Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Reading in a New Fiscal Year

Lake scene 2

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Today begins a new month, a new fiscal year even, and fall is in the air. Since every now and then, someone asks what I am reading, I have turned my attention to the question myself.  Some books on innovation have been covered earlier on this blog, particularly here.   But, why begin with innovation if we are not sure where, when or why, it matters?  Context can be helpful.

Upcoming on this blog, therefore, will be a few brief overviews of some important, and possibly even provocative, books which provide fresh optics on historical contexts, and which were published in the last year.  Some of these books review how we got to now and make suggestions for how to move forward.

These include:

The Shape of the New:  Four Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot.

Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion.

This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein, who may be familiar to some for her investigation into “disaster capitalism.”  This book is so sweeping “and of such consequence,”  in the view of The New York Times,  that it is “almost unreviewable.”

But, to lighten the load, some fun reading is also in order.  I recommend:

Illustration: Painting by Giovanni Boldini (1888) - Wikipedia

Illustration: Painting of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888) – Wikipedia

A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable, a book which also came out last year. It is based on the true story of an apartment the contents of which came to light in 2010, 70 years after its tenant had hurriedly left Paris.

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

In the apartment among antiques and other valuables, which had been untouched or unseen by anyone in all this time, was an original painting of a beautiful lady. Martha de Florian, by Giovanni Boldini.  Boldini was a contemporary of Edgar Degas, whose life and works was discussed earlier on this blog, in mid- and late-19th century Parisian artistic circles.

The painting depicts Madame Marthe de Florian whose diaries also were in the apartment when it was opened in 2010.

The novel, A Paris Apartment, recreates this true story in a fictional modern context.  The author has a fresh writing style which makes the most of her talents for creating realistic dialogue and alternating between periods of time separated by more than a century. Boldini himself–not to mention Madame de Florian–come alive here in a story that includes other better known figures of their time.  All this…a true story…and a fictional story…because of one real-life dusty old apartment filled with stuff no one wanted for nearly a century.


Summer Open-Air Markets

Plaza Final

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Today was the first day of the year for a Saturday morning market, marking the official beginning of summer for this neighborhood!  It was a busy scene; hence, not a lot of blank white space in the sketch.

Nearby, a tall fountain was the centerpiece for more practice urban sketching, this time in a plaza ringed with trees.

Illustration:  On-site sketch with pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: On-site sketch with pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

But elsewhere, clearly some preferred to be distant from the crowds!

Illustration:  On-site sketch in pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: On-site sketch in pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Resilience Dividend


Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (All Rights Reserved)

Island nations have been in the news alot lately, and not just because of the cyclone that hit Vanuatu recently.  There is new interest in islands and the subject of resilience.  It turns out that on this subject, conventional wisdom–as so often is the case–is not quite right.  Islands aren’t always more vulnerable and less resilient, according to some experts who will be speaking at an upcoming event, “Islands as Champions of Resilience,”sponsored by by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C.  At this event, the speakers will discuss replacing the prevailing notion of island nations as victims of climate change to “champions of resilience.”  I know of some people right now in island nations who would be very interested in these proceedings…

And since we have just discussed the concept of resilience in my class, and some people I know are presently preparing materials related to resilience, here are some notes on the subject.  This is a big subject and likely to spill over into a future post or two.

Rodin book coverIn her new book, The Resilience Dividend, Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, defines resilience as “the capacity of any entity–an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system–to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.”  She notes that ideally one becomes more adept at managing disruption and skilled at “resilience building.”

The “resilience dividend,” according to Rodin, refers to new capacity that results from becoming more adept at managing disruption; as a result, one is “able to create and take advantage of new opportunities in good times and bad.”  Thus resilience is most definitely not about snapping back to the status quo ante.  It is not like a plastic ruler bent and then let go.  Instead, Rodin writes, resilience is “about achieving significant transformation that yields benefits even when disruptions are not occurring.”  The capacity for building resilience is one of the most urgent “social and economic issues” today, she writes, “because we live in a world that is defined by disruption”.  These disruptions run the gamut, from cyber-attacks, new strains of virus, a storm, economic surprises, a structural failure, civil disturbances, and so on, notes the author.

While there is nothing new about disruption, there are three disruptive phenomena that are “distinctly modern,” according to Rodin.  These are:  urbanization, climate change, and globalization.  These three factors are “intertwined,” she writes, and affect each other in a “social-ecological-economic nexus.”  And, “because everything is interconnected–a massive system of systems–a single disruption often triggers another, which exacerbates the effects of the first, so that the original shock becomes a cascade of crises.”  Rodin writes:  “A weather disturbance, for example, can cause infrastructural damage that leads to a public health problem that, in turn, disturbs livelihoods and creates widespread economic turmoil, which can lead to a further degrading of basic services, additional health problems, and even political conflict or civil unrest.”

According to Rodin, any entity can build resilience but “too often…resilience thinking does not really take hold until a galvanizing event or a major shock–such as Superstorm Sandy–brings the need into high relief.”  She describes her goal for her book as to help frame and contribute to the process of resilience by proving a template for thinking about, and methods for practicing, resilience.

Five Characteristics of Resilience

Rodin identifies five characteristics of resilience:

  • Being Aware
  • Diverse (different sources of capacity)
  • Integrated (coordination of functions and actions across systems)
  • Self-regulating
  • Adaptive

Being aware is first because without awareness you have no idea what your strengths and weakness are, what threats and risks you face…and have no concept of all the aspects of a situation, which can include “the infrastructural elements, human dynamics, and natural systems–and how they interconnect.”

Being aware is not a static condition because circumstances can change rapidly with proliferating secondary effects, Rodin writes.  The fluidity of the operating environment for most of us requires what she calls “situational awareness”–which she defines as an “ability and willingness to constantly assess, take in new information, reassess and adjust our understanding of the most critical and relevant strengths and weakness and other factors as they change and develop.”  Rodin describes several methods for enhancing situational awareness, and references what psychologists call “mindfulness,”  Mindfulness is described as “a flexible cognitive state that results from drawing novel distinctions about the situation and the environment.”

In order to be mindful, says one of Rodin’s sources on the subject, one needs to be able to develop “new mental categories, to be open-minded, receptive to different and new perspectives and new information, and to focus on processes rather than outcomes.”  In this way, a “mindful” person is “more able to understand situations as they actually are, not as you assume they should be or always have been” and “thus to respond more quickly and appropriately.”

All this is enormously relevant to people in any field anywhere, given the complexity of the systems that make up modern life and what many are finding is the inadequacy of most inherited frameworks for dealing with that complexity.  Future posts will come back to this subject as it is both central to what we are learning our class this semester and useful material for various projects of mine.


Valentine’s Day Surprises Mexican-Style

DancersOften there’s nothing more to noticing surprising things than to put yourself in a different environment or try something new, or both. Over this holiday weekend in Mexico City, there has been a lot to notice and enjoy, not least because the city is filled with Valentine’s Day celebrations!

Poster on Paseo de la reforma in Chapultepec Park showing drawing by a child

Poster on Paseo de la Reforma in Chapultepec Park showing drawing by a child

So many things to see, and lots of fun things to taste. And great fiestas of sound and dance!  Not rare for the folks in this great town but still full of surprises for the visitor!

Unsurprisingly, the traffic can be a bit overwhelming for the newcomer, as living flows of cabs, people on skateboards and roller skates, bikes, and buses jostle for space down crowded boulevards.

Angel de ReformaThe exquisite way-beyond “state-of-the-art” displays in the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Museo Nacional de Antropologia are full of spell-binding surprises.  Even for the seasoned museum-goer, these museums take one’s breath away!


Gran hotel ceiling

Stained-glass dome ceiling over the lobby of the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico

The street life especially around the Zocalo (central plaza) in the Centro Historico is full of diversity–and crowded with people–as bands play on a large stage–in front of the cathedral.  If traversing the streets gets overwhelming, as it did for me, duck into the lobby of the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico and have a look at its stained glass ceiling; this building was once a department store!

Nearby in the Museo de Diego Rivera is a massive mural by the artist.  It’s something not to miss; it’s breathtaking!  (Reportedly as many as 200 other murals are inside the Department of Education–and usually free to visitors who want to see them–but it’s not open on the weekends.)


Inside the Museo de Diego Rivera

While the streets were filling to overflowing around the Centro Historica, with seemingly everyone in town out to celebrate Valentine’s Day, the police also were in seemingly full force directing traffic and providing directions.

Prehistoric dogs

Perro “Xoloitzcuintle”, a dog of prehispanic origin which is in danger of extinction, has no hair, lacks some teeth and has sensitive skin.

In nearby Coyoacan, the festivities were similarly joyful and colorful, with newlyweds having photos taken in the park in front of the cathedral… and a lot of dancing going on next to the cathedral!!!  Cobblestone streets and cafes extend from the central park in all directions. When we needed to stop, there was no shortage of places to get a great plate of enchiladas and a cold drink.  Peacock 1And over at the Museo de Dolores Olmedo–a beautiful setting for paintings by Diego Rivero and Frida Kahlo and majestically landscaped parks–the peacocks were in fine form!  As this male peacock trembled his feathers, a soft clicking sound–unlike any other–was audible. Nearby, hairless dogs at risk of extinction–whose line goes back to prehispanic times–played, with their 10 week-old puppies greeting visitors.

Everyone is out enjoying this Valentine’s Day and it’s not over yet!

Valentine's Day in Coyoacan

Coyoacan 1

Coyoacan on Valentine’s Day!

coyoacan 7

Valentine’s Day festivities in Coyoacan


Mexico City in February

Mexico City in the morning


Monkeys Typing Shakespeare

monkey 3

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author.

Around the world overnight, we rang in the New Year with expressions of wishes for good fortune for all in 2015!  While we are considering here the roots of surprise (even, for fun, a “zoology” of surprise), the start of a New Year is an auspicious (another good luck phrase) occasion on which to consider the chances (there we go again) of things going extraordinarily well or badly.  For this, I’ve been turning to a new book by an eminent British mathematician and statistician who, it seems to me, has done the reading public a great service by translating his insights into language we non-mathematicians can (usually) understand!  (I am composing a blog post to record what I am learning, and not to review the book.  I also have received emails from friends who are looking forward to learning more about this book and reading it themselves.)  Future posts will come back to the ideas presented in this book.

Extraordinarily improbable events occur every day, according to Dr. David Hand, author of The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (2014). (You can watch Dr. Hand explaining the Improbability Principle at a 2014 meeting of the Royal Statistical Society in London at this YouTube video here.)  It is clear from the video that the statisticians see the present moment in history with the deluge of data (including “big” data) as opportune for members of their profession to intersect with the formulation of public policy.  And based on my reading of Hand’s new book so far, I’d have to agree!

Hand traces the history of the study of probability, noting early on in the book the work of Emile Borel, an eminent French mathematician (1871-1956), who held that “Events with a sufficiently small probability never occur.”  Borel cited, according to Hand, the classic example of monkeys who, randomly hitting the keys of a typewriter, happen by chance to produce the complete works of Shakespeare.  Borel explained:

“Such is the sort of event which, though its impossibility may not be rationally demonstrable, is, however, so unlikely that no sensible person will hesitate to declare it actually impossible.  If someone affirmed having observed such an event we would be sure that he is deceiving us or has himself been the victim of a fraud.”

As Hand observes, on first glance it seems like “Borel’s law” contradicts “the improbability principle” which is the subject of his book. The Improbability Principle asserts that “extremely improbable events are commonplace.”   But Borel is referring to “very small probabilities” on human scales, says Hand, and indeed Borel clarifies his “single law of chance” by noting that “at least, we must act, in all circumstances as if they were impossible.”

By contrast, the Improbability Principle explains why highly unlikely events keep on happening.  Hand says, “that is, not only are they not impossible, but we see such events again and again.”  Can both these assertions be right, he asks?  Hand maintains that we can resolve this apparent contradiction by considering different strands of the improbability principle, including the “law of truly large numbers,” the “law of near enough,” the “law of selections”, and others.

When one goes through this process and understands the strands, Hand writes, the principle “tells us that the universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable:  the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur.”

Why read such a book at all?  I’ll hazard (another term from the world of risk!) a guess:

In the view of this blogger, in our interdependent, highly-interconnected world, where dense networks create a world of connections that change the meaning of “human scale” relative at least to what Borel understood it to be nearly a century ago, understanding how “rare” events, coincidences, and extraordinarily unlikely events occur has become vital for human (and other forms of life’s) security.   But, grasping that uncertainty is inherent in reality and that, indeed, even in the present, we can only have an approximate understanding of reality, does not come naturally, for some reason.

Spoiler Alert:  The rest of the post will discuss the different types of probability as Hand presents them in his book.  Future posts will delve into other aspects presented in this work. ###

And there is a reason for this mismatch of expectations, explains Hand.  Rarely addressed in our usual day-to-day settings but deftly discussed in this book is the gradual move in the last century or so –in science at least–beyond reliance upon  “deterministic” principles long said to explain the behavior of natural systems.  These principles, it has been assumed until recently, adequately explained the underlying causes and effects of events and outcomes, at least since the natural laws of physics began to be investigated in the 17th century.  The early proponents of the concept of scientifically testing ideas were onto something revolutionary for the times!  But they were limited in their understanding by what the tools and techniques of the day enabled them to observe:  this influenced the types of questions they asked, of course, and led to overconfidence about mankind’s abilities to master nature’s mysteries within the bounds of existing knowledge.

The “Baconian Revolution” first introduced the idea of the scientific method, writes Hand.  This method held that the way to understand the natural world is to collect data, conduct experiments, take observations, and use these as test beds through which to evaluate proposed explanations for what’s going on.  Before that, stories and superstitions held sway.  “But explanations that have not been or cannot be tested have no real force…,”  according to Hand.  “They serve the purpose of reassuring or placating those who are unwilling or unable to make the effort to dig deeper but they don’t lead to understanding.”

The first scientists (“natural philosophers” as they were called then) sought to devise laws that describe how nature works.  Hand notes that these laws are “shorthand summaries” encapsulating “what observations shows about how the universe behaves.”  They are “abstractions,” he notes.  An example is Newton’s Second Law of Motion, which holds that the “acceleration of a body is proportion to the force acting on it.”  The power of such laws is behind humanity’s progress in science and technology, Hand observes.

For a long time and even as recently as the 1930s, scientists and philosophers such as Karl Popper, held that the “rule that extreme improbabilities have to be neglected…agrees with the demand for scientific inquiry.”  Those tiny chances of extraordinarily rare events had to be swept under the rug to allow progress, or so it was (and still is) thought.  In addition, the idea of things happening for which we have no explanation is an intensely uncomfortable one, Hand writes, as humans have an innate need to know why things happen and “to establish the causal connections, and to understand the rules that lie behind what we observe.”  This is a basic human need related to safety and security:  if there “are no causes…illnesses, accidents, and failures couldn’t be avoided.  We’d live in a constant state of fear, waiting the unpredictable disaster just around the corner.”

Over the centuries, it was impossible to miss the inexplicable coincidences and other extraordinarily unlikely events, creating fertile conditions for prophets and fortune tellers, writes Hand–people who tap into the notion that there is some “mysterious force or being behind what happens, often acting with malicious intent.”  These notions have led to different explanations for otherwise unexplained events, including superstitions, prophecies, gods, miracles, and parapsychological explanations, he writes.

Yet, the notion that there is any real causal relationship between, for instance, sighting black cats and falling down, stems from misperceiving patterns.  Hand explains that the goal of science is to distinguish between those patterns that do represent a “real underlying cause-and-effect relationship” and those that don’t.  “Patterns we spot but that are mere accidents, without any underlying cause, have often formed the basis of superstitions.  (Animals also demonstrate this development of “superstitions,” he notes.)  But:

“Even if one event follows another surprisingly often, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the first causes the second.  Statisticians have a sound-bite for this:  correlation does not imply causation…Although the aim of a prophecy is to remove uncertainty about the future, uncertainty in the form of randomness is frequently the mechanism used to generate prophecies.”

The deterministic laws that evolved from the 17th to the 20th centuries were “mathematical equations…that told us how natural objects would behave,” writes Hand.  “There was nothing in the universe that was uncertain or unpredictable, at least in principle, according to science.”  And the immense technological progress of mankind “built on those ideas showed that they were largely correct.”   Thus came into being the ubiquitous view of nature as “the clockwork universe”–a universe ticking along a well-defined path, Hand writes. Ignorance could be eradicated by science.

Later in the 20th century, however, science began to expose gaps that it could not explain.  A huge shift in perception began slowly to take hold at least on the margins of science:

“It seemed as if the universe was not deterministic after all, but that randomness and chance lay at its very foundations.”  Randomness and chance are entirely probable in this universe, Hand explains, and can be understood through the improbability principle which is formed upon the basic laws of probability.

Types of Probability There are different kinds, and definitions, of probability, according to Hand.  Informal definitions even reveal the multi-facetness of probability: both,  “the extent to which an event is likely to happen” and “the strength of belief than an event is likely to happen.”  And Hand tells us that both can be represented by the same mathematics:  probabilities are numbers lying in the range from 0 to 1 with 0 meaning impossible and 1 meaning certain.  There are many other definitions, but none captures “probability” in its entirety.  This is not really a problem, says, Hand, because it is very natural to need “multiple views of an object to understand it properly.”

The three most widely used interpretations of probability are the frequentist, subjective and classical interpretations:

The frequentist interpretation of probability is based on the tendency of physical systems to produce roughly constant relative frequencies when situations are repeated.  For example:  the tendency for a coin to come up heads about half the time it’s tossed, or the 4 (or any other) face to show on a die about one-sixth of the time.  As we learn from reading Hand, there is a lot to think about in the word “roughly” above!  Complete accuracy is impossible event when measuring, as frequentist probability does, properties of the “external world.”

Subjective probability is very different. Instead of representing an aspect of the external world, subjective probability is the confidence an individual has that an event will occur, explains Hand.  This relates to your beliefs, whether about the probability of a coin turning up heads in a coin flip or your beliefs about the person tossing the coin (who might have rigged the process).

“Instead of being a property of the external world, the subjective view has it that probability is an internal property of your mind. Each person will have their own subjective probability for each event.”  Hand notes that another eminent mathematician therefore claimed that probability did not exist because it is a “property of how we think about the world.” Nonetheless, Hand notes that various methods exist for measuring subjective probability, including asking people to bet on an outcome–knowing that the results will depend on what they think.

Only recently have we humans come to understand the significance of these fundamental different notions of probability, Hand says, with steps newly taken to distinguish between  epistemological probability and “aleatory” probability. (For more on this, it will be necessary to read the book!)

The classical interpretation of probability is based on options of symmetry, Hand writes, giving the example of how natural it is to think of probability as distributed equally across the six faces of a die. “This interpretation is very convenient for games of chance, based on symmetrical randomization tools such as dice and coins,” he writes.  But life is not like a die, he says:  “it’s less clear how we might apply classical probability to situations in normal life which lack such obvious symmetries.”

There are other interpretations of probability, which Hand goes on to introduce.  What’s key, and still to be addressed in this blog  in future posts on the roots of surprise, is to understand how probability is calculated in the case of interdependent events, such as make up the natural and manmade systems of our world.  What is the significance of these relatively recent discoveries of the inevitability of improbability?