23 April 2011

And Sometimes the Butterflies' Wings Carry it Over to Pollinate the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

I got introduced to systems thinking by the management guru W. Edwards Deming. He made the point that when assessing a team made up of three people, it is easy to think that we’ll know how the group would perform simply by looking at the performance of each individual. The team performance of Tom, Carmen, and Jin could look like this:

Tom’s performance [T] + Carmen’s performance [C] + Jin’s performance [J] = team performance [x]

In fact, that might well be the least of the equation. The team’s performance is also a function of
Tom’s working relationship with Carmen [T~C] + Carmen’s working relationship with Jin [C~J] + Jin’s working relationship with Tom [J~T] + the dynamic that emerges between all three [T~C~J]
An equation that at first blush looks like:

T + C + J = x

Is actually

T + C + J + [T~C] + [C~J] + [J~T] + [T~C~J] = x

This is not a problem of simple addition. This is a problem of relationships and emergent phenomenon. Jin could be a great guy but cause the other two team members to perform poorly. Carmen may be a poor performer on her own but might make the team perform better. The symbol ~ sometimes adds and sometimes multiplies as team members bring out what is better in each other; it sometimes subtracts and sometimes divides as they, at other times, undermine each other or leave each other feeling like less. What emerges out of relationship is not simple and cannot be reduced to the parts. Systems are defined by emergent properties, not just their parts.

“In an avalanche, each snowflake pleads its innocence.”
-         - Proverb

And of course, the world in which we live is defined by system dynamics, by the interaction of systems and even the performance of systems within systems. Cultures and societies are not the product of just one person, they emerge out of a dynamic between people and their times and circumstances. Your work place, your town, your portfolio, your marriage… these are defined by not just by emergent properties but how they, as systems, fit within the larger system we call the environment. Like Russian dolls, our world is not only composed of systems but has layers of systems. Your respiratory system can perform in ways that allow you to run a marathon or be unable to rise out of bed; if you are king, this difference can ripple across a kingdom to shatter a fragile peace. 

Sometimes the butterfly stirs up a storm and sometimes it gets pinned inertly into the collection. It’s hard to predict which it will do by just looking at the butterfly. 

22 April 2011

The Right Tries to Finish the Job of Roosevelt's Would-be Assassin

In 1912, an assassin rose through the crowd to shoot Teddy Roosevelt. The right desperately hopes that a century later, the assassin’s work will finally be done. The simplest way to understand their platform is to say that their election hopes rest on killing most of this Republicans’ most defining policies.

The turn of the last century was an ugly time for the working man. Work places were notoriously unsafe; the powerful capital machinery that made so many products could easily tear off a limb or kill a man: the machinery was designed for productivity, not safety. Households sent their children to work instead of school to earn enough to pay the bills; given that adults worked six 12-hour days a week, children seemed to get off easy having to work only 9 hour days. It was not unusual for factories employing young women to require them to live on the factory grounds, and while the constitution may have granted them freedom to easily come and go, their bosses did not.  Life was not just harsh. It was ugly. The rapid construction of towns and factories was transforming beautiful, natural landscapes into ugly and polluted scenes. Roosevelt was not the kind of man to simply acquiesce to these realities.

The 1912 campaign was a four-way race between Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, and Roosevelt’s progressive, Bull Moose Party. Politics had a little more texture back then. Roosevelt platform continued his defense of natural beauty (as president, Roosevelt had protected huge swaths of land like Yellowstone and Yosemite from development) and argued for progressive taxation, old-age insurance, regulations on business, an end to racist practices, the abolition of child labor, and woman’s suffrage.

What is it that today’s right wants? To reverse that.

The right wants to open up national parks for development. (Any candidate who would argue against drilling in ANWAR would never make it through the Republican primaries.)

The right does not just want lower taxes; most of them argue for a simplification of the tax code which is, it seems, code for a flat tax to replace the progressive tax for which Roosevelt argued. They see no reason why a man making a million a year should pay a higher percentage on his taxes than a man who makes only a thousand.

Like presidents before him, Roosevelt wanted to send troops to intervene in labor strikes. Unlike presidents before him, Roosevelt’s intention was not to break up the strike but, instead, to socialize the mines in order to protect the workers. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to take on Morgan backed corporations and capitalists in general. He wasn’t anti-capitalist but he certainly did not see it as government role’s to merely support capitalists in the oppression of labor.

The right, of course, thinks that it is labor unions and their unreasonable demands that keeps us from economic nirvana. It’s their goal to put a stake in the heart of the already faltering heart of labor unions.

You might say that the right would never reverse the abolition of child labor but that would be only if you focused on just American children. Fair trade would put up barriers to trade with countries with unacceptable environmental and labor policies. Free trade advocates on the right have no compunction about buying cheap products from a country that puts children to work.

It is true that no one on the right (publically) argues for taking back the vote from women. They do, of course, have no trouble with reproductive laws that would, among other things, make it illegal for a doctor to perform even abortions that would save the life of a mother. If only women couldn’t vote, the right would have an easier time getting such legislation passed.

The right’s candidates argue against business regulation as if they were fighting rabid communists and while they are sympathetic to those who want medicare and social security (Roosevelt’s old-age insurance), they point out that we simply can no longer afford such luxuries.

We could use a candidate like Roosevelt. Even bullets couldn’t stop him.

After he was shot in 1912, his assistants insisted that he go to the hospital. He spit into a handkerchief and, seeing no blood, concluded that he would live long enough to deliver his speech and ordered them to take him to the auditorium.

The audience - in this time before cell phones, TVs, or even radio - had no idea that Roosevelt had just been shot until he dramatically opened his suit jacket to show the spread of blood. When his aides saw this, they panicked at the sight of so much blood and again insisted that he rush to the hospital and he again shook them off. (Now that is a called an attention getting opening and is far more effective than a joke.)

Roosevelt explained to his audience that his issues were more important than his safety. He stood up for those who those who could not defend themselves – women, children, minorities and even nature. While he lost his bid for a third term, all of his issues eventually won.

It would be a shame to let the right do what the assassin’s bullet could not. On the centennial of this failed assassination attempt, let’s keep the man’s ideals alive. 

12 April 2011

The Doldrums of the Donald Leading the Pack

Could any single stat do more to convey Republicans' dismal prospects in 2012 than the fact that Donald Trump leads in the polls? Your chances can't be particularly serious when your leading candidate is not particularly serious.

Personally, I think that even though Donald is not smart enough to be president, he is smart enough to realize that  there is no way to buy the kind of publicity he'll get by toying with the idea of running for president. He may not know what the country needs but he does seem to know what the media needs. 

Donald Trump is, as a candidate, the opposite of Ron Paul. Paul has created and popularized a set of policies that have little to do with the real world; Trump has created and popularized a personal image that has little to do with the real world. 

Donald challenges Obama's proof that he was born in the US. This strikes me as a serious issue. About as serious as Donald's failure to provide any certificates proving that that is really his hair.

01 April 2011

It Occurred to Me (Tweets from Mar 2011)

Maybe next month we need a May Skeptics' day. April Fools' Day credible, May Skeptics' Day incredible.

Irish guy commenting on their financial woes: "Capitalism w/o bankruptcy is like Catholicism w/o hell. It just doesn't work."

Republican presidential race has begun ... a reminder of the gap between effective politics and effective policies.

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa quit and flew to London. No confirmation yet that he'll record a self-titled rap album.

They call it the express line but obviously they don't really want you to express your opinion.

iPod: just coincidence that the 1st generation to be discovered by sonogram would so eagerly embrace a product that envelopes them in sound?

The older we get, the more our lives are the product of habit. Time, having been around nearly forever, is in the habit of moving forward.

Another day working in the suburban home office ... another day w/o any clear opportunities to test my deodorant's adrenaline trigger.

Idea to end dependence on foreign oil and create jobs: rebuild all highways as Escher Expressways - downhill in every direction.

Best known for his experiment with a man-to-man rather than what he despairingly called a "zone" defense, he was a unique baseball coach.

"My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." - William James

I'm not saying that he grew up in a secluded little podunk. I'm just saying his town's time zone was 37 minutes off from anywhere else.

Commerce Dept. revised GDP growth from 2.8% to 3.1%, or an extra $42,000,000,000 (about Warren Buffet's net worth).

Where's a good lawyer? Shouldn't UCONN be disqualified? By what stretch of imagination are they in the West?

1848, Europe was convulsed by revolutions in places like France & Germany, dozens of states in total. Similar dynamic in Middle East today?

I lost my mood ring. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Newsweek's cover asks, "How Ignorant Are You?" And I'm thinking, "I wouldn't know, would I?"

Like dogs watching television, we participate in systems that we vaguely understand and can predict only within fairly narrow boundaries.

Elizabeth Taylor was committed to marriage, just not any specific husband.

In the future, people will take consolation in the fact that while they have no time to socialize, they do have time for photo ops.

Armageddon deferred, stock market rallies.

Life's not fair. It's a circus.

Just once, she thought, it would be nice to have a day when my bliss follows ME around.

The more hassles you try to avoid the more of life you do avoid.

His interest in the cognitive science major abruptly ended when he learned that they didn't offer classes in telekinesis or mind reading.

Poll of rich (average $78 million, 73% w/ at least $25 million) reveals they wouldn't feel financially secure until they got 1/4 more.

You have to love the symmetry. For days media (rightly) fixates on threat of nuclear disaster. Then reports polls that show we're concerned.

Can't find droid phone setting that makes callers sound like Scooby Doo, Elmer Fudd or Darth Vader. Pity.

How fitting that people avoid use of the word "evitable" whereas they can't seem to avoid use of the word "inevitable."

Baseball gods must favor the oddly named. Yesterday, old stars Vida Blue & Rollie Fingers signed balls while new star Coco Crisp hit them.

Middle East revolutions then earthquake in Japan. Wonder which is more traumatic: nature's impersonal attacks or troops' personal attacks?

Product idea: omni-directional wheeled suitcase electronically "on leash" to your smart phone, just follows you thru airport.

After the bad eggplant harvest He covered his losses on baba ghanoush futures w/ calls on hummus. Running a deli had become so complicated.

For longer than he cared to admit, he thought that a brothel was a soup kitchen.

The Chrysler Ambiguity. Stunning design but only comes in shades of gray.

Time to give back that hour you got in the fall. With money you pay interest. With time you just hope it was of interest.

Once, only sailors got tattoos. Now the fad has spread about the same rate as the popularity of cruises. Something about the ocean.

Those shape-up shoes really work. I've noticed that the general population is getting much more fit.

Like telling boneless chickens to relax.

The paradox of prediction: if you predict the unpredictable, haven't you just made it impossible for anything to be either?

Exxon CEO says oil prices not yet hurting economy. And then whispered into the mic, but we have not yet given up on that.

Charlie Sheen is marketing a new Tiger Blood concentrate. Just add millions and it makes you irresistible to certain women.

Your moment of pop anthropology: McDonald's Wedding Packages Have Hong Kong Lovin' It http://yhoo.it/ell3RU

NPR interviewer was inquiring about the agenda of facebook & twitter. I wonder what he thinks is the agenda of the phone or internet.

The audience thinks that it is viewing programming; the advertiser thinks that it is programming viewers.

Low-carb Thursday was never caught on like Fat Tuesday.

They’d stopped using traditional graphs. Today's report pictured his portfolio as a small kid trapped and forgotten in the bouncy castle.

His glasses askew, heart racing, and coffee splattered about, Tom instantly resented the local newspaper's new pop up advertising.

In '70s, IBM sold a 1 MB memory computer for $4,674,160. Today, you can get 3 GB computer for $473.99. From $4 million per MB to 15 cents.

He was the worst kind of confused. Which is to say, he didn't even realize that he was.

Dad was really surprised at how spicy was his dab of guacamole at the Japanese restaurant today.

He admitted it wasn't a big difference, like the one between grunge rock, garage rock, and indie rock. Still, how could she not notice?

Cognitive entropy: point at which energy to adjust one's worldview to accommodate new facts seems greater than energy required to avoid them.

Easy to imagine thought caption over heads of confused looking tweens at mall: life was so much easier when we just liked to chew stuff.

I wonder if leprechauns are flattered or offended at our stereotypes of them.

Wonder if Center for Disease Control tracks sale of tissues to track spread of colds. Or searches key words to spot trends on facebook.

This head cold is similar to sucking helium. I'm light headed and sound like Mickey Mouse. Plus it sucks.

Justin Bieber just turned 17. Poor kid. Seems so young for a comb over.

It's true that he was thoughtful, if by that you mean that he gave a great deal of thought to how he was thought about.

"Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You." - Dr. Seuss.

Gleick's new book, The Information, shipped today to my doorstep. Engrossing, intellectually provocative, and fun.

How do you call in sick from home office? Work is done via phone and computer; isn't informing them you can't work proof to the contrary?