Apr

7

 Models of my Life, an autobiography of Herbert Simon describes the highways and byways of the life of perhaps the most prolific and most cited social scientist of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for his economic theory of bounded rationality in decision making in firms, but he is equally renowned as the inventor of artificial intelligence, the developer of the production theory in cognitive psychology, his studies of technique and knowledge in experts, his invention of the theory of satisficing as an alternative to partial equilibrium analysis his invention of a general problem solving program, and the development of the first list processing program, and his invention and programming of the process of scientific discovery.

Among the many reasons for reading the book are that it gives a vivid picture of the inner working of one of the greatest scientists of our time, it shows how the process of science was carried out in the 20th century, it provides an exhilarating reprise of the birth and development of the key fields that Simon pioneered in and often founded including, artificial intelligence, bounded rationality, dynamic programming, operations research, organization theory production processes in thinking, linear programming, information processing, problem solving, complex systems, preferential attachment; it gives a fine summary of the process of building a great business school, it provides an excellent overview of the political aspects of science, and it sets forth a method and provides a vivid case study of the proper procedures for decision making, and problem solving and scientific discovery.

An excellent review of his work can be found in Wikipedia. Let me comment on some aspects not covered there or those that are of special interest to those in the decision making under uncertainty field. Lets start with the many salient aspects of the great scientist that give us an insight into how to live the life of a scientist. He was a bird watcher, tree lover, chess player, insect collector, camping, stamp collector, artist, musician and boy scout as a kid. He read omnivorously about nature, science, the wilderness, and science. Each night, at family dinners, they'd spend time with the dictionary and encyclopedia to answer questions brought up by his engineering father and his musician mother, and constantly watching his father, the inventor of many processes for control systems of motors at work He was a workaholic throughout life, frequently putting in 60-80 hours of work a week. Yet he found time to practice the piano daily, sight reading Beethoven sonatas and Bach preludes while he formulated and solved the problems of the day. He also found time for frequent mountain climbing expeditions, and travel to almost every country of the world, especially Japan, China, and Russia, and Sweden, both before his Nobel when he was politicking for the award, and afterward, when he had as a sense of duty to oblige his sponsors.

He attributes much of his success to immersion in the great books program at University of Chicago. While he never went to a class, he was able to pass all his exams, and go along at his own pace. When he finished at the school, and went on the IIT, and Berkeley, he always asked the great big questions in all the fields he worked in, starting with administrative behavior in 1935, where he first noticed that organizations had conflicting goals, and limited information, and too many options for decision making under these circumstances to make any thing but a bounded rational choice, under the guidance of rules of thumb set forth by authorities. While asking the great questions, he studied every man in his daily life, the way he chose his work, navigated through the maze of choices that beset him or her in the path of life. He was helped in his pursuit by the Galtonian virtues of good health, (he died at 86 in 2002) excellent organizational abilities, a constant wife of 50 years, who graciously accepted his affair with a beautiful student with great aplomb and tolerance, and an insistence on computability for all decision making.

In the final chapter of his book, he describes the single big idea that he followed that allowed him to blaze so many paths. He found that institutions did not have adequate information to make utility maximizing decisions. Instead they had to make use of limited ability to commute in the face of complexity. He tried to model and improve that process by studying how the mind solves that problem, And in doing so he taught commuters to think, (as well as play chess and solve all algebra and physics problems)…He had one single model his whole life. He puts the visual representation of a problem as key to its solution standing on the shoulders of Einstein who said he could never understand a problem unless he could draw a diagram of it. In the final words of the book, he sets forth the most important lesson he learned over and above following the big idea to its conclusion. Have good friend who are energetic, and intelligent. And collaborate and learn from them.


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4 Comments so far

  1. jeff watson on April 7, 2009 10:22 pm

    I have some very strong opinions on child rearing, and Simon’s parents were on the right page. Allowing and actively encouraging the natural inquisitiveness of childhood, applying diligence and consistency, expecting rigorous thought and follow through, with a liberal dose of the Socratic Method virtually ensures the positive development of a child. Of course, it is very important to allow children to sometimes stop, look up at the clouds and daydream, and I suspect that Simon’s parents did just that.

    Jeff

  2. Marguerite Chandler on April 8, 2009 7:24 am

    Are you sure he was able to teach commuters to think?

    Best,
    Marguerite

  3. vniederhoffer on April 8, 2009 5:53 pm

    No. Commuters are incapable of thought. He simulated a robot to behave like a commuter and in between the games of pinochle, and the glances at the ankle, he found that they don't do business as they would if profit maximizing, but are distracted and do second best depending on how far the ankles are. vic

  4. Valery Kotlarov on April 9, 2009 4:06 am

    Something that's very intuitive for us, yet this story is a direct link between one great man's life and success on one hand, and strengthening this idea inside us on the other. Thank you.

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