Memes are Persistent — Covington Catholic High vs. the Hebrew Israelites

Misool Rain

Braden and me, in the West Papuan rain, December 2018

The most recent inflammatory dust-up that hit the media is video of the clash between a Covington Catholic High youth wearing a Donald Trump MAGA hat, and a Native American elder on the Washington Mall.  Apparently, the students associated with the young man were participating in a March for Life rally, when they ran into a group of Black Hebrew Israelites.  A Native American elder, who was attending his own rally on Indian rights, attempted to make peace, which ended in a stare-down between one of the students, a teenage male, wearing said MAGA hat, and the Elder.

OK — first off, on a personal note, regardless of the cause, if my Mama saw me acting like that young man, she would have grabbed my ear and hauled me off the scene.  My mom was far from perfect, but she didn’t like assholery, and that’s superficially what’s on display here.  The look on the young man’s face does not help his case, whatever level one wants to operate on.

So don’t interpret any analysis as some apologia for any of the bad actors.  But if we can’t understand these things at a deeper level, we’re not going to get to any point where we can forge a trans-cultural code of behavior that will keep us from killing each other.

What was interesting to me was the fact that Covington Catholic’s team is the Colonels (a picture of their mascot is below) and for those with any background, it’s pretty much a Confederate soldier, sanitized from the Confederate gray colorcovington catholic mascot

for modern times.  They certainly didn’t make it Union Blue.  If one believes the Twitter feed, Covington has had problems with racism and bullying in the past, and so all of us this really isn’t that surprising.

I’ll be willing to bet that the students had little or no conscious knowledge of a grounded understanding of any of this.  But just like genes, which often are repeated, embedded and not superficially expressed, so are memes, waiting for the opportunity.  And that brain programming finds another set of external symbols that line up with deep, hidden understandings.

So it should come as no surprise that the group, when coming into contact with the Black Hebrew Israelites, who espouse a philosophy very close to White Identity Christianity (they are also the only children of the lost tribe of Judah) would have a dust-up.  Deep racial coding on the sides of both groups, and even surfaced tribal identities (remember — these people are all claiming to be the Lost Tribe of Israel) are going to be low empathy. Into that mess walks Omaha elder Nathan Phillips — a member of a recognized Native American tribe, working at least a little on Second Tier v-Meme principles of peace and understanding.  Ugh.  And he’s a Vietnam vet, and likely a trauma survivor himself.

What this all demonstrates is that memes run deep, and often go underground.  And they don’t just fade away, even if the parties involved don’t know the deep history.  There’s much to think about here, if we ever get around to actually building a better world.  Like William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  

I happen to think Faulkner would have loved memetics.

Do read the background Wikipedia posts.

P.S.  I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Day, 2019.  Talk about someone who understood empathy, on all levels.  He was the Man.


Tales from the South Pacific — Empathy and Integration Lessons from West Papua, Indonesia

Sorong Sunset.jpg

View from the final meal restaurant, Sorong, Indonesia, December 2018

My son, Braden (age 20) and I have been traveling for the last three weeks — literally to the ends of the Earth.  We visited West Papua, Indonesia, and the island of Misool, for a sea kayaking ‘vacation’ (I use that word pretty loosely!)  While it wasn’t particularly relaxing, or a vacation, without going into a lot of negative detail, both Braden and I learned tons.  In our little group, we call this kind of a trip a ‘Monkey Stomp’. I’ll let your conjecture run wild on what that means.  🙂

Misool Rain

Father and Son, in the tropical rain. Ain’t we a pair.

This part of the world is covered with small, limestone islands, eroded at the base like ice cubes that have had hot water poured on them.  What that means is the ground itself, in many places, is covered by super-sharp rocks that, while beautiful, are more than happy to cut deep to the bone.  Just add protruding, embedded sea shells.  It makes for a tremendous landscape, but not necessarily one so great for human habitation.

Braden Sea Kayak Inverted Island

Crazy limestone karst geology, and Braden in a sea kayak.  Clothing courtesy of Northwest River Supplies

As such, it’s most populated (and thinly at that) by temporary fishing encampments, and small villages.  The people, all some mix of Papuan and the crazy-quilt Indonesian genetic stock, are all essentially modern tribal v-Meme, working mostly in a gift economy, with strong family ties.  Villages are headed up by an ‘elected’ official, a kepala desa, who really functions more as a ‘Big Man’ (a la Jared Diamond’s analysis) than someone who uses coercive force or hard authority to accomplish their will.  While living standards have improved — two big signs were the prevalence of bottled water, and of course, the virtually ubiquitous cell phone — time scales still slip, and time is much more locked to the natural environment than in anything resembling modern society.

During the course of the trip, we visited a series of human settlements. We started at Sorong, which is really a small city, and resembles more the ramshackle, sprawling towns in the Caribbean I’ve been to (Puerto Limon in Costa Rica came to mind immediately) than any ordered establishment. StreetsofSorong

The streets of Sorong, outside the central market.  That’s a mosque at the end of the street.

From there, it was a literal 150 mile ferry ride across to Misool, the Muslim town of Yalu (sp?), which was the real jumping-off point for a 30 km boat ride to a small island homestay.  During the rest of the trip, we visited a Muslim village, a Christian village, and a corporate pearl farm.  All three offered insights on how social organization manifests itself with both time scales and spatial scales.

As you read through the rest of this, it’s pretty important to not moralize, especially about the influence of religion – go full post-modern!  The way the people lived — their deep v-Meme — was a click up from full-on tribal.  As such, everywhere we went, we were the out-group and an oddity.  Six tourists, two white guides, and two Indonesian guides comprised the group.  Because of our Indonesian guides, who were great, we had the opportunity to ask questions and carry on with the locals — something I always like to do!  We could also ground ourselves and really validate our observations.  The other thing, not surprisingly considering the dominance of the gift economy in many aspects of life, is that the locals really had very little interest in making money off of us.  In all places, they were really just happy to see us.  We were space aliens, and entertaining ones at that.

Josh Cell Phone (1)

Josh getting his picture taken. That’s her cell phone.

Many of the people, and a good hunk of the women seemed to take a particular fascination with me.  My son attributes this to the fact that I am literally massive to them (I was twice many of the folks’ size) and I know how to use facial gestures to connect (hey — gotta practice what you preach!)  Not meaning to go full guru on you, but it never hurts to beam love at all the people you meet when you’re traveling.  It really makes a difference.  And it’s just not that hard.

Panda Moment

These women from the Christian village Tomolol came running out with flowers and wanted us to take a picture of them and their baby.

One thing that was painfully obvious was the blight of garbage that all these villages were dealing with. Chief among these were bottles from bottled water, and some soft drinks, though because of the advancements in modern packaging, processed food producers have found ways to package small, sugar-laden snacks in $.10 packages, that are eaten, and then immediately discarded.

Snack Kiosk

A Muslim-run kiosk at the edge of the Christian village.  There are virtually no tensions between the different religions in Indonesia that we saw or read about.

The effects of cultural sidebars on trash disposal were immediately obvious.  In the Muslim and full-on tribal encampments, trash was literally everywhere, and there was little effort to even deal with human feces.  One dive site we visited, which had the most amazing below-water coral field I had ever seen, also had evidence of slicks of human waste.

Fishing Encampment

View from above — this fishing encampment is in existence for only six months of the year, next to one of the most amazing reefs you’ll ever see.

One step up was the Christian village.  Obviously visited in the past by missionaries (we didn’t find out which denomination) the spatial scales of responsibility had obviously been expanded to people’s front yards.

White Jesus

White Jesus was about 20′ tall.  Braden and I had a politically incorrect laugh at all of it.

Cooking was still pretty primitive, and locals burned wood collected from the forest.

Wood gathering

West Papuan woman hauling firewood

But where there was distance between them and their extended family units, there was garbage.  Here’s a shot of a bunch of cake boxes discarded in a ravine next to a street of houses, neatly lined with nice yards.

Village Donut Boxes

Finally, the most socially ordered place we visited was the corporate platform that supported the pearl farm.  We visited them after one of our party got stung by jellyfish.  Braden and I put on our Action Hero costumes, and pulled one of our guides out of the water screaming.  Kudos to her — as a professional sea kayaker, she was still plenty tough, and after we loaded her in her boat, we chased her the five km. to the pearl farm platform, where the people on the platform offered aid, as well as food, to us.

Pearl Platform Sandy Jellyfish

Sandy in hot water — the best immediate cure for jellyfish stings

I’ve been fortunate to have been raised in a kinda-Muslim household (my father was from Iran) and I immediately trotted off to the small kiosk on the platform to buy cigarettes, candy, and cookies, which we promptly distributed to our hosts.  Never underestimate the power of the appropriate rituals.

Pearl Platform Hejib shot

Braden going full tribal, holding a kid while smoking a cigarette while the woman in a hejib took his picture.

Simultaneously, they were serving us tea, coffee, and finally a bowl of soup as we played with the children, and I chatted up the men running the platform with the appropriate amount of humor.

Pearl Platform fine china

Why not use the fine china when visitors show up?

Pearl Platform Muslim Women

The local women repairing baskets and checking out the biggest thing to happen in those parts in a while.

It rained that crazy tropical rain while our guide recovered. And then we were back on the water.

Pearl Platform Rain (1)


One of the most (pathologically) interesting aspects of the trip, as I mentioned before, was the prevalence of bottled water and incumbent trash associated with it.  Since this blog is supposed to be about design thinking, at least occasionally, I was forced to ponder many efforts ongoing at various universities, involving students, fixated on building water purification systems for remote villages such as this one.  These activities have been literally going on forever, and almost always revolve around things like sand filters, or lately, sipping straws or other such devices for water purification.

It’s not like these things aren’t well-meaning — they certainly are — but one can see the effect of rising incomes in places like this really changing the dynamic of water acquisition and use across this landscape.  The minute you bump up living standards, the first things people gravitate to are clean water, cell phones, and sugary snacks. When it comes to clean water, they’re down.  But the idea of centralized water distribution is so far out of both their abilities, and their v-Meme stack on how to fix their problems, they can’t even conceive of it.  If they were really going to have a networked water system, the first thing they’d have to have would be a hierarchical community structure — which, of course, they don’t have.

So, they buy bottled water.  And because their scales of responsibility are temporally short, and spatially small, there is no facility for trash collection, nor any larger sense of cleanliness in the ocean environment.  Pollution is normalized as well, as most of the huts are built over the water, and people defecate in a hole that the tide then cleans. The end result is that one ends up with tons of plastic.  Everywhere.

I came away from the trip with a strong sense of urgency around a need for trash incineration in remote communities.  The optimal kind of solution would use trash to produce electricity (a potentially straightforward transaction that might work), which many of these communities also don’t have. Once again, think of the social structure necessary to run a grid, especially one that could stand up to that tropical rain.  Whatever waste-to-power solution developed has to be at the right scale, and likely won’t involve long-range power transmission.  Distributed generation is going to have to be prioritized.  And it’s going to have to be simple.

My views on design validity — there is nothing like a site visit and customer interviews to make you understand exactly what people are living through if you’re going to design a solution for them — were profoundly reinforced.  While designing a straw that they’re always supposed to use to suck water out of the mud might appeal to a Western designer, it’s not going to appeal to the mother of a young infant in one of those villages, who would rather just grab a bottle she can afford, is packaged in clear packaging, and give it to her child.  The fact that this behavior creates another problem — waste disposal — is not going to matter to that mother, and her immediate concern over her family’s health.

It also takes a lot of education to appreciate the effect of bacterial infection as well.  The school in the Christian village had a large poster hanging outside exhorting all attendees to wash their hands.

Hand Wash Sign

I’ve seen this also in rural China.  A deeper understanding of the effects of microbes is a higher v-Meme phenomenon.  And given a confusing information field, once again, the mother is going to go for the clear packaged water.

Over and over, in a variety of situations, the way the people lived in the villages were the direct result of their own unique ‘sense making’ exercise.  That sense making was dependent on the various scales of awareness that they had, linked to their tribal v-Meme development, as well as their ability to integrate this with the cultural sidebars they were also given.

And things aren’t all bad.  A great example of that was the relative safety we all felt against theft while visiting the various settlements.  Everyone familiar with Muslim culture knows that stealing is prohibited (and no — they don’t chop hands off in Indonesia) but the effect is that as a traveler, while I wouldn’t go so far as just leaving temptation out, relative to other Developing Country venues I’ve been in, I never thought someone wanted to grab my money belt.  Most of the villages were Muslim, all had mosques, and there were calls to prayer the typical three-five times/day.  Cultural influences filled in the holes for larger awareness and longer time scales missing from the more short-term rationality displayed in the context of village life.

We also didn’t get sick, and anyone also familiar with Muslim culture knows that there is an emphasis on personal hygiene.  Bottled water available also came from the ubiquitous five gallon jugs that adorn our office water coolers.

Travel does cure ignorance.  It also shows the value of walking into situations with few, if any preconceptions.  Braden and I were there for a vacation.  We didn’t know what to expect. The fact that it turned into a larger, expansive awareness exercise, considering all the things that happened, will benefit both of us in the future.  And I know I’ll start a waste incineration project with my students in the spring.

But maybe, next time, I’m just going to go someplace closer and sit on the beach.  Maybe!

A big shout-out to Northwest River Supplies in Moscow, ID for providing gear and clothing for our trip.  Thanks, gang!



Quickie Post — On the (Kinda) Lighter Side — Nina Hartley and Free Speech

Monastiraki locals - Greece

Locals at the Monastiraki Metro Station, Athens, Greece, 2018

For those that have been wondering what I’ve been up to writing-wise, I’ve been finishing the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) on the leadership book my co-conspirator, Ryan Martens and I have been writing.  It’s getting more readable, but it’s still interesting to write a book on leadership that says you have to develop your people, but at the same time realize as the author that how you develop people is intrinsically tied to how developed you are as a leader!  It turns into an Escher-esque strange loop for sure!

And, on the lighter side, I happened across this article about Nina Hartley, noted porn star, and now free speech activist, who had been invited to the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse, by the Chancellor, Joe Gow.  Apparently, he hadn’t briefed the President of the University of Wisconsin system, Ray Cross, about Hartley’s appearance and the use of university funds for her speaking fee.  For those of us that hire speakers, uh, Hartley’s $5K fee seems rather, uh, modest.  Pun intended.

It’s all profiled in this link in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and while it’s really not a funny topic, any time there’s a porn star involved, I still have to laugh.  Is it really a conflict of morals?  Cross maintains that it is so.  In a letter obtained by the local paper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“Apart from my personal underlying moral concerns, I am deeply disappointed by your decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the UW-La Crosse campus to lecture students about sex and the adult entertainment industry,” wrote Cross in a letter obtained by the Journal Sentinel. 

Or could it be something else?  Hartley sheds some light with her opinion below:

“”As an advocate for sexual liberation, I’ve long been cast as either a threat or a menace,” she wrote, “and I posit Chancellor Gow was pressured into his decisions by those uncomfortable with my message and how my expertise was acquired.”

If one looks at the closing phrase in Hartley’s analysis, methinks there might just be an insight into how modern academia views experiential education!  v-Meme conflict indeed!

Understanding Long-Scale (Geologic Time) Evolution of Empathy

Aegean Sea Harbor

Nea Artaki, on the island of Evia, Greece  October 2018

I’ve been having discussion with folks about empathy, and why I’ve chosen the model I have to pin my work on.  Obviously, my understanding has increased as I’ve read more, and thought more about this, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how things have transpired.

First off, as with most of my work, I strive for a functional/constructivist/evolutionary perspective.  What does that mean?

  1.  I read a ton of other people’s work.  Folks have been pondering a lot of these questions for a long time, and it surely helps to understand others’ thoughts.
  2. When reading, I look for work that tells me something about the base biological function of connection, and then theorizes from there.  I love Stephen Porges (the Polyvagal Theory) Franz de Waal (The Age of Empathy) Daniel Siegel (the Neurobiology of We) and attempt to make myself aware of other great researchers and thinkers who also tie their work to biology (Carl Rogers, Anthony Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran.)
  3. That said, I don’t ‘tow the party line’ about anything.  These people are all awesome, but at some level they also are somewhat unaware that the knowledge they generate is intrinsically tied to the social structure they come from.  They lack that key insight, which (I think) would cause them to publish larger systemic interpretations like I do.  I’d love to get them in a room and have a freewheeling discussion.
  4. I take my knowledge of system construction (I’m a design prof in engineering), how a given function has to work, and what might be an evolutionary design path would have to be if I had sensors, and processors in more of a mechatronic perspective, as well as an Minimum Viable Product (MVP) perspective, and think about how these things progress over time.  This is, as far as I can tell, a completely foreign mode for really thinking about this stuff in the empathy researcher community, who are largely tied to empiricism, observations and experiments because of their own academic practice.
  5. The short version is that I am constantly asking two questions:  “How would that work,” and “How would I evolve a product that would do that?”  These turn out to be powerful questions that really cut through the bullshit.

So we know that we have the Empathy Pyramid below, and, as sentient (or semi-sentient) beings, which really includes almost all multicellular living creatures, intra-organism communication matters.  Even if it’s only for reproductive purposes, animals have to do some coordination.  I’m not going to pick nits at the bottom of the scale (how sentient ARE sponges?) but if you want to argue at the dinner table, have at it!  I’d actually love to listen!

OK — here’s the pyramid for your reference.

Empathy-Social Behavior Pyramid English

If one were evolving an empathetic system, the first sensor level one has is ON/OFF. As I’ve said earlier, this likely first showed up in a pronounced form in the Silurian Period, which was where bony fishes showed up.  Heck, it may have even happened in the Cambrian (500 million years ago!) with trilobites.  Maybe I’m just being vertebrate-ist!  But we do know that bony fishes swam in schools, and one can start to produce that layer of mirroring empathy with an on/off sensor.  If the fish in front of you can be seen by you, that little sensor goes off, and you head toward it.  Couple that with a couple of food sensors, and you now have a collective organism that can move in concert.

Short version — one now has the beginnings/evolutionary seeds/MVP of mirroring empathy.  Evolution and natural selection can now take off and make this more sophisticated.  The basic action is laid in.

Next up is what I call State Behavior.  If you have a sensor that first can determine ON/OFF, the next natural progression is to fine-tune that sensor’s ability to distinguish between a statistically accurate reading (in hypothesis testing, we call this a ‘correct detection’) vs. one where the sensor goes off, but no little fishy is swimming in front of you.  (In the world of hypothesis testing, we call this a ‘false alarm’.)  There is a balance between these two, where you hone your threshold.  Modern radar systems do this — this is called a Classic Detection Problem, and the curve that characterizes our little fishy’s detector is called an ROC curve.  For those with engineering interest, you can look all this up!  Believe it or not, it all started with a Presbyterian minister back in the 18th Century called Thomas Bayes, though I’d be remiss to not point you to the work of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener.

An interesting turn now takes place on the evolutionary path.  Better discrimination hones first those beginning seeds of mirroring behavior.  On/Off gets better and better.  At the same time, in order to determine a better On/Off, we also have to evolve a better signal estimator.  Now emergence starts playing a role.  That On/Off detector leads to a better estimator, and that estimator starts to evolutionarily seek advantage of its own.  Fish that feel compelled to stay in a school have an evolutionary advantage over fish that do not feel compelled.  The level of compulsion also likely leads to tightness in formation, or even looseness, as there is now a dynamic balance between size of the fish, and tightness of the school.  We start to see the advantage to different states- like anger, fear, passivity, and so on.

This was made possible by first solving (with evolution) the beginnings of collective movement.  But as with all acts of emergent sentience, it ends up having purposes beyond the original evolutionary adaptation.  The evolutionary winners find new uses for their new hardware/software combo.  The evolutionary seed is sown for emotions in the state differentiation and estimation problem.

Here is a key takeaway — evolution does not follow a pre-planned route to increased evolution, or sophistication.  Cockroaches have been in their same form for 140 million years!  Yet when you create a composite organism (schools of fish, as well as bands of humans!) where some level of sentience and shared information processing plays a major factor in their survival, we see how our more evolved displays of root-biological empathy (attachment behavior, prosody, development of the vagus nerve) come to the fore.  Think of it this way — it’s hardware that’s evolved, that’s just waiting to be used!

OK.  Now we have the basis for both mirroring behavior (ON/OFF) and emotional empathy (STATE processing.) What happens as we refine state processing?  Well, let’s think about how state processing would have to work.

In order to evaluate and make a decision on a particular state, we would need to evolve a probabilistic detector/estimator combo that would take in data, and then guess at a given state AFTER a certain amount of data is received.  That means State estimation grows out of time-based averaging/dichotomous decision making back in original problem — whether we can see another fishy or not.

Now our State estimator grows in sophistication.  It reads and crunches more and more specific data, now gives several different State recognitions, and pops out a decision.  It may do this more quickly, but over time, quick decisions might not pay off, especially as task complexity increases.

And maybe, as time scales lengthen/increase, averaging for STATE estimation starts yielding NO evolutionary benefit.  Things change around the organism, and so some level of temporal windowing starts playing a role in evolution.  Taking in the data, and matching it to your own experiences, which inherently takes a larger processor and is hugely computationally expensive (you’re matching more details, over different scenes!), and more time, starts yielding some degree of evolutionary advantage.

And it may turn out that the state information also starts confusing your estimation of what’s happening with the individual you’re attempting to coordinate with.  If you’re angry/sad/etc., you’re mixing up the signals that are preventing you from making a good decision, for you specifically, or the collective!  Now we can start seeing for an animal navigating a ton of different environments (remember that humans are spread across the globe!) becoming data-driven makes more and more sense.  Rational empathy starts becoming emergent and an advantage.

AND… finally, we end up where we want to consciously improve our own ability to estimate different changing circumstances, with different changing individuals.  And we realize maybe that WE’RE getting in the way.  So we evolve more profound, differentiated ‘being’ inside the collective.  As well as the ability to watch ourself.  Now we have the seeds of larger self-awareness.  Which leads to more emergent behavior.

What’s the bottom line?  The Empathy Pyramid makes sense.  It generates itself, and takes us far away from the warm Silurian seas our ancestors swam in so long ago.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to leave you with.

  1.  None of this is tied explicitly to a triune brain.  Any systems person can tell you that if you have one computer, and you have to hack a system together, you can do it with a number of different processor architectures.
  2. That said, one can see the advantages in optimality IN a triune brain structure.  Different parts work together, as well as differentiate function along the lines of instantaneous action, state, and experiential data.

So don’t tell me crows can’t love, or be smart.  Or that octopi can’t coordinate.  But you can also see the evolutionary advantages of having a triune brain as far as accelerating evolution and sophistication.

There’s also a relatively clear moral lesson that comes out of this.  We got better, and more sophisticated and evolved, because we took care of each other, in groups with increasing size and diversity.  We might remember this during this particularly mean political season.  We all get to cross the finish line together.

I’m Not the Only Person Interested in Conway’s Law

Chad and Conor

The older intellectual — and the younger one.  They might have been talking about Nietzsche.  Or Rajasthani taxi cab drivers.  Sept. 2018

In the process of discussing Microsoft’s stack ranking system, that certainly led to massive productivity loss at Microsoft, and maybe even to the collapse of several market dominance technologies, my co-conspirator Ryan Martens sent me the picture below, from Tomasz Tunguz’ blogconways_law_cornet

(Credit Tomasz Tunguz — Venture Capitalist at RedPoint)

tagged to an article about Conway’s Law that so much of my work is constructed around. Tomasz’ interpretation of Conway’s Law is considerably less nuanced than my own, and not as well-developed.  Still, I learned a couple of things, most notably that the Harvard Business Review turned down Melvin Conway’s attempt to publish his theory in 1967.  Conway went on to get his Ph.D. from my B.S. alma mater, Case Western Reserve University.

Tunguz’ org. charts for product development are, as followers of this blog know, incomplete, because they don’t account for:

a.) the directionality of those little arrows — what’s the direction of information flow?

b.) the information coherence embodied by those little arrows – how much are people paying attention on either side of any given node to what is being said, and how are their v-Memes interpreting this?

c.) the flexibility of re-direction — how much does the org. chart discriminate from people going outside the org. chart to form their own relationships?

Every organization has an org. chart that kinda looks like one of the above (I love the Microsoft one with the little guns!) that is produced by the C-suite.  But every organization also has an actual org. chart, that will dictate the real structure of product design.  Such real org. charts are also time-dependent.  There may be a time when everything in a smallish organization may get reviewed by, say, a master mechanical designer for conformance, as well as an overview of unnoticed synergies, and that doesn’t show up on ‘who reports to whom.’  The expanded version of Conway’s Law we talk about is really a thing, and a fundamental law of the universe.

I did love (well, maybe found stimulating) the fact that the HBR turned down Conway’s paper.  It really helps my argument that lower v-Meme publications, no matter how sophisticated, are gonna shoot down more evolved thinking with regularity.

On another note, Tomasz is obviously an ‘ahead of the curve’ thinker, and I’m going to recommend reading his blog.  He’s also a venture capitalist, and an author himself.  His latest book is Winning with Data: Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future (Wiley). Might have to pick it up and give it a look.  I’ve also written Tomasz and will see if he writes back.  He’s got questions.  We’ve got answers.

Oh — and if you need a Sunday Reading, I highly recommend the obvious short post referenced in this blog, as well as the Vanity Fair article at the beginning of this piece.  This whole notion of competition uber alles as the path to success is effectively destroyed in this excellent piece.  Jack Welch’s (former CEO of General Electric) philosophies, that are really the roots of all this, carried to extreme have really wrecked American business, and created the mess with shareholder capitalism that’s currently destroying our country.

And you might review this as well on the Intermediate Corollary, which puts that Knowledge thing in the middle of Social and Design structure.  Not having an independent article on the Intermediate Corollary is a deep flaw of the blog.  I think I’ve written about it a ton in all my academic papers (that no one reads, BTW) that I’d forgotten about being more explicit here, where people actually come.  As of this writing, I’m up to about 33K views…

Quickie Post — What does being a full professor really mean?

Acropolis South View

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece — it’s a zoo, but such a lovely zoo.  October, 2018

This little piece of v-Meme conflict popped up in my news feed today — titled

For Some Scholars, a Full Professorship Calls for ‘a Lot of Paperwork’ That ‘Doesn’t Mean Anything’

it comes on the heels of Donna Strickland’s being one of the awardees of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

For those not “in the know” regarding academic ranking, the typical academic hierarchy consists of assistant, associate and full professor.  Assistant professor is a provisional rank, usually for five or six years, when a decision is made whether to give tenure, which is one of those things that sounds like lifetime employment, but is actually a mixed bag.  Associate is what one becomes after one is tenured.  Full professorship is supposed to be similar to making Senior Partner in a law firm, but that’s kind of an anachronistic definition.  In today’s world of academia, it doesn’t mean much.  Prof. Strickland is only an Associate Professor.  From the article:

“Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, told the Waterloo Region Record that climbing the career ladder didn’t seem worth the effort when her job wasn’t at stake and a pay raise wasn’t a given.

“It’s all on me. I think people are thinking it’s because I’m a woman, I’m being held back,” said Strickland, who has been an associate professor at Waterloo since 2002, according to the Optical Society website. “I’m just a lazy person. I do what I want to do, and that wasn’t worth doing.”

That’s about as good an example of Performance-based v-Meme thinking (no money, so why bother?), likely coupled with a little good old-fashioned egocentric Authoritarian following-her-own-muse thinking as possible.  Mix in some Second Tier reflection and you end up with her situation!

The rest of the article profiles the increase in service work that often accompanies being a full professor.  Relatively true.  Needless to say, if Prof. Strickland wants to seek a full professorship elsewhere, she’s unlikely to have much difficulty finding one!

Social Coherence and V-Memes

Kitty Hoodoos large view

The first middle-age Taiwanese psychologist to see the Kelly Creek Hoodoos, Clearwater NF, Idaho, August, 2018

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is empathy, its various stages, and larger social coherence.  It’s easy to state something like “empathy is the key thing that creates social coherence.”  But the truth is more complex, and in the end, the connecting dynamic of empathy and how it actually manifests is really just what it is — an understructure for assuming that everyone in the larger collective is operating on the same v-Meme page.  Societies are like any other living thing.  They attempt to maintain homeostasis through the various means, memes and dynamics available to them.  Low empathy societies can have broad scale social coherence — there’s something like 1.2 billion people in China, and few would argue that it is still, after 2000 years of change and progression, an Authoritarian culture, with Legalistic intentions.

Yet Chinese people get things done in groups.  One of my favorite stories from the ’90s, before the incredible technical/social surge in China, came from a friend of mine who was, at the time, working for a large petrochemical concern in northwest Washington State.  A process engineer, he was tasked with going to China to figure out a deal between his company and the Chinese state for them to co-own and supervise that oil refinery.

The first thing that hit him was the total employment at the refinery — around 15,000 people.  This for a refinery that produced about half the output (I think — memory fades here a bit) of their super-connected facility stateside.  What did all those people do?  If you needed a big hole dug, the supervisor would issue the order — to 1000 people with shovels.  They would run over to the place where the hole needed to be dug, and people would start digging.

For such a hole to be dug stateside, my friend would schedule one of the front end loaders on the sheet, the operator would go out there perhaps with a surveyor and a supervisor, and the hole would be dug.  When he asked his plant engineer cohort why they hadn’t bought a large piece of earthmoving equipment (this is the 1990s, not the 1890s!) he said “well, what would all those people do if they couldn’t dig that hole?”  My friend’s company did not end up buying the refinery.

Needless to say, there is large-scale social coherence needed to have 1000 people dig a hole at once, and perhaps there are lessons to be learned as well.  How can we understand this?  Societies are seldom static, and at some level, many of the cultures that exist in the world today have lots of stuff to teach any person.  But at the same time, the information must be contextualized in order to be understood.  Do we really need to understand how to get 1000 people to dig a hole in this day and age?

Let’s start with one of my favorite pictures — the Evolution vs. Sophistication map, that shows a 2-d landscape for understanding complexity of knowledge.  See below:

Evolution vs Sophistication

Something like the 1000 people digging a hole at once requires a fair amount of sophistication, but assumes lots of homogeneity in the folks digging the hole.  China is one of the least diverse countries, considering its gross population, on the planet — some 95% of the population is Han Chinese.  So we can assume that there is very little differentiation among the individual workers digging the hole.  They need short spatial scales, and short temporal scales in order to coordinate the digging.  All you really need to know is the direction you’re supposed to be going, and how to dig so you don’t hit your neighbor’s shovel.  Not a lot of agency is required, and in fact, would be punished.  Someone doing something radically different would likely mess up the larger group coordination.

Energetics of individual nodes/workers are pretty much the same.  There might be a couple of high-flyers out there digging ahead of the rest of the crew, but they’re fed the same egg-and-rice caloric input everyone else is fed.  You’re supposed to watch the leader (who, being Han Chinese as well) looks like you, and in case you, dear reader, have never dug a ditch, trust me that there’s not a lot of brain power required.  But in a world of work scarcity, everyone is assured their place.  They’re out of the Survival v-Meme.

If you had to locate the whole operation on the graph above, you’d map out from the Authoritarian v-Meme (workers are told where to dig) about 25%.  It’s a simple task, and the knowledge structures are authority-driven fragments (Dig here!  Start digging!  Stop digging!  Time for lunch!) There is likely higher level coordination up a couple of levels.  Someone has to decide that the hole needs to be dug.  But even that position has to be relatively low empathy.  You can’t really be worried about 1000 workers with shovels, other than to make sure they’re directed, and fed.

As we’ve discussed earlier in this blog, just because a society is low-empathy doesn’t mean it doesn’t continue to aggregate knowledge in the knowledge structures that are available to it.  The Chinese have been doing this for literally thousands of years, and in many ways, when it comes to sophistication of managing social coherence, are way ahead of us.  I’ve written here about The 36 Stratagems, which are how one deals with one’s competitors, as well as here about Chengyu, which are often ways one deals with the empathy-disordered in the midst.  Over a couple thousand years, it does no good to deny that there are psychopaths in your midst.  If you want larger social coherence, you have to provide mechanisms for people to acknowledge the validity of one’s authority.  And it has to be in the knowledge structure that people can use.  Hence, the 4 and 8 character chengyu, narrative tags for larger stories, that number in the thousands and pull deeper Tribal v-Meme knowledge up that allow people to accept the reality of living with various, controlling assholes and not losing their minds.  If one were to plot that on the graph above, I think it’s safe to say we’re out around 95% from the Authoritarian v-Meme.  Considering the difficulty we’re having in dealing with the empathy-disordered, or even acknowledging their existence, across politics, corporate leadership, or even in our own backyard, we sure could use some social coherence learned from the Chinese about now.

It’s fun to talk about the lower v-Memes with regards to social coherence, because the short timescales are something we can relate to.  In fully Tribal v-Meme societies, the way social coherence is maintained is, too often, killing someone who’s causing problems, or coming up with an appropriate compensation strategy for the victim.  Jared Diamond talks extensively about this in Guns, Germs and Steel.  When someone is giving you a hard time you didn’t deserve at work, certain brief strategies have to cross your mind!

As one moves up the Evolution axis, it simply makes sense that as agency increases, developed empathy has to also increase.  We’ve got to consider someone’s emotions, as well as outcomes they might want to achieve, in order to reach social coherence.  For the Legalistic v-Meme, this gets embodied in everyone following the same regulations, or even standards and codes, if you want to think like an engineer.  When you screw a nut onto a bolt, you expect it to be manufactured within a specification so you can spin it tight.

But all this requires more information, structured appropriately.  A general use bolt comes with implied characteristics, and maybe the only thing that matters is the thread size, bolt length, and such.  But move out much of the Sophistication axis, for varying applications (like high temperature, corrosive environments, etc.) and you’re into some serious algorithmic process restriction.

Up the Spiral, to Performance v-Meme behavior, shared goals, scaffolded from below, provide coherence.  On up into Communitarian v-Meme behavior, the example that comes to mind that sounds trivial, but in reality is quite complex, might be the ritual of the Potluck dinner.  Everyone in the community has to have data on each other’s masterful dish, and when those independent nodes communicate, the group can show up in one place with a memorable feast.  Trust and empathy naturally come into it — one has very little leverage except the value of the independently generated relationship.  And you’ve got to know if Susie or Hans is lying about buying that new super-duper deep fat fryer.  The proof will be in the fried chicken.  Imagine an Authoritarian potluck, with no sophistication.  One person tells all the members what to bring, regardless of their capability.  Feedback comes back only after the experience itself.  Not so great for everyone having a savory time.

In the end, social coherence, or the homeostasis that marks its existence, is maintained in any social circumstance through that integral feedback loop of knowledge structure, social structure, empathetic development, and independent agency.  It’s an interminable chicken-and-egg process. Change one, and it does feed back to the others — but not necessarily the way one thinks.  Give complex, sequenced commands to a bunch of Authoritarians, through yelling at them (or standing up in front of a classroom) well, don’t expect too much. If the chaos is high enough, and the social coherence a priori is weak, you can expect a little Tribal v-Meme In-group/Out-group dynamic.  Don’t be surprised when you’re the one driven into the wilderness.

But once you understand its need, the one thing that almost always will yield positive benefits is growing your people empathetically.  It’s always easy to reach down and get in the ditch.  Not so easy to reach upward in an immediate circumstance.