Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reflections on Human evolution

Nicholas Wade's piece in this weeks Science Times is titled "Humans Have Spread Globally, and Evolved Locally." (, 6/26/07).

He begins:

Historians often assume that they need pay no attention to human evolution because the process ground to a halt in the distant past. That assumption is looking less and less secure in light of new findings based on decoding human DNA.

People have continued to evolve since leaving the ancestral homeland in northeastern Africa some 50,000 years ago, both through the random process known as genetic drift and through natural selection. The genome bears many fingerprints in places where natural selection has recently remolded the human clay, researchers have found, as people in the various continents adapted to new diseases, climates, diets and, perhaps, behavioral demands.
Before looking at that, we need to pause to reflect. There seem to be few topics that set off so many trip-wires and third-rail emotions as the question of evolution.

This is not surprising to me, and fits my model. I had described before what I saw as four levels of disagreement that any self-aware, self-protective, self-healing feedback loop, or "s-loop", has to deal with. These are disagreements about
  • Data
  • Mental model or frame used to make sense of data
  • Goal of all activity (often externally provided)
  • Identity (which of this stuff is "me" and which is "other"?)
The levels are successively less questioned and more strongly and emotionally defended if the survival of that level as it is currently constituted is challenged. We talked a lot about "high-reliability" systems and the realization that often the problems were not due to data being wrong, but due to the whole mental model of what is going on that the data feed being wrong. -- and how emotional people, especially superiors, can instantly be if their framework is questioned.

That much (two levels) is generally recognized. (cite - paper from MIT). Even the US Army Leadership Doctrine allows and encourages raising facts that challenge the mental model being used at headquarters, as startling as that seems, because they have realized that too many losses were occurring due to wrong mental models of the situation on the ground. But that concept has not gone gently into the night, and is widely misunderstood and resisted.

Similarly, The Toyota Way or "lean manufacturing" is designed to mercilessly force errors to be surfaced, despite human reluctance and resistance at all levels to discuss "dirty laundry" or "defects" or "errors" or "waste", from employees on the front lines to top management. Face-saving cover-up is the norm in many if not most industries, and is what Toyota has realized is the single thing that damages long-term corporate survival and prosperity the most.

Challenges to what I call the third level, or goals, are even less well tolerated by the existing order and administrative hierarchy or power elite or whatever you call it when people do it, versus machines. The system or s-loops "goal" is pretty tightly protected and defended and not changed lightly. Employees in theory Y enlightened companies can challenge the mental model, but not question the goal of the corporate entity. Military personnel can challenge the mental model, but not the goal of the military. This is becoming "sacred" turf, or, with people, tightly held turf. Again, we have an order of magnitude, or factor of ten times as much emotion raised about challenges on this level as on the second level of frameworks.

Finally, what I call the fourth level of any s-loop is "identity". Goals spring from identity, which is the hierarchical glue that plugs this s-loop into the next larger or higher s-loop that it is part of and belongs to, in several different meanings of the word "belongs to." Any s-loop will be part, at any time, of some larger s-loop. This membership defines who "we" are and what "we" stand for and defend as sacred, and defines our goals locally. It defines what is "us" and what is "not us" so we know what to defend and what to resist or, in some cases, attack.

Challenging identity is another factor of ten more emotional, and harder to do. People tend to fix and lock-down their identity, their goals, and their world-views and defend them to the death, regardless how arbitrarily and unconsciously they were inherited or selected in the first place.

And the question of "evolution" hits at that fourth level, for many people, whether religious or scientific, in equally emotional ways and triggers responses with "religious zeal" among people who define themselves as part of the "science" body and among those who define themselves as part of some "religious" body. Now we're talking "sacred", and "heresy" -- at the "burn the witch!" or "kill the heretic!" level.

Well, I find myself loving both camps, as if I had a parent who was Science and another who was Religion, who are currently "separated" and not living together, and who fight a lot lately, calling each other ugly names and throwing things. It's not pretty.

Still, it seems to me that human life on Earth is at a risky place, where we have the technology to kill ourselves off many different ways, but not the wisdom to manage that technology wisely. And, of all the issues that affect the health of the public, that seems to be central to me, and almost a core issue of what "Public Health" needs to address.

Most of those battles between groups fit into my model of "s-loops" just trying to survive, in a massively-parallel, multi-level soup. Some battles are over boring material resources, such as water, but more and more battles are being fought over the four levels of being - over differences in data, mental frameworks or paradigms, goals, and, most of all, identity.

Who are we, and what are we doing here and why? Those turn out to be questions that are ripping us apart and holding us together, and generating much of the fighting. So we cannot avoid looking at them if we're going to bring this baby through the white water and into peaceful waters beyond.

That said, I can get back to Nicholas Wade's article that triggered this reflection, namely, findings from geneticists that our DNA is continuing to evolve even today. So what? Why is this newsworthy? Is there something we can learn from this that we didn't realize before?

I think so.

First, we can see evidence that evolution represents a closed feedback process these days, perhaps more rapidly than ever before so far as human beings are concerned. Our DNA, at least our children's DNA, appears to be somewhat plastic and responsive, in very short order, to changes in the local environment. That's what Nicholas Wade says. But, we also know that much of the local environment these days is the "built environment", the context that we humans, based on our existing DNA, have constructed for each other to live in or with.

In fact, for most people, the built environment now dominates everything else. We spend far more time being "pressured" by school, jobs, corporations, laws, taxes, pollution, careers, social norms, terrorist threats, and loud stereo's than we do coping with "nature" per se. And these are all things we have built for ourselves.

We are living in our own wake, with good aspects and bad aspects. We inherit culture and high-speed Internet, but we also live in our own sewage. We live in our planet's climate, but we are now large enough to affect that climate.

The point is, it's a closed loop. Most people would agree with that. There is feedback. Again, most people would agree, leaving out those who deny that evolution has or is occurring because that violates their mental model and identity. On this point I'm going with the science, because it's overwhelming and I need conclusions that yield action plans, and because I don't believe at all that evolution in any way discounts God. If anything, it's a more impressive universe and more awe-inspiring if it's not just static, but dynamic.

Having now offended half the religious readers, let me give equal time to offending the scientists.
First, I agree with Stephen Jay Gould that evolution is multi-level, with each having an independent contribution. There are vertical feedback loops, so the "either/or" question becomes a meaningless distinction. Yes, we have genes evolving. Yes we have species evolving. Yes each has pressures at its own level that are mostly independent in the short run.

But, here I'll turn a corner and say that the evolution is of s-loops, not of DNA. And that suddenly means that "corporations" and "nations" and "religions" and "cultures" are just one more kind of life of this planet, that needs to be in the complete ecological picture.

In fact, lately, the evolution of humans seems to have taken quite a turn and is dominated by the evolution of corporations, with their typical nested-hierarchy shapes, being both DNA and more than DNA, being both many people, and more than many people.

Corporations are a new species on the evolutionary stage, and they are becoming the dominant world-reshaping species. This is a rather important observation if we're trying to make sense of what's going on and where it's headed and, if it's broken, where to fix it.

So, we don't just have species co-evolving in a tight feedback loop with DNA and genes -- that's an incomplete model. We have species co-evolving with genes co-evolving with corporations co-evolving with cultures co-evolving with religions, with each one of those providing part of the context for the next step in evolution of each other part. Each part of that equation provides part of the "evolutionary pressure" on each other part. And the parts are all connected if we stand back far enough, so that each part is providing evolutionary pressure ultimately on itself.
In parallel. Simultaneously. Irrevocably interlocked bidirectionally.

This is not a situation that can be understood without using "feedback loops", to put it mildly.

But, the big question is still to come. Are these just "feedback paths", yawn, or are some of these actually s-loops -- self-aware, self-repairing, self-defending, self-extending goal-seeking control feedback loops?

Because, the behavior is extremely different - as different as a hot, muggy, sultry summer afternoon, and one with a tornado. Same air, same moisture, same laws of physics and condensation, but one is a closed feedback loop that feeds and holds itself together, and one is not. I'm not saying that a tornado is "alive", but I am saying that a tornado is "MAWBA",
or "Might As Well Be Alive" in terms of some predictions about future behaviors that are otherwise startling and catch us off-guard.

So, I've made a model of the world that includes what we see in the microscope and what we see in the newspaper at the same time. It's a model of nested s-loops, fighting more or less blindly to survive and sustain their four-levels of being. It's a model where s-loops can merge and join forces, instead of just "winning or losing", and where a handful or a trillion s-loops can pool their identity and form a larger, multi-cellular "being" with an independent, higher-level s-loop, consciousness, awareness, self-protectiveness, etc. (for example, us.)

Again, none of this says one word either way about the existence of God or the "true nature" of what a human being is. It focuses on vertically symmetric, scale-invariant primitive building blocks of s-loops, regardless what material or non-material substrate those operate within or across. That's something that supercomputers can model relatively easily -- the kind of thing that artificial life researchers do on a daily basis, except with a different "payload" or "generating kernel" or "seed" to the process of evolution.

The one really critical new thing here is the idea that dumb feedback pathways can undergo a phase-transition and become self-sustaining, self-defending, self-aware, terra-forming active agents on their own accord, existing semi-independently of the smaller agents that make them up.
This is the observed phenomenon where, effectively, after the pixels have formed a coherent image (whatever that means), the image realizes it exists and "takes on a life of its own" and pulls up the scaffolding used to create it and now starts telling the pixels what to do in order to keep itself alive. ( or if you prefer, to keep itself sustained, or s-loopy, or soliton-izing, or some persisting verb.)

Assuming this is a scale-independent control-loop process, we don't need our microscopes to understand it. We can look out the window. We can watch people form a company, a corporation, that takes on a meta-independent life of its own, and the company can then become self-sustaining, self-repairing, have an identity and a goal and a vision, and can in fact turn on and fire the founding partners because it doesn't need them anymore. It has been born, or radiated or emitted or generated or somehow launched.

This phase-transition should be something that can be mathematically simulated, but I don't know anyone who has done that yet. (Nobel prize waiting for someone!)

If we're looking for how to stabilize or improve relationships between people, or management and labor, or government and citizens, or corporations and "competitors", or between "nation states" or between "religions", it all can be illuminated by understanding what these relatively s-loops can do in the way of "merger" that preserves core values while generating an even higher substrate or vessel in which "life of its own" can be placed by God, or emerge, or whatever it is that happens there.

Something happens there. Something important that we don't fully click to yet.

I think its the key to resolving world chaos and should be looked at more fully. IF we can solve that one, we can catalyze the process and complete the birth process for a planet-sized life-form that's trying to emerge here, held back by our own concepts of life and our role in it.

Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a "reductionist" effort to say that all life on earth is "just" a bunch of atoms or s-loops. I'm at the opposite end. But I'm the first to say that if our bodies have a substrate of atoms, then we should know something about what laws and rules constrain what you can do with atoms, because "we" have to live with gravity and physical injury due to momentum and energy and other physical stuff. Similarly, if we, human spirits, live in or on or above or attached somehow to a substrate that is, above atoms, composed of s-loops, then we would we wise to understand what physical laws constrain those as well, and understand how they can be injured, and how to repair them when they break.

That's not saying that humans are "just" atoms or humans are "just" s-loops. My whole premise is that something miraculous happens in the upward emergent phase transitions that we haven't even begun to grasp yet. Stay tuned.

As T.S. Eliot, in the Four Quartets , said
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Darwin rules but biologists dream of a paradigm shift

"There is nothing scientists enjoy more than the prospect of a good paradigm shift."

Douglas H. Erwin starts with that premise in an essay in the New York Times Science Times section today. Focusing on the hot topic of evolutionary and developmental biology, his title is "Darwin Still Rules, But Some Biologists Dream of a Paradigm Shift."

Of course, I can't help but notice that he uses the word "some" in the title to soften that premise.

And, in reality, paradigm shifts are initially very strongly resisted. Thomas Kuhn documented this so well in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is in fact a crisis of a fundamental kind to challenge the prevailing, comfortable, organizing world-view. This is the large scale version of the resistance within an organization to Karl Weick's "mindfulness" and surfacing problems that seem to imply the whole mental model is wrong, instead of suppressing them. In that way, this is the key to "The Toyota Way", as well, which is obsessive about forcing a process that leaves problems no place to hide.

John Gall discusses this delightfully in his half-humorous, half-profound view of how systems fail and his invented field of "systemantics". See Failure is perhaps our most taboo subject.

My readers know this subject is near and dear to me right now, as I'm caught up in the paradigm shift within public health, which is transitioning from a local, biomedically-oriented view of causality to a global, context-oriented, multileveled "distal" or "ecological" view of what determines who we are, how we act, and whether we are healthy or not. The older view was historically very successful and proponents of it are not about to give it up without a fight. Entire careers and departments have sprung up around it, giving it staying power.

My readers also know how I tend to view all this commotion through the lens of what I'm calling "s-loops", and what I see (modestly) as even more basic than DNA as the building block of all life at all scales. This is my invented term for Self-aware, Self-sustaining, Self-repairing, Self-protective regulatory feedback control loops -- which is why a shorter term is helpful.

These loops don't really care what substrate or medium they are based in, and can happily cross from DNA to water-levels to photons to whatever and back. Importantly, they don't care what scale of life they operate in, and are as happily at work at in a "genetic circuit" as in the Tobacco industry, following exactly the same rules and principles.

Erwin gets so close to this in his essay, talking about how researchers in artificial life labs and the whole Santa Fe Institute crowd have shown that eyespots can evolve into our current eyeball models through evolution. I have to note on the side that "cross-over" is probably the more accurate term for what he's calling "mutation".

His point supports my point, which is that s-loops quickly develop "eyes" of one kind or another. Erwin says:

Natural selection, driven by competition for resources, allows the best-adapted individuals to produce the most surviving offspring... It is the primary agent in shaping new adaptations. Computer simulations have shown how selection can produce a complex eye from a simple eyespot in just a few hundred thousand years.
Well, any adaptive cybernetic thingie, whether made of silicon or carbon or virutal electrons, needs to be able to detect the outside world that it is supposed to be adapting to, duh. Why is this rocket-science? And silent detection (eyes) is a lot safer in a predator-rich environment than active detection (touch.) I'd rather see the snake than reach in the hole and find it by feeling around. Again, duh.

In my book, the whole evolutionary biology crowd is too close to the beast to be able to see the simple outline, even though they draw "feedback" loops and Krebs Cycles and genetic circuits all day long. Systems Dynamics people draw "causal loops" and that's great as far as it goes, but fails to focus as well on that very special class of regulatory feedback loops that become self-aware and undergo a sort of phase-shift in nature.

Once a goal-seeking control loop has been established, with any learning capacity at all, the goal ends up including self-survival -- at least, of the ones that survive! Those not interested in or good at survival, bless their hearts, are not generally with us any more - but make a great snack.

So, the persisting ones care about survival, and care about internal quality-control. They have to be able to repair damage and overcome noise. Once they get more complex, they need to be able to distinguish "me" from "not me" - ie, develop a rudimentary immune system. They need to learn how to fight back.

Then, the very clever ones, with even more propensity to survive, discover that they have some influence over the world around them. They can move to a new location and get out of the rain, which is one way to locally control the local world. They become terra-formers.

It doesn't take long to run into the fact that part of the world one is terraforming (or about to eat) already "belongs to" another S-loop. Uh oh. The dumb ones take up fighting even more, and the bright ones learn about alliances and stable ecological cross-supportive worlds.

But it still all comes down to an s-loop at the core, despite the fancy clothes. We still have a Self-aware, Self-sustaining, Self-repairing, Self-protective regulatory feedback control loop at work, bound by all the principles that control-system engineering has discovered and made into textbooks for those who have eyes to read.

My prior posts show that such a core loop will have a "blue gozinta", my somewhat tongue in cheek term for a "controller" that must have a few key parts, and always has them:
  • A sensor for the world
  • A sense-maker of the raw sensory input
  • A mental-model (paradigm, world-view) of what's outside.
  • A goal.
  • A way to measure difference between the goal state and the current state.
  • A mental-model of how things work and what parts it has that it can move.
  • A way to take historical data stream of sensory input of what it's done and where it is and what seems to affect what and use it to generate the next second's push, pull, or other way of impacting the world.
But, it is not enough that it must locate and defend and repair the parts of itself that rust or break or are edible -- it must locate and defend the conceptual parts that can also break down -- that is, it must also defend its blue gozinta and its mental model or paradigm. To have the paradigm break down is to lose ability to make sense of the world, and therefore to die.

So, any S-loop will have a strong survival pressure to defend its own internal mental models and paradigm, countered by a learning system that has to come to grips with the fact that sometimes, yes, the "cheese moves."

If I call anything with a functioning S-loop "alive", then not only are all "Living things" alive, but so are corporations, nation-states, religions, cultures, social norms, prejudices, stereotypes, and evolutionary biologists' collective paradigm of how things work.

So, yes, by this model, of course they will fight back, and fiercely, if their paradigm is challenged. And, yes it makes sense that all the supportive control structures terraform around themselves locally supportive smaller s-loops, which are built or entrained to be part of the larger empire. In this case, researchers, and collections of researchers, have all organized around this older paradigm as part of their "given" world and shared assumption, and in acting to defend their own s-loop identity and world-view, give life to the defense of the entire field's identity and world-view - that is, the field's core s-loop. It is natural that the field, a meta-living thing, will then support supportive opinions and try to stamp out or squash contrary or challenging opinions and dissent. All s-loops will tend to do that, at all scales: genes, bosses, departments, corporations, religions, nation states -- all will tend to squash and suppress dissent.

But two things can happen. The old guard can die off and yield that way to the "young Turks" who have a different paradigm, or the old guard can learn and adapat - a traumatic crisis of paradigm shift.

But it can be successful, and go from everyone knowing that the new paradigm is "obviously wrong" to everyone adopting it and effectively changing the past to affirm now that "they've always believed that."

In the short run, failure of news to update the paradigm has been identified as the killer of high-reliable operation of pretty much any complex adapative system, whether it's a nuclear reactor control room or the US Army or an aircraft cockpit or a hospital's surgery suite. When the old paradigm suppresses too much dissent, it misses the news that the cheese has moved, the old model of the cooling system must be broken, the enemy has moved locations from where headquarters was sure they were, etc. Actions no longer are based on reality, and tend to no longer support survival.

This appears to be the core issue about which we, as a society, are pretty ignorant right now -- what's an efficient way to make a "learning organization" that can collect input from its sensors and figure out when the internal mental model and paradigm need to be updated.

And, in the military, or hospitals, or any high-stakes operation, how do you keep the "control" system functioning, right in the middle of a mission, while ripping out the old paradigm and implementing a new one. For example, how do you transition from McGreggor's "Theory X" management to "Theory Y" management without losing the whole ballgame during the transition? The middle state seems ugly and totally out of control, even if the far side "future state" looks way better than where we are now. Is there a way to skip the middle state and just wake up and find ourselves in the new paradigm?

This is effectively a phase-transition -- the same stuff is still in almost the same place, but now the way it is structured has changed, with possibly a lot of stray energy involved going in or coming out.

The benefits of an s-loop model of evolution is that, in addition to our genes and selves and species, it includes all those departments and corporations and cultures and nation-states around us that are visible daily trying to assert control and dominance of the world and paradigms around themselves.

And, the s-loop model has another really strong benefit over pure Darwin at one level -- namely, there is an alternative to "kill or be killed" known as "cooperate in an ecology" or "acquire and merge." Diverse ecologies are way stabler than homogeneous empires (the Borg) and have proven so far to be able to survive massive context and climate changes that even huge individual models (dinosaurs) couldn't survive.

S-loops are all around us. Two people in a strong relationship or marriage may succeed in forming a bond that is so real it takes on a life of its own - and becomes another s-loop that is self-aware, self-healing, and terraforming the space around it in order to survive better.

My main point is that the behavior of complex regulatory feedback control loops is not something I discovered yesterday -- this field has been studied over 100 years and has a great depth of literature, analysis tools, theory, principles, visualization tools, and ways to simulate situations and do "what if" analyses.

If pretty much everything we care about is in the grips of one or more s-loops, then wouldn't it make sense to get the Santa Fe Institute, or somegroup like that, to educate us on what kind of behaviors you can get out of a swarm of such things interacting with each other - especially if you allow for consciousness and efforts to terra-form, make alliances, and learn how to overcome the "sticky paradigm" problem with some sort of dynamically stable solution.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Soft-drinks with fructose or glucose? New research

Well, I also took an intensive course in what's known about the epidemiology of diabetes and obesity last week. So the following in today's paper definitely caught my eye:

Fructose-Sweetened Drinks Tougher on Arteries
Washington Post
Saturday, June 23, 2007; 12:00 AM

SATURDAY, June 23 (HealthDay News) -- The type of sugar in a sugary drink may impact how healthy -- or unhealthy -- it is for arteries, a new study suggests.

Fructose-sweetened drinks are more likely to provoke the development of fatty artery deposits in overweight adults than glucose-sweetened beverages, researchers say.

Kimber Stanhope, of the University of California at Davis, and colleagues compared the results of drinking fructose-sweetened beverages versus glucose for 10 weeks in overweight and obese adults....

The findings were scheduled to be presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association, in Chicago.

The bottom line, according to the researchers: "Persons at risk for developing metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease should avoid over-consumption of fructose-containing beverages."

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What I learned at Johns Hopkins last week

Well, I saw something completely unexpected yesterday.

I wasn't posting here for most of last week because on Friday I completed a course, "Social and Behavioral Aspects of Public Health", at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. I thought it was a good course and covered many key ideas, although I did wish it had gone into them in a little more depth.

But, I am a finishing 3rd year student, (my last class! Hooray!). and most of the class had just started two weeks ago, so I could understand the need to not overwhelm people with new concepts. And that's what I thought was happening, but now I'm not so sure.

This is like those scenes in the movies where the music changes and everyone knows that the monster is approaching but our hero and heroine happily play on, oblivious.

During lectures, sometimes we would have a simple summary slide with content such as "Poverty is a carcinogen." We were supposed to evaluate that assertion, tease it apart, sort out what portions were true and how you could tell. This is part of a debate that's been raging for at least 400 years.

Many of these lectures were met with a startling silence by the students, who often had no questions at all. This surprised me as I thought there would at least be a heated discussion. Well, I thought, they're tired from working half the night on their classwork, or don't want to ask "dumb questions."

Still it was eerie to have the professor ask something and the room of 100 or so just sit there.

After the class, in the big blue shuttle to Baltimore - Washington BWI airport, I discovered something I wish I'd known the first day, as it would have totally changed my behavior.

I chanced to ride with another MPH student I recognized and asked her what she thought of the class we'd just had. I hit a nerve. She had thought the class was a total waste of time and money, and put up with it just because it was required. She thought, basically, that the lessons the class taught were stupid, wrong-headed, wrong, soft, politically-motivated, you name it, and she had already discarded all of her notes. She was just livid.

Wow. None of that had come out in class. And, obviously, "my mileage varied." I liked the course and I don't think I'm an easy sell. I'm used to executive education programs where "students", often CEO's of companies, wouldn't hesitate a second to challenge something they disagreed with.

Apparently I had fallen into the common trap of interpreting stony silence as agreement, or consent. In point of fact, it was total disagreement and scorn, suppressed by a need to just complete the required course, hold one's breath, and put up with all this "psycho-babble" for two weeks. (She didn't say "psycho-babble", but could have.)

So we had missed a tremendous teaching opportunity to get this debate and dispute out on the table and have at it. What a great opportunity to get our feet wet on what it means to assert that "A causes B", and how we "prove" things, and what level of skepticism is expected, and what the burden of proof is on someone asserting some new claim, and how to meet that burden, etc.

It would have been a perfect chance to show a snippet of Crime Scene Investigator's CSI TV show where CSI Head Gil Grissom could lecture us all on the need to suspend our suspicions and "let the data talk." We could have viewed a few cases where it was way too easy to believe that Mr. Jones obviously "did it" when, in fact, it was Miss Smith, in the Kitchen, with a lead pipe.

We could have talked about how civilized grown ups in the field disagree with each other's conclusions while remaining cordial and committed to careful ways to defend against being too gullible (a "type I error") or too skeptical (a "type II error").

But, at least for this one student, that chance was missed. She had interpreted this class as just one more of those annoying things in life where a person in authority states or does something stupid and the best thing to do is just shut up and pretend you agree. In fact, silent and sullen obedience is the expected and demanded and rewarded behavior.

I guess it was rewarded here too, because I think she "passed." Hmm.

Way too many years ago, before I had taught in trade school or taught MBA's, a book came out titled "Summerhill", I think. It described a school in England that I actually went to go visit because of the book. The school challenged the prevailing "infectious disease" notion that I can recall quite well:

Courses are something like the measles. They are something you "have", and then, since you've "had it" you don't need to "have it again."
Again, wow. I had thought that concept had died in the 60's. It seems to be resurgent. Or maybe it never left and I'm just finally looking up and noticing it.

Now, I'm the first to agree that I went into undergraduate Engineering at Cornell, after reading C.P. Snow's Two Cultures, because I just couldn't figure out how to deal with classes where the teacher would ask "What did Hemmingway mean when he said X?" and I had no idea what to say next after I offered an opinion and the teacher told me I was "wrong". What the heck? What's with that?

At least in Engineering, if you say something should work and someone else says "No, it shouldn't" you can just both happily go down to the lab machine-shop and build one and just see whether it flies or not. No one ever wastes time talking about the "true nature of causality."

We'd just happily compute what size resistor to put at this point in a circuit without losing sleep over what the meaning was of "resistance" and if we could actually be "certain" that changing the value would have the desired impact on the radio receiver actually working. If in doubt, put in a variable resistance potentiometer ("a pot") and turn the screw to change the value while watching the output on an oscilloscope, and when you got it where you wanted it, Bingo, pull out the "pot"and measure what resistance it was set to and solder a permanent resistor of that size into the circuit and go play volleyball. No big deal.

Maybe it's because I'm looking at social issues more than I used to, or maybe it's because society is changing, but that sort of way of gaining an answer to a question seems to be vanishing as the expected behavior of people.

Without some training and skill in the tools of Public Health, or other rigorous but often qualitative fields, we've reverted back to the Middle Ages where causality is either magical or determined by which "authority" one follows blindly.

Again, wow.

So, if I hold out my pencil and release it, and it falls to the ground, and I ask "Why does that happen?" I'm as likely to hear "God made it move" as "Gravity."

So, hmm. Is this an "either/or" question or an "and" question or what? Personally, I prefer to think that "gravity" made the pencil move, and allow that, if you like, you can add "... and God made gravity." At least with the "theory of gravity" I can write some equations, design equipment, know exactly how fast something will fall, plot trajectories, etc. It's a "theory with meat on the bones" that I can rely on to build stuff that works. I don't get much "predictive value" out of "God made it move."

But, I guess if you never had the math, and never did "get" introductory Physics, and the concept of "potential energy" baffled you, so the equations never gave you any insight or power, then it's pretty much equivalent to you to say "God made it move" or "magic made it move" or "gravity made it move." They're all invisible anyway, right?

I was busy raising children and missed the whole 80's and 90's trend towards cultural relativism applied to everything, including physical laws, so that "your idea of how gravity works is no better than anyone else's" and we should agree to let all three just get along - physics, magic, or God."

Besides, frankly, hey, when you get right down to it, I can't "see" gravity anyway. All I can "see" is the pencil. Your invisible force against my invisible force, it's a tie, right?

All of which gets me back to class. I guess we might need to add an introductory class that we never needed before, to socialize students to an accepted way of challenging assertions and assumptions and accepted ways of meeting the burden of proof without being blindly stubborn or gullible about it. We need to know when and how it's appropriate to raise our hand and say "How can you prove that?" in a neutral, polite, but insistent tone.

As about a zillion (technical term) of my previous posts discussed, a key requirement for a "high-reliability" culture is "mindfulness," which requires the ability and sensed-permission and sensed-expectation that you will surface questions you have, not submerge and suppress them.

If we can't have that discussion first, all the rest of this business with models and hypothesis testing and "p-values" and study design and statistical tests is, indeed, just magical rituals that you have to go through for some stupid legacy reason in order to get published. All this demand for "evidence-based" practice is just a waste of time, then. No wonder students are baffled by it.

Well, we all know the rule that "All Indians walk single-file .... at least the one I saw did."

So, I'm extrapolating to an entire entering class of students from observed puzzling behavior of stony silence and from one accidentally chosen student's opinion in a cab on the way to the airport. That suggests an underlying teaching opportunity that maybe I'm imagining or maybe is real.

How would we decide which it is?

I'm concerned that not a single student challenged the teachings and yet clearly, from this and other conversations, many others I checked with also disagreed -- in complete silence.

Again, wow. And these are all students with undergraduate degrees and at least two years work experience and decent GRE scores. Maybe a third of them are already Medical Doctors. (MD's)

What have we done? Can we trace this defect back upstream and find out where it's coming from? (You can click on this next image to zoom up to a readable scale).

And how can we undo it? And how could we measure our impact and know whether we had succeeded or not?

Those are good Public Health questions that deserve some time on the agenda. They're also major business problems that directly short-circuit techniques like "The Toyota Way" that I've discussed, that require that everyone should work with their eyes open and with permission, and even expectation, that they'll spot things that need to be changed and announce them.

An army of silent, obedient, sullen, blind robot lemmings is not a very solid basis on which to build a competitive economy or a good public health infrastructure that actually works, or an army that works, or anything that works, instead of one that everyone pretends works.

What have we done to our children?

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Speculation on why things to wrong - part 2

I'm watching it rain over downtown Baltimore as this small plane flies by, and it struck me how much that plane is like the loop I just described in the last post.

Nothing holds it up except the very thin stuff we call air, but that turns out to be enough. Nothing makes it move except that continued cycles of the "propeller" push a little bit of air with each spin, but do 2500 spins a minute, so that turns out to be enough. A little effect times a huge multiplier can turn into a large effect, sometimes.

This is good news for us, because about all we can ever do is have small effects. At issue is what makes them add up to amount to something or not.

Anyway, here's a few "afterthoughts" on the prior post.

There seems to me to be only a small number of middle managers in US corporations, or mid-level officers in the military, or mid-level analysts in intelligence agencies, who can "tell it like it is", without adding or subtracting anything, without distorting the message to fit their preconceived notion (possibly right, possibly not) of what upper management's preconceived notion is. This means our big collective cybernetic loop has a lot of distortion in it.

It's tricky - we need mental models in order to make sense of the world, so they help and we'd be blind or effectively catatonic and overwhelmed if we didn't have these oversimplifications to cut the fire-hose down to a water-faucet trickle. And we want the models to be almost constant, or more precisely, "dynamically stable." They should change gracefully and smoothly as new information comes in that shows we need to update our thinking, but not so fast that the cart overturns.

That kind of stability, and information processing that is not devastated by one bad component, comes from parallel operation, not serial operation. If information has to go through a chain of links, and there is only one path, it is hostage to the worst or weakest link. If we use strings of symbols (words) to hold our knowledge, and we use serial processing (math, logic) to
"connect the dots", we are similarly hostage to and limited by the worst step. It only takes one mistake, anywhere along the line, in doing a math problem to get the final answer wrong. The mistake doesn't somehow "go away"as we do the subsequent steps.

You've probably never thought about it much, but if you had to buy that as a product, you'd think twice. What are the odds you'll get every step correct? Most people would say,not much.
What are the odds that everyone in a company will get every step right? not much.

So, aside from dropping physics and math and changing our major to something less technical, what can we do about this? Like driving on a road that's 1 lane each way and high-speed with no divider, we're at risk from the worst driver on the other side, regardless how safely we drive.

Well, there is an alternative way to work. There's probably many alteratives, but the one I'm familiar with and have a US Patent in involves "image processing" - or storing information in 2-dimensional (or higher) images and having basic operations (akin to addition or logic) that let us take several images and "connect the dots", same idea as before.

Except this time, this way, with images instead of words, we are almost entirely immune to "point errors." The picture of George Washington on that dollar bill looks like George and serves its role even if it is damaged, or we spill grape soda on it, or draw a slash across it with a black marker. The image is "robust." The image's tiny elements, or "pixels" hold each other up in some almost magic way, so they don't all fall down when one of them is bad, the way a string of pearls would fall apart if you pulled out the thread.

Hmmm. This looks like a much stronger way of representing knowledge and processing it then.

Unfortunately there is almost a religion around serial sequential symbol processing and strings of words as a way of knowing and thinking and drawing conclusions. This was populalarized by
Newell at Carnegie Mellon as a basis for computing, and so our computers have the same property -if one stupid little thing goes wrong, the whole output is messed up.

So, again I must head off to class. where I'm going is that there is a better way. The "loop" that I claim has to be at the core of any corporation, or any living or pseudo-living thing, carbon or silicon based, should best be implemented with PARALLEL channels, not SERIAL channels. The communications should be multithreaded and, effectively, images, not numbers or words. What we want is our messages to be self-validating and self-error-correcting so that the small and inevitable errors "go away" for real, like damage to George's portrait.

This turns out to be way cheaper than trying to get each individual chain to be "perfect."
We actually don't need each chain, or each manager, or each analysis to be "perfect" at the six-sigma level .... we only need the TOTALITY to be perfect.

Whoa, you say. You just said you can't get perfection if the pieces aren't perfect.

Well, I didn't lie, but I was talking about serial, single-threaded processing -the kind that a string of pearls represents. One cut to the thread and you have 200 pickup, not a necklace.

There's a better way, is what I'm getting to -- "massively parallel" channels of information flow, so that we are effectively using the same trick images use to self-heal.

Not just parallel among people, but parallel among levels of the organization, so that efforts are aligned, mutually supportive, and mutually "entraining." That both makes it harder to make a mistake in the first place, but easier to detect and repair it in the second place. It's very robust, and, surprisingly, very cheap and can be done, as Toyota has done, with silly little colored pieces of paper and such. It doesn't involve a $400,000,000 investment to accomplish.

But it does involve changing culture of information control and flow and how we listen to each other. That's both good and bad news.

Good news, because it's not technical and any country or people or economic status can do it.

Bad news, because it involves letting go of stereotypes and carefully locked down pathways for information flow that the serial model depends on.

So, either model X or model Y works. the question is, how the heck do you transition from oneto the other without dropping the ball or exploding the organization.


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Speculation on why things go wrong at the top

Sometimes we find large organizations or entire nations where the people at the top appear to pretty much lost contact with reality, and certainly appear to have lost contact with the common people at the "bottom" of the pecking order.

There are a few spectacular cases where the top dog is simply criminal, and these tend to produce a stereotype that all Chief Executive Officers (CEO's) are crooks. That's not true, but as a story it greatly simplifies the peasant's world model and puts blame in someone else's yard.

There are also a few spectacular cases where someone on the bottom of the food-chain is criminal, some "welfare queen" or person clearly ripping off the system, and these also tend to produce headlines and a stereotype that all people on welfare are lazy bums and crooks. Again, this is not true, but it greatly simplifies the CEO's world model and puts blame in someone else's yard.

So, we have top management stereotyping, dehumanizing, even demonizing labor, and telling each other the story that production and business problems are all being caused by labor, despite our own heroic efforts to try to fix the problems they cause. They (labor) are primarily a cost and burden, but, of course, we, upper management, are the indisipensible saviors of the day. We just don't get respect for our 16 hour days and hard work, and are treated like dirt.

And, of course, we have labor stereotyping, dehumanizing, even demonizing management, and telling each other the story that production and business problems are all being caused by upper management, despite our own heroic efforts to keep the ship afloat. They (management) are primarily purely parasites, living off our sweat and labor, adding nothing and sucking out the resources we need to simply our jobs so they can live in palaces while we face foreclosure. We just don't get any respect for our 16 hour days and hard work, and are treated like dirt.

It should be clear that the above scenario is not going to produce very good working relationships between labor and management. From management's point of view, this is a problem because, darn it, output of the company still depends on labor rowing hard and doing a good job, which they don't seem to care about or be able to do on a day to day basis. From labor's point of view this is a problem because, darn it, the survival of the company still depends on management doing a good job steering, which they don't seem to care about or be able to do on a year to year basis.

So, we end up with companies that spend 49% of management's time fighting against 49% of labors efforts, leaving about 2% of the effort to actually accomplish the work to be done, which is almost impossible because of all the dust in the air and shrapnel flying around from the fight going on.

Now, there are additional problems in that the management of the company is probably based on obsolete and misunderstood competitive "Darwinian" models of thinking, where it is believed that the best way to increase company operation is to have all the manager's busy fighting each other for survival, and trying to put each other down all day. While Machiavelli may have been right that this strategy works for a King to have the contenders for the throne neutralize each other so they don't gang up on the King, it's a poor guide for models of countries or companies that depend on the effective working-together of middle management for success.

And it's a very poor guide for companies where the output depends on the people at the bottom feeling supported and safe to create workplace improvements without risking their jobs by doing so.

And, similarly, many companies believe that the pay of workers should be competitive with each other because, in some invisible way involving Adam Smith's hand, this will result in maximizing output. So, workers are motivated to look good and make each other look bad so that they can fight for the left over and diminishing table scraps and maybe "succeed" at getting theirs while others don't, or are laid off, etc. It's not really clear why anyone ever believed that was a very successful model, and it's not the model families use at home to decide which children to feed and which ones to neglect or kill off.

Aside from my babbling, however, the larger point is that companies like Toyota have abandoned the competitive model internally, with spectacularly successful results. So, maybe the old model worked in 1900 for whatever companies needed to do then, but the old model is broken in 2000 for what companies need to do to survive today.

Today, a good fraction of the wisdom and view of the world that matters is done at the bottom of the pyramid, not at the top. The knowledge workers and professionals have specialized training and education and skills and insights that are indispensable for making sense of the world and adapting successfully to the new world. The "cheese" has moved.

But even in companies that attempt to operate on the basis of "Theory Y" not "Theory X"
(as described by McGreggor), and even in a situation where most of the people are trying to do a competent and honest job most of the time, and where everyone knows the survival of the whole company is at stake, it still doesn't work. It doesn't click into place. It doesn't become vital and revitalized and refreshed and alive and productive and adaptive and agile.

Why is that?

Note by the the way that this discussion has nothing to do with outside forces that "cause" the company to be "unable to succeed." This isn't about "unfair currency values" or "unfair trade practices" or "high costs of health care" or "the burden of government regulations" or any of that. This is about what goes on inside the skin of the company or country that works or doesn't. These are things that we have 100% control over, if we really wanted to change.

But when we analyze why things breakdown and don't work, we can get distracted by specific instances, or by apparent problems over there that are really downstream of a larger root-cause problem somewhere else. The beast seems slippery and hard to get a handle on what to address, where, and how.

So, we can look to basic principles and ask if we have the basics right, before worrying about advanced skills. I'll assert that, so far as I can see, this is where most of the breakdowns occur -- on things so basic that no one's attention goes there. What's breaking is things so "little" that they seem "negligible", except that we know from feedback loop theory that, after you apply the power of selective compound interest, what is "little" and what is "big" can completely swap places.

But, there is one basic principle that has to "be right" or at least be functioning at all for any adaptive organism to do just that- adapt to reality around itself. That principle is that the fundamental cybernetic loop has to be functioning.

There has to be a goal-driven feedback control loop in place that continously adjusts efforts based on another continous stream of sensory data regarding the outside world and how closely we fit to it now. This is basic common sense. You can't leave out any of these parts and have a system that adapts to the external world. You have to be able to see the external world. You have to be able to see where your own body is. You have to be able to sort out how close you are to the external world, and which way you're offset now. You have to be able to push on some muscles to get a combination of your own body and the world's responsive echo to shift a little. And you have to learn from experience what actually works today, not what used to work 30 years ago.

So, figure 1 shows the basic loop in a pyramid shape, to capture a little of the fact that there are more people at the bottom of an organization than at "the top" -- although even there we've biased the picture by not calling the parts the "outside of the circle" and the "center of the circle" and implied that there is a vertical dimension of status, privilege, and power that has to be there, which is a whole different question.

Now, we can learn a huge amount by letting go of the idea that management, or labor, or "the company" that is the primary actor or agent of change, which focuses our attention on "who" should be "leading" change. (Then we also have parasitic consulting companies who come in and assert that only THEY are qualified to lead change, please pay up front, no guarantees.)

In a complex adaptive system matrix or substrate or medium, the agency that does anything is not the parts, it is the whole. The pilots do not fly the plane - the cockpit team flies the plane, which is why 74% of commercial aircraft "accidents" occur the first day a new set of highly competent individuals is assembled and starts team-formation while actually flying a real plane, not a simulator. (hmm, that suggests a solution.)

But, saying "the whole" or "the team" or "all of us need to work together" is fluffy and not helpful.

And, it's not entirely accurate. The "whole" of us could be in a big heap, not an organized lean, mean, fighting machine. There are lots of ways to have "wholes."

What actually is needed is not even directly visible in physical space, and not something you can hit with a hammer, although you can indirectly measure it.

What actually is needed is a feedback control loop, what I've called an S-Loop. And it doesn't really matter to the S-Loop which people or computers or liquids or waves it flows through, so long as there is a closed, self-aware, self-restoring, goal-seeking loop that can be traversed hundreds of times in a row.

This is like the picture I had a few days ago of a person filling a glass of water. During the "filling process" the "fill-the-glass" control loop is steering, not the hand, not the eye, not the water. It's as real, and as right and as wrong to say that "the hand controls the faucet" as "the water level controls the hand". Once you make this abstract loop, it comes alive and takes over and the parts that make it up, or used to make it up, are really now, like a concert pianist, present but almost simply a channel through with something is flowing.

It is very possible to have companies without a vertical control loop, although they will be slowly or rapidly self-extinguishing and non-adaptive. General Motors comes to mind as one where management hasn't listened to labor for decades.

But, I'll assert that it is not possible to have an adaptive, agile, successful company without this feedback S-loop in place. There are no parts that can be left out, almost by the definition of "adaptive." If the world changes, the company has to detect the change, try to figure out which neuron or muscles is attached to what, push or pull on them, and change until it has adjusted to match the new reality. That requires a closed, convergent, goal-seeking feedback loop if the outside world keeps shifting somewhat unpredictably - and all complex adaptive systems do.

Our basic problem in constructing an adaptive assembly of people, then, comes down to putting a structure in place that will generate and then identify, value, and protect its own internal S-Loop. If that piece isn't in place, everyone might as well just go home.

We have two difficulties with this task, aside from even realizing it's a task. First, we have legacy mental models of "management" that work to break the "top" apart from the "bottom" of our assemblies. That snaps the loop apart into two dysfunctional pieces, and is a losing strategy.

Second, even if management and labor are on the same wavelength and try to make this work, they have a problem of distortion caused by distance. If an organization has 14 layers of mid-level managers that have to "process" and "add value" to the perceptual stream going uphill, by the time it gets to "the top" it bears no resemblance to "ground truth". And, by the time a CEO's clear and direct orders and intentions have been disassembled and "interpreted" by 14 levels of middle management going down the chain, they make no sense at all when reaching the bottom.

That set of discrepancies then feeds into and sustains the perception of each "side" that the other side must surely be composed of incompetents and morons and criminals.

Here is just a tiny bit of math to see how powerfully this effect compounds, and how even, say, a 5% distortion at each level adds up.

With even a single pass of the feedback loop, with 14 levels going up and 14 going down, and each level applying a 5% distortion and noise, the result could be how much?

The equation would be distortion = (1 + 5%) to the 28'th power, minus 1, if they were all coherently distorted in the same direction. That number works out to be about 300%.

First of all, that 14 levels thing has to go. Cut it down to 5 levels of management, as Toyota did, and the numbers get better, but not good enough.

In fact, you have to get distortion at each level down to 0.5% or less, (99.5% accuracy) before the total loop distortion, per pass, is down to 5%. You can see why Toyota is obsessed with accuracy.

But this is accuracy in the vertical dimension, accuracy of the control feedback loop that should be running the company, not management, not labor, not some person or committee.

Travel time up and down the loop matters too. Like "takt time", the cycle time for the vertical loop better be down as far as possible, preferably down to hours, not months, and if possible down to minutes.

How is THAT possible? first, delegate everything possible to as near the front lines as possible, so that many decisions either can be decided at the front, or near the front. Same way your body has override loops that let your hand pull away from a hot stove even though your brain hasn't even gotten the news that you're being burned yet. Where you can, make everything decidable and steerable at the bottom 2-3 levels. Like the coast guard, let each ship's captain have discretion about what actions to take without having to check in with mom first.

But, to really fly, you want the distortion even lower, to simplify the loops task of trying to figure out how distorted the round-trip signal is and adjusting for that. You can tell when you hear your own words come back twisted about how far bent things are.

But the key to making this work is the virtues previously sustained by religion - honesty, sincerity, transparency, surfacing problems instead of distorting the 'bad news" by hiding them, etc. That will really cut down distortion a lot.

Other factors that are pretty much required to cut distortion involve letting to of the overpowering stereotypes that groups have of each other that prevent them from hearing what the other group is actually saying. That's where I started this post and where I'll end it.

Prejudice and hatred and anger cause dramatic distortions in ability to see straight and to think straight and to hear what someone else is saying. Sometimes humility is required and willingness to let go of a cherished misconception that keeps trying to distort the facts to fit the model, instead of vice-versa.

This is the most important loop that everyone be "kept in". This is the loop that "being out of" is more or less a death sentence, at least metaphorically.

But, so far, it hasn't been identified explicitly as a loop, or the reason it is important made so obvious. That's what I was trying to do today.

There can be many other problems a company can have, but those problems could be solved if the core S-loop were fixed first. So, in terms of priority, figuring out where this loop has taken up residence and shortening it and making each step cleaner and care and feeding of this loop is as crucial as care and feeding and QA on the assembly line loops.

It will require that people at "different" levels actually psychologically "touch" each other and accept each other's role in the overall picture. That involves letting go of the "we" and "them" mentality and seeing the "us" in everything.

I left out the picture but have to go now. I'll finish this later. I think it's a very simple, very clear, very helpful model of what to look for and diagnose and troubleshoot first in a company that is not healthy or is failing to thrive or perform up to expectations.

This is also 100% consistent, so far as I can tell, with the U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual (FM22-100). One major goal of that whole doctrine is to establish the vertical loop that lets fragments of news flow up bill and be synthesized and slightly adjusted in that light new orders come downhill in response. When the S-Loop functions and takes over, it doesn't eliminate the hierarchy, but it floats above it and channels through it and makes it, in some senses, almost irrelevant. Like the concert pianist, you can almost just watch the music flow through you and be amazed because it's like it's doing itself now.

That's the end goal, and it's achievable -- it's just a fully functioning, fully unclogged and unblocked and undistorted S-loop, on a very large scale. Until that works, nothing else
matters. Once that works, all the other problems can be solved.

That's the first thing to address if results are not up to expectations. If someone knows a way to achieve externally responsive adaptation without that loop, I'm all ears. I simply can't imagine how it could be done. Adaptation IS a feedback loop. You can't leave the loop part out.

What we haven't done is realized that and assigned some people to Quality Assurance to make sure the loop didn't fall apart when no one was looking.


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Saturday, June 16, 2007

One page of WPI's System Dynamics Links

Please see the original WPI page

for updated, current, and new links!

System Dynamics Links

System Dynamics Society

Resources at MIT

Software Companies

Link Lists


Thoughts and Models

Other Resources

Maintained by
Last modified: August 08, 2006 17:13:42

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WPI - System Dynamics and Social Policy

The graduate program in the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is at this link.

This seems to be the top spot in the world to study this subject and the applications of Systems Dynamics to policy issues, so far as I can tell -- with apologies to MIT's John Sterman, whose book Business Dynamics really seems targeted to the CEO and others making more than $250,000 a year.

WPI seems more interested in stopping global warming, ecological destruction of the rainforests, etc.

What is System Dynamics?

At the simplest level, system dynamics utilizes computer simulations for the study of unintended consequences (PDF) in social systems and design of policy to avoid them. WPI offers courses and programs in system dynamics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Learn more about the field of system dynamics...

And, "system dynamics" is defined there as follows

What is System Dynamics?

"System dynamics deals with how things change through time, which includes most of what most people find important. It uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do. System dynamics demonstrates how most of our own decision-making policies are the cause of the problems that we usually blame on others, and how to identify policies we can follow to improve our situation." - Jay Forrester, Professor of Management, Emeritus and Senior Lecturer, Sloan School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Founder, System Dynamics

System Dynamics is a computer based approach for modeling complex physical and social systems and experimenting with the models to design policies for improved performance. A model embodies a theory explaining internal dynamics of an abstract system built around a problem. The basic elements of a system dynamics model are stocks, flows and feedback loops. Stocks are things that accumulate, like the national debt or a business inventory. Flows are the movement of things into or out of a stock. The annual federal deficit is a flow into the stock of debt. Feedback loops convey information about the level in a stock, for example, that might that might change a rate of flow or alter some other element in a system. For example:

A model of an economy

(view fullsize image)

Behavior of the model

(view fullsize image)

The implementation of system dynamics to address specific problems involves several carefully designed steps aimed at creating a clear understanding of the problem as well as the possibilities for system improvement. These steps include: 1) representation of a pattern of trends portraying the problem, for example, changes in flow rates or changes in the level of a stock, 2) identification of a causal map that qualitatively describes how the problem is created, 3) articulation of the decision relationships underlying the causal map into a computer model and 4) experimentation with the model to learn about the problem and the possible ways to mitigate it.

The modeling process can be as important at the model itself. This process assists people in identifying their assumptions and testing their beliefs and assertions about causal relationships in complex systems. Since the modeling process can present different insights and points of view in a more objective fashion, it provides a relatively neutral language and framework to help identify more subjective but also critical issues. A trained facilitator can greatly help to integrate expert knowledge into a model that represents the shared understanding of a group of people interested in the same problem.

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A more academic review of multiagent modeling systems

Ecological Modelling
Volume 176, Issues 3-4, 1 September 2004, Pages 313-332

Multi-agent simulations and ecosystem management: a review

F. BousquetCorresponding Author Contact Information, E-mail The Corresponding Author, a and C. Le Pageb
a IRRI-CIRAD, P.O. Box 9-159, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900, Thailand
b CIRAD, TERA, TA 60/15, 34398, Montpellier Cedex, France
Received 4 June 2003; Revised 28 November 2003; accepted 17 January 2004. Available online 25 May 2004.


This paper proposes a review of the development and use of multi-agent simulations (MAS) for ecosystem management. The use of this methodology and the associated tools accompanies the shifts in various paradigms on the study of ecological complexity. Behavior and interactions are now key issues for understanding and modeling ecosystem organization, and models are used in a constructivist way. MAS are introduced conceptually and are compared with individual-based modeling approaches. Various architectures of agents are presented, the role of the environment is emphasized and some computer tools are presented. A discussion follows on the use of MAS for ecosystem management. The strength of MAS has been discussed for social sciences and for spatial issues such as land-use change. We argue here that MAS are useful for problems integrating social and spatial aspects. Then we discuss how MAS can be used for several purposes, from theorization to collective decision-making support. We propose some research perspectives on individual decision making processes, institutions, scales, the credibility of models and the use of MAS. In conclusion we argue that researchers in the field of ecosystem management can use multi-agent systems to go beyond the role of the individual and to study more deeply and more effectively the different forms of organization (spatial, networks, hierarchies) and interactions among different organizational levels. For that objective there is considerably more fruit to be had on the tree of collaboration between social, ecological, and computer scientists than has so far been harvested.

Author Keywords: Multi-agent systems; Simulation; Organization; Agent architectures; Decision-making process

Article Outline

1. Introduction
2. MAS and ecosystem management: the paradigm shifts
2.1. From “dynamics under constraints” to Interactions
2.2. From a systemic to an organizational point of view
2.3. Modeling tools: from stocks and flows to behavior and interactions
3. Multi-agent systems, ecology, social sciences, and ecosystem management
3.1. A definition of multi-agent systems
3.2. MAS and IBM
3.3. MAS, artificial societies and computational economics
3.4. MAS and ecosystem management
4. MAS: computer tools for ecosystem modeling
4.1. Agents architectures
4.1.1. Architectures based on the evolutionary metaphor
4.1.2. Architectures for competitive tasks
4.1.3. Architectures based on neural networks
4.1.4. Parameterized functions
4.1.5. BDI (belief–desire–intention) architectures
4.2. Interactions: the role of environment
4.3. Tools
5. Discussion on the use of MAS for ecosystem management
5.1. Coupling spatial and social dimensions
5.2. From theorization to collective decision making
6. Some perspectives
6.1. Individual decision-making
6.2. Institutions for regulation
6.3. Scale and organizational levels
6.4. The use of models: from positivism to constructivism
6.5. Credibility of the model
7. Conclusions

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Being a robot - 101: The cybernetic loop

I realized that I was just assuming that everyone knew how robots think.
Or for that matter, how babies think when they have to grab something.

We usually think of actions as big chunks, such as "Catch the ball."

Robots have to operate on a much more detailed, step by step level, with everything spelled out for them. Nothing is certain, so everything is just a process of getting a little closer and seeing if anything broke yet. And repeat.

They do this by following a very simple loop, over and over again. Spot where the ball is. Push your hand towards it a little bit. Remember that your hand doesn't always end up where you were trying to push it. Figure out which way the ball is NOW from your hand. Push your hand that way one notch. Figure out again which way the ball is now. Push your hand. Etc.

In a diagram, it would look something like this:
Congratulations! If you understand that diagram, you are much closer to understanding how anything works. Actually, I think you're one huge step close to understanding how almost everything works.

There is a cycle of action, looking, planning, action, looking, planning, etc. Over and over.

The "planning" tends to be very short-range, uncomplicated planning - but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for with speed and persistence and never getting bored.

So here's a very powerful fact about life. Not only does "a journey of 1000 leagues start with one step", but sometimes the ONLY way to plan that journey is one step at a time.

In fact, a series of small steps is a thousand times more capable than one big step, regardless how clever you are, and regardless how well "planned" that one step is. It took computer scientists almost 50 years to figure out that many small computers is actually much better than one large computer for getting work done. It took "artificial intelligence" workers about 30 years to figure out that many small, dumb rules added up to a better way to work than one huge, complicated rule - and it was easier to write and easier to fix too.

Why is this? Imagine that you are on one side of a small woods and you want to get to the other side.

It is very likely that there is no direction you can pick to walk in a straight line that won't bump into a tree.
But, if each step can be a slightly different direction, there are thousands of paths you can use to walk through the same forest without running into a tree.

What's the moral? It seems so "obvious" now, but it baffled scientists for 50 years -- a "curved" path is more flexible than a "straight" one. You can get places with a stupid little loop as guidance that no amount of clever planning can get you if you have to move in one step in one straight line.

This kind of cycle with many tiny steps and a very short pause to think between each step is called a "cybernetic loop". It looks deceptively simple, while it is amazingly powerful.

It can keep on working if the wind is blowing, without having to be reprogrammed. It can keep on working if the ball is rolling on a bumpy hillside. It can keep on working if your robot arm is rusty and doesn't always move as far as it used to when you push it, and sometimes it sticks entirely. This deceptive little loop is all the computer programming required, essentially.

Now, it will work a little better if the robot has some learning capacity and has done this kind of reaching thing before. The robot may learn that it should reach for where the ball will be, not where it is now.

You learned this so long ago you have forgotten that you learned it. Imagine a baseball game where the batter hits a high, fast ball and the guy in the field runs towards home base instead of towards where the ball looks like it will come down again, because that's "where the ball is now."
So, yes, taking the speed of the ball into account does help. But that's a minor change to the program. The same loop works, except the "planning" step is a little bit longer.

So, this is profound wisdom I'm giving you here. It took all of mankind 50 years to figure this out, and some haven't got the news yet. You get it for free, right here, right now.

So, let me run it by you one more time. Here's the same moral, or same story, in slightly different words:

A plan of action that involves a repeated cycle of very small steps, with some looking and thinking between steps, is much more flexible, and much more "powerful" than trying to "solve" any problem in huge step.

Furthermore, if the world is complicated, and tends to have hills and bumps and wind gusts and rusty arms, you can be guaranteed that no "single-step" plan will ever succeed. In that case, ONLY a multi-step approach will get you where you want to go. If your job involves "going through the woods" and around trees that you don't even know about yet, it is much easier to plan to go around trees than try to "collect data" on the location of every tree, put it into some huge list or database, print out a map, and find "a straight path" through the forest.

This doesn't say "don't bother planning." It does say, "don't waste your time trying to find a linear solution to a curved path." There are millions of curved paths that can work just fine, in cases, like the woods, where there is no straight path possible.

And, one more time through it, from the Institute of Medicine's perspective, as in dealing with small teams (called "microsystems"). If you are dealing with a "complex, adaptive system" (like a hospital), it is way more powerful to just rig up the team with eyes and a feedback loop than it is to try to have hospital management "plan" how to improve things. Ditto for "The Toyota Way", or the power of "continuous improvement" or what Demings taught, or a "plan do check act (PDCA) cycle".

Empowering your front-line employees by giving them "eyes" and a little room to maneuver on their own to get around "trees" is a very powerful strategy that works in practice.

It is based on the most powerful "algorithm" we know of today - the "cybernetic loop."

Oh, yes, one more tiny thing. Since this is such a powerful "algorithm" or "paradigm" or way of doing things, much of Nature and your body already knew about it and uses it.

Public Health is sort of vaguely discovering that the "action" step always needs to be followed with a "reflection" or "assessment" step, but hasn't yet sprung to the fact that it is reinventing the wheel, or more precisely, the cybernetic loop, yet one more time. It hasn't figured out that many smaller steps adds up to a more powerful path-generator than one large step.

And, sigh, enterprise budget processes don't reflect this wisdom. For years I fought with the fact that Universities tend to have "annual budget cycles", and enterprise computing is seen as coming in only two flavors: "maintenance" and "huge projects". Maintenance money can only be spent keeping things the same. Huge Project money ("capital budgets") can only be used to take, well, huge steps in a big straight line, and the big straight line, or "project plan" has to be computed up front and committed to before starting.

Well, duh, no wonder that doesn't work. That CANNOT BE MADE TO WORK. There are too many unknowns and unknowables, too many rusty arms, too many trees.

But every time it fails, the "solution" is to plan every LARGER steps next time, with a much BIGGER database that lists every single tree and bush and pothole. THEN, oh boy, you betcha we'll succeed.

Nope. That's a bad algorithm, a bad paradigm. The cybernetic loop model tells us the answer is way back at the other end: continuous, incremental, small improvement steps. Steps driven by local "feedback" that doesn't even involve upper management.

You can get to places you need to go with a million simultaneous tiny, sensible steps that people can understand that you cannot get to with one huge project, regardless how many billions you spend on "planning" it. Our whole accounting system, meant to help us spend money wisely, is causing us to spend it foolishly.

As the IOM report realizes - "We don't need a billion dollar project -- we need a billion, one-dollar projects." (paraphrased from "Crossing the Quality Chasm"). This isn't "sour grapes" or "some dumb idea" -- this is the most profound wisdom humanity has come up with yet.

It's kind of the Chinese approach. If every person picks up one piece of trash a day, it's way more successful than if every person sends $1000 per year into a central location where we build the Institute of Trash Pickup and study the trash-pickup problem and produce endless reports and finally some huge trash collection system that doesn't really work but is really expensive to maintain when they're not on strike (thank you, John Gall, for that insight.)

Ditto for installation of some kind of automated physician order entry system or other massive cultural change of the way things are done. It may seem "hard" to figure out what huge new system, in one step, will get us from point A to point B. Hmmm. Maybe that's because there aren't any "one-step" solutions to getting through the forest, and we need to reconsider our approach. Maybe a million tiny adjustments will solve two problems at once: the "What do we do?" problem, and the every popular "How do we implement it?" problem.

Ten thousand tiny search engines (people) each looking for one tiny step that is possible and totally understood that would help "a little bit" actually constitutes a "massively parallel supercomputer" that can outstrip almost any other way of "solving" BOTH of those problems simultaneously. That's really cool, because it turns out not to matter how great a solution is on paper or at some other site, if there's no way to get it implemented here without spilling the coffee and crashing the bus. That's the lesson Toyota learned. Forget central planning, which the Soviet Union demonstrated doesn't work. Empower the troops to use their eyes and brains and good judgement and make a million adjustments of 0.001 percent size.

It's an incredibly powerful algorithm. It doesn't require brilliant central planning officers. But it does require believing that the ground troops have enough brains to carry their coffee across the office without spilling it, even if they just waxed the floor. Turns out, according to Toyota, that's probably true.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. It would seem to make sense that, if this cybernetic doodad is so powerful, that it is in operation already in billions of places around us in society and biology. That would argue that it might be worthwhile to have cybernetic doodad detectors, and cybernetic doodad statistical tools available to use to spot and describe and tweak such thingies.

Most of the last 6 months postings to this weblog have tried to make that argument, in more complex ways, and maybe that's my problem.

The American Indians knew this - that the Great Spirit worked in circles, not lines. Taoism knows about circles and cycles. "Systems thinking" involves accepting that there are important places where feedback loops just might possibly be involved.

We're so close now. Bring it home, baby!

(Posted in memory of Don Herbert, "Mr. Wizard", who died last week, and taught millions of kids, including me, basic science-made-easy on his TV show.)

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