Writing, Edits, The Internet, and Open Loops

On another post here, Dr. E. Miller wrote:

Putting off editing to another session works for many people. I would end up re-writing or, worse, never getting back to it. Right now, I have something like 15 drafts sitting in my blogging space, most of which are from the past six months. Some go back years.
The only time I put off editing immediately is when my replacement words, phrases, and sentences become too unwieldy to make Then I know I have to stop and come back. Usually, immediate editing works best for me. Different strokes, and all that. I am just one big enigma!
Thanks for your insights!

and I replied:

Sounds like the edit process is an “open loop” for you. ANOTHER idea for a blog post. Thank you! (But, sometimes “open loops” can be cured with timers, doing them at a restaurant an hour before closing time where you are forced to quit, etc.)
Edit: I would like to clarify what I am saying here. (Was interrupted by a phone call.) “Open loop” processes lack feedback to regulate them. In some cases, this means that they can go on endlessly, or when something does eventually shut them down they have caused damage in some way (usually by consuming too many resources). Informally, we see this “in real life” in addiction where, say, a “normal” person has two drinks and quits but the alcoholic simply “cannot stop” until something external (“running out,” police officer, death) shuts down the process. This happens when people (including me) “get lost in the internet.” David Allen uses it informally to refer to what might also be called “unfinished business” that occupies our attention when we should be working on something else. See, also:https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/19391/what-is-an-open-loop

This is another excuse, er, “opportunity” for a blog post!  (Please read the entire article start to finish before you start clicking links.  Otherwise, you might get trapped, or lost, by an “open loop.”  More about that in a moment.)

The field of cybernetics is considered “complex” by many, and for good reason!  The words of Von Neuman, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, and Gregory Bateson can be challenging to read and understand.  But they affected our lives in major ways, and I would like to give each of them a little credit before I move to the main point of this article:

  • John von Neuman: among other things, developed the “von Neuman” architechture of “modern” (post-1950) computers.  If you use a desktop, laptop, tablet, smart phone, or any other “smart” device, then you are using one or more devices built with von Neuman architecture.  (You have him to thank.)
  • Claude Shannon: arguably developed “information theory” that permitted the development, as we know it, of communications channels such as cellular communications (cell phones of any kind), the Internet, satellite (and cable) television, and more.  He also developed the concept of “channel capacity,” an important concept later embodied in Dunbar’s Number, an estimate of our upper limits for relations with other humans.
  • Alan Turing: developed such critically important ideas as the “algorithm,” the “Turing machine,” and important concepts in cryptography.  In addition to being a von Neuman architecture, the tablets, computers, and smart phones you use are also “Turing machines.”  You can learn more about his life by watching “The Imitation Game.”
  • Finally, Gregory Bateson was a contemporary of the previous three, and he applied these same kinds of ideas of “cybernetics” to Anthropology and the emerging field of Family Therapy.  (Arguably, Bateson was one of the founders of Family Therapy.)  What Bateson REALLY told us is that all of these “nerd” ideas can be applied to people and real life situations. (You might prefer this video or this one.) Of the four, it is Bateson that interests me the most, and he is the least well known to the general public.

So, what’s the main point?  What does any of this have to do with writing, editing, and productivity?

Among other things, the Family Therapists sometimes think that “problems” can be a failure of feedback loops.  (These feedback loops are a concept from cybernetics.)  Working feedback loops are (most of the time) “negative feedback loops” like a thermostat that keeps the temperature constant in your home during the cold of winter or heat of summer.  (In physiology, and in family therapy, these negative feedback loops are called homeostasis.)

But, sometimes, these feedback loops fail (or are absent).  This can be explained by any of a number of reasons, but the result is the same: something or someone spirals out of control.  Your home becomes freezing cold.  Or it becomes so hot that a heat stroke becomes a danger.  A person does not stop at “two drinks” but continues drinking, alcoholically, until the “run out,” “pass out,” a police officer stops them, or they die.

More benevolently, you surf the internet too long and do not get your shopping done or check deposited and that causes problems.  A teenager plays video games for hours on end, neglecting chores, physical activity, and “normal” friends.  The list can go on indefinitely.  All of these can be described as “open loops.”  (Open loops cause a failure in “closure.”  A “closed loop” is a properly functioning negative feedback system, which terminates some process when a criterion is met.  And if you became “lost” in the process of making a list of open loops?  THAT would be an example of being caught by an open loop also!)

So, how to handle these?  The answer is not always simple, but it can be.  An old friend of mine, from years ago, taught me the trick.  (He was familiar with the same concepts of negative feedback and homeostasis as I am.  He, quite explicitly, was applying them.)  We tended to have conversations that would last many hours into the night.  They were, to be certain, “open loops.”  His solution was simple: we moved the conversation to a bookstore similar to a Barnes and Noble (actually, it was a Books-A-Million).  When closing time arrived at 11 PM on Friday or Saturday, the conversation was over.

You can stop an open loop, whether it is regarding too many edits or being on the internet “too long.”  Put in a hard barrier, a time fence (these are popular with supply chain managers), to help regulate your behavior.  That, in turn, can make your life MUCH better, and you can move on to other problems to solve, like how to implement a “Daily Edit Exercise.” [Edit: Some people use the Pomodoro Technique to help with this when working on a project or in their daily work setting.]

But, then, that is a topic for another blog entry.

Please do note that any attempt to “explain” “why” the open loop has happened can lead to an open loop itself!  You will become trapped by that!  (This is informally called “paralysis by analysis.”)  “Why?” is typically dangerous and irrelevant.  BUT “HOW” (to stop it) is useful.

As an aside, in his GTD (“Getting Things Done“) method, David Allen has the concept of the “open loop.”  It is similar, if not the same, to the “open loop” we describe here except that it tends to be something that occupies your attention when your attention would be better used if it were focused elsewhere in what Mr. Allen calls a “mind like water.”



Damnit! (Or, we are all just little factories….)

[I almost never publicly publish any of my own work here, preferring to post a variety of work by other aspiring authors.  Today, I will make an exception.]

Over on Roberta Pimentel‘s blog where she has an entry titled “Get More Readers with Your Gravatar”  it was a pretty day and started innocently enough, a bit like a sunny day in Texas or Oklahoma before the tornado flattens your home.  It was just another day when she wrote wrote that article, but that was before she encountered grumpy old me.  (I was going to describe myself as a “grumpy old bastard” except, of course, my parents are married and have been since the Dawn of Time.)

I wrote the following comment:

In a way, we are all like little factories.  If it is part of our “assembly line,” then we can blast it.  But, just a little out of the norm, and it/we “fall off the cliff.”  I think this gets worse as you get older and your literal and metaphorical skeletal system becomes more rigid and brittle and less flexible.  You really *DO* have a good idea with that, but I just do not know how I can carve out a window to do it.  AND, at least in theory, I am “off” this summer.  Yet there does not seem to be a minute to spare.  (Maybe I should write a blog entry on this.)  In fact, I think I WILL do just that, over on my blog at “Still Another Writer’s Blog.”  (Or is it “Still Another Writers’ Blog”?  Damnit, I am not sure myself!)

Yep.  There I was on Yet Another Rant ™.

Must be time to actually write something.

In all fairness, this is something with which I struggle. (“Something” meaning allocating time, not ranting.  Though I suppose I do struggle with the rants also.)  Do I work on the next “Great American Novel,” or do I scrub the toilet?  The toilet REALLY needs scrubbing, and that is so vastly overdue as to be a “bad mental image” for even the most hardened healthcare professional routinely exposed to the most foul blood and body fluids.  In a word, it is “bad.”

But, HOW DO we handle those decisions?  Though I prefer to remain anonymous, among other things I have advanced graduate training in “optimization” (such as “linear programming,” commonly called “LP”) and seriously study such issues.

(At least I do things like that when I am not blogging about astrology which, of course, the serious graduate students completely reject in the most fundamental way imaginable. Something tells me they probably would not like the sexy bikini and pinup blog, either.)

As an aside, let me tell you a short story about LP.  Ever seen a movie called “Good Will Hunting“?  Remember the “math problem” at the beginning?  Well, that version of the story is not quite the true version. (Actually, it is almost so removed as to be unrecognizable.) The true version became an “urban legend” that floated around for decades.

The true version is that a graduate student (not a janitor) was late for class one day.  Apparently he was a bit rough around the edges in some ways (maybe a little like the “janitor” in the movie), and when he was late he wrote down the two “homework problems” on the board.  He went home and solved one but could not solve the other.

He turned in his “homework” and apologized for not solving the second math problem “yet.” (“It was a little harder.”) Turns out that the two problems were “unsolvable” (or “open”) math problems that the teacher had put on the board as examples of difficult problems.  The one that the student solved was supposed to “end world hunger.”  (In fact, LP is still used to managed food distribution.)

The military IMMEDIATELY appropriated it as a military secret (and making publication of it high treason and punishable by death).  They used it to solve logistics problems (and won World War II with superior logistics to the Nazis).  (But the bit about the military has been sanitized and eradicated over time.  Dig deep enough, and you will find it.  These days it is probably categorized as “tinfoil hat” to discredit anyone who wants to pass on the truth about what REALLY went on… …at least someone had the testicular fortitude to make the Imitation Game to tell us about Turing and what happened to him.)

The student was George Dantzig.  And the method he developed, now released to the public, is called Linear Programming.  (Technically, it was the Simplex Algorithm.  But most of us just call it LP.)  I like the way this guy tells the story.  Personally, I think Dantzig’s life should be made into a movie, and as penance for taking Dantzig’s story Matt Damon should play Dantzig’s professor.

Back to the main story: how do you decide?  What do you pick?  If it will take you eight hours to produce a suitable gravatar, is it worth it?  Or should you be writing?  Or should you be scrubbing the toilet?  And if you don’t scrub the toilet today, when do you do it?

We all wrestle with this, but that is not the end of the story.  The fact is we become superior at certain kinds of skills and processes.  In the bestseller “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” these superior skills and processes are described as “strengths.”  The main thing, according to the book, is to discover your strengths, build little “assembly lines” in your life that put them to work, stick to those assembly lines and avoid time wasters that suck the life out of you, and make enough money to hire someone to scrub the toilet (unless that is your strength).

But, the fact of the matter is, sometimes, you still have to scrub the toilet.