Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Atlas Has Shrugged: West, Texas

“Like almost anyone who lives in Texas, I have visited the town of West, uncountable times. Nobody drives I-35 through the middle of the state without stopping for the famous kolaches[1]. Hardly anyone else knows much about the little community. But it is about to become an icon of our failures to properly oversee dangerous businesses and manage our governments.

Let's concede the remote possibility there may have been a criminal act involved. David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel was only 15 miles distant, and, as we already know, the Oklahoma City bombing was a criminal response to the federal government's actions. This week in April, as has been shown by events like the Boston tragedy and the Ruby Ridge shootout, can deliver us unto evil in America.

But what happened in West is probably more about government inactions.” 

These are opening paragraphs of James Moore’s excellent essay in the Huff Post. The title of course refers to Any Rand’s controversial[2] book Atlas Shrugged[3]. This book has informed the philosophy of the radical conservatives[4] in the U.S. leading to reduction of funding of government and loosening of controls on business. Its title is derived from the myth that Atlas[5] holds the world on his shoulders. One of the characters asks the question of what happens when the load gets too heavy for Atlas. Another character answers that he shrugs.

Moore is correct, but I don’t think his essay tells the whole story. It is also a tale of two complex systems, each in disequilibrium. 

One system encompasses the ammonium nitrate, ammonia gas, and other, at this point unknown, chemicals and combustible materials in the factory. Ammonium nitrate has one of the classic characteristics of a critical state complex system, that of positive feedback. When ammonium nitrate burns, one of its by products is oxygen, which in turn encourages the fire to burn more, possibly leading to an explosion.

The other is the complex system encompassing the government regulations, the procedures that regulators follow, the funding of these programs and finally the response of the owners and the day to day actions of the employees.

Complex systems in disequilibrium have two annoying characteristics – cause and effect are not linked and the probability of a large event is much higher than normal statistics would predict. As a result the impact of a perturbation of the systems like cutting funding can have a measurably larger impact than might be expected. Add this, to the large errors committed by the owners detailed in Moore’s article, and a simple error in the factory, and kaboom.

“Atlas Has Shrugged: West, Texas”, James Moore, 4/18/13,

[1] We like the Czech-American Restaurant in town as well.
[2] Paul Krugman alluded to an oft-quoted quip by John Rogers in his blog: "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs." Wikipedia (
[3] “The book explores a dystopian United States where many of society's most productive citizens refuse to be exploited by increasing taxation and government regulations and disappear, shutting down their vital industries. The disappearances evoke the imagery of what would happen if the mythological Atlas refused to continue to hold up the world. They are led by John Galt. Galt describes the disappearances as "stopping the motor of the world" by withdrawing the minds that drive society's growth and productivity. In their efforts, these people "of the mind" hope to demonstrate that a world in which the individual is not free to create and profit is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where every person is a slave to society and government, and that the destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry.” Wikipedia (
[4] “In the late 2000s, the book gained more media attention and conservative commentators suggested the book as a warning against a socialistic reaction to the finance crisis. Conservative commentators Neal Boortz, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have offered high praise of the book on their respective radio and television programs. In 2006 Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas cited Atlas Shrugged as among his favorite novels. Republican Congressman John Campbell said for example: "People are starting to feel like we're living through the scenario that happened in [the novel] ... We're living in Atlas Shrugged", echoing Stephen Moore in an article published in The Wall Street Journal on January 9, 2009, titled "Atlas Shrugged From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years". In 2005 Congressman Paul Ryan said that Ayn Rand was "the reason I got into public service" and later required his staff members to read Atlas Shrugged. In April 2012 he disavowed such beliefs however, calling them "an urban legend" and rejecting Rand's philosophy.” Wikipedia (

Well Informed Futility and Complexity

I learned a new phrase on Friday's PBS TV program Moyers and Company - well informed futility.

“In the absence of federal policies that are protective of child development and the ecology of the planet on which our children’s lives depend, we serve as our own regulatory agencies and departments of interior…. Thoughtful but overwhelmed parents correctly perceive a disconnect between the enormity of the problem and the ability of individual acts of vigilance and self-sacrifice to fix it. Environmental awareness without corresponding political changes leads to paralyzing despair….We feel helpless in our knowledge, and we’re not sure we want any more knowledge. You could call this well-informed futility syndrome. And soon enough, we are retreating into silent resignation rather than standing up for abolition now.”
Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah

This syndrome is much larger than the issues Steingraber talks and writes about. It captures well how I feel most of the time on almost all of the wicked problems we face that I have researched.

It seems to me that this syndrome may be why people don't want to talk about complexity. More knowledge only adds to their frustration as they don't feel they can do anything about it.

And, we know that's not true. Every system is likely a combination of simple, complicated and complex subsystems. Our normal ways of forecasting work well on simple systems and will usually give you optional futures to deal with through scenarios for complicated systems. Complex systems in disequilibrium are less tractable but in most cases will yield probabilities of occurrence and/or alternate potential futures (strange attractors). Complex systems composed of intelligent agents in dynamic equilibrium yield to massively parallel modeling. Systems composed of adaptive intelligent agents in  dynamic equilibrium are the least tractable.

Can you diagnose the types of systems and can they be  parsed? Then, like a doctor, can you prescribe a treatment? Or, is it a non treatable disease?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Policy and Complex Systems

"The world around us is a complex web of relationships connecting people, companies, groups, countries, and policies into a complex policy system that provides the context for our daily existence. Under such circumstances, it is imperative that our policies at all levels (local, state, country, the world), intended to regulate such systems, take into consideration this richness of both relevant system elements and relationships among them. Companies, societies, markets, or humans rarely stay in a stable, predictable state for long. Randomness, power laws, and human behavior ensure that the future is both unknown and challenging. How do events unfold? When do they take hold? Why do some initial events cause an avalanche of policy change while others do not? What characterizes these events? What are the thresholds that differentiate a sea change from insignificant variation? And, most importantly, what can we do at the policy level to promote activities that will bring about positive, long-term, and sustainable changes in the system of interest?"

Some questions being raised by Paul Rich, President - Policy Studies Organization

Economics and Complexity

James Glattfelder studies complexity: how an interconnected system -- say, a swarm of birds -- is more than the sum of its parts. And complexity theory, it turns out, can reveal a lot about how the economy works. Glattfelder shares a groundbreaking study of how control flows through the global economy, and how concentration of power in the hands of a shockingly small number leaves us all vulnerable. (Filmed at TEDxZurich.)

James B. Glattfelder aims to give us a richer, data-driven understanding of the people and interactions that control our global economy. He does this not to push an ideology -- but with the hopes of making the world a better place.

First a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund and then a physicist, James B. Glattfelder found himself amazed by the level of understanding we have in regards to the physical world and universe around us. He wondered: how can we move toward a similar understanding of human society?

This question led him to the study of complex systems, a subject he now holds a Ph.D in from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Glattfelder is co-head of quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, an FX investment manager focusing on market-stabilizing algorithms. In 2011, he co-authored the study “The Network of Global Corporate Control,” which went viral in the international media and sparked many controversial discussions. The study looked at the architecture of ownership across the globe, and computed a level of control exerted by each international player. The study revealed that 75% of all the players in the global economy are part of a highly interconnected core which, because of the high levels of overlap, leaves the economy vulnerable.

In his free time, Glattfelder enjoys snowboarding, rock climbing, surfing and listening to electronic music.
"As protests against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters' worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy ... The study, by a trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the first to go beyond ideology to empirically identify such a network of power."
The New S

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Letting Biodiversity get Under Our Skin: Why Cleanliness Might be Making Us Sick

This is a very interesting article, perhaps a revolutionary idea. And, it may have important lessons for complex human systems.

Rob Dunn[1] writes in the recent edition of Utne Reader, “We live at the crossroads of three global megatrends, three barreling and intertwined juggernauts of modernity. The first is the massive migration of humanity to the world’s cities. By 2050, two-thirds of all humans on Earth will live in urban areas.

The second is the loss of biodiversity. Species are disappearing, both from the places where we live and from the earth as a whole. If our hairy ancestors were to visit our cities and suburbs, they would wonder how the escalators work, but they would also question where the plants and animals have gone. What have we done with all the birds? Some, like the Carolina parakeet, are just gone. Others live on, but at a distance—geographically removed from our daily lives, far away from the majority of people.

And then there’s the third trend—the one that, at first glance, seems not to belong with the others. The prevalence of allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases among urban populations in developed countries has skyrocketed in recent years. Incidences of asthma, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and even depression (which can have an immune component) are on the rise
The parallels in geography and timing between urbanization, the loss of biodiversity, and the rise in immune-system problems raise an intriguing—and troubling—question. Could our distance from nature and our chronic immunological discontent be related? Some now say … yes.”

The author summarizes the work of Ilkka Hanski, a Finnish scientist working in the field of ecology at the University of Helsinki, Finland, “comparing the allergies of adolescents living in houses surrounded by biodiversity to those of adolescents surrounded by simplicity—the modern landscape of cement and grass. They found that those individuals who lived in houses surrounded by a greater diversity of life were themselves covered with different kinds of microbes. They were also less likely to show the telltale immunological signs of allergies.”

This is a potentially revolutionary finding. But, as Dunn points out, “No one has offered a very compelling explanation of how the diversity of plants or life in general in backyards alters the composition of bacteria on human skin. But the bigger question is how the composition of bacteria on our skin (perhaps in concert with the diversity of plants and other organisms outside) influences our potential to develop allergies. Several options have emerged.”

·         “…the immune system is our sixth sense. It is our inner taxonomist. And this inner taxonomist needs to see a lot of species to learn to distinguish good from bad from innocuous. If it does not, it makes mistakes. It sees our body’s own cells or pollen grains and judges them to be dangerous. In this model, the world around us needs to be diverse enough for our immune system to gain perspective.”

·         “…the odds of having some beneficial bacteria species in a house increase with certain kinds of microbial diversity.” This results in a kind of “insurance policy.”

·         “Finally, a third possibility harks back to ancient wars. Bacteria and fungi compete. Fungi are everywhere in households and, in contrast to bacteria, seem more likely to cause allergies than to prevent them. Fungal diversity appears to be lower in houses where bacterial diversity is higher. Maybe more diverse household bacteria can fight off fungi, winning an invisible war on our behalf.”

I would speculate that there may be another reason. Maybe it takes a naturally occurring complex system of bacteria to produce a health immune system.

In 1999, maybe George Carlin was right in his rant about germs and our immune system. He said[2], “When I was a little boy in New York City in the 1940s, we swam in the Hudson River and it was filled with raw sewage okay? We swam in raw sewage! You know… to cool off! And at that time, the big fear was polio; thousands of kids died from polio every year but you know something? In my neighborhood, no one ever got polio! No one! Ever! You know why? Cause we swam in raw sewage! It strengthened our immune systems! The polio never had a prayer; we were tempered in raw shit! - I never get infections, I don’t get them, I don’t get colds, I don’t get flu, I don’t get headaches, I don’t get upset stomach, you know why? Cause I got a good strong immune system and it gets a lot of practice.”

Dunn concludes with, “As we wait for more understanding, we continue to simplify the world. We will become more urban and thus more likely to suffer from allergies and autoimmune diseases, at least if Hanski is right. And if he is right, there may also be a way forward, a way out of our sick and simple morass. Could we rewild the places around us, plant a richness of species in our backyards and so raise healthier children covered in more kinds of bacteria? Whatever we do, we will be measured by our immune systems and our microbes, which in their function or dysfunction seem to record the richness of our lives.”

Perhaps the lesson we could learn for this is that attempts to simplify complex systems that have to operate in complex environments will only harm the system in the long run. We could learn this from the failures of regimented, hierarchal political systems, or corporate systems. Yet we continue to attempt simplification of, for example, education by trying to reduce it to a standardized test. Or, racial, ethnic, religious or thought purity.

“Letting Biodiversity get Under Our Skin: Why Cleanliness Might be Making Us Sick”, Rob Dunn, Utne Reader, March – April 2013 from Conservation,

[1] Rob Dunn is a science writer and biologist in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University. His new book is The Wild Life of Our Bodies. Excerpted from Conservation (Fall 2012), an independent science magazine published by the University of Washington.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Redesigning Knowledge Work

"A worsening shortage of high-skill knowledge workers is one of the biggest challenges facing organizations. These talented and highly paid experts—doctors, lawyers, engineers,salespeople, scientists, and other professionals—are companies’ most valuable assets.

In response, some firms are redefining the jobs of their experts, transferring some of their tasks to lower-skill people inside or outside their organizations, and outsourcing work that requires scarce skills but is not strategically important.

Redesigning jobs in this fashion involves several basic steps: identifying the gaps between the talent your firm has and what it will need; creating narrower, more-focused job descriptions in areas where talent is scarce; choosing from various options for filling the skills gap; and revamping talent- and knowledge-management processes to accommodate the new way of working."
Martin Dewhurst, Bryan Hancock, and Diana Ellsworth, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2013

In my opinion, this is a dangerous extension of the industrial model. And, it is just the opposite of what should be happening (trans-disciplinary skills) to solve today's wicked problems. In addition it adds additional layers of communications - boundaries that lead to errors and oversights.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data

Alex (Sandy) Pentland, The Edge, 8/30/12

"With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change. The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire—it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big data brings us to interesting times. We're going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human society."

I have more concerns than positive thoughts about this  provocative discussion.

Foremost is his understanding and beliefs related to complexity: "The notion that it is connections between people that is really important is key, because researchers have mostly been trying to understand things like financial bubbles using what is called Complexity Science or Web Science. But these older ways of thinking about Big Data leaves the humans out of the equation. What actually matters is how the people are connected together by the machines and how, as a whole, they create a financial market, a government, a company, and other social structures."

Complexity is all about connections, whether it is molecules (including genes), things, insects, animals and certainly social systems of humans. Melanie Mitchell's book Complexity: A Guided Tour, is a tour of the sciences of complexity, a broad set of efforts that seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals. And, in One, Two, a Few and Many, I summarize this book and many other sources of information on complexity.

The problem is that if you have a truly complex systems composed of intelligent agents, more data will lead you nowhere. Remember, if we're talking about humans here, you have a complex system of complex systems. If it's truly complex, no matter how deep you dive into the data, there will always be uncertainty. (Think of a fractal.) And, if the systems is in disequilibrium, cause and effect are unrelated.

Pentland states, "With Big Data you can easily get false correlations, for instance, "On Mondays, people who drive to work are more likely to get the flu." If you look at the data using traditional methods, that may actually be true, but the problem is why is it true? Is it causal? Is it just an accident? You don't know. Normal analysis methods won't suffice to answer those questions. What we have to come up with is new ways to test the causality of connections in the real world far more than we have ever had to do before. We no can no longer rely on laboratory experiments; we need to actually do the experiments in the real world." Which won't help. That's like dropping a grain of sand on a pile of sand (think hourglass) and observing what happens. Then drawing a conclusion from your experiment when nothing happens. However, the next grain of sand you drop may cause a whole avalanche to occur. The best you can ever do is to gather historical data on the system and talk about probabilities. And, it's not normal statistics. Now imagine that each grain of sand has intelligence and you have the croquet game described by Lewis Carroll's surrealistic version of the game in the popular children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; a hedgehog was used as the ball, a flamingo the mallet, and playing cards as the hoops.

"Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingos, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and to stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches.

The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing: and when she had got its head down, and was going to begin again, it was very provoking to find that the hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away: besides all this, there was generally a ridge or furrow in the way wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to, and, as the doubled-up soldiers were always getting up and walking off to other parts of the ground, Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.

The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting 'Off with his head!' or 'Off with her head!' about once in a minute."

Another problem I have with Pentland's vision of the future is that the opportunities for abuse is enormous and will certainly happen. He recognizes this by writing, "Another important issue with Big Data is that since this data is mostly about people, there are enormous issues about privacy, data ownership, and data control. You can imagine using Big Data to make a world that is incredibly invasive, incredibly 'Big Brother'… George Orwell was not nearly creative enough when he wrote 1984."

There is some inherent limit to our ability to understand and predict the behavior of complex systems akin to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics. Heisenberg stated the principle in 1927 as "The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa." What occurs in complex systems is not the same as what happens in quantum physics, and we've not stated a similar law for complex systems, yet.

However, my biggest fear is that we will build the systems Pentland envisions.

"This is the first time in human history that we have the ability to see enough about ourselves that we can hope to actually build social systems that work qualitatively better than the systems we've always had. That's a remarkable change. It's like the phase transition that happened when writing was developed or when education became ubiquitous, or perhaps when people began being tied together via the Internet.

The fact that we can now begin to actually look at the dynamics of social interactions and how they play out, and are not just limited to reasoning about averages like market indices is for me simply astonishing. To be able to see the details of variations in the market and the beginnings of political revolutions, to predict them, and even control them, is definitely a case of Promethean fire. Big Data can be used for good or bad, but either way it brings us to interesting times. We're going to reinvent what it means to have a human society."

William Calvin wrote in his book, The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness, “Inconsistency is part of flexibility, of nature's strategy of keeping options open. Animals that cannot adapt to new environments will not survive the incessant fluctuations of climate. Judicial systems that cannot grow and change with our society's evolving problems will become rigid anachronisms that promote social earthquakes. Consistency and rationality are human virtues in dealing with certain potentially orderly situations; we make excellent use of them in engineering and legal systems, but we shouldn't expect living systems to have made them centerpiece of their operation in a changing, unpredictable world.”

In the book, A Simpler Way, Margaret Wheatley and  Myron Kellner-Rogers write, "The universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what's possible at all levels of scale from microbe to cosmos. Life's natural tendency is to organize. Life organizes into greater levels of complexity to support more diversity and greater sustainability. Life organizes around a self. Organizing is always an act of creating an identity. Life self-organizes. Networks, patterns, and structures emerge without external imposition or direction. Organization wants to happen. People are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, and meaning seeking. Organizations are living systems. They too are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, meaning-seeking."

Life needs messes. Let's not attempt to get rid of them all and in so doing destroy life.

Our Unpredictable, Changing World

I came across this quote today:

“Inconsistency is part of flexibility, of nature's strategy of keeping options open. Animals that cannot adapt to new environments will not survive the incessant fluctuations of climate. Judicial systems that cannot grow and change with our society's evolving problems will become rigid anachronisms that promote social earthquakes. Consistency and rationality are human virtues in dealing with certain potentially orderly situations; we make excellent use of them in engineering and legal systems, but we shouldn't expect living systems to have made them centerpiece of their operation in a changing, unpredictable world.”

William Calvin
The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness

The Nexus of Forces

This is a very interesting report by Gartner recently issued.

"A Nexus of converging forces — social, mobile, cloud and information — is building upon and transforming user behavior while creating new business opportunities.

 Research over the past several years has identified the independent evolution of four powerful forces: social, mobile, cloud and information. As a result of consumerization and the ubiquity of connected smart devices, people's behavior has caused a convergence of these forces. This user-centric convergence was highlighted at Symposium/ITxpo 2011, where the keynote touched on the story emerging around the Nexus and raised a warning to senior IT leaders: Their existing architectures are becoming obsolete"

While this is well worth reading, keep in mind that the basic assumption behind this analysis is that the consumerization of the economy is sustainable. This is an assumption that I'm not all sure is true. But, we've demonstrated no strong candidate to replace it, and we seem to have limited desire to change. As we concentrate more and more wealth at the top, we are destroying the consumer market.

And, there are smaller assumptions like, "Through the window in their palm, they are never alone, never lost, and never bored." I seriously doubt that this statement is true.

And, they confuse complicatedness with complexity. "Most technology goes through cycles of development and change in both internal and external complexity. Often, the very first device is simple, but crude. As the device undergoes the early stages of development, its power and efficiency improve, but so does its complexity. As the technology matures, however, simpler, more effective ways of doing things are developed, and the device becomes easier to use, although usually by becoming more complex inside."

So, read it, but with your critical thinking hat on.

The Nexus of Forces: Foundational Research for the Technical Professional, Chris Howard, David Smith, Daryl Plummer, Yvonne Genovese, David Willis and Jeffrey Mann, Gartner, Inc., June 22, 2012

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Too Fast to Fail

"We're going to need a bigger boat." A paraphrase from police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) in Jaws after seeing the shark for the first time.

Click here to see the quote in  a film clip.