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November 24, 2006

Complex Systems: Where does autism come from?

I was just reading an article on Autism, which talked briefly about all of the many theories as to what causes autism. What makes finding a cause so difficult is how different people's symptoms are. Now they believe there are probably many types of autism. They've linked certain genes, they've linked environmental factors, they've linked lots of things, but none of them have proven to be causal.

This morning I saw the movie Happy Feet, about penguins. Long story short, one of the penguins, an outcast because he can't sing, goes in search of where all the fish have been disappearing to. Of course he finds it is humanity that is exterminating the fish.

What do these two stories have in common. Well, they got me thinking about the problems of medicine and environmental concern today. It continues to become clear to me how the problems I face on a daily basis in software design are mirrored in the medical and environmental sciences. The problem is complexity.

I went looking for, but can't seem to find, this quote I saw in a book about complexity. Some algorithm or phrase which explains how increased complexity exponentially increases the risk of unintended behavior. In my work, I maintain and insanely complex system. Worse still, we are constantly adding complexity. There is value to simplicity. There is a rule in software development that the system isn't done until there's nothing left to take away. This is echoed in Einstein's quote, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."

Then there's Gall's_law, "A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system."

So what's the problem with Complex Systems? The problem is, the more complex a system gets, the more unpredictable the interaction of the individual components becomes. Predictable is the key word. It doesn't mean complex systems all fail, but it does increase the risk. I see this daily in my work. We have lots of tests to make sure all the components of the system are working, but problems still arise. The truth is, we could have an infinite number of tests and problems would still arise. That's because there is a nearly infinite number of combinatorics of how each of our subsystems can interact. At least once a week we see a scenario like this.

Something is wrong, but we don't know what. The only reason we know something is wrong is because the metrics we use to measure our business are off. So we go in search of that something. It's rarely obvious. Sometime between a day and 2 weeks, we figure it out. Once we know what's wrong, we have to figure out why its wrong and how to fix it. This process itself can take a day to 2 weeks. It's never obvious either. It's rarely obvious because most of the time, every single component in the system is doing exactly what it's supposed to. We can test each component and verify it's behaving exactly the way we expect it to. Either one subsystem has a little problem which causes a cascading affect, OR there was an input to a single system which, even handled the way it was supposed to, caused a subtle change which rippled throughout the system causing the negative end result. In my work I've spent two weeks searching for why the dates in an application were wrong only to find that buried in the code was a variable set to "1" and when I set it to "0" it worked again. I never knew why it worked again, though I could tell that the variable needed to be changed every year. I'm sure I could have discovered why, but after two weeks, I just wanted to get it to work and move on. That was in one application. I work in an environment where there are thousands of applications interacting towards a narrow conclusion, compounding the problem greatly.

Back to autism and the environment. We inhabit an extremely complex system. This system is based on many smaller complex systems. The human body itself is a complex system made of smaller complex systems. The brain itself is a comlpex system made of smaller complex systems. The environment that sustains us is itself a complex system made of many complex systems. In fact, our relationship with our environment is its own complex system. "Tightly coupled" as we'd say in software design. One of the consequences of tight coupling is that changes on one system can and most likely will affect the other 'coupled' system.

I'm going to shift back to software development for a second. The company I'm working for has embarked on a HUGE effort to launch a parallel colocation facility in another state. As I mentioned, we have a very complex system. Replicating that system is no easy task. You'd think it would be a matter of just copying each component and putting it in the other facility. The truth is, we don't really have a good handle on how these systems interact... not until a problem arises. So this exercise has been one of putting it together to where we think it should work, turning it on, seeing what blows up, and fixing it. The thing is, the systems are so complex, fixing it VERY often breaks something else. One component talks to another component THROUGH a third component. This communication isn't working well, so we remove the middle component that wasn't supposed to be doing anything in the first place but passing messages along. A day later something else breaks seemingly COMPLETELY unrelated. Turns out due to complex interactions, some subtle difference meant something nearly unrelated DID break by the first change.

Back to the environment. Since the industrial revolution we have been attempting to improve upon the complex systems in which we rely. At first we made minor tweaks, but as we became more brave so did our reach. We'd come up with a new chemical to do something more efficiently or effectively than something already done in nature. What we don't realize is that, even if the chemical we make is PERFECTLY safe by itself, it changes other interactions around it. It subtly changes the inputs into other systems causing a cascading affect. Make 2 subtle, seemingly unrelated changes, and their cascading affects will eventually connect further down the line creating a third unpredicted and unpredictable change in the system.

That is the answer of where autism comes from. Autism comes from unintended interactions in changes we've made to our environment. All factors play a role. Genetics AND environmental. There is no one cause. It could have been 10 subtle changes we made over the course of 20 years that caused autism rates to soar 40 years later, after those interactions finally met, mixed in our genes, mutated, and became an accepted neurological condition.

This also explains why causes are sometimes definitively found and later renounced. The systems are so complex one might find causes which assume outputs of other complex systems only to find the output of the systems THOSE systems are made of play individual roles which vary.

That's not to say we might not someday find a cure to autism. It's also possible our cure might cause other problems later. It probably would have been better if we had never started mucking with the systems in the first place, but its too late to go back now. We have no idea what we've done or how to undo it without causing more damage. As a consequence, we will be forced to continue to modify these systems to deal with bugs caused by prior modifications. I predict that is where science will go. Science will turn from trying to improve systems to merely trying to stabilize them.

I wonder if we'll ever succeed.

Posted by wonko at 06:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 23, 2006

Choosing your regrets

My grandmother pulled me outside to talk to me just before the family was going to sit down for thanksgiving dinner. She wanted to tell me that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. Figure out what I really loved doing. She then talked about how she used to be so creative and a risk taker, but it never worked out. She then lamented letting her life slip by and not risking more or making better decisions. It reminded me of something.

Once, in a depressed mood, I declared, "Life is about choosing your regrets." I can still remember how the people who heard me laughed, spitting their drinks out, at such a terrible, cynical comment. It seemed like quite a bleak way of looking at the world. I was reminded of that phrase when my grandmother was telling me her regrets.

I still believe it holds true, but I am reevaluating what it means to accept that. The truth is, you may always have regrets. You may risk nothing and regret taking the safe route. You may risk everything, end up with nothing and regret NOT taking the safe route. There are truly those that have no regrets, but they are in the minority. If you were to take a survey of American's in their 70s you would probably find a strong majority that have major regrets. Of those, I believe a majority would say they regret not taking more risks. They would say it in different ways though. They would regret not "living" more. "Seeing more." They would regret spending so much time trying to make or spend money. It's true that we decide whether we will have regrets or not, but I do not believe we can predict what we will decide later in life. Certainly if we are anything like the majority, its at least possible we'll decide to regret. If that's the case, what's left is to choose what we might regret.

As I stated, if we choose to risk and end up failing, we may regret risking; if we choose security we may end up regretting we didn't risk. It's up to us to decide though. We can change our mind at any time, of course. Though obviously we have less time to work with as we get older.

If I were to decide, I would rather end up with nothing, but believe I risked everything than to end up rich wondering how far I could have gone had I taken more risks. I would rather fight against the obvious until it is proven true, than accept the appeal to popularity without knowing for sure. I'm stubborn and as innate anti-establishmentarian. If I'm wrong, at least I'll have tried and will be able to tell others more definitively. Sometimes we have to sacrifice individually in the name of progress. In this case, progress may mean a re-evaluation of the modern view of modernity. Just because something was working at one time, doesn't mean it can or will keep working.

All ideas have blurry edges and my rambling is a sign that I'm exploring the edge of the point that was made in the second paragraph. I think I'll leave it as that.

Posted by wonko at 06:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Shaving Meditation

I just started to shave when a thought appeared:

"We take moments out to meditate so we can train ourselves to make every moment a meditation."

Posted by wonko at 12:10 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 22, 2006

30 and still idealistic

I have recently felt like I was stumbling away from my idealistic inclinations. Here I am in a desk job working 60 hrs a week, not doing much more with my life. Then I really look and see that I haven't lost my ideals. I have a goal and I'm achieving that goal, but I haven't lost the my ideal of freedom. I still want to travel and try new things. I'm still not really tied down. I still have reduced my unnecessary responsibilities. I still take opportunities as they come. I've come a long way of merging the public and private selves. Whether I am or not right now, I still believe I want my life to be meaningful and helpful to others. They still call me DangerAdam. :) I'm not saying I'm better than anyway, or even that I'm the only person who's done this. It's just that, on some level, almost everyone says when they're 24 or so that they're going to hold on to their idealism, that they're not gonna become a square (not that anyone uses that antiquated term), but its a significantly smaller margin that actually make it to 30 and keep to their word. Somewhere around there you tend to grow up and settle down.

That said, 30 is still young. Call me again when I'm 35 or 40 and see if I'm not a liar. The likelihood of keeping it decreases over time. Then again, it increases in other ways. The older you get, the more solidified you become as a person. The older you get, the less likely you are to radically change. Going from idealism to 'used to be idealistic' is a radical change. Even at 30 I feel I've stabilized a great deal. I'm still changing, but not as radically and not as fast. Yet, I'm holding on... As I've always said, it may be to my detriment that I'm so stubborn on this specific issue, but that's the very thing that makes holding on to it so hard. At some level, you tend to give it up because you just don't think its sustainable. If you really had no doubt, you probably would have kept it. From my perspective, people give out before they really know if it is or not. They just get the message that the jury came back for everyone and said it wasn't and on a related note, you're not exempt. So you never appeal. Well, I keep appealing. Oh, I'm a far cry from being declared innocent, but at least I'm not guilty. Some cases stay in appeals court for a long time....

I guess that's where this metaphor breaks down. There's no way a case can literally be in appeals course forever. Yet I suspect that is exactly what living an idealistic life is really about, living in constant defiance of the obvious despite losing case after case, until someone has enough proof to convict you.

Posted by wonko at 11:12 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 05, 2006

Cheap Food

I just went and ate at Maxwells on Washington. Never been there before. They've got a diner type area with a counter and a back area with tables that usually has a long wait. I went in alone and with nothing to read. I sat down on the counter and didn't speak much to anyone around me. For some reason I've had a hard time in the past sitting down alone for food, especially if I don't have anything to occupy myself, like reading. Hell, I don't even like going to the movies alone. Not sure why. I guess one reason is I don't like being seen alone. That's weird though.

The next thing would be to get better at talking to those around me. I suppose if you go to eat alone enough, your bound to start talking to people.

While I was sitting there with nothing to occupy myself, I started to think. I started to think about all sorts of things. It's so unusual for me to be somewhere with nothing to occupy myself. Usually i have my computer, or a book, or a movie, or friends. There's always something to be 'doing'. It was quite nice. I used to have a lot more time with nothing to do. It was somewhat forced I suppose. I'd be on a chair lift, or resting after a run. There's nothing to do in those moments but think. Hiking is another area where you can just think. There's nothing to do but enjoy the scenery and put one step in front of the other. Maybe its a flaw that I can't just be somewhere and not be thinking deeply. I probably need to work on just being present and mindful.

Maxwell's was great. It was delicious and pretty cheap. I really like going to inexpensive restaurants. First of all, I don't feel like I'm being judged by those around me. Fancy restaurants are often talent shows. I'm over generalizing of course. Also, waters at fancy places tend to patronize you in ways people with money want to be patronized. They act overly nice, but in a cold way. At a cheap place the help seems more real. You're not paying enough for them to treat you like anymore more than just another person. I like that. Also, you can leave a disproportionately large tip at a cheap place. Leaving $6 on a $10 check is way better than leaving $20 on a $100 check ya know?

Then I went next door to the thrift store in front of where I parked. Man, its silly we don't shop at thrift stores more. They have everything! Not just everything, but interesting everything. I mean, you can go to Target and choose your soap holder from the 5 choices that everyone else will choose, or you can get a really weird one from a thrift store. Cookie cutter soap dispensers for the cookie cutter bathrooms in the cookie cutter houses on cookie cutter blocks.

I like my cookies whole thank you.

Posted by wonko at 01:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack