The view that randomness impacts and shapes our lives in profound ways has been gaining traction since 2002 when Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky in characterizing human weaknesses when facing uncertainty. My thinking on the subject was first awakened by reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness which will give anyone who imagines they can think “rationally” a healthy dose of humble pie. A more helpful discussion can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide which The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow pays heed to our brain’s strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses. As I relayed in a post on the brain, mind and thinking, Lehrer recommends thinking about your thinking process to strengthen its decision-making function. Recently I finished reading Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives which provides an accessible, historically detailed, and elementary introduction to the sciences of randomness and uncertainty and shows how they rule our lives.

These books have started to change my thinking about the nature of reality itself: I see now that randomness and uncertainty have an essential role to play. Interestingly, I shunned probability and statistics, the sciences of randomness and uncertainty, in college because I was steeped in Euclid, logic, and Buckminster Fuller’s “generalized principles” in Synergetics. I wanted to design destiny with deliberate application of knowledge … to worship at the altar of scientific determinism. Fortunately, Bucky taught me to “dare to be naïve” so I have been open to the new evidence about randomness. Now I suspect that Bucky and I were a little off about this subtle subject. It isn’t surprising, probability and statistics are among the newer branches of mathematics having developed mostly after the calculus was well established. They have not had enough time to pervade our collective consciousness.

Do you think the world is fundamentally deterministic or random? What influences have shaped your thinking and biases about the subjects of randomness, uncertainty, probability, and statistics? Do you think the increasing focus on the role of randomness and uncertainty in our lives is an important trend?

Randomness Rules Our Lives

Is Mlodinow’s thesis that randomness rules our lives really so convincing? Evidently so. Mlodinow finds dramatic evidence of randomness in our economic lives. He retells the poignant story of Sherry Lansing who led Paramount Pictures to huge successes in seven consecutive phenomenal years. Then after three years of bad results, she left the company. Did Paramount let her go too quickly? Evidently so because the pipline she left behind was full of new hits that restored Paramount’s revenue and market share. Shouldn’t seven years of success earn the right to forgive a few bad years? What if another great leader happened to have their three consecutive bad years at the beginning of their tenure? Do we replace them before their ship comes in? Mlodinow cites many other examples including the fact that “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was rejected by publishers some 27 times before Dr. Seuss’ career launched. Mlodinow also shows that student grades are often random and independent of their skill and knowledge.

Should we insist that our students, our schools, and our business leaders perform, perform, and perform with no “bad” years allowed? Do you believe that performance results are somewhat random? We invest a lot in exam and executive performance. Given the evidence, is that wise?

Venn Diagram of sets A, B, and COne part of Kahneman’s Nobel-prize winning work addressed the conjunction fallacy. Let A, B, and C be statements represented by a colored circle in the venn diagram to the right. The only case in which they can be simultaneously true is in the small area where all three colors overlap. So it is much less likely (less area) for three statements to be simultaneously true than for any one of them to be true. However, when someone weaves a story filled with a lot of concrete details, it seems more vivid and hence more believable than the statements considered separately: that’s the conjunction fallacy. Evidence of people falling for this fallacy has been documented widely even in medicine and the court room. We humans are easily duped by a good story!

It is surprising that the Nobel prize for the work showing how “blind” humans are to the elementary logic of the conjunction fallacy was only awarded one decade ago! Humanity has only just yesterday identified this basic weakness in our cognitive function! Add to the conjunction fallacy the many other fallacies and biases that Taleb, Lehrer, and Mlodinow show us to be subject to and one can see that Emanuel Lasker who was world chess champion for 27 years got it right: “In life we are all duffers”!

What is the significance of our weakness in understanding uncertainty? Do these weaknesses of the human mind subject us to the ravages of randomness? Are they a consequence of an inherent randomness in reality? Or do they simply lead to the appearance of randomness?

Our weakness extends to our sensory organs and perception as well. Mlodinow notes

Human perception … is not a direct consequence of reality but rather an act of imagination. Perception requires imagination because the data people encounter in their lives are never complete and always equivocal.

Mlodinow illustrates the problem by explaining that the human visual system sends “the brain a shaky, badly pixelated picture with a hole in it” (due to the relative weakness of our vision outside the fovea and the blind spot). In addition to conjunction bias, the sharp shooter effect, the hot-hand fallacy, availability bias, confirmation bias, and more, it becomes evident that “When we look closely, we find that many of the assumptions of modern society are based … on shared illusions.” And his conclusion

It is important in our own lives to take the long view and understand that streaks and other patterns that don’t appear random can indeed happen by pure chance. It is also important, when assessing others, to recognize that among a large group of people it would be very odd if one of them didn’t experience a long streak of successes or failures.

What shared illusions do we hold? How often are our lives subject to pure chance events? How important is serendipity? Do you believe that a long series of failures or successes is just the result of luck? When is it luck and when is it skill? How can we tell the difference?

The problem of randomness is deeper still: even machine-enhanced human sensing and measurement are fundamentally random! In Walter Lewin’s excellent video introducing physics and measurement in MIT OCW’s Physics I course, he says “Any measurement that you make without any knowledge of the uncertainty is meaningless.” Understanding uncertainty is at the heart of scientific measurement. No physics experiment ever found an exact match between theory and the laws of nature: data points always appear at random! Then add in effects like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and we see that randomness and uncertainty are vital elements of experience: they are pervasive.

In view of the elementary role of uncertainty in our perceptual and physical experience, what can we say about reality? What is reality if experience is so imprecise, fuzzy, uncertain, and fallible?

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Glibert Strang’s 18.06 Linear Algebra course at MIT OpenCourseWare is exquisite! Jeannie and I went through it about a year ago. Strang’s approach to the material and engaging teaching style make the course a joy. Unlike other OER (Open Educational Resources) courses that we have taken, I cannot recommend just watching the videos. Instead one needs to really think about the concepts which is greatly facilitated by doing the exercises: this is typical for mathematics. It took significant effort to master the content. The material builds quickly and it was essential for us to work hard on each lecture. On several occasions we re-watched the videos and had to read the text carefully and collate with other on-line resources (some provided or referenced in the wonderful OpenCourseWare materials but some found by web searching, Wikipedia, etc.). We also used resources from our library (personal and public).

Jeannie and I were able to enjoy the whole course but it definitely took significant effort. This is the only video course that we have thoroughly studied and it was worth it!

Are there any other OER video courses on linear algebra? I have not found any which is a shame for such important material.

Linear algebra is one of the most useful branches of mathematics beyond introductory (high school) algebra and geometry. It is the algebraic study of intersections of complexes of lines, planes and hyperplanes and therefore has a strong geometrical component. Since each coordinate in the Cartesian representation of a line can be thought of as a variable, linear algebra provides a first order or “linear” approximation to multivariable systems. It is therefore a widespread and fundamental tool. Linear algebra has found applications in business, economics, engineering, genetics, computer graphics, social sciences, graph theory and much more. It is essential for anyone wanting to understand advanced mathematics. The matrix or an array of numbers is the basic object of study in linear algebra. So it is sometimes called matrix theory. Vector spaces are the abstract form of linear algebra.

Is that a good characterization of linear algebra? How would you improve it?

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As citizens aboard SpaceShip Earth, we need to understand the principles of science and technology that shape our world. We need this knowledge to become effective co-designers of the world that Humanity is collectively building for today and tomorrow. We need to conceptually apprehend and comprehend how the Universe actually operates so we can better contribute to steering the forces that continually reshape our worlds. What are the most important concepts needed to proficiently build, use, steward, and re-generate the infrastructure of civilization on an on-going basis? Where can we get the information needed in terms that is easy to understand, easy to relate to, easy to use, and relevant to the problems we all face today and into the future?

Although Berkeley‘s free video course Physics C10/LS C70V: Physics for future Presidents AKA Descriptive Introduction to Physics is not the answer to all of these questions, it will explain the basic physics that is necessary to critically evaluate much of the information that inundates us each day. This course will significantly increase your ability to think more confidently about the heady questions above. It is a first step.

Is there an on-line video course that does a better job than Physics C10/LS C70V of explaining the broadly relevant principles needed to understand the big issues of the day?

In 2000, when Richard Muller started teaching a new course, Physics C10/LS C70V: Physics for future Presidents AKA Descriptive Introduction to Physics, at Berkelely he asked himself what are the principles and facts from physics that a student should understand to be able to make effective decisions on the Big issues of the day should they become President of the United States? From this ambitious question, a course was designed that is eminently useful. Even though it is oriented to the non-scientist, Physics majors at Berkeley can take the course for credit toward their degree, meaning it is even useful for scientists!

In an introductory post on the OER (Open Educational Resources) Movement, I explained that the Internet now offers illions of educational resources many with free video lectures. I’ve spent several years searching for and enjoying on-line video courses and Physics C10 is the most broadly relevant course with the most critical information for understanding how the world works that I have found. Everyone should watch, enjoy and think about this most enriching class of some 35 hours of free on-line video lectures!

What resources do you use to get comprehensively educated about the principles of science and technology and how they are changing our civilization so rapidly? What is the most important or broadly useful OER course that you have found on the Internet?

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Recently I had occasion to speculate that existentialism may be characterized as a thread of thought that advocates and honors the individual’s unrestrained freedom of choice in building meaning, defining personal responsibility and formulating personal authenticity in a discussion at the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.

Existentialism does not seem to provide a world view or school of philosophy since the thread of thought that it represents has been incorporated by various thinkers into philosophical systems of diverse and even conflicting character (from fascism to socialism to communism to objectivism; from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, Heideger, Sarte, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Ayn Rand, and Simone de Beauvoir). So the way in which the honored values of “existentialism” are developed and expressed varies considerably from thinker to thinker. I conclude it is an element of philosophy and not a philosophy unto itself.

I note there are some existentialist threads in Buckminster Fuller’s thinking. Bucky’s title “No More Secondhand God” suggests that the individual should build their own personal God. The following quote speaks deeply about authenticity, personal meaning and cosmic responsibility:

The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.

— R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

The discussion group felt, and I will also speculate, that some degree of honoring freedom of choice in building meaning and personal responsibility are evident in most thinkers today. Witness the expression “personal relationship with God” which would put an existentialist garb on Christianity. History suggests that before the modern era family, profession, religion, economic status, crown and country precluded an individual interpretation of life’s mysteries. So it may be that existentialist thinking is a new way of thinking characteristic of modernity. Now, it seems existentialist thinking has become omni-present. Is that because of or in spite of the fact that most of us have little evident bearing on the events that comprise most “news” stories?

Frankly, I do not know that much about existentialism, so I’m wondering what others can add to my characterization and speculations? How would we measure or demonstrate that existentialism has become pervasive in modern thinking? When did the trend start? Are there any who still think of the individual as just a cog in the wheels of bigger forces and not an active builder of their own reality? Or was existentialism prevalent in pre-modern thinking too and I just haven’t yet tuned into its historical threads (the Wikipedia article on existentialism suggests that the Buddha, Saint Augustine, and even Hamlet exhibited existentialist thinking, but pre-moderns may have had just a flicker of insight with no real consciousness of the modern sense of individualism)?

Please let me know your thoughts on these questions in the comments. Thanks.

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In Buckminster Fuller’s essay Guinnea Pig B, he lays out the hypothesis that the purpose of Humans in Universe is to support the integrity of cosmic evolution:

In our immediate need to discover more about ourselves we also note that what is common to all human beings in all history is their ceaseless confrontation by problems, problems, problems. We humans are manifestly here for problem-solving and, if we are any good at problem-solving, we don’t come to utopia, we come to more difficult problems to solve. That apparently is what we’re here for, so I therefore conclude that we humans are here for local information-gathering and local problem-solving with our minds having access to the design principles of the Universe and — I repeat — thereby finally discover that we are most probably here for local information-gathering and local-Universe problem-solving in support of the integrity of eternally regenerative Universe.
—R. Buckminster Fuller

This precept of the function of Humans in Universe is, to me, one of the most deeply motivating responsibilities that I have ever taken on as a working hypothesis. I love the way it engages me as a co-designer in Universe. And I love the way in which it inspires me to a higher purpose.

Recently I read a National Geographic news article that Time Will End in Five Billion Years, Physicists Predict and my mind went into a tizzy. The following fairy tale emerged:

A Cosmic Evolution Fantasy

Captain’s log of Brenda S______ dated 5,000,002,010 CE (that is, 5 three-illion, 2 one-illion and 10 years CE).

Galaxy Cluster (NASA)“I have just returned to Earth after a 7,042 year survey of our galaxy cluster testing the integrity of the fabric of space-time throughout the isotropic vector matrix. What a trip! Our team has verified that all the millennia of research and development by countless humans and other sentients throughout Universe has succeeded in holding time together: the Universe will continue for the foreseeable future! We have verified that all vital parameters for managing the entirety of the cosmos are within fail-safe tolerances!

“Of course, there are a few issues (there always are);

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Although I have always been interested in the mind and thinking, I have been suspicious of psychology and the cognitive sciences. Recently, I’ve been impressed by several TED Talks that address new ideas in the sciences of the mind. These subjects are starting to provide valuable insights into how the world really works. It is still wise to be skeptical, but we might have made enough mistakes in psychology that we now have some groundwork upon which to start figuring out what is really going on in our heads.

So I was delighted with the chance to go into more depth in the science of decision making by reading Jonah Lehrer’s 2009 book How We Decide and participating in a discussion with the Ben Franklin Thinking Society. First, some overall impressions of the book. I thought Lehrer gave a good account of how the emotional brain works and some strengths and weaknesses in our decision making. I really value how he presents so many examples of experiences and experiments to illustrate the subject. His conclusion, though adequate, did not bring it altogether for me (cognitive dissonanace is a good thing and it helped me write this post!). Jeannie was turned off by Lehrer’s bone-chilling accounts of airplane crashes and psychopaths. However, we both learned a lot about the neuroscience of decision making. For me it was a good read, if not a great book.

The nature of emotions

One major omission from the book was the lack of a diagram showing the relationships among the brain regions discussed. Jeannie drew a rough sketch entitled Brain Turmoil below to give some sense of how the pieces fit.Brain Turmoil by Jeannie Moberly

Apparently, the brain uses dopamine-mediated “prediction” neurons to recognize patterns (a dopamine “high” if the pattern fits and a “low” if the pattern is “off”). This effect delivers our “feelings” to a decision making center in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). In Lehrer’s synthesis the brain considers these often conflicting signals from its various parts until it forms a decision. Jeannie’s designation Brain Turmoil is apt: chapter 7 is entitled “The Brain Is an Argument”.

As I re-read Lehrer’s text trying to pinpoint what emotions are, I found his description too vague. Still I synthesized this working hypothesis: emotions are the self-communicated feelings, intuitions, or instincts formed by dopamine-mediated pattern detection centers in the brain. This gives a nice concrete notion of the nature of emotions that seems to fit well enough with the text and my experience. Does anyone know a better characterization of emotions?

Mistake Mystique

The message from the (sometimes excessively repetitive) middle part of the book is that both our “rational” and “emotional” brains can make serious mistakes. Lehrer recounts the emotional brain’s proclivity to find a pattern in any situation leading to grave errors whenever randomness is in play. For example, he explains the gamblers fallacy where one is rapturously deceived by occasional but completely random winnings leading to thoughts that “my turn has come” and the likelihood of bigger losses. He debunks the notion of streaks in sports citing the research of Gilovich, Vallone & Tversky that shows they are just random events that our brain misinterprets. There are more stories of this nature in the book. I had already encountered several from reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which goes into great depth on this deficiency in the brain. Taleb details our weaknesses, but Lehrer also highlights some of our strengths and addresses how to make better decisions.

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For the past couple of years, Jeannie and I have been engaged as students using so-called “open educational resources” (OER). We’ve “taken” a number of courses at MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW), OpenYaleCourses as well as dabbling in material from numerous other schools around the Internet.

I first read Buckminster Fuller’s short book Education Automation many years ago. I was amazed at Fuller’s foresight in advocating so much of what has now become the OER movement. Then a week ago I led a Ben Franklin Thinking Society discussion on Buckminster Fuller and the Open Educational Resources Movement. Here are my reflections on what I learned from preparing and participating in that discussion.

The Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement

The OER movement is simply an Internet-powered expansion of the time-honored practice of students and teachers sharing materials and ideas. On the Internet this sharing can include video and guided tutorials as well as traditional media such as lecture notes, homework assignments, textbooks, and exams. All of these materials were more difficult and more expensive to share before high-bandwidth Internet and modern computer systems became widespread. A group of educators has tried to define the OER movement in the 2007 CapeTown Open Education Declaration. Here is a short excerpt which gives the gist:

Unlocking the promise of open educational resources

We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.

During the discussion, I asked participants if they had used any OER materials. Many of them had not. But I was excited to learn that one of the participants studied Linear Algebra with video lectures by Gilbert Strang. Jeannie and I put more time into that excellent course (even doing all of the homework, quizzes, and two and a half final exams) than any other OER course we’ve worked through.

As a self-learner, one of the most important elements of OER courses to me is that I can choose how to use the materials (unlike in school where one is more or less told what to do). For example, there are some courses where I just want an overview or a feeling for the subject, but I may not need to master the material. Like when we studied Introductory Biology at MIT’s OCW, we watched the videos and only briefly looked at the lecture notes. We skipped the homework and the tests. We quickly ignored the parts that were not, at that moment, of interest. I think this is a big improvement over school where I frequently suffered from wanting to go into more depth than the course in some parts and less depth in others. Using OER I can get the education I want, when I want it!

It should be noted that the OER movement has been partly inspired (according to this good review article on open educational resources in Communications of the ACM) by the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) movement. I find this fascinating since I have long been involved in the FOSS / Linux world (I’ve written about that extensively in the managing FOSS blog). Fuller’s global vision has foreseen elements of both movements.

To find out more about OER, the wikipedia entry can get you started.

Buckminster Fuller on Education: Prescient Harbinger of the OER Movement

To prepare for the Ben Franklin Thinking Society discussion, I re-read Education Automation twice. That led to these five quotes on Bucky’s thinking on education including how he foresaw elements of the OER Movement. The quotes and my commentary expand the discussion to address some broader issues in education as well. The quotes are all from Education Automation which was published way back in 1962.

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Welcome to the Syntropy Blog

datePosted on 22 October 2010 by cjf

I enjoy writing my other blog which is Managing FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) for Business Results. But I keep wanting to write about things that are far afield from the computer side of my life, so I thought it was time to start a blog with a more general purview.

Although, as is my wont, this blog is rather ambitiously scoped to support increasing syntropy in local Universe, I deeply understand that trial-and-error is the only way we humans learn. So I expect to make a lot of mistakes (the alternative is to learn too little which is less interesting).

With your help, dear reader, and your feedback, I am sure that we can work through any issues and work together “in support of eternally regenerative Universe” (a Buckminster Fuller expression that I particularly like).

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