Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rules Schmules

There is a joke among business consultants that when you go into an organization, figure out if they are a top down organization where decisions flow from above, or a bottoms up organization where individual units have a great deal of autonomy. If a business is top down you recommend it become more bottoms up so that individual units can understand and respond to the marketplace more quickly. If it is bottoms up you recommend that it become more top down to avoid chaotic redundancy and lack of focus.

There is a lot of truth in this. There is no ideal organization. Every organizational structure has problems. Over time, organizations tend to oscillate between structures based on the current set of problems. The same is true in other aspects of life. Should dictionaries be descriptive or prescriptive? How much freedom should parents allow their children?

This note is about the balance between individual freedom and enforced order. Based on what I see in the United States, I think the pendulum has swung too far toward order and it is time to move toward more freedom of action. I think the current situation is largely based on unreasonable fears combined with a desire to make the world safer for ourselves and our children. The end result is not a safer society, but a society with less freedom and more rigidity of thought.

I think the current situation is based on widespread misunderstanding of humans and their capabilities. As a species we are remarkable in our ability to exist in social groups and to flexibly react to each other and the environment. Despite the fact that we are capable of unspeakable cruelty, on the whole we are extremely kind and cooperative with each other. We are also protective, particularly of the most vulnerable among us. I do not deny the atrocities and cruelty, the scams, the sociopathic behavior of both individuals and groups. I merely say that these are anomalies. Bad behavior makes the news and becomes a focus of our thoughts precisely because it is uncommon in a stable society like the US.

As individuals we also misunderstand risk and emotionally overreact to perceived danger. Lately Hans Monderman has been in the news. For example, Wired Magazine. Monderman was a Dutch traffic engineer who died in January 2008. Monderman improved safety by removing traffic controls. That's right, he removed speed limit and other traffic signs and signals to make the roads safer. At a busy intersection there is nothing to segregate pedestrian, bicycle, auto and truck traffic. He has a stunt to prove his point to reporters. I have seen several separate reports on this, but from the wired article:

We drive on to another project Monderman designed, this one in the nearby village of Oosterwolde. What was once a conventional road junction with traffic lights has been turned into something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. About 5,000 cars pass through the square each day, with no serious accidents since the redesign in 1999. "To my mind, there is one crucial test of a design such as this," Monderman says. "Here, I will show you." With that, Monderman tucks his hands behind his back and begins to walk into the square - backward - straight into traffic, without being able to see oncoming vehicles. A stream of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians ease around him, instinctively yielding to a man with the courage of his convictions.

From the International Tribune.

"Who has the right of way?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains."

When asked, people who use these uncontrolled intersections say they are not safe, despite the statistics to the contrary. The fact that people do not feel as safe, as controlled, leads them to be more careful. Take off the explicit controls and people use their own judgment to behave in ways that increase safety rather than the perception of safety.

We have allowed our fears to distort our behavior and our society in ways that I find unacceptable. One example of this is the way we treat our children. As a seven or eight year old child I had large amounts of time that were unsupervised. My mother had a bell to call us in for dinner. As long as I was within earshot of the bell at that time, I could do what I wanted. When I got my first bicycle at about the age of seven, my world expanded and I was allowed to roam at will as long as I was home at designated times. Because our family was a large tribe I had more freedom than most, but I was not alone. At Halloween groups of children, without parental accompaniment, roamed miles from their homes to scour the best neighborhoods for candy. Neighborhood children organized their own games without supervision.

The United States has changed, but it has not become less safe. I do not believe that the rate of child kidnapping or abuse by strangers has increased. There is more traffic, but I do not believe that our neighborhoods present more dangers. What has changed is the level of fear. We have institutionalized the belief that the world is unsafe and children cannot be trusted to operate without constant supervision. As a result, elementary school children are not allowed to walk a quarter mile to school by themselves. Because parents believe that children can never be left alone, activities outside of school are supervised and, as a result, expensive. The constant supervision also diminishes the development of conflict resolution skills. I am not saying that adults should not look out for children. To the contrary, each of us has a responsibility to keep everyone around us safe, especially the young and defenseless. The world is unsafe. Children do not understand much of what is going on around them. But it is safe enough and we are here to help them.

The same attitudes and fears have helped turn children into incipient economic units. The current school debates focus on more time in school and more controlled school environments. This regimentation devalues the children and, in the long run, will hurt us economically. The genius of the American economy is our flexibility and inventiveness. As we become more regimented, as children's education become more standardized, I believe we lose that flexibility and inventiveness.

I recognize that I am neither typical nor a role model. In a sense that is my point. Few of us are typical. Only a few people think I am stupid or incompetent. I do well in a field that requires both constant education and inventiveness. I consider myself to be reasonably well educated. I also didn't do homework until I entered the university. Homework was assigned, I just never did it. My grades through high school were spotty, but performance on tests seemed to overrule the bad homework grades. As far as I know, no one ever considered holding me back. Based on college entrance tests, I was admitted to the university after my junior year in high school.

In junior high school instead doing my homework, I was reading a book a day. I read all the science fiction, "boy in the country", and biographies in the school library. In high school I was reading the daily newspaper, two to three weekly news magazines, and several monthly magazines including Scientific American and the Atlantic Monthly (it used to be a monthly). I also studied mathematics on my own. Had I spent more supervised time in school or had more structured after school activities, I would not have had time to get my real education. Looking back, I think I could have benefited from better schools. By better schools I mean those populated by more educated, and flexible teachers. I do not believe I would have benefited by more structure or more hours in school.

As a society we seem to have grown more and more rule bound. By rule bound I mean respecting and enforcing rules without looking at the sense of the situation. I have always followed Bob Dylan's dictum "To live outside the law you must be honest". A simple example from my masters swim group. We rent lanes at one of the pools in town. In addition to the pool life guards, we provide our own coach on the deck. The lifeguards and pool administration have recently gotten upset because some of our swimmers did not enter the pool feet first as the rules require. This is an experienced group of swimmers, many of them competitive. In my several years of swimming with the group, I have not seen a dangerous entry into the pool. The lifeguards either have no idea what is dangerous, have no idea why the rule exists, or are simply complaining about infractions for the sake of the rule itself.

As Monderman's practical experiments with traffic show us, posting and enforcing rules does not always make us safer. We are at our best when we take the time and effort to understand and respond to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Rules are a means to an end, not the end itself. The valid reasons behind the rules should be obeyed and enforced. If a rule is about safety and you are in a position to enforce, enforce safety not the rule. This is not a slide down a slippery slope toward anarchy. It is a slide down the slope toward respect and humanity. As with all things, you must do this intelligently and with awareness of your own limitations. Don't let your like or dislike of a person cause you to abuse your power and selectively enforce the rules.

If you are in a position to make rules, make sure that you are addressing a real problem, not the perception of a problem. Do not make rules in the mistaken belief that you can enforce conflict out of existence (the homeowners association fallacy). In work environments, try not to rigidly enforce standard practice at the expense of better solutions.

In our day to day lives each of us should remember the old saying, "People who like sausage and respect the law should never watch either of them being made". Rigid order is both impossible and overrated. Do the right thing. Help and protect those around you. This has nothing to do with rules, it has to do with humanity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Following Politics Too Closely Makes You Stupid

I'm reading (and recommend) "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. As with his preceding book, "Fooled by Randomness" it deals in part with human limitations in predicting the future and, in particular, our inability to judge risk.

One of his themes is what others call the pull of narrative. As a species we like a nice story and we also wonder what happens next. It doesn't seem to matter how banal the story is (gossip or business plans) or how outlandish (soap operas or business plans). We are drawn in. Something is being shown or explained. We want to understand how the pieces fit together and to imagine what happens next. One of Taleb's points is that the narratives we see and invent for the world around us are not only false, they also lead us astray and cause us to miss what is actually occurring. A black swan is something that we do not see coming, but seems obvious once it has occurred and we create an appropriate narrative. The current financial meltdowns are a case in point. We will be paying for the debacle for generations. While the seeds were being sown many smart, and sometimes well intentioned, people gave us a story about how the financial instruments at the base of the crisis reduced risk. Now that credit markets are freezing, we have new stories that tell how greedy people acted blindly and exposed everyone to grave risks.

In political discourse the same human foibles apply and are even magnified. Every side is selling a story. The vehicle for the story is mostly TV and radio through ads and news stories. Each installment of the story must be communicated in about thirty seconds. Very occasionally a full minute can be used. Because the audience only observes intermittently, each installment must be repeated many times to make sure everyone keeps up. This is one of the origins of "talking points". Consistent messages are easier to remember. Constant repetition makes it more likely the message will be heard, and more likely the ideas will be accepted at face value (everyone is saying it). This leads to a slow accretion of fragments that fit into a consistent theme or story that the proponent hopes is persuasive.

In an odd way, the fragmentary delivery of political messages makes them more effective. Like the next installment of a soap opera, new talking points fill in a missing piece and lead us to wonder what is next. The abbreviated format force reduction of the message to slogans and codewords that mean more than the actual statement. These not only reinforce the story, they act as cheers to emotionally charge supporters who have accepted the truth of the underlying message. All sides engage in this but, in the United States, conservatives have been much more effective at this style of communication. They just have better slogans. There are keywords like "liberal" and phrases like "tax and spend". They are even better at adjectives. One recent ad talked about an opponent supporting "massive government", which has succeeded the epithet "big government". Each of these keys on a part of a larger narrative. Political narratives have existed for as long as the human race, but the modern form is based on commercial advertising and uses all the tools and techniques of that craft including testing and focus groups.

Political communication has been simplified to mere advertising, but the problems we face are not simple. There is essentially nothing that can be learned about a complex situation in thirty seconds. Regardless of the party or position, every ad you listen too is misleading. The same is true of the news stories. Simplified communication can communicate at most first order forces. Complex situations are often the result of many different forces, some of them quite removed from the obvious.

I take one ad,, as an example, not because there is anything special about it, but because there isn't anything special. It typifies the level of discourse. It happens to come out of the Republican camp. The ad shows gas prices going up, "the US has more oil resources than Saudi Arabia" but "85% of it is off limits" and the opposing candidate "voted against development of American energy".

The first level of skepticism should be the facts presented. Anyone who works with numbers about the real world knows how difficult it is to get valid numbers and that the numbers are usually based on simplifying assumptions. The statement that the US has more oil resources than Saudi Arabia presumes that we have a good idea about what those reserves are. For both the US and Saudi Arabia, we do not know about the reserves. Some of this is genuine ignorance (we haven't looked), some of it is global politics (the Saudi's have every reason to lie). It also depends on what you mean by "reserve". Does oil shale in Colorado count the same way as a typical Saudi oil field?

Moving past the "facts" we get to the implied world view. Implied is the notion that gasoline and oil are synonymous with energy and that lower gas prices are good public policy. Beyond that is the notion that opening the 85% of reserves that are off limits will reduce the price of Gasoline. None of these are particularly good assumptions for reasons that would take more than thirty seconds to explain.

After hearing a typical political ad or even candidate speech, you are actually more ignorant than you were before. You have been deliberately deceived and your emotions played upon to accept a world view that is questionable and policies that, if you investigated further, you might very well disagree with.

What to do then? Try to get real information. On the whole, books are much more valuable than any kind of daily/weekly/monthly news. But recognize that books can be commissioned as propaganda as easily as many other things. Trust authors who examine the situation dispassionately and who genuinely research all sides. If you are interested in oil, do not start with anything political. Instead, read science articles on exploration and estimation. On most subjects it is best to get a good grounding in the state of the information and its limitations, then move to issues of policy. At least you will recognize the blatant distortions.

Policy has to do with where we are and what we want for ourselves and the world. In terms of policy, it is not enough to have an intent, we must also examine the risks, the likelihood of failure, and strategies that have worked and failed in the past. Because each of us is in a different situation, wants different things, and weighs choices differently, your judgements on policy and tactics will differ from your neighbors.

If you do all this, you will be as well informed as you can. You will also be wrong on basic issues. The way you think the world works will be incorrect. There is no avoiding this. The world is a complicated place. We just do the best we can.