Friday, November 30, 2007

Joe's truck had a bad week

My wife insisted I read about the Yarn Harlot's husband Joe, and his truck. You might want to also. It's here. The comments are pretty interesting too, for anyone wondering what women think about men. The saga of the toilet seat says something too, which says something, but I'm not sure what.

(photo by by Welfl )

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I forgot what I can do

The comic pages are filled with people trying to figure out a whole new world of layoffs and depression. In Arlo and Janis this week, Arlo finds himself half his normal height and tries to remember being stronger and bigger once.

Depression has many types. Some is sad, some looks like fatigue, or inability to cope, or inability to get started on things, or inability to care much any more about your goals or your self or your dreams. In some types, you seem to feel just fine, but the world seems to have gone wrong.

Regardless, the view from inside a depressed frame of mind, looking out, is totally different than the view from outside, looking in. We become blind to our strengths. We shut out possibilities that are open to us and don't even try.

I've killed a lot of virtual trees posting on various kinds of perspective-based blindness, other ways that views differ that don't involve this strange thing "depression." What is weird about depression is that your view differs from your own view.

Maybe women, with hormonal cycles, are more used to "mood" swings where the very same life goes from one end of the spectrum to the other, and back, on a monthly basis, but this can be a new experience for men, and easy to misinterpret as the world changing, instead of oneself.

All observations of the world are a tangled mixture of observing oneself and the world, and this is important on a personal basis, not just a scientific basis.

"We" are really composite creatures in many ones, one of which is that the two halves of our brain handle different tasks, but are supposed to coordinate with each other and "act as one", which sometimes doesn't work, with the most surprising results.

The extreme case I saw in a course I took one in "Cognitive Neuropsychological Assessment" was a patient who had half his brain temporarily chemically drugged and shut off to locate which side of his brain was managing his speech. Doctors do this sometimes before surgery for severe epilepsy that can't be cured otherwise. If you shut off the side with the speech center, the patient is happily talking away and then abruptly the lights go out. Yep, that's it alright.

But in this video they shut down the other side, so the patient kept talking, but at about half speed, and somewhat slurred. That lasted about 5 minutes, then the drug wore off and the patient returned to normal. Shortly after that, the patient asked when the test was going to begin.

They had missed the fact that half their brain had been shut down. The doctors asked "Didn't you notice anything?" and the patient replied "Not really. Well, I did feel a little tired. "

I am reminded of this every time my daughter wants to drive somewhere at 2 AM and tells me not to worry so, because she's "just a little tired" and she'll be fine.

We are wired so that we can't see what we can't see. I guess the shock was too much, so our brain carefully fills in the gaps in our perceptions with realistic looking cardboard cutouts of reality, or the equivalent. Just like we don't notice that our eyes have a space, about the size of our outstretched hand, that is totally blind. They fill that in for us so we aren't bugged by it. It takes work to find it.

My dad was a stage magician and I used to do a few shows myself, and as a magician you use this blindness to do things, in plain sight, that people won't see. It's a remarkable kind of Ninja invisibility. Kids have very little of it and are very hard audiences, because they actually look at what's going on.

Adults think they are watching and paying attention, but in reality their minds are really overbooked and "multiplexing" or doing 200 things at once, so as soon as the picture around them looks stable, most of their brain goes asleep to that world and goes off, unnoticed, to work on some other anxiety or fantasize about sex or wonder if they remembered to shut off the gas before they left.

This trance-like state is perfect for magicians because, so long as you don't do anything startling, the audience only thinks it is watching you, and, like in the old Mission Impossible TV show, their internal cameras are just watching a life-size snapshot of the bank vault, not the actual bank vault. This effect is amplified tremendously in stage magic by the fact that people, like birds, learned to keep an eye out behind them by staying vaguely aware of whether the flock was happily finding bugs or whatever it is birds find, or startled and suddenly rising up as a group. We have this peripheral vision.

So, any given bird can stop trying to watch for predators and focus its little birdie brain on finding food so long as it lets the other birds around it pick up the load of surveillance, and so long as it sets a hair-trigger that, if the other birds start to fly, it should just go with them on faith.

For live audiences again, this is very powerful, and instead of watching what you are doing, people go into a trance state and simply keep an awareness of whether the people around them are reacting to something or not. If there's no change outside, they can go ahead and ignore the professor and continue dreaming about sex, or whatever. If the mood shifts, they have to snap back to "reality" and listen again, or, more likely, ask the person next to them what just happened. While they're busy fantasizing, their mind is watching the old snapshot, not the live video-feed, and doesn't realize it. It's very seamless, like in that Sandra Bullock movie "Speed", where they faked the video to fool the bad guy while they were actually getting off the bus.

Well, this is not always a good thing that our brains can fake us out so effortlessly. Especially when it starts happening when we are trying to be awake and alert.

I recently found out that our bodies do this too. I hadn't known that. Somewhere in the hazy past I acquired a weight bench and from time to time I had tried to "get in shape", but it never really seemed to "take". I had this bar that my son laughs at with a total weight of 20 pounds, and it always seemed "heavy" to me. Sigh. (He works out of course.)

Finally, a month or so ago, I actually read a book I'd had for a decade on weight training, and realized that this "warm up" thing the body does isn't just getting warm, but actually changes everything. I finally found out that if I did 20 reps of 20 pounds and waited a minute, I could add 5 pounds and then do 20 more lifts of 25 pounds. And if I waited a minute, I could to 20 more of 30 pounds, etc. All the way up to 75 pounds, (hey, don't laugh!) and then work my way back down to 20 pounds, which at that point felt like it was made of plastic or aluminum and I almost hurt myself because it was so easy to lift.

So, this same weight that intimidated me that was so hard to do could be trivial to do, if I had just "warmed up" correctly. Wow. That was news to me. It still surprises me.

It makes me wonder how much else in life that seems almost impossible to do is actually something I could do, if I just warmed up again, whatever that means.

In some ways this "depression" thingie seems to be an advanced version of that same kind of blindness, where almost everything seems "hard" to "impossible", even though, if you could punch through and get started and warmed up, it is actually easy.

Unfortunately, depression likes company, and so the entire audience can become depressed, or, more likely, an entire community, like Detroit, can become collectively clinically depressed. Then this side vision and audience awareness I talked about simply confirms to each person that life is too hard to cope with, so they don't need to actually test it for themselves, and can focus on their own local anxiety about something. It "latches" down, so that, once everyone sort of makes an unspoken decision to be depressed, that fact closes back on itself and forces even those who were optimistic to be depressed.

Then, 20 pounds becomes too much to lift. Life is hard, looks hard, feels hard, even in some cases where it isn't. Outside observers are surprised, then puzzled, then mistakenly write off this depression as "bad people" or "bad attitude", when it is actually a deeper problem with collective perception and feedback and the way humans are wired to observe the world but not observe themselves observing it.

There are outside forces, unfair choices, and other things going on, yes, but it is still important that, in this mix, the way we see the world becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution. We develop self-fulfilling perceptions that things aren't possible, stop trying, reject chances to do them, and our mental or psychological or physical muscles then deteriorate until that becomes true, which we triumphantly announce is what we said from the start.

What to do?

It is a challenge for drugs and therapy to lift an individual out of this state, when the world around them is helping, but there are amazing drugs that can break the spell, and then aren't needed any more.

It is a hundred times the task to do that when the person is surrounded with wet-blankets that drag them back down, quench sparks of enthusiasm or hope, and force them back into the social normal state of collective depression.

This group effect is huge. It affects any group of any race or culture or educational level. The national Institute of Medicine has finally figured out that it is almost impossible to change the behavior of an individual doctor if you don't, at the same time, change the behavior and expectations of their whole small group, or "microsystem", or the doctor will just revert to old ways as soon as you leave.

So it's not just Arlo that can forget what he could be or do, entire groups of people and cultures can get down and forget together what they used to be able to do, and could still do, if they weren't so convinced that they couldn't do it and couldn't rally a serious effort to try.

This doesn't go away by itself. Some cultures, like the Pima indians around Phoenix in Arizona, had their culture shaken by the arrival of the white man's culture, went into depression, and have never recovered. They've gone from the peak-performing, most-advanced, most peaceful native American nation to the far other end, now with the highest depression, suicide, diabetes, obesity, and homicide rates. They fell down and couldn't get back up.

All of us fall down, and sometimes an entire culture or nation falls down, and we need to get very systematic and methodical about the process we use to get back up again when that happens.

It doesn't look possible, so it's like trying to lift a huge limp cat, that seems to keep leaking out of your grasp.

But it is possible. The first thing to realize is that it is a "multi-level" problem, not an "individual" problem, and that it is all tied up in the way people perceive things together and then rearrange their lives to support that perception.

The same forces that hold things together when we're "up" can be the socially cohesive and self-fulfilling forces that hold things down when we're "down."

In the short run, if you can hang out with different people, it can change your life. I'm wondering if this effect is strong enough that hanging out in virtual reality, in something like "Second Life", can change this collective perception framework enough that an individual's own perceptions can get out from under the pile of bodies and rise back to it's own healthy state.

In New York, some urban churches are providing a different world of a different life that can make this transition happen. Organized religion with intensive interactions and fellowship can break this cycle of depression, and in some areas may be the only available option.

Whether it's Detroit or the suburbs of Paris or hospital board-rooms, people are way more captive to the group around them than they realize. But we are all able to downplay almost any factor or person and pay attention to others, so we get to choose, in some senses, who the group "around us" is. If we identify with some world-wide religion, that can become "us". If we are members of a professional society, that can become "us". The Army could become "us". The gang at 121-st street could become "us".

What is important is that the "us" you pick matters. A lot. That may be the only room your "free-will" has to operate, and after that everything else follows.

With world-wide phone service, we can even cherry-pick an "us" of ten people, one per country, around the globe, and interact with that "us" so much every day that it comes to dominate our perceptions of who "we" are, and therefore frames and liberates and answers who "I" am.

But we can't do it "alone." Humans are built to be flock animals, and the effects of that are far too great to ignore. If we pick whatever is on TV or in movies or music as what we surround ourselves with, that becomes our "flock" and those beliefs and attitudes invisibly change what it is even possible for us to see in the world around us - blinding us to some things while magnifying others.

Hint for better living -- try shutting off the TV entirely for a month and see what changes.

Why? Consider what TV does. You are a flock animal. You are very sensitive, in ways you cannot imagine, to what the rest of the flock or herd is doing. If you spend time watching TV, or, worse, watching a big-screen life-size TV, the people on the TV are treated by your brain as being your flock, because, frankly, this part of the brain is not very smart. Fantasy goes in the same place as reality, it doesn't care.

So watching TV gives you a sensation of belonging to a group of people who, at best, completely ignore your existence. You are like the youngest child of a dozen, not chased out of the room, but not paid any attention to whatsoever. Every minute you "watch" TV, you are reinforcing that social "fact" to yourself that you don't matter to these people, they act as if you're not in the room. It's another day's reinforcement of passive helpless hopelessness.

That's not even considering the content of what's on. This is just considering the fact that what's on doesn't reflect your existence, and goes on whether you yell or stand up or sit down or walk out of the room. It's a constant message that you don't exist, and if you did exist, you don't matter. We don't need that message. It is not helping.

Worse than that, it is a downward trapping spiral, another danger we are not built to recognize. The more you watch TV, the less you interact in the world. The less you interact, the more depressed you get. The more depressed you get, the more you stay home and watch TV. For people trapped in this loop or addition, this isn't "entertainment" - it's slow suffocation and the pathway to death from lack of social oxygen.

Maybe the advertisers or networks find that entertaining, but I don't. The proper word would be "entrainment" not "entertainment." ( tr.v. en·trained, en·train·ing, en·trains

1. To pull or draw along after itself. )

This is not directly visible, like the conversation going on in the "other channel" in an audience of a magic show, but it is very real. While the conscious you is busy watching some "action" show with "excitement", the flock-you is watching a different channel, simulcast, that says that absolutely nothing is going on and that you do not matter, they have shunned you, they have turned their backs on you, they are not even noticing you, you are nothing, and they'd be happier if you'd leave or just die or something and free up the chair. The more you care about the people on channel A, the more painful is the silence on channel B. You watch more and more looking and hoping for a human touch, but it never comes.

It's a fascinating analogy to the Ancient Romans, who were killing themselves off with the newly discovered lead pipes they were using to pipe water directly into their homes, that seems like such a good idea at the time. The water was obvious, the lead poisoning was silent and insidious. The delivery mechanism that no one thought much about was toxic.

If you think of people as individuals, there is almost no room for this effect in the model. If you realize as researchers now are doing, that humans have very advanced forms of non-verbal social communication with each other, and are flock or herd animals at heart, then you can see where this impact can occur.

I wonder if we had some kind of electronic wave from space that made all televisions fail to operate for a month what would change. I bet, a lot more than we realize.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mining the wisdom of crowds

While I've seen debates and books on "the wisdom of crowds", what I haven't seen is a systematic way to enhance the process. Drug companies develop drugs by finding something, anything, that has a detectable effect they want, then figuring out how to amplify or distill or concentrate that. I think we need to do this for crowd wisdom.

One of my favorite bugaboos is the latest fad in hositals, Computerized Physician Order Entry systems ("CPOE"). This kind of software, we are told, will let doctors enter their drug orders, or other orders, on-line into a handy computer terminal, perhaps a portable device like a high-end cell-phone, where the orders are then whisked off to be completely smartly without any problems due to legibility and doctors' infamously poor handwriting. Further we are told that many errors will be avoided by "decision support" that will help the doctors pick the latest and greatest drug to use, or detect that the doctor is considering a drug to which the patient is allergic, or which will interact badly with some other drug some other doctor has already prescribed for some other ailment. (And older people come in with multiple chronic ailments.) Finally, we are told, everyone wins because the doctor can be guided to select a generic instead of an expensive brand-name drug.

Well, sounds great! The reality is different, and the opinions about why the reality is different cover the spectrum. Many implementations crash and burn, and after a very expensive and ugly scene, the systems are "backed out" and removed. Some systems are installed and measures of outcomes, such as mortality, rise instead of falling. In general, getting staff to use the systems is an "uphill" struggle, which should say something about how much easier it is making their lives, at least in the short run.

Some administrators and vendors believe that "the problem" is "bad doctors" who are "contrary" and refuse to learn how to use a computer and need a swift kick in the pants or to be let go if they don't "get with the program." They see the solution as "bigger whip."

The assumption behind that view is that the software actually works.

And, as my readers will already suspect, I will define "works" as something that can only be specified if you have also specified the context in which this "working" occurs.

It is true, largely, but not entirely, that vendor CPOE software "works" in the sense that if you type in "27" and hit "enter" the system will record "27" somewhere, not "42". That much generally works, but it is remarkable how many cases can be found where even that much doesn't seem to have been tested by anyone before release of the product. Often some "bug" can be found in under 5 minutes of use. Articles in JAMA describe such systems, and generally note many inconvenient but "minor" issues which are often described as something that could "easily be fixed."

Nothing could be further from the truth, or more at odds with actual evidence. This mental model is entirely wrong.

These "small" imperfections are generally in a system that is running in dozens or more hospitals, and that have been running for at least 2-3 years. Yet, they remain unfixed.

Now, this should cause an alert observer to sit up and say, "Wait. Why aren't they fixed?"

The answer, and I base this on personal observation and 40 years in the IT field, is that these systems are largely un-fixable. Or, more precisely, the whole collection of software, vendor representatives, bug reports, bug-fix pricing, departmental prioritization, and hospital-wide prioritization means that 99% of such problems will never "make the cut". Ever.

There is a common flaw in priority scheduling for job shops that fails to account for the "age" of requests, and prioritizes purely on some other factor. The result is a sludge of lower-ranked requests that just grows and grows but never makes it up to the "top ten" or "top three" that will be selected. "We must focus on priorities" is the mantra, which I have attacked before as completely flawed, and largely for this reason.

So, yes, IF this bug fix were considered "top priority" by hospital administrators who pay the bill, or by the vendor, it could, in many but not all cases, be "easily fixed." The problem is that this "IF" will never happen. Never. Ever. So what we get is what we observe - hundreds of inconvenient but maybe not show-stopper problems, just below the "I can't tolerate this pain" threshold, but well above the "I feel the pain" threshold.

A second effect of this social process in which software evolution is embedded is that it quickly becomes clear that

  • there are a lot of such bugs, and
  • no one seems to care about them, and
  • it is pointless to complain because no one ever listens, so
  • one should just shut up and figure out some work around instead, while pretending to comply.
In some places people develop entire shadow systems to copy data off a screen onto paper, to do whatever they want using paper, then, when it is all done, come back and enter the results into the computer, bypassing the "helpful" part entirely. The reasons are many, but anyone who has ever fought with "helpful" paperclips or security features in Microsoft Office or Vista knows that this "help" can be a frustrating, distracting, pain in the ass.

Part of what is so frustrating about it is that the system cannot seem to learn anything. It remains as stupid on day 20 as it was on day 1, making the same dumb comments, and not reading or responding at all to my tone and body language and force with which I am smashing down the keys that "Yes, I know that. Any idiot knows that. Why do you keep telling me that?" And. ultimately, the "decision-support" features are shut off because they seem designed to support some kind of decision making that is not the kind we use here, or need.

The rest of the system remains like a stone in the shoe or a key that sticks on a keyboard, a constant nuisance, and a constant reminder that one's own good judgment has a net weight of exactly zero in the big scheme of things. Some novice programmer in Pakistan has more power to design my own work flow than I do, despite obviously never having done this job.

But I need to make a crucial point here. The problem is not that the system is wrong - it is that the system stays wrong and is impervious to social feedback. It is non-adapting.

Well, in some cases, the vendor happily chimes in, the system could be "customized" to fit better, at an enormous cost, which might address the "top priority" items, take 6 months to 2 years, by which time the needs will have changed but the work-order won't. After all that agony, the final result is no better fit than the unchanged system, so there is rapid learning socially to shut up and stop asking for changes.

If the social system of the hospital is sufficiently adaptive, and doctors are very clever, they can figure out work-arounds and make-do with this permanent new pipe across the living-room at a height of 4 feet that they now have to duck under when they remember, every time they cross the room to answer the phone.

It doesn't have to be that way. It's that way because we put up with it being that way.

In that sense, it's a metaphor for social systems and governmental agencies and regulations in general -- someone, somewhere, decided to impose something that might have worked for them, although that isn't clear, but that clearly is more pain than benefit now, but that no one can do anything about and you just exhaust yourself trying so shut up and put up with it.

But that, grasshopper, is not the Toyota Way.

The Toyota Way is "That's a pain in the ass, let's fix it!"

So, how did Toyota manage to do this allegedly impossible task, of fixing the internal legacy stupidities that were encrusting everything and smothering innovation and efficiency?

Not by central planning some huge new system, which would "fix everything."

It was done, to paraphrase the Institute of Medicine, by a billion $1 steps, not by one $billion step.

In other words, they figured out how to let people make very small changes, gasp, on their own authority and judgment call, to their own workplace and work flow. Not expert executives, not hotshot consultants, but, you know, regular people on the front line, "employees" and "staff", secretaries and the guys who pick up the trash and move boxes.

And a process of massively-parallel continuous improvement, in very small steps, compounded over time, took the company where no executive plan and no consultant could.

So, the problem we need to focus on with CPOE systems, or with anything else like that, is how to enable and empower the people at the front, who actually have to endure and work with both the real world and "the system", to modify "the system" to be easier to use. The crowd knows thing they don't realize they know, and can do things, if empowered, that no central planning office would ever think of or could do.

A second amazing feature of the Toyota Way is that there is no "implementation resistance" hurdle. The person making the change is making it because they want to and they think it might work to make completing their task easier, and because they want to try it and see. No one needs a whip to "get them" to "buy into" the change.

Third, the changes are very small, individually. The amount of "disruption" any single change causes is roughly zero, and that's if the change got put in backwards, which will be detected in a day or less, swapped around to frontwards. That is, "undo" is possible and not considered a "failure". And rather than "disruption" the change is, or should be, and can be, "anti-disruptive". The change actually makes things flow more smoothly, not less smoothly, not only for the person making it, but for everyone near them, in the social context in which employees care about the people near them because they have to work with them and people have memories. And, gasp, they might even be asked if this "works for them?" And, gasp, they might even be asked before making the change if this might work for them, or if not, what factor has been forgotten that I can learn right now about how you do your work, so I can take it into account from now on, and learn more about you at the same time, and things I never realized you had to take into account or do.

In other words, the changes are connected to a parallel process of social development of deeper friendships and working relationships with everyone upstream and downstream from my own neighborhood, treated with increasing respect as I understand more about why they do what they do the way they do it, and they learn the same about me.

OK, let's bring this home. Can enterprise-scale software ever possibly have that sort of property that, if you don't like it, you can actually adjust it so it is less painful to use? Or, gasp, more helpful than the designer intended?

Yes. I've done it. More precisely, a team I led evolved some software over time under continual advice and suggestions from users of, couldn't this field be up here instead of over there, because we always are doing this other thing at the same time and that window covers this, etc. The result was called "indispensable" by the users, who screamed if it was not available, but we were baffled as to the question by higher-ups of "what it did" and "what we called it." It had no name, and it was hard to describe exactly what it did, except that it had accumulated hundreds of things that were individually helpful in one place. It was a sort of a swiss-army-knife that dealt with issues that no one had realized were issues and couldn't describe easily in words if they had realized it, but it turned out we didn't need to describe it as a whole to build it, and we didn't need to figure out what the users needed because they told us, slowly, as they realized they actually had some say and control in what it did.

It was a "stone soup" system that kept getting better with additions that the users themselves supplied, or suggested but were "trivial" to add or adjust in under 5 minutes apiece.

It ran below the budget radar because it never got a name as a "project" or got funding.

There's a lesson here.

An important lesson.

And we need to turn back to John Gall's wisdom to see what's going on.

First, solutions that work to large problems are not created in whole cloth, nor do they spring full-grown from the head of Zeus. They start as small solutions to smaller problems, that actually work, and evolve slowly from there, always keeping the property that they actually still work. The reasons are myriad, but have to do with debriefing the social context about information we needed in words we lacked and concepts we lacked, but that could be easily done even if they couldn't be easily described in words. The context is important. And the lack of ability to express this in words is important.

This is not a pre-planned solution, developed in India, to a social context they've never met, with very real people already populating the seats. This is a home-grown solution that grew to meet the exact needs of these exact people doing this exact work.

Well, two problems immediately arise. One, what's the business model here? And two, how general is this concept? Won't the resulting software be totally messy, fragmented, and impossible to maintain or debug or explain to new staff? How can we validate or re-validate that it does what it is supposed to, and only that, when it keeps changing? Isn't this irresponsible and bad practice? And how can we sell the resulting software to anyone else and make money, when it is so specific to this environment? Aren't we just institutionalizing bad legacy practices in code instead of analyzing them and fixing them?

We'll get to those. The key point is that the "wisdom" needed to guide the development of a working system is located in the social context down where the company meets reality, on the front lines. It is not embodied in words, often. Sometimes it defies description in words, even though people do it -- like trying to describe how you crack an egg without making a mess.

Much of the wisdom can only be revealed and surfaced by actually trying something to see if it works or not. Great judgment is not required, only judgment of keeping the experiment small and keeping the "undo" button ready to push if we got it backwards.

This is similar to the successful strategy of Loeb of Loeb Rhodes, or whatever that stock broker is. He described a strategy that was "wrong" 80% of the time and made lots of money. He'd pick a stock he thought should go up, set expectations around that, buy it, and watch it like a hawk. If it turned out to start going the wrong way, he'd bail instantly, not "just wait until it comes back up before I sell it so I don't need to admit that I made a mistake and recognize a loss." So the 20% winners stayed on the table for a long time, and the 80% losers were cut off almost instantly, and the next result was an ever improving portfolio of stocks, chosen not by wisdom of perfect picking, but by the cybernetic wisdom of just keeping your eyes open and reacting to what is actually happening, not what you wish was happening. And small steps, so undo was possible.

This is a remarkably powerful strategy.

It's the strategy evolution has used to get our bodies and society evolved this far, without, apparently, a central planning committee.

Massively parallel, experimental at the edges, alert, aware, not only no hesitation to admit "an error" but spring-loaded to admit an error very very rapidly. No massive brilliance or Nobel prize winning "quants" required on the staff.

This is the power that the current process of CPOE, and for that matter most policy development and governmental development defeats, by trying to move in very large steps that are centrally planned, and frustrating the local wisdom where the concept meets reality so as to suppress it instead of enhance and encourage and harvest it.

This is the difference between successful marketing and product evolution based on real-time customer feedback, and trying to use a bigger whip and ad campaign or discount incentives to sell, say, GM cars that people don't actually want. It is a way to "listen" to the wisdom of the crowd", especially if you need the crowd to make things go.

OK, back to software. What might be done?

First, the whole budgeting process is in the way. Classic budget cycles are way too long, and way too chunky, and require detailed proposals of exactly what is to be done and how much it will cost, etc. There are only two worlds envisioned -- either the software is static, and simply being operated or "maintained" out of operating budgets, or there is some huge "project" attempting some huge change, out of "capital". There's nothing in-between where the sweet spot actually is. We need something that funds "maintenance plus a little"- daily incremental improvement in software, responsive to customer feedback.

Second, software design policies are in the way. Most companies do not use high quality design techniques to make structured, top-down, object-oriented systems that are easy to maintain and change with known results, and easy to revalidate, because that costs more to get the first one out the door than writing crap, and they weren't planning to make very may modifications to the software anyway -- just to ship 200 copies of exactly the same thing to 200 different contexts and suppress the dissent at every one of them, assuring management that one size fits all and, oh by the way, we have a special on larger whips today.

There are good tools to design good software that can be changed and revalidated in minutes, not months, but most people don't ramp up to use them. That, however, is where the investment would do the most good. Instead the money is spent trying to make changes to poorly designed software and revalidate the tangled mess that produces, which is a very expensive process and fraught with unexpected interactions and side effects and retractions, which then motivates the vendors to tell their software people "Just try to not change anything at all - we think maybe we have it working now."

So, I see a process effectively equivalent of this. All day, people use the software, that I picture as a huge object floating in space. As they work, they attach rubber bands to parts of it, pulling them slightly towards slightly different places than they are. At night, every night, while the users sleep, the software people come alive (maybe on the flip side of the planet where it's day), and assess the total net torque on the system produced by all those rubber bands, and first rotate everything to reduce the net torque to zero, then slightly shift the details to bring the gap between the system and individual requests towards zero, even if they can't all be met on this change. The total change is small, and revalidation can be done to be sure it's still on stable ground, since most parts won't have changed at all except around pivot points, which were previously validated.

The process should be, on a large scale, cost effective. The price of not fixing "small things" needs to include the costs of discouraging and squelching user interest in improving things more or any innovation at all, which changes the equation.

I'm sure there are all sorts of principles and guidelines that can be applied to define this process better. The point I'm making is that there is value in capitalizing on evolutionary design processes that actually work. This requires decentralizing the eyes, while retaining control of the central system, but in a way that is maximally responsive to the eyes. And it requires everyone repositioning themselves to assume the new world is dynamic, not static, so don't put your coffee cup right there cause that part rotates.

The invariants that are being invested in here, over time, are processes that capture massively parallel pressures and respond to them, a little bit, every day, in real time. We can get rid of the whips.

Once we admit that knowledge we need, about the social structure and environment, is actually distributed holographically and non-verbally in that environment, we can give up trying to have a three stage process of first having a massive effort to debrief everyone in words as to what they think they do, then going off to India and building some compromise least-common-denominator system, then coming back and forcing it down the throats of staff that are trying to say it doesn't fit. The debriefing and adjustments are done in a massively-parallel way, every day, and nothing needs to be forced on anyone, for the most part.

As with Toyota, much or most of the value here is actually having the people in the company have a structured way to begin to understand more and more what it is the other people are doing and why, and build respect and mutual support and collaboration in improvements.

The initial software that does this, like the rock in rock soup, doesn't need to be perfect, but it has to be small, not over-promise or be over sold, and be extremely dynamic in a stable way.

Dynamic stability is a real concept that airplanes and flywheels and cars need to have. Things change, but within limits so the overall thing doesn't crash.

As most people have found, if you delay repairs until huge changes are necessary, they will almost certainly not fit socially, and generate huge push-back that can be overcome, but at a huge cost. This "big project" way of debriefing social reality and adapting to it has a miserable track record. It institutionalizes the sins of the "we must prioritize!" approach to life's complex problems, which structurally guarantees that the needs of the people "on the bottom" will never be heard, let alone met.

And that forces competition and conflict as people try to push their way high enough up to have one of the few projects or needs or ideas that passes the "let's prioritize" cut-off point.

We need a new model, based on what's been working for a billion years all around us, a proven design pattern.

It has much less risk, much less cost, and gets more people what they need to do their jobs, while not requiring any of us to be Nobel prize winners, or in the clutches of the "suits" from huge consulting companies that promise to deliver "solutions" (made in India) to our "problems", as described by upper management, which by the nature of complexity and speed of change and "indescribabilty" of life is out of touch with the front lines. Oh yes, and "Prioritizing" because changes are so expensive that we can only do a few big ones and the rest will "have to wait." (Forever).

A living, real-time adaptive strategy doesn't need management to detect that the outside environment has changed, order a study, commission a planning group, prepare an implementation agony in order to respond. It can simply detect the change itself and pivot around to adjust to it, and management can read about it later.

The job of management is to realize that real-time control of huge complex adaptive social systems is not something they can micro-manage, and to put in place the kind of internal adaptive skeleton that is response to millions of pushes simultaneously, not a few huge pushes at the expense of everything else.

The world is past the point where "a few top priority items" is sufficient, and the world isn't going back to that point ever again. To cope with that we need to redesign corporate and governmental decision-making processes to be agile and parallel and responsive.

I fret about those with the mental model that "the problem" is all this "push back" and if a sufficiently strong top man were in place that gave and enforced orders with a big enough whip, why then everything would be back to running smoothly, you betcha.

Nope. There'd be no more painful delays in gathering information, and actions could be taken very rapidly -- with total assurance that they would be totally out of touch with today's new reality at the front lines, that wasn't even there yesterday but showed up in response to what we did yesterday, with some whole new set of things going on over here that don't make any sense at all, and half of the responses being, surprise, exactly the opposite of what we had planned -- except that we don't hear about those for a lag time of months, because of the strong dissent-suppression field we're using to get our way despite the potential push-back.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

The future isn't what it used to be

The future isn't what it used to be. Especially in the US, we are warned of impending recession on a daily basis. With a smaller world and easier travel of people and goods, real wages are evening out around the globe, meaning theirs go up and ours go down. The bills for the wild party have started arriving. None of this is new or surprising to anyone not transfixed by the pretty flashing lights of what TV focuses on this week.

So, there's bad news and good news. In some sense, awareness of the bad news is a ray of sunshine of good news in itself.

The value of the dollar continues falling, which the administration has been asking for, and kicking China in the shins for slowing down, repeatedly, and suddenly everyone seems shocked that this will result in an increase in the price of imported goods, including oil, and a gutting of the buying power of our life-savings and retirement funds. None of this is new.

There is hand-wringing and shock over how much the average person seems to be "cutting back" when, by the numbers, "the economy" is booming and healthy. But none of this is new either. The classic popular article that explains this in easy words is "If the GDP Is Up, Why Is America Down?" by Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe. Atlantic Monthly, October 1995, pp. 59-78. That was written 12 years ago. As I wrote here Oct 17, 2007

Certainly other guidelines to policy, such as the Gross Domestic Product, completely mask damaging actions and count spending our nations resources as "income" with no corresponding charge against "assets". (See Genuine Progress Indicator( Canada)

GDP-based measures were never meant to be used as a measure of progress, as they are today. In fact, activities that degrade our quality of life, like crime, pollution, and addictive gambling, all make the economy grow. The more fish we sell and the more trees we cut down, the more the economy grows. Working longer hours makes the economy grow. And the economy can grow even if inequality and poverty increase.

The more rapidly we deplete our natural resources and the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the economy grows. Because we assign no value to our natural capital, we actually count its depreciation as gain, like a factory owner selling off his machinery and counting it as profit.

and the US "Redefining progress", Wikipedia on the Genuine Progress Indicator with a link to the one article that is a must read if you can only read one. (But you need a subscription or to go to the library to get it.)
On investigation, even the attacks on 9/11 against the World Trade Center were not new and not the first time the buildings had been attacked.

What's new is that some of this is starting to penetrate the astounding wall of denial and obliviousness that surrounds the shrinking island of unreality that we're standing on.

Maybe, we should consider standing somewhere else. Maybe, we should look for a safe-haven for what we have, before it too is swept away by the rising tide.

International investors are turning away from the dollar as a safe-haven, a currency of last-resort, and "diversifying". In short, the stock price of the USA is in slow-motion free-fall, and investors are slowly moving towards the door while advising everyone not to panic. They are seeking stability in turbulent times, and not seeing it here.

So, let's bring the lens of "systems thinking" to this question, and see what the crystal ball suggests. Let me appeal to common sense, which has some value to it.
First rule - if something is stable, it's probably stable.
Huh? What I'm suggesting is that things, as it were, have a sort of intrinsic inertia. There are things that change very easily, and things like the proverbial supertanker, that move only after great effort and very slowly. Supertankers, I've heard, start putting on the brakes while still 25 miles from shore.

So it is very unlikely that something that will be a stable safe-haven for the next decade has been fluttering wildly in the breeze in the last decade. In the sense of stability, the past is a good guide to the future, if we look at deep processes not surface events.

It's like trees, whose roots are generally mirror images of the tree, but below ground. If you want a tall tree, you'll need deep roots. The taller the building you plan to build, the deeper the pylons should be sunk into bedrock.

So, the place to look for stability is in processes that are true today, were true a decade ago, were true a century ago, and were true 2000 or 5000 years ago, or longer. It is a pretty safe bet that something that has been rock solid for 3000 years will still be solid next year.

This business of chasing the latest quick-silver sparkle of light, of "momentum" investing in something we know nothing about "because it's going up" is a poor strategy if you seek stability. Here's the news flash - if you want stability and safety, ignore the news, shut off the TV and your pager, and look instead at the "olds." Rediscover reading.

So, 3000 years ago, the American dollar wasn't here. Nor was the Euro. Nor was China launching satellites to the moon. That's all noise, a distraction. Those things change too fast to be "bedrock".

Get past "events" and look at what underlying processes haven't changed.

Physical laws, mathematics, and the billion-year flow of evolution of life on the earth were with us then and are still here, still going on. An alternation of good and bad times, in terms of hunting or harvests was common, as it still is. Moses led a campaign to stockpile 7 years worth of food, looking ahead to hold everyone over during the very hard times, and that was a good idea that worked out well for Egypt.

There was an emphasis on figuring out what wisdom was reliable and timeless, and getting it recorded somewhere and passed on from the older generation to youth, because sometimes youth wasn't interested in listening to old people talking about such things.

There were discussions, pretty much like this post, that people needed to stop chasing the latest fad and fancy, and focus on core competencies and responsible behavior based on the past being a good predictor of the future, giving us stories like Aesop's fables about the ant and the grasshopper and using the "good times" to prepare for the coming "bad times". Multiple prophets warned of bad things that were coming if people went off partying and ignoring virtuous behavior, and, they did, and they did. Denial of inconvenient truth has been with us a long time.

For example, here's a few of my favorite timeless quotes from the Old Testament Bible's book of Proverbs, part of the sacred books of Christians, Moslems, and I guess Jews and ancient Egyptians while we're at it.

Where there is no guidance, the people fall,
But in abundance of counselors, there is victory.
Proverbs 11:14

The deeds of a mans hands will return to him.
Proverbs 12:15

Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles,
But the one who gathers by labor increases it.
Proverbs 13:11

Righteousness guards the one whose way is blameless,
But wickedness subverts the sinner
Proverbs 13: 6

Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline.
Proverbs 13:18

He who walks with wise men will be wise,
but the companion of fools will suffer harm.
Adversity pursues sinners,
But the righteous will be rewarded with prosperity.
Proverbs 13:20-21

He who watches his way preserves his life.
Pride goes before destruction.
Proverbs 16:18

Every man's way is right in his own eyes,
But the Lord weighs the hearts.
Proverbs 21:2

A man who hardens his neck after much reproof
Will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.
Proverbs 29:1

The king gives stability to the land by justice.
Proverbs 29:4

The spirit of a man can endure his sickness,
but a broken spirit who can bear?
Proverbs 18:14

A friend loves at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.
Proverbs 17:17

He who shuts his ear tot he cry of the poor
Will also cry himself and now be answered.
Proverbs 21:13
I can't see that any of those processes have changed in the last few thousand years. People, left to themselves, tend to be easily deluded, captivated by the pretty lights, chasing wisps while discarding "burdens" like self-discipline and integrity and having respect for the wisdom their elders went to so much trouble to collect and preserve for them. People are very easily taken with their own brilliant ideas and righteousness and fail to consult before heading off on ill-advised actions that could have been avoided. Fools and their money are soon parted. Wealth can vanish overnight, but true friendship will endure.

Most of the wisdom seems clear, straight-forward, obvious, and generally ignored. It's not like this hasn't happened to the last 400 generations of humans.

We seem to have a rather slow collective learning process, however, while some preserve this timeless wisdom and most proceed to ignore it and call it irrelevant to the "modern" world, and then crash the latest scheme, economy, or nation on exactly the same shoals their ancestors did and marked out for them, then look astonished and say "No one told me!" Hmm.

We do seem to have a problem listening to the past when the pretty lights are right here and beckoning, and those people are partying and no harm is coming to them, and these people are good and they're just getting ripped off.

Well, here's a few more basic truths of "systems thinking" that need to be rediscovered every generation:

Sometimes, the inevitable consequences of actions are delayed.

What appears to be going on, based on short-term vision, is often at odds with what is really going on, based on longer-term understanding of the bigger picture.

In the long-run, the long-run matters.

Individuals don't have the memory, bandwidth, or stability to retain Truth for very long. You need collections of individual humans to be sufficient to hold onto Truth.

People who go off on their own and don't consult or even ask for advice are going to miss a lot of information that is obvious to others but invisible to them from where they are standing.

People are blind to their own blindness. It is really, really hard to grasp that very basic truth. We can't even see the hole where we can't see, and need to rely on others to tell us it's there, even though we can't see it.

Individuals are truly lousy at being unbiased observers of causality. They are very good at collecting anecdotes that support their pre-conception, and discarding evidence that conflicts with it.
That said, which most researcher would agree with, most ancient scriptures then go on with some deeper content related to the idea that the way we behave towards each other is really important to get right. Trust, honesty, and enduring friendship are valuable. Exploiting the weak, even if it appears we can get away with it, turns out to be a bad idea.

Here we're into lessons that are starting to be inconvenient. Secular society, having discarded the religious traditions that set the context in which true friendship is possible, then proceeds to tell us the replacement gospel that true friendship is "obviously" not possible and the best we can do is to exploit our neighbor before they exploit us. Oh, and it's easier to take candy from children and the weak than from adults or the strong, so start there.

But civilizations are more likely to grow from mutual support than from mutual exploitation.
And those who would steal from the weak have shown their true colors, and shouldn't count on their peers ever agreeing to some action that requires "Trust me" to fly. And, as the US has just demonstrated so well, pushing junk debt with a "AAA" label will come to light, and the backlash reverberates for a very long time, destroying opportunity and prosperity as it goes.

Trust, reputation, integrity, compassion, self-discipline, humility -- these things matter to individuals, to teams, to cultures, to nations. That's been true for thousands of years, and it's still true. Whether God is watching or not, everyone else surely is.

We are still waiting for Science to catch up to this and add a "fifth state of matter" to the list of solids, liquids, gases, and plasmas. (Older folk will go "Plasma? That wasn't on the list when Pluto was still a planet, in my day....)

We need to add "social fluid" to the list, which behaves with the same complexity as a plasma in a magnetic field. This fluid has memory, and a great deal of stored energy, so it can reverberate and amplify distortions. The fluid tends to be, over time, "self-correcting". Some responses take a long time to echo back, but then they arrive with interest. It's hard to tell what's really gone, and what's just in the back room gathering momentum.

Activities that are socially supportive, in the long run, will tend to be in turn supported by society, in the long run. That's a key belief, or hypothesis, that is pivotal to selection of an investment strategy with our money and our time and our lives.

A weaker version might be that activities that are destructive to society in the long run are going to be identified, attacked and destroyed by society, in the long run. The system as a whole has "an immune system" is that that way. This is a second belief, or hypothesis.

I think these are stronger hypotheses than arguing that the social fluid has no capacity to generate feedback that will do what it can to restore itself to health.

That said, then, don't invest in ideas that buck the system. I can't see all the pathways, but I have a hard time thinking that merchants of death, like tobacco companies, are good to be associated with or to stand very near, despite their bottom line. The social bottom line may differ from the GDP, because long-term accounting can give different answers than short-term accounting.

Fairness, trust, friendship, honesty, compassion, consultation -- these are industries with a long-term future. These build the fabric of stable economic prosperity and growth. Web 2.0 technologies that support sharing and collaboration, in this model, are very likely to keep on growing. Religions that build a basis for these virtues to grow in are likely to surge. Scientific research and social-technology companies that develop expertise in replacing internal combat models with internal mutual-support models are likely to develop and thrive.

It's hard to know if any particular country will have a monopoly on these virtues. These aren't commodities you find buried in some mountain, they are assets and resources a society has to value and grow slowly over time, seeking whatever it is that helps facilitate that process.

Long-term, very strong positive social feedback rewarding and supporting a very strong positive socially-constructive company is likely to be the star performer that is sustainable. Any other feedback loop has a minus sign in it, which means it will either be a damping-out loop, or an oscillating loop. So we are looking for something with slow but assuredly positive growth rate, not something with a very rapid and completely unsupportable surge and crash property.

Things that improve the overall functioning of our social "body", long term, will grow, for the same reason that railroads and highways were good "infrastructure" investments.

Products and services that help humans overcome their tendency to fragment, go off on their on own in a daze and do stupid things would seem a good place to invest social resources.

I think these virtues will make far more difference than what kind of reading or math scores our children get in school. We need "good people" with "good hearts" to build or rebuild a society that works. Technology is cheap, and everywhere. What we're short of is compassion, and the cultures that make compassion possible.

Then we can build strong teams, and tackle everything else.

These are very deep needs, they've been with us for thousands of years, and show no sign of going away on their own. This is a "market" that will be there, and we can take that to the bank.

The question is how to make a buck doing it. New religions? Social-networking tools? Web 2.0? Technology-mediated collaboration? Virtual reality? A lot of resources are moving over to this area and starting to nose around, smelling a market as big as railroads, utilities, or interstate highways. With cellphones that are interconnected mobile mainframe computers, whole new worlds of interaction are opening up every day.

Most advertisers seem to assume their maximum profit will be achieved if the "consumer" acts "good", which to them means dumb, pliant, compliant, impulsive, and punching the "buy" button as soon as the pretty lights start flashing. There's a market at the other end of that spectrum, where people who have thought about it and seen where the first strategy goes prefer to be wise, competent, long-term thinking, and interested in stability not flashiness.

The first one to actually figure out how to make a committee, meeting, or team actually work (in general, every time) is going to make a trillion dollars -- and have a society left to spend it in.

It is a very important distinction, that these would be technologies that would make a company more robust, which is not the same thing as "More competititive".

Long-term survival is not spelled "c-o-m-p-e-t-i-t-i-o-n". The trick is getting past and seeing past short-term survival to realize that. The only reason competition for survival was key to evolution of our bodies was that there wasn't much learning curve in individuals, so the learning had to occur by simply terminating the bad ones and making more good ones.

If learning is facilitated and can occur rapidly, and adaptation can occur without having to be "over my dead body", there is no utility to competition any more. Resources can redistribute themselves rationally without so much carnage.

"Mature" means more than being able to buy XXX rated pornography on your own credit card. As a nation, aside from our waistlines, we've bumped into the limits of a small world and run out of easy room to grow outwards.

That's not the end of the world -- it's just the signal that it's time to grow up instead.

We should throw out the GDP, and start measuring us the way the outside world sees us -- by how much value are we producing and contributing to interactions, not how much can we consume.

Since our spending spree is coming to a close, we need to measure ourselves by how much good we're doing, not by how many "goods" we have in the stock-room.

On a national level, it might be wise to have Madison Avenue and Hollywood focus their efforts to create consumer-culture abroad, where the money went, and focus within the US on going back to our roots of frugality, mutual-support, and compassion -- the stuff that we praise during disasters and seem to forget otherwise. Continued efforts to turn up the heat and get people who are broke to buy more is more likely to lead to urban riots and expanded prison populations or consumption of Prozac than it is to lead to a sales surge.

So, things come together and the agenda of capitalism and of altruism suggest the same pathway of taking a time-out and rebuilding the social capital of America. Nothing else seems to be working, and there's a lot of pain and instability due to that.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Teamwork aspects of high costs of US healthcare

Today's New York Times has an editorial on the high cost of healthcare in the USA. There are some parts of that related to teamwork, collaboration, and individualism that I'd like to highlight. Here are a few relevant sections:

Health care costs are far higher in the United States than in any other advanced nation...

It is the worst long-term fiscal crisis facing the nation, and it demands a solution, but finding one will not be easy or palatable....

Doctors in high-cost areas use hospitals, costly technology and platoons of consulting physicians a lot more often than doctors in low-cost areas, yet their patients, on average, fare no better. There are hints that they may even do worse because they pick up infections in the hospital and because having a horde of doctors can mean no one is in charge.

Prevention. Everyone seems to be hoping that preventive medicine — like weight control, exercise, better nutrition, smoking cessation, regular checkups, aggressive screening and judicious use of drugs to reduce risks — will not only improve health but also lower costs in the long run. Preventive medicine actually costs money — somebody has to spend time counseling patients and screening them for disease — and it is not clear how soon, or even whether, substantial savings will show up. Still, the effort has to be made.

Emphasize Primary Care. In a health system as uncoordinated as ours, many experts believe we could get better health results, possibly for less cost, if we ... produce more primary care doctors a.... It would be a long-term project.

The “consumer-directed health care” movement calls for providing people with enough information about doctors and treatments so that they can make wise decisions.

Moreover, few consumers have the competence or knowledge to second-guess a doctor’s recommendations.

[it] should be clear that there is no silver bullet to restrain soaring health care costs. A wide range of contributing factors needs to be tackled simultaneously, with no guarantee they will have a substantial impact any time soon.... So we need to get cracking on a range of solutions.

Oh, where to begin. After two years in the MPH program at Johns Hopkins considering the root causes of these issues, I certainly have a few comments.

First, any way you cut the numbers, the single biggest cost in the US is lack of prevention. Whether machines or humans, it is far easier and cheaper to treat something earlier than later, and it is cheapest of all to never have to treat it at all.

The Toyota philosophy of "lean" emphasizes that the best way to optimize many activities is with an axe. That is, don't spend a great deal of effort perfecting work-arounds when you can prevent the problem in the first place.

However, prevention starts far sooner than "screening for disease" which seems to be the mental model of the Times editors. Prevention means, duh, preventing disease. Not starting smoking in the first place is way cheaper than any "optimized" lung-cancer care, even streamlined with the latest and greatest IT systems and "single-payer" insurance, or whatever.

By any rational accounting, "prevention" is the most cost-effective way to lower health care costs. The issues come a step earlier in tracking back to why efforts at prevention are so strongly resisted, and by whom.

One obvious huge problem is the hedonistic, short-sighted, culture of irresponsibility that is so popular in the US, and reinforced by tens of billions of dollars in advertising expenditures by tobacco, fast-food, and consumer-goods companies, greased by banks and credit card companies and a national philosophy that going massively into debt to buy pretty stuff you want now is just fine, and that debt or physical health problems are something we can deal with "tomorrow", or take a pill for, or just declare bankruptcy for and be done with.

There is magical thinking that we can abuse ourselves or each other with impunity, because we can just go these very high priced doctors and they will fix whatever is wrong. To be honest, large fractions of the drug and medical community's ads tend to propagate that view. "Do what ever you want and take a pill in the morning and you'll be fine" is the message so many people desperately want to hear.

Actual mature, responsible management of the future requires taking some pains and costs today in order to head off much larger pains and costs down the road. This seems to be where most people want to stop listening and stop that line of reasoning.

Why is that? The simple but inconvenient truth is that no "solution" will fix the costs of a larger system in which everyone insists on acting like spoiled children. In T.S. Eliot's words, we are "dreaming of a system in which no one needs to be good" and there aren't such systems. The nation as a whole, and most of its citizens are in massive denial that the debt they're running up against their bodies and our nation will ever actually have to be paid. There will always be a new credit card offer in the mail offering even better low-low initial monthly payments, to keep this afloat another few months while letting the problems fester and grow even worse and harder to repair.

But, keep on with the Toyota's "Five whys." Why is it that the population of the US seems to have gone into a mesmerized trance of depression and denial and inability to cope with predictable, normal demands of adult life? Why is it that a modest amount of self-denial, self-discipline, self-control, and investment in the future is such a scarce commodity in the USA? What's behind this apparent epidemic of infantalism, and the downstream results of chronic and acute diseases and disorders that cost so much even to maintain, let alone fix?

The core component looks like a self-centered, short-sighted selfish view of everything, latched down with a corresponding cynicism and effective behavior as if no one expects tomorrow to ever actually come, so we should just party today and toss all caution to the wind and have fun.

Unless that is changed, the bill for damages will continue to grow without bounds, and no readjustment of insurance payment schemes or national medical records will be enough to stop the incoming tide.

What's all this have to do with my title, namely "teamwork"?

The point is that this multi-level living thing, the USA, seems to have fallen collectively and individually into a state of depression and despair, with a corresponding inability to cope with activities of daily living, masked by drugs, alcohol, and frenetic entertainment.

And that is a "public health" problem. We have somewhat literally fallen and can't get back up, and individuals who could get up and being swept back down by the undertow from the larger culture that has abandoned restraint, with sub-sectors of the corporate world as well that are running amok, destroying their host as it were, killing off the population and the economy that they count on to survive over time. And, lately, possibly, killing off the entire planet's climate and biosphere.

This is not healthy behavior for adults. Something is seriously wrong.

But, what something?

The "something" in my view is that we have rejected the concept of our own social existence, and glorified "the individual" to the point where we have pillaged or discarded the social capital that we need to make this complex system operate and carry the load we present to it.

We've glorified the "now, here, me" trio to the point of destroying everything else trying to make "now,here, me" stronger, and not realized that this is a losing strategy, because the factors that make "me" strong are precisely those social concerns that we mistakenly thought were extra baggage.

We've forgotten the interaction term.

We worship the idea that great individuals built and run the country and our corporations, and blipped the idea that great interacting teams are actually what did all that.

But the "self-energy" of this billiard-ball model turns out to be far less than what we need to keep the country afloat. It was our concern and compassion for each other that was the active agency that built our communities and country. Despite many wars and much violence, for the most part we evolved to this point seeing each other as resources to help us cope with a hostile external world, and therefore being willing to invest in each other.

Maybe it was massive urbanization that led to us viewing each other as competition for external resources, that "we" have to grab before "they" do.

In computer algorithm terms, "N" people have something like at least N-squared interactions that we need to manage, but if we fragment and try to each deal with this separately, we have at most a power of N, which is way less than N-times-N. It doesn't matter much more if most of the N are busy having fun, expecting the remaining fraction to run things for them -- the point is that without beneficial interactions getting our solution power up to N-squared or larger, our weight exceeds our buoyancy, and we will continue to sink.

No resource sharing arrangement or IT system or single-payer mechanism or other "system" will solve that root-cause problem.

We need to transition to seeing each other as resources, as part of the solution not as part of the problem, or we will have created a self-fulfilling expectation that will continue to spiral down.

And that is true for cells, for people, for teams, for companies, for nations, and for cultures.

We're in one lifeboat, and, basically, either we all make it or we all drown. Fighting to throw everyone out of the boat besides ourselves won't work, because there's not enough of us to row or know where to row to.

So, we're going to have to learn how to make it palatable and acceptable to turn to each other for support and help and psychological support to overcome this legacy of mutually destructive self-centeredness. We have to "learn to be good."

Sometimes I get the impression that the rich and powerful think that it would be a great world if just all the poor people would die off, sort of like Jack Welch must perceive that GE would be even greater if only he could get rid of the burden of all those employees. These are easy misperceptions if you don't grasp how the multi-level world masks the other levels from burdening your perceptions, but they are dangerous myths that can lead to neglecting caring for the people who hold everything together.

If the body dies, it takes the brain with it.

If the body is sick, the mind cannot be well.

Parochialism and fragmentation at this point are the road to disaster. We need massive multi-level integration and collaboration across diversity to hold this beast we have created here together in the coming white water.

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How many are we?

MIT's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Professor Marvin Minsky, in a book Society of Mind, in 1988, proposed that our consciousness only seems singular, but is actually composed under the covers of thousands or millions of smaller interacting consciousnesses working together seamlessly as one. A quote from that book:

What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. – Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, p. 308
At the time this was an astounding theory, almost heresy. Many AI researchers were still trying to build larger and larger "supercomputers" and more and more complex operational programs, but running out of steam in that direction. There are some very real limits in how much you can cram into one "computer", based on the speed of light, among other things, that we are unlikely to change.

Minsky, and others, finally realized that the key was not to make super-Rambo single computers, but to build networks of much smaller, simpler computers. And the key was not to have one, immense, incredibly complicated program of logic and reasoning, but to have instead hundreds or thousands or more of very simple rules that just worked together. That removed the limits, and the power of "computers" took off again.

Except, to paraphrase John Gall's law, when you scale up something, the larger thing of the same name is not really the same thing as the smaller thing of the same name. What was still called "a computer" is really many computers in the same box.

Initially, this took simple forms in commercial computers. Apple's "computer" was something like 10 computers in a box, one handling sound, one handling video, one handling communications, and one doing the coordination and "thinking." Soon we started noticing "computers" with "dual processors" or "quad processors", with multiple separate computers on chips interacting and doing the thinking together.

IBM's new "supercomputer" has something like 860,000 separate computers-on-chips all talking to each other. And the trend in distributed "grid" computing is to link millions of computers together to "think" about a problem together, like the ones all working on the Search for Extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), or recently, a search for a lost airplane.

So, even without VM, or virtual machines, the line between "one" and "many" in computing had to be crossed for the field to advance. Many-acting-like-one was clearly the best and most powerful solution. It "scaled-up" without being immensely complicated to build parts for or to "program". If you didn't have enough "power", more computers could just come over and join the party.

Now, finally, with Virtual Machines, the edge of consciousness of a "machine" no longer had to correspond to the edge of the physical "machine". IBM came out with the VM370 operating system for mainframes back in the 1970's, mostly so each user's "virtual machine" on one piece of hardware could think it was the only program running on the box. The problem with sharing the space and having multiple programs running "at once" on a mainframe computer with multiple "users" was that if one program "crashed", it could often take down the entire box. No one liked that.

With Virtual Machines, each program was deceived into thinking it had the whole box to itself, which it did for very small slices of time. The programs became essentially invisible to each other, each one seeing itself as the solitary occupant, even though many of them were running on the same hardware at the same time. It was very successful. Again, this spread to the world of personal computers -- which are now each much more powerful than IBM's mainframes were in 1970. With VMware, as I discussed in an earlier post, you can have essentially a Windows computer, a Macintosh, and an Linux computer all running on the same box and invisible to each other, mostly.

But on the server end, you could also slice and dice, and virtual machines didn't care how many physical machines they occupied - part of one, one, or many. They became decoupled, so a room full of left over computers could become, instead, and act like, one big computer, or several smaller computers that crossed hardware lines. If one box died, things just ran more slowly, as the consciousness shifted slightly in space, until the box could be replaced.

All of these are perfectly good models of intelligence that actually are used every day in the products that run all around us. Even laptops come standard now with "dual processors".

Two working as one was a pretty popular model for "parents" for "babies" in the biological world as well. The coupling between the two separate people in marriage was described in the Christian Bible as "two becoming one flesh" and, from an information processing and control loop view, that was literally true. Many processes that used to "run" in one person, now spanned two people.

So, as my last post suggested, it is not clear how far this design has spread to the rest of the physical thingie we call human beings or life on earth, or, with the Gaia model, Life on earth or maybe even LIFE on Earth, capitalizing the parts that are separately "alive" and conscious.

Now that we've proven that many can act as "one", in this physical world, using computers as building blocks, and that, as Minsky said in the quote above, the power comes from "diversity", the question comes as to the extent to which multiple people can "work together" as "one".

How tightly can we be coupled together in a dynamic "team", and are the equations behind that behavior the same flavor as those behind massive grid computing, that is , is this coupling an unlimited process upwards?

All of this suggests, again, that the "team" thingie we are building out of ourselves has a "life of its own" and is, on it's own level, a separate consciousness, and, ultimately other emergent properties such as a separate awareness of itself and surroundings, and a separate volition.

Here we have crossed into xenobiology, or Theoretical Biology, and are asking if one "self", like VM, can cross multiple "bodies". And, for that matter, can "we", what we thought of as our selves, simultaneously be an emergent property of the ten trillion cells that make up our body, and part of a larger emergent consciousness that we are only dimly aware of indirectly?

There is no reason in control system theory, or physics, or information theory, or artificial intelligence, or the field called "artificial life" for that not to happen. It's a rather disturbing prospect for two groups -- researchers, who have to start with a fresh piece of paper analyzing the active agents behind what's causing what, and most ethics and religions, that may have an issue with what defines "a person" or "life", and certainly have a stake in certain definitions.

So, let me say that nothing I just described interferes with classical religious concepts of "self", that I can see. These are descriptions of "HOW" life operates, not, on a deeper level, of "WHAT" is behind it. And everything in real life has multiple meanings and roles, so just because we've found one meaning of something doesn't mean we've fully described it. Humans are composed of elemental atoms, but are far more than just a heap of atoms. That doesn't change the way we live our lives.

But, if humans are interlocked on the behavioral or spiritual level, it does change the way we should be thinking about health, teamwork, medicine, law, etc.

So, this becomes a testable hypothesis, or a model, that by definition over-simplifies the description of something by trying to capture simply the essence of some facet of it. Many models can fit reality simultaneously, which doesn't "prove" anything or conflict. Different models have different purposes, and give good results for some uses, and terrible results for other purposes when stretched beyond their limits.

Statisticians and scientists know the rule "All models are wrong but some models are useful."

Whether it is ultimately "right" or not, does the model of consciousness and control being decoupled or decouple-able from individuals and crossing the gap between them lead to other things we could predict or test or look for that we would have never thought to look for before? If so, and it's relatively inexpensive, we should go look and see if those things are present and if they "explain" of "fit" areas where scientific theories so far haven't been very successful at predicting consequences of interventions.

One prediction I mention above, and discussed in prior posts, is that "teamwork" or interactions, are basically unbounded upwards. There is no limit, in the scale we operate in, to how strong a team could be made, or how large a team could be made, if this model is correct. What we've seen to date as successful "teams" is just a glimpse into what is possible when human beings interact over time and take down the barriers between them.

As I discussed before, many times, this would be really good news, because our social problems have become more complex than any individual human can even begin to comprehend, and we need to change gears to some more powerful way of dealing with, basically, the problems we create for ourselves.

Here's the picture I made that I keep on posting, in the hope that it will sink it, orignally published as "Houston, we have another problem."

What I'm trying to convey here is that, like our computers, we need to not only start with multidisciplinary research and teams, we need to crash through those starting primitive steps, take advantage of instant messenger, Twitter and other hive-consciousness tools, and consciously put our minds and spirits together in a much more organic whole than we've imagined doing before, because it appears possible, and because we need the result.

We need the outcome. We need to synthesize "Meta-being" teams that seamlessly act as one and that start taking on the problems around us that are way too big for humans to solve, and solving them for us.

I have to get in a jab here and point out that "seamlessly acting as one" does not describe the behavior of various ways we have assembled people into governing bodies, such as the US Congress, that can't seem to agree on much of anything anymore. That model of collaboration or competition or whatever the heck it is seems to have truly run out of steam, now that our social problems have become so complex and tangled and inter-related so that you can no longer "prioritize" or "horse-trade" and "just" solve a few high-profile issues and call that adequate.

All 200 holes in the bottom of the boat need to be dealt with, or the 12 we dealt with won't matter. The entire algorithm of "prioritizing" to "focus on the big issues" has run out of steam, and as the graph illustrates, that's not coming back again if we just wait for it.

We've given ourselves no choice but to face the kicking and screaming and figure out how to work together and think together, in real-time, in a way a thousand times more powerful than we've ever done before.

It's fascinating, exciting, and scary, all at once. But it's not optional reading, and there will be a test on the material. It's coming up, and it's pass-fail for all of us.

Like Toyota figuring out at last that auto model changeovers could be done in 6 minutes, not 6 weeks, or biofeedback doing in 5 minutes what Zen masters took decades to accomplish, we need to look at how technology can interact with society to make this serious industrial-grade teamwork thing work.

Toyota has demonstrated that a car company built along massive cooperation and holistic awareness can run circles around established car companies. But they took 50 years to get there, and we don't have 50 more years at the rate things are breaking down now.

So, we need some focused research efforts on ways to get this working in 5 weeks, not 50 years, somehow. Nothing else seems to be working.

I've come at this in a somewhat soft way, but the question isn't really a mystical question requiring incense and eerie music in the background, holding hands and singing Kum-ba-ya.

This is a very practice, very straight-forward computational question, of the type that "evolutionary computing" people deal with regularly. What very simple set of guidelines and rules, if followed by everyone, would result in the desired "emergent" behavior we are after?

This is the same problem IBM faces with its supercomputer and it's million separate computers it needs to operate as one. No one can "program" such a beast -- we can only search for guidelines for behavior and very simple rules that, when multiplied together and interacting, result in the effect we're after. Artificial Intelligence has about 25 years experience now tackling such problems, as does the field "Artificial Life" or "a-life", of the type studied at the Santa Fe Institute.

John Holland
was still teaching the course in Complex Adaptive Systems when I was an AI grad student at the University of Michigan, and he was instrumental in getting the Santa Fe Institute going, and I looked into that work then. It's amazing. It's where we need to go.

The problem could be conceptualized as one of extreme "technology-mediated collaboration" as well, a specialty of the University of Michigan School of Information.

Given the problems of trying to collaborate across 24 time zones and different cultures, with deep contexts, I do think that maybe the way to do this is with some sort of virtual reality such as Linden Labs "Second Life Grid", so that people have at least one constant, reliable, safe, shared deep context they can get together and work in, regardless where their physical bodies are located at that moment. That gives a home-base people can invest in, regardless whether they have a stable job or tenure, or their dot-com is about to fold, that can learn and discover and evolve the coordination and collaboration tools that really help this fly.

The ability to embed your audience in a 3-D living context that dynamically shifts to provide the correct meaning to the content of your talk is intriguing to me, and something Second Life artists and musicians are doing already. This is "image processing" bandwidth brought to the problem of expressing complex concepts in accessible ways, dense with interaction and animation that persist long after the lecturer has left for the day, and filled with people from around the globe who shared an interest in staying to delve into the subject more deeply, who might be only one or two per company or country, but add up to a critical mass with instant global travel to a shared virtual exploratorium and university.

Virtual reality could be the missing "VM" or virtual machine catalyst to making this fly, a universal language and translator that manages both content and context in high-bandwidth front-channels and unlimited back-channels that our very clever brains, or those of our children, will figure out how to master and fly effortlessly in an amazingly short period of time.

On the other end of the age spectrum, such a world would let us start recruiting a larger fraction of senior citizens who are still bright, with deep experience but little mobility or budget or tolerance for what travel involves these days, and get them interacting as part of the solution, instead of retiring to sunny spots and taking their expertise with them. There would be immense public health benefits to that step alone, as connectivity to a larger social world is about the single most powerful thing one can do to a senior citizen to improve their "biomedical" prognosis. "Second Life" could have adaptive technology for vision or sound built in easily, and ability to "replay" a conversation could slow it down if need be to get the content correctly understood before proceeding without exhausting the patience of a conversational partner.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Systems thinking for grades K-4

There's an on-going discussion on the systems dynamics society list-server about what might be taught to youth in grades K-12, which would be ages 6-18, roughly, in the US. One reason for that focus is a sense that older people seem to get more set in their ways.

On a parallel path, I'm still working on the question of how to teach basic "systems thinking" concepts to such older students, starting with MPH students, who now have a whole section of their curriculum labeled "systems thinking." The reality is that the School of Public Health faculty have not yet figured out how to operationalize that, i.e., teach it and test it and expect it as core knowledge past some point in the curriculum.

And, a good fraction of "The Toyota Way" is getting out of localized, parochial thinking and switching to global, longer-term thinking. In hospitals, many people have heard that "the system" makes mistakes, not people, but this is weakly implemented in practice and most people don't really understand what it means. Pretty much any collection of more than 4 boxes connected by at least 3 lines or arrows is called "a system." That's not an empowering concept.

But most wisdom can be broken down somewhat into concepts and more basic concepts and even more fundamental concepts, and education then takes the reverse path and starts trying to teach the fundamental concepts early. Usually this will take multiple passes over multiple years to get it to "sink in."

So, what are the fundamental concepts of systems? Here are a few thoughts I had of some basics, akin to "Don't run with scissors!"

...I feel strongly that there are technologies that can simplify teaching concepts... By "simplify" I mean by an order of magnitude, or convey the concept at all versus not at all.

The first example of this I came across in my own teaching was trying to convey the concept of mean and standard deviation of a normal bell-shaped curve. One approach was to use words and equations and writing on the black or green board (Yes, I'm showing my age.) The other was to put a computer in front of the student with two controls, or sliders that involve significant motion of an arm and hand - where one control changed the mean and the other control changed the standard-deviation, in real time, as you slide them around.
The first approach took 1-2 weeks, and had maybe 50% retention a month later, if that. The second approach took 1-2 minutes, and I think had more like a 95% retention rate.
Moral of the tale - humans are cybernetic creatures and can relate very easily to something if it can connect to their body or through their body to their brain. I feel pretty secure in my observation of that, but I'm open to someone quoting Piaget back at me saying I'm all wet.

So, as you can imagine, I was immensely sad to see that the "flight simulator" mode of Vensim, for example, is reserved to the expensive version. That's a rational business approach, as there is great value in that for "persuading" managers of what you're talking about, so they can "see" and "believe" it, but it is truly wretched for educational purposes and reaching much wider audiences. We need the basics of this in open course-ware.

Looking at the crucial concepts of "perspective", I think Piaget pegs this around 12-adolescence, and too many adults I know have no ability to even imagine there is another valid way to look at something than the one that is obvious to them. But, Piaget precedes video games, with multiple window views and "zoom" controls. With those, I think, you can put player one's view in a window above his head, and player two's view in a window above her head, and you can quick see that they see the world differently, but equally validly. ( The soup can looks round from above but rectangular from the side, etc.)

One can imagine a scene where there is one world visible at a small scale, but as you zoom outwards and get a wider view you realize that you weren't seeing the whole picture.

Again, if this was done methodically with clear educational goals, I think these concepts could be "taught" (or realized without much teaching and reinforced by success in the game) in a few hours of play time. "Play" is important.

Similarly cause and effect with delay, or cause and effect in a loop, can be modeled in a game scenario, or in Second Life of some equivalent virtual world, so that people could quickly realize that some effects are delayed, but if they "fly up" and look down they can see why, as the effect is heading around the long track and finally comes back in from the other direction, via animation and participation.

I learned many of the necessary concepts when I was in 7th grade, reading the Radio Amateur's Handbook and building Heath-Kit radios and playing around with analog circuit components that quickly get more complex than most SD models. I think I "got it" since I taught an Adult Ed course in Radio and TV repair, and was an electronics technician for 5 years, repairing multi-stage amplifiers, etc. Again, hacking around on a "breadboard" with signal generators and lights was sufficient to overcome a lack of mathematical background, or more precisely, to give me real world insight I could relate the math to.

Then there is recent work in "hybrid images" which look angry if close, but smiling far away, or vice versa, or look like Einstein if viewed at 2 feet but like Marilyn Monroe if viewed at 15 feet, that are very persuasive of what differences can occur among perfectly competent observers.

(See my post on conflict-resolution and hybrid images here: and a picture that is of Einstein viewed close up but of Marilyn Monroe viewed far away at the U Fla. site here or at larger scale on my weblog here: )

So, all this says, I think many core concepts here are analog and non-verbal, and can be introduced as early as Kindergarten, or sooner, via computer imaging and video-game technology and game playing. I suggest we get that much in place as a basis for building on from there.
Reflecting on a discussion on that list-server of whether it gets harder and harder to teach systems concepts as students get more "educated", I wonder if some of these concepts are either sub-cognitive or super-cognitive, that is, situated in our next lower or next higher level in the hierarchy of life -- our body or our social context ("emotional intelligence") respectively.

Swarming All Over

It was obvious from my prior work in automating image processing that there are some concepts that are trivial to capture in images that are almost impossible to put in words, and vice versa. In fact, there is quite a religious war in Artificial Intelligence between those who believe in symbol strings (words, numbers, equations) and those who believe in images as better primitives for intelligence. Carnegie Mellon descendants of Simon and Newell go with symbol strings and Turing's Theorem, which seems OK to me in a perfect world with infinite space and time and perfect "tape". I myself go with images as having far more utility and power in a world where there is finite space and time, everything is noisy, and what exists decays over time, since images are almost impervious to spot noise in a few pixels, or even ten percent of them, but symbol strings can be easily damaged if a key symbol is lost.

That aside, some concepts are primitive analog signals and don't require words, such as running to catch a ball. Words really don't help, and in fact, like thinking about one's fingers when typing, may get in the way. Some concepts are interactive feedback loops with others, and similarly are obvious primitives not helped by words, such as, say, a kiss or a loving touch.

Maybe as people get more "educated" they tend to reject both their bodies below their minds and the outside social world above their minds, and become, well, more taken with themselves and their ego, which, like science, shuts itself off from the parts of the world it has trouble encompassing, while minimizing or demonizing those parts to avoid facing it's own limits.

True teamwork and leadership in some ways involve the Christian metaphor of the death of self to self and rebirth of self encompassing the "us" instead, a dissolution of limits and opening up to outside influence and non-self. For a manager, realizing staff exist and matter is like a brain accepting that the body exists and matters. The illusion of a complete "self" at any given level, and the disappearance of lower levels entirely is very powerful, similar to the green dot illusion I gave in the last post and repeat here:

This visual illusion of a moving green dot is great!

A recent interview in Forbes with GE's Jack Welch reveals an incredible ego in which he boasts about things that "he" did, even though, in fact, a hundred thousand other people did the heavy lifting. Still, to him, I'm sure it appears that "he" did the work, and the employees were just mostly in the way.

Successful true teams are similarly scary, because it's not clear "who" did the work, since the emergent life-form of the team did the work, and we poor humans, and poorer human resources compensation departments, have no slot in which to put "meta-humans" as actors. When a meta-actor, or "system" takes some action, we keep insisting that some "person" must have done it. It's scary to us that multiple humans can host feedback loops that take actions on their own accord, with a "life of their own." We expect volition to be at the cognitive level, not below us in the body, or above us in peer-pressure or feedback loops that we are at the mercy of.

So, despite the fact that it is increasingly clear that LIFE is a multi-level hierarchy, where all the levels matter, both proximate and distal, it is hard on our "ego" or this-level consciousness to recognize that part of "us" is actually operating at those other levels.

It may be OK if those levels "interact" with "us", but it is scary if those levels interact so strongly that we move from the self-energy dominated end of the spectrum to the interaction end, and those levels turn out to be part of "us." Women, especially, often feel that part of themselves has been chopped off when a mate departs or dies. All of us have dramatic downturns in "our" physiology and "biomedical self" outcomes when our social ties to others are severed. Still, as adults, we insist on drawing a sphere around our bodies and demanding that the "individual" is paramount and everything else outside that sphere is just sort of impinging noise or "environment." To be part of the same living meta-body or system is frightening, all the more so from political marketing of any sort of communal self as "the Borg" or "communist" or "socialist" or some four letter word.

Maybe children, with fewer preconceptions of how it "should be" have an easier time with the concept that "I" and "we" are only loose approximations of what really is. Coaches can sometimes temporarily bridge the gap, and get many individuals to become a single entity, a team that acts and moves and thinks ahead as one, but it is a rare event, and one we don't usually look for in a highly fractured and fragmented workplace of "competing individuals."

In a true multi-level world that is dense with cross-level feedback and phase-lock loops, these distinctions vanish. There is no "me" and "you", only "us."

This data point is so inconvenient that even credible researchers tend to delete it from the dataset before publication because it "doesn't fit" and it messes up the rest of the analysis. A few years back there was a conference here at the University of Michigan on "Self determination of Health Behaviors" with all the big names from around the globe, Prochaska, etc. They also had copies of their latest papers in binders. Seventy percent of the USA's health costs were due to behavior or life-style actions we were told. Fine. We were given example after example of what was tried and what worked, to change behavior.

So, at the end there was a panel discussion. I raised my hand and asked if I was mistaken, or hadn't every one of them given as their most successful intervention one in which a social group was the active agent of change, not the individual. (For example, paying a woman's children $5 for every kilogram of weight she lost, instead of paying her.) Well, after a brief deliberation, yes, they agreed with that.

Well, I continued, then why were none of these social interventions, that they said were the most powerful, even mentioned in their papers about this crucial problem in public health, breaking the budget? They conferred again, briefly, and said, basically, that none of them knew how to compute p-values for interacting teams ... so they left that part out of their papers.

My jaw dropped to the floor. I had no further questions. What do you say to that? The unconscious bias against recognizing this effect is phenomenal.

A similar unconscious bias seems to exist regarding the impact of our body on our behavior, again, some sort of legacy from the prevalent belief that mind and body were totally separate that dominated thinking for centuries, and that required huge effort and billions of dollars at stake to break through in the last decade or so in mental health. A marvelous paper on that bias is David Rosembaum's "The Cinderella of Psychology - The Neglect of Motor Control in the
Science of Mental Life and Behavior", American Psychologist, May-June 2005, p308-317.

From our compensation systems to our legal systems, we have so much predicated on the concept of "individual" entities that larger scale entities that have volition and senses and take actions is massively inconvenient and discordant. We've barely adjusted to the existence of "microbes" that live somewhat independently inside us, and don't really want to deal with the existence of "macrobes" that we live somewhat independently inside. It really messes up the equations.

And that's probably the biggest reason why "systems thinking" has been kicking around for 50 years and just can't get into the mainstream. We don't want to be entangled, multi-level beings. The billiard-ball model was so much easier on the ego. But all the equations and social data point to the fact that, like it or not, there isn't really "I" there is only "we".

If we do accept that concept, it really changes the nature of health and health care and mental health, as well as teams and teamwork and relationships and marriage and family and peer-groups and microsystems. If "I" versus "we" is a continuum, not a dichotomy, the models all need to be revised, our justice system is disrupted, and even concepts of "who" owns something or "did" something are disturbed if not overturned.

But that's the end point of where this trail of multi-level behavioral and health data is leading.

Our interactions and relationships have independent existence and lives of their own, our teams and corporations have persistent existence above and beyond the people who make them up, etc. The "white space" between the boxes on the org-chart of life turns out to be as important as the boxes. Or sometimes more important.

Which puts everything we knew in an entirely new light.

Adults have a lot of "stake" in the model of life of clearly distinct individuals, the billiard-ball model of life. Children don't, and see life as it is, not as it "should be."

Maybe we should be slowing down and asking our children what their fresh eyes see, instead of spending all our time telling them what to see.

(photo - Friends Forever, and others, by the author, on flickr.)

(Teamwork by _____cite__ )
( Amish barn raising by _ cite _____ )

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