Sunday, May 9, 2010

Too Much Complexity?

OK, so if you read about the oil rig which blew up, you'll find that the operation had as much complexity as the space shuttle. If you read about the stock market's recent wild fluctuations, you'll find that there are interactions among all the computer assisted trading systems which are simply impossible to plumb. If you follow the recent history of the CERN supercollider, you'll find that earnest physicists suggest much simpler experiments to test the limits of control.

The trouble with the CERN fate-testing experiments is that they won't work unless you make an earnest effort actually to do the underlying measurement. You can't trick fate. So, the idea is that you build the machine to find out if the Higgs boson really exists, but you insert into the control apparatus a kind of random process like tossing dice - and then if the dice toss comes up that far from random, to some degree similar to the liklihood of all the complex parts of the supercollider working in concert, you don't actually have to make the machine work. You can consider it a message from the lacunae where God is thought to reside, that the experiment will be fruitless. That's what beating the odds in this case would mean.

In other words, you will have made a machine with enough complexity to change the odds of probabilty for something as well understood as the toss of dice. Something trivially simple like that. Everybody knows that you can't change the odds of random events, but this model suggests that this is exactly what the supercollider itself is attempting to do. The limits of control are in collision with the limits of control.

This, of course, is "meant" to be something only God can do. It's what's meant  by the word miracle.

Now any given miracle can be chalked up as that natural and mathematically inevitable fluctuation in random stuff. A coin which always came up heads then tails then heads then tails, while it wouldn't change the odds, would be just as bizarre as one which came up heads 100 times in a row. Neither one could be called a "fair" coin.

But somebody will win the lottery, even though the odds of that particular someone winning are astronomically against him. That's what's meant by beating the odds. Winning. It's only a miracle if some desperate emotion is involved. Well, desperate emotions are in plentiful supply, so I can easily imagine that almost every beating of the odds feels like miracle or catastrophe to someone. I guess it gets to be a miracle if it seems connected to some seeming act of extreme wanting which, if your think about it, is a funny thing to think of as an act.

As you know, I just finished reading this quite wonderful book about a smart fellow who came to the rational conclusion that life is better lived without such an absurd concept as God. He presents plenty of evidence, or rather, he represents that he's seen plenty of evidence, that there is no evidence that prayer "works" or that religious people act according to any higher moral standard than the rest of us. And then he represents plenty of evidence that religious organizations seem capable of behaviors, in defense of themselves, even more horrific when you examine them, than the faults by omission of such mega-corporations as BP Oil, or Toyota, or AIG, or take your pick.

Part of what makes these behaviors horrific is of course that these religious organizations purport to represent Jesus, or perhaps Mohammed, and that the person in whose Name they act would never condone or execute the behaviors done in defense of the institution created in His name. Calculations apparently get made about the greatest good to the greatest number, and, well, the little guy is just plain screwed. Um, literally. And, globally, the church behaves no better, and perhaps worse, than the globo-cap predators of our enthusiasms.

Recently, I was asked to exercise my privilege as a graduate of Yale College, to vote for one of three candidates on a slate of proposed board members, some of whom get chosen by alumni. I'm vaguely proud of this process, since unlike so many college or other boards, it seems to give the little guy - me - a say in the governance of the Institution which anointed me.

Well, except that of course this is a ridiculous proposition, since the number of intellectual lefties among the minor hoard of graduates would likely fit into a school auditorium. If you aren't an extravagantly successful inventor, scientist, capitalist, author, professor, runner of institutions, then Yale has failed you famously. Or perhaps there's something wrong with your psyche. Something you could deploy a pill against.

One of the candidates seemed like a superman inventor. Apparently just popping with ideas about how to cure disease, but also popping with lots of money from his endeavors. Wouldn't you just love to know how to cure all your genetic deficiencies? We already do the silicone implant nose-job stuff, but now you can nurse hopes to cure such things as Turettes, or well, you just have to imagine that the sky's the limit, right?

Or are deficiencies sometimes not exactly deficiencies? We lefties once heaped venom at that Harvard dude, Herrnstein, who studied IQ (the Bell Curve) and had the temerity to suggest that blacks were genetically deficient in that measure compared to whites (he's dead now, so we can talk about him). But we should be careful about our battles. What if it turned out that the genome really is divergent according to geographic dispersals, and that humanity doesn't consist in genetic capacity? I mean, what if there's a whole range of genotypes which could qualify for full humanity, but some were stupider than others by some measure?

Why should this be any more shocking than that white blondes show up more often on nudie sites? (Do they? I may be making an unwarranted assumption). Or that there are more fast runners who are black? (are there?)?

I just re-met this former student of mine who is "profoundly dyslexic." I was gratified to hear him describe this "defect" as an asset when it comes to certain ways of understanding. I've worked at a school for dyslexics, and conducted a fair amount of reading and research on the topic (although you couldn't call any of it really organized), and had concocted my own sense that what he told me might be true. That there is a different and largely non-analytical way to see things, for which facility with the logical arrangements of the written language might get in the way.

The example used by this fellow was from his current work as the "incentives director" at a large public school in the Bronx. Coming into the school, he questioned the wisdom of using expulsion as a punishment for kids who misbehaved. Especially when what was wanted was inclusion. So, he implements and supervises a system of positive feedback rewards for good behaviors, which give the kids the ability to participate in a periodic hip-hop in-school rave. I guess no-one wants to be left out.

Of course, this sort of behaviorism is what got old Herrnstein in so much trouble. It fairly (or unfairly?) formed the political battle lines at Harvard, reverberating throughout the land, between the biological/evolutionary determinists and the liberals.

OK, I know I'm jumping all around here. I always do! And I'm laboring to restrain myself about what's up with cellular internet, computer operating systems, and a few more things which all seem connected in my random mind. But getting back to where I started - too much complexity, ha! - a lot of time it does seem as though there is some basic opposition between a way to understand things which is based on logical scaffolding, and a different way which is based on a matrix of interconnections, and never mind the logic.

When things get too complex, sometimes it's really hard not to imagine clever minds feverishly at work looking for ways to take advantage. You know, the stock market when it spiked downward gave tremendous opportunity to anyone who would have known about it ahead of time to buy valuable stock at bargain basement prices. Well, actually, at a whole lot less than bargain basement.

Lots of people just can't suspend the temptation, say, if no-one's looking and something is there for the taking. In the midst of complexity, if you happen to find a weak spot where flicking a lever might just have a massive outsized impact, why wouldn't you do it just to take advantage? So sometimes it might not be about clever minds so much as about perfect positioning. Right place, right time, lucky.

OK, so it's so windy right at the moment that my apartment is shaking. No, I'm not just imagining this. It really does shake when it gets really windy. It's kind of unnerving, but it also does serve to remind me about the limits of control. The weather is a very complex matter, although one now where lots of us are worried about human impacts; a kind of wilding of the weather caused, paradoxically enough, by our trying too hard to make our own lives more predictable, comfortable, and, well, civilized. Except, of course, for the humans whose lives have been immiserated in that effort though no deficiency in themselves other than the accident of birthplace, skincolor, intelligence perhaps, or gender.

The trouble with complexity, when it's human engineered, seems to be that it allows way too much temptation for someone with the right kind of knowledge and position to take way too much advantage. Plus, in the case of the Large Hadron supercollider, for instance, if only a few people actually do understand both how to construct the device, if it can possbly work, and how to guarantee random to the extent that the dice-throw cheapening device inserted into its control mechanism is really random, then for the rest of us it's still all a confidence game.

We'd have to trust the integrity of those in on the design. We might say that the dice inserted weren't really fair dice, or that the experiment wasn't really designed actually to work, corners being cut, and so forth. That if it were really designed to work, the only proof could be its working, just as the only proof for fair dice would be to try them lots and lots of times outside of their insertion into the running of the massively complex apparatus into whose control stream they've been inserted. But the point of insertion is exactly what's meant by sleight of hand. How could one know? What would be the various motives?

We'll never ever know. Except that the results of, say, our economy make it look as though the game is rigged. The winners keep on winning and the losers, well, they're out of luck.

One thing which is perfectly knowable is that we could deploy our human efforts in different ways than is now being accomplished. We don't have to give so much power to accidental advantages of place, genetics, upbringing, whatever. Those things should dissipate once spent, and not feed back on themselves like some kind of nuclear chain reaction. What gets fed back should be such things as love, warmth, protection.

What does, in fact, get fed back now by the taking advantage of what one has been lucky enough to come by  is more ability to take more advantage. Power, by any other name. And there seems to be no limit to the desire of human beings to concentrate that in the face of mortality. No limit at all.

But the interesting thing is that the powerful are never the ones actually doing the work. They don't design the incredibly complex oil rigs to suck the oil out from beneath a mile of ocean and then another seven miles beneath that.  They don't design the incredibly complex trading and odds-calculating instruments which get deployed in the trading of our various futures. They just call the shots and calculate the odds from a position where things like the weather and normal odds are, for practical purposes, non-existent.  These are not bets at all. Just simply calculations, where winning is utterly assured. If you're calling shots, you're already a winner.

Well, until complexity overwhelms even the bank, and the whole complicated construct comes crashing down, or blowing up, and then the guy calling the shots is suddenly aware of the things which can't be predicted. Sometimes the whole economy melts down. Sometimes the well blows. Sometimes things go wrong, even though they've been done smoothly a thousand times before.

Actually, in fact, that's the only thing that's really certain. If one well is going to blow, according to reasonable and calculable odds, after the point when a few thousand have been drilled, but if only one of them blowing is required to wreck the whole game, then is it morally acceptable to keep drilling?

Would you play Russian roulette? What if there were 1000 chambers and the reward was $1 million bucks? What if the show were put on TV? How many times would it be fair to play it? Certainly not a thousand times! After a certain point, it is near certainty that someone is going to have his head blown off!

How about if the family were to get the million even if his head gets blown off? Then it's all win/win, right? No losers except for the guy who's no longer there. Who was, if he was sane, willing to lose in the first place. Now the trouble is that you'd have to set up a lottery to determine who gets to play, since rationally just about everyone on the planet would want to play against those odds. Imagine the insurance policies, and the money that could be made premised on the general public's idiocy when it comes to basic math.

Something about the picture is morally repugnant, no? But the thing is that this is pretty much how we do organize our economy. The real winners are the ones who have the savvy to set up the insurance funds. The ones who get the math. The ones who call the, um, shots.

From this perspective, things don't look so much like conspiracy plots to immiserate people, or peoples. Corpoprate titans start to look a lot like priests. Sure there are some pedarists, but the really guilty parties are the ones who protect the institution at the expense of the victims. And their number is legion.

No, wait, our number is legion (numbers are?). The victims. Why, indeed, do we give all these priests that much power?

Next time, I promise, I'll talk me about Operating Systems. How the big mega corporations have finally figured out that there is no real distinction between hardware and software. That people just want the machine to work seamlessly and they don't really care what goes on inside it to make it so. That making it seamless is easier, a la Apple, if you control the whole design. That these big corporate honchos are getting tired of having Microsoft bossism control all their shots. That the famous WebOS from Palm can make the basis for a killer iPad competitor, HP branded, which contains nothing from Microsoft. That it's all about the cloud and getting 4G access to it from anywhere. Which is two or three orders of magnitude more bandwidth than we get now. Which is a lot. So, TV and video conferencing from anywhere and everywhere on anything. Which is a whole lot more powerful than what happened back in '89 on Tiananmen square, powered by nascent cellphones and, shades of Model T, faxes (????!!!!).

Talk about truth to power! How are the Chinese going to firewall point to point realtime screen connections? And how are they going to power their economy without them?

Wouldn't it be really cool if all the burgeoning complexity of our world, gifted us by the accident of oil, was tending toward the stunning and spectacular simplicity of individual people making informed judgement about other individual people so that they could decide who and what to trust? If losing a job or getting a speeding ticket or being fired for your political beliefs might cost you only a chance at winning some lottery, but were not accompanied by the raw terror of wrecking your day, your year, your life?

Each of us does depend on the stunning complexity of the natural order. What if we were to put human barriers in the way of replacing that complexity with the ordered complexity which springs from the abstract human mind; of the sort which is, after all, guaranteed to fail, periodically. Nature makes use of failure according to the marvelous processes of evolution. Humanity, it now seems, wants to ensure failure by building dependence on a kind of logical complexity into as much as we can about as much of our lives as we can extend it to. This is lunacy. This can only provide a guarantee of an unhappy end.

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