Sunday, 14 April 2013

Procyclic

The Carnot cycle provides us with a fun little analogy that we can abuse and overextend in any number of ways:-

Energy is turned into work by harnessing and controlling a cycle of heating and cooling; expansion and contraction; increasing and decreasing pressure.

One side without the other provides only transient and worthless motion.

Brought together in opposition; made to alternate; managed and controlled in a reciprocating framework, these transient forces may be tamed and made to perform useful and beneficial work over an extended period of time.

Creative Cycles

In the same way, our innovative capacity does not produce new ideas in a single unbroken stream of creativity, but rather in fits and starts.

Contemplation and intensity must be brought together in alternating opposition:

Contemplation so that the mind may range wide, gathering inputs from disparate sources as one might pick blackberries from a brambly hedgerow.

Intensity so that the mind may delve deeply into the detail, working through the consequences of each decision; picking apart the idea to find it's essence, and turning the idea over and over to find the right terminology  the right language, the right conceptual framework within which it may be best expressed
and exploited.

One phase without the other is unproductive. Bring the two together in alternation, and you get productive work. Manage that alternation, and you can start to exploit our real potential for creativity.

Communication Cycles

There has been some discussion about the utilization and design of shared workspaces to maximise spontaneous communication (prompted by Marissa Meyer's edict banning remote working at Yahoo). In my mind, this focuses on only half of the solution: perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of the theme of this piece, I believe that communication and isolation must alternate.

When working in a totally isolated manner, one cannot determine what is needed, one does not know what is important. When sitting in the middle of a bustling open plan office, one often knows what is important, but one lacks the space and calm isolation needed to actually do anything about it. It is noteworthy that many effective organisations mandate specific periods; specific opportunities for interaction, typically involving food or drink, perhaps we could also mandate specific periods for isolation and calm introspection, a "quiet time" each day free from phone calls, emails and other forms of communication.

This may be unnecessary, however, since the ubiquitous headphone-wearing developers sitting in an open-plan-office provides a very flexible compromise, offering opportunities both for focussed work and for collaboration.

Economic Cycles

As with the small, so with the large. "The era of boom and bust economics is over" was a statement that ran not only counter to common sense, but possibly counter to some sort of law of statistical physics.

To believe that we have any real positive control over the economy is a dangerous conceit. A vague and sloppy influence, perhaps, but not control in any recognisable meaning of the word.

The presence of investment cycles for individual businesses as well as individual people is a well understood fact, as is the web of interactions that exists between those economic actors, and (so I would suppose) the presence of effects that promote the synchronisation of these individual cycles into macroeconomic feedback loops.

Why attempt to eliminate these macro-scale cycles by controlling government spending? Why not, instead, as our analogy suggests, control their amplitude and frequency so that the harm that they do is minimised.

Indeed, as Nasim Taleb points out, a small "bust" can fend off a larger and more damaging one. Targeted cyclical and perhaps aperiodic variations in the tax burden might help stress, (or threaten stress) economic actors in a manner that promotes decoupling and desynchronisation, and inhibits catastrophic modes-of-failure, but, as stated above, it would be dangerously arrogant to assume that we really know what is going on, and what the effect of our actions is, or will be.

So we have to exert control, not in a direct and forceful manner, but in a way that tends to the ecosystem, but does not seek to dominate it.

Anyway, I am straying dangerously far from my area of expertise, and my intuition oft runs astray, so let me leave things here before I go too far off the beaten track.