Saturday, April 22, 2017

Walking the Lines



I recently became interested in turning bad ideas into good ones after listening to Reflection as a Service. At around that time I was flicking through the references in Weinberg on Writing - I forget what for - when I spotted a note about Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams:
A classic work on problem solving that identifies some of the major blocks - intellectual, emotional, social, and cultural - that interfere with ideation and design.
I went looking for that book and found Adams' web site and a blog post where he was talking about another of his books, Good Products Bad Products:
For many (60?) years I have been interested in what makes some products of industry "good", and others "bad". I have been involved in designing them, making them, selling them, buying them, and using them.  I guess I wanted to say some things about product quality that I think do not receive as much attention as they should by people who make them and buy them
I hadn't long finished The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman but didn't recall much discussion of quality in it. I checked my notes, and the posts (1, 2) I wrote about the book, and found that none of them mention quality either.

I'm interested in quality, generally. And my company builds products. And Adams is saying that he has a perspective that is underappreciated. And he comes recommended by an author I respect. And so I ordered the book.

Shortly after I'd started reading it I was asked to review a book by Rich Rogers. Some of the material in Good Products Bad Products was relevant to it: some overlapping concepts, some agreement, and some differences. I don't think it played a major part in the *ahem* quality of my review, but I can say that I was able to offer different, I hope useful, feedback because of what I'd read elsewhere, but only been exposed to by a series of coincidences and choices.

I continue to be fascinated by chains of connections like these. But I'm also fascinated by the idea that there are many more connections that I could have made but never did, and also that by chasing the connections that I chose to, I never got some information that would allow me to make yet further connections. As I write this sentence, other ideas are spilling out. In fact, I stopped writing that sentence in order to note them down at the bottom of the document I'm working in.

In Weinberg on Writing there's a lot of talk about the collection and curation of fieldstones, Weinberg's term for the ideas that seed pieces of writing. Sometimes, for me, that process is like crawling blind through a swamp - the paucity of solid rock and the difficulty of finding it and holding on to it seems insurmountable. But sometimes it's more like a brick factory running at full tilt on little more than air. A wisp of raw materials is fed in and pallets full of blocks pour out of the other end.

Here's a couple of the thoughts I noted down a minute ago, expanded:

Making connections repeatedly reinforces those connections. And there's a risk of thinking becoming insular because of that. How can I give myself a sporting chance of making new connections to unfamiliar material? Deliberately, consciously seeking out and choosing unfamiliar material is one way. This week I went to a talk, Why Easter is good news for scientists, at the invitation of one of my colleagues. I am an atheist, but I enjoy listening to people who know their stuff and who have a passion for it, having my views challenged and being exposed to an alternative perspective.

It's also a chance to practice my critical thinking. To give one example: the speaker made an argument that involved background knowledge that I don't have and can't contest: that there are Roman records of a man called Jesus, alive at the right kind of time, and crucified by Pontius Pilate. But, interestingly, I can form a view of the strength of his case by the fact that he didn't cite Roman records of the resurrection itself. Michael Shermer makes a similar point in How Might a Scientist Think about the Resurrection?

Without this talk, at this time, I would not have had these thoughts, not have searched online and come across Shermer (who I was unfamiliar with but now interested in), and not have thought about the idea that absence of cited evidence can be evidence of absence of evidence to cite (to complicate a common refrain).

I am interested in the opportunity cost of pursuing one line of interest vs another. In the hour that I spent at the talk (my dinner hour, as it happens) I could have been doing something else (I'd usually be walking round the Science Park listening to a podcast) and would perhaps have found other interesting connections from that.

Another concept often associated with cost is benefit. any connections I make now might have immediate benefit, later benefit or no benefit. Similarly, any information I consume now might facilitate immediate connections, later connections or no connections ever.

Which connects all of this back to the beauty and the pain of our line of work. In a quest to provide evidence about the "goodness" or "badness" of some product (whatever that means, and with apologies to James Adams it'll have to be another blog post now) we follow certain lines of enquiry and so naturally don't follow others.

It's my instinct and experience that exposing myself to challenge, reading widely, and not standing still helps me when choosing lines of enquiry and when choosing to quit lines of enquiry. But I may just not have sufficient evidence to the contrary. Yet ...
Image: Wikipedia

Edit: I wrote a review of Good Products Bad Products later.

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