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 BLOG >> June 2016

A Pattern A Day [Design
Posted on June 23, 2016 @ 07:43:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, learning a pattern language, I suggested that learning a pattern language is a long term committment. In the case of Christoper Alexander's pattern language, there are 253 patterns to learn. There are other patterns to learn besides Alexander's which mainly catalogues patterns related to towns, buildings and construction.

If learning a pattern language is a long term committment, then how should we proceed to learn a pattern language? My own ideal approach, which I'm toying with, is to learn a pattern a day. Today that will involve studying one of the patterns in Alexander's book. It will also involve reading about a plant family pattern in Thomas Eppel's book Botany in a Day (2013, 6th Edition). Thomas has a recent video on plant identification that discusses his "patterns method" to plant identification.

Another place I'll try to learn some patterns is through observation of nature and the recordings of those observations. Observing a pattern might be like landing a big fish, a bit much to expect on every outing into nature. Perhaps if you come to the landscape with a pattern language observing patterns each day becomes more likely.

Before trying to develop a pattern language for business, it is probably advisable to master a pattern language from some of the masters and then use that fluency as the basis for coming up with a pattern language for business.

One of the motivations for learning a pattern language is that there are alot of unnamed or unobserved patterns right in front of our noses that we lack the language to express or identify. Naming a pattern is important so that we have a language to discuss how we might use those patterns in some design we might be contemplating.

Alot of good pinterest pages strike me as someone's cataloging of patterns applicable to some domain they are interested in. What is lacking is an attempt to name patterns and identify the field of forces giving rise to the patterns and how they resolve it. The pattern brings joy to the pinterester which is often the basis for identifying patterns worth caring about, but they are mere novelties if they are not accompanied by labelling and some explication of why the pattern works.

The pattern I studied today from Christopher Alexander's book was selected at random was pattern 33 labelled "Night life". Here is the context statement for the pattern: Most of the city's activities close down at night; those which stay open won't do much for the night life of the city unless they are together (p. 180). Here is the pattern he suggests as the solution: Knit together shops, amusements, and services which are open at night, along with hotels, bars, and all-night diners to form centers of night life: well-lit, safe, and lively places that increase the intesity of pedestian activity at night by drawing all the people who are out at night to the same few spots in the town. Encourage these evening centers to distribute themselves evenly accross the town. (p. 182).

I recently heard an interview by Ben Cowan-Dewar on the opening of his second golf course, the acclaimed Cabot Cliffs golf course. They have one world class oceanside golf course built, the Cabot Links, and built a second nearby golf course, the Cabot Cliffs with commanding views of the ocean below. His comment was that "one golf course is a novelty, 2 golf courses is a destination". Likewise, one night life amusement is a novelty but many night life amusements becomes a destination. The night life pattern can be applied beyond night life situations which is what makes learning a pattern language a potentially useful design tool. The night life pattern applied to golf tourism.


Learning A Pattern Language [Design
Posted on June 21, 2016 @ 07:49:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a previous blog called Wholistic Design I pointed to some recent discussion of Christopher Alexander's ideas on the nature of design. For anyone interested in the nature of design you will eventually cross paths with Alexander's pattern language work, in particular, his book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977).

I purchased this book many years ago and did not get very far into it because it is 1171 pages long plus a fairly extensive prologue that is not included in this page count. I don't have the luxury of sitting down to read a book of this girth and when I dipped into it, all I found was some weird discussions of different architectural ideas that didn't make alot of sense to me.

The problem was I didn't read the prologue that provides more guidance on why the book has the structure it does, how the discussion of each pattern is structured, and what you are supposed to take away from reading about each of the 253 patterns discussed in it. Once you get the basic idea on how the book works, you can read it like a car manual where you only read the sections that you find relevant or interesting. Like a car manual, you may find that reading about one aspect of your vehicle leads you to reading about other aspects of your vehicle to get a deeper understanding of your problem and possible solutions. Each pattern in the pattern language book provides references/hyperlinks to other patterns so that you can see how the pattern relates to patterns above it and below it. Reading the book becomes a process of jumping from one pattern to another to see how it might complete a higher level pattern or be completed by using a lower level pattern. A pattern language has a syntactic structure with pattern elements related hierarchically to other elements.

A book on towns, buildings and constructions written in 1977 is bound to be a bit dated in some ways, but is irrelevant because the true task of the book is to teach the reader what a pattern language is by giving the reader 253 phrases/patterns in that language. Like any language, you can't learn it or become fluent in it in one sitting. You should keep consulting the book for patterns as you have time, relate them to your experience, and eventually you will start to pick up the language.

One way in which Alexander's work has evolved is that there are now pattern languages for other domains than the domains Alexander devised his language for. Alexander's pattern language was for "towns, buildings and constructions", but there are now suggested pattern languages in the Permaculture literature for domains of market gardens and edibible forest gardens.

Is it possible to develop a pattern language that might apply to starting a business or investing in a business? David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, in book 2 of Edible Forest Gardens, offer some guidance in the form of a 3 step process:

If you find yourself in a specific garden or other place that "works", that feels alive to you, that you want to use as a basis for abstracting a pattern, you must do three things. First, define the physical feature(s) of the place that seem worth abstracting. Base this judgement on your own observations of the space, its features, and what makes it so special. What is the essence of what makes the place work so well? Second, define the problem the pattern solves or the field of forces this pattern resolves. Finally, define the range of contexts where this problem or field of forces exists, and where this pattern might therefore be useful.

A preexisting pattern language is a good guide to what a pattern is and how to define one for yourself. Ultimately, though your inner senses will be the best guide to this work. Pay attention to your innter voice as you go through the process, for wwhen you experience an "aha" moment you will have found something worlthwhile. The key points to remember are that the best patterns generate a sense of alivementess, and that patterns solve problems.

I would add that patterns solve problems worth solving because the pattern feels good, generates a sense of aliveness, and solves a problem (i.e.., resolves a field of potentially conflicting forces).

The purpose of this blog is to suggest that it might be worth learning one of the pattern languages out there, starting with Alexander's one seminal discussion of them. You might want to read Kevin Kelly's introduction and endorsement of Alexander's book and how he used a pattern language to successful design his own property.


Serial Entrepreneurship Critique [Entrepreneurship
Posted on June 14, 2016 @ 09:39:00 AM by Paul Meagher

To call someone a "serial entrepreneur" is often considered a badge of honor. That entrepreneur can bring a set of entrepreneur skills to new ventures and make them successful. At least that is the implicit theory. But is it true?

The are lots of high profile cases of entrepreneurs who have had multiple successful ventures and coverage of such stories probably leads to the belief that serial entrepreneurship is quite common. One thing to note about these examples is that the entrepreneurship in question often involves going through the cycle from startup to business angel, meaning the entrepreneur owns/manages a business that is successful and cashes out during an exit and with that capital is able to invest/start a new business. Starting a business with little capital is quite different that starting a business with a trunk of cash to begin with. Can we really consider the second venture a startup when it may not be cash-constrained in the same way the first venture was?

We might look at the opposite situation to study serial entrepreneurship, namely, the case where an entrepreneur fails in their fist startup venture but uses the lessons learned to succeed in their next startup venture. This case is often not used in studies of serial entrepreneurship because a serial entrepreneur is supposed to move from success to success; however, studying entrepreneurship in this way can be problematic because the cash position of the entrepreneur is different accross the two startup episodes and it becomes difficult to disentangle the reasons for success in the second case: transfer of entrepreneurial skills to the next venture or transfer of cash/resources from the first venture to the next venture.

There are two other reasons to be critical of the serial entrepreneur concept. Often it is simply not the case that entrepreneurial skills will help to ensure success in a second venture. The domain knowledge required to succeed in the second venture may easily outstrip the value of the acquired entrepreneurial skills in ensuring success in the second venture. In my own experience, any success I have had in my web businesses venture does not provide enough transferrable skills to ensure that I will succeed in my farming venture. The knowledge and physical requirements are very different. I'm sure there is some carryover of an entrepreneurial skillset, but the value of that skillset seems minor in comparison to the value of knowing how to grow plants, animals, soil, manage equipment, do farm accounting, market farm products, etc...

I suppose the jump from one business venture to another is often not as extreme as going from a web business to farming so the chances of success might be higher for serial entrepreneurs venturing in a nearby or reachable domian within an industry. Serial entrepreneurship may be more likely to succeed in such cases. If so, our notion of serial entrepreneurship should accord less valor to the entrepreneur as they are not really stretching into new industries and might be viewed as applying the same domain knowledge to a slightly different venture. That is difficult enough and I don't want to disparage this notion of serial entrepreur too much, but it would be useful to see some correlational analysis that looks at the relationship between successful startup ventures to see if they tend to be in the same industry or not. There probably are such studies but I haven't spent alot of time googling the question

The final critique I want to make about serial entrepreneurship is that it implies that business venturing is a matter of "crushing it" in a few years and moving onto a new venture for another few years and "crushing it" again. The notion of grit doesn't figure in this view very much. The notion of Grit according to Angela Duckworth involves the twin components of passion and perserverence. Often to achieve greatness in any domain requires that we persevere over the long term in attaining skills/knowledge/achievements. Either Angela is wrong when it comes to entrepreneurship, and she very well could be, or the notion of serial entrepreneurship is deficient in that it suggests that much can be attained without alot of perseverance, or at least less perservence than is required to become an accomplished musician, athelete, chess player, etc...

To read another critque of the notion of serial entrepreneurship, see the TechCrunch article It’s time to remove “serial entrepreneur” from our vocabulary (May, 2016).

The purpose of this blog is encourage more critical thinking around the notion of "Serial Entrepreneurship". The popular press often treats the notion as unproblematic and not comprised of lots of potentially different subcases. The academic literature is more critical and has to make some of the distinctions I have raised to study it and explain it. For the record I do think that there are serial entrepreneurs out there and I have respect for their achievements, but I don't think the idea of "serial entrepreneur" is necessarily a useful explanatory tool for explaining success accross ventures. Maybe it is not so much the skills acquired in the first venture that explains success in the second venture, but the cash position and domain specific knowledge that explains the bulk of why the second venture is successful. That would make serial entrepreneurship a little less amazing but provide more realistic explanations for why a person is able to achieve success accross multiple ventures.

One last point to leave you with. The data on entrepreneurs who have attempted to start two businesses that they own/manage does not point to a high correlation between success in one venture and the next venture. You may want to google this number and explore the correlation for yourself as there is not alot of agreement on the exact degree of correlation and I don't want to suggest a number. If the notion of a "serial entrepreneur" is to explain anything one would think there should be a high correlation between the success in one venture and success in a subsequent venture? If not, does the concept of a serial entrepreneur really explain much?


Wholistic Design [Permaculture
Posted on June 10, 2016 @ 06:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The architect Christopher Alexander wrote many influential books on architecture and landscape design. He is especially known for the concept of a "pattern language". Christopher was lead author of the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction in which 253 design patterns are discussed. An example of a design pattern is the Street Cafe design pattern:

The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by... Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street. ~ Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, p. 437,439

So the idea is that you would learn all these design patterns and together they would create a design language that could be used to inform the design of towns, buildings and construction.

Christopher Alexander wrote 13 books, many of them thick books, so it is not easy to access the totality of his thinking. Recently, Dan Palmer wrote a useful and provocative article called Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture in which he points out that Alexander had a very different idea of what wholistic design consists of than Permaculture appears to. This is a bit embarrassing because Permaculture often claims to draw inspiration from Christoper but seems to have missed how radically different his approach to wholistic design is.

In a nutshell, Christopher views wholistic design as evolving from a vague pattern into differentiated parts, where Permaculture often advocates a view of design as consisting of the assembly of parts into an integrated functional whole. Dan Palmer created a nice diagram to illustrate the difference:

Dan's article has sparked some interesting discussions with leading Permaculture thinkers, David Holmgren and David Jacke, and you can follow these discussions and Dan's progress at Making Permaculture Stronger.

So is wholistic design a process of parts assembly, or is it a process of differentiating a whole into more defined parts, or both? It is both, but the view of wholistic design as a differentiation process has been revitalized by this discussion and it is worth evaluating as it has implications for how you approach design problems.

Today, I was browsing an influential article I read many years ago from Steven J. Gould and Richard Lewonton called Evolution The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme (1979, PDF) that seemed relevant to this debate.

Here is part of the first paragraph from that article:

An adaptationist programme has dominated evolutionary thought in England and the United States during the past forty years. It is based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimizing agent. It proceeds by breaking an organism into unitary "traits" and proposing an adaptive story for each considered separately. Trade-offs among competing selective demands exert the only brake upon perfection; nonoptimality is thereby rendered as a result of adaptation as well. We criticize this approach and attempt to reassert a competing notion (long popular in continental Europe) that organisms must be analyzed as integrated wholes, with baupläne so constrained by phyletic heritage, pathways of development, and general architecture that the constraints themselves become more interesting and more important in delimiting pathways of change than the selective force that may mediate change when it occurs.

The issue of wholistic design arises in evolution when we try to figure out how integrated systems such as humans have come to be. The wholistic design process that nature uses is generally one of parts differentiation at the level of embryonic development (cylindrical blob morphs into a being with arms and leg, then toes and fingers, etc...) and Gould & Lewonton are arguing that it may also be one of parts differentiation (from a "baupläne" or "body plan") over evolutionary time. Gould and Lewonton also mention the term "constraints" which is necessary to introduce when discussing design and the role that it might play in the process. The "constraints" recognized and used in a version of wholistic design as a parts-assembly process is probably different that the constraints recognized and used in a version of wholistic design as a parts-differentiation process (e.g., what you currently have is probably recognized as more of a constaint).

The purpose of today's blog is to introduce you to an interesting discussion about the nature of design that happening in Permaculture circles and to explore a bit whether Steven J. Gould and Richard Lewonton were trending in the same way as Christopher Alexander in their thinking about what wholistic design consists of.


Uneconomic Growth [Economics
Posted on June 7, 2016 @ 07:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The ecological economist Herman E. Daly popularized the concept of uneconomic growth in a Scientific American article (2005, PDF) and more recently in a Great Transition article (2015).

In his Scientific American article he introduced the concept of uneconomic growth this way:

When the economy’s expansion encroaches too much on its surrounding ecosystem, we will begin to sacrifice natural capital (such as fish, minerals and fossil fuels) that is worth more than the man-made capital (such as roads, factories and appliances) added by the growth. We will then have what I call uneconomic growth, producing “bads” faster than goods—making us poorer, not richer.

In the last few days I've been dealing with uneconomic growth in my vineyard and I think anyone who practices horticultural pruning can appreciate the concept of uneconomic growth or growth that detracts from, rather than adds to, the value of a plant.

In the case of young grape vines, I was impressed that they grew at all for me and didn't do enough pruning to properly control their growth. This year as I do the my first round of major weeding around the vine, I am also using my thumb to selectively remove buds that will throw off shoots if allowed to survive. The removal of a bud now means I won't have to cut that cane off over the summer and the plant will not have wasted energy growing the cane. The cane will also not shade out other canes. I'm hoping this form of pruning will make the job of managing the vines easier this year and produce grapes with a higher sugar content. We'll see...

The alternative of letting all the buds grow after cane pruning is the practice I used to follow and even this year I'm probably allowing too many buds to survive because I have not tested this viticultural practice, but feel that I have observed the end result in one superbly managed vineyard.

So when I think of uneconomic growth I also think about the example of grape vines that require some pruning in order to create more value and less work. Proper growth is about managing the growth energy of the vine by nipping some forms of growth in the bud stage before they have a chance to waste resources and create future work. You have to be able to forsee the consequences of growth to know what buds need to be nipped early. Nipping them too late leads to the uneconomic growth of the plant, one that can produce unripe fruit and lots of unnecessary canopy managment work.

I think it is important to dispel the notion that all growth is good. Some can suck energy from other more valuable projects and result in extra work with little payback. I don't think we automatically become experts at making these judgement calls and that sometimes we only learn when we accept that jobs that suck too much energy and teaches you the lesson to be more selective.

When Daly used the term "uneconomic growth" we was talking about bigger societal issues that arise as we approach a "full world". I think the notion of uneconomic growth should also be related to personal experience to be fully assimilated and for me I find that personal reference in the vineyard and in my early days of working at startups.




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