Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Simple, Complicated or Complex?

I was recently in Washington, DC flying in and out of Washington Dulles international Airport. As I was returning, since the airport is being remodeled and expanded, I wondered if the security process and facilities were any different. This I thought would be an interesting opportunity to see what we’ve learned about the facility design for security. After all, this is one of major airports for our nation’s capital, and a brand
new facility.

The security area is a well lit large space with high ceilings. There were numerous x-ray inspection lanes spaced comfortably apart. There is no feeling of claustrophobia in going through this process. However, the process still had two choke points. The first was that there was only one document inspector, and that caused one of the typical snake lines you experience in all security areas. The second choke point was at the x-ray
inspection machines. It’s necessary now to remove a lot of things from your person and the bags and equipment you carry through. For me, it now takes at least three trays with shoes going in alone. It takes time to remember, extract and place the items correctly. The conveyor is short and a jam builds watching and waiting for all this to occur. The same thing occurs after the items have gone through the machine. Longer conveyors would help.

As I was walking out of the security area, but not yet out, I saw a woman standing still with multiple coats, bags and computer looking puzzled. I knew exactly what she was thinking because I had just gone through the same mental check list, “Did I forget any thing.” I stopped and smiled at her and she said, “It’s really complicated.” I agreed, and we walked to our separate gates.

As I was walking, I got to thinking. The systems intent on doing us harm are complex systems that have emergent properties and are composed of adaptive intelligent agents. The question I asked myself is, “Can a complicated system solve a complexity problem?”

Now I know that we have other simple, complicated and even complex systems working to deal with threats. The security process is not the only thing we have. But, the question is a real one.

We are now dealing with numerous complex systems - markets, the economy, insurance, health care and education to name a few. Paul Krugman in a recent New York Times article, “How Did Economists Get it so Wrong?”, quoted H. L. Menken:”There is always an easy solution to every human problem –
neat, plausible and wrong.”

So my questions are “Can simple or complicated systems solve problems created by a complex system? And, if so, under what conditions?”

For more about complexity, go to 1,2,a Few, Many and Foresight in a Time of Simplicity, Complexity and Chaos

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Economists Got It So Wrong

From Simplicity and Complexity, Santa Fe Institute

Chris: Paul Krugman’s “How Economists Got It So Wrong”, New York Times Magazine, Sept 6, 2009

Paul Krugman takes on “the economists” in Sunday’s Magazine piece, “How Economists Got It So Wrong”:

“Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.”

However, some of his criticisms might apply a bit more broadly. For example:

“Mistaking Beauty for Truth”


Go to for discussion of this post.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Data, Data Eveywhere

From The Economist

Information has gone from scarce to superabundant. That brings huge new benefits, says Kenneth Cukier —but also big headaches

When the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started work in 2000, its telescope in New Mexico collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy. Now, a decade later, its archive contains a whopping 140 terabytes of information. A successor, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due to come on stream in Chile in 2016, will acquire that quantity of data every five days.

Such astronomical amounts of information can be found closer to Earth too.
Wal-Mart, a retail giant, handles more than 1m customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes—the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress (see article for an explanation of how data are quantified). Facebook, a social-networking website, is home to 40 billion photos. And decoding the human genome involves analysing 3 billion base pairs—which took ten years the first time it was done, in 2003, but can now be achieved in one week.

All these examples tell the same story: that the world contains an unimaginably vast amount of digital information which is getting ever vaster ever more rapidly. This makes it possible to do many things that previously could not be done: spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on. Managed well, the data can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights into science and hold governments to account.

But they are also creating a host of new problems. Despite the abundance of tools to capture, process and share all this information—sensors, computers, mobile phones and the like—it already exceeds the available storage space. Moreover, ensuring data security and protecting privacy is becoming harder as the information multiplies and is shared ever more widely around the world.

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