Stuff I read: November 2015

Took me awhile to type up all my notes but here’s what I read last month. All books are on the reading page.

November 2015

  • Thinking in Systems: A Primer NOTES: didn’t emotionally connect with the book but it had a bunch of things that pushed my thinking. 4 stars out of 5. Selected quotes / notes:
    • Quote: “At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better. The systems-thinking lense allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and hone our abilities to understand parts, see interconnections, ask ‘what if’ questions about possible future behaviors and be creative and courageous about system redesign.” which then continues with the story of the blind men and the matter of the elephant, which is a great analogy for understanding systems thinking.
    • Quote: “… The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves. If a frog turns right and catches a fly and then turns left and catches a fly, and then turns around backward and catches a fly, the purpose of the frog has to do not with turning left or turning right or backward but with catching flies. If a government proclaims an interest in protecting the environment but allocates little money or effort towards that goal, environmental protection is not, in fact, the government’s purpose. Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.
    • Quote: “… Whenever you are confronted with a scenario (and you are, every time you hear about an economic prediction, a corporate budget, a weather forecast, future climate change, a stockbroker saying what is going to happen to a particular holding), there are questions you need to ask that will help you decide how good a representation of reality is the underlying model. a) are the driving factors likely to unfold this way? b) if they did, would the system react this way? c) what is driving the driving factors?”
    • Chapter 3 talks about resilience, which you can look up in the dictionary and is something I think have largely associated with people, not systems and I’ve adopted the resilience lense as I talk about systems at work.
    • Quote on resilience: “… I think of resilience as a plateau upon which the system can play, performing its normal functions in safety. A resilient system has a big plateau, a lot of space over which it can wander with gentle, elastic walls that will bounce it back, if it comes near a dangerous edge. As a system loses its resilience, its plateau shrinks, and its protective walls become lower and more rigid, until the system is operating on a knife edge, likely to fall off in one direction or another whenever it makes a move. Loss of resilience can come as a surprise, because the system usually is paying much more attention to its play than to its playing space.
    • On hierarchies, quote: “In hierarchical systems relationships within each subsystem are denser and stronger than relationships between subsystems. Everything is still connected to everything else, but not equally strongly. People in the same university department talk to each other more than they talk to people in other departments. The cells that constitute the liver are in closer communication with each other than they are with the cells of the heart. If these differential information links within and between each leevl of the hierarchy are designed right, feedback delays are minimized. No level is overwhelmed with information. The system works with efficiency and resilience…. systems thinkers would say, the reductionist dissection of regular science teaches us a lot. However, one should not lose sight of the important relationships that bind each subsystem to the others and to the higher levels of the hierarchy or one will be in for surprises.
    • Chapter 4 on why systems surprise us, quote: “When system thinkers encounter a problem, the first thing he or she does is look for data, time graphs, the history of the system. That’s because long-term behavior provides clues to the underlying system structure. And structure is the key to understanding not just what is happening, but why…. Simple examples like a Slinky being released down the stairs make this event-behavior-structure distinction seem obvious. In fact, much analysis in the world goes no deeper than events. Listen to every night’s explanation of why the stock market did what it did. Stock went up (down) because the U.S. dollar fell 9rose), or the prime interest rate rose (fell), or the Democrats won (lost), or one country invaded another (or didn’t). Event-event analysis. These explanations give you no ability to predict what will happen tomorrow. They give you no ability to change the behavior of the system to make the stock market less volatile or a more reliable indicator of the health of corporations or a better vehicle to encourage investment.
    • Page 91 has a couple of great paragraphs that continue the event-event analysis discussion and how not understanding the structure can lead in some cases (like economics) to relatively good short term performance but really bad performance over the long term. Quote at the end: “… that’s one reason why systems of all kinds surprise us. We are too fascinated by the events they generate. We pay too little attention to their history. And we are insufficiently skilled at seeing in their history clues to the structures from which behavior and events flow.”
    • Great quote that I used on my kids the other night about how long things take, by Vaclav Havel, “I realize with fright that my impatience for the re-establishment of democracy had something almost communist in it; or, more generally, something rationalist. I had wanted to make history move ahead in the same way that a child pulls on a plant to make it grow more quickly. I believe we must learn to wait as we learn to create. We have to patiently sow the seeds, assiduously water the earth where they are sown and give the plants the time that is their own. One cannot fool a plant any more than one can fool history. —Václav Havel,7 playwright, last President of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic”. On the same page, “… We are surprised over and over again at how much time things take… when we are modeling a system.. ask everyone how long they though the delay was… and multiply by three.
    • Quote on change and views: “Change comes first from stepping outside the limited information that can be seen from any single place in the system and getting an overview. From a wider perspective, information flows, goals, incentives and disincentives can be restructured so that separate, bounded, rational actions do add up to the results that everyone desires.”
    • On goal seeking and system traps: “If the desired state is good education, measuring that goal by the amount of money spent per student will ensure money spent per student. If the quality of education is measured by performance on standardized tests, the system will product performance on standardized tests. Whether either of these measures is correlated with good education is at least worth thinking about.”
    • Chapter 6, leverage points and parameters into the system: “It’s not that parameters are not important — they can be, especially in the short term and to the individual who’s tanding directly in the flow. People care deeply about such variables as taxes and the minimum wage, and so fight fierce battles over them. But changing these variables rarely changes the behavior of the national economy system. If the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely kickstart it. If it’s wildy variable, they usually don’t stabilize it. If it’s growing out of control, they don’t slow it down.”
    • Same chapter, on goals again: “Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole system goal they are serving. ‘To make profits’ most corporations would say, but that’s just a rule, a necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game? To grow, to increase market share, to bring the world more and more under the control of the corporation so that it’s operations become even more shielded from uncertainty. John Kenneth Galbraith recognized that corporate goal — to engulf everything, long ago. It’s the goal of a cancer too.”
    • Quote in chapter 7: “Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history.
    • Same chapter, on mental models: “You don’t have to put forth your mental model with diagrams and equations, though doing so is a good practice…. The more you do that, in any form, the clearer your thinking will become, the faster you will admit your uncertainties and correct your mistakes, and the more flexible you will learn to be.
    • Same chapter on systems and pushing information. Interesting story about the Toxic Release Inventory act, which required companies to self-publish air pollution. End result: public shaming in the news, companies voluntarily started fixing things. “Information is power.”
    • On using language with care: “A society that talks incessantly about ‘productivity’ but that hardly understands, much less uses, the word ‘resilience’ is going to become productive but not resilient. A society that doesn’t understand or use the term ‘carrying capacity’ will exceed its carrying capacity. A society that talks about ‘creating jobs’ as if that’s something only companies can do will not inspire the great majority of people to create jobs, for themselves or anyone else… The first step in respecting language is keeping it as concrete, meaningful and truthful as possible – part of the job of keeping information streams clear.”
    • Loved this quote on qualitative data: “Pretending that something doesn’t exist if it’s hard to quantify leads to faulty models. You’ve already seen the system trap that comes from setting goals around what is easily measured, rather than around what is important. So don’t fall into that trap. Human beings have been endowed not only with the ability to count, but also with the ability to assess quality. Be a quality detector. Be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers the presence or absence of quality.”
    • Great stuff on page 181 and 182 about how one of the most important things you can do when working in a system is to embrace failure and to keep a long view. Great quotes about how many Native American cultures talked about impacts their decisions would have on the 7th generation after them.
  • Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference NOTES: get it at the library if it interests you, don’t buy it. Not highly recommended.
  • What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People NOTES: really enjoyed this book (way better than the Marine Corp one I listed below) because so many of the tips / facts are applicable to business and family and just general life. Everyone should read this and understand how to read nonverbal. 4.5 stars out of 5. Selected quotes:
    • Quote: “Just as careful listening is critical to understanding our verbal pronouncements, so careful observation is vital to comprehending our body language.” Amazing how much starts with just paying attention.
    • Quote: “Observing in context is key to understanding nonverbal communication…. after a traffic accident, I expect people to be in shock and to walk around looking dazed…. and even for them to make poor decisions like walking into oncoming traffic. (This is why police officers tell you to stay in your car.)” Goes on to talk about how during an interview, you should expect people to be nervous initially and for that to dissipate over time.
    • Page 28-29 talks about how our limbic system forces our bodies to freeze (don’t want to get eaten by a wild animal) when confronted by a threat or when we’re feeling threatened. If someone is sitting down, they may start taking very shallow breaths, lock their legs in place beneath their chair and hold very still.
    • Couple pages later the author discusses other signs of discomfort in a social setting: turning away from the person you’re talking to, rubbing your eyes, placing an object in your lap to separate yourself from someone, turning your feet to face an exit, leaning away from the person you’re talking to. These are “distancing” behaviors.
    • Page 35 introduces the notion of a “pacifying” behavior, which is a nonverbal tick that shows that you are trying to comfort yourself because you’re feeling uncomfortable. Examples include soothing our necks with a massage (or touching anywhere around the neck which is full of nerves and helps to slow your heartbeat), stroking our faces or playing with our hair, leg cleansing (rubbing your hands down the tops of your legs, I saw this a couple weeks ago).
    • Page 60 talks about how if you’re in conversation with someone, if they *really* want to talk to you, both their feet and hips will point toward you. If either points away, the person has somewhere else to be or otherwise would rather not be in a conversation with you. *Really good tip to watch for AND to exhibit to others. Someone sitting down and clasping his / her knees is saying the same thing.
    • Leg splaying (standing spread eagle) is a way of saying “I’m trying to intimidate you”, example brought up was law enforcement, which typically is leg splayed + hands on hips, which makes them as big as possible. Crossing your legs means the complete opposite.
    • Going up to the torso, a quote: “… Couples who are pulling apart emotionally will also begin to pull apart physically. Their hands don’t touch as much, and their torsos actually avoid each other. When they sit side by side, they will lean away from each other. They create a silent space between them.” Further, “.. Colleagues who share a similar point of view will sit closer together, turn more toward each other ventrally, and will lean harmoniously nearer each other. When people disagree, they will hold their bodies firm, avoid ventral fronting and will most likely lean away from each other.”
    • My favorite word in the whole book, “turtling”, which is where your shoulders rise towards your ears, signifies weakness, insecurity and negative emotions.
    • Quote: “Putting your arms behind your back is a clear signal that means ‘Don’t get close; I don’t want to make contact with you.” Great examples here include doctors (who will walk through the halls of a hospital quickly in this form or professors.
    • Arms akimbo (on hips) is a way of saying “things aren’t good” or “I am standing my ground.” Similarly, arms behind the head (while seated) is a territorial display that says “I’m in charge.”
    • Page 138 has all kinds of interesting anecdotes about shaking and holding hands. In many cultures, men actually hold hands or hold an arm while shaking your hand. On the other hand, in many cultures, finger pointing is one of the most offensive gestures one can make. You should avoid literal (and probably figurative) finger pointing at all costs.
    • More on hands: finger preening (hands together, finger tips touching) is a sign of a high degree of confidence. Hand wringing (palms together, fingers interlaced, tight grip) is the opposite.
    • Head tilting is a sign of being very comfortable and receptive and friendly. Try to do this in an elevator with a bunch of people for the whole ride and you’ll most likely fail.
    • Squinting (for example: when you come to the place in a contract that you disagree with), is a sign of disagreement or dislike, similar to eye-blocking or eyelid compressing. Eye aversion is often a sign of deferral (when the person you’re looking at is of higher standing) but can also be a sign that you’re comfortable with someone and you need the mental space to think about what you’re saying. Interesting thing to note about the eye aversion after just having watched the “Unbroken” movie, which had an interesting subplot with Louis and the Bird.
    • Hiding your lips is a sign of low comfort.

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