Wednesday, June 24, 2015

250 and thanks

Hey everybody. I wanted to tell you that I've sold 250 copies of Working with Stories. Hooray!

I've been thinking of 250 as a significant number for years, mostly because my husband told me he'd read somewhere that the average non-fiction book sells 250 copies in its lifetime. When I told him about this the other day, he said he didn't remember saying anything about 250 copies, and he thought it must be higher than that. But I knew he had said something with the number 250 in it. (That's the way I remember things.)

So I looked it up and found this, from a widely-cited 2011 blog post called "The Ten Awful Truths about Book Publishing":
The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
If the book was supposed to sell 250 copies a year, it's selling at an average rate, and that's good. However, that blog post was talking about all published books. The statistics for self-published books are different. Here are some estimates of average self-published book sales:
There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.  
It’s estimated that the average self-published print book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime.
[T]he average number of [self-published] books sold is often said to be a figure like 100, 250, 500, or 650. ... That’s lifetime.
So the "250 copies in its lifetime" estimate was correct ... for self-published books. Measured against that average, Working with Stories is doing very well. I have no idea how long the book's "lifetime" will be, but I would hope that it will stay reasonably current for at least five years.

How is the book doing on making money? I paid my indexer $3000 to produce the index at the end of the book (after she very kindly cut her rate in half to help out). Adding up print and Kindle and PDF and direct sales, I've made about $2500 on book sales since last May. So in another few months, I might actually start to get some compensation for the two and a half person-years (I estimate) I spent writing the book! That's exciting.

Has the book been a success in helping people work with stories? To answer that question I need no calculator. I am sure of it, because of all the emails I have received over the past seven years. Ever since I wrote the book's first edition in 2008, I have regularly received emails thanking me for writing the book and telling me about the many ways in which people are making use of it. Money aside, that's exactly what I wanted to happen.

But that's enough about me. The main reason I wanted to write this blog post today was to thank you. If you bought a copy of the book, thank you. If you gave me feedback on the book, thank you. If you encouraged me to keep going, thank you. If you helped with the work the book is based on, thank you. If you hired me on a project so I could learn what I wrote in the book, thank you. If you talked to me about stories and story work, thank you. I couldn't have done it without all of you.

In honor of this milestone, I thought I'd show you a funny picture I made last year to promote the book (but decided it was too silly to use).

At my house, everybody reads Working with Stories.
Of course the photo is a joke, because when I took it the dog was still a puppy, and she could never have sat on the couch so close to the cat without chasing him. (I'm not sure she could now, either, though he enjoys the chasing as much as she does, now that she knows the rules.) So this is actually three pictures stuck together in Photoshop. But still, as you can see, the dog and cat enjoyed the book. (On second thought, maybe it was the treats I put on top of it...)

Anyway, thanks again for all your help. Here's looking forward to more good work in the future!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Into the archives again

Somebody once told me that somebody else said something interesting about me. "Keep your eye on her," they said, "She's a crackerjack." I've always wondered what that meant. Am I a confection or a conflagration? Can I be both? Is there a prize?
Here's a joke my dad used to tell. On the wedding day, as soon as the ceremony was over, the bridegroom rushed up to his father-in-law. "You told me that when I married your daughter I'd be getting a prize," said the bridegroom. "Where is it?"

So anyway, last week I realized that the clutter in my office had once again reached a post-apocalyptic level. I decided that on Monday I would stop and clean. Monday did not cooperate. It rained all day, which meant that my usual practice -- taking all the junk outside, vacuuming and dusting, then finding a new way to squeeze all the junk back in again -- wouldn't work. So I fell into looking through a stack of old notebooks. I found a bunch of interesting things I had forgotten about, and I thought, "I wonder if the readers of my blog might also find these things interesting, in an archaeological kind of way." So I scanned in some pages to show you. To anyone who is interested in my early work on sensemaking with the Cynefin and Confluence frameworks: here you go, have fun. To anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about: come back next time, because this is going to be boring.

Maybe I should explain about the notebooks. I've gone back and forth between the computer and paper notebooks since my college days, depending on whether I had a computer or not. When I started working for IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management in early 2001, I was asked to travel a lot, but I was not given a laptop to take with me. (My title was "Project Manager," which was no better or worse than my earlier title of "Senior Software Engineer" in IBM Research. When I left IBM Research I had to give back my IBM-supplied laptop, and as I recall, the IKM was under a "capital spending freeze" at the time.)

So I started carrying around paper notebooks. I did most of my thinking in them, and I had them with me for nearly every discussion and meeting. I have a series of nine of these notebooks, starting in May 2001 and stopping in late 2003 (when I stopped traveling because I had a child). I seem to have lost the April 2001 notebook, sadly. I may have put it into the "to file" pile, which fills up five boxes. I have lots of stuff on the computer, too, but these hand-written notes are somehow more interesting to look at, because they're more of-the-moment. I promise I've kept myself to a bare minimum, and have thought about what you might want to see, and not just what I feel like reminiscing about. Mostly.

First movements. May 16, 2001. One of the first things in the first notebook (I can find) is this hint of movements-to-come on the Cynefin framework.

It says: "connectivity variety information flow maintain identity"
There are many, possibly hundreds, of drawings of movements that came after this one, but I'm pretty sure the idea of change over time playing out in space was in there from the very beginning. (Not the beginning; my beginning. Thoughts were had before I had thoughts.) This came even before the "bubble" model of Cynefin. (What does that thing on the left mean? I have no idea. You figure it out.)

First bubbles. May 16, 2001. This was, I believe, the very first drawing I ever made of the "neuronal" or "bubble" form of Cynefin.

First bubbles
It says: "spaces not axes"

I remember very well when this happened, for some reason (who knows why we remember some things and not others). We were at a hotel in New York City, at an IKM workshop. It was before the workshop started or in a break. We were in one of those huge hotel meeting rooms, in the front left corner of the room, in front of an easel with butcher paper on it. I was going on about how it didn't matter that you said something wasn't a 2x2 model when people could look at it and see that it was a 2x2 model. I said that if you lay out a space and give it dimensions, people will see it as a graph no matter what you call it. I said that if you want to talk about states, you need a diagram, not a space.

So Dave said, "What about this?" and drew the bubbles. I think I copied the drawing into my notebook right away. Did I like the bubbles? Not really. By then I was already enamored of my continuous-space model (which became Confluence), and everything else seemed worse. But I liked the bubbles more than the four quadrants.

Lots of domain names. May 18-24, 2001. These two pictures are just to show you that we were working through many possible domain names (not internet domains, just spaces on the model) for Cynefin at that time.

The top model says "understanding" and "known/knowable/retrospectively coherent/incoherent"; the bottom model says "community" and "bureaucratic/expert/shadow/temporary"
The top model says "system" and "hierarchical/complex+hierarchical/complex/chaotic"; the bottom model says "goals" and "formal/experimental/aspirational/crisis"

We played with the idea of having several models with different sets of domain names: for communication, culture, strategy, oh, lots of things. One file from that time lists 38 separate sets of domain descriptions. Why did we switch to using only one set of names? My best guess is it was a result of discussion and testing in workshops (of which there were at least a few more, if not several). But I don't actually remember.

Intermission. Here's a doodle to rest your mind.

First seeing eyes. May 18-24, 2001. This, I believe, is my very first drawing of my "seeing eye" diagram. (I'm not sure it's the first, because of that missing earlier notebook; but this may be the first, given its non-canonical form.)

As you can see, the pyramids weren't exactly pyramidal at first.

The chasm and disorder. May 18-24, 2001. This was a method we created to draw the bubbles, but later abandoned as too complicated. I liked it, because it incorporated a step-change transition between chaos and order (see the "chasm"?), which I had got very excited about including in the days before the May workshop. (Dave only embraced the chasm a year later, and I gained the right to tease him about it ever after.)

It says "chasm-separated" going to "permeable"; "simple (single?) model of management"; "bridge over chasm"; "thickening permeable"; "dominant line, usually thick, defines most important space (how?)"; "secondary line"; "(final?) connector, shows unknowns"
Note also the arrow pointing into the empty spot between the bubbles. I think it says, "Simple model of management." Or it could be "single." Anyway, that part was Dave's idea, and it evolved into the "disorder" domain.

Decision dialogue discourse discovery. May 18-24, 2001. As I said, we were playing with lots of names for things. I like this set.

It says: "decision; dialog; discourse; discovery"

Second seeing eyes. May 25, 2001. Here's the second set of seeing eyes, now falling into the familiar canonical pyramids. (All pictures after this one look the same, so I won't show any more.)

Another doodle. You must be tired, poor thing. Why not take a break? (Oh, all right. I just like my doodles.)

If you are (rules for interactions).
Early June, 2001. I just like this diagram because it sums up a lot of my/our thinking at the time.

It says: too much to type here.

For each quadrant (the bubbles were not yet a sure thing), I listed strengths (more like opportunities) and dangers. (I had a pretty involved (made-up) shorthand at the time, to write more faster. A circle with an arrow through it meant interaction; an up arrow meant increase; etc.) I think the boxed arrows represent things you should do in response, and they move you to another quadrant (or increase the intensity of the quadrant you are in, depending on where they go).

More on the middle. November 15, 2001. Here's another mention of the middle space. I don't think it had a name yet, but the idea was there.

It says: "In middle spaces - bureaucrats, experts, networks (?), crisis managers - want them to be in that space"

Then draw lines. November 15, 2001. This is in my notes from a meeting, and it may be the first mention of the method of creating the Cynefin framework in a sensemaking session. (I can't be sure any of the text things are the first mentions, because I'm not about to read nine notebooks full of barely-legible writing. Not even for you, dear reader.)

It says: "hexagons on grid dimensions between extremes; then draw lines to create cynefin. this is new?"

Note how I say "This is new?" I think this could only mean that I hadn't heard it before. I'm not surprised, because that sort of thing happened often. As with the bubbles, I would point out a flaw in something, or make a suggestion, and then a few weeks later Dave would suddenly come out with something new. It worked the other way around too. That's how people collaborate.

[Edit (excuse me, thought of this the next morning): The boundaries and spaces of Cynefin and of Confluence have to do with the nature of innovation, creativity, and problem solving. Dave always maintained that people need constraints to be creative. He said they had to be "starved" to innovate. "Necessity is the mother of invention" and all that. I always disagreed with this. As an asthmatic and a claustrophobic, I panic when I am starved of options; I feel like I'm running out of air. For me, creativity and innovation require freedom, the loosening of constraints, and abundance. Most of the negotiations between Cynefin and Confluence, and their eventual separation, came from these two different views. (This is one reason I always say the world needs not one but many models.)

All these years later, I think we were both wrong. I now believe that creativity, like happiness, is a decision. It's a way of life, a habit, a practice. It has nothing to do with conditions. It just feels like it does when you forget you've made a choice.]

Doodle time. Here you go. Relax.

The chasm returns. Sometime between May and September 2002. Here's a picture of the chaos-order chasm again. I know this was during a discussion with Dave, because his version of it is right underneath this picture, on the same page.

It says: "order; complexity; chaotic"

Notice how it says "cx" inside the chasm. That was my shorthand for complexity. It's strange that I would think to put complexity in there. Maybe it had to do with people talking about the "edge of chaos"? I don't think that way now. I think of complexity and chaos as orthogonal. Who knows.

Just crazy stuff. Late 2002. We're almost at the end now. Here are some sort of Cynefin-on-the-moon doodles.

It says: "buried by revealed by erosion; tunnel; pod; spewing through a crack; stable agreement; catapult"

This was an idea about Cynefin unfurling, for some reason.

The Cynefin multiverse
Fable form. January 2003. Here are some of my notes from the research project where I took apart something like 100 folk tales to figure out how we could use their structures to help people build their own stories.

It says: "wise coalition; unwise coalition; deliverance or good luck (happy story); abandonment or bad luck (sad story); suspense; trial (general); trial (perseverance); trial (faith); good example; bad example; opportunity lost, folly; deception; journey (growth, learning from mistakes); simpler form; contrast (bad/good/bad); contrast (good/bad); paradox"

I had made up a sort of visual language to describe folk tales, and I used it to understand their parts and how they fit together. We were already using a story template in the story construction exercise, but this research made it possible to expand the possibilities of story construction enormously. I even created a prototype of a story construction software tool, for people to make sense of events by building folk tales out of their collected stories.

Let's have a doodle. Ah, that's nice.

The middle space named. January 2003. Here's a little snippet that shows how our thinking on the disorder domain was moving along.

It says "can only be seen from above; disorder; who really knows what is here"

I think this may be around when Dave came up with the name "disorder" for the space. "Unorder" was my word, and "disorder" was his.

Movements again. April 2003. This is when we got very heavily into nailing down the movements among Cynefin domains for the IBM Systems Journal paper. 

It says: "high risk: release, wandering, despair, collapse; mid-risk: stimulation; oscillation; fragility; S curves; illusion; crisis managment; low risk: (you figure that part out); life cycles"

By the way, a lot of people think that paper was written in 2003 because it was published in 2003. But its first draft was written in December of 2001. For a while the paper was very long, because we dumped a lot of current thinking into it (well, actually I did most of the dumping). Looking back now, it looks like the paper sat unchanged from April to December of 2002. Then we came back to the paper and added the stuff about unorder and disorder; the sections on movements; and the section on the workshop technique where the model is derived. Because the ISJ wanted a short paper, we had to remove about 75% of the previous content, some of which I reused in other writings later on. Also, incidentally, because the ISJ reviewers objected to our use of the term "model," we changed the name of the thing to a "framework." I don't think it matters much.

Okay folks, that's all the pictures I thought you would like to see. Hope you had fun looking through the notebooks with me. I'll leave you with a final doodle, which captures my thoughts about complexity, and about collaboration.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Let's talk

Over at the PNI Institute, we are holding our very first "Hangout" this Friday, July 5, at:
  • California 7 00
  • New York 10 00
  • London 15 00
  • Amsterdam/South Africa 16 00
  • Melbourne 24 00
Our hangouts will be:
  • Social: Connecting; networking; talking about what's going on in the world
  • Practical: Helping each other solve problems and seek opportunities
  • Collaborative: Discovering new ways we can work together
  • Aspirational: Advancing the field by exploring new ideas
To avoid the inevitable problems using Skype with more than a few people, we will be using our new Mumble server. For details on how to connect, and to read more about what we plan to talk about in this and future hangouts, see my announcement post on

If you can't make this hangout, we will be holding more, so keep it in mind!

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Holy Roman Empire was a complex adaptive system

So a few weeks ago my son and I were watching the Crash Course World History series. In it John Green mentioned Voltaire's famous statement that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

A few days later, I found that the phrase "Holy Roman Empire" was still bouncing around in my mind. It seemed like it was trying to tell me something. The pattern of the name, its rhythm, felt similar to something I was familiar with. After a while I realized that "Holy Roman Empire" sounds a lot like "complex adaptive system." Two seconds later, I realized that a complex adaptive system is neither complex, nor adaptive, nor a system.

I wondered if there might be some connection between these things, so I began to explore.

Magic words of power

First I read about why Voltaire said what he said. Here's a very brief summary:
  1. Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor in 800, but this was a purely political move, a quid pro quo. The word "Holy" was not used to refer to the empire until 1157, when it was added to remove any implied dependence on the papacy (as if to say, we don't need the Church to make us holy).
  2. The Holy Roman Empire did include Italy at first, but most of it was located in Germany and France. In fact, in 1512 the name of the empire was changed to "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation."
  3. The Holy Roman Empire was for the most part a symbolic institution with little centralized power. It was more like a loose confederation among independent states than a true empire. 
So why did people call a loose secular confederation of independent European states the Holy Roman Empire?

I'm no historian, but my guess is that the name makes use of what I like to call "magic words of power." People have been using such words for thousands of years because they tap into deep currents in society. Think of a word that, if you walked into a room full of people and said it loudly and clearly, would start a fight or a cheer, or would clear the room, and you've found a magic word of power. Curse words are magic words of power, because they attack things we hold sacred -- religion, health, sex, family. Their power comes not from their attacks but from the things they attack.

So, I thought, the three words of the Holy Roman Empire might act as a sort of incantation, a way to draw power from deep sources.

What we want to know

The next question I asked myself was: how did each of these words contribute to the power of the whole phrase? As I thought about each word, I ran into a familiar construct: Robert F. Bales' empirical work on how strangers talk to each other in task groups.

Bales found that the people he observed constantly evaluated others in three dimensions:
  1. Is this person dominant or submissive? (power)
  2. Is this person friendly or hostile? (safety)
  3. Is this person useful or useless (to me)? (effectiveness)
So, calling a loose secular confederation of independent European states the Holy Roman Empire says:
  1. We are powerful. Who's in charge? (Remember: it's the middle ages.) God. We are in good with the big guy.
  2. We are safe. Remember the Romans? They did things right. They had roads and plumbing and great parties. We are the tried and true solution. You can trust us.
  3. We are effective. What unifies peoples, brings stability, and provides protection? That's right, an empire. Don't worry, folks, we have everything under control.
Thus, in the context in which they were used, these three words hit all the "what we want to know" points that would lead people (that is, princes and other local powers) to support the Holy Roman Empire. So it was both an incantation and an advertisement.

By the way, does "safe and effective" remind you of anything? Perhaps something medical? Maybe you've heard the phrase "potent, safe, and effective?" That phrase hits the same three evaluation points.

Now let's consider the term "complex adaptive system." I should probably explain first why it's none of those things.

Complex or complexicated?

Complexity refers to self-organization, where the interactions of (at least somewhat) independent agents lead to emergent properties, patterns that are more than the sum of their parts. Complex systems exist in theory and in simulation, but nothing that actually happens in nature or in human life is purely complex. In reality, organization and self-organization intermingle and interact to create a complex-complicated tangle of aspects and influences.

Consider an ant colony. Each ant follows simple rules, and complex patterns appear. But that's not the whole story. In most if not all social insects, the queen exerts pheromonal control over other members of the colony. Centralized organization and complex self-organization intermingle and interact in their effects on what happens in the ant hill.

The same is true for everything people say "is" complex: cities, traffic, the weather, the mind, the body, and so on. Every real situation has both complex and complicated aspects that intermingle and interact. I call it "complexicated."

Adaptive or reactive?

Is a complex adaptive system adaptive? Sort of. There is adaptation in the world, but maladaptation is just as important a force. Having complexity in a system does not always make it work well; sometimes it can lead to disaster. If you don't believe me, google "ant mill." A circular ant mill, in which ants follow their simple rules into a spiral of death, is a complex maladaptive pattern. (In a cruel example of complexication, you can find instructions on the internet for creating ant mills.)

I don't think it works to use the word "adaptive" to mean "sometimes better, sometimes worse," because that's not what people think when you say it. The popular meaning of "adaptation" is "getting better all the time." An example: Blogger's spell checker knows the word "adaptation" but not the word "maladaptation." Why is that?

A better word might be "reactive." Swarms and flocks react to perturbations. Sometimes they adapt, but sometimes they crash, or they dissipate into something that is no longer a flock or a swarm. The result might be better, or it might be far worse. At least the word "reactive" doesn't imply a "better and better" value statement. Even chemicals react, and nobody thinks every chemical reaction turns out well.

System or frame?

Now to the final word: system. This one's easy. All boundaries are decisions. Ask anyone what is included in the "health care system" or the "educational system" or the "legislative system," and you'll get as many answers as people.

The online etymology dictionary says "system" comes from the Latin systema, meaning "an arrangement," and from the Greek synistanai, meaning "to place together." Wikipedia says that the word originally meant "something to look at."

So the word "system" originally meant the choice of components and the creation of a frame or perspective. It still means that to me. Every time I hear the word "system," I can't help thinking of the archetypal image of a movie director making little frames with their hands as they look around. That's all a system really is, a frame, with some things included and some excluded.

But we run into problems when we try to use the word "system" to mean "frame," as it originally meant. That's because today, "system" no longer means a thing we create. It means a thing that exists, a thing we can rely on. Something solid. Like an empire.

A modern-day incantation

If the term "complex adaptive system" is, like "Holy Roman Empire," an incantation, what is it meant to invoke? If it is an advertisement, how does it persuade? Here is my guess.
  1. We are powerful. Complexity is like magic: it's order for free. Look! All of the awesome (and awful) things in the world run on complexity: hurricanes, the internet, snowflakes. This is powerful stuff, and you're going to want to get yourself some of it.
  2. We are safe. Remember evolution? That's rock-solid science. Adaptation is one of the things that makes evolution great. Evolution led to us, didn't it? You want things to get better and better, don't you?
  3. We are effective. Stop worrying. Complexity is not crazy or unpredictable. It's a system. We have everything under control.
Thus, in the context in which they were used, these three words hit all the "what we want to know" points that would lead people (that is, academic institutions, corporations, and other local powers) to support the Santa Fe Institute (who coined the term).

I don't mean to blame the Santa Fe Institute for coining a term that probably made perfect sense to them. I just wish they could have come up with a name that wasn't so easily misunderstood, given the popular connotations of the terms they used.

How we use it

After thinking about this for a while, I began to wonder how people actually use the term "complex adaptive system." I wondered: If these words are an incantation, to what purpose is its power applied? If it's an advertisement, what does it sell?

So I did one of my tiny Google research projects. I googled "is a complex adaptive system," then tallied up what came before the word "is." I got up to 252 mentions before Google cut me off, and this is what I found.

Let me ask you: is language more complex than knowledge? Is health care more complex than the internet? I don't think so. I don't think this graph reflects what is complex and what is not. It represents in what areas people most feel a need for incantations and advertisements. Evidently for language and for health care, there is great need. What does that say about language and health care? Are these areas in which we need to create power, achieve safety, and gain control? Given the fact that language underpins education, social society, and international relations: probably.

Actually, language is a perfect example of organization and self-organization intermingling and interacting. Yes, every human being has an impact on language, and there are emergent properties involved. But there are also clear organizers in the world of language: dictionaries, thesauri, style manuals, publishers, universities, governments, Google. All of these organizers exert centralized control over the evolution of language. It's complexicated.

Side note: I also searched for "was a complex adaptive system" and "will be a complex adaptive system." I found too few matches to draw any graphs (8 for "was" and 5 for "will be"). What does it mean that we only use the CAS term to describe things in the present tense? I don't know. Something.

You can't whisper with a megaphone

At this point, if I were you, I would be asking: What is your point? Do you think we should stop using the term "complex adaptive system?" 

Of course not. Every public-facing campaign needs a slogan, a tasty sound bite. The Holy Roman Empire needed one, and the Santa Fe Institute needed one. "Complexicated reactive frames," or some other more accurate term, doesn't have the same punch.

The danger is not in the fact that people need to create slogans to sell ideas. The danger is in the fact that people come to believe that the slogans are accurate descriptions of reality. They're not. Slogans are like megaphones. They carry messages fast and far, but they also distort.

From what I've seen, popular usage of the term "complex adaptive system" is distorted. I'm not sure how usage of the term started out, but today it appears that anything with even a hint of complexity in it qualifies to be called a complex adaptive system. The term has degenerated into meaning nothing more than "something I'd like to talk to you about."

I've been listening to people say "X is a complex adaptive system" for a while now. I haven't looked into this systematically, but my sense is that when people use the term, they tend to mean one of three things:
  1. You need what I'm selling. 
  2. We need to change the way we do things.
  3. I know a lot, so you should let me handle this.
If you've been reading carefully you will have noticed that these statements match Bales' evaluation points: power, safety, effectiveness. In other words, the slogan is being used as a slogan. It is not being used as an explanation or an exploration. People are using it to get other people to sign on to things. If people were using the term to explain complexity, my graph above would have a different shape, because everything on that list has some complexity in it (and lots of things that are not on the list as well).

Here's what I think. Anyone who uses a slogan to sell an idea bears a responsibility to understand when it's time to pick up the megaphone and when it's time to put it down and speak carefully and quietly. At some point we need to move past slogans to explanations that are useful and informative. If we never move past our slogans, our efforts risk becoming caricatures of themselves: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Paired images

I hate it when people write critical, demanding essays that don't include positive solutions. So I sat on this blog post for a while, waiting for it to become more hopeful. One evening I noticed a book my husband had bought, called Electronics for Biologists, by Timothy J. Gawne. I know this sounds unrelated, but bear with me.

The first chapter of the book starts with a paired set of images: a photograph of a battery connected to a resistor, and a circuit diagram representing the elements in the photograph.

First Gawne describes the items in the photograph:
Voltage varies continuously at all points, both through the wires and inside the different parts of the battery and resistor. Currents flow through the wires and components in complex patterns, much as water flow varies with position in a river, and some current leaks out of the wires to flow through the air and table-top. The circuit elements act as antennas, and so external electromagnetic sources like radio transmissions or electric lights affect the operation of the circuit. The currents flowing in the wires create external magnetic fields, which can interact with other objects. Different parts of the circuit that are not directly connected to each other can nonetheless affect each other via the electric field.
I love this description. It captures the messy, fascinating details of real electromagnetism. This is the kind of thing people should be learning about complexity. That it's rarely the only phenomenon taking place. That it can be miraculous and disastrous. That what is seen depends on who is looking. That what looks like self-organization can turn out to be organization, and vice versa. That the state of affairs can switch unexpectedly between placid stability and wild turmoil -- or not switch, for far longer than you thought possible. Some of the most exciting things about complexity, to me, are the messy, fascinating parts that never make it into a simple term like "complex adaptive system." Maybe that's why I don't like the term, because it's complexity with all the fun parts sucked out.

The second image in the electronics book is of a simplified circuit diagram. Here's how Gawne introduces it.
However, the simplified model circuit in panel B is easy to analyze. We say that this is a lumped quasi-static model. Lumped, because the full complexity of the 3D geometry is reduced to simple lumped elements connected by uni-dimensional nodes. Quasi-static because, even though such models can handle time-varying signals, they do not model the true dynamics of how electric and magnetic fields interact through space.
In panel A [the photograph], voltage is a continuous function of space. In panel B [the circuit diagram], there are only two voltages: the voltage at node 1 and the voltage at node 2. In panel A, the resistor is a physical object with real size and where current and voltage can vary in complex ways inside it. The abstract resistor in panel B has no internal structure at all, and is completely specified by its value of 1000 ohms, and by the fact that it connects node 1 with node 2. The model resistor has no other properties.
Likewise, the term "complex adaptive system" is a lumped quasi-static model for the ways in which complexity manifests itself in the world. It's like a circuit diagram: abstract, with no internal structure and only two states (complex or not; in the system or not).

I have a question for you. What would happen if people laid the messy, fascinating reality of complexity next to its simplified model and showed how they were similar and different? Would that give the model more power or less? More, I think, because people would then see it for what it is: a stepping stone, a way point on the path towards greater understanding, a tool.

Gawne explains that the circuit diagram is useful in certain contexts.
For all its simplification, the model can often provide very accurate predictions of what the real circuit will do. When is the model good enough, and when does it fail to give a sufficiently accurate model of the world? This is a tough question with no precise answer. 
He goes on to examine specific cases where a circuit diagram does fail to provide accurate predictions, such as when frequencies are high, or changes in voltage are rapid, or the circuit is physically large, or when external magnetic fields are strong. I would love to see people do that with the term "complex adaptive system." The places where the term breaks down are well known and easy to summarize (and fascinating).

I'm not saying an electronics textbook holds the key to explaining complexity. I might have been able to find a similar pairing of reality and model in dozens of other books about any number of topics. I just happened to pick up this book. But what it says to me is: It's not necessary to give up on slogans, and it's not necessary to give up on helping people understand what's really going on. The way past slogans lies in juxtaposition, in paired images. We shouldn't give people only slogans, but we shouldn't give them only the messy, fascinating details either. When it's time to put down the slogan megaphone, we can give people both views, side by side. We can help people use slogans when they are useful and put them aside when they stop being useful.

The ideas of complexity were once confined to a small number of scientists, but now they are roaming in the wide world, and they are being widely misunderstood and misapplied. I don't know if this is bothering anybody else, but it's bothering me. I think this could be a way out. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The snail rushes in

Imagine you're at a party. You went there because somebody said you just had to be there. But when you got there, you found out that everyone was talking in a strange way. Say they were all clapping when they talked, or affecting an obscure accent, or hopping on one foot. Confused, you tucked yourself into a corner, nursed your drink, and watched the room.

After some time, you began to make sense of what was going on. You kept sneaking off to the bathroom to practice the strange talk. Finally you felt that you might be ready to try talking. But as you looked around at the lively room, you felt unable to start. Should you jump into a conversation and announce yourself? Should you attempt to pretend that you'd been speaking all along, maybe across the room, and had just drifted over to a new group? Or should you give up and leave?

I've been tucking myself away in a corner of the Twitter party for a few years now, trying to make sense of what's going on. I look at Twitter every week or so, but I always come out of it like the snail who rode on the back of the turtle ("Whee!"). 

Just now I looked at Twitter, and I saw:
a poem
a cat
a fascinating quote I would need an hour to absorb
something about toilet paper
a call to action
a prediction
a picture of a doll 
And then I had to stop. I don't know how you people do this.

I am not a fragmentary thinker. When I read a book, I read every single word in the book, and I read the words in the order they appear. Twitter feels to me like a giant book I can never read from beginning to end. I find that almost physically painful. But I also can't help feeling intrigued, attracted to the light.

New people follow me on Twitter all the time, even though I never say anything. I suppose they think I might say something. I feel like I've done something wrong by being at the party but not in the party. Also, to be perfectly frank, I would like to tweet once in a while, for example when I want to ask people to help me with something (like my new card game). And I wouldn't mind putting up tweets that say "new blog post" instead of hoping somebody else does. But I don't feel right crashing the party only when it suits me. I feel I ought to contribute.

This led me to think: How could I contribute to Twitter, so that I give to it as much as I (might like to) take? I don't have much to offer the fast-paced crowd. I don't get out much, and I usually have the same thing for breakfast, and I average one thought a week.

Then I thought: What if I did post one thought a week? I do sometimes have thoughts, ideas, questions, explorations, that never grow into full essays. Writing an essay takes a lot of time, so probably only about ten percent of the essays I'd like to write get written. I could write the rest of these proto-essays to Twitter. But it should not be a thought per week; that's presumptuous. It should be a question. A question people might like to ponder. That could be my contribution.

So I thought: Okay. I'll start writing one question a week (or thereabouts) on Twitter. I'll join the party.

But then I thought: How can I tell Twitter that I'm going to post one question a week to Twitter? How can I possibly explain what I want to do in 140 characters? And then I thought, if I can't even explain why I want to post on Twitter using the rules of Twitter, do I deserve to be part of Twitter? And the whole idea got stuck there for a long time.

Finally I decided that I will have to forgive myself and start tweeting by not tweeting. So, as of this week, I intend to start posting one question per week (or thereabouts) on Twitter. To save you the trouble of going to check Twitter to find out what my first question was, I'll post it here too.
Q1. Online bandwidth is a trickle. Can we adapt to compensate? Are we trapped or have we learned helplessness? Is the cage door open?
That's a super condensed version of a blog post I have thought about writing, where I explore the ways in which people have used customs and traditions to widen the trickle of bandwidth in media from stone engravings to telegrams to penny-post letters. I don't know if anyone has already written about this issue. Finding that out would be the first part of researching the essay. I usually read for several hours before I even begin to translate thoughts into words.

I have to say, it feels mentally bruising to release a fledgling question into the world with no protection from its parent. But that is the nature of the Twitter world, as I understand it. Who knows, maybe my questions will be improved by early exposure to the world. Maybe I've been too coddling, a helicopter thinker.

You will have noticed that I gave my tweet a number. It's the only way I can bear the fragmentation. I will have to write my tweets in a coherent series, or I'll go insane. I can't read the book of Twitter from beginning to end, but I can read my contributions to it from beginning to end. Maybe I'll even keep the list of tweets here on the blog somewhere. Yes, that's the ticket. If I can write my tweets as part of a growing page, I will be able to enter into the Twitter party in perfect serenity.

I'm excited, if a bit nervous, to give myself this new challenge. I hope to see you at the party. I might stumble around a bit and get the accent wrong, but I'll give it a try.

[Edit: A week later I realized that I didn't tell you how to find me on Twitter. I'm cfkurtz there.]