Systems and how geologists think links

Earth and Mind: How Geologists think and learn about the earth

Stella: Systems thinking for research and education


What I’m reading/watching

Joanna Macy-The Work That Reconnects

Donella Meadows-Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Sicfit series on Erwan Le Corre

A bunch of debris flow papers…

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The Drunkards Walk book review

Luck is real, and it has consequences. That’s the thesis of Leonard Mlodinow’s not-so-subtley named, fascinating book, The drunkards walk: how randomness rules our lives.  Part crash coarse on applied probability and statistics, part scientific history, part philosophical discussion, The drunkards walk proves beyond doubt that chance events have profound impacts on our lives. If you don’t believe this,  read the book, watch Run Lola Run, meditate on a feather or plastic bag floating in the wind, and get back to me.

Back? Depressed? I can relate. Realizing you’re subject to the tyranny of fate, at least at first, means losing an illusory, yet comforting sense of control. However, random chance, like the coin so often used to illustrate it, has two sides. The coin taken as a whole has another meaning entirely.

Flip 1:
Side One: Some people are unlucky.
No matter how good you are at your job, how pure your moral character, and how much you may deserve it, there is a small possibility you may lose. In fact, the laws of probability guaranty that some people will be just plain unlucky. That other jerk might get the girl, the house, and the money.

Side Two: Some people are lucky.
If that’s you, great. For the rest of us, the more we throw the dice, the more the results will reflect our true ability. We’ve all heard stories of some famous novel or screen play being rejected 20 times only to finally be published and go on to be wildly successful. If you fail, try again. Further, failure may not be a reflection on your ability. You may simply be in the wrong place at the right time. Failure may hurt our ego and our wallets and even our relationships, but consider the rewards of finally making it. It may only take one big break, and even poor, unlucky bastards get lucky once in while.

The whole meaning: The only way to  transcend the tyranny of fate is to not focus on external rewards or circumstances. This is what is called intrinsic motivation. Find something to do because you love to do it. That way, if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, at least you’ll have fewer regrets.

Flip 2:
Side 1: The greater the sample size, the more predictable things get.

On the whole, our behavior is pretty predictable. For example, take driving. Predicting exactly how many miles one person will drive in a year is pretty difficult. But predicting the behavior of all of the US is remarkably easy. Despite all billions of individual decisions individual americans make about driving each year, the overall total usually only varies by a few percent. Facts like these, while useful, can seem dehumanizing. It makes us seem like automatons without a sense of freewill. Over-reliance on bell-curve type thinking makes human behavior and culture seem like rubber ducks circling the drain, inevitably being pulled towards a stereotypical, predictable, and mediocre mean.

Side 2: The smaller the sample size, the more unpredictable things get.

In aggregate, our behavior may be predictable, but on the scale of our own lives and our interactions with eachother, things get very messy and very interesting. Psychologists and sociologists, just like meteorologists, can bore you for hours droning on about large scale patterns. Ask them the weather tomorrow, or what one person will do or think in the future, and often the will get it wrong. Despite the predictability of the aggregate behavior, there is a tremendous amount of variability at the smaller scale. At this level, we are free to make our own decisions and marvel at the little chance occurences that make life so damn interesting. Further, in human systems, just as in atmospheric systems, small chance events can lead to large changes. This is the butterfly effect. While individual actions may not always change the overall system, some will because that action occurs at just the right time and place. In fact, over the long term, some individual actions will have profound effects on the overall system. The laws of probability require it. Be the change you want to make in the world. You might be the lucky butterfly.

The whole meaning: We exist at many scales simultaneously; as individuals, as couples, as families, as communities, as societies, and as members of ecosystems. At the the scale of societies and cultures, behavior often seems predictable, yet irratractable due to the momentum of the system. Yet large scale phenomena are always the product of many smaller actions with a natural amount of variability. To change the behavior of the system, we need to bring about change at the smaller scales of life, at the individual and family level.

Flip 3:
Side 1: Many events are simply random.
Many of the events we attribute to serendipity, miracles, and ability are simply random events. You know that story about how you met your true love? You were on a business flight you weren’t even suppose to be on because your colleague was ill and you had to go in his place, and you just happened to be moved up to first class because the flight attendant spilled beer all over you. Then there she was, the one, holding a glass of wine, wearing a smile, and miraculously there was an empty seat beside her.

However, is this situation that miraculous? It might have been incredibly unlikely to happen to you, but a story like this has probably happened to someone, and will happen to someone again.  There are about a bazillion cancelling on bussiness trips and lots of flustered flight attendents spilling booze. Plus, when you get on an airplane you almost expect the neighbor in the next seat to be a crying baby or an oversized man named Wayne. The pleasant surprise of this not happening for once makes the a beautiful woman sitting next to you even more attractive.

The fact that so-called miracles can be predicted by theory is kind of a buzz-kill.

Side 2: Many events are simply random.
It’s all about your interpretation. Just because something odd happened to you, and it can be predicted and described by the laws of randomness, does not mean it is meaningless. Does the fact that you randomly met your true love on that plane make the story less meaningful? One of the wonderful things about being human is that we get to create meaning and weave our own life stories. While the cause and effect in these stories may not be entirely true, the meaning we give them makes them powerful. If those stories and events shape the way we act and what we create in the future, we make them real.

The random nature of life can also give us a sense of adventure and hope in difficult times. Just because I’m sitting next to an obese man named Wayne this flight, doesn’t mean I won’t sit next to a hotty next time.

We truly have it both ways. We can cherish old memories and create narratives for our lives, while waiting expectantly and optimistically for tomorrow. On the other hand, we can be tormented by past injustices, weave negative, painful storylines, and wait with anxiety and fear for future events. This is the difference between mental disease and mental health.

The whole meaning: Being a functional human means being an opportunist. It also means having a selective memory. When you see opportunity knocking, answer the door.  When shit happens, deal with it, learn from it, and move on. Don’t let the stench linger and distract you from missing a good thing.

Resilience in the face of randomness

So life is random. What’s the point? How does knowing this help me become more resilient in modern life? First, consider the words of Wisdom from IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson. When asked how to be successful, he answered, “double your rate of failure”. The more we try, the more our results reflect our ability, and the more likely we are to get a lucky break.

The second take home point is this; embrace the chaos. Back in the day, people prayed. Irrational sillyness right? Wrong. I still pray once in a while, even if God is a drunken gambler who I know doesn’t give a damn. Prayer is an act of acknowledgment. Much of my life is at the mercy of a lower or higher power. This affirmation helps me put more emphasis and feel more grateful for what I can control, and makes me feel lucky to given what I have. As Nietzsche would say, armor fati-love thy fate. The only thing we can control about chance events is our reaction to them.

Craftsmanship: Doing the ordinary extraordinarily well

I think scientists and artists are tapping into the same biological drive: creativity. I also think that specialization is needed to fully unleash our creative potential (that’s one of its perks). However, I’m in danger sounding elitist, since not everyone can or should be a scientist or artist. How does a manager, a farmer, or factory worker, or any other neo-hunter fit into the framework. One word: craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship is an elusive little idea. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is.
What makes a craftsman? A craftsman is highly skilled. She puts emotional and intellectual energy into her work. She pays attention to detail. She sees her work as a reflection of her values. While an exact definition is difficult, most people have and idea of what craftsmanship is.

What’s interesting is that craftsmanship is a fusion of both analytical and artistic creativity. The archetypal shaker box is a model of both function and beauty. It is produced with great care and attention to detail. Even seemingly mundane details in its construction are connected with higher values and principles. The product is elevated to an ethical and spiritual ideal.

Unfortunately, few of us are craftsman. Especially when we start out, we aren’t particularly skillful. Many of us don’t put much emotional or intellectual energy into our work, especially if our work is easy and the system we’re working under does not punish incompetence or reward excellence. The services and products we produce may be far removed from their ultimate benefactor, and seem even further disconnected from the lives we lead outside of the nine to five workday. Modernity does not encourage craftsmanship.

In many ways, it was a lot easier for the first 40,000 years of our journey as behaviorally modern people. The hunt for food was rich with feedback; you either succeeded or failed. Your success and failure was linked to the survival of your friends and family. If you got the details wrong, you went hungry. You were physically, emotionally, and spiritually invested.

How do we regain our identity as craftsman and connect our jobs with the our creative drive? Beats me, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Remember that when you go to work, you’re essentially on the hunt, bringing home the bacon. To quote Desmond Morris, you’re “setting off to capture the biggest game in the biggest and best hunting grounds his environment has to offer”. You’re hunting a better idea. It might be a strange, abstract task, but that’s how the modern game is played.

2. The Devil (and God) is in the details. I’m usually not very good at the details, since I’m more conceptual, but the older I get the more I agree with the cliché. The difference between mediocre and excellent is found in the details. When you’re pursuing a goal, it’s often helpful to visualize it as concretely as possible. That way you have a detailed vision to shoot for.

3. If your work is easy, make it harder. A lot of us subconsciously do this by taking on too much anyway.  It probably makes more sense to focus on one thing, but elevate our expectations. I’ll have a future post on flow theory, but for now remember that optimum experience tends to occur when challenges are finely balanced with skills. That means you should be struggling, but not so much that you never get a glimmer of success.

4. If you’ve been trying for a while and you have this feeling deep down in your very soul that your work is boring and pointless and doesn’t do anyone any good, you’re probably right. Find something else. The world of work would be a lot better if people followed their conscience.

The lure of the big city

I’ve got a friend whose dream is to move to New York to be part of the arts scene. While part of me understands the desire, part of me thinks, “What’s so great about the city when you live in one of the most beautiful places on earth (New Zealand)? What is it about urban life that calls to us, despite its many disadvantages? Desmond Morris explains it to me from a zoological perspective in the following passage. I’ve added some bold and italicized for emphasis.

“It is far more than just an international power game. There is an intrinsic, biological property of the human animal that obtains deep satisfaction from being thrown into the urban chaos of a super-tribe. That quality is man’s insatiable curiosity, his inventiveness, his intellectual athleticism. The urban turmoil seems to energize this quality. Just as colony-nesting sea-birds are reproductively aroused by massing in dense breeding communities, so the human animal is intellectually aroused by massing in dense urban communities. They are breeding colonies of human ideas. This is the credit side of the story. It keeps the system going despite its many disadvantages.”

“You may think that the price the super-tribesman is paying is too high; that a quiet, peaceful, contemplative life would be far preferable. He thinks so, too, of course, but like that physical exercise he is always going to take, he seldom does anything about it…..He could move away, but he would miss the excitement, the excitement of the neo-hunter, setting off to capture the biggest game in the biggest and best hunting grounds his environment has to offer…..only in the city does sustained innovation stand a real chance. Only the city is strong enough and secure enough in its amassed conformity to tolerate the disruptive forces of rebellious originality and creativity. The sharp swords of iconoclasm are mere pin-pricks in the giant’s flesh, giving it a pleasant tingling sensation, rousing it from sleep and urgent it into action.

This exploratory excitement, then, with the help of the cohesive forces I have described, is what keeps so many modern city-dwellers voluntarily locked inside their human zoo cage.”

This passage hints at a relationship that I’ve always found fascinating; the symbiotic relationship between the majority and the minority. In the city, society can tolerate significant minority communities, tribes of punks, anarchist, modern artists, poets, stamp collectors, incredibly dirty hippies, ultra-right wing nut jobs, etc, because of its sheer size. Think of the bell curve again. In a small community, a significant population with extreme views would make the situation unstable.  In a city, those extreme views are “are mere pin-pricks in the giant’s flesh”. Even the majority can indulge in the joy of going to see a modern art exhibit, a new band, a lecture, or about any other cultural or artistic experience. In this way, everybody gets a sense of being at the forefront of cultural evolution. Everyone can indulge their creativity. Everyone gets a sense of freedom because there are so many specialized niches to fill. Despite its overcrowding, traffic, pollution, and the pace, the city remains the place to be.

And what about the future? In an age of blogs, twitter, facebook, skype, and “online communities”, will the physical super-tribe of the city give way to wired, web-based super-tribes? Yes and no. Yes, we can see it happening everywhere. Take the Crossfit or paleo community. It’s essentially web-enabled. Then again, real community happens in real life. Look at all the blood, sweat, and tears in Crossfit boxes. If you’re a punk, it’s hard to mosh virtually. You get the idea.

Obviously there is a lot of ideas packed into the passage. More to come…



Coping with specialization: reliance vs. resilience

Sorry Ralph, self-reliance is impossible. Need proof? Let’s look at my life. I’m a researcher who relies on other peoples money to fund my research and a vast array of  other people’s  expertise, technology, and patience to get that research done. The concepts and world views I use in my professional and personal life have been developed by other, smarter thinkers over many generations. Someone else grew the food I eat. Someone else produces my entertainment. I rely on friends and family for emotional support, which is often conferred over a vastly complicated communication network. Even the air I breath is provided by an immensely complex interaction between the geo and biosphere. Even if I were to renounce my ultra-reliant existence and only rely on Mother Nature for food and shelter, my sense of independence would still be illusory. The bit of “wilderness” I found would probably be a reserve or piece of property set up and protected by the government. Its ecosystem would be, at least indirectly, managed by my fellow human beings.

In truth, I am and will always be a specialist who relies on other specialists. Truly, I am a cog in a machine.  That mechanistic view, the sense that you can never truly stand on your own, is soul crushing. Emerson, Thoreau, Wendell Berry, and many others have commented on the sense of dislocation, nihilism, and dysfunction created by specialization. Each had his own solution. For Emerson and Thoreau, it was to seek self-reliance and a transcendent experience in nature. For Berry it is a return toward agrarianism and christian values. We all cope in our own way.

For me, the answer is in cultivating self-resilience rather than self-reliance. What is resilience? Resilience, in a ecological, psychological, and organizational context, is the ability to cope and adapt to catastrophic change. Modernity, which is defined by specialization, is that catastrophy.  Coping requires understanding and honoring our physical and emotional being. Resilience is not about pulling away from the system, but making the system more adaptive. It is not about controlling external events, but rather your response to them.

This blog explores how to cultivate resilience in the physical, emotional, and organizational domains in our life. It is an attempt to bring many of my personal interests (sustainability, nutrition, fitness, and psychology) under one banner.