Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reading :: The Wealth of Nations

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
By Adam Smith

The above link is (perhaps ironically) to the free Kindle version of Adam Smith's classic. Unfortunately, Smith can't catch a break. Marx ridiculed him for his comparatively thin insights. Schumpeter did the same. If he can't get respect from the socialists or the capitalists, where is he going to get it?

But of course being cited itself is a form of respect. And anyone who seeks to understand capitalism eventually has to cite Adam Smith, whose 1776 treatise systematically examined the market economy in Industrial England. Smith systematically examines the division of labor in industrial work ("not originally the effect of any human wisdom"); legitimizes the motive of gain as driving the economy ("We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love"); recognizes the market as a self-organizing system; takes labor as "the only universal, as well as the only accurate, measure of value" (cf. Marx); and describes the law of supply and demand. He argues that the division of labor is a hallmark of developed societies and less known in primitive ones (cf. Engels but also Durkheim). He theorizes wealth and the role of governments in developing it, including the impact of taxes. And he backs up his points with extensive (and sometimes mind-numbing) statistics.

This is a short review because (a) I'm not an economist and (b) I've read and reviewed authors who responded to Smith's ideas. But that doesn't mean this is an unimportant book—it's enormously influential and well worth reading. Or at least skimming.

Reading :: Anti-Duehring

By Friedrich Engels

The link above goes (again) to the Kindle collection of works by Marx & Engels. But you can easily find Anti-Duehring by itself in both Kindle and print (sometimes listed as Anti-Dühring). This famous book, first published in 1878, is meant as a response to "Dr. Eugene Duehring, privat docent at Berlin University" (see translator's introduction), who publicly announced that he had "converted" to socialism but described a socialism different from Marx and Engels' vision. But Anti-Duehring has also been described as Engels' major work on Marxist theory. It was deeply influential to the young A.R. Luria as he developed his ideas of a Marxist psychology. Its last chapter was republished with some modifications as the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

It's also hard to read. Not because it is especially challenging material—Engels didn't write especially challenging books, in my opinion—but because the tone is unrelentingly polemic and sarcastic. It's like reading a YouTube comments section.

It has often crossed my mind that the sneering, sniping style Engels uses here became the model for Lenin, who passed it on to Ilyenkov. (Stalin's style was less sneering and more autocratic, perhaps reflecting the two men's different political positions at the time they wrote their books.) I tend to read performative contempt as a compensation for weakness, so I had trouble evaluating the argument on its merits.

The argument itself, though, expands dialectic by applying it to the natural world and making it a natural law, just as Dialectics of Nature did. Engels argues, as Ilyenkov later did, that contradictions seem impossible in traditional logic because traditional logic doesn't take change into account (Ch.7): "motion is just the continuous establishing and dissolving the contradiction" [sic]. It is this argument, more fully developed in Dialectics of Nature, and the companion argument that religion will die a natural death, more fully developed in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, that make Anti-Duehring an important book. But those other books spare you the constant invective. I suggest reading them first.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

(failure is like poison)

Here's something I told my class the other day.

People don't like failure. They see it as a bad thing. And it can be. It can be terrible. If you let it.

I think of failure as similar to ingesting poison. On the face of it, it seems like a catastrophically bad idea. And we desperately want to avoid it. Who in their right mind would willingly drink poison?

But, honestly, many of us do choose to drink poison. Alcohol is quite literally a poison. But many of us choose to drink it, and some even pay a great deal of money for the privilege. The important principle is not to drink too much of it.

Let's extend this analogy a bit. Let's suppose you buy a big bottle of vodka (I'm not advocating this, but for the sake of discussion, suppose you do this.) It's late September. You decide that by the end of the year, you're going to have finished the bottle.

You can handle this in at least two ways.

One way is to take a shot or two every evening. A shot or two of this poison won't do much—it may warm you up, make you a little more relaxed and euphoric. It may actually help you in a social situation such as a party or karaoke. You probably won't even have a hangover the next day.

Another way is to wait until New Year's Eve—and drink the entire bottle. That will be a less pleasant experience, and you may not even survive it.

The first way represents small, recoverable errors. Low-stakes failures from which you have plenty of chance to recover.

The second way represents a big, single point of failure. It's high-stakes, and you may have no way to recover from it.

Now apply this to the things you need to do. If you're a student, that may mean drafting papers and projects. If you're an academic, that may mean publishing so you can get tenure. If you're an entrepreneur, it may mean developing your idea so it can find buyers.

In any of these cases, you should build in multiple points at which you can make small errors: low-stakes failures from which you have plenty of chance to recover. Take a couple of small shots every day. You might even look forward to these small failures, and they may make you feel more relaxed, euphoric, and sociable. Each small failure gives you feedback and helps you to better understand a path to success.

The fewer points of failure you have, the larger the dose of poison is, and the harder it will be to recover from it. And if you wait until the very end—you write the paper the night before it's due, you keep putting finishing touches on that journal article, you wait until your innovation is perfect before you share it with the world—then you're looking at a high-stakes situation with a high potential for failure and no margin to recover.

So: Get out there, fail early and often, but in small ways. Understand each failure as a piece of feedback that can help you succeed. Seek criticism and use it to strengthen what you do.

And that is what people mean when they say "fail faster."

(perfectionists and pragmatists)

Here's something I told my class a couple of weeks ago.

Here are two strategies for getting things done: perfectionism and pragmatism.

Perfectionism involves trying to make things perfect. Pragmatism involves trying to make things good enough.

Perfectionists tend to thrive when approaching a project with specific, clearly measurable criteria, a well-defined timeline, and a clearly defined end state. They have to know what and where the target is so that they can hit it. They look for clear rules and play by those rules. And they get upset if rules, timelines, or criteria change.

Perfectionists thus tend to do pretty well during the first couple of years of college, which involve these sorts of well-defined projects. In fact, they tend to hold instructors to what they have said when assigning these projects. That is, they try to control circumstances so that the strategy works. No moving targets.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a brittle strategy. Because it relies on an unchanging end state and criteria—that is, an unmoving target—it is not a good strategy to apply to ill-defined, emergent problems with unclear timelines and open possibilities; complex interdisciplinary problems; problems that require tradeoffs and compromises; problems with undefined end states; problems that are not amenable to control.

These problems are the ones we tend to encounter in advanced studies, say, in the second couple of years of college. They are also the kinds of problems we encounter in collaborative work, in entrepreneurial work, and in work that involves discovery. That is, these problems characterize knowledge work, as I discuss in detail in All Edge.

Those problems are more tractable to a second strategy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism is a resilient strategy. It recognizes that some problems—perhaps most problems—have no perfect solution. Instead, pragmatism aims at solutions that are good enough, solutions that satisfy (or satisfice) a number of different stakeholders. In a pragmatic view, the target is not out there, already defined; part of the project involves making the target and tracking it as it moves, changes nature, changes in scope.

Since perfectionism works so well in the first couple of years of college, it's easy for students to think of it as the correct strategy. It's easy for them to begin thinking that there's an underlying social contract that all tasks should be clearly defined, and if they aren't, someone is being a bad actor. But since most problems are not like that, and since the assumed social contract doesn't actually exist beyond the walls of defined hierarchies, this strategy tends to fail—and sometimes fail spectacularly.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, often looks like slacking or halfheartedness during the first two years of college. Its value is often not seen until later, when students desperately need that strategy to make real contributions, ones that involve creativity, emergence, and multiple stakeholders.

We need to make the benefits of pragmatism plainer, and we need to teach the tools and practices that make pragmatism work. Doing so will help people—especially our college graduates—become well equipped to realize those benefits. Perfectionism is maladapted for an all-edge, networked world; pragmatism is the essence of that world.