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20190113 – Simplexity

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is to look at notions of complex and simple not in static, but in dynamic way and demonstrate that these notions are pretty much dependent on the point of view of observer.  To support this thesis author reviews stories from epidemiology, stock market, human interaction, sport, and what not.

DETAILS:

Prologue

This starts with the story of discovery of source of disease in water well in London in 1854, which was the first known case of successful use of epidemiological methods. Then it switches to the story of bookstore owners who successfully compete with Amazon by using their superior knowledge and understanding of their customers and books. Using these 2 examples author raises question of complexity and simplicity of the world stating that seemingly simple could be very complex and visa versa so the key is to define, which is which. Author defines it as a research on complexity – the new field of science and his work as an attempt to present its finding to reader.

Chapter One: why is the stock market so hard to predict? Confused by Everyone Else

Here author retells story of market crash of 1987 and then moves to studies of complexity in Santa Fe Institute (SFI) under Murray Gell-Mann Nobel laureate in physics. These studies cover range from complete robustness to complete chaos, trying understand how complexity is created somewhere in between these extremes. Here a useful graph explaining this:

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Then author returns to stock market and attempts to modeling it by using statistical equations from physics. In process author discusses “wisdom of crowds”, market vs. planning, and need to ideas diversity increase in order to obtain solution for complex problems. One of interesting pieces here is description of research that demonstrated that historically traders pay a lot less attention to news than usually believed. Another important part of traders’ behavior turned out to be sense of fair play. Author refers to ultimate game to discuss how it works. The final part is discussion on interplay between people’s behavior when mimicking one another would have deleterious impact on reasons for behavior in the first place. Author example is movement to suburbs to avoid congestion that in turn leads to congestion in suburbs.

Chapter two: Why is it so hard to leave a burning building or an endangered city? Confused by Instincts

This chapter uses the story of escaping world trade center on 9/11 to demonstrate how seemingly trivial decision could lead to life or death consequences. Little known part of this story is that analysis of evacuation during the bomb scare a few years before, led to improvements in evacuation design, training and procedures that eventually did save lives. Another interesting fact is that in dealing with humans in crowds one needs to leave some space and maybe add some turbulence to allow crowd self-regulate.  Author discusses evacuation software developed using these ideas and human specifics that need to be taken into consideration for it to work. The next part is discussion of gridlock that is often resulting from human behavior more than real bottlenecks of the roads. Once again to add some bumps slowing movement of each car could increase overall speed by avoiding development of congestion points.  Here is how author characterizes these situations: “THE CHALLENGE IN all these situations is to start with the already complex repertoire of human behavior, introduce it into an even more complex environment, and figure out how in the world to manage this exponentially more complicated dynamic. The rules change according to the situation, but the stakes always stay high. “

Chapter Three: How does a single bullet start a world war? Confused by Social Structure

Contrary to expectations it starts not with WWI, but with leadership fight in the troop of macaques, which is as complex and challenging affair as it is in any other group of primates. After point that author makes in process of quite logical transition to discussing complexity of human nation-states governance, overall dynamics of coordinated actions, and how they are initiated. As part of explanation, author brings Markov’s chain of probabilities and then Arrow impossibility theorem.  He also discusses complexity of American election system and military resource allocation problem (Colonel Blotto).

Chapter Four: Why do the jobs that require the greatest skills often pay the least? Why do companies with the least to sell often earn the most? Confused by Payoffs

This is actually very interesting statement because it is clearly contradicts not only common sense, but also usual experience. Author discusses call centers and such returns/complexity disparities as job of supervisor (complex) and board member (not complex). Actually author provides definition: “One of the best measures for judging the true complexity of a job is how easily a machine can replace it.

He also provides graph of complexity:

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Chapter Five: Why do people, mice, and worlds die when they do? Confused by Scale

This starts with musing on death and then moves to physiological data such as stable number of heartbeats during lifetime with smaller creatures living faster and shorter lives (Kleiber law). Then he moves to Krebs cycle – characteristic of carbon dioxide transformation in living organism.  Then author tries to apply similar numerical “laws” to cities development.

Chapter Six: Why do bad teams win so many games and good teams lose so many? Confused by Objective

Here author moves to sporting competition and its rules that create high levels of complexity. Author specifically analyses how these rules can give advantage and wins to bad teams.

Chapter seven: Why do we always worry about the wrong things? Confused by Fear

Here author discusses risks, their real levels and human perception of such levels, as usual talking about 9/11 overestimated, while fall from staircase at home underestimated. He, also as usual, links it to amygdala and brings in work of Kahneman and other researchers working on risk estimates real and psychological.

Chapter Eight:  Why is a baby the best linguist in any room: Confused by Silence

Here author takes on another complex phenomenon – human language and its acquisition by babies. He describes a very interesting experiment with babies learning their own and foreign language phonemes that they are highly capable of doing for some period of time after which they become completely deaf to unfamiliar. Author discusses research that shows that perfect language and accent acquisition window start closing around 9 months. It is also very interesting that it requires living person to be present because acquisition via speaker just does not work. The process had to be highly socialized for it to work. All this discussion is used to demonstrate how complex things could be, because language is nearly the most complex thing known to humanity.

Chapter Nine: Why are your cell phone and camera SO absurdly complicated? Confused by Flexibility

This is about typical contemporary phenomenon of functionality creep – the situation when designers pack huge number of features in hardware and/or software, making it difficult to use.

Chapter Ten: Why are only 10 percent of the world’s medical resources used to treat 90 percent of its Ills? Confused by False Targets

Author starts this chapter not with medical issues, but with Muhammad Yunus and his micro lending. From here he moves to Pareto and his rule that applies to just about everything. Both are good examples of simple approach to complex issues that nevertheless work. This follows by somewhat lengthy diatribe about Western society that allocates resource to diseases specific to their population, rather than diseases of poor around the world before returning to the issue and discussion some simple solution to complicated medical issues such as rehydration fluid. Overall the point here is that often cheap and easy solutions are available for very complex problems.

Chapter Eleven: Why does complexity science fall flat in the arts? Confused by Loveliness

Here author moves discussion of complexity vs. simplicity to the area of art, starting with an anecdote about composer Ravel who had composition with requirements not really understood until one takes into account acoustic parameters of the apartment in which he worked on his music.  Author discusses some other examples of hidden meaning in artistic artifacts.

Epilogue

Here author returns to Santa Fe institute, discussing word plexus that means multiple and complex folding of meaning into the words.  Then he brings in discovery radio astronomy by Jansky during attempts to find source of interference with radio broadcasting in 1931.  The final and quite important point is that everything is complex and everything is simple depending on the level of analysis, so, for example, a simple newspaper article becomes hugely complex if looked at the level of black and white dots on paper, and even more complex if looked at the level of molecules and atoms.

MY TAKE ON IT:

This book is interesting mainly because it prompts one to think about importance of point of view of observer being taken into account if one want to develop picture of some artifact or phenomenon close enough to reality so to be meaningful. I think it is a great idea and it should be formally applied in all areas of intellectual activities, especially in economics and politics when neglecting to take it into account could easily create huge negative consequences.

 


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