This is Part 5 of 5, the last of the Map Rock Problem Statement series. Part 4 closed with a discussion on the limitations of logic, in particular how the quality of our decisions are limited to whatever information we have available to us. No matter how smart we are, what we know is a drop in the bucket. We’ll often encounter situations for which an answer “does not compute” due to this imperfect information. I close this series with a short essay on Imagination. The previous installments can be viewed here:
- Part 1 – Preface to the 5-part series.
- Part 2 – I describe Map Rock’s target audience and the primary business scenario for Version 1. It is not just a tool for quants, wonks, and power-users.
- Part 3 – We delve into a high-level description of the Map Rock software application, where it fits in the current BI framework, and how it differentiates from existing and emerging technologies. This is really the meat of the series.
- Part 4 – We explore strategy, complexity, competition, and the limitations of logic.
Imagination, the Key to Human Success
The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. That is the thinker’s equivalent of the “Serenity Prayer”. I try to remember that every day, but often fail to in the heat of troubleshooting a brainteaser of a bug or performance issue in my applications. My Western, Aristotelian, reductionist science upbringing naturally forces me towards employing increasingly intense logic and tighter grasp over the situation, to no success. With billions of my brain’s “CPUs” pegged at 100% (our brains are massively parallel), I finally resort to the counter-intuitive action of taking a long walk or going home to sleep while the problem is still very much there wreaking havoc on the world.
However, as hundreds of thousands of clusters of neurons in my brain wind down their Gatling Gun fire, the very faint signal of a “weak tie” still lingers. It is a faded event from my childhood so unrelated to this situation and illogical in this context that it’s “sensible” to dismiss as ludicrous. But I still playfully think, “What if … ?” I begin to imagine relationships that I had never thought of or learned. These imagined relationships plugged into the web of what I know would result in a diagnosis of my problem, from which I can then engineer a solution! I run back into the building, to my laptop, to test if these imagined relationships do indeed exist. After resolving the problem, with my room service Mobley Burger as a reward, I marvel again at how the reliance on just pure logic applied to what I know I know (at least what is at the forefront of my thoughts) failed me.
The weak memory served as a metaphor, a template from which I can creatively substitute similar pieces with their corresponding current pieces or even add or delete pieces. Old ideas may not apply in exactly the same way in a new situation. They are a starting point towards a solution. Meaning, that old memory is not a “direct hit” recognition of what we are currently experiencing. It’s technically a mistake, like how I keep mistaking David Proval for Al Pacino. Our brain has to support us in a complex world where nothing is certain. But it’s these fuzzy, “close, but no cigar” recognitions that are the basis for imagination, our primary weapon.
It’s our ability to imagine that raises us above all other creatures on Earth in terms of our ability to manipulate the environment to our liking. The options our brains are capable of producing aren’t limited to hard-wired instinct or what relatively little we’ve experienced (in comparison to all there is to experience). Being bi-pedal, having opposable thumbs and a large brain are all just characters within the bigger story of how our imagination propelled humanity to being the current lords of this planet.
If something hasn’t yet happened, our knee-jerk reaction is that we believe it could never happen. Our brain doesn’t have that relationship, so any inferences we make are computed without that relationship. This is the limitation of logic. Logical conclusions are based on the facts that are available. The problem is that the world is a complex system and thus we never really have all of the facts required to make fool-proof predictions.
Imagination means we are able to draw a relationship between two or more things that were never explicitly stated to us or so weakly connected that we normally disregard it as a silly thought or even paranoia. This is how humans have our cake and eat it too. We have the power to apply logic through symbolic thinking, enabling us to manipulate the environment to our benefit (within a limitation of space and time), yet overcome the limitations of logic in a complex world.
When we think, we do more than just process values in a Bayesian manner. We also audition ideas by playing what-if experiments in our mind. We safely experiment in our heads before committing to a physically irreversible action. We can change our mind when we suspect that the cost of being wrong is too great. This ability means that the results of our thinking are not as mechanically pre-ordained as that of any purely logical device such as a machine, rigid equation, or set of best practices. Imagination breaks us out of the rather Newtonian condition of reptiles, birds, and insects that are lives riding out a deterministic fate.
Armed with imagination, each human is a force of the universe, cognizant of our own deaths, thus not really willing to settle for just the greater good of the species – even though that would be admirable. We are capable of subverting the laws of physics through our contraptions. We can imagine an outcome other than what the vectors of each object dictate. We can manipulate other objects towards a more desirable outcome.
However, imagination is being expunged from our feature-list as a flaw. We are goaded into “best practices” and chastised for not following procedure, even if that insubordination resulted in a superior outcome. Imagination is seen as a childish characteristic, something that should be out-grown.
Why is this? Going back to the beginning of the Problem Statement series, the world is spinning faster and faster. There are a lot more people with a sufficient amount of wealth, information about all sorts of things, and wanting more things faster. This equates to chaos. Now, Map Rock isn’t about how to fix this chaos. I honestly don’t have an answer for that. What I am offering is how to better compete in this chaos.
Map Rock addresses imagination by guiding the user through brainstorming activity, integration of rules from many sources (particularly Predictive Analytics models), and the SCL mechanism for inference from multiple perspectives.
The Will to Compete
Thinking is hard and usually associated with some sort of pain or problem we need to address. We engage the act of thinking to resolve problems. Similarly, hunger is painful. Our ancestors prior to agriculture walked many miles and risked their lives engaging much larger and stronger animals to alleviate the pain of hunger. If hunger weren’t unpleasant, I’d probably be thin since I wouldn’t care to go through the trouble of shopping and cooking. We’d often rather make ourselves believe that a solution currently in play and what our beliefs resolve to will in the end succeed than face a string of burdensome fire drills – ie keep telling yourself that, eventually you’ll believe it.
Thankfully, we can invent or learn a procedure to easily alleviate pain without needing to re-invent it the next time. These procedures (tips and tricks, best practices) can be followed to alleviate pain with a chance for success ranging from good to great without needing to engage thinking. These procedures are incorporated into our lives, programmed into our psyche. Any time someone tries something different, it can upset the delicate machine that is serving us well, forcing us to think.
But here is the kicker. Here are two major thoughts upon which life on Earth has evolved:
- Every creature makes its living devouring other creatures and every creature tries to reproduce (or grow) as much as it can, exerting constant pressures driving other things to take action to survive. “Grow or Die” as they say.
- The world is a complex system with so many moving parts that predicting anything beyond a very limited volume of space and time is at best unreliable.
Putting aside the bacteria that consume raw minerals off rocks and dirt, every creature hunts and devours another creature. We are all both predator and prey, the hunters and the hunted. There are two sides to our intellectual lives; how to be better hunters and how to better avoid our hunters. Add to that as well that there is also the competitor relationship, peers in contention for the same resources. This predator and prey relationship, both trying to outdo each other, means that for life to keep going, creatures must be able to evolve to adapt to new tactics applied by the “enemy”. Creatures all try to over-reproduce because there is a constant pressure upon it from its predators as well as peer-competitors.
We reactively adapt to change (forced upon us by our predators and competitors) and we proactively engineer and mold conditions to our favor. Players at the top are at the top because conditions favor their strategies. The conditions were either already there yet unseen or they were imagined and forged into place. In either case, the company at the top intuitively defends these current conditions since different conditions may not favor them anymore. They don’t know for sure if different conditions would indeed favor them because the world is too complex to really predict such things. That’s why we still run the experiments and we still “play the game” even if we’re pretty sure about who will win.
We can’t just sit idly by not doing anything because we don’t know for sure. We can’t stubbornly hold out for a “just one number” answer or refuse to take “It depends …” as an answer. We take a best guess by running our thought experiments safely in our head, weeding out scenarios with the possibility for unacceptable outcomes, before we decide to take a physically irreversible action in the real world. Even if we’re wrong, meaning during the execution of our action we recognize a negative intended or unintended condition is developing, our second line of defense is that we can make on the fly adjustments.
The thing is, an action isn’t just an isolated action. It sets into motion lines of series of events that change things forever, even if just subtly at first. And the complexity of things make it impossible to predict what the results will be even just a few steps down the line.
Competition Is a Good Thing
I feel we have more than just a right to compete or to defend ourselves against “aggression” but an obligation as creatures of this planet in order to keep driving evolution. If we all simply “go with the flow”, offering no resistance to a force (of competition or even aggression), eventually everything will settle into a dull static pattern. It’s the resistance offered by the countless interacting things in the world that result in the dynamic system we call life, the action we live in. In note #1, I mention bowing before judo matches.
I get this feeling competition and aggression are dirty words these days. There are strongly driven criminals (of many sorts) who have been publicized for cheating in one way or another resulting in harm to others. There are bullies. I certainly don’t like cheaters as those minority of people impose a cost on all of us as we all go through the inconveniences of the processes to hinder their efforts (like TSA screenings and passwords on all web sites we use). But we cannot lump the sportsman-like competition of commerce in with the criminals and bullies.
Even when we do say “competition”, I think we’re trained to think only of the ridiculous sort on reality TV such as American Idol and Shark Tank. They are competitions, but what I’d think of as games where the rules are pretty set. To me, a game is something like that, where set rules very much dominate and there is specific criteria. Surely, landing a contract or a job is like one of those shows in that the “judges” (customer or employer) as looking for specific qualities and the winner will be the one to fit those traits the best. We don’t think of the sort of competition that goes hand in hand with a stress that moves things in a different direction; avoiding that dull, lifeless pattern.
What I’m trying to get at (dancing around so as not to sound paranoid), as tongue-in-cheek as I can is, yes, “they” are out to get us. Life is an eternal struggle between predator and prey – and most creatures are both to some extent. It’s usually “nothing personal, just business”, as they say. Everyone (every creature) is driven to survive, which in turn means seeking resources which are both consumed by and taken from the creature. This drive to survive is the churning, live action that fuels evolution. Problems, mostly some form of contention for resources, pops up at every turn. Humans are problem solvers, better at it than anything else on the planet except nature herself – who will still kick our ass in the end.
Keep in mind that “evolution” doesn’t necessarily imply “improvement”, that things are now superior to how it used to be. For example, plants that made it across oceans to the sterile lands of Hawaii initially had thorns, but lost them as there was no longer any need for them in an environment devoid of reptiles and mammals. Is it better or worse? Neither. Evolution means to adapt to changing conditions. In the short term, adapting may usually seem like improvement since we are then more comfortable after the adaptation.
This mechanism of evolution, simultaneous destruction and creation, is the reason why increasing complexity doesn’t completely destroy our planet. Our planet takes hits, but the force of evolution eventually will heal the wound and things will be vibrant again, even though things will not heal exactly as it was before. For me, the big lesson is that neither the extreme of resistance to change nor the passivity of going with the flow (no resistance to change) are good. The secret is to blend in with the system, a collection of relationships, in a jujitsu-like manner.
Map Rock’s central unit is strategy. Strategies are to Map Rock as DNA is to the various forms of life. It is through designed strategies by which humans excel. For the most part though, strategies don’t come out of a person’s head fully-baked. It involves a great deal of trial and error and an ability to recover from error. This is what Map Rock is all about.
From the heart, my primary motivation for developing Map Rock is to fight for “humanness” as the variance from our lives is efficiently and systematically purged in the name of optimization. But what else can we do? The way of life as it was a couple hundred years ago with only a few hundred million people isn’t scalable to seven billion. We need to be more efficient and sacrifice some things. However, as I mention whenever I’ve previously described two sides of a coin, neither is “bad”.
The way we think reflects both our unique sets of individual experiences through our lives as well as “harder-coded” functions we more or less share, which served us well when we were still living in caves. Flaws and all, our way of thinking has done pretty well for us. Our imperfections are not just quaint or nostalgic. It’s these imperfections that break the tyranny of myopic logic..
- Map Rock Proof of Concept – This blog, following the Problem Statement series, will describe how to assess the need for Map Rock, readiness, a demo, and what a proof-of-concept could look like.
- I didn’t fully understand bowing to our opponent before a judo match until I was much older. I had taken it as simply a polite gesture or maybe even just telling each other it’s nothing personal. But it’s also a promise to give you my best effort and in all sincerity ask that you do the same so that we do not waste each other’s time. In fact, poor practice doesn’t just waste your time, it makes you worse.