living in truth, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Half-Truths and Lies

Events recently reminded me of sketches done while wandering in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. not so long ago.  This is an inspiring place which often is missed by visitors to the capital because it is not on the Mall. It is is a bit off the beaten path.  But in this Gallery is so much history, so much art, and so much that is astonishing.  It is a relaxing place too with lots of places to sit, including in a covered light- and plant-filled atrium.

tennyson

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson Illustraton: Pencil sketch by Black Elephant Blog author of a bronze bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson sculpted by William Ordway Partridge and located in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Co-joined with the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art (which is where I came across an intriguing bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson), this entire city block is devoted to the proud history and artistic accomplishments of the people of the United States, and visitors to the United States, right up to the present time.  Like the National Constitution Center and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, these two museums present powerful evidence of the fact that this nation is built on a pretty solid foundation, if only we would bother to understand and protect it.

With so much to keep up with these days, it’s more likely than not that we will pay inadequate attention to the requirements for this solid foundation–which is a huge risk that has been with us at least since the onset of the digital revolution.

In our social media-saturated world, we are more likely to be guilty of rushing to judgment than pausing long enough to try to understand what’s going on.  That’s why taking some time out to sit in the National Portrait Gallery can be helpful!  Sketching has a way of concentrating the mind at the same time that it opens us up to new perspectives.  At the National Portrait Gallery, you can bring your drawing tools right inside, and the atrium/courtyard is a perfect place to practice drawing people in motion too.

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living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…

vangogh

Illustration: Watercolor sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.

 

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

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

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketch of the Day

Illustration:  Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the "Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950) exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the “Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950″exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketching is Seeing

Illustration:  Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

Illustration: Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying  strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,”  increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected.   We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here.  (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train:  How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action”  at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)

But, our  classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch.  This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or  even the exact facts on the ground  (simulating reality).  The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes.  Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially.  Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester.  We all learn something in the process.

Boy sketching

Sketching something imaginary?

We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.

tulips and capitol

Photo: U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. taken by Black Elephant Blog author

Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.

Bridge photo

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!

bridge pastel 1

Illustration: Work -in-progress pastel sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished.  Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented.  (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)

Lakeside watercolor 1

Illustration: Work-in-progress watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes.  Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.

How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions.  Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles.  But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As  more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt.  It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary.  Would we better off  if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school?  One wonders.  Meanwhile, it’s  no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire:  sketch away!

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Uncertainty

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?

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Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty

Understanding Improbability

twin_sisters-press-07

Image: PBS.org (Public Broadcasting Station) Twin sisters, born in China, meet their new adoptive mothers who did not know each other and initially did not know the babies were twins. On that first day of acquaintance, the infants are soon dressed by their adoptive parents in clothes from their new homes respectively in Norway and in the U.S.: identical red-checked gingham dresses.

As 2014 draws to a close, it is impossible to ignore how remarkable a year it’s been in so many ways. Whether “mysterious”, “miraculous”, or “magical”–or tragic, terrifying, or tremendous–there have been so many surprising twists and turns, and these are merely the ones we know about.

Since this blog is about investigating the roots of how we are surprised, it seems fitting to note that this year has been one of unexpected and “rare” events.  Our minds seek patterns as a way of making sense of these developments–seeing similarities and expecting correlations to help us understand what is going on–but sometimes (often?) our innate pattern-making sensibilities mislead us. Our misplaced confidence in our understanding leads us to expect outcomes that turn out, in hindsight, to have been unrealistic.

So, it bears asking:  what is the nature of such surprises?  Why are experts proving so unimaginative (often admitting as much) at anticipating the scale of potential disasters, and does this mean that they are equally impoverished in imagining how large-scale breakthroughs (or “good surprises”)  in the human condition could occur?  What are the implications of a radically more interconnected globe and the rates and scale of the surprises we face? Shall we careen from one unexpected event to the other, temporarily struck dumb by the suddenness and scale (and typically cost–economically and otherwise) of the turn of events? Or, are some of the surprises that are real crises actually avoidable, as the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus says this year’s Ebola crisis was?  Are surprises similar in type or are there different sorts of surprises; that is, different in ways other than normative expectations of “good” or “bad?”  Are there ways to make more fortunate surprises more commonplace?   Clearly not only quality of life but actual lives are at stake in these problems.  These are some of the questions future blog posts here will pursue.

In 2014, there were many unexplained coincidences and developments, whether on the scale of individuals going about their daily lives or on the stages of geopolitics, global travel, or global public health. What are the chances, for instance, of one commercial passenger jet going missing, with all its passengers and crew aboard, in a sad incident still unexplained nine months later? Furthermore, what is the chance that three passenger airliners–two of them from the same Malaysian airline company, and all three from Malaysia, would be involved in rare disasters in the same year–as it appears that another airliner has met a tragic end this very week?

Similarly, many were surprised when Russian forces of some sort moved into Crimea earlier this year, and still more surprised a couple months later when a hybrid group of publicly virtually unknown extremists swiftly took control of large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.  Most everyone was surprised by the rapid drop in oil prices in recent months. (And what surprises might be in store because of this?)

As surprising–devastatingly so–has been the rapid spread of the Ebola virus.  Known to be deadly, this virus had always been–before now, that is–stopped in its tracks in dozens of previous outbreaks in relatively remote African villages.  (In a just published article in the New York Times, How Ebola Roared Back, ” the results of an investigation undertaken by that newspaper show how a series of missteps by health experts and organizations since May, 2014 contributed to this otherwise avoidable catastrophe. )

As so often happens with surprises, the experts were caught off-guard by this one.  There were so many things that were different about it;  as a result, experts were overconfident in their assessment last May that the Ebola crisis was abating.  Previously, Ebola outbreaks had occurred in remote villages in Central and East Africa, where the virus could be surrounded and isolated. (Ebola had not previously occurred in Western Africa.)  All told, these previous outbreaks had killed 1,590 people over four decades, only a fifth of the toll of the epidemic still unfolding across West Africa, according to the just-published NYT article. According to Dr. Petr Piot, the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus in the 1970s,  and a colleague, Dr. Jeremy J. Farrar, in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in September 2014, “The Ebola Crisis:  Immediate Action, Ongoing Strategy” (and cited in the aforementioned NYT article),  this year’s outbreak can be attributed not to unique characteristics of the virus but instead it is more likely to be:

“…a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities [in the Ebola-infected nations] after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response [emphasis added].”

Image:  Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (Concern-Liberians.org)

Image: Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (Concern-Liberians.org)

Whatever the issue, it seems the experts were among the most surprised; x, y, or z wasn’t supposed to behave this way.  In an age in which we can program our smartphones to “Find My Phone” in case we misplace them, or microchip our pets in case they go missing, it is hard for the average person (and apparently also the experts)  to understand how a passenger jet with nearly 300 people aboard can remain lost almost a year after it went missing, or a known virus can overtake several nations in a matter of weeks.  Are there lessons that can be learned from these developments?  Whose problem is it to learn them?

Memories of improbable events, such as the terrible tsunami in 2004, also show how surprises can condition us–depending on our resources and level of political will and commitment–to deal better with future surprises. No one expected a tsunami on the scale of the one that occurred on December 26, 2004, exactly one decade ago last week.  Experts did not expect it.  Tsunamis are the deadliest of natural disasters and the one that hit the Indian Ocean region ten years ago contained energy equivalent to 10,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to a BBC  article, “Science Still Learning How to Limit Tsunami Misery” from a few days ago.  Just as in the case of West Africa this year, the vulnerability of the densely-populated areas in the path of the disaster was a factor in the tsunami’s devastating impact, including the loss of 230,000 people in more than 14 countries.

Years later, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, lessons from the earlier tragedy helped mitigate but did not eliminate the resulting devastation.  No one had imagined a magnitude 9 earthquake nor unexpectedly high (30 meters) waves; designated refuge areas on higher ground were inundated as a result. By this time, however, Indonesia had a better approach than Japan, according to the BBC article, thanks to a collaboration with Germany called the GITEWS (the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System).

Image:  Washington Post

Image: Washington Post

On the eve of a New Year, those of us unaffected directly by such tragedies understandably would prefer not to think about them.   Fortunately, the desire to make sense out of events, whether tragic or marvelous, suggests that we have the capacity to eventually learn what it takes to limit the scale of disasters and maximize the likelihood of creative breakthroughs. The outset of a new year seems, therefore, a fitting time to realize how highly improbable events are not always, or even often, of the tragic variety; instead, they are the serendipitous moments that occur to each of us.  They could even be the breakthroughs that enable us to be better prepared for inevitable misfortunes and disasters.

As the subject of this blog is surprise, and not only bad surprises, it seems important to investigate the role that surprise, or at least uncertainty, plays in life. There is, for instance, the story told in a PBS special released this fall of identical twin sisters born in China, and designated to different adoptive parents–one couple from Norway and another from the United States, who were not told that the girls were twins.  When the two sets of parents went to pick up their new infant daughters on the same day at the same adoption center in China, each  couple brought with them an identical gingham dress for their baby’s first day in their respective families.  (The two couples suspected in that first meeting, however, that the babies were twins and later were able to confirm this; they continue to arrange for reunions of the biological sisters.)  And just last week, there was the story of a priceless heirloom engagement ring lost on the busy streets of Washington, D.C.–and then improbably found and (even more improbably) returned to its owner!

As the improbable year of 2014 gives way to a new year of surprises–with a toast held high for many more such happy surprises, and more rapid and effective global coordination for the tragic ones–future blog posts will examine more closely how improbably probable improbability is. Coming up: a look at the new book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day., by British mathematician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society, Dr. David Hand. And a close look at how insights and creative breakthroughs occur, drawing especially on the work of a senior scientist, psychologist, and expert on “adaptive decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein, in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight (2013).

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