Friday, October 17, 2014

System Design and Construction

Way back in my life, when I was considering getting out of hospital work, I decided to learn computer programming.  Although I had mixed feelings about computers, I was good with them and I enjoyed the logic of computer programming as well as the fact that if you did it right, you could make a computer do something.

Unfortunately, I realized that I was thinking about programming all the time and didn't like the way I felt-- sort of like I was trapped in computer thinking.  So I stopped studying computer programming, but every so often I find myself attracted to computer books.  Since one of the folks that I'm staying with works with and teaches about computers, he has some computer books lying around.  I picked up one and started to read it and was surprised to realize it was useful--not just for work with computers, but a lot of what the author is talking about seemed applicable to any type of design and planning work and seemed very systems oriented.

Of course, it isn't really surprising when I think about it because, just as the human body is a system composed of subsystems (see my last couple of posts), a computer program is a system composed of subsystems.  The book, Code Complete by Steve McConnell, proclaims on its cover that it's "A practical handbook of software construction".  While a lot of the book is about programming techniques (with a bunch of examples in 'code' or programming language), there's also a whole bunch of thinking that might be useful to anyone planning any type of project.  (Some of it reminds me of the way that Ben Falk approaches permaculture design--see my post called Resilient Farm, 8/25/14, for a bit more on that.)

Here's an odd place to start reviewing Code Complete but one of the books that the author references as a resource is The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert Simon.  I hadn't heard of it before but McConnell says it "draws a distinction between sciences dealing with the natural world (biology, geology, and so on) and sciences that deal with the artificial world created by humans (business, architecture, and computer science).  It then discusses the characteristics of the sciences of the artificial, emphasizing the science of design."  (This book looks like something I will probably want to read.) Again, comparing this to Ben Falk, Falk points out the difference between natural systems and human created structures (like buildings) and the different care needed to give to each.  We can help natural systems evolve (and can design things to do this), but we need to actively design artificial systems like buildings, etc.  (And I think that communities have aspects of both.)  McConnell's book focuses on the design and construction of artificial systems--and it's important to understand that artificial systems are necessary, we just need to get them to support natural systems and not vice versa.

McConnell has a whole chapter entitled 'Measure Twice, Cut Once'.  That's advice I've often seen in books about construction and design.  Nevertheless, when I built a shelving unit at my cousins' house, I put it up fast, and then had to redo it, not once but twice.  We built a second shelving unit and this time we measured multiple times before we put it up--and it went up without a problem.  Yes, this stuff is important.

The book claims that growing is a good way to describe natural processes, but for design of artificial systems terms like accretion, building, and construction are more useful.  ("...building construction suggests careful preparation is needed and illuminates the difference between large and small projects.") McConnell point out the importance of problem definition and the problem with moving too quickly toward solutions before adequately defining the problem.  He covers design challenges such as 'wicked problems' and dealing with the fact that 'Design is a Sloppy Process (Even If it Produces a Tidy Result)'.

Here's another good quote from the book: "A study of great designers found that one attribute they had in common was their ability to anticipate change... Accommodating changes is one of the most challenging aspects of good program design."    McConnell even talks about the personality characteristics of good programmers (or, I would say, any good designers), which he claims are humility, curiosity, intellectual honesty, creativity and discipline, and what he calls 'enlightened laziness'.  He believes that the two ways to make laziness work for you are  1) "Doing an unpleasant task quickly to get it out of the way" and 2) "Writing a tool to do the unpleasant task so that you never have to do the task again".  (Or creating a process that does the task.)

There's lots more in here but this gives you an idea.  This is a book worth browsing if you want to get ideas on the basics of systems design and construction.

Quote of the Day:  "You need to experiment throughout the development process...  To experiment effectively you must be willing to change your beliefs based on the results of the experiment.  If you're not willing, experimentation is a gratuitous waste of time." - Steve McConnell

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Functions of Sex

Every so often, as I cover every subject I can think of in the belief that everything is connected--and everything is related to social change and community--I occasionally come to the subject of sex.  I've mentioned several times that I am pansexual (I used to use the term bisexual--but that implies that there are either only two sexes or that I'm only interested in two of them) and polyamorous.  These days I sometimes think of myself as panamorous--I'm learning to love everybody and everything.

I'm very aware that sex is only one way (out of perhaps zillions) of loving another person, but it's a very important one and one that's quite lovely to me and many other folks.  I'm also very aware that this isn't a useful way of loving for some people and actual talking about it upsets some folks, so I don't talk about it much.

I am also not surprised, and can understand it, when certain religious people claim that the only function of sex is for procreation.  I am much more surprised, and rather dismayed, when I hear that claim from more science-oriented folks.

In my last post (The Body's Wisdom), I reviewed Sherwin Nuland's book The Wisdom of the Body.  I really liked it, as I said in the review, and want to point out that he covers many of the body's systems in some detail: the circulatory system, lymphatic system, the nervous system, the hormonal system, the alimentary (gastrointestinal) system, and the reproductive system.  And I learned from and enjoyed almost everything he wrote, except when he was writing about the reproductive system.

Here is a condensed (and, I think, representative) sample of what he wrote:

"Our reproductive organs... contribute nothing to our survival.  ... they contribute everything to our ability to reproduce ourselves.
"...The entire female reproductive system exists to serve the needs of the ovary.  The whole complex of uterus, tubes, vagina, and external genitals has as its sole function to ensure that the ovary's primary product, the ovum, is properly cared for. ...
"The ovum's blind quest... is one of the most powerful primordial forces in the creation of what we call human nature. ... We know that the urge to reproduce is a prime mover in all other animals--why not ourselves?  Were it otherwise, our species would die out.
"... We seek a course toward  reproducing our own kind through the maze and morass of contradictory drives... The complex and uncertain journey is not made one iota easier by ... being directed toward what is ultimately, under its many-layered raiment of sexuality, the simple need that an ovum be fertilized."

There is no question that one of the main functions of sexuality is reproduction.  For many creatures, from earthworms to aardvarks, that may be the sole function.  (Although I strongly suspect that earthworms, not to mention aardvarks, enjoy the process.)  I don't believe that's true when we are talking about primates.  Sex has a whole bunch of functions for human beings and even for our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos.  (For a bit more on this see my post Bonobos and Chimpanzees, 7/30/08.)   As primatologist Frans de Waal once pointed out, "Chimps use violence to get sex, while bonobos use sex to avoid violence." No one who studied bonobos would believe that their only use of sex was for reproduction.

I want to look at three of what I think are the main functions of sex for human beings.  (I suspect that there are others, but this is what I want to focus on.)

And, yes, the first is reproduction.  If we didn't have sex and reproduce, we would, as Sherwin Nuland pointed out, die out.  The Shakers are an interesting example of that.  On the other hand, what Dr Nuland and many other advocates of sex as reproduction fail to observe is that we are now in a situation of population overshoot. We don't need to always reproduce--in fact, increasing reproduction may also cause the human race to die off.  (For more on controlling population see my very early post Five Simple Things You Can Do to Reduce Population, 8/21/08.)

This also fails to observe how important sex is for same sex couples and even heterosexual couples that don't want children--or couples who have had children and don't want more or are beyond the age of child bearing.  (Not to mention for people who engage in non-couple sex like masturbation, threesomes, etc.)  This is one of the main reasons heterosexual people practice birth control--they want to have sex without reproducing.  And I've never heard even religious groups say that couples beyond their reproductive years have to stop having sex.  Sex must have a purpose beyond reproduction.

Here's one.  Pleasure.  Sex is pleasurable and there's nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think that one of the nicest functions of sex is to give another person pleasure.  Yes, we ourselves get pleasure from sex, but what a gift it is to give pleasure to another person--hopefully making them very happy.  I think this is a wonderful function of sex.

And here's another.  Connection.  Sex is one way (but hardly the only way) to help people feel closer.  It literally can be a way to connect very closely with another human.

There are many, many people using sex for pleasure and connection, as a way of being loving with another person (or with themselves) who have no interest in using it to have children.  While reproduction is important (and problematic as well) it is hardly the only function of sex.

Quote of the Day:  "Sex is for pleasure, a complete and worthwhile goal in and of itself. People have sex because it feels very good, and then they feel good about themselves." -  Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Body's Wisdom

I'm still in Virginia with my cousins.  The house has an extensive library with books very different from what I usually read (religious books, libertarian books, books on English history and things about Virginia and the southern US, books on computer security systems, etc).  Even so, I've found a bunch of books on different topics that I've been reading through.  I've also been reading through some books that I brought with me, including Thinking in Systems (which I mentioned in my last post).  And I have been thinking about systems.

Some of the books from this house have given me views on systems from angles that I don't usually think about them from.  So my next three post (hopefully) will be on unusual takes on systems.

And why should I write about systems on a blog devoted to social change and focusing lately on intentional community?  Community, as I alluded to in my last post, is a system.  And social change is systemic change.  I remember in the sixties people fighting against 'The System'.  I'm not sure if people were talking about the political system, the economic system, or the cultural system, but they're all systems.  And, in doing social change, we want to create new systems.

A lot of things that we don't usually think of as a system, are systems--and sometimes, systems of systems.  Take the human body.  One of the things about my cousins' library was that, while there were science books, they were about mathematics, and logic, and computers, and electronics.  I complained to one of my cousins that I was more interested in the biological sciences.  And then I found a book called, The Wisdom of the Body.

The Wisdom of the Body is the name of a book, well known in some systems circles, written in 1932 by Walter Cannon, which focused on the body's control over things like digestion, circulation, and temperature.  This book introduced the term homeostasis, which is about mechanisms that keep things constant.  While Cannon mostly focused on body processes, the term is also used to discuss things like the thermostat in most houses, which maintains the house at the temperature you set. This was one of the early writings on what led to systems thinkers talking about feedback loops (something Donella Meadows discusses at length).  However, the book in my cousins' house wasn't Walter Cannon's book.  It was a book by the same name by Sherwin Nuland, (who was a surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital), who says that he took the name to honor, not only Walter Cannon, but Ernest Starling (who gave a talk by that name in 1923 and apparently influenced Walter Cannon) and Charles Sherrington (who also gave a lecture by that title around 1938).

Nuland's book is an idiosyncratic blend of discussions of the anatomy and physiology of many of the body's systems, with stories from his time as a surgeon and philosophical musings, which occasionally were about systems thinking.  One very pertinent section (right after he talked about Cannon's book) is a paragraph that doesn't directly mention the body at all, but is about how systems function, particularly around change:

"A stable system is not a system that never changes.  It is a system that constantly and instantly adjusts and readjusts in order to maintain such a state of being that all necessary functions are permitted to operate at maximum efficiency.  Stability demands change to compensate for changing circumstances.  Ultimately, then, stability depends on instability."

This could have been a quote from Dana Meadows or from one of the complexity theorists.

Beyond this, there's lots of good information about how the body operates, and it's been a good review for me.  I've studied anatomy and physiology and this has been a good refresher.  And his surgeon stories have been mostly entertaining and many of his musings thought provoking.  All and all I'd recommend this book as either an introduction for someone who wants to learn a bit about how the body operates (and isn't too squeamish) or someone with a health or biology background that can always benefit from another take on the human body.

In fact, I only had one major disagreement with the book.  That (hopefully) will be the subject of my next post.

(Sadly, Wikipedia informs me that Sherwin Nuland died in March of this year.)

Quote of the Day: "... the stability of this self-regulating organization that is us achieves its stability through the unique nature of its very instability.  Its instantaneous readiness to react and return to constancy's baseline makes possible every restorative response toward maintaining the delicate balance of homeostasis that is the foundation of life.
"Always on the alert for the omnipresent dangers without or within, ceaselessly sending mutually recognizable signals throughout its immensity of tissues, fluids, and cells ... inappropriate alterations are balanced and changes are either accommodated or set right--all in the interest of that equilibrating steadiness that is the necessary condition of the order and harmony of complex living organisms.
"... Our lives march to the molecular beat of our tissues.  Our spirits sing to the music of our biology." - Sherwin Nuland