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July 24, 2006

Styles of Thought: Personal Evolution

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Blowhards think differently. From one another, that is.

I suspect you already know that if you are a halfway regular reader.

Take Michael. I'd characterize him as inquisitive. He's curious about all sorts of things. And, as one reader once pointed out, something he's really curious about is how his own mind operates.

As for Friedrich, he strikes me as systematic and inclined to look for broad cultural forces as primary factors for explaining art-historical details. But he throws us off-balance from time to time by tossing in humorous or nyekulturny bits.

Me? I find it difficult to peg myself. One reason why is that I've changed big chunks of my thought-style since, oh, high school days.

I'd better explain.

I don't have anything close to a "photographic memory," but nevertheless was able to get okay (but not great) grades in high school by "winging it." I was -- and am -- impatient and hate having to buckle down and master a subject by brute study. Matter of fact, I'm not sure that I ever consciously did such a thing. Except once, as I'll mention below.

"Winging" began to wane as I progressed through college. By my sophomore year it had dawned on me that the key to survival in introductory and near-introductory courses was vocabulary-memorization. That is, if I knew a field's terms/jargon, I had a good shot at pulling at least a B.

Variations on this strategy plus a good deal of luck got me through grad school. But I remained an unsystematic, undisciplined thinker who largely relied on "muddling through," as the English put it.

Things began to change again once I got my first real job, at New York State's planning agency (the Office of Planning Coordination, now defunct). This was back before personal computers. To do research I found myself copying data and writing calculation results on analysis pad paper (the kind with blue-lined rows and maybe 10 or 12 columns separated by red lines) and drawing graphs on various kinds of graph paper (log, semi-log, lognormal, etc.)

After a few months of this I realized that I'd generated so much stuff that I couldn't remember what work was recent or old, a serious matter in some cases. So then I made it a point to date everything. And thereby became a tad systematic.

But the big change came when I bought my first personal computer, an early IBM PC, and had to learn to program it.

The first thing I had to do was seriously study and master a programming language.

Now, computer programs, when run, can spew out all manner of junk due to flawed design or faulty input. But before they can reach that happy state they must be able to run in the first place. Putting this another way, programs either run or they don't, so you have to keep working on the program until it runs all the way through.

So the programmer's first task is to get the filthy pig to execute. That takes organization and discipline (overlapping concepts in this case).

And it's not just the program than has to work -- you have to mesh it with the data it uses. Sometimes things will go just fine until it has to run using a new set of data. Then it will crash because it encounters what the trade calls an "edge condition," a data quirk that the program was not designed to handle. An example might be that a negative number is generated and the program expects only positive values. This might be because the data were incorrectly entered or because the program's design wasn't completely thought through; in either case, something has to be fixed.

What I've mentioned so far hints at difficulties programmers will always have to face. But back in the 1980s people programming IBM PCs and their ilk were working in an environment where computer memory was severely constrained. (This was even more true in the early days of computing. Nowadays, most computers have memory enough for programs, though they might well choke on the amount of data they must deal with. I'm thinking mostly of the scientific programming context here -- it's the one I'm familiar with.)

We started with a space budget of a little more than 640,000 bytes (all the memory the IBM PC could address) which was immediately reduced by the amount of memory used by the operating system and the interpreter or compiler. Seems to me I was working with byte-counts in the low 500K range that were gradually whittled away each time a revised version of the APL interpreter came out. Worse, my PC was an early one that lacked a hard drive -- all it had were two floppy disc drives that were slow and didn't store a lot of data. This meant that temporary saving of data to disc was impractical. And what it really meant was that I spent much of my programming time counting bytes so that the system I was writing wouldn't crash due to running out of available memory.

Okay. Enough geek stuff. I hope you get a whiff of the idea. The point I'm trying to illustrate is that winging it simply does not work well when trying to program computers to do non-trivial tasks.

After more than 20 years of programming, I find that I think (sorta) like an engineer. I consider resources, other constraints, and possible sources of trouble. Elegance and efficiency can come into play, though the latter is less important than it was in the cramped days when Intel 8088, 8086 and 80286 CPUs ruled the PC roost.

I'm also more interested in how things (including organizations) work or fail to work. I like to read about the thinking behind creations such as cars, planes and buildings. (Though I tend to think of non-didactic art as being best appreciated largely, though not entirely, independently of the circumstances of its creation. That's why I normally get bored quickly by long verbal analyses of individual paintings. Analyses of the artist himself are another matter.)

So that's me, approximately, as of today. I'm not sure if this places me somewhere between Michael and Friedrich -- or off to the side somewhere.

Though there are times when I wish I were more curious or systematic like they are.

How do you characterize your thinking?



posted by Donald at July 24, 2006


I guess my terms for thinking style are more like the old Berlin distinction between the hedgehog (who stuck with one main thought, perfecting it) and the fox (who dodged in and out, trying one idea and then another). Then along came Kuhn and the idea of paradigm shift. The fox thinks all sorts of things and, once in a while, the hedgehog part of me looks over and exclaims, "oh!" and shifts.

I think the fox part of me is the conscious mind and the hedgehog lurks in my subconscious.

The fox says, "Watch what that Donald is up to!" The hedgehog says, "Notice that Michael comes back to basic principles all the time?"

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 24, 2006 11:59 AM

My thinking depends on the situation. In academics, I am more systemic. It's sort of impossible to get through science courses without memorizing anything. In a lab, I have to be both inquisitive and systematic for 1) having the creativity to ask the questions and 2) for designing experiments.

For other (more practical) things, unfortunately, I think like a scatterbrained person.

Posted by: sya on July 24, 2006 3:01 PM

"...I'm also more interested in how things (including organizations) work or fail to work. I like to read about the thinking behind creations such as cars, planes and buildings..."

That being the case, I would imagine that you would enjoy Tracy Kidder's 'Soul of a New Machine", the story of the efforts involved in designing and building a new computer. Have you read it?

Posted by: Don McArthur on July 25, 2006 6:48 PM

Mary -- Berlin's categories seem to be associated with politicians, but there's no reason why we civilians can't use 'em too. Except I can't figure out if or how either applies to me; I can have aspects of each.

sya -- Good point on science. If you are doing research, you have to keep your thought supple -- looking for cues and doing instant evaluation, etc.

Don -- Yes, I've read it two or three times.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 25, 2006 7:15 PM

Donald, I WAS impressed that the most passionate posters on your sim city invitation seemed to believe in monocultures based on mono-ideas. I thought more of us had learned to think in terms of ecologies and niches, complexification and all that. Even "Brave New World" had three classses -- or was it four?

One of my personal fav books is "How Things Work," and maybe we need a version for the cogs and wheels and trapdoors and outliers of politics. It's so painful to learn by trial and error.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 25, 2006 11:05 PM

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