Friday, January 27, 2006

Control Theory

Tarek Heggy has a long article at Winds of Change about what is needed to revive Arab culture.He discusses the need to accept criticism and to base change on valid criticism and evaluation.

I wrote him a letter suggesting a slightly different approach based on similar principles but bypassing cultural markers and taking humans out of the equation.

Here is what I said:

Perhaps teaching control theory would be the best thing you could do. Not necessarily the mathematics but in words. That puts the ideas outside the realm of people.

Feed back is telling the controller what results it is getting. Comparison with the desired results shows how much change/effort is necessary to get the desired results.

If Arabia learned control theory from childhood it would have a great advantage over the west for a while.

The essence of control is having a desired state and measuring the error and then deciding what to do about it. Which as you pointed out is the essence of modern management. I wonder if MBAs learn control theory?

You also learn about not trying to force a system to change faster than it is able. That leads to instability. We can save that for the second year. :-)

It is possible also to measure the system's capacity for change by giving it small endurable shocks (or just measuring its response to noise). That will be the third year.


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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if MBAs learn control theory?" I can only speak for the MBA program I attended (California Polytechnic) and the answer is YES it did include control theory. I suspect other programs do the same. Also, it wouldn't be labeled as such, but the basic elements would be there. RKV

Jamie said...

Heinlein used to hold forth from time to time on the necessity of paying attention to negative feedback, which sounds to me like the same principle. He was scornful of attempts to use positive feedback as a control mechanism, which intuitively also makes sense: what good does it do to say, "OK, you're doing great!" except in the wacky world of self-esteem? When it comes to actual effects on the ground, negative feedback - measuring how far you are from your ideal state, as you said - seems to me to be the only useful yardstick, even if it is kind of depressing in tone.

Anonymous said...

This is the essence of why multipolar democracy is the essential, technically correct form of government. A feedback system has to be able to respond with both positive and negative corrections. In a multipolar democracy, there is actuation on both sides to correct the error. In a unipolar society with only one group in charge, actuation goes in only one direction.

A feedback system is composed of sensors and actuators. In a car, your eyes are the sensors. Your arms on the steering wheel and on to the front wheels is the actuation. You can steer both right and left to keep the car on the road. A car that only steers to the left will quickly run off the road. Similarly, governemnts that steer only to the right or the left will spend a lot of time off-road.

Intellectualoids who believe in the ability of the ship of state to stay in the channel based on steering to only one side are the dumbest individuals who ever thought they were really smart. Their model is technically deficient and practically unworkable.

Admittedly, our system is a bit of a bang-bang control, where the party in power steers to its side as hard as it can until it is relieved of duty. But so far, it's the best humanity has come up with.

Capitalism is a very efficient feedback system, where the sensors and actuators are the millions of investors and entrepreneurs operating with minimal phase delay. It is the most intellectually coherent and technically sound economic system known to man at this time.

Anonymous said...

I should clarify, the investor class is the springs. The government is the damper. It may sound bad but, damping is needed for a smooth and sustainable response, just so long as the system does not become overdamped.

M. Simon said...

Let me add a small point to what anon at 3:07 said.

Without losses no system can be stable.

Ideally what you want are the minimum possible losses that allow for stability.

Then of course you get into overshoot and all kinds of esoteric details like Bode plots and Zimmerman-Nicholls critera etc.

However, the basics are such that a ten year old could be taught them.

And Jamie has some good points about economic/political systems.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks logic, science or common sense has anything to do with the Middle East needs to read the Koran and the Bible. You have true believers both trying to claim a deed given by God way too long ago. Unless all sides put aside their hysterical (oops, historical) claims, control theory is of little use, and only the sciences of Chaos theory and Complexification have any hope of generating an understanding what is happening there. And at that, it will not bring peace.

submandave said...

Now, if we can just teach them how to keep all their poles in the left half plane the world would be sweet. (or is that the fourth year?8^D)

Bryan said...

Speaking as a double major EE (tons of control theory there) and psychology, well.. A human is not an infinite gain op amp. It's a rather specific and complicated thing, of great but still limited adaptability, honed as it is by millions of years of ongoing evolution to be what it is, behaviors included. It has its own built-in hardcoded, chemical and mechanical control loops, to which arguably, islam and western pluralistic rationalism have adapted themselves, not the other way around. It'd be smarter to talk about the control loops that are already there and hard to change (i.e. human nature) and try to understand how it is different cultures have managed to fit that well enough to install themselves and survive. The islamic mindset doesn't permit that type of analysis, I would guess, so it's moot to even suggest the idea to most of them.

FamouslyUnknown said...

A significant problem is how the Arab culture defines valid criticism. There are a variety of traditions of Koranic and Sharia interpretation. There are different criteria for what is considered valid interpretation, and even whether modern-day interpretation is valid.

Results desired by two of the groups at the extremes in the Middle East -- Islamist jihadists and Israeli Jews are at irreconcilable opposites regarding desired results. The jihadists want their own death as martyrs killing Jews and/or simply killing/subjugating Jews (dhimmitude). The Israeli Jews' goal is peaceful coexistence with equal freedom and justice for all, as evidenced by the life of Muslim Israelis.

Back to how to change the hearts and minds of the presently death-centered faction, or how to appropriately disempower them. No harm in reviewing the past demise or conversion of terrorist groups -- Thugs, Assassins, Beider-Meinhoff gang, Red Brigade, Khmer Rouge, IRA, ...

Buddy Larsen said...

Plain old stimulus/response should've long since ruled out Hamas and the like. What's scary is that the holy book overules everything in the corporeal realm, and there's not a single entity imaginable that can gainsay that book.

Abject defeat has in the past shortened the leash for awhile, at great cost to victor and vanquished alike. Sadly, the current ongoing attempt to leave war in the past, has the lengthening leash as a reciprocal.

jj mollo said...

Well said Buddy. More like the gradual build-up of explosive gas in a mine rather than a lengthening leash. The next mistake may be your last.

If there are deep structural cracks in the concrete on the bridge we are building. Too deep for our current methods to observe or measure, how does control theory apply. In some cases the first loss is the loss of everything.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

02 15 06

Hey M Simon: great post. I don't know much about control theory specifically, althought hte concepts show up elsewhere in physics. Good insight though. Interesting:)