In a recent post I discussed “Developing an Inferiority Complex”, in which I tried to help you (and me) see how dismal our intellectual achievements may be and how we are not likely to achieve as much in life as the competent professors who teach the Great Courses. There have been so many people who have been helped—not that they would mention it so as not to lose their new skill—that I have decided to pursue the matter further.
This time I am going to explore another of the Great Courses, one entitled “Understanding Complexity” by Professor Scott E. Page, who is Collegiate Professor of Political Science, Complex Systems, and Economics at the University of Michigan. And that is not all: he has taught at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Iowa and is also involved at the think tank of forefront research into complexity theory. Now, if all that diverse intellectual background does not make one feel weak in the knees and drive us towards inferiority, nothing will.
The great wonder and mark of faith is that Professor Page believes that he can help us understand complexity. He is going to do so in 12 lessons, not 5 or 500, but it will require some “computational modeling”.
Lecture One, which is aptly called “Complexity—what is it? Why does it matter?” sets the tone for the eleven lectures that follow. It is somewhat difficult for Dr Page to define complexity and will be even harder for us to follow, but he tries: “we mean that it consists of interdependent, diverse entities, and we assume that those entities adapt—that they respond to their local and global environments”. In my words, when you mix a lot of things together, they get complex.
There is a “science and vocabulary of complex systems”; there are also college courses that will that make the science of complexity complex. It follows that a university must hire a really competent professor to teach complexity—whatever it turns out to be. Even with this introductory description, you may have pangs of inferiority at this point, but they are simply like the labor pains of a woman about to bear a child. The real pain will follow.
Now to complexity: it has four necessary conditions: 1) diversity; 2) connection; 3) interdependence; and 4) adaptation. It seems to me that marriage and raising children qualify immediately. To take my own marriage as an example: 1) diversity: Joice is from Michigan and I am from Pennsylvania; 2) connection: we got connected at college in Delaware; 3) interdependence: we depend on each other; and 4) adaptation: we are adapting to one another’s idiosyncrasies. What could be more complex?
But wait, I am being far to smug and trite, not inferior at all. Complexity, so the Professor reminds us, is like landscapes that are simple, rugged, and dancing (yes, dancing). And the word “landscape” is not used simply as a metaphor—it has a formal, mathematical definition. We may think of looking at the mountains and enjoying their colors and patterns. However, now we are to place our landscape in the “context of a real-world problem”, like all the problems and effects that arise in “the decision to remodel one aspect of a house”. The rule is that the more interactions there are, the more rugged the landscape. Or, in my words, some things are tougher than others.
My inferiority is dragging a bit here: I understood 50 % of what Dr Page said but, before I get too haughty, I learn about the “interesting in-between”. Between what?, you may say, but that shows that you are not dialing the “interdependency dial “ correctly and have pursued game theory, which ignores the in-between complexity. That lack of understanding has reduced me to a proper humility level, even before the “game theory Nash equilibrium” is mentioned.
I think you are with me now—we are experiencing a degree of deepness that has alluded us. But the kicker comes in Lecture Four: “With just two distinct bits—a zero and a one—and enough time, we can produce all the differences that have ever been and that ever can be”. Sounds like an evolutionary premise: given enough time anything can happen and of course, it will be quite complex, except when it isn’t. That is because “natural selection is a form of exploitation, resulting in genetic fitness”. Get that? As we dance along the rugged landscape we strike a balance between exploitation and exploration!
I found another sentence that should really drive our inferiority forward: “Simple emergence is a macro-level property in an equilibrium system, like the wetness created by weak hydrogen bonds holding together water molecules.” It makes me feel suitably inferior just to repeat that sentence.
I’ll end our inferiority programming with the new tool that Professor Page has discovered, one called “agent-based modeling”. This involves computer models for complex systems, and our hero here is Philo T Farnsworth, who at the age of 14 thought of using lines of light on a cathode ray tube to project images sent through airwaves. In other words, he thought up the idea of television”. And TV has helped millions of people feel inferior since its invention.
I sometimes feel so inferior now that even a course in English 101 wouldn’t help me—and that of course is what I have been aiming at: manifest inferiority. Almost every red-blooded American is mediocre in English grammar, even at the 101 level, and if that can help us feel inferior, we must accept its contribution to our lack of complexity.
Sometime later I hope to get into the feedback mode and discover how others can help my inferiority. But, right now I am satisfied with my subordinate position.