Emergent Order in The Lego Movie

Mild spoiler alert.

I loved the Lego Movie. I was floored with its treatment of emergent order. At one point the hero encouraged fellow Lego people to try things, no matter how stupid it sounds, no matter how much others ridicule it, because you never know, it just may work.

Made me wonder if Russ Roberts, John Papola or Nassim Taleb consulted on the screenplay.

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Party Planning vs. Raising Kids

Lant Pritchett uses a starfish/spider analogy to illustrate differences between bottom-up/top-down systems.

Steve Landsburg explained that people mistake central planning as being something like planning a birthday party. Based on this vision, they think it can work well. You just need good planners. Landsburg says that folks who make such mistakes simply can’t imagine the complexities involved when hundreds of millions of people are added to the mix, so even good planners won’t do well.

Russ Roberts recently distinguished between engineering and economics problems in a post on Cafe Hayek, building off the following Soviet joke:

Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone.  ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says.  ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock.  But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’

Of course, her Mom may be an avid shopper. But, the joke was meant to convey that centrally planning something as mundane as producing products that people want, at reasonable prices and making them available in nearby stores is a much more vexing problem than sending man into orbit. Prices do a better job of coordinating that effort.

I made a similar point in a follow-up to the Landsburg post, because I’ve heard too many people use the “If we can send a man to the moon, then we can do anything” fallacy.

Though, I didn’t distinguish it then as an engineering problem. That is an important observation. It’s also a good question to keep in mind when people start using the man on the moon fallacy, are we solving an engineering or economics problem?

But, I still think some folks may have a difficult time understanding exactly how an economics problem differs from an engineering problem. For many, both fall into one category: complicated. So, if we can solve one complicated problem, why not another?

I think it might help to go back to Landsburg’s party planning analogy. An engineering problem is like planning your kid’s birthday party. It’s straightforward (place, invites, plates, cake, fun, done) and it’s a relatively short time commitment. The short time commitment is important. Any longer and it might be harder to get grandparents to help clean up or for guests to come.

An economics problem is more (though still not quite) like raising kids. That’s much more complex than planning a two-hour party. It doesn’t end. It’s not easy.

Just when you think you figure it out, it changes. Why? Because kids are human and they go through phase. They have preferences. They respond to rewards and punishments — differently to different ones. They make decisions. They like what they like. They change. They will fight you. They won’t always do what you tell them. You need to let them make mistakes and learn for themselves, even though it is painful to do so.

Now, I say it’s not quite like an economics problem because people can do a good job of raising kids. Though, there aren’t many truth-telling parents who will say that it’s easy.

So, an economics problem is much more like being tasked with raising all of the kids in your town, or maybe your state, or more.

Multiply the frustrations, the reactions, the support, attention and love required by a thousand or a million kids.

We’re all smart enough to know that’s impossible. We would never sign up for it because we know we’d do those kids a major disservice. Hmmm…..

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The spider and the starfish

starfish

starfish = bottoms-up (Photo credit: kevinzim)

I enjoyed listening to this EconTalk podcast with guest Lant Pritchett about education, specifically in poorer countries. I recommend it.

He begins with a nice discussion about bottom-up and top-down systems using metaphors (emphasis added):

…the basic distinction is between a top down organization where the metaphor of a spider is, all of the resources of the spider web, however spread out they are, merely serve to transmit information to one spider, who synthesizes that information and responds with the resources of the system. So, if there is a bug, the spider crawls out and gets it. But kind of all the web is kind of an ancillary to the brains of the top. The starfish is a creature that actually has no brain. It’s neurally connected, but a starfish moves because the individual units of the starfish sense something and if they sense more food they try and pull that way. And if the other side isn’t pulling as hard, the starfish moves. So it’s really a metaphor of a decentralized system, where individual units responding to local conditions create the properties of the system. And the beauty of a starfish is if you cut a starfish up into 5 bits, you get 5 starfish. The danger of a spider is that when the spider dies, it’s dead. The whole system therefore falls into dysfunction [single point of failure].

Later, he proposes why bad school systems may persist:

…one of the conjectures I put in the book is that it persists partly by camouflage. It pretends to be something it’s not and then can project enough of the camouflage that it maintains its legitimacy. So, sociologists of organization have a term called ‘isomorphic mimicry’, which is adapted from evolution where some species of snakes look poisonous but aren’t, but get the survival value of looking poisonous. So, one of the things that’s happened is by this pressure to expand schooling and by the governments’ desire to control that socialization process, they have created all the appearances of schools that provide education but without actually doing it. But have at the same time not produced the information that would make it clear that they weren’t doing it. So they produce enrollment statistics, numbers of buildings, numbers of toilets, numbers of textbooks, numbers of everything. But have, you know, all of which can project the image that there’s a functional system and providing real learning there. But they don’tprovide metrics of learning or incentives for learning or feedback on learning or accountability for learning at all.

There’s much more good discussion throughout, but I’m fond of something Pritchett said near the end:

You know, the United States has always been much more of a starfish system. And the starfish system has enormous strengths, and I think those enormous strengths have led America to be a leader in education in many ways. And one of the examples I use in my book is, if there’s a scaled example of a starfish education system, it’s American universities. And it’s just unbelievable from the data the extent to which America dominates quality universities. It’s just unbelievable compared to Europe, which always took the same approach to universities that other countries want to take to their basic education. And you see the consequences of it. America’s universities–in the book I have numbers of the top 200 universities in the world, what fraction of them are in Anglo countries, and it’s just way disproportional to the population size. And even wealth. Because Europe, which is equally sized and equally wealthy, continental Europe, just has nowhere near. And it’s the result of a starfish system, in my view.

I’ve made the same point several times on this blog. Here and here are a couple of examples.

I do appreciate the spider and starfish metaphors. Those roll-off the tongue better than top-down and bottom-up.

The road to hell is paved with…what again?

The Wall Street Journal gave us a timely reminder last week of Friedrich A. Hayek’s legendary Nobel acceptance speech.

An ungated version of the entire speech can be found here.

Here’s a portion of what the WSJ quoted:

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the overconfident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights.

But in the social field, the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority.

Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous-ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Wisdom of the crowds

This week had a good example of why I don’t like or trust awards given out by small groups of people. The smaller the group, the more prone that group is to be biased and wrong, making the reward meaningless. It turns out that the Nobel committee is just a set of humans, it’s not made up of supernaturals conferred with some higher degree of judgement than the rest of us.

Personally, I have no opinion on who should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but the media seemed disappointed that Malala didn’t win.

The media should keep that in mind when they appeal to the authority of other Nobel Prize winners.

I think Nelly captured the sentiment in his song, Number One:

You aint gotta gimme my props
Just gimme the yachts
Gimme my rocks
Keep my fans coming in flocks

In other words, he agrees — awards are cheap, crowds speak.

‘…losses encourage prudence.’

As I mentioned at the end of this post, last week’s EconTalk with Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game, is worth listening to. He describes some history of how having skin in the game is a simple and effective risk management rule and how removing it causes problems.

In ancient Babylonia, architects who built houses that fell down and killed people could themselves be killed. As Taleb explained, ‘that simple rule outperformed any inspector.” And, yet, there were still architects there. Apparently good and/or confident ones.

Here is more of what Taleb had to say about the Golden Rule:

And of course we have the Golden Rule that we see in the Old Testament, which is a positive–up till then it was a negative rule: ‘Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.’ And then the Golden Rule: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you’ and so on. Up to then we had a civil rule. What you see behind this is the foundation of moral philosophy, as a foundation of ethics and a foundation of civil society. But in it we saw something much more potent–we saw the foundation of risk management.

I thought this was interesting, too, regarding parenting and letting kids grow up:

The expression in Lebanon, that the first 7 years you play with them (and protect them), the second 7 years you let them get in trouble and the third 7 years you advise them on how they got in trouble.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Immerse yourself in a game as you run with the Zombies, Run! app. On your run, you’ll get to pick up munitions for your base and outrun heavy breathing zombie herds.

What a fantastically creative way to shake up those boring trods and add some sprints and interval workouts.

Sometimes innovations seem so obvious. I’m amazed it took so long for something like this to emerge. Can’t wait to see what follows.

 

 

Teachers matter

Here’s an interesting write-up of a high school turnaround.

Decades ago, the school was slivered off from a suburban school district by the neighboring urban school district so it could meet its racial diversity targets. That district, along with this school, when down hill and only a third of students were graduating.

Fast forward to 2007 and the residents of this area voted to move back to the suburban school district.

Now, just five years later, 90 percent graduate from that high school.

The surprising bit for me: The new school district only hired 12 people from the previous district to fill the 400 positions to staff the schools that transitioned.

That surprised me because my mental model had been that the teachers are less important in the school failure equation than student and parent expectations. Perhaps I need to rethink that.