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The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works.

The Gulf oil spill is probably a case of complexity reaching the threshold. It was literally impossible for anyone to know if the oil rig was safe or not. The engineering was too complex. I'm sure management thought it was safe, or hoped it was safe, or hallucinated that it was safe. It wasn't possible to know for sure.

Maybe someday we'll learn there was one person who skipped a safety step, but that's exactly the sort of thing you can't get away with in a less complex world, where everyone understands the whole process and can notice a mistake. It's our nature to blame a specific person for a specific screw-up, but complexity is what guarantees mistakes will happen and won't be caught.

Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn't know why.

The financial meltdown, health care, defense spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East - you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity.

Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.

Try leaving the house with the family. It used to be as simple as getting in the car and driving away. Lately it has become more complicated than the Normandy invasion. You need cell phones, car chargers, iPods, sunglasses, address for the navigation unit, and sweaters, if not layers. Someone needs a snack, and someone needs an Advil. There's something you need to drop off along the way. Remember to stop at a mailbox, then pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and get gas. Then remember that the iron might be plugged in, and drive back home to check. Repeat.

Recently I got a very cool Garmin watch/GPS device for running. It can do so many things that the interface is unfathomable to me when considered in the context of my busy life. To be clear, I am completely capable of figuring out how to use the device, given enough time and attention, but the complexity of the rest of my life guarantees that this happy day of understanding will never come. So I wore the watch to a party and asked a friend how to activate the distance tracking function. I'll stop my learning there, since that's the main thing I wanted the device for. I have comics to draw and blog posts to write. No more time for Garmin.

It's not an accident that the recent leaders of China have been trained engineers. They've done a great job in an immensely complicated situation. Engineers are trained to deal with complexity.

I wonder if we should start requiring in our leaders a background that shows they can deal with complexity. Lawyers and engineers have that training. I assume that doctors and economists have what it takes. Ironically, a degree in political science alone is probably a red flag that a person might not be suited for the complexities of holding office. Taking it a step further, if your elected representative majored in English, he's probably relying on reflex, polls, superstition or bribery to make his decisions. Good luck with that.

[On another topic, check out my article for the Wall Street Journal that grew out of this blog. It's getting a lot of attention.]



 
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-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 15, 2010
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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2010
I agree that engineers would make ideal political leaders. However, this might explain why they sometimes have trouble getting elected:
http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2004-06-27/
 
 
Jun 10, 2010
Here (the Netherlands) our parliament spends most of their times on Twitter. It´s like one of those strips where you see the crew going clicketyclick under their desks with their blackberry´s. Decisions are made there and all our ministers could do was Twitter and make snide comments about eachothers´ wardrobe. Pathetic, though we just had our elections so I´m hoping this will change.

And heck Scott, maybe a niche will open up for you to make a nice Dilbert goes to parliament series! (still halfway the 2007 strips, darned people who call tech support!)

Cheers!
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2010
What's a "mailbox"?
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2010
You know what complicates things? WIVES.

Disclaimer: This is from a guy's POV, so it may be somewhat biased.

Let's look at how wives complicate matters using just a few basic examples:

1. Dressing for the day. I throw on a pair of jeans, polo-style shirt, casual shoes, and I'm out the door in 15 minutes. My wife will take 30 minutes in the shower to exfoliate every possible inch of skin. This is followed by another 45 minutes of selecting which clothes to wear -- the infamous "I don't have anything to wear" syndrome. Then, another 30 minutes with the hair-styling thing, doing make up with instruments as fine as surgical tools, and then RE-TOUCHING everything. Reminds me of depot-level aircraft maintenance...

2. Shoes. I have a pair of shoes for work, and a pair for hanging out. That's it. My wife gives Imelda Marcos a run for the roses. Last time I counted, there were 30 pairs in the closet: This pair of shoes only goes with a certain dress. That pair can only be worn with a certain nail color. These shoes are only for wearing while I'm deciding which pair I am going to wear for shopping. This pair is for church. That pair is for gossiping. Etc...

3. Kids. With me, if they're still alive, they're fine. With the wife, every bruise is a sign that I'm obviously not being attentive. Every sneeze is a Bird Flu hybrid. Every cough is pneumonia. Every cry is I'm abusing them. If they don't have the latest and greatest educational DVD, they won't even get into Vo-Tech. If they miss a day brushing their teeth, they will be toothless come morning. But, on the flip side, if I don't let them have candy, I'm depriving them.

4. Worst-case scenarios. Something bad is multiplied 1000 times. You've heard it before: "You took the baby out in the rain? Why did you do that?! He's going to get wet, and will catch a cold! It will turn into polio, and he'll end up in an iron lung! We'll have to go in the poor house to keep him alive! We'll be living in a box under a bridge! I will never be able to face my friends again! I'll miss my soap operas!!!" Gotta have priorities...

5. Trips. When I want to go somewhere, I just get in the car and go. Maybe take a bottle of water. With the wife, well, for a 2-hour trip with both kids we need a week's supply of milk, regular diapers, swim diapers (there might be a pool in the store), 2 outfits of clothes each, a Santa sack of toys and books, car seats, strollers, maybe a babysitter, and because my wife is Filipina, at least 5-7 friends and assorted family members.

I remember the first time she and I took a road trip together in the Philippines. She asked that I rent a van. Did that. 10-pax. Didn't think anything of it. I told her I was looking forward to having some time alone together. We get ready to leave. I tell the driver, "Let's go!" Wife says, "We have to wait for the others!"

Uhhhh...What others?

Along comes her mother, 2 sisters, her brother, 3 nieces and nephews, and coolers of food, drinks, etc. I told the wife, "I thought we were going alone?" Her reply: "We are. They are just coming along since we have the van." Got a headache figuring that one out.

Laugh, but you know it's true. Wives are the Complicator Prime.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
You have no idea how gigantic amounts of complexity is successfully handled all the time.
Individually we are all too stupid and clueless to build modern cars, computers, satellites
etc. but in large groups with narrow fields of expertise we humans can handle any
complex system. For example, fixing Y2K problems on time is probably the largest, most complex, time critical and expensive global engineering project in human history.

Its not that word has suddenly became too complicated. Its that greed has hit levels where
many of us would literally destroy the planet and kill everyone in it to benefit
shareholders.

BP knew for 11 months that the oil rig was a disaster waiting to happen,
but chose to do nothing. They continued to ignore the problems when those problems
became freaking obvious hours before the "accident".

The US and Creek economic crisis was also foreseeable to any economists participating in
their creation.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
I have a theory about complexity, as well. My theory is that the human brain is only capable of holding, say, five items in our memory at once. (Obviously, it differs by individual.) More than that, you need some kind of system - mnemonic devices, notepads, etc...

So if you're going shopping and need more than a handful of things, you need a shopping list.

Lists are great for simple things. Shopping lists. Pre-flight checklists. You look at the list and see at a glance where you are -- what you've already checked off, and what you still need to do/buy.

Then, if you need to keep track of things happening at different times, you need a calendar. Otherwise, if you need to get to more than a handful of appointments or calls or events, you start missing them. With a calendar, you can see at a glance what appointments you've got coming up and if you're running late to anything or if you've got any conflicts.

For most people, a combination of the two -- lists and calendars -- is enough to manage the complexity in their lives.

But if your life is more complicated, then you get into project management tools. I think one reason that engineers are good at managing complex things is that they know how to use project management tools.

These tools can be simple charts (on paper, or on a giant board on a wall) or on a computer.

They break a project down into sub-projects, and track when each sub-project has to be completed by, and who's in charge of it. And they often show the status of each sub-project (say, 50% completed, or "hit a snag") so you can tell at a glance what's going on.

In the last year or so, we've seen a whole crop of free and low-cost project management tools crop up, like Basecamp, and Zoho Projects, and Zipline, which greatly simplify the use of project management tools and help people learn how to use them.

Now, if you've only got a couple of projects going on in your life, you can just keep them in your head. But if you've got more than a handful, and are having trouble keeping track where you are with everything (and especially if your projects depend on other people, and you need to keep track of where THEY are with everything) then a project management tool can help.

-- Maria
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
I hate the stupid censorship software on this blog. The word that was blanked in my previous post was c-o-c-k-p-i-t. Obviously, the synonym for rooster cannot be mentioned in polite company. Absurd.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
Interestingly enough, you are, in your own humble way, restating the "Precautionary Principle." One statement of the Precautionary Principle came from the Wingspread statement, to wit: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof."

Note the "precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." What that means, in layman's terms, is that if somebody postulates something could be harmful, and they can get enough people to get scared enough, they should be able to spend a lot of other people's money to counter it - regardless of the cost, regardless of other effects on the economy, regardless of whether or not such an action will have any meaningful result. This is the kind of thinking that goes into proposed laws such as Cap-and-Trade. For the purpose of this discussion, then, let's leave the "who cares if it's real or not" section out of the discussion.

Based on a belief in the Precautionary Principle, many feel that we should not go ahead with a new technology, or persist with an old one, unless we are convinced that it is safe. If you go back in time a few years and remember the late Dr. Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park," he has one of his characters talk about increasing complexity in systems virtually guaranteeing that they will break down. The more complex the system, the argument goes, the more chances there are for failure. Stated another way: simple good, complex bad.

But let's take a step back. The underlying assumption in all of this is that the number one goal of anything anyone does should be in making sure that it is totally, completely and absolutely safe. This assumption, IMHO, is absurd in the extreme. Life is risk, period. You can't take a breath without taking some kind of risk.

Critics of the Precautionary Measure state (and I agree with them) that if adopted, it would of necessity cause all technological progress, and much existing technology, to grind to a stop. This is not a good thing, because it assumes that only bad can come from any not-absolutely-safe piece of technology, or at least that any good that technology can provide can never outweigh the possibility that some bad may happen as well.

Taken to absurd lengths, one could make the argument that, since airplanes can be taken over by terrorists and flown into buildings, that we should not allow any flights of any kind until we can guarantee that planes can never be used this way again.

If you think about it, that's pretty much what our response to 9/11 has been. It has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and huge amounts of wasted and lost time to try to 1) keep terrorists off of airplanes by screening passengers regardless of their potential terrorist-ness, and 2) beef up !$%*!$% doors so no one can get into them. The much more logical way to do this would be to arm pilots and hire a whole crapload of sky marshals and explosive-sniffing dogs. We'd save billions, you could enjoy air travel again, and airlines might start to be profitable. That's pretty much what the Israelis do, along with (gasp! No! NOOOOO!) profiling those who fit into the terrorist mold. And guess what? No El-Al airliner has ever been hijacked.

A more logical approach to such things is to do risk-reward analysis of potential new technology; do as much as is practicable to ensure safety, while at the same time realizing that no system is perfect and a certain amount of failure is inevitable. Take a new, life-saving drug that has potential deadly side-effects. Who should ultimately decide if a patient, after being fully informed of both the possible risks and the possible rewards, should take that drug or not?

If you answered, "the government," then you deserve what you get when they forbid you to attempt to save your own life, or the life of a loved one. If you answered, "Me," then be prepared to accept responsibility for your decision if it turns out badly. Between the two, I'd always choose the latter, because I take responsibility for my decisions, and realize that all decisions involve risk.

How about you?
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
I agree with Ellenra. Driving a car I can't possibly fix makes me nervous. My HVAC system is all electronic - expensive to repair, and touchy any time there's a storm. My oven won't ignite without electricity. I know this is a safety feature, but still it complicates the process. I can tell my household has become more complex by a simple measure: our electric bill has doubled in the last 5 years. We've become energy gluttons. We gorge ourselves with new electronics that have to be charged, new and usually bigger appliances, bigger everything. Case in point: my first house was built in 1926, had two bedrooms and one bathroom. The first owner had 4 children in that house (980 square feet) and never added anything to the original design. It had a full basement, which we partially finished for utility space and storage. Each room had exactly one electrical outlet. We had one television. Every time I got promoted, it meant a move, to include a larger house. Now, we have 2700 square feet (still do 90% of life in 4 rooms). In each room, at least three outlets, phone and network connections. I long for that first house. I can see how my could easily live in that house, just by simplifying how we live. That said, we plan on down-sizing as soon as the housing market stabilizes. At least we'll be doing our part to minimize our footprint.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
I agree with Ellenra. Driving a car I can't possibly fix makes me nervous. My HVAC system is all electronic - expensive to repair, and touchy any time there's a storm. My oven won't ignite without electricity. I know this is a safety feature, but still it complicates the process. I can tell my household has become more complex by a simple measure: our electric bill has doubled in the last 5 years. We've become energy gluttons. We gorge ourselves with new electronics that have to be charged, new and usually bigger appliances, bigger everything. Case in point: my first house was built in 1926, had two bedrooms and one bathroom. The first owner had 4 children in that house (980 square feet) and never added anything to the original design. It had a full basement, which we partially finished for utility space and storage. Each room had exactly one electrical outlet. We had one television. Every time I got promoted, it meant a move, to include a larger house. Now, we have 2700 square feet (still do 90% of life in 4 rooms). In each room, at least three outlets, phone and network connections. I long for that first house. I can see how my could easily live in that house, just by simplifying how we live. That said, we plan on down-sizing as soon as the housing market stabilizes. At least we'll be doing our part to minimize our footprint.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2010
I guess we weren't enough for Scott.
He's defected to the more lucrative WSJ.

But then, I'm still not over the loss of the List of the Day.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
Hello Adams,

Our latest Prime Minister Mr. Kan happens to come from Tokyo Institute of Technology. He majored applied physics. Does it mean that we can expect him to deal with deteriorating political and economical situation in Japan? At least I think he was trained as a scientist.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
A note about the word safe:
Saying that something that is safe implies that you know for a fact that it is safe.

If something is too complicated to be certain about it's safety then it is inherently unsafe because you can't know when it is truly safe and when you only think it's safe.

It seems obvious (to me) that everything about fossil fuels and nuclear energy is patently unsafe but we appear to be willing to accept the risk until something melts down or explodes and destroys a big piece of the environment. Then we have a big discusson about 'Is it safe? Why didn't we know it wasn't safe?" and so on.
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
Oops, I should have run that through the ASCII filter first. That should have been Lagasse's Derivation of Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently complex system is indistinguishable from randomness."

Sorry for all the @#$% !
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
This reminds me of something that I came up with last year, which I call Lagasse’s Derivation of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently complex system is indistinguishable from randomness.”
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
Scott, if you want to reduce the complexity of using your Garmin, go to runningahead.com and create a free account. It will pull all your data for you and display it in a nice and easy to read format. There are other websites that will even pull weather and elevation change data, but this is all you need and it’s much easier to read than the watch display - especially for a guy your age...;)
 
 
Jun 9, 2010

Ah!, the complexity of modern life - just multiply by a few million families and you get around 20 horror stories (US) per year:-

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549.html

Luckily we usually just get the lunch boxes mixed up... or leave the dog tethered to the school fence for half an hour or so....




 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 9, 2010
is the adams complexity method a post hoc addendum to your bet on scientists and engineers, or is it your way of explaining why you lost that bet?
 
 
Jun 9, 2010
Tony Blair (former Prime Minister of England. that got us into a bazillian ££ debt) was a lawer... nuff said...
 
 
 
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