Great Philosophers Damned to Hell

April 1 2015.

My neighbor asked me if I thought anything new ever happened in philosophy, or whether, 2500 years after Socrates, all that could be worked out in philosophy had been wrapped up and shipped. Alfred Whitehead came to mind, who wrote in Process and Reality that the entire European philosophical tradition was merely footnotes to Plato. I don’t know what Whitehead meant by this, or for that matter, by the majority of his metaphysical ramblings. I’m no expert, but for my money most of what’s great in philosophy has happened in the last few centuries – including some real gems in the last few decades.

For me, ancient, eastern, and medieval philosophy is merely a preface to Hume. OK, a few of his predecessors deserve a nod – Peter Abelard, Adelard of Bath, and Francis Bacon. But really, David Hume was the first human honest enough to admit that we can’t really know much about anything worth knowing and that our actions are born of custom, not reason. Hume threw a wrench into the works of causation and induction and stopped them cold. Hume could write clearly and concisely. Try his Treatise some time.

Immanuel Kant, in an attempt to reconcile empiricism with rationalism, fought to rescue us from Hume’s skepticism and failed miserably. Kant, often a tad difficult to grasp (“transcendental idealism” actually can make sense once you get his vocabulary), succeeded in opposing every one of his own positions while paving the way for the great steaming heap of German philosophy that reeks to this day.

The core of that heap is, of course, the domain of GWF Hegel, which the more economical Schopenhauer called “pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking.”

Don’t take my word (or Schopenhauer‘s) for it. Read Karl Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy. On second thought, don’t. Just read Imre Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique of Hegel. Better yet, read Paul Feyerabend’s critique of Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique. Of Hegel. Now you’re getting the spirit of philosophy. For every philosopher there is an equal and opposite philosopher. For Kant, they were the same person. For Hegel, the opposite and its referent are both all substance and non-being. Or something like that.

Hegel set out to “make philosophy speak German” and succeeded in making German speak gibberish. Through great effort and remapping your vocabulary you can eventually understand Hegel, at which point you realize what an existential waste that effort has been. But not all of what Hegel wrote was gibberish; some of it was facile politics.

Hegel writes – in the most charitable of translations – that reason “is Substance, as well as Infinite Power; its own Infinite Material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as also the Infinite Form, – that which sets this Material in motion”

I side with the logical positivists, who, despite ultimately crashing into Karl Popper’s brick wall, had the noble cause of making philosophy work like science. The positivists, as seen in writings by AJ Ayer and Hans Reichenbach, thought the words of Hegel simply did no intellectual work. Rudolf Carnap relentlessly mocked Heidegger’s “the nothing itself nothings.” It sounds better in the Nazi philosopher’s own German: “Das Nichts nichtet,” and reveals that Reichenbach could have been more sympathetic in his translation by using nihilates instead of nothings.  The removal of a sentence from its context was unfair, as you can plainly see when it is returned to its native habitat:

In anxiety occurs a shrinking back before … which is surely not any sort of flight but rather a kind of bewildered calm. This “back before” takes its departure from the nothing. The nothing itself does not attract; it is essentially repelling. But this repulsion is itself as such a parting gesture toward beings that are submerging as a whole. This wholly repelling gesture toward beings that are in retreat as a whole, which is the action of the nothing that oppresses Dasein in anxiety, is the essence of the nothing: nihilation. It is neither an annihilation of beings nor does it spring from a negation. Nihilation will not submit to calculation in terms of annihilation and negation. The nothing itself nihilates.

Heidegger goes on like that for 150 pages.

The positivists found fault with philosophers who argued from their armchairs that Einstein could not have been right. Yes, they really did this; and not all of them opposed Einstein’s science just because it was Jewish. The philosophy of the positivists had some real intellectual heft, despite being wrong, more or less. They were consumed not only by causality and determinism, but by the quest for demarcation – the fine line between science and nonsense. They failed. Popper burst their bubble by pointing out that scientific theory selection relied more on absence of disconfirming evidence than on the presence of confirming evidence. Positivism fell victim mainly to its own honest efforts. The insider Willard Van Orman Quine (like Popper), put a nail in positivism’s coffin by showing the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements to be false. Hillary Putnam, killing the now-dead horse, then showed the distinction between “observational” and “theoretical” to be meaningless. Finally, in 1960, Thomas Kuhn showed up in Berkeley with the bomb that the truth conditions for science do not stand independent of their paradigms. I think often and write occasionally on the highly misappropriated Kuhn. He was wrong in all his details and overall one of the rightest men who ever lived.

Before leaving logical positivism, I must mention another hero from its ranks, Carl Hempel. Hempel is best known, at least in scientific circles, for his wonderful illustration of Hume’s problem of induction known as the Raven Paradox.

But I digress. I mainly intended to say that philosophy for me really starts with Hume and some of his contemporaries, like Adam Smith, William Blackstone, Voltaire, Diderot, Moses Mendelssohn, d’Alembert, and Montesquieu.

And to say that 20th century philosophers have still been busy, and have broken new ground. As favorites I’ll cite Quine, Kuhn and Hempel, mentioned above, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty (late works in particular), Hannah Arendt, John Rawls (read about, don’t read – great thinker, tedious writer), Michel Foucault (despite his Hegelian tendencies), Charles Peirce, William James (writes better than his brother), Paul Feyerabend, 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, and the distinguished Simon Blackburn, with whom I’ll finish.

One of Thomas Kuhn’s more controversial concepts is that of incommensurability. He maintained that cross-paradigm argument is futile because members of opposing paradigms do not share a sufficiently common language in which to argue. At best, they lob their words across each other’s bows. This brings to mind a story told by Simon Blackburn at a talk I attended a few years back. It recalls Theodoras and Protagoras against Socrates on truth being absolute vs. relative – if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, it’s still good.

Blackburn said that Lord Jeremy Waldron was attending a think tank session on ethics at Princeton, out of obligation, not fondness for such sessions. As Blackburn recounted Waldron’s experience, Waldron sat on a forum in which representatives of the great religions gave presentations.

First the Buddhist talked of the corruption of life by desire, the eight-fold way, and the path of enlightenment, to which all the panelists said  “Wow, terrific. If that works for you that’s great” and things of the like.

Then the Hindu holy man talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release. And the panelists praised his conviction, applauded and cried ‘Wow, terrific – if it works for you that’s fabulous” and so on.

A Catholic priest then came to the podium, detailing  the message of Christ, the promise of salvation, and the path to eternal life. The panel cheered at his great passion, applauded and cried, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you, great”.

And the priest pounded his fist on the podium and shouted, ‘No! Not a question of whether it works for me! This is the true word of the living God; and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!”

The panel cheered and gave a standing ovation, saying: “Wow! Terrific! If that works for you that’s great”!

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Pure Green Sense

With some sadness I recently received a Notice of Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors signaling the demise of PureSense Environmental, Inc. PureSense was real green – not green paint.

It’s ironic that PureSense was so little known. Environmental charlatans and quacks continue to get venture capital and government grants for businesses built around absurd “green” products debunkable by anyone with knowledge of high school physics. PureSense was nothing like that. Their down-to-earth (literally) concept provides real-time irrigation and agricultural field management with inexpensive hardware and sophisticated software. Their matrix of sensors record soil moisture, salinity, soil temperature and climate data from crop fields every 15 minutes. Doing this eliminates guesswork, optimizing use of electricity, water, and pesticides. Avoiding over- and under-watering maximizes crop yield while minimizing use of resources. It’s a win-win.

But innovation and farming are strange bedfellows. Apparently, farmers didn’t all jump at the opportunity. I did some crop disease modelling work for PureSense a few years back. Their employees told me that a common response to showing farmers that their neighbors had substantially increased yield using PureSense was along the lines of, “we’re doing ok with what we’ve got…” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Not too long ago, farmers who experimented too wildly left no progeny.

The ever fascinating Jethro Tull, inventor of the modern seed drill and many other revolutionary farming gadgets in the early 1700s, was flabbergasted at the reluctance of farmers to adopt his tools and methods. Tull wrote on Soil and Civilization, predicting that future people would have easier lives, since “the Produce of Land Will be Increased, and the Usual Expence Lessened” through a scientific (though that word is an anachronism) approach to agriculture.

The editor of his 2nd edition of his Horse-hoeing Husbandry, Or, An Essay on the Principles of Vegetation and Tillage echoed Tull’s astonishment at farmers’ behavior.

 How it has happened that a Method of Culture which proposes such advantages to those who shall duly prosecute it, hath been so long neglected in this Country, may be matter of Surprize to such as are not acquainted with the Characters of the Men on whom the Practice thereof depends; but to those who know them thoroughly it can be done. For it is certain that very few of them can be prevailed on to alter their usual Methods upon any consideration; though they are convinced that their continuing therein disables them from paying their Rents, and maintaining their Families.

 And, what is still more to be lamented, these People are so much attached to their old Customs, that they are not only averse to alter them themselves, but are moreover industrious to prevent others from succeeding, who attempt to introduce anything new; and indeed have it too generally in their Power, to defeat any Scheme which is not agreeable to their own Notions; seeing it must be executed by the same sort of Hands.

Tull could have predicted PureSense’s demise. I think its employees could have as well. GlassDoor comments suggested that PureSense needed “a more devoted sales staff.” That is likely an understatement given the market. A more creative sales model might be more on the mark. Knowing that farmers, even while wincing at ever-shrinking margins, will cling to their established methods for better or worse, PureSense should perhaps have gotten closer to the culture of farming.

PureSense’s possible failure to tap into farmers’ psyche aside, America’s vulnerability to futuristic technobabble is no doubt a major funding hurdle. You’d think that USDA REAP loan providers  and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants programs would be lining up at their door. But I suspect crop efficiency pales in wow factor compared to a cylindrical tower of solar cells that somehow magically increases the area of sun-facing photovoltaics (hint: Solyndra’s actual efficiency was about 8.5%, a far cry from their claims that got them half a billion from the Obama administration).

Ozzie Zehner nailed this problem in Green Illusions. In his chapter on the alternative-energy fetish, he discusses energy pornographers, the enviro-techno-enthusiasts who jump to spend billions on dubious green tech that yields less benefit than home insulation and proper tire inflation would. Insulation, light rail, and LED lighting isn’t sexy; biofuels, advanced solar, and stratospheric wind turbines are. Jethro Tull would not have been surprised that modern farmers are as resistant to change as those of 17th century Berkshire. But I think he’d be appalled to learn the extent to which modern tech press, business and government line up for physics-defying snake oil while ignoring something as fundamental as agriculture.

As I finished writing this I learned that Jain Irrigation has just acquired the assets of PureSense and has pledged a long-term commitment to the PureSense platform.

Jethro Tull smiles.

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More Philosophy for Engineers

In a post on Richard Feynman and philosophy of science, I suggested that engineers would benefit from a class in philosophy of science. A student recently asked if I meant to say that a course in philosophy would make engineers better at engineering – or better philosophers. Better engineers, I said.

Here’s an example from my recent work as an engineer  that drives the point home.

I was reviewing an FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis) prepared by a high-priced consultancy and encountered many cases where a critical failure mode had been deemed highly improbable on the basis that the FMEA was for a mature system with no known failures.

How many hours of operation has this system actually seen, I asked. The response indicated about 10 thousand hours total.

I said on that basis we could assume a failure rate of about one per 10,001 hours. The direct cost of the failure was about $1.5 million. Thus the “expected value” (or “mathematical expectation” – the probabilistic cost of the loss) of this failure mode in a 160 hour mission is $24,000 or about $300,000 per year (excluding any secondary effects such as damaged reputation). With that number in mind, I asked the client if they wanted to consider further mitigation by adding monitoring circuitry.

I was challenged on the failure rate I used. It was, after all, a mature, ten year old system with no recorded failures of this type.

Here’s where the analytic philosophy course those consultants never took would have been useful.

You simply cannot justify calling a failure mode extremely rare based on evidence that it is at least somewhat rare. All unique events – like the massive rotor failure that took out all three hydraulic systems of a DC-10 in Sioux City – were very rare before they happened.

The authors of the FMEA I was reviewing were using unjustifiable inductive reasoning. Philosopher David Hume debugged this thoroughly in his 1738 A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume concluded that there simply is no rational or deductive basis for  induction, the belief that the future will be like the past.

Hume understood that, despite the lack of justification for induction, betting against the sun rising tomorrow was not a good strategy. But this is a matter of pragmatism, not of rationality. A bet against the sunrise would mean getting behind counter-induction; and there’s no rational justification for that either.

In the case of the failure mode not yet observed, however, there is ample justification for counter-induction. All mechanical parts and all human operations necessarily have nonzero failure or error rates. In the world of failure modeling, the knowledge “known pretty good” does not support the proposition “probably extremely good”, no matter how natural the step between them feels.

Hume’s problem of induction, despite the efforts of Immanuel Kant and the McKinsey consulting firm, has not been solved.

A fabulously entertaining – in my view – expression of the problem of induction was given by philosopher Carl Hempel in 1965.

Hempel observed that we tend to take each new observation of a black crow as incrementally supporting the inductive conclusion that all crows are black. Deductive logic tells us that if a conditional statement is true, its contrapositive is also true, since the statement and its contrapositive are logically equivalent. Thus if all crows are black then all non-black things are non-crow.

It then follows that if each observation of black crows is evidence that all crows are black (compare: each observation of no failure is evidence that no failure will occur), then each observation of a non-black non-crow is also evidence that all crows are black.

Following this line, my red shirt is confirming evidence for the proposition that all crows are black. It’s a hard argument to oppose, but it simply does not “feel” right to most people.

Many try to salvage the situation by suggesting that observing that my shirt is red is in fact evidence that all crows are black, but provides only unimaginably small support to that proposition.

But pushing the thing just a bit further destroys even this attempt at rescuing induction from the clutches of analysis.

If my red shirt gives a tiny bit of evidence that all crows are black, it then also gives equal support to the proposition that all crows are white. After all, my red shirt is a non-white non-crow.

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Design Thinking’s Timely Death

This is a slightly abbreviated repost of a piece by the same name that I posted two years ago today. It was reblogged in a few places, including, oddly, the site of European design school. I was surprised at the high ratio of praise to condemnation this generated. For a thoughtful opposing view, see this piece on the Censemaking blog. Two years later, Design Thinking appears to have the same degree of  promise, the same advocates and detractors, and even more misappropriation and co-opting.


SF MOMA

Design Thinking is getting a new life. We should bury it instead. Here’s why.

Its Humble Origins

In 1979 Bruce Archer, renowned engineer and professor at the Royal College of Art, wrote in a Design Studies paper,

“There exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating, and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry when applied to its own kinds of problems.”

Innocent enough in context, Archer’s statement was likely the impetus for the problematic term, Design Thinking. Archer convincingly argued that design warranted a third fundamental area of education along with science and humanities. The next year Bryan Lawson at University of Sheffield wrote How Designers Think, now in 4th edition. Peter Rowe then authored Design Thinking in the mid 1980s. At that time, design thinking mainly referred to thinking about design and the mental process of designing well. In the mid 1990s, management consultancies, seeking new approaches to sell to clients looking outside their box for a competitive edge, pounced on Design Thinking. Design Thinking then transformed into a conceptual framework, a design-centered management initiative, that deified a narrow subset of people engaged in design – those who defined the shape of products, typically called “designers.”

Bay BridgeThese designers – again, a subset of those Archer was addressing – think differently, Lawson told us. His point was valid. But many professionals – some of them designers – read much more into his observation. Many readers inferred that designers have a special – almost mystical – way of knowing. Designers, suddenly with guru status, were in demand for advisory roles. Design firms didn’t at all mind becoming management consultancies and being put in the position of advising CEOs not only on product definition but on matters ranging from personnel to market segment analysis. It paid well and designers found the view from atop this new pedestal refreshing. But any value that may have existed from teaching “designerly” ways to paper pushers, bean counters and silo builders deflated as Design Thinking was then reshaped into another n-step improvement process by legacy consulting firms.

If you find my summary overly cynical, consider that Bruce Nussbaum, once one of design thinking’s most vocal advocates, calls design thinking a failed experiment. Don Norman, IDEO fellow and former VP of Apple, calls the idea that designers possess some creative thought process above all others in their skills at creative thought “a myth lacking any evidence.” He sees Design Thinking as now being a public relations term aimed at mystifying an ineffective approach to convince business that designers can add value to problems like healthcare, pollution, and organizational dynamics. It’s a term that needs to die, says Norman. Peter Merholz, president of Adaptive Path, calls BusinessWeek’s recent praise of design thinking “fetishistic.” He facetiously suggests that to fix things, you can simply “apply some right-brained turtleneck-wearing ‘creatives,’ ‘ideating’ tons of concepts … out of whole cloth.”

Analysis and Synthesis Again

Misunderstood science contributed to the early days of Design Thinking in the same way that it informed Systems Thinking. As with Systems Thinking, confusion about the relationship between analysis and synthesis was fundamental to the development of Design Thinking. Recall that in science, synthesis is the process of inferring effects from given causes; whereas analysis is the route by which we seek the causes of observed effects. Loosely speaking, using this first definition of synthesis, analysis is the opposite of synthesis. In broader usage synthesis indicates combining components to form something new that has properties not found in its components (we’ll call this definition 2). I’ll touch on the consequence of conflating the two definitions of synthesis below.

In How Designers Think, Lawson performed a famous experiment on two groups, one of architects and one of scientists, involving combining colored blocks to achieve a specified design, where some of rules about block combinations were revealed only by experimentation. The architects did better than the scientists in this test. Lawson repeated the experiment with groups of students just entering educational programs for scientists and architects. Both these groups did poorer than both groups of their trained equivalents. From this experiment Lawson concluded that the educational experience of the different professions caused the difference in thinking styles, while acknowledging that those more adept at thinking in the abstract might be more inclined toward architecture than science.

Lawson concludes that the scientists tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations; i.e., they sought to identify the governing rules. In contrast, the architects, he concluded, aimed directly at achieving the desired result, only replacing blocks when rules emerged to show the attempted arrangement unworkable or disallowed. From these conclusions about why the groups behaved the way he observed them to behave, Lawson secondarily concluded that:

The essential difference between these two strategies is that while the scientists focused their attention on discovering the rule, the architects were obsessed with achieving the desired result. The scientists adopted a generally problem-focused strategy and the architects a solution-focused strategy.

SF MOMALawson’s work is fascinating, and How Designers Think is still a great read 30 years later; but there are huge leaps of inference in his conclusions summarized above. Further, the choice of language is a opportunistic. A simpler reading of the facts (one less reliant on characterizing states of mind of the participants and relying less on semantics) might be that architects are better at building structures (architecting) than are scientists.  A likely cause is that architects are trained to build structures and scientists are not. An experiment involving “design” of a corrosion-resistant steel alloy might well find scientists to be more creative (successful at creating or synthesizing such a result).

Lawson correctly observes that, generally speaking, architects learn about the nature of the problem largely as a result of trying out solutions, whereas scientists set out specifically to study the problem to discover the relevant principles. Presumably, most engineers would fall somewhere between these extremes. While trying out solutions might not be universally applicable (not a good choice for tall buildings, reactors and aircraft) scientists, business managers, and many others too often forget to use the “designerly” approach to challenges – including trying out different solutions early in the game. Further, anyone who has seen corporate analysis-paralysis in action (inaction) can readily see where more architect-style thinking might be useful in many business problems. However, much that has been built on Lawson’s findings cannot bear the weight of real business.

Design – A Remedy for Destructive Science?

In “Designerly Ways of Knowing,” a 1982 paper in Design Studies, Nigel Cross concluded from Lawson’s work that:

These experiments suggest that scientists problem-solve by analysis, whereas designers problem-solve by synthesis.

Cross’s statement – quoted ad nauseum by the worst hucksters of Design Thinking – has several logical problems, especially when removed from its context. First, assuming Lawson’s findings correct, Cross erroneously equates rule discovery (how scientists solve problems) with analysis. Second, it implies that analysis (seeking causes for observed effects) is the opposite not of definition 1 of synthesis above but of definition 2 (building something new out of components). Thus by substitution, the reader infers that building something is the opposite of analyzing something. This position is obviously wrong on logical grounds, yet is deeply engrained in popular thought and in many introductions to Design Thinking.

UntitledThe error is due to choice of language, choice of examples, and semantic equivocation. Analysis of composition differs from analysis of function. Further, analysis of composition can be physical or conceptual. The destructive connotation of analysis only applies when value judgment is attached to physical decomposition. You analyze a frog by dissecting it (murderer!). You analyze a clock by disassembling it – no, by tearing it apart. This wording needlessly condemns the concept of analysis from the start. But what if you analyze the compressive strength of stone by building a tower of stone blocks? Or if you analyze trends by building software. How about analyzing electrical components by building a circuit? And what of Lawson’s architects who analyzed feasibility of certain arrangements of blocks by using a solution-focused strategy. In these examples analysis appears less villainous.

In its original context, Cross’s analysis-synthesis statement – though technically incorrect – makes a point. We gather that architects aim initially for a satisfactory solution, then seek to refine it if possible, rather than on methodical discovery of the parameters of the problem. Despite providing fodder for less thoughtful advocates of Design Thinking, Cross advanced the field  by making a solid case for the value of design education, defending his position that such education develops skills for solving real-world, ill-defined problems, and promotes visual thinking and iconic modes of cognition. It’s unfortunate that his analysis-synthesis quote has been put to such facile use.

For Archer, Lawson, and Cross, Design Thinking was largely about design, design education, and the insights that good design skills bring, such as welcoming new points of view and fresh insights, challenging implicit constraints, and conscious avoidance of stomping on the creative spirit. But Design Thinking after the mid 1990’s set unrealistic goals. It wasn’t just Design Thinking’s reliance on a shaky conception of analysis and synthesis that set it adrift. It was the expansion of scope and the mark left by its corporate usurpers, subjecting the term to endless redefinition and reducing it to jargon. While Tim Brown’s Change by Design does venture fairly far into the realm of corporate renewal, he still tends to keep design on center stage. But in the writings of more ambitious gurus, Design Thinking has strayed far  from its roots. For Thomas Lockwood (Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value) Design Thinking seems a transformation of consciousness that will not only nourish corporate creativity but will cure societal ails, fix the economy and rescue the environment.

1953 Alfa Romeo BAT

Design Tweeting

A recent  WSJ article explains that Design Thinking “uses close, almost anthropological observation of people to gain insight into problems.” Search Twitter for Design Thinking and you’ll find recent tweets from initiates having discovered this cutting edge concept. ” Kick off your week with a new way of thinking: Design Thinking.” Supply chain thought leadership through Design Thinking. “Use design thinking to find the right-fit job.” One advocate proclaims Design Thinking to be the means to overcome emotional resistance to change.

Don Norman is on the mark when he reminds us that radical breakthrough ideas and creative thinking somehow managed to shape history before the advent of Design Thinking. Norman observes, “‘Design Thinking’ is what creative people in all disciplines have always done.” Breakthroughs happen when people find fresh insights, break outmoded rules, and get new perspectives through conscious effort – all without arcane modes of thinking.

Rational Thinking – The Next Old Thing

Design Thinking has lost its focus – and perhaps its mind. The term has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along. This might be the inevitable fate of brands that no one owns (e.g., “Design Thinking”) spawned by innovators, put into the public domain, and hijacked by consultancies that prey on business managers seeking that infusion of quick-transformation magic.

In short, Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking program isn’t likely to do so either.

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Your future is here

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The Onagawa Reactor Non-Meltdown

On March 11, 2011, the strongest earthquake in Japanese recorded history hit Tohuku, leaving about 15,000 dead. The closest nuclear reactor to the quake’s epicenter was the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station operated by Tohoku Electric Power Company. As a result of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that destroyed the town of Onagawa, the Onagawa nuclear facility remained intact and shut itself down safely, without incident. The Onagawa nuclear facility was the vicinity’s only safe evacuation destination. Residents of Onagawa left homeless by the natural disasters sought refuge in the facility, where its workers provided food.

The more famous Fukushima nuclear facility was about twice as far from the earthquake’s epicenter. The tsunami at Fukushima was slightly less severe. Fukushimia experienced three core meltdowns, resulting in evacuation of 300,000 people. The findings of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission have been widely published. They conclude that Fukushima failed to meet the most basic safety requirements, had conducted no valid probabilistic risk assessment, had no provisions for containing damage, and that its regulators operated in a network of corruption, collusion, and nepotism. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Chairman of the commission stated:

THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.

Only by grasping [the mindset of Japanese bureaucracy] can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset that supported it can be found across Japan.

Despite these findings, the world’s response Fukushima has been much more focused on opposition to nuclear power than on opposition to corrupt regulatory government bodies and the cultures that foster them.

Two scholars from USC, Airi Ryu and Najmedin Meshkati, recently published “Why You Haven’t Heard About Onagawa Nuclear Power Station after the Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011,their examination of the contrasting safety mindsets of TEPCO, the firm operating the Fukushima nuclear plant, and Tohoku Electric Power, the firm operating Onagawa.

Ryu and Meshkati reorted vast differences in personal accountability, leadership values, work environments, and approaches to decision-making. Interestingly, they found even Tohuko Electric to be weak in setting up an environment where concerns could be raised and where an attitude of questioning authority was encouraged. Nevertheless, TEPCO was far inferior to Tohoku Electric in all other safety culture traits.

Their report is worth a read for anyone interested in the value of creating a culture of risk management and the need for regulatory bodies to develop non-adversarial relationships with the industries they oversee, something I discussed in a recent post on risk management.

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Incommensurability and the Design-Engineering Gap

Those who conceptualize products – particularly software – often have the unpleasant task of explaining their conceptual gems to unimaginative, sanctimonious engineers entrenched in the analytic mire of in-the-box thinking. This communication directs the engineers to do some plumbing and flip a few switches that get the concept to its intended audience or market… Or, at least, this is how many engineers think they are viewed by designers.
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Truth is, engineers and creative designers really don’t speak the same language. This is more than just a joke. Many posts here involve philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability between scientific paradigms also fits the design-engineering gap well. Those who claim the label, designers, believe design to be a highly creative, open-ended process with no right answer. Many engineers, conversely, understand design – at least within their discipline – to mean a systematic selection of components progressively integrated into an overall system, guided by business constraints and the laws of nature and reason. Disagreement on the meaning of design is just the start of the conflict.

Kuhn concluded that the lexicon of a discipline constrains the problem space and conceptual universe of that discipline. I.e., there is no fundamental theory of meaning that applies across paradigms. The meaning of expressions inside a paradigm comply only with the rules of that paradigm.  Says Kuhn, “Conceptually, the world is our representation of our niche, the residence of the particular human community with whose members we are currently interacting” (The Road Since Structure, 1993, p. 103). Kuhn was criticized for exaggerating the extent to which a community’s vocabulary and word usage constrains the thoughts they are able to think. Kuhn saw this condition as self-perpetuating, since the discipline’s constrained thoughts then eliminate any need for expansion of its lexicon. Kuhn may have overplayed his hand on incommensurability, but you wouldn’t know it from some software-project kickoff meetings I’ve attended.

This short sketch, The Expert, written and directed by Lauris Beinerts, portrays design-engineering incommensurability from the perspective of the sole engineer in a preliminary design meeting.

See also: Debbie Downer Doesn’t Do Design

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Arianna Huffington, Wisdom, and Stoicism 1.0

Arianna HuffingtonArianna Huffington spoke at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last week. Interviewed by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, Huffington spoke mainly on topics in her recently published Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. 2500 attendees packed Davies Symphony Hall. Several of us were men. 

Huffington began with the story of her wake-up call to the idea that success is killing us. She told of collapsing from exhaustion, hitting the corner of her desk on the way down, gashing her forehead and breaking her cheek bone.

She later realized that “by any sane definition of success, if you are lying in a pool of blood on the floor of your office you’re not a success.”

After this epiphany Huffington began an inquiry into the meaning of success. The first big change was realizing that she needed much more sleep. She joked that she now advises women to sleep their way to the top. Sleep is a wonder drug.

Her reexamination of success also included personal values. She referred to ancient philosophers who asked what is a good life. She explicitly identified her current doctrine with that of the Stoics (not to be confused with modern use of the term stoic). “Put joy back in our everyday lives,” she says. She finds that we have shrunken the definition of success down to money and power, and now we need to expand it again. Each of us needs to define success by our own criteria, hence the name of her latest book. The third metric in her book’s title includes focus on well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.

Refreshingly (for me at least) Huffington drew repeatedly on ancient western philosophy, mostly that of the Stoics. In keeping with the Stoic style, her pearls often seem self-evident only after the fact:

“The essence of what we are is greater than whatever we are in the world.” 

Take risk. See failure as part of the journey, not the opposite of success. (paraphrased) 

I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself. 

“We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we’re actually writing it all the time, every day.” 

“It’s not ‘What do I want to do?’, it’s ‘What kind of life do I want to have?” 

“Being connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us, including ourselves.” 

“‘My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.'” (citing Montaigne)

Marcus AureliusAs you’d expect, Huffington and Sandberg suggested that male-dominated corporate culture betrays a dearth of several of the qualities embodied in Huffington’s third metric. Huffington said the most popular book among CEOs is the Chinese military treatise, The Art of War. She said CEOs might do better to read children’s books like Silverstein’s The Giving Tree or maybe Make Way for Ducklings. Fair enough; there are no female Bernie Madoffs.

I was pleasantly surprised by Huffington. I found her earlier environmental pronouncements to be poorly conceived. But in this talk on success, wisdom, and values, she shone. Huffington plays the part of a Stoic well, though some of the audience seemed to judge her more of a sophist. One attendee asked her if she really believed that living the life she identified in Thrive could have possibly led to her current success. Huffington replied yes, of course, adding that she, like Bill Clinton, found they’d made all their biggest mistakes while tired.

Huffington’s quotes above align well with the ancients. Consider these from Marcus Aurelius, one of the last of the great Stoics:

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. 

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. 

Confine yourself to the present.

 Be content to seem what you really are. 

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

I particularly enjoyed Huffington’s association of sense-of-now, inner calm, and wisdom with Stoicism, rather than, as is common in Silicon Valley, with a misinformed and fetishized understanding of Buddhism. Further, her fare was free of the intellectualization of mysticism that’s starting to plague Wisdom 2.0. It was a great performance.

 

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Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent. - Epictetus

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