Monday, February 2, 2015

Small Errors

In the blog post "Efficiency and Completion Time," I discussed how long we can realistically take to complete a given amount of a task. I was reminded of that discussion, along with the years of experience that backed it up, as I tried to complete the task of publishing my latest book, and as I continued my search for a source of income that could meet both my personal and global responsibilities.

I chose to self-publish the book because I felt it was critical to get its contents into the public eye as soon as possible, instead of another two years if I could go through a publisher. I estimated it would comfortably take a month to complete the text, edit it, and do the cover art myself. In retrospect, I fell into the same trap I warned about in the blog post: my estimate turned out to be the optimistic value, and, as would be expected, I ended up taking almost exactly three times as long to achieve successful completion. I realized that this was due, in part, to a focus on content more than form, which except for a few tweaks was actually complete in that first month.

After several months of peddling my résumé to recruiters and companies as part of an ongoing job search, I discovered a one-word error that was an extremely small fraction (an eighth of a percent) of total word count, and as such had understandably escaped notice during multiple readings by me and many others, apparently without consequence. Because it was small, I wasn't surprised that it was found by accident; in my experience, that's where unchallenged assumptions, the things no one is looking for and thus potentially the most impactful, tend to get exposed and tested (which is why it's good to spend some time "playing," independent of planned exercises).

My sensitivity to even the smallest errors has been heightened by thinking and studying about the consequences of the phenomenon of "feedback," where direct or indirect results of an action can change one or more sources of the action, and lead to complex and counterintuitive consequences. Most of my formal experience with feedback has involved electronic systems, but I've been recently learning about human ecology, which attempts to describe and understand the interaction between people and ecosystems, and uses similar principles to do so. The existential threats humanity now faces, which have been a preoccupation of mine in the years since I started looking for practical applications of a value system based on maximizing life (especially ours), stem from many feedbacks in our interactions with each other and the rest of Nature. Focusing on a limited range of objectives and impacts while yielding increasing power over the world has left a lot of "small errors" to multiply their effects through mechanisms were are barely aware of, if at all, to a point that we are now feeling their cumulative and typically negative effects. This awareness has driven me to be more careful in how I choose to work, at least while I can (detours remain a real possibility), and to responsibly play as much as possible along the way.

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