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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Creativity and Constraints

I'm not generally a reality show fan, and I'm definitely sick of the "audience votes off one person per week" style of show, but nevertheless Heather Marie has gotten me hooked on both Project Runway and Top Chef. I think I can tolerate (and even thoroughly enjoy) those shows because the selections are being made by real experts and because I enjoy watching talented craftsmen at work.

One thing I've noticed on both shows, though, is the positive effect that constraints have on the quality of work the contestants produce. It's especially pronounced on Project Runway, which we were watching tonight. In the regular weekly challenges, the designers get something like 24 hours and a limited amount of money to create their dresses, usually within fairly restrictive parameters. However for the final competition, they are given 5 months and $5000 for their fashion lines, with basically no limits on their designs.

What repeatedly strikes me, though, is that the designs they produce when completely unfettered seem to be consistently inferior to what they produce under the tight constraints of the normal competition. That's not to say that their unrestrained designs are bad or, for that matter, that they're not actually better than the weekly ones, just that they aren't and order of magnitude better as the time and resources would predict.

Consider the difference between being given a pen and paper and being told to "write something" versus being told to "write a story about a cat." The second scenario is obviously more constrained: you must write a story and it must involve a cat. In the first scenario, you could write anything, be it a poem, a shopping list, or a letter -- you have complete freedom to create. In practice, though, I suspect that people in the "cat story" group would produce things that would be generally considered to be more "creative," even though they had less freedom.

I think there are two lessons here. First, constraints help focus our attention and energy, which generally leads to better quality and impact. Second, the landscape of creative expression is so incredibly vast that you can render huge swathes of it inaccessible yet still have enough space remaining to build works of incredible imagination and creativity.

In fact, maybe that gives us a clue to what we really mean by "creativity": Perhaps it isn't merely the ability to produce new things, but the ability to discover sufficient space between constraints to produce new things.

If necessity is the mother of invention, and creativity is its father, then I think we can reasonably say that constraints are its godparents.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Super Delegates Part I - The Implosioning Begins

As an addendum to my last post, I'd like to direct your attention to Instapundit (and thereby Althouse and Open Left).

To my mind, griping about the super delegates at this point in the game is a bit like griping about the Electoral College: you knew the rules going in, so you should've been prepared for the possibility that things might work out in unexpected ways. However, as Glenn Reynolds points out:
this attitude is not going to be shared by many people who've spent the last nearly-8 years claiming that winning the popular vote is more important than winning the electoral vote.
I don't typically pay special attention to the internals of the Democratic Party, but I assume that the super delegates, like the Electoral College, are at least partially meant to temper the influence of raw democracy with more experienced, rational forces. If that's correct, then no one should be surprised if that's exactly the effect they have.

Of course, the folks who've spent the past eight years decrying the Electoral College are likely to be the ones who are most upset by the super delegates. At least they've consistent, I suppose.

(And, yes, I'm quite aware that "implosioning" isn't a word. I just liked the sound of it, and its intended meaning is quite clear, so deal with it.)


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

2008 Election Prediction Redux

It was election eve 2004 when I wrote this post, which has been attracting a fair number of comments lately. So, how do I feel like my prediction is holding up?

Overall, I'd say pretty well...except for the Breaking Factor [1].

Four years ago, Barack Obama was barely a blip on the national radar. He'd given a very impressive speech at his party's convention, and the day after my original post he would be elected to the U.S. Senate, but that's about it.

Today, he's the main Breaking Factor in my prediction.

So what is his appeal? I think it's mostly attributable to his essential newness. Everyone on the left (and a few on the right) who is fed up with the politics of the past 16 years and who just wants "change" (without necessarily thinking about what that means to them) is eagerly projecting all their hopes and expectations onto the one candidate who is baggage-free enough to make that possible.

Therein lies the problem for Hillary: you can run against someone on policy or on issues or on positions, but you can't run against someone based on New. Either you're New or you're not, and if you're not, you can't fake it.

Compounding the problem is that in the primaries, Hillary is in the position that Republicans usually occupy -- that of trying to run an intellectual campaign against an emotion-based opponent. If your opponent's supporters are basing their decision on emotion, all your logical, intellectually-sound arguments will fall on deaf ears.

That said, I still expect Hillary to win the nomination, but in a far different, far more interesting way than I would have predicted in 2004.

Enter the brokered convention!

There hasn't been a brokered convention in most of our lifetimes. Or, for that matter, even in the lifetimes of many of my generation's parents. As a political junkie, who follows elections and politics the way most guys follow football, that prospect is just too cool! :-)

So, how will the superdelegate brokered convention scenario play out in the general election? That's the really interesting part!

Remember that a large chunk of Obama's support comes from voters who are fed up with politics as usual and who are ready for a real change after the Bush-Clinton-Bush years. That means that as a group they tend to be disproportionately idealistic as well. That ground has a large intersection with the slightly nutty fringe of the Left that has spent the past 8 years insisting that Bush was handed the 2000 election because of shady backroom dealing.

Pause for just a moment and contemplate out those people are going to react if their Chosen Savior Candidate not only loses the nomination to Yet Another Clinton, but does so because of genuine old-style political backroom dealing -- in their own party!!!

Betrayal! The establishment is reasserting its control of We the People! The old guard is oppressing the true agent of change!

I can just imagine it now. (The prospect would probably be less amusing if I weren't a Republican.)

So then the big question becomes whether or not -- after a long, acrimonious campaign followed by a contentious convention -- all those happy, enthusiastic Obama supporters would fall obediently in line behind Hillary. I'm not so sure they would. Most of them probably would, but with far less enthusiasm, but I suspect that some of them would simply stay home. Maybe not many, but possibly enough.

Naturally, in keeping with attitudes of the past 8 years, this will all be blamed on the Republicans somehow. My guess is it will go something like this: The Republicans knew they could never beat Obama (the only true agent for change!) so they colluded with anti-change segments of the Democratic party to throw the nomination to Hillary. That's a win for the Republicans, who won't have to face Obama, and a win for the Democratic/Washington establishment that just wants to maintain the status quo. I'm sure there will be some Karl Rove, Diebold, and Halliburton involvement in there somewhere, too, but you get the picture.

That brings us to November, when Hillary will be representing a fractured and disillusioned Democratic base. In the end, I think she will still win, but I no longer think it will be by such a landslide...unless, of course, the Republican nominee is in a similar situation with regard to his base.

As a Republican, I'm not too enthused about President Hillary, but my expectations in that regard will have to be the subject of a later post.


Update: Right after I finished writing this, I saw this on the Drudge Report. Obviously a brokered convention is not something party leaders are anxious to have.

[1] What is the Breaking Factor you ask? An example would be the Mule Factor, from Isaac Asimov's Foundation. In case you haven't read it, here's a quick (very loose) recap: In the far distant future, mathematician Hari Seldon perfects a method of predicting future societal changes called psychohistory over the course of thousands of years. The problem is that it only works on a macro scale with large populations, so it can't account for the actions of lone, highly influential individuals. Because he is a completely unpredictable new type of human (a telepath), the Mule is such an individual, and he nearly breaks Seldon's predictions because of it.

So the Mule Factor is unknown quantity that can be introduced by a single, unexpected individual. I'm using the more descriptive term Breaking Factor in a more general way to mean any unexpected, unpredictable factor that breaks a prediction.