Innovation, living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Scams, Shams, and (Body) Slams

While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand.  But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…

In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late.  According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die.  (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently.  I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word.  It seems related to another one rarely heard:  “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.”  (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6:  On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)

With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.


Illustration: Color study, Watercolor, acrylic and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now.  And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.

So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle.  It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.

Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as  frogs.  So back to the drawing board…

Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Sense-making in a “Shapeless” World

It’s been said that we’re living in a “shapeless” world. What is meant by this is that our understandings about the geopolitical shape of our world has become fuzzy, hazy, or contradictory.  People, whether formally recognized as decision-makers or not, must make decisions. Some are becoming aware of having to work harder to make make sense of things.  They might wonder if they have the necessary tools to do so.  Often, however, people (especially experts) would not want to admit such uncertainty.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

There is a deeply-held belief in modern life that knowing things and eliminating uncertainty gives us more power and security, and that anyone who exhibits uncertainty and/or reflectiveness is therefore weak and indecisive.  (This is related, as well, to being perceived as  “doer”–a “climber”, a “mover” and a “shaker.”)  Deeply ingrained concepts of success are tied to our perceptions of others as confident, bold, and expert.   Certainly, we know, the stock market does not like uncertainty, and that’s because it’s made up of people having to make decisions. People do not like uncertainty and, for some potential setbacks, go so far as to buy insurance to protect themselves so as to better manage risk.

Up to now at least, accumulating facts, expertise, and scientific knowledge–and mastering the material world–seemed to suffice for decision-makers.  So, what’s changed today?  Cannot the facts of any matter provide us the answers we need to steer a safe course through choppy waters?

Of course, it is debatable what shape the world was in when it had more shape in our minds: the “Cold War” comes to mind. It gave shape to things, but perhaps not a shape most of us, at least those with any appreciation of history, would care to repeat. There also was the shape of the 1990s when it seemed to many that technological advances and globalization would inevitably lift all boats.  The Financial Crash of 2008 upended many experts’ basic beliefs about the essential shape of the world, and many experts today acknowledge that nothing yet has taken the place of the old certainties now pretty much ripped to shreds.

Into this incoherence comes a new book that may help us to self-diagnose, at least. Our yearning for “shape” is the focus of this book by Jamie Holmes, a “Future Tense Fellow”, at the New America Foundation, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).  Drawing from many interviews and lively case studies, Holmes looks at how we make sense of the world. He studies the neurological wiring that makes us calm or agitated in varying states of certainty or uncertainty.  He finds that uncertainty is an “emotional amplifier”:  “it makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable.”  Holmes examines how the world of medicine has changed in a data-abundant world, for instance.  And he delves deeply into  how our sense-making minds naturally work to solve the puzzles of every day existence.  So, what has changed that makes the world seem shapeless, at least to some, today?

The paradox of modern existence, according to Holmes, is that “technological acceleration–in transportation, communication, and production–should provide more free time” but, in fact, most of us feel “continually squeezed” by overwhelming options and limited time to assimilate and evaluate information,” he writes.

Indeed, abundant information has created more uncertainty!  So much information “makes even the simplest decisions–where to eat, which health plan to sign up for, which coffee maker to buy–more fraught.”

Avoiding this reality or denying it would be of little use, Holmes writes.  “Managing uncertainty is fast becoming an essential skill.”  In his prologue, he cites economist Noreen Hertz’s argument that “one of today’s fundamental challenges is “disorder–a combination of the breakdown of old, established orders and the extremely unpredictable nature of our age.””

In his book, Holmes demonstrates that “being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty isn’t a function of intelligence.”  (Interesting too that being a “superforecaster” also is not a function of intelligence (see previous post).  But it is an emotional challenge.  This is because individuals have varying needs for “closure,” a concept developed by psychologist, Arie Kruglanski, Holmes writes.  People who understand this concept, even merely intuitively, actually can manipulate others’ discomfort with ambiguity.  “When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions.”  This is the stuff of radical and dangerous shifts in popular attitudes over the course of history; it merits our deeper understanding.

What’s important in this work is Holmes’ seemingly original and certainly unusually accessible treatment of the importance of contextual circumstances in changing individuals’ need for closure.  This trait is not as hard-wired as many of us might assume.

Learning how to deal with what we don’t understand is a critical skill becoming more necessary for all of us in this “shapeless” and still fairly new century, according to this author.  It turns out that uncertainty and contradictions provide the environment for people to unleash their creativity.  Making sense of a shapeless world requires imagination and other cognitive skills which most people have but may not have had occasion to exercise as much as they would have liked.

Speaking of which: due to an abundance of choices, and must-do’s, today, this subject will be continued at a later date here on this blog, of that I am fairly certain.  Understanding what our options are for making sense of complexity is a subject that deserves our undivided attention.  Having read this book, I am confident that it does too.  So, to be continued…

Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Health of Nations

Image Source:  UNICEF Pacific/AFPGetty Images

Image Source: UNICEF Pacific/AFPGetty Images

The strong cyclone that swept through the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu yesterday occurred at the same time that government representatives, including the President of Vanuatu and the head of Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, were meeting at a UN conference in Japan to devise a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters such as this one.  According to media reports, Vanuatu has prepared for cyclones but not for one of this intensity.  There are reports that even the National Disaster Management Office’s emergency communications systems have been disrupted by the storm.  In a statement today, Oxfam Australia said that up to 90% of the housing in the capital of Port Vila  had reportedly been seriously damaged.  An Oxfam official said that this “is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific.”

Although communications reportedly have been reestablished in the capital city, the extent of the devastation in Vanuatu, a country of 267,000 people spread out across 65 low-lying islands, is not yet clear, according to media reports.  The convergence of the cyclone and the UN conference on disaster risk reduction in the same weekend seems to underscore both a growing global reality of more frequent extreme weather events and increasing global recognition of the need for formal mechanisms to help societies prepare for the unexpected–whether from extreme weather events, disease outbreaks, or conflicts.

Illustration: Conte crayon by Black Elephant Blog author modeled upon "Rider and Fallen Foe" by Titian

Illustration: Conte crayon by Black Elephant Blog author modeled upon “Rider and Fallen Foe” by Titian

As we have seen when regions undergo recurrent stresses and shocks, the health and well-being (or security) of any people’s “homeland” must unavoidably concern us all.  It turns out that resilience is a local issue with global consequences–with effects that eventually come home to roost. Ignoring what is happening on the other side of the world is not a viable option. Taking a larger view of the challenges is necessary–and may help with acquiring a larger perspective on possible responses.  We have much material and experience, as well as creativity, imagination, and resourcefulness to draw into the viewfinders.  The UN Secretary General has similarly observed that the rebuilding effort of Sendai, Japan, four years after it was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami, is a reminder that “we must turn all of the painful lessons of disasters into new policies for a better future.”

What the officials at the UN meeting in Sendai, Japan have concluded is that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, powerful storms in the Asia-Pacific region and ongoing conflicts around the world are compelling reminders that “health and stronger health system capacities must be central to the new framework for managing disaster risk,” as reported by U.N. health agency officials today.  Public health is interconnected with, and a foundational requirement for, the ability to withstand disasters of all kinds. In whatever language it is conveyed, this message is relevant to all people of the world…  Threats and unwelcome surprises come in many forms; traditional means of defense, including walls and barricades, may no longer suffice. Different thinking and relationships may be needed.

Illustration:  Graphite on paper by Black Elephant Blog author after "Group of Figures" sketch by Luca Cambiaso circa 1560s

Illustration: Graphite on paper by Black Elephant Blog author after “Group of Figures” sketch by Luca Cambiaso circa 1560s

As we have just completed a session on “Resilience” in the class I am co-teaching, for which we relied on some excellent materials from varied sources, my next blog post will assemble some notes in one place regarding some of the latest thinking and practices related to “resilience,” including what it is, and some of its characteristics.  How is resilience different from other sorts of preparedness and who needs to be involved?  How do we know when we are “resilient” enough in an age of high-impact, unknown probability risks?  Perhaps these notes–which draw from, among other sources, the helpful new book by Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, The Resilience Dividend–will be as useful to someone else as they have been to me recently!  As our class continues to explore:  Understanding more about resilience is important not only for island nations but for the health of nations generally.


Butterfly Effects

Continuing a consideration of the “Zoology of Surprise,” –from the Hummingbird Effect, Black Swans, and Hippo Paradoxes–it is time now to confront the much-misunderstood “Butterfly effect.”  As I have learned, this phrase is not so much a metaphor about butterflies as it is about the nonlinear, unpredictable, and yet chaotically “orderly” behavior of hurricanes, epidemics, and (potentially even) stock markets!  Perhaps it is possible to tease out some implications for dealing with surprises by understanding a bit more about this metaphorical creature of surprise.  When looking into the matter, it is easy to see why people have become confused. Yet, it is also is apparent that understanding this concept is increasingly important to making sense of our past, present, and future wherever we are…

Traditionally the “butterfly effect” is discussed in phrases such as “as a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo could cause tornadoes in California” but this is a misconception of the meaning of the term. The concept of the “Butterfly Effect” comes from the research and mathematical literature (which generally has little to do with butterflies) of chaos theory.  This in turn is a subset of the currently rapidly evolving “complexity theory” (which will be addressed at much greater length in future posts on this blog). Chaos theory is applied in many scientific disciplines, including: geology, mathematics, microbiology, biology, computer science, economics, engineering, finance, meteorology, philosophy, physics, politics, population dynamics, psychology, and robotics.

Image:  Gouache, charcoal and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Gouache, charcoal and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

As the Wikipedia explains: In chaos theory, the butterfly effect refers to “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”

The Wikipedia entry continues: “The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, [an American mathematician (23 May 1917 – 16 April 2008)],  is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered the effect when he observed that runs of his weather model with initial condition data that was rounded in a seemingly inconsequential manner would fail to reproduce the results of runs with the unrounded initial condition data. A very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.”  In this important sense, the phrase “butterfly effect” is not a metaphor, as mathematician and statistician Dr. David Hand explains in his new book, The Improbability Principle, discussed here on this blog.

What scientists painstakingly emphasize is that they are not talking literally about butterflies flapping their wings and causing hurricanes.   Instead, they are talking about nonlinear systems which demonstrate disproportionality (outcomes are not directly proportional to inputs) and, in particular, the relatively recent (made in the last century or so; see “Henri Poincare“) scientific observations that such systems are complex, dynamic, and exhibit sensitivity to initial conditions.  These systems include many natural systems such as weather, climate, and population growth in ecology.  (Nonlinear systems–of which chaotic systems are a subset–also include most systems, such as ICT (Internet, etc.) and social media, energy grids, finance and banking, food and water, transportation, and medical and health systems, upon which our modern societies rely to function.)

These chaotic systems, paradoxically for those of us educated to see mainly directly connected causes and effects, demonstrate a strange sort of “order”:  they are deterministic but not predictable.  Even though there are no random elements involved in their iterations,they are characterized by irregularity.  This behavior is known as “deterministic chaos” or “chaotic systems.”

Image:  Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

It appears that some disagree whether chaotic systems are really a subset of complex systems.  This is because, while chaotic systems are deterministic, truly complex systems aren’t.  According to one of the early proponents of complexity theory, Ilya Prigogine  (known for pioneering research in “self-organizing systems”), complexity is non-deterministic, and gives no way whatsoever to precisely produce the future.  Therefore, some say (also here and here, for instance) that there is a dividing line between a “complicated” deterministic order that is “chaos” and an order in which randomness prevails that is “complex.”   Some maintain that complexity is the opposite of chaos. Chaotic systems are sensitive to initial conditions whereas complex systems (such as social systems) evolve “far from equilibrium at the edge of chaos.”  Complex systems evolve at a critical state “built up by a history of irreversible and unexpected events,” also known as an “accumulation of frozen accidents,” by physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

What’s important about all this for a blog on surprise, change, and abrupt change, arguably, is that irregularity and unpredictability are inherent parts of the complex systems that make up our world. Apparently, we have known this (to varying degrees) scientifically for about a century.

It’s worth asking if standard analytic and planning processes have caught up to the science? We can forecast the weather but within time-limited bounds.    If we consider that these natural systems, such as weather and climate–while complex–are less complex than those involving human interactions (and, especially, human interactions with natural and digital systems!!), there seems to be a need for an abundance of caution when attempting to predict what individuals or social groups will do in the future.  As the head of the New England Institute for Complex Systems, Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, says, “No empirical observation is ever useful as a direct measure of a future observation.”  He adds:  “It is only through generalization motivated by some form of model/theory that we can use past information to address future circumstances.”

Unpacking what all this means for more standard approaches to planning, investing, predicting, forecasting, hiring, and organizing and managing work is a daunting task.   Butterflies and frozen accidents…what are we to make of it all?  As we move beyond the tenets of the Industrial Age into a digital, hyperconnected age, delving into these matters, arcane as they seem, may be an unavoidable task.  As this blog matures, I’ll link to some seemingly great work in this area, and welcome suggestions for the same.  (This post may be updated.)