[FoRK] A Theory of Products: Magic, Alchemy, Science... and Beyond?

Ken Ganshirt @ Yahoo ken_ganshirt at yahoo.ca
Sat Feb 6 09:14:57 PST 2010

--- On Sat, 2/6/10, Jeff Bone <jbone at place.org> wrote:
> OTOH, I've now heard the "stuck on a local hilltop"
> argument in several contexts here with respect to
> optimization processes, particularly data- / machine
> learning-driven processes, evolutionary computing,
> etc.  It's a problem, that's true;  but it's one
> that's easily avoided.  The first step is being able to
> *determine* that you're not improving;  and that's
> trivial. 

I disagree. For the typical person or organization - business or government - this is far from trivial. First, I don't think most are wired to accept that, despite their best efforts, they are not improving. Second, even having begun to suspect that it might be the case, I don't think most are wired to admit it. You need to do both before you can move on.

For you and I, to whom the chase is everything, it's easy to admit to a dead-end and switch to some other path. But I have noted over the years that that is very much the exception.

You actually seem to realize it intuitively:

> The second step is to relocate some distance
> / direction in the search space, and see what happens. 
> Generally this "jolt" is done randomly; ... 

Yes, "jolt" is the correct word. It typically takes a very serious jolt to induce the sort of direction change you are describing.

> So I'm not convinced that optimization processes
> necessarily involve getting eventually stuck on a local
> hilltop that you can't get off of.  ... 

Optimization processes do not. Human nature seems to involve just that.

> ... To assume that getting stuck is essential
> to such mechanical processes is to assume something, ahem,
> "magical" about the human brain itself.

No, it's not essential. But given human nature I would say it's unavoidable and typically requires some outside agency to impart that jolt you speak of.

Let me put it another way. If one is stuck on that local hilltop it's probably because they have something vested in it. Something more compelling than the desire to improve/change.

Conversely, if one is all about the chase they won't likely experience the problem. The local hilltop isn't. It's just a plateau - a point for (re)assessment - that gives one a better view of the surrounding terrain and is actually an incentive to change location/perspective/direction. 

I like to think of it as mental athletics. Top performing athletes will always eventually plateau in their training so are always trying to find ways to a) change the training regimen to bust through the plateau and b) avoid this "training effect" in the first place by keeping the training regimen sufficiently mixed. 


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