Thinking lazily about capacity and constraints

Introduction: The Dirty Dozen


Or A.

When it came to film ratings, that’s all there was, when I was growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s. A film was rated either Universal or Adult. There was no 12 or 18 or R or X or anything else. Just U or A. It did mean that many foreign films shown in India were given “Universal” ratings, much more than would have been the case, for example, in the UK or US. That U rating, however, depended on some hefty censor cuts being implemented.

As was probably the case with many teenagers in metropolitan India in the early 1970s, the A classification represented a challenge to us: how do we get in? The 13- and 14-year-olds among us had developed sophisticated techniques in response, and would manage to sneak in here and there.

Scene from MGM’s The Dirty Dozen

My first “adult” film was The Dirty Dozen. It was my introduction to one of my all-time favourite actors, Donald Sutherland. While I found the movie enthralling, I nearly didn’t watch it. The opening scenes, where a young soldier is hanged, really upset me, and I wanted to leave the cinema. But I was with friends, all of whom had snuck in under-age as well, and I put a brave face on it.

But it disturbed me, and I had nightmares about those opening scenes. I found myself doing exercises to try and strengthen my neck muscles, I was that affected by the film.

I then spent a few years no longer trying to go to “A” movies, I was nearly 18 before I went again. Because I’d thought about my experience and decided I didn’t actually like it. That there must be a reason why an A movie was rated A, and that seeing such a film at the wrong time was not good for my brain or my mind.

Natural brakes

I’d come to that conclusion in a convoluted way, by thinking about nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Many of the rhymes I’d learnt had relatively horrible things happening: grandmas turning into wolves, children being abandoned in dark forests, wolves huffing and puffing houses down, children dancing to death, step-siblings doing evil things, dragons and monsters everywhere. Yet none of these affected me, or any of the children around me. Why?

Because they weren’t made frighteningly graphic. Most of the time, there weren’t any illustrations, we were left to our own devices to imagine things. There was a natural brake on what we could imagine. And where there were illustrations, they were anodyne.

We had natural brakes in our minds and on our imaginations. Brakes that served to protect us.

Many years later, when I first heard John Seely Brown’s lovely question and answer couplet, I smiled wryly: How long does it take a five year old to become a six year old? One year.

We have natural brakes. Brakes that protect us. When I see phenomena like crown shyness, I think of natural brakes. When I read about [Robin] Dunbar’s number or George A Miller’s Magical Number Seven, I think of natural brakes.

Brakes that serve us. Brakes that protect us.

Brakes in the workplace

When I started work in the UK over forty-two years ago, I saw one of these for the first time:

Reusable internal memo envelope

We weren’t quite in the Ark, but there were antediluvian aspects. Where I worked, we all had computers on our desks. Not quite. We had dumb terminals hooked to that great mainframe in the sky; actually in our case the “machine room” was on the 9th floor, housing millions of dollars of Burroughs equipment. This was before WYSIWIG. Before word processing. Before PCs. Way before Web. The internet was around, and we did use dial-up modems, but email was still rare and special, despite being about a decade old. And typewriters were still around in offices. Photocopiers resembled small villages, and the desktop printer was but a dream whose time hadn’t come.

So we wrote memos. And made copies of the memos only when unavoidable. (I found it odd that people would write memos to people who were a few feet away, a few rooms away, occasionally a whole floor away: the Calcuttan in me couldn’t quite figure that out.

But we wrote memos. And they were occasionally copied. And the memos did their dance around the internal mail system, waltzing around in orange or yellow multi-use envelopes, or, very rarely in the companies I worked in, in dark green or white ones. The envelopes were well used, almost falling apart. Occasionally you’d be “first recipient” of a new envelope: in normal practice, the previous sender’s name was in the box above your name, a bit like a chain letter. (That led to some vanity behaviour by some, hoarding an envelope which just happened to have some bigwig’s name on the box above yours, and then using it “to impress”. Some things in life don’t change.

Anyway, writing memos wasn’t trivial. Normal desk-based dumb terminal access had connectivity to “listing paper” printers, not considered suitable for memos, even internal ones. So there were secretarial pools who did the memo typing, working off your listing paper print. Copying was done in the copying room, and people had to be authorised to use them. In some companies, it wasn’t just authorisation, you needed a physical key, and sometimes a cost allocation key as well. Some things in life don’t change.

So we didn’t write too many memos. And we didn’t send them to too many people. There were brakes. Practical brakes. Real constraints.

And now? Not waving but drowning.

In those days, we had constraints everywhere. The phones on our desks were internal phones, letting us call others in the same building. If you were very senior, then you had a direct-dial phone on your desk. If you were even more senior, you had international direct dial rights. Which usually meant you had a key to the executive toilets. (And yes, you were male).

So communications were local. Call volumes were low. And mail was physical and also low volume.

Teams were small, even departments were small. Because analogue.

But hyper connectivity and ubiquitous portable smart devices and affordable bandwidth and the Web were all on their way, and the constraints were to disappear. Kevin Kelly’s copy machine was on its way to becoming Deus.

Paraphrasing something George Gilder said many years ago, every economic era is characterised by its own peculiar abundances and scarcities: businesses that know how to learn from both will prosper.

[An aside. The Beat Generation’s William S Burroughs was a grandson of William Seward Burroughs, the founder of Burroughs Corporation. The author of Naked Lunch is correctly referred to as William Seward Burroughs II, while his grandfather gets called William Seward Burroughs I].

Some conclusions

(When you get to my age, and when you don’t write often, every post has the risk of becoming a book. I try and mitigate that risk by writing late in the evening and stopping when it’s time for sleep — when you get to my age, I stay awake up to eleven, and not in a Spinal Tap sense.)

I’ve always been fascinated by capacity and by constraints. How much time it takes the body to process food and drink, how backlogs form, what happens as a result. Why small teams work well. Why everything and everyone has an “expected life”, why the cherry trees in my garden are different from the ancient yew that keeps them company. Why there are connections between body mass and metabolic rate. Why the expensive tissue hypothesis is interesting.

When I think about constraints and capacity, I think about physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, even social constraints. Constraints of ageing. Constraints of not aging enough.

When I think about constraints and capacity, I think about performance, about the state of flow, about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, about reaching and stretching potential. But always within some set of constraints. Sometimes I’m thinking about Eliyahu Goldratt, or Donella Meadows, or Stafford Beer, even some EF Schumacher, just to throw a few other influences on this topic into the mix.

When I think about our cat Lily, I think about capacity and constraints. About cat ages and human ages and what the difference means.

When I think about myself, my family, my friends, my life, I think about capacity and constraints. That in turn makes me think about priorities and about resource allocation, about stewardship, about renewal cycles.

I’m not in any way “anti-growth” per se, but try and ground myself in understanding capacity and constraints even when thinking about growth.

Especially when thinking about growth.

And so to bed.

Let me know what you think

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