It's All Too Complicated
Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime
Seminar, 13 April 2019
Note: About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.
1. PLANES ARE TOO COMPLICATED TO FLY (Trump
quote). PEOPLE ARE TOO COMPLICATED TO CONTROL. HELL, MY LIFE IS TOO
COMPLICATED TO MANAGE... Well, what do you think?
Comments & Extra Reading
Maggie Koerth-Baker (March 25 2019) "Conspiracy Theories Can’t Be Stopped - And some scientists think we wouldn’t want to even if we could". FiveThirtyEight website @ https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/conspiracy-theories-cant-be-stopped/
Matthew Yglesias (March 29, 2019) "The emerging 737 MAX scandal, explained - It’s more than bad software". Vox at https://www.vox.com/business-and-finance/2019/3/29/18281270/737-max-faa-scandal-explained [Thor, comment: this is a story worth following, a fascinating morality tale, a modern parable. Basically, Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer with the world's largest selling passenger aircraft model, the 737, put bigger engines on the thing to compete with Europe's Airbus. The engine change has made the 50 year old airframe design unstable. Boeing then cheated with software kludges. It only half worked and a couple of the planes have recently fallen out of the sky, killing everyone. Currently 737Max's are grounded worldwide (USA was the last country to ground them). How did Boeing get away with it? The bean counters overruled the engineers, then suborned the regulators and politicians. This is a microcosm of the failing American project. A few of days ago the Chinese (the world's biggest aircraft market) put in a $30 billion order for new European Airbus A320s, starting a stampede away from Boeing ]. I've included this story because it so starkly illustrates the tangled mess of high technology and failed administration which becomes too complicated for anyone to accept responsibility for - until there is a catastrophe (when the very complexity of the thing leads to endless blame shifting). The Boeing story has many, many parallels, and they are multiplying (e.g. see https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/18/17876012/dieselgate-volkswagen-vw-diesel-emissions-test-epa-german-auto-industry-mercedes-benz-bmw ).
Thor May => The manufactured, 'idiot proof' simple experience concealing fatal complexity: think of examples. ... The last time my car had a flat tyre in Adelaide I had no idea until an Indian taxi driver pulled alongside and waved me down. The power steering had hidden a potentially fatal engineering imbalance. 50 years ago when I began to drive, the feedback was much more direct. ... People living on pain killers are playing with something similar. The news media also, inevitably, runs reports of events at a similar fairy tale level, so when the sky falls in most people have no real idea why.
Barry Jones (30 March 2019) "The death of political debate". The Saturday Paper @ https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2019/03/30/the-death-political-debate/15538644007917 [Thor, comment: Barry Jones argues that political debate in the last generation has been reduced to meme slogans rather than reasoned argument. In social and political innovation after World War II, Australia led most of the world, and politicians led public opinion with reasoned argument. Now politics is "retail", reactive, driven by polling and sold with simple minded slogans. The many complicated issues we face are shunned, he says, instead of intelligently debated. (Barry Jones was a minister in the 1970s Hawke government and twice president of the Australian Labor Party)].
Peter Wilson (April 2019) "Death of the Calorie - For more than a century we’ve counted on calories to tell us what will make us fat - Peter Wilson says it’s time to bury the world’s most misleading measure". 1843 Magazine @ https://www.1843magazine.com/features/death-of-the-calorie [Thor, comment: another simple minded idea bites the dust. Recommended reading for anyone interested in managing their diet].
Ken Richardson (January 3, 2019) "It’s the End of the Gene As We Know It. We are not nearly as determined by our genes as once thought". Nautilus Magazine @ http://nautil.us/issue/68/context/its-the-end-of-the-gene-as-we-know-it [Quote: "We’ve all seen the stark headlines: “Being Rich and Successful Is in Your DNA” (Guardian, July 12); “A New Genetic Test Could Help Determine Children’s Success” (Newsweek, July 10); “Our Fortunetelling Genes” make us (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16); and so on. The problem is, many of these headlines are not discussing real genes at all, but a crude statistical model of them, involving dozens of unlikely assumptions. Now, slowly but surely, that whole conceptual model of the gene is being challenged. We have reached peak gene, and passed it".]
Thor May - "Thor's Brief Ideas - Aphorisms & Unwise Thoughts, 1988 to 2017" - a long collection of complicated ideas expressed fairly simply @ https://www.meetup.com/AdelaideLunchtimeSeminar/events/jzrrsqyzgbrb/
Thor May -> "There is duplicity in simplicity, and turmoil in quietude" .. fatally clear, honest words from an unlucky Chinese actress who was sent to a prison camp by Mao Zedong's bad, mad wife.
Wikipedia (2019) "Complexity Economics" @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity_economics [Quote: "complexity economics models are often used to study how non-intuitive results at the macro-level of a system can emerge from simple interactions at the micro level. This avoids assumptions of the representative agent method, which attributes outcomes in collective systems as the simple sum of the rational actions of the individuals." [comment, Thor: This kind of analysis is fairly new, with good potential over existing economic models which are rather simple-minded views of 'rational actors'. However, the calculations so far only deal with exports, and basically try to show how vulnerable economies are to multiple forces acting together unpredictably. Australia ranks about No. 79 on that scale. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_economic_complexity ]
Thor May => “We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.” - Charlton Ogburn in ""Merrill's Marauders" 1957 (falsely attributed in popular culture to Petronius Arbiter (27AD - 66AD)) [Thor, comment: Heck, I'm sure Petronius Arbiter could have said it too. Haven't wannabe managers with magic solutions been spinning their wheels in the same way over the last 2000 years ..?]
Jon Henley (7 Apr 2019) "Change the narrative: how a Swiss group is beating rightwing populists - Operation Libero is winning key victories by using fun but hard-hitting messages to tackle fear and pessimism". The Guardian @ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/07/we-had-to-fight-operation-libero-the-swiss-youth-group-taking-on-populism [Thor, comment: This is kind of interesting. When we look at life's complications from a political angle, it is pretty clear that complication serves those who wish to exploit the forces of chaos. Where confusion reigns most people retreat to what they think are known values in a worldview they are familiar with. That often translates to tribalism, nationalism, nativism, xenophobia, identity politics etc. These sentiments are natural tools for populists with dictatorial ambitions whose actual actions in power undermine the values of those who naively elected them. Antidotes to this process of betrayal are therefore useful.]
Thor May - When it comes to managing a complicated human world at the level of societies, humans are happily giving up and handing it over to algorithms. This comes at a price. A short time ago Cathy O'Neil published "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy". Crown, 2016. ebook & paper book formats. @ Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Weapons-Math-Destructio…/…/0553418815 . That sharpened our sensitivity to the blind danger of opaque AI algorithms. Now in a Nautilus article, Hannah Fry has some thoughtful suggestions about how such algorithms can be fenced in to yield a useful service instead of mortal threats:
Michael Segal (November 1, 2018) "We Need an FDA For Algorithms - UK mathematician Hannah Fry on the promise and danger of an AI world". Nautilus website
Thor May - To see my attempt at a cartoon on this complicated topic, captioned as 'The Answer', check the "Photos" menu of the Lunchtime Seminar website.
Wikipedia (2019) "Occam's Razor" @ https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor
Thor May (2018) "Emergent Systems - An Overview". Academia.edu @ https://www.academia.edu/36660988/Emergent_Systems_-An_Overview [Thor, comment: If there is one situation above all else where we lose track of the complications, it is in emergent systems. Emergent systems happen where a bunch of simpler things start to function together so closely that their grouping makes a new, bigger system with properties which cannot be predicted from the origins. Your body, with its 37 trillion human cells and 100 triillion bacteria is a star example. Gaia, the living Earth itself, is probably another. Note that on this topic my mind is full of doubts and confusion, which is a good way to be.]
Wikipedia (2019) "The Master Algorithm - Pedro Domingo" @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_Algorithm . [Thor, comment : algorithms, natural and invented, control the behaviour of almost everything we interact with. This algorithmic separation of our primary intentions from final outcomes is becoming more intense, leading people to a sense of losing control. Pedro Domingo does a masterful job of explaining the the race to develop algorithms in artificial intelligence. With some grasp of what is going on in this field you will have better mastery of your own life. Highly recommended reading. The book has been translated into multiple languages and is available in various formats]
Multiple authors (2018) "Is having a simple life the same as having an easy life? What is your thinking? - 6 Quora answers." Quora.com @ https://www.quora.com/Is-having-a-simple-life-the-same-as-having-an-easy-life-What-is-your-thinking
Dave Gillen (n.d.) "How to stop overthinking and lead a simple life. Has overthinking ever held you back from doing something? Does life seem really complicated right now? Dave Gillen offers a solution to help you stop overthinking and shows us life can be simpler than we think. Flying Solo website @ https://www.flyingsolo.com.au/live-smarter/business-psychology/stop-overthinking-lead-simple-life
Ben Carlson (May 18, 2014) "What’s Your Tolerance for Complexity?" WealthOfCommonSense website @ https://awealthofcommonsense.com/2014/05/investment-time-management/ [Thor, comment: This short article is about matching your personality to financial investment strategy, but it also applies to other areas of life]
Thor's own websites:
1. articles at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay ;
2. legacy site: http://thormay.net .
Viral Ideas, Viral Emotions, Psychological & Social Contagion (c) Thor May 2019 return to Ddiscussion