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Sunday, March 21, 2010


How do we deal with being stuck in a messy situation?

The nature of a mess is that you put energy into fixing it and it is still a mess. Perhaps one can slowly turn a mess into not a mess, but during the process it will be a mess. The key is to not look for completion, and to make sure one has other resources and interests. Some kinds of life projects give regular rewards, and have regular moments of clarity and transformation. A mess on the other hand, is a constant drain. Again, the work may still be valuable, and in the end, something good may come of it, but for large amounts of time, no such rewards are there, and not being draining may be the best possible scenario.

When one is involved in such a project, it is rather frustrating because one is often asked if one is passionate about it, and if one loves it. But really, all one can say is that one is trying to improve a mess. One can barely even talk intelligibly about it because the nature of the mess is that it cannot be clearly defined, and in fact incoherent approaches to characterization of the issues may abound. Thus, not talking about it may be the clearest and most honest approach available, but this leaves oneself in a state of mystery where one is exhausted, but cannot say why. Historical and psychological analyses of those involved may also help, but without the grounding in other healthier areas (such that its essentially just an approach of humor/compassion), one may again be led to increasing the problem, rather than improving it.

Living through a mess is difficult because one's faster/more direct analytical facilities are led astray. The one thing that one may do is to constantly remind oneself that one is involved in a mess, think to somewhat more healthy situations, and not push too hard. Put energy into it, notice that it is still a mess, and then recover from that effort, having hopefully pushed things along incrementally such that they will be a bit better then next time you return.

Friday, March 12, 2010

slow processes

I think that watching computer technology develop sometimes is disheartening for us humans.
We watch things go faster and faster, and see any process which once took an hour and a person to help with it, now take a single function call in a high level interpreted programming language, and a few seconds of processor time.

Seeing this, and looking at ourselves, and our own development, its hard not to feel impatient with ourselves. Some things take years, and lots of work, and the progress is still only partial. Things like developing friendships, coming to terms with our past, and finding an appropriate way of life, profession, etc. How do we keep our dignity and allow ourselves our slowness when many things seem to be faster and faster? I think there is some flaw in thinking that devalues something for its slowness. When we have a beautiful tree in the yard providing shade for years, do we put this tree down because it took so long to grow? No, in some sense the time it took to grow adds to its value.

So what is the difference between a tree and a Fourier transform algorithm? I don't think many people would wish that their basic programming tools could run a little slower. We like responsiveness.

How do we defend slowness? Perhaps the point is again back to the question of dominant natural and technological language. This computer age asks us to put all things in terms of algorithms and processes. But our own lives are mysteries in some ways. When we translate this into computer language, we have inevitably left things of value out. In the same way that when we translate into economics language, we also leave things out. Its certainly worth the effort to try to understand why some things are slow, and all of the different things that are involved in the process from an algorithmic perspective, but one should also just accept that the translation is only partial, and slow things of great value exist.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

separation of duties

There have been various times in my life when I've felt "smart". Sometimes this goes along with some context in which others think I understand what is going on. When I realize that in some context I am considered "smart", my usual response is one of something of the sort: "wow, but I am so confused! I know so little!" Now, one might put this down as modesty, and say, no, in fact I know quite a bit and such and such. But to me this dynamic seems to expose something of the structure of knowledge in society (as I have encountered it). There are people who feel they are not so smart and that others have most things figured out, and there are those who realize they don't know very much, but somehow represent structured knowledge to the others. To me this feels like a hoax that doesn't serve either person very well.

Now, this is a caricature, and I wouldn't want to say that it says much about the actual validity of knowledge. I only point out that this is a dynamic that may complicate things when evaluating how much ground a particular area of study actually covers. Consider perhaps a set of different areas of study, each overlapping with the other in some way, and as a whole covering a large amount of ground. Suppose further that the people studying each area take the subject matter in the surrounding areas to be more solid than those actually studying them do themselves (though they may be less forthright about this aspect than they should be). How do we evaluate the total ground covered by the overlap of these different disciplines? I suppose, we need to try to gain a bit of expertise in each of the areas and ignore some of the sociology and build up our own picture of the total ground covered.