise, you must be prepared to take advantage of them.

How do you prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunities in chaotic times? This is a little trickier but still not that difficult.

Figure out, in general, what you are good at.

Figure out what kinds of opportunities might arise that would need the things you are good at.

Shore up your strengths so you are ready to take advantage of opportunities. This simply means that you should work on getting better at the things you are good at.

Make sure your are psychologically ready to look for opportunities.You need to be open to new things or things that do not look exactly like what you were expecting. You don't want to pass up a good opportunity just because you did not recognize it.

Make sure you position yourself to know about the right kinds of opportunities as they arise. This involves networking and keeping up with sources that are likely to provide information that you need.

Finally, you need to be flexible. If you make mistakes, learn from them. If you got something wrong be prepared to make adjustments to get it right. Don't be afraid to take chances or experiment.

Does this mean you should quit your job and wait for opportunities?  No, you need to sustain yourself until something good comes along. However, you have time to invest in sustaining yourself and time to invest in your future. The time you invest in your future should be directed at preparing yourself to take advantage of opportunities.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Clue Four: Steppenwolf

These clues are coming from all over the place. But when patterns come together, it is because the pieces of the puzzle resonate with things that you might not even notice otherwise. That is what makes them clues. And I would also emphasize that they are clues because they are useful patterns for organizing your thinking about nagging hunches and intuitions. They are not messages  from beyond in some weird mystical way. Well, let me take that back. I suppose they are messages from beyond in some weird mystical way. Just not the weird mystical way that most people might think of them.

In this case, however, there was a connection. The Mad Men epiphany got me to thinking about the turbulence of the 1960's which brought to mind a novel by Herman Hesse which was very popular at the time. The novel was entitled Steppenwolf and the name was popularized by a rock band who adopted the name. The novel was actually published in 1927 and republished in the 1960's due to its popularity at the time. And, surprisingly, it was republished again just a few years ago.

The main character in Steppenwolf was an individual caught between cultures who did not belong to either. He came to represent people caught between two cultures in the case of cultural change. Any culture, according to Hesse, has good things and bad things about it. But, on the balance, the good things out weight the bad. So, for anyone living in a given culture, life is generally tolerable. However, for people caught between cultures, life can be brutal. Consider, for example, a modern person transported back to Medieval Europe. Life would be horrible. However, if you took someone from Medieval Europe and transported them to the modern age, life would be equally as horrible.

People in the 1920's were undergoing substantial cultural change in a Post WWI environment, with prohibition, bath tub gin, flappers and a run away stock market. They were caught between the dying world order of the previous century and the nascent new order which would take a while to form. In the 1960's the Baby Boomers saw massive cultural change as well, which is why the book became so popular again. It is interesting to note that if you add 40 years to 1927 you get 1967. And if you add another 40 years you get 2007. All at the brink of impending massive social change. I don't want to make too much of this. But, it is an interesting pattern.

Nonetheless, this notion of transition between cultural norms gave further credibility to the idea that was brewing in the back of my mind. It suggested that we might be in chaotic times because we were at the brink of another wave of massive social change which has yet to take form. And we might be able to get some insights by looking back to the 1920's and 1960's.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Clue Three: Mad Men

I was watching Morning Joe (a news commentary show on MS NBC) one morning a few months ago and they had a guest on who was the script writer for the very popular TV show Mad Men. The discussion, around the table, was about the early 1960's era and why that time period resonated so much with audiences today. As the discussion developed examples started popping up of instances they could remember of people who were part of the Mad Men era that could not deal with the changes that would occur later in the decade. I think it was Joe Scarborough who said that his father liked the early Beatles but by the time Rubber Soul came out he no longer understood was was happening. When he said that, the wheels began turning.

The transition from Mad Men to Woodstock was a period of major cultural upheaval in this country and many others as well. For most Baby Boomers it represented the defining moments of their lives. For the sake of simplicity I am going to reduce this to a larger pattern and that is - the old giving way to the new. In this case the Mad Men represented the old culture and Woodstock represented the new.

Now we are approaching a similar transition only the Baby Boomers represent the old and the rising Millenials represent the new. I believe that the show resonates with Baby Boomers because they subconsciously see themselves in Mad Men - people riding high in a belief system that is about to crash. I think it also resonates with Millenials but for a different reason. For the Millenials it is a reminder that their day will come.

Going back, for a moment to this idea of normal times vs chaotic times we can see the pattern once again. When the old way is the default world view we have normal times. When the new replaces the old we have chaotic times. When the new becomes the default world view we have normal times again.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Clue Two: Thomas Kuhn

As I mentioned earlier, clues are not given to you by some guiding force. And clues are not discovered along the way. Clues are merely ideas or patterns that resonate with what we are thinking and help us put form to those nagging fuzzy ideas in the backs of our minds. So, my second clue seems even more unrelated than the first one.

I have been working on a very difficult paper on the philosophy of information systems. Earlier in the data gathering stage I was reviewing a lot of books and articles that I though might be useful in helping me write the paper. I went off on several side roads which is not at all uncommon in these pursuits. One of those side roads was into the philosophy of science. I was wondering, at the time, how the philosophy of science might be different for research in information systems than it is natural or social sciences. As I was pondering this I picked up some classic works by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn along with a variety of lessor known books that I felt might be useful.

While pondering Kuhn, the idea of "normal science" kept ricocheting around in my subconscious. At the risk of over simplifying this idea allow me to explain it in a very cursory manner. Most of the time, in a scientific field, there is a fair amount of agreement on what problems it is trying to solve, what methods lead to legitimate results, what counts as evidence and so on. The questions appear to be answerable. And the methods appear to be adequate for answering the questions. This is what is referred to a "normal science". Then a disruption comes along. There are anomalies that cannot be explained or important questions that cannot be answered.

When this happens, the field must adjust. New ideas and methods must be considered as scientists attempt to account for the anomalies or make progress on the unanswered questions.   Over time some of these new ideas will become mainstream and the field will settle back down to "normal science"

Now, I did not intend this post to be a short lecture on the philosophy of science. But, I needed to explain that in order to explain how it became a clue.It occurred to me that my goal setting behavior was disrupted because it was not clear to me what was important to achieve. I could not fix on a goal or set of goals because things were in such a state of flux - that not only were the targets moving but what qualified as a target was changing as well. Thinking about Kuhn's concept of "normal science" I thought the pattern fit well to the social, economic and political spheres as well. There are normal times when you know what your are trying to achieve and how to achieve it. In normal times you can set goals and pursue them. However, in the times between normal times, the times I refer to as "chaotic" things are in a state of flux and it is difficult to set goals in order to make progress.