Tag Archives: system thinking

tipping points and ecosystem collapse

This research presents seagrass meadows as an example of an ecosystem that seems to disappear suddenly, but actually reached a tipping point caused by chronic pollution.

Testing for thresholds of ecosystem collapse in seagrass meadows?

Ecological systems can be dynamic and unpredictable, with shifts from one ecosystem state to another often considered ‘surprising’. This unpredictability is often thought to be due to ecological thresholds, where small cumulative increases in an environmental stressor drives a much greater consequence than would be predicted from linear effects, suggesting an unforeseen tipping point is crossed. In coastal waters, broad-scale seagrass loss often occurs as a sudden event which is associated with human-driven nutrient enrichment (eutrophication). We tested whether the response of seagrass ecosystems to coastal nutrient enrichment represents a threshold effect. Seagrass response did follow a threshold pattern when nutrient enrichment (dissolved inorganic nitrogen) exceeded moderate levels, with a switch from positive to negative net leaf production. Epiphyte load also increased with nutrient enrichment, potentially driving this shift. Inadvertently crossing such thresholds, as can occur through ineffective management of land-derived inputs such as wastewater and stormwater on urbanised coasts, may help account for the widely observed ‘sudden’ loss of seagrass meadows. By identifying tipping points we may not only improve monitoring for adaptive management that seeks to avoid threshold effects, but also the restoration of systems that have crossed them.

more on Irving Fisher’s hydraulic machine

I’ve talked before about Irving Fisher’s hydraulic model of the economy. Here is a 2005 article that appears to discuss all its pieces and parts in detail.

How to Compute Equilibrium Prices in 1891

William C. Brainard and Herbert E. Scarf
The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
Vol. 64, No. 1, Special Invited Issue: Celebrating Irving Fisher: The Legacy of a Great Economist (Jan., 2005), pp. 57-83
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3488117
Page Count: 27


all opinions are now equal

David Remnick from the New Yorker interviewed Obama before, during, and after the election. I don’t want to write a lot of words rehashing the election for a couple reasons. First, everyone else is doing that. Second, I suspect we need to put some time and distance between us and the election before we can decide which combination of the many theories is correct (for example, Trump was a genius at connecting with the middle class, white Americans are a bunch of ignorant, paranoid racist assholes, Hillary was a uniquely weak candidate, Russia and/or the FBI stole the election, a majority of Americans actually preferred Hillary, Biden or Sanders would have won easily, it was essentially a tie and the electoral college is just quirky and outdated, etc.)

Obama offered a theory though that rang at least partly true to me, and I actually find it disturbing.

“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change…”

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”

It’s disturbing to me because I really had the sense during the election that facts didn’t matter at all. I don’t think human nature is particularly good at analyzing and understanding the nature of complex problems, and our education system is not particularly good at helping us to overcome our innate tendency to oversimplify and misdiagnose these problems. But at least detecting and agreeing on the facts needs to be the common launching point for reasoned debate. If we are no longer even attempting to establish the facts, we can’t even get to that starting point for problem solving and we have actually taken a step back as a civilization.

I don’t want to blame the millennial generation for everything, but I do think the educational culture that generation grew up in and the new media culture are intertwined. I think this generation was encouraged to formulate and express opinions much more than I was at the tail end of generation X. This is not bad in itself. Young people need to be trained to establish the facts, understand the larger systems those facts are embedded in, define the problem, propose and discuss solutions. But that doesn’t mean all conclusions, opinions, and proposed solutions should be given equal weight. When young people express opinions, they need to get supportive but firm feedback from people with more experience and seasoned judgment, because that is how they gain their own experience, judgment and problem solving ability.

Now of course I want to offer some prescription for fixing this. Well, I am not feeling too optimistic at the moment. If we were rowing against the current before, now we seem to have turned the canoe around and we are enthusiastically rowing with the current toward the whirlpool. Like I said, I need some time and distance to think more objectively.

leading implementation of complex programs

This is just something I have wanted to write down a few thoughts on for awhile. My field is engineering and planning, and I have been involved in a number of programs that are complex technically, financially, and on the people side. I’ve seen some things done well, I’ve seen some things done badly, and I’ve done a few things well and learned a few lessons the hard way myself. So here are my thoughts:

  1. Organize the entire program around achieving a vision and set of goals which everyone understands. Create a crystal clear vision and set of goal statements for the program. Make sure these are thoroughly understood by all senior and mid-level decision makers – communicate, market, train, drill, test – whatever it takes to make sure they get it. Then, set specific objectives for individual functional units within the organization, and for all individual staff members, that advance these goals, all these goals and only these goals. Make each objective SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound. Then track every individual’s and every unit’s progress towards meeting the objectives, and hold individuals and managers accountable for meeting their objectives.
  2. Make sure the knowledge level of the entire staff is up-to-date with industry standards and best practices, then encourage system thinking, creativity and innovation to advance the leading edge. Create a formal training and continuing education program for staff. Create a psychological “safe space” for discussion of ideas that are outside the typical daily functions of the organization. Organize talks, discussion groups, and other events. Bring ideas and speakers in from outside the organization. Encourage and reward staff to spend time reading and attending events outside the organization, then bringing back ideas and communicating them to colleagues. Be on guard for the development of group think, and actively encourage and reward the sharing of ideas that are new to the organization.
  3. Focus on communication of system behavior, risk, and other complex information. Continuously improve staff knowledge of communication approaches, strategies, and tools by weaving these into the training and innovation program. Bring in specialized staff with communication and visualization skills. Set up a specific job role, group or committee whose job it is to oversee communication approaches in all aspects of the organization.

September 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
  • The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
  • There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.

algebra, what is it good for?

This New York Times opinion piece (sort of) argues against teaching algebra.

Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources…

What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis…

I WANT to end on a positive note. Mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral to our civilization, whether the realm is aesthetic or electronic. But for most adults, it is more feared or revered than understood. It’s clear that requiring algebra for everyone has not increased our appreciation of a calling someone once called “the poetry of the universe.”

I think everyone is capable of and needs to learn math, logic, critical reasoning and system thinking skills. I think there is some merit to the idea that the way math is taught is a turn-off to so many people. There is also some merit in the argument that teaching people to manipulate symbols on a page is not really logic or reasoning or system thinking. A more ideal way to teach math (and reading and writing, for that matter) would be to integrate it into more interesting subjects like science, economics and history. Students could be gaining an intuitive feel for the world we live in through those subjects, while at the same time understanding how reading, writing, and arithmetic (and algebra and calculus and statistics and physical and mathematical models of various types) are powerful tools that can help increase the depth of that understanding.

Joseph Stiglitz on the Euro

Joseph Stiglitz has written a new book about the Euro. Here’s an interview in the New York Times.

It is difficult to overstate the economic trauma Europe has suffered in recent years — veritable depressions in Greece and Spain, alarming levels of unemployment across much of the continent. You place much of the blame on the euro. What happened?

The euro was an attempt to advance the economic integration of Europe by having the countries of the eurozone share a common currency. They looked across the Atlantic and they said: “The United States, big economy, very successful, single currency. We should imitate.”

But they didn’t have the political integration. They didn’t have the conditions that would make a single currency work. The creation of the euro is the single most important explanation for the extraordinarily poor performance of the eurozone economies since the crisis of 2008…

You conclude that the best-case scenario from here is to reform and save the euro. But absent that, you contend that it is better to just scrap it as a failed experiment. What needs to happen to make the euro viable?

A banking union with deposit insurance. Something like a euro bond. An E.C.B. that doesn’t just focus on inflation — you want it to focus on employment. A tax policy that deals with the inequalities. And you have to get rid of limits on government deficits.

If I understand this correctly, he is suggesting that the problem is that the Euro is not issued by a true central bank, but instead by individual countries with varying levels of wealth and power.

I was debating with a friend the other day about whether the average citizen is capable of understanding current events and issues well enough to support good policies. I think the average human being certainly has the raw intelligence to do so, but even the well educated mostly have not been provided with the mental tools they would need to understand the complexity of the world around us. Central banking is a good example of something an intelligent human being is capable of understanding, but almost none do. I never learned anything about it in elementary or high school. I learned some basic concepts about the money supply and interest rates in college economics courses, but I didn’t really get it the first time around. Part of it is that algebraic equations are just not the right way to introduce big picture concepts to most people including me (and I was doing just fine in engineering school at the time). Simulations or even physical models would work better to gain an intuitive understanding, backed up by symbolic algebra and calculus later.

I’m not really suggesting that the answer is to turn over public policy to the economists. They understand the theory behind the central banking system, sure, but they may neglect the larger social and environmental context it is embedded in, may neglect to consider complex, dynamic, nonlinear behavior that does not fit neatly into their elegant steady-state algebraic theories, and are often terrible at communication with decision makers and the public. We need experts and respect for experts, but we also need a broad base of intuitive understanding of systems among politicians, bureaucrats, and the public. It could be done.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Andrew Bacevich on BillMoyers.com shows how decisions that happen on a President’s watch, even an almost universally respected and even revered one like Eisenhower, can have consequences decades later.

As for Eisenhower, although there is much in his presidency to admire, his errors of omission and commission were legion. During his two terms, from Guatemala to Iran, the CIA overthrew governments, plotted assassinations and embraced unsavory right-wing dictators — in effect, planting a series of IEDs destined eventually to blow up in the face of Ike’s various successors. Meanwhile, binging on nuclear weapons, the Pentagon accumulated an arsenal far beyond what even Eisenhower as commander-in-chief considered prudent or necessary.

In addition, during his tenure in office, the military-industrial complex became a rapacious juggernaut, an entity unto itself as Ike himself belatedly acknowledged. By no means least of all, Eisenhower fecklessly committed the United States to an ill-fated project of nation building in a country that just about no American had heard of at the time: South Vietnam. Ike did give the nation eight years of relative peace and prosperity, but at a high price — most of the bills coming due long after he left office.

This caught my eye during a week when events during the Iranian Revolution (1979) are influencing the 2016 election. And the revolution was in turn caused CIA participation in destabilization of a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953. And the destabilization of Iran had begun far earlier under the British, who openly sought to control the natural resources of the region.

Bill Clinton’s decisions in the 1990s on trade, drugs, and financial deregulation are also being discussed in this election. I think we are already suspecting that George W. Bush’s invasions of Iraq and even Afghanistan in the early 2000s will go down as our country’s greatest blunders of modern times. I wonder how some of Obama’s decisions on intervention in the Middle East, relations with Russia and China, and financial regulation (or lack thereof) will turn out in the long run.

skyscraper game

This looks pretty cool – an iPhone game for kids that lets them look inside a skyscraper.

In a few light swipes and taps, users “create” a made-up skyscraper by adding floors and choosing the color of the facade. On the app’s sidebar, select a tiny I-beam button to play a game where adding boulders, elephants, and sailboats sinks your building deep and lopsided into its foundation. An elevator icon takes you to an interactive view of interior life—families in their kitchens, watching television, tiptoe-ing through bedrooms. The details are incredibly ornate, especially in another mode, accessed by clicking on a little water drop, where you clog toilets and set fires on different floors. Watch how the building (which gets an anthropomorphic touch) reacts. They say if walls could talk…

Problems just keep backing up.
(Screenshot of “Skyscrapers” by Tinybop)

With virtually no text, the app invites you to play by intuiting through touch and iconography. Youngsters, presumably raised on the logic of iPhones, are the audience targeted by the app’s developer, Tinybop. “Skyscrapers” is the seventh in Tinybop’s “Explorer’s Library,” series, which “introduces kids to STEAM topics they learn about in school,” according to a spokesperson.

I looked at the Explorer’s Library and they have a number of cool simulation apps for kids, like plants, the human body, and weather. I think I might start with one of those rather than a skyscraper. I am always on the lookout for a really good ecosystem simulation for kids.