Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Cyclical Nature of Interconnected Things

In Up a Creek Without a Paddle: How Schools are Failing Novice Programmers, I talked about the importance in teaching basic form to novice programmers so they would be better equipped to deal with the programming challenges that they are given.

The question is often asked which of form or function comes first. Modern architects might tell you that form follows function. I would point out that once again, it is important to consider context. I think that form and function in the context of architecture is entirely different in the context of learning and skill acquisition. Comparing these to each other would be like comparing a church with riding a unicycle. When it comes to learning and skill acquisition, I believe that proper form is a prerequisite to good function.

In my last post, I cited the example of my friend and swim coach, Cecil, and how his good form and technique allowed him to be competitive as a swimmer. Cecil always emphasizes good form and technique when he teaches people how to swim and the positive results of his coaching speaks volumes to the effectiveness of his approach. If you follow that link, that's his daughter who is mentioned in the headline.

My experience in the Aikido dojo is no different. Centeredness and good posture are necessary for proper application of techniques. Sensei would often show us how a change in the angles of our feet or an ever so slight turning of our hips could make a big difference in a technique's effectiveness.

My son's viola instructor showed him how to use a bow properly to produce a better quality of sound. The difference that very small adjustments in his bowing technique made to the quality of my son's playing was immediately noticeable. This was the same instructor who told my son, "Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

That makes perfect sense to me and again attests to the importance of form before function in the context of skills and learning.

The Importance of Practice and Form

Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book, Outliers, that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. The joke about the musician asking for directions to Carnegie Hall and was instead given the stern advice to "Practice, Practice, Practice!" is a humorous affirmation of Gladwell's assertion.

I vaguely recall what one martial artist said about practice and form with regard to wielding a sword. I can only paraphrase from memory since I can't recall exactly who said it or how exactly how it was phrased. The gist of it was, "Practice by making 1000 sword cuts every day. You cannot do this without proper form. Only with proper form can you practice for that long and only with that kind of practice can you survive a day-long battle." 

Expert martial artists are living testaments to the 10,000 hour rule, as are professional athletes and anyone else who is an expert in their chosen field. The Dreyfus brothers will also tell you that mastery is specific to each skill. You can be an expert in one skill even as you have different levels of proficiency in others.

The relationship between form and function is not one way though. Neither form nor function are of much use without the other. It's more of a cyclical relationship really, much like how the chicken lays the egg and the egg produces a chicken which lays the egg and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

When it comes to form and function, good form enables proper execution in practice, which helps one to improve on form, which leads to better execution and practice, which leads to better form, and so on and so forth.

Virtuous Cycles vs. Vicious Cycles

As the classic question with the chicken and the egg implies, one had to come first. Which one actually did becomes moot once a cycle is established and lasts longer than what memory or recorded history can reveal about its initiation. It doesn't really matter which came first at that point. It matters more that the cycle has been perpetuated.

The question then becomes whether the cycle will evolve or devolve. That is, does the cycle make things progressively better or worse?

A virtuous cycle is one that leads to improvement in the system involved, whereas a vicious cycle, of course, leads to increasing entropy within the system. In either case, acceleration often occurs as the cycle progresses in either direction.

The ultimate and logical conclusion of a vicious cycle would be the destruction or dissolution of the system involved. With a virtuous cycle, I'm not sure if there really is a limit. I suppose the limit to a virtuous cycle is only defined by what the system is able to support. If the system has unlimited capacity to support and engender a virtuous cycle, then I suppose that's how it would attain self-actualization.

As far as learning is concerned, I would think that the strength and speed of a virtuous cycle is dictated to a large degree by the amount and intensity of feedback that it receives from the system involved and its surroundings.

Feedback into a virtuous cycle can cause it to either continue to progress and accelerate or it could make it stall and start to devolve. Therefore, to maintain a virtuous cycle, care must always be taken to give it positive feedback. Any virtuous cycle can easily revert into a vicious cycle if it gets enough negative feedback.

The good thing about this is that it works both ways. A vicious cycle that has not yet reached its ultimate conclusion can still be stopped if given enough positive feedback. With enough positive feedback, a vicious cycle might also be turned into a virtuous one.

Maintaining Equilibrium

The hard part about all this is that it's much easier to get into a vicious cycle than it is to get into a virtuous one. Cycles can, at some point, be self-perpetuating if an equilibrium is achieved and maintained. Equilibrium in a cycle can be either dynamic or static. Vicious cycles, however, can easily be established and maintained simply through neglect and inattention. That is, you can start a vicious cycle simply by doing nothing or not paying attention to the system involved.

As far as learning is concerned, achieving dynamic equilibrium in virtuous cycle is ideal. This would mean that constant progress is being made and learning is happening continuously and at a steady pace. A static equilibrium would indicate that learning has stagnated and that the system is now only functioning off of current knowledge and understanding. A system in static equilibrium is basically on cruise control and maintaining that state depends on how stable the system is in its environment.

A system's environment must be considered because systems seldom exist in a vacuum and input to the system can come from its environment. Even small inputs from a system's environment can have a significant effect on its ability to maintain and sustain static or dynamic equilibrium.

Take for example the case of a team of software developers. George Dinwiddie blogged about the challenges of a new team member. Mark Levison writes more about the same. As far back as 1965, Bruce Tuckman wrote about the now familiar forming-storming-norming-performing  model of group development. Any change to a team, whether it's adding or losing a member will affect its dynamics. Any time a member is added or removed from a team, it becomes an entirely different team, regardless of how similar it was to its previous composition.

Obviously, a team is a very delicate system and one that is susceptible to all kinds of input and feedback that can quickly change the direction of its learning cycle, for better or for worse.

Again with the Aikido Analogies

I guess I'll always related these things back to my practice of Aikido. O'Sensei Morihei Ueshiba was known for shugyo or austere practice. In this article, you'll see a picture of him and his son, the second Doshu of Aikido, Kishomaru Ueshiba, practicing with jo (wooden staff) and misogi (cold water purification) at the foot of a waterfall. As you can see, even at an advanced age, O'Sensei still practiced with much intensity and focus.

O'Sensei was a remarkable man and his story is indeed a reflection of this. It is said that he achieved enlightenment and self-realization after an episode with an expert swordsman who came to challenge him one day in his dojo. The swordsman continuously attacked O'Sensei who, sensing the direction and speed of the sword cut, effortlessly evaded it each time.

This went on for some time until the swordsman because so exhausted that he had to concede defeat. All that time, O'Sensei had only eluded his attacks and yet was still able to prevail. O'Sensei was then said to have gone outside to a well where he sat down and contemplated what just transpired. In that moment of meditation, he perceived his connection to the entire universe. Thus occurred his transformation and enlightenment and the start of his teaching of a higher form of budo, or martial way, in Aikido.

O'Sensei practiced practically every day. His last practice session, according to the Wikipedia page on him, was on March 10, 1969. O'Sensei died suddenly on April 26, 1969. I was only a toddler at that time and completely unaware of the lasting effect his life, work, and teachings would eventually have on me.

I do draw inspiration from him and my other teachers, both on and off the mat, whether it's through direct instruction or vicariously through their books and the examples they set for others, who pass on that knowledge and experience. When it comes to software development, I draw from the experience and inspiration of pioneers like Kent Beck, Martin Fowler, Uncle Bob and other agile software development gurus. I follow examples of their dedication to the practice of the craft of software development and their continuous search for improvement.

I am thankful to all these sensei (one who has gone before) for sharing their knowledge and passion for what they do and I will continue to show my gratitude by following their examples and always trying to give positive feedback to the virtuous cycles that they started.

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