On Friday afternoons a few of us would meet mostly to talk about ideas. A playground to frame and test ideas involving a small number of people who knew each other well. At one point there was discussion on changes in the government's support of corn based ethanol production. Sorting out the relative carbon footprint change turns out to be devilishly tricky and it was clear politics was a huge driver, but there is a more fundamental question: how efficient is the process - can it scale?
It turns out the deeper question is easy to answer. I came up with a few ways to approach within a few minutes and another participant did the same with slightly different approaches. These good enough back of the envelope calculations - known as Fermi calculations to physicists - were core to our playground.1 Questions are much more important than answers in these playgrounds, but quick and dirty answers are also important providing a bit of testing and direction.
In the past few years much has been made of the positive side of failure, but mostly by a few unusual organizations and in TED talks. The word has a variety of meanings and some context needs to be set. It is usually set against success, but then you need to worry about another loaded word. The right approach is to begin with definitions that a community can accept - something Horace does well in his work at Asymco. Regular readers probably notice that I try to establish definitions of terms like play, serendipity, creativity, ignorance and others. These sometimes aren't the standard definitions, but a foundation is necessary.
Regular language does not have its roots in critical thinking, yet we use it as a powerful tool for very complex ideas. In science, and probably many other disciplines, there are two glaring imperfections. First is incompleteness. Many concepts lack simple words that paint an accurate picture for a non-specialist. Quantum mechanics is extremely difficult to describe outside of mathematical physics. It is an excellent description of how Nature works at a tiny scale, but alien to most people. We end up with jargon like entanglement, superposition, and wavefunction collapse. Jaron that fuels the problem of communicating science to non-scientists. The problem is sometimes attacked with the use of visual representations like videos, but the result is usually unsatisfying at the specialist level.
The second language problem is more fundamental and perhaps more insidious. Rather than being incomplete, sometimes words are too complete. When something has a name we associate it with a concept or object that is real. But the naming may not be entirely accurate. Now you are trapped in a framework that can make it difficult to 'think outside the box'. As it happens Einstein confronted this trap.
As he worked out the special theory of relatively, Einstein ran into problems with the notion of a universal 'now'. He wrote:
"All attempts to clarify this paradox satisfactorily were condemned to failure as long as the axiom of the absolute character of times, viz., of simultaneity, unrecognizably was anchored in the unconscious. Clearly to recognize this axiom and its arbitrary character really implies already the solution of the problem.”2
His wonderful 1905 paper that gave us special relativity illustrates the paradox with the solution that required abandoning the notion of a universal 'now'. The result of breaking through created a revolution in physics. But the familiar concept of 'now' was no longer useful or relevant in physics. A similar case can be made for the concept of 'here' in quantum mechanics.
Incompleteness and overcompleteness are tough problems. When working at depth you need to be aware of them. You need to be skeptical and ask a lot of questions - hopefully good questions when you are trying to probe deeply and particularly when starting a careful investigation.
This is some background for thinking about success and failure. Success is one of those fluffy words that needs contextual definition. Generally we think we know what it means, but I find that many of the ideas of what success is are the product of ideas that are not our own. It is often defined by other people, amplified by advertising, consumption, expectation and other social constructs. It is necessary to have an idea of what it is, but it should be your own.
Success strikes me as a time based victory. There are several components, but an element of chance is often involved. Sports may be a good analogy. You can have several terrific teams in a tournament, but frequently ultimate success does not come to the team with the most skill and effort. I prefer the term mastery.
Mastery strikes me as a long journey to an unreachable goal. It goes beyond the simple can define a life and sometimes an organization. It requires discipline but isn't perfectionism as the journey is more important than the destination. I'm greatly impressed by a few masters I've encountered, but none would consider themselves a master.
Play is essential to my work and composed of actions that involve little successes and failures that hopefully allow me to hone my questions. In the end my goal is to ask more meaningful questions - the questions that lead to deeper questions. It is a long and sometimes difficult path, but it has been rewarding over time. It isn't deep enough to be a mastery, but a solid foundation is often required.
Speaking of sports, there are more than a few interesting parallels that illustrate mastery, but also ask some rather deep questions of our perception of reality, but that will have to wait for a future post.
1 Fermi calculations are in honor of Enrico Fermi who had a legendary knack for asking the centrally important questions to difficult problems. The questions were often phrased in such a way that it was nearly trivial to come up with a numerical estimate.
2 Einstein “Autobiographical notes” in Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist (ed. Schilpp, P.)
Homemade ice cream is one of the best ways to spend Summer evenings. Sitting out on the lawn watching the fireflies with a bowl of frozen goodness.
Raspberry Ice Cream
° 1 pt fresh raspberries (or mostly thawed frozen if out of season)
° 2 large pasteurized eggs (this is a raw egg recipe, so only use pasteurized eggs!)
° 1-1/2 cup white cane sugar
° 1/2 lemon
° 1 cup whole milk
° Toss the raspberries, half of the sugar with the juice of the lemon in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours (the goal is to get it as chilled as possible without freezing. Getting down to below 38°F is ok if you have a refrigerator thermometer)
° Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy, slowly whisk in the remaining sugar and continue whisking for another minute or so until completely blended.
° Add the cream and milk and whisk to blend.
° Puree the raspberries and stir into the cream mixture.
° Churn freeze as per your ice cream freezer's instructions.
(photo of a friend helping out with a similar batch a few years ago)