Category Archives: threes

The Poor? The pathologist report: it’s chronic, hopeless, and their own damn fault. Might be genetic too.

Steve Randy Waldman has another awesome post, and this case he tackles the mystery of how you can have a reasonably well functioning wealthy liberal democracy at the same time as a huge segment of the population is shockingly poor.  Wealth inequality is a simple answer, but then why doesn’t the democratic process work to fix that?  So you get a “trilema.”  I love triangles.

His names for the three sides of this triangle are: Liberal, Equality, and Nonpathology.  Clearly this idea is going to have trouble getting traction if only because that last one is so odd.  And that’s the key idea.  You can have a functioning liberal democracy along with extreme inequality if you can get everybody to flesh out the bible’s “For you always have the poor with you” sufficiently.  If the majority of the population accepts that the root cause of both is that the poor are afflicted with some pathological flaw – genetic say, or bad maybe bad fashion sense.  This is amusingly covered in the in Westside Story’s “Officer Krupke.”

This technique for suppressing the natural feedback loop you’d expect in a democracy is.  This isn’t just the usual technique of reactionaries to say that it would be futile to try and fix a problem they don’t care much about.

Once you decide that the problem is that the poor are suffering from the disease state – which is only true to the extent that they are poor – you can call in various quacks to prescribe their favorite prescription.  Interview training say.  Or better impulse control.  Or more entrepreneurship risk taking.  Or scolding that they should study harder.  You know: the things that the well off struggle to improve in their own lives.  This is totally a win for the elites because the prescriptions just happen to server their goals.  Tax cuts!

It’s a very good essay, particularly the tail end where he addresses some of the stories elites tell, and the poor often accept, about the pathological behaviors of the poor.


Rules, Tools, and Fools

One for my list of anti-dialectic triples.

Bob Sutton wrote in passing: “It reminds of when my dissertation adviser — Bob Kahn, half jokingly — defined organizations as “rules, tools, and fools.”

That is certainly one of the ways I think about organizational design.  Though I’d probably say: “Techniques, Technology, and Talent.”  You might say it’s the job of the talent to find ways to get the techniques and the technology to be foolproof.

Of course, a lot is missing from that list: adaptive, visibility, measures, relationships, incentives, etc. etc.  I guess now I need to come up with T words for each of those.

Kinds of Relationships

Pinker is a bit of a jerk.  He is very dominate by virtue of being a fire hose and he never tempers his pronouncements with even the slightest bit of doubt.  Thus you often feel a strong “now just wait a minute there!” emotion when reading or listening to him.  All that said it can be fun to go for along for the ride.

I once worked in a team that had gifted it’s self a subscription to an wonderfully foolish supermarket tabloid.  We kept in the conference room.  Slowly but surely we would, all of us, read every article.  And, we came to notice that the fictions reported, entirely with a straight face, in these articles began to enter our brains as if they were true.  You’d find your self saying “I read that in Brazil they found … no wait, maybe that wasn’t true … oh nevermind.”

I have exactly that same problem with Pinker, but it’s worse.  All I can recall is that at the time I read or heard him explain X I had strong doubts about the argument’s coherence; but now – later – it’s too late.

With that warning out of the way … I enjoyed this talk he gave (video, audio, partial as cartoons).  For example it has a very fun offensive section on swearing and the functional purpose taboo words.

One thing I liked was that his had a number for frameworks I should take the time to add to my collection.  For example Alan Fiske three kinds of relationships:

  • Dominance — don’t mess with me
  • Commonality — share & share alike
  • Reciprocity — business like or tit for tat

It is no end of fun to map those three into some of my other triples (rock, paper, scissors?).

If I actually go look into Alan Fiske’s work I bit it appears there are four kinds; let me quote from here.

P – Market Pricing (MP): Haggling over a commercial transaction between strangers who do not plan to meet repeatedly. Involves bidding, bluffing and countering while keeping one’s true buying limits a secret. Non-personal instrumental exchanges with no self-disclosure.

A – Equality Matching (EM): Equality of exchange over time, a balance of exchanged favours, accruing social debt and obligation when receiving favours, the discharge of debt or gain of credit when giving favours. Tit-for-Tat. Ground rules for peer relationships.

E – Authority Ranking (AR): Negotiated inequality, deciding over time who has more importance, status or dominance over others. Unequal exchange where the dominant obtains resource advantages but accrues an obligation to support or sustain subordinates in some way.

I – Communal Sharing (CS): People contribute what they can and take what they need. Almost always constrained to the inclusive fitness group, nuclear family and sometimes various degrees of extended family, rarely beyond.

In the four reciprocity has been split into two groups; reflecting how very different one shot transactions are from longer term transactional relationships.

The Perverse and Invisible Hand

I have recently started reading Albert Hirschman’s 1991 book “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.” I’m only 20 pages into it so no telling where it’s going. But so far, it has totally blown me away. The book is an outline of three styles of rhetoric that are commonly used by reactionaries, i.e. those who would react against progress. These are generic arguments good in most any situation. Introducing free speech, extending the franchise, ramping up public education, rearranging the kitchen? You name it these rhetorical devices stand ready and willing.

He labels the first of these “perversity.” Here in while reactionary pretends supports the goal he then goes on to explain that efforts toward that end are certain to backfire. Efforts to improve health care? Such efforts will decrease health care! Universal schooling? Such efforts will lead to wide spread idiocy. Do-gooders make things worse. The audacity of this argument is breath taking. But look at the record! How that French Revolution turn out?

Hirschman points out that observers of the French Revolution quickly deployed this argument. Even before the it all went to hell in a hand basket. Edmund Burke in particular used this perverse argument, and later when it things got ugly he got a lot of credit for being so insightful. So did Burke invent this technique? Hirschman argues that no, Burke was mimicking newly popular argument with a similar structure that had recently arisen in the circles he ran in. I.e. the hypothesis of Adam Smith. Aka, the Invisible Hand. This takes my breath away!

The invisible hand is a perverse argument. But in this case bad actions (individual greed, personal vices, and self interest) have the unintended consequence of creating a vibrant national economy. It’s as if God in his infinite wisdom had sus’d out how to turn his flock of sinners into something constructive. Smith might have given credit to divine providence but choose to give the credit to more amorphous but still spirtual invisible hand. Many of Smith’s readers saw right thru that. Particularly all those commercial actors looking to get the church off their case.

I can’t seem to stop chewing on this. It goes in all kinds of directions.

There are numerous systems where actions sum up to something surprising. I can’t believe that I hadn’t noticed how Evolution and the Invisible Hand are both theories of a kind. In evolution the bad (dyslexic genes, mutations, death, mindless long time) that shapes inconceivably marvelous species. There is, it appears an entire class of theories where acts of ethical kind sum to results of the opposite kind. God works in mysterious ways.

I am enjoying this book.

More Three of Kind

These are some three of a kind examples accumulated over the years.  Much thanks to my various correspondents.  I ought to sort these out a bit.

Many are the top three of power-laws; i.e. Hertz, Avis, Budget.  Once you’ve noticed that you can use any sharp power-law to generate three.  For example the three top words in  english: spoken: The, You, I; written: the, of, and; adjectives: other, good, new.  And many of the geographic ones are like that, just forced onto the landscape: England, Scotland, and Wales.

Many of just regions along some natural scale: federal, state, city for example.  There are lots that are on linear or cyclic time.

There are a number that are triangles; and then you can create a plane, or balance your three legged stool.  Ordering the triangle – you have three objects and you link them into a circle with arrows rather than mere lines.  Then you can play rock paper scissors; or polish your mirror.

There are number that are pairs with a middle: buyer, seller, middleman; man, woman, relationship; in, out, door; etc.  In this context I find the triple: reflective, transparent, opaque thought provoking.

Apparently in some languages there are three words: one for a thing near me, a second for a thing near you, and finally a word for a thing distant from both of us.  But foreign languages are not my thing. In Japanese? – koko/soko/asoko

I’m particularly amused by this group:

  • solid, liquid, gas
  • ground, sea, air
  • army, navy, air force
  • missiles, subs, bombers
  • beast, fish, fowl

Well, here goes:

  • Race, Language, and Culture
  • Buyer, Seller, Middleman
  • fast, good, cheap
  • culture, structure, market
  • ethics, choice, rules
  • 3-D
  • ON, OFF, Don’t Care (1,0,X)
  • “Is cup half empty or half full?”  … “Who dirtied the glass?”
  • “That sword cut’s both ways.”    … “Ok, let’s talk about the sword.”
  • “Men, Women” … “Shall we talk of relationships?”
  • Moe, Larry, and Curly
  • Groucho, Chico, and Harpo
  • Knife, Fork, and Spoon
  • Bell, Book, and Candle
  • Lock, Stock, and Barrel,
  • Butcher, Baker, and Candle Stick Maker
  • Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
  • Motive, Means, and Opportunity
  • Red, Green, and Blue; Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow
  • Bombers, Missiles, and Subs
  • Army, Navy, Air Force
  • Three legged stool
  • near you, near me, away
  • Animal, Vegtable, Mineral
  • Three wise men
  • Harry, Ron, and Hermione
  • Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
  • Bad things come in threes
  • Bowens system theory
  • Learning: acquisitive, integrative, mastery
  • Three points define a plane
  • The summer triangle: Deneb, Vega, and Altair
  • Meat, Fish, Fowl
  • England, Scotland, Wales; New York, New Jersey, Conneticut
  • Id, Ego, Superego
  • Earth, Heaven, Hell
  • Liquid, Solid, Gas
  • Faith, Hope, Charity
  • See, Hear, Speak (no evil)
  • Fates: Klothe, Atropos, Lachesis
  • Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité
  • Life, Liberty, and the Persuit of Happiness
  • Three trials or tasks in fairy tales
  • Thee Musketeers
  • Past, Present, Future
  • Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric
  • Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic
  • Perl, Php, and Python
  • Equatorial, Temperate, Artic
  • Right, Left, Center
  • King, Queen, Jack
  • Black, and White, and Red all over
  • Waltzes: 3/4 time
  • Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
  • Lather, Rinse, Repeat
  • small:medium, large
  • Ford, GM:Chrysler
  • Solid, Liquid, Gas
  • I, you, (he, she, it)
  • Earth, Wind, Fire
  • Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
  • Gas, Brake, Clutch
  • Sharp, Flat, Natural
  • Preprocess, Compile, Link
  • Stop, Drop, Roll
  • paper, scissors, rock
  • Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia
  • thesis, antithesis, synthesis
  • up, down, strange (and continuing, charm, truth, bottom-beauty)
  • Judaism, Christianity, Islam
  • right, wrong, nuanced
  • certitude, discourse, terrorism
  • Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva (creater, preserver, destroyer)
  • Urth, Vertandhi, Skuld (the Norns, representing past present and future)
  • Executive, Legislative, Judicial
  • Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
  • Tom, Dick, and Harry
  • Huey, Dewey, and Louie
  • City, Suburb, Rural
  • foo, bar, baz
  • shake, rattle, roll
  • reflective, transparent, opaque
  • soprano, alto, tenor
  • dna, rna, proteins
  • beauty, truth, form
  • less-then, equal, greater than (<, =, >)
  • binary trees: left, right, ancestor or mother, father, child
  • over constrained, well posed, under constrained
  • chew, digest, defecate


Here’s another trio.

  • Executive = Declarations: bring forth, generate something new, lead.
  • Manager = Requests: please do x by time y with condition of satisfaction.
  • Worker = Promises: deliver competent performance in a domain, over and over.

I lifted that from here, but it smells like management faddism.

Chasing links we get this little table:

Executive – Manager – Worker
Lead – Lobby – Legislate
Future – Present – Past
Declaration – Request – Promise



3cards.pngNew category, groups of three.

For example. Weber’s three basic legitimation’s of domination:

  1. The authority of the ‘eternal yesterday’.
  2. The authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace, aka charisma.
  3. The domination by virtue of ‘legality,’ e.g. rule based and professionalism.

I should have started this category years ago, say when I wrote about my affection for having three models.

Secret of Productivity

housearrest.jpgEvery since reading Ainslie‘s “Breakdown of Will” I’ve be thinking and reading a lot about what might be called self management. I’m currenly reading “Ethics, Law and the Exercise of Self-Command.” There is a delightful quote in this essay:

Social controls play a role; the Times Literary Supplement for January 22, 1982, contained a splendid example, a review article by George Steiner on the life and work of the Hungarian radical Georg Lukacs. “When I first called on him, in the winter of 1957-8, in a house still pockmarked with shellbursts and grenade spliters, I stood speechless before the armada of his printed works, as it crowded the bookshelves. Lukacs seized on my puerile wonder and blazed out of his chair in a motion at once vulnerable and amused: ‘You want to know how one gets work done? It’s easy. House arrest, Steiner, house arrest!'”

That example is splendid, but exceptional and extreme. The student of this stuff should, I think, pay more attention to more pedestrian social controls; e.g. voluntary membership in groups who’s habits we admire and aspire to. The rough edges of voluntary are far more interesting than the strong arm example of house arrest.

housearrest2.jpgThe essay appears in “Choice and Consequence” by Schelling. The topic of this essay is the ethical puzzle of what society can and can not do to help individuals keep their promises to themselves. This is an extended discussion of the curious fact that you can’t make contracts with your self and then go to the court to have them enforced. Schelling’s other essay in this arena “The Intimate Contest for Self-Command” also appears in this book.

Schelling also reached the conclusion I got from reading Ainslie; that the individual is a group of interests who’s governance has so much in common with the governance of other groups that it becomes useful to treat the individual as just like any other hard to manage group.

Meanwhile there is little concensus on what the secret of productivity is.

Rubbing Together

If you rub two surfaces against each other they tend to smooth each other out. But, if you rub them every which way for long enough they don’t get flat. To get a flat surface you need to rub three surfaces against each other in assorted combinations. You can make optically flat surfaces this way. My father was an optics guy. He taught me that, but I forgot until recently.

Since being reminded about that I’ve been thinking about how interfaces boundaries rub against each other and how they tend to smooth out over time.

In industrial standards work we spend a lot of time proactively creating specifications whose intent is to assure smooth efficient exchange on interfaces. It’s not uncommon to fly brilliant engineers and implementors to other continents so they can do interopt testing to assure that the resulting systems are conformant to the spec and work smoothly with each other. The cost of such coordinated efforts is extremely high; often fatally high.

Rubbing isn’t a very sophisticated approach to gettting a smooth surface. It is what I was taught to call a strong method, a method that works in all cases. Rubbing, in optics, is always the last method. When you make a lens you attempt to get it right; but latter you always use rubbing to get it right.

I distill two points out of all that.

Simple standards tend to win because they have fewer rough edges that need to be worn down when you get to the rubbing stage.

Rubbing to get things smooth and interoperable is always part of the story.

Standards that are many to many smooth out better. I.e. one of the challenges in B2B standards compared to other internet standards is the way that it’s less common to find a firm that is doing B2B exchange with a huge number of partners in a way that’s similar to the huge number of sites that web browser visits.