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Patterns In Time [Design
Posted on July 8, 2016 @ 06:34:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a recent blog, A Pattern A Day, I proposed the goal of learning a pattern a day. If you google the phrase "a pattern a day" you will see this phrase interpreted to mean learning some simple new visual pattern every day. That is one way to interpret the phrase but it is not a very interesting interpretation to me. Such patterns will often be quickly forgotten and ultimately have little bearing on day-to-day living. I'm in search of patterns that are more significant and which aren't just spatial in nature.

The architect Christopher Alexander proposed 253 design patterns that were more significant because they were patterns he felt made the buildings, towns, and construction more alive and joyful to be around. His criteria for identifying architectural patterns worth caring about was that they promote life and joy. The patterns he identified involved a connection between a particular way of designing a building, town, or landscape and positive human reactions to it. There are definite visual elements to the patterns he identified but they were worth caring about because of the positive emotional reactions they generated.

Lately I have come to the realization that alot of the patterns that I care about take place over time. Anyone who gardens is interested in the response of plants to sunlight, water, drought, fertilization, disease, and a variety of other factors. One particular temporal pattern I'm studying at the moment is how long it takes for weeds to emerge after I till up some soil for planting. Rather than planting into tilled soil right away, I'm now waiting for a few days to see when the weeds will emerge so I can quickly eliminate them with a flame weeder (pictured below) before I plant into the bed. I'm trying to create a stale seed bed to plant into so I am observing how long it takes for weeds to emerge after I till the soil so I can remove them just prior to planting. This is supposed to create less plant competition and less weeding. We'll see.

I think it takes about 5 days for weeds to emerge after I till and prep a bed but for me to be more certain I will examine this more than once. Tomorrow I'll be returning to my farm where I'll be quite interested in how many weeds there are in some beds I prepared for planting last friday. After 8 days I should have lots of weeds to flame before I plant my next round of seeds.

The pattern that interests me in this case is not based on any positive emotions it might inspire (although seeing weed seedlings quickly evaporate under heat is quite pleasurable), but rather it is a pattern worth learning because it can potentially lead to better yields and less work. There is a very practical motivation for wanting to learn patterns of weed emergence. Notice the use of the word "patterns" (in the plural) rather than "pattern" (in the singular). Weeds emerge at different rates depending on the ambient conditions (amount of rain, sunlight, ground temperatures, etc...) and the seed bank in the soil so I don't expect weeds to always emerge after 5 days. The term pattern is often used to label a phenomenon that exhibits some variability around a typical pattern or ideal set of circumstances.

Many temporal patterns of interest to gardeners can be measured in days but there are many other temporal patterns that occur in much shorter or much longer time periods. For example, Allan Newell in his book Unified Theories of Cognition (1990) suggested that it was important to consider the time scale over which different patterns of human behavior happen (p. 122) because we need to use different explanatory concepts to account for them.

The diagram is useful to remind us that regularities occur at different time scales. Sometimes patterns can be explained by reference to concepts situated in the relevant band, or perhaps by concepts situated in a lower or higher band.

We can look for temporal patterns in business as well that might be useful for designing or managing aspects of a business. Sam Altman published a recent article called Later Stage Advice for Startups in which he discusses patterns that successful startups need to respond to after 12-24 months of growth. If they don't respond to some of these temporal patterns he argues chaos will ensue. Worth a read.

The purpose of this blog is to raise the issue that patterns occur in time as well as in space and often in both (spatio-temporal patterns). Often when we use the term pattern we think about nice visual patterns but these patterns are often somewhat trivial compared to the patterns that are worth caring about. Many of the patterns worth caring about take place over time and we can use our knowledge of them to help us navigate our way in business, life and gardening. Hence the phrase "timing is everything".

NOTE: One of the best philosophical discussions on what a pattern is was by the philosopher Daniel Dennett in his article Real Patterns (1991, PDF download). Of course you can find lots of discussion on temporal patterns among day traders but whether they are "real patterns" is often in doubt.

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