Understanding Complexity

This post came from a response to a friend’s posting of this article about Trump, but it also relates to many thoughts I’ve had before about how we understand reality.. and how we do not.

In specific–it deals with the need for all of us to grok complexity and act on that understanding more often.


Along these lines, teaching people to deal with complexity seems to be a core need for the future. Complexity-in a sense–shows up in so many of the things that go by other names and that I and many others find important.


Diversity (complexity of people)

Democracy (complexity of power)

Critical thinking (complexity of ideas and perspectives)

Diplomacy (complexity of relationships)

Pluralism (complexity of society and culture)

And I’m sure there are more.

If there’s one thing that I’ve observed that seems pretty consistent in people who found Trump appealing–it’s that they don’t like complexity.

Because they don’t like it–they tend also to associate it with evil/badness/inefficiency/whatnot.. and to rectify this–they seek simplicity and if you can make your appeal based on simple answers to complex questions–they will latch onto it.

Attempts to bring evidence to refute these kinds of beliefs is also usually doomed because by doing so–you’re inherently trying to show that the situation is more complex–which makes you “evil/wrong” from the outset.. (as is your evidence and any attempt to bring evidence…)

How do you solve this? Well.. I’m working on that. I tend to think that the short-term and long-term solutions are very different (OMG, LOOK I JUST CANNOT GET AWAY FROM COMPLEXITY!).

Short term fighting is about presenting equivalent “simple” alternative answers (GODDAMN IT, I’M NOT GIVING UP THE UTILITY OF THE WORD ALTERNATIVE..) that come from our set of values and that hide the complexity beneath them.


The left’s answer to simplistic right-wing messaging:

a) We want Liberty, Justice, and Equality FOR ALL!

b) We want good jobs, good schools, and good opportunities FOR ALL!

These are simple responses/messages that resonate with the core american ideals… and they frame it in a way that makes opponents come across as “No, we want liberty and justice for Some??? ”

More of this kind of thing would be the short-term approach.

Long term is to organize and take over all of the “low-level” positions of power–school boards, city councils, state governments–consistently–so we can build up the systems that explain and teach complexity.

The more people are at ease with complexity–the better off we will be.

To conclude, I have a quote I’ve appreciated since I first discovered it in the early 90’s.  It is:

“Seek simplicity and distrust it.”  It’s from Alfred North Whitehead and I always liked the juxtaposition in it.  The more extended version of it is:

“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.’ “

We need not be natural philosophers to embrace this.  Or maybe rather we should all embrace being natural philosophers–at least partly–to deal with the kind of complex world we live in.

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The Resonance of Exclusion

“Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.”

—Tyler Durden

I think the fight club quote (and it’s one of my favorite movies) is instructive for how the message of “we little people are the ones who you must not dismiss” resonates with so many of us.

The fascinating thing is–fight club–and esp. project mayhem that follows out of it–is that it is a textbook model for how to start a fascist organization.

I never realized that until years after I had seen the film and someone mentioned that it was taught in classes about fascism.

What’s important here–is how easily this message resonates–how it helps create group solidarity–esp. against an evil “other.”

It is also exactly the kind of thing that Trump used to get votes.  His entire campaign was this kind of thing–but the evil other were minorities, “urban folk” (both white urban liberals and minorities), “elites”–a nebulous group meaning anyone you think is “above you” in some way that you dislike.. and others.

Anyway.. if you think about it–the end message of Tyler Durden is destruction of the current order–something that so many of Trumps followers have claimed they wanted –you know.. “to shake things up!”

Of course–they don’t really mean it.. I mean–they don’t want the roads gone.. or their medicare or social security gone… They’re just mad and want to fuck things up.. 

.. and that’s one of the central lies/lessons of fight club–Tyler says something (at one point) like.. “self-improvement is masturbation.. Self-destruction, on  the other hand..”  –> which points to this idea that we need destruction to make things right..

But destruction is actually pretty easy.  We live in an entropic world.. things tend towards decay and destruction naturally.. and it’s pretty easy to join in with these processes to break things.

It’s MUCH harder, on the other hand, to create.  To build.  To teach.   To maintain.  To grow.

These things work against the natural entropic tendencies in the world–and they require patience, refinement, and constant dilligence..

And they are often therefore draining and also flawed.

This is the twist.

We can be better than this.

And in being better–we will win.

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Random convergence on privilege

Two points converge.

1. So this morning I was driving to the east side bus transfer location (where I would park and then catch the bus in).  On the Bob & Tom comedy show (radio), one of the hosts started talking about the movie Deliverance. Just as every other time I’ve ever heard about this film, the point being made was related to the act of male rape that happens in the film.

2. After I got on the bus, I sat down.  Across from and up top was one of the bus billboard/advertisements, but this one was about sexual assault.  It had a picture of a woman covering her face with her hands, and it had the headline of “1 in 5 college age women will suffer a sexual assault or rape”–a number that has been documented elsewhere–and which is just part of the larger tragedy that–as I’ve documented– 1 in 3 women will be raped or sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime.


Now—the convergence/realization came together when my brain compared these two things.

On the one hand, we have the instance of male rape that has come to play an almost iconic role in our society.  We have a film that was “selected for preservation in the United StatesNational Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’” and the one thing that everyone references it with–and which gives it this cultural significance–is that a group of 4 men are attacked and one is raped.

A man getting raped is grounds for cultural significance.

3 million college-aged women getting raped or sexually assaulted in the next 5-6 years is something we still find necessary to make people aware of and to try and pay attention to.

This is part of male privilege–and its part of the fucked-up system of gender relations that falls under the name of “the patriarchy” that many people are justifiably pissed about.

Now–before anyone even begins to complain about how men are also sexually assaulted and raped–I know this.  If you read the links above, you’ll see that college age men have a 1 in 16 chance of being assaulted–so that’s a million men too… That’s also part of the partriarchy–and it’s also almost never talked about–except by people fighting against rape–because that’s not something that is supposed to happen to men.

But back to the numbers–why is that one movie more culturally significant than the 3 million sexual assaults that will happen?  And why aren’t all of the sexual assault rape scenes involving women–Say like in The Revenant, The Watchmen, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta for starters or the ENTIRE CATEGORY OF FILMS CALLED RAPE AND REVENGE that exists–more culturally significant?  I mean–would Deliverance really be culturally significant if men were raped with the frequency that women are in our media (and the real world)?

I do not have any answers here–but I do certainly have more questions.

And so might you.


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MBTI–flawed but still meaningful

On Facebook today I came across this article in my feed–with the title of:

“Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless”

And I had to respond.  The response is below…
Um.. the critiques that it’s not scientifically valid are totally on.

To say it’s meaningless, however, is somewhat missing the point–in that meaning is not the same thing as scientific validity.

Beyond that–although corporate types will latch onto anything that they think will give them quantifiable/typing results about people–it is them–rather than most people doing mbti–who promote this notion about how this will make you successful in a field.

Anyway–anyone who uses such tests as predictive has WAY BIGGER problems in their heads than this test. I’ve found MBTI to be useful most as a way to teach about diversity in perception, approach, and communication. You’d be amazed–or with you.. probably not!–at HOW HARD it is for people to grok that not everyone sees the world in the same way you do–and that the things that people use to judge whether something is good–or what people are actually doing when they are talking–are pretty simplistic.

Perfect example–(and this rests on the only part of the test–introversion/extraversion–that does have scientific testing behind it..)–when people talk about stuff out loud–it doesn’t always mean the same thing to people. Extraverts–and I’ve watched this in class when I ask them a question–will talk through an idea out loud in front of everyone –but at the end–they don’t just act as if they hadn’t said anything. The points they were making were just discussions of possibilities and at the end they don’t stick to what they said.

Introverts tend to think within their heads first about it–and then only say something when they believe it to be true.


An example of social behavior differences that I’ve found to be true.. 

This is a real difference in how people act–and not everyone understands it. I’ve watched introverted students get ROYALLY frustrated when dealing with an extravert–because they assume that everything said is “meaningful” in the sense of being believed to be true–but it’s not.. it’s just verbal “scratch paper.”

I’ve also seen extraverts complain about an introvert not engaging in all of the discussions–not “bonding” in the conversation/thinking that they are doing—and thinking that the introverts aren’t contributing—when they also then don’t really give them a chance to talk.. (but the introverts then did have something to say..)

If MBTI can be used to make this clear to both groups–it can be meaningful.

Finally–the binary structures they have are clearly bullshit. This becomes very clear in free tests that show you relative numbers (like the humanmetrics site.. where you’ll get I(13), S(1) T(67) P(33)) which shows how far you fell in their binary system. Such a structure is better–in that it gives you a sense more of whether you only strongly or weakly fit their “ideal” types.. and most people fall in the middle–and they vary depending on mood or age…

Now–where the tests really fail is that they don’t actually accurately measure the relative strengths of 4 main traits (SNTF) in a person. Where MBTI can be useful is seeing how people:
S: perceive and process details, facts, sensory information.
N: perceive and process ideas, abstractions, and patterns
T: make decisions, judgements, and ask questions using objective, impersonal criteria & frameworks.
F: make decisions, judgements, and ask questions related to social/human criteria & frameworks.

These things can also be aimed either at the internal, subjective world in our minds (I) or focused more outwardly to the external, objective world around us..

The real flaw in MBTI–is that they assume implicitly in their structure that if you’re good at S–that you must not be good at N. Or that if you are good at F–that T is weaker.

But that’s just bogus. Someone who worked at all of these things could be good at all of these with a lot of work. It might be true that some people’s brains are esp. good at pattern matching–but that might also just be how they were raised–or strongly influenced by it…

So–I reject these “IT’S ALL JUST LIKE ASTROLOGY!” type arguments… Naive understandings and applications of MBTI are terrible–but that’s pretty true of most things. MBTI is an attempt at producing a system of understanding human behavior and cognition–something that humans have a tendency to want to do a lot (see religion, culture, etc..). When people create rigid and “digital” category systems and try to force the analogue reality to fit perfectly within them–they will break and show flaws.

As they should.

But we should not just say the system is totally meaningless–any more than we should say “well, religious theology obviously isn’t scientifically valid–therefore it’s meaningless.” Such pronouncements entirely fail to understand the multiple points of reference that humans use to deal with the universe around them.. and they are more than just a little bit arrogant in their claim to REALLY know how things are..

In the end, I’d argue that MBTI is a tool. It is limited and it can be easily misused–but it does have benefits when used smartly.

And I intend to improve it..

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Iowa-2016 Caucuses

Perspective on last night’s Iowa Caucuses:

1. Cruz has successfully won the Republican side–with such other illustrious former nominees like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.


Wait! Neither of those guys went on to be the nominee! Instead it was Romney (came in 2nd in 2012) and McCain (came in 4th in 2008) who did. What this says is that on the Republican side, Iowa is not representative for the Republicans for who can win the entire process–it favors religious conservatives too strongly. Now perhaps this has finally shifted as the Republicans as a whole have become far more conservative–but Cruz’s win doesn’t actually bode that well for him.

Trump and esp. Rubio are the ones to watch. Now–if Rubio does well in New Hampshire–he’ll become the establishment candidate–and pick up some support (but not that much–it’s like 10% total divided amongst all the establishment candidates). If he doesn’t come in at least 3rd, however, he loses this momentum and it looks again like Trump will take it.

Trump just has to not fold in New Hampshire–and he’ll again be the odds on favorite.

2. On the Democratic side, interestingly, the person who has won in Iowa has gone on to be the nominee the last two times. Kerry upset Dean and Obama upset Clinton. Iowa is a better bellwether state for the Democrats. There are progressives there–but also mainstream and even somewhat conservative democrats.

And what did we see? Well–Clinton appears to have won 49.8 to 49.5 .. by .3%. This is essentially a tie.


With this–she’ll get 23 delegates while Bernie gets 21. However–in context, the Clinton camp must be worried. A year ago, polls had Clinton leading Sanders 60% to 6%. Six months ago, it was 51% to 25%. 3 months ago 51% to 34%. At the start of the year, 47 to 42%, and yesterday it was still 47 to 44%.

Her vast dominance in name recognition and apparent coronation has disappeared from a 54% lead down to a .3% win in the space of a year. She–the former first lady, senator of New York, and secretary of state with the best name recognition of any politician in the country–has barely squeaked by with a win in a farm state over a strongly left-wing social democratic Jew from Brooklyn(not even a solid party member, but a lefty independent) whose history is of being the mayor of Burlington (a city of 42,000 people), then an independent Rep from Vermont (a state of less than a million people), and then finally senator from the same.

Given this–do not talk to me about “electability” arguments. Iowa is a good testing ground for electability for Democrats–and Clinton appears to be barely able to beat someone who calls himself a socialist in public and who many people describe as a radical. Furthermore–Clinton is actually from the midwest–she grew up in a suburb in Chicago–Park Ridge–not far from where I grew up–which should provide you with a better sense of the culture & values of the midwest than a New York Jew.(This is not saying that New York Jews don’t have values and culture–not at all–they have a great culture and values–but it is different than that of the midwest…).

And yet–after all of your money and name recognition–you are barely holding on, Hillary.

What does this tell you, Hillary? Perhaps that if you think you can win by just being the “default” candidate, you will fail.

That is not leadership. Leadership is about vision–it’s about staking out actual positions that people may not agree with and then working to persuade them. You claim to have great persuasive powers having worked in the senate–but you don’t seem to think that you have to use them with the voters who will elect you. That we all will just trust you.

But many of us don’t. You are too close to the people who have regularly crashed the economy and stolen our wealth (to protect their own) and who think of us as peasants. Yes–you have a pretty decent record on reproductive rights and women’s issues–but you did not lead when it came to LGBT at all–and while your history on racial issues is not bad–it’s not any better than Bernie’s. In fact–in all of the issues that you tout as your strengths–Bernie agrees with you (exception being guns–where he’s actually more aligned with what the average American thinks…). But when it comes to inequality and taking on the Oligarchy–you are incredibly silent. You don’t lead–you look flustered and just a bit sheepish.

This must change if you want to win. You will have to steal Bernie’s thunder rather than claiming that thunder is bad.


And yes–this turned into a rant–but it’s an important one.. because this is an important data point for this election. It’s just one–more will follow–but it’s a big one.

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Data and Interpretation

So my student numbers for the semester have finally settled down after a couple of weeks of adds and drops.

As it stands I have 61 students in 3 sections.  From these 3 sections, I have the following numbers to report:

61 students
16 women
1 African-American
19 Chinese
1 Korean

Now–that’s just the data–the question becomes–what does the data mean?

Data/facts don’t speak for themselves–they need context.  Some of the context you might want:
1. I teach an engineering course.
2. My course is an upper-level communications course for engineers that is a requirement for most majors.
3. I teach at a renown state university–the flagship university of the state.

Still–given this context–the data remains underdetermined–meaning that you can still make a number of different (and even contradictory) inferences from it.  Some of these might be:
a) Women are under-represented in Engineering.
b) Women’s representation in engineering appears to be climbing.
c) There aren’t enough African-American students
d) The African American representation correlates strongly to the percentage of African Americans in the state coming in with grades necessary to be engineers
e) There are too many foreign students being let in.
f) The university is compensating for declining state funding by bringing in more foreign students, and these just happen to be over-represented in the engineering fields.

All of these inferences might be true (I haven’t actually confirmed all of them)–but they also each may have big holes in them because they only capture a particular viewpoint of the situation.

Data is important–but data is often not enough to grant one understanding–especially if the context and history is not given for it–and the quantity of the data is limited.

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Don’t stand in line…

So I’m gonna talk about the upcoming primary and election and a lot about Bernie Sanders.

First I want to put forth three examples/pieces of evidence related to the topic.

a) Robert Reich’s analysis of the last Democratic Debate.  Specifically, Reich said the following:

“3. Hillary presented herself as an experienced politician who is prepared to assume the presidency, while Bernie presented himself as the leader of a political revolution. Both characterizations seem fair. If you assume Washington is not changeable and that the vicious cycle of wealth and power dominating our politics and economics is unalterable, Hillary’s experience is relevant; she will make a first-class president for the system we now have. But if you believe Washington must be changed, and that system can be altered for the benefit of the many and not the few, Bernie’s leadership is more relevant; he is heading up a political movement.”

That seems pretty spot on.  Hillary is running as the establishment candidate while Bernie is running to shake things up.

b) I had a conversation on facebook with an old friend of mine.  We grew up together, went to catholic grade school and public high school together in Evanston, IL–which is a liberal, but moderate and relatively well-off community north of Chicago.  It does, however, have a long history of being a pretty diverse place.

In any case, my friend still lives near Evanston and works in Chicago.  He’s relatively conservative in terms of politics–and voted for Romney (and probably McCain–although I don’t know that for sure..)–but he is smart, college-educated, works at a bank, and is socially liberal in terms of outlook in the grand scheme of things.  From what I gather, he easily would have been a Republican 10, 20, or 40 years ago… (note–we’re both 43..)–but now thinks of himself as an independent.

As it stands–he had posted a comment on one of my posts.  I had been forwarding an article about Bernie Sanders medicare for all plan–how he lays out the policy and the taxes for all to see.  My friend had been responding to a sub-point I had about raising the gas tax, but we got back to talking about Bernie–about what he thought of Bernie–and this is what he said:

“I watched all of the debates. When it comes down to it this is what I am thinking…. as far as who would shake things up for the better here at home where we need it, Bernie, no question. I like single payer idea. I feel he is for the people. I am not anywhere near socialist, but I like him more than the others.”

This is what my independent, center-right, former Republican friend thinks.  He likes Bernie BECAUSE he will shake things up.  He’s also incredibly turned-off by Hillary–as he sees her as just the same as the establishment Republicans–corrupt and working for the interests of big money first.

c) Two days before that–on Saturday, I was at a Meinecke getting the oil changed on one of our cars–and as I was paying, I got into a political conversation with one of  the attendants there.  He had a rural/southern-ish accent–marking him as not from Madison proper–and perhaps not even from Wisconsin.  In any case, he was telling me about the “rewards program” that would mean that I could get a free oil change after 4 times.  He then said that it was “at least something–more than it was before” and he related it credit cards.

But then he noted, wryly even, “Yeah–those credit cards will give you 1% back.. ha!” and I said in response, “of course–but they charge 28%!” and he responded,

“Yeah.. It’s why the rich get richer and why we stay poor.”

And I then followed up, “Yawp–that’s why we gotta do something about this.”

In response, he slowly and cautiously said, “Yeah.. that’s why I’m leaning towards Bernie..”

And I said, “Yawp.. I’m a big bernie fan myself.  We need to change things.”

And he smiled.

This is not some hippie liberal over-educated grad student supporting Bernie.  This is a working-class, originally rural, mechanic who is picking up on Bernie’s message and found it appealing.

This is the evidence that I’ve noticed in the last week.

What does it say to me?

Well, it tells me that the narrative out there that Bernie Sanders is “too radical” for people is pure hogwash.  Bernie may be too radical for those people who are strongly invested in the status quo, but this is a status quo that is currently not working for the majority of the populace.  Median wages re not increasing–and they haven’t been for a long time.   The economy has finally–after 7 years and repeated attempts to thwart it–gotten going–but it’s not roaring–and it won’t be until we see strong wage growth for the majority of the populace such that it generates naturally and widespread increases in demand for goods and services.

Bernie–as Robert Reich noted above–is the representative of a movement of political revolution–to bring back the values and economic ideas that governed this country in the 1950’s and 60’s–when we had the longest and most sustained economic growth in this country’s history.  When taxes on higher incomes were FAR higher than they were today, when infrastructure spending came first rather than tax cuts, when unions and management worked together because the average worker and the average manager had similar salaries and something in common to work for.

Hillary–well–she’s what Reich says she is–an insider who will be able to work the currently corrupted system pretty well.  She may even do some good while she’s there.
But she does not question the system and she will not challenge it fundamentally.

That’s not what we need at the moment, in my view.  She is, I will readily concede, 1000x better than any of the Republican candidates who don’t have actual ideas on how to govern, but are totally into proving that they are way more angry than anyone else.

Compared to these tantrum throwing two-year olds, Hillary is an adult.  But she’s not going to change the system.

Bernie is–and Bernie is showing that he CAN appeal to independents and working class folk who have been voting for the Republicans in the past, exactly because these people have been repulsed at how much the system has failed them.

They don’t want to stand in line for scraps anymore. They want justice too.

bernie-don't stand in line



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