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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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Jun 9, 2010
Let's rephrase the Adams Complexiity Threshold. Complexity is what guarantees Wally's mistakes won't get caught. Simplicity is why I won't eat a birthday cake sprayed with your candle-blowing spit.
 
 
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Jun 9, 2010
An excellent article in the Wall Street Journal! It's like a good blog post, only better. The right mix of seriousness and humor.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010

Do we really require leaders that can deal in complexity? Should have thought its the other way around. We require leaders who can stop things from getting unnecessarily complex. People who can get to the crux of a problem can solve it, not people who run around in circles complicating things.

Lawyers, by the way are the worst example of leaders. The Law is supposed to be an instrument of justice. But in most countries in the world, the complexities of law mostly serve to delay and deny justice. The entire judicial system works best when it is (mis)used to subvert a right and perpetuate a wrong. I shudder to think of a world ruled by lawyers (though we are probably already close to that already).

BTW, the WSJ article is great.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
Complexity?

Have a look at financial derivatives. The more you know, the more you want to take your money out of the bank/brokerage as coins and slip them into your mattress. I took a graduate level course from an authority in the field. Passed the course. Wouldn't touch a derivative with Tiger Wood's ... putter.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
PS - I noticed you had a character named Beverly in the strip recently... and even though you spelled it "wrong" it was kind of neat to (almost) see my own name in Dilbert. Now, if she'd just been "Beverley" it would have been very cool :)
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
Happy birthday, hope your break-room party didn't involve too much spit ;)
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
Complexity is why, despite living in Houston (home of NASA-JSC), I don't support a manned space program. Until such a time as humans can make a simpler spacecraft, we have no business doing it. This is somewhat of a catch-22, since it's hard to improve something without a prior version upon which to improve. Unfortunately, this country has a lot of banner-waving "patriots" who are worried about losing our "superiority" in space. I just don't think blowing people up is a good way to maintain our preeminence. (Hmm, that last sentence may apply to our affairs in Iraq & Afghanistan as well, but I didn't intend to get so political.)
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
Isn't this your confusopoly idea?

Loved the post and the article, although I'm surprised to hear you're having trouble with the iPhone. I got one as an early wedding gift (I'm indifferent to Apple generally) and I love it! Although my fiance finds it hard to type on...maybe small hands are useful afterall?

Happy Birthday!

Ellenra: My Singer appears to be from about WWII, all mechanical, works like a charm. They just don't make them like they used to.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
I wouldn't say lawyers make good leaders. Lawyers are good at use complication and confusion to their advantage. Many times they're the opposite of problem solvers as they try to cast confuse on certainty. That would mean they could make some of the most dangerous leaders as their ability to obfuscate every situation would cause uncertainty that only a select few would understand. In that situation the people would not know who to vote for which is a step closer to authoritarianism.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
There is generally not "one" missed step that leads to disaster. Most large failures are usually the result of numerous things going wrong. The BP spill had many inflection points where if something had been done or something stopped, the catastrophe would not have happened. Even Chernobyl occurred from one wrong move after the other. Similarly, there are many organizations/people that have some blame for the recent financial crisis, but there is not one single entity that did it all. What is probably needed are more rigorous types of checklists that halt comlex operations until each item is resolved.

And the idea that there are or could be business people or politicians that are "smart" enough to deal with all the world's complex systems is absurd on its face of reality.

 
 
Jun 8, 2010
Scott -- I agree with everything you said, but would add a little more. As things have gotten progressively more complex through the entire span of the history of humanity, we've needed to get more and more comfortable with uncertainty. Yes, even getting the kids into a car to head out for a trip has become complex, but we still want to take trips. Airplanes have millions of individual parts, dozens of which are not functioning correctly at any particular moment. Yet, we still want to fly in airplanes. We shouldn't shy from complex environments, we should try to better understand their natures. You're absolutely right that eventually we may find out what happend on the oil rig, and we should fix that going forward on other rigs, but that won't prevent some other type of problem in the future. Systems that can accomodate some failure and continue are strong; systems that fall apart in the face of failure, are weak ones.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
Scott,

It's not that often (lately) that you hit a Grand Slam as dead on as this one, but you totally got it this time!!

There are SO many things in here that can be aptly and correctly applied so VERY many aspects of my world at the moment (both work (a major auto maker) and home (now married with 5 kids (3 hers, one mine, one "ours"))).

I have a feeling I'm going to be printing this out on 11x17 sheets and posting copies, both here *and* at home.

Thanks, once again, for putting into words what I haven't had the time to sit down and do. (It'd be too complicated, and I don't have time for that...)
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
"leaders of China have... done a great job"

Put down the Thomas Friedman column, and slowly back away.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
I've been noticing this for years. Humans just can't leave well enough alone. When (insert anything here) works perfectly the human race will re-refine it into incompetence. Why? Because eventually, no matter how incredibly efficient something is there's always some Wag out there insisting it could be better. Even though there's no rational reason to tinker with it, eventually people buy into the need for "continuous improvement" until the entire thing collapses. Then we make excuses like, it would've happened anyway, it was only a matter of time, etc. Entire neighborhoods are not immune. In my parent's day each American neighborhood consisted of everything anyone needed within walking distance. My parent's never owned a car in their entire lives! How's that for decreasing your carbon footprint? Yet, another trait of human nature is, we never go back. Even when, clearly, it would make perfect sense to do so.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
Happy B-day!

I think government has a lot to do with adding complexity. Some failure happens and those in charge feel they have to earn their constituents votes by "doing something." This usually results in regulations that work as well as the Maginot Line stopped Hitler.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
I might recommend Joseph Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies." http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Complex-Societies-Studies-Archaeology/dp/052138673X

 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 8, 2010
todayshighlights@answers.com

Happy Birthday!
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
I largely agree with this sentiment, but I'd offer this: You can have a "working" system of near-infinite complexity as long as individual parts are sufficiently modular, and require a very finite number of interactions. I'd cite "the web" as a good example of this, but... software developers increasingly seem to ignore (or misunderstand) any principle concerning simplicity or modularity.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
Happy Birthday, Scott. nice hint in today's comic, too.
 
 
Jun 8, 2010
But complexity can be dealt with. Apple is intensely successful these days (whether you like their products or not) because they took very complex things - an iPhone contains very complex circuits, a display screen, scads of complicated software, cellular transmissions to link to, etc. - but made it a simple and intuitive experience for the majority of their users.

The Horizon offshore project was complex on a completely different level, but BP took shortcuts and looked for expense reductions rather than ensuring that the complexity of their safety systems was reduced to something they could stand by with confidence. Now they're paying for it, and unfortunately, so are we all.
 
 
 
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