MESSINESS and FIZZ and TRIAL and ERROR.
Fer R.T. a trial and error practitioner.
Trial and error, messiness and fizz, that’s it! Ferget top-down forward planning and efficiency regarding human innovation and adapting ter circumstances. Trial and error and serendipity rule, in human affairs, as in naychur.
Primo Levi in ‘The Periodic Table,’ described somewhere as the best science book ever written, is a book yer’d think is all about chemistry, and yes it is, but it’s also a mixture, messy yer might say, an interaction of Primo Levi’s profound human experience and the meaning of chemistry. What comes across in his book is not chemistry as an arcane experience, but as the underlying reality of organic and inorganic stuff, trees, rocks, clouds, you and me.
Primo Levi describes his first months as a student at the University of Turin in the late 1930’s, and the day in his classes in General and Inorganic Chemistry, that he is assigned to the preparation of zinc sulfate. He describes the laboratory process:
‘The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists the attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions, the one in praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.’ ( P.L. Ch 3.)
As an Italian Jew living under Mussolini’s Fascist political system, Primo Levi reflects on his Jewishness. Since the publication of the magazine ‘Defence of Race,’ there was much talk about racial impurity and Levi says he began to feel proud of being ‘impure,’ where before he had scarcely considered his origins:
‘In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed. Fascism does not want them, forbids them, – wants everybody to be the same.’
Primo Levi offers parallels between the reactions in a test tube and the larger world.
In his chapter on ‘Potassium,’ he recounts how, during the War, when he had to distil benzene and couldn’t find the sodium necessary for its purification, he uses its twin in the periodic table, potassium, which reacts with air and water with even greater energy and is liable to ignite. After distilling the benzene Levi washes the now empty flask and it explodes, almost blowing up the laboratory. Now that’s fizz! From this he notes that one dare not trust the ‘almost-the-same,’ and concludes:
‘The differences can be small, but they may lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects.’
To which he adds, ‘And not only in the chemist’s trade.’
Jane Jacobs and Messiness in Cities.
Lots of people think we’d be better off without large cities, that large cities are inefficient and impractical. Certainly, as we know, there are problems in large cities regarding the most routine activities, getting people to work, moving goods around, making space for playgrounds, disposing of garbage and so on. While cities magnify an economy’s practical problems, they can also solve them by new technology and new work. Town planners, though, would like to create more efficient cities, have people and factories moved on to other places.
But here’s a paradox for you. Jane Jacobs is arguing in her book, ‘The Economy of Cities,’ that large cities are economically valuable, not in spite of their inefficiencies and impracticalities but rather because of them. She makes her case with comparisons of various cities in different countries and times, beginning with two English manufacturing cities, Manchester and Birmingham.
A Tale of Two Cities.
Back in 1844, because of the stunning efficiencies of its immense textile mills, Manchester was viewed as the poster city for the Industrial Revolution and a portent of the cities of the future. Marx based much of his analysis of capitalism on Manchester. Birmingham with relatively few large industries was just the kind of city that seemed to have been outmoded by Manchester, a muddle of all sorts of hardware and tool manufacturing that had been added to its earlier manufacture of horse saddles and harnesses. Most of Birmingham’s manufacturing was carried out by small concerns employing a dozen or less workmen. A lot of these small factories did piecework for other organizations and there was a lot of waste motion and overlapping that might have been eliminated through consolidations.
But today, says Jacobs, only two of all Britain’s cities remain economically vigorous. One is London. The other is Birmingham. For Birmingham’s fragmented and inefficient little industries kept adding new work and splitting off new organizations while Manchester’s efficient specialization contained the seeds of its own stagnation. For when people in cities in other countries learned to spin and weave cotton efficiently and began replacing imports Manchester had no other industries sufficient to compensate for
its lost markets. Where Manchester was pouring its economic energy into efficient repetition of the same work, Birmingham was evolving by trial and error development leading to new successful activities. Today Manchester is a city in long decline.
Efficiency is Not the Name of the Game.
Efficiency of operation, in any case, is a sequel to earlier and messy development, time-consuming development work by trial and error, with no guarantee of success, like the beginnings of the car industry in Detroit. But the exorbitant amount of time and energy involved and high rates of failure doesn’t mean that development work is being done ineptly. As even the U.S. Air Force analytical organization, the Rand Corporation notes, this is part of the process. Duplication of effort in development work, while theoretically wasteful, is empirically necessary, for one thing, because people bring different preconceptions to development work.
Jane Jacobs looks at cities of the distant and recent past that stagnated when development work ceased. The prehistoric cities of the Indus valley, Mohenjo and Harappa, were marvelously developed, but when development work ceased, the two cities continued endlessly producing inefficient tools and clumsy solid wheels for chariots while other people were developing the spoked wheel and efficient bronze tools and weapons.
In the United States, in the 1920’s, Detroit, after its earlier innovative successes has shown a low development rate. Jacobs asks why cities like Detroit, highly efficient in developing large industries, do not afterwards succeed in developing new goods and services. One factor that Jacobs identifies is that large, efficient industries, creating company towns if you like, discourage breakaways from the company by workers who seek to start up their own enterprises. Breakaways are a successful means of developing new work. But parent companies do not like breakaways and when the parent company is powerful enough, it will inhibit them, as Kodak did in Rochester, New York.
Jacobs argues that cities with many small and overlapping suppliers of bits and pieces of work are indispensable to a high rate of development. Both Buick and Dodge themselves began as suppliers in this way, Buick in sheet metal and Dodge in motor engines. Back in 1903, Henry Ford got started by assembling car parts that were made by other people. Later, these overlapping small suppliers were no longer an efficient arrangement for the big car manufacturers who came to dominate the Detroit Automobile Industry.
Another factor for developing new work is access to capital. But the most efficient way to invest capital is through few large investors putting capital into already efficient
producers of goods and services, not into new work enterprises. For a city to develop new work, however, access to inefficiently dispensed capital is a crucial requirement.
Seems like the messy process of trial and error promoting development work, that Jane Jacobs describes in ‘The Economy of Cities,’ appears to be in jeopardy with the conditions that promote efficiency.
A Vindication of Trial and Error.
Nassim Taleb has a chapter in ‘Antifragile’ concerning misconceptions of what he calls ‘History Written by the Losers,’ (Ch 13.) the losers being those historians and Harvard Business School professors prone to misattribution of technical innovation across domains, from its real life sources to academizing science. Taleb labels this effect as ’lecturing birds how to fly.’ He questions whether academic science has lead to technology rather, whether universities have prospered as a consequence of national wealth created by technology.
Nassim Taleb charts his investigations of the origin of developments across many fields. The first section of the chart describes the development of the jet engine. Turns out that engineers had been building and using jet engines in Britain in a completely trial and error experiential manner before anyone fully understood the theory. Theory came later. Jane Jacobs refers to the jet engine, in 1937, already being developed in Birmingham, when a committee of experts in the United States were coming to the conclusion that it was impracticable to attempt. (JJ Ch 3.)
About architecture in Table 5, Taleb asks us to consider how the Romans, admirable engineers, built their aquaducts. Roman numerals did not make quantitative analysis easy. Seems they built their aquaducts without benefit of mathematics. Then there’s the medieval cathedral builders relying on heuristics, empirical methods and tools. According to medieval historian, Guy Beaujouan, before the thirteenth century no more than five people in the whole of Europe knew how to perform a division.
Regarding cybernetics, which led to the ‘cyber’ in cyberspace, seems that Norbert Wiener, in 1946, was articulating ideas about feedback control and digital computing that had been in practice in the engineering world, long before Wiener’s mathematics.
In conversation with a well known economist who wondered how traders could handle complicated transactions without understanding the Girsanov theorem, Nassim Taleb was struck by the incongruity of such a statement, having worked as a pit trader himself in Chicago and observed veteran traders who refused to touch mathematical formula.
Yet these people had survived, their prices were more sophisticated and more efficient than those produced by formula and it was obvious to Taleb which came first. This conversation led to Taleb and a partner investigating the question.
The investigation produced proof that traders had vastly more sophistication than the formulas and preceded them by a century of trading experience. Taleb says that he himself has been an eye witness to results ‘that owe nothing to academizing science, rather evolutionary tinkering that was dressed up and claimed to have come from academia.’ (p 275.) Taleb claims ‘that two fragilistas, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, got the memorial prize in Economics called ‘Nobel,’ for the packaging of a formula that other people discovered in much more sophisticated form before them.
In the case of medicine, lots of serendipity by way of researchers who failed to follow the tight scripts of academic programs. James Le Fanu, doctor and science writer, finds that a large number of effective therapies of the post war years were not ignited by scientific insight but came ‘from the realization by doctors and scientists that it was not necessary to understand in any detail what was wrong, but that synthetic chemistry blindly and randomly would deliver the remedies that had eluded doctors for centuries.’ (p 231.)
Statistics illustrate, says Taleb, the gap between public perception of academic contribution and the truth, that private industry develops nine drugs out of ten.
Easy to show the Industrial revolution and technology owed little to science but were very much the result of trial and error tinkering and the curiosity of the enlightened amateur. The main technologies that led to the jump to the modern world were the empirical efforts of craftsmen like James Hargreaves who invented the spinning jenny that mechanized spinning, John Kay who invented the flying shuttle that mechanized weaving, Richard Arkwright who invented the water frame, and talented amateurs like the Reverend Edmund Cartwright, who invented the power loom.
Taleb is not saying that theories or academic science are not behind some practical technologies but questions the role of the epistemic base has played in the history of technology. He likens the process to the recipes used in cooking derived without conjectures about the chemistry of taste buds. ‘We can observe ancestral heuristics at work : generations of collective tinkerings resulting in the evolution of recipes. These recipes are imbedded in cultures. Cooking schools are entirely apprenticeship based.’
( p 224.)
Seems collaboration on the ground, says Taleb, letting ideas interbreed can have explosive consequences, forget the long term plan, ‘since you cannot forecast collaborations and cannot direct them, you can’t see where the world goes. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates these collaborations, and lay the foundations for prosperity and, no you can’t centralize innovations. We tried that in Russia.’ (P 234.)
Well that’s it! Yer may have noticed little reference ter ‘fizz.’ That’s because I was goin’ ter add another section herewith on ‘Trial and Error, Art and Fizz,’ but me essay was becoming’ too long and messy, so I’ll postpone that until the next New Year edishun. And to anyone readin’ this, I’ll wish you a Happy New Year and conclude with a brief.
The Evolution of Birds.
Making do with what’s at hand,
In this case ‘hands,’ –
Used to be ‘legs’ but they became
Useless little arms with
Claw appendages, the kind
You find on odd marsupials like kangaroos
And on that two-legged oddity
Of the Jurassic, dinosaur Therapod.
By God! There’s a black swan development
If ever there was one.
Fossils unearthed in limestone quarries
By homo sapien with evolutionary tools,
Stone axes won’t do it,
Record the evolution of the therapod hand
From flexing wrist of Velociraptor to
Unenlagla’s wing-like flaps and
Primitive feathers of Caudipteryx,
Say there’s a giant step for birds,
Then the momentous uncovering of
Flight feathers on fossil Archaeoterix
And we have lift off!
While precisely ‘how’ or maybe ‘why,’
The wings of birds evolved remains a mystery.
Just when homo sapiens think – they – may
Have some sort of handle on the evolution of
Birds, tricky Nature calls up another black swan,
Or cygnet maybe, seems some new and
Up – to – now unknown phenomenon
Has been at work in the evolution of birds.
For yet another evolutionary technology,
X-ray CT scanning of birds’ skulls
Throws some light on their progression,
Or rather regression, progenesis
They call it, seems birds are really
Baby dinosaurs. Precocious maturation of birds
In just a few weeks, a portion of the life span
Of therapods becomes the whole life span
Of a new successful species.
A new successful species, Praise be
To tricky Nature for the evolution
Of birds! Lords of the air, of updraft
And perilous tumbling,
Of utterance of sweet song, of joy
To the world and tremulous longing,
Of feathers rivaling in pattern and profusion
The spangled universe, touching the imagination
Of homo sapien, inspiring the visionary words
Of poets, expressive of delights and lamentations
Of mature lovers and yearning dreams of adolescents.