Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sequestration Proximate Cause Of The Next Recession

Next Donella Meadows/Mass Shootings post will be "Driving Positive Feedback Loops." I'm struggling with this one a little; I understand the difference, can give examples, and Meadows explains them both successfully, but I don't have a handle on how to work with positive feedback in general, much less in respect to violence. It seems like Meadows is continuing her discussion -- at least practically -- of negative feedback.

In the meantime, the thought struck me while listening to the news about Congress and "sequestration," that the consumption business cycle is said to take five to seven years, and the recession hit a little more than four-and-a-quarter years ago. The burst housing bubble was the proximate cause, but it was time for a recession, and something had to trigger it.

Predicting whether this particular cycle will be a long or short one is over my head, and I have pretty conflicted thoughts about the federal austerity. Still...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mass Shootings And Regulating Negative Feedback Loops

Donella Meadows writes, "Now we're beginning to move from the physical part of the system to the information and control parts, where more leverage can be found."

In the few times I've heard the phrase "negative feedback" spoken, the speakers have usually meant criticism or psychology's negative reinforcement. Meadows is using the phrase to mean that something a system does has a slowing effect on itself. Think of foxes as negative feedback for field mice. The more the mice breed, the more food there is for the foxes, making more foxes, which reduce the mouse population.

What Meadows was saying was that we can get better results from a kind of system jiu jitsu than from concentrating on a problem's hardware.

She uses the thermostat example to illustrate negative feedback. You want a certain temperature, and you set the thermostat. There's a furnace in the basement that comes on when the house temperature drops below the setting. The fire in the furnace would keep heating the house until it became uncomfortable, except for the thermostat's also being an off switch. The negative feedback is that the more heat the furnace puts out, the more likely it is to turn itself off.

Meadow' other examples include:

Emergency cooling in nuclear power plants,
Sweating and shivering,
Markets (provided they get accurate information).

She says that the real leverage related to markets is in ways of getting them accurate, unambiguous information.

One paragraph that I took to be encouraging, in thinking about gun violence, says, "The strength of a negative feedback loop is important relative to the impact it is designed to correct. If the impact increases in strength, the feedbacks have to be strengthened too.

"A thermostat system may work fine on a cold winter day -- but open all the windows and its corrective power will fail."

The reason this is hopeful is that the phenomenon of mass shootings -- even gun violence in total -- is a minor blip in the system of our society. Horrific as it is.

If we can figure out what's happening, we ought to be able to correct for this painful phenomenon without strong negative feedback.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Systems Within Systems

In Environment, Power, and Society, Howard Odum wrote something to the effect that systems are limited in what they can do by what the larger systems of which they are parts will allow, and by what their own subsystems can provide for.

Thinking about gun violence, particularly inane mass shootings, in terms of systems, can be frustrating because the system is much larger and more detailed than individual, weapon, and victims. Where do you draw the line?

Adam Lanza, the reported Sandy Hook killer, was an un-photogenic twenty-year old Aspergers sufferer, with another learning disability, and divorced, affluent parents. That's somebody who had to have been part of a bullying system, who didn't have the internal system that would let him understand, cope, or avoid. He may have been alienated from his parents, or they from him. "Who knows what's going on in the kid's head. I don't know what to do with him. Listen, the child support's late again. When are you going to realize that you have a responsibility here too."

And yet, there are a million kids that fit that description.

Liberals Excuse Child Killing

Yesterday I made up a story that might be taken as excusing wicked behavior. It was about a local man who killed a child and injured two women while shooting at random vehicles. The man really did shoot into traffic and kill a child. The part I made up was the story of his life, and that might be taken as my saying, "You poor put-upon murderer. I understand. it's alright."

It's been my experience, for about as long as I've been conscious of the news, that people who try to understand vicious behavior are trying to excuse it. "The bully comes from a broken home," etc.

It's certainly true that there's a large area of intersection between understanding and compassion, but, with me at least, the impulse to understand comes from a desire to protect myself by accurately understanding what's going on.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mass Shootings and Systems Theory: Materials Stocks And Flows

Material stocks and flows have to do with how things are arranged. Meadows uses her bath tub analogy, the idea being that the faucet's adding water at the same rate to a huge tub doesn't make the same difference as it does to a small tub. It's the same with the drain. If you don't have the drain stopped, you can probably get a bath in a big tub before the water runs out. If you're sitting in two inches of water, you'd better hurry.

Other examples are:

The effect of Hungarian road system, in which you have to go through Budapest to get from one side of the country to the other, on pollution and congestion;

Large commercial inventories, which allow for supply interruptions, and just-in-time inventories which make a business more flexible;

The baby-boom swell in US population;

The rates at which the environment removes pollutants (CFCs, acid rain, sewage, etc.);

Flooding in rivers, as opposed to lakes.

Meadows refers to large stocks as "buffers," and notes that correcting problems may be difficult because of the investment that went into the stocks, and what it would take to replace it. She says a dam (or a Hungarian highway)  is literally "cast in concrete."

In terms of mass shootings, the stocks and flows are:

The inventory of firearms in the American private arsenal;

The inventory of ammunition in the American private arsenal;

Industrial capacity for producing weapons and ammo;

The population that is likely to murder groups of strangers.

There have been buy-back programs, but these have been few in relation to the size of the arsenal.

Gun control advocates have suggested that cities, universities and pension funds divest their investment portfolios of weapons manufacturers' stocks, a la the anti-Arpartheid movement of twenty years ago. I think there are candidates for this kind of campaign that will save more lives, and I'd like to keep my powder dry. Also, I'd like to preserve the firearms industry.

Who knows why people kill strangers. From the Associated Press: "Oakdale police said Tuesday they are still trying to determine why a 34-year-old man apparently began randomly shooting at vehicles, killing a 9-year-old boy and injuring two women." This was a couple of weeks ago in the suburban Twin Cities. The guy has a Hmong name, and at 34, he might have been born in Laos. My imagination cooks up a story for him, pretty quickly: Family disoriented and dysfunctional because of circumstances, kid picked on for being a "slope" or a "gook." Wishes he could have stayed in Indochina, sees his people as betrayed by their allies (the US) during the Vietnam War. Can't get a date, loses his job, sees his suburban neighbors as privileged, smug, and ignorant. Decides to teach them a lesson. Note that I'm pulling this stuff out of my ass. Tran's story could be entierly different. The thing is that it describes dozens of other guys in this one's milieu, and only one goes on a rampage.

The Aurora Batman-movie shooter sounds like a schizophrenic to me, but I've known two schizophrenics, and I've never known a murderer.

Same thing for bullying victims, and kids with stupid parents. There are millions of us.

I feel like the answer to this kind of violence probably lies in the human part of the system. "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." But, you know, we're stuck with each other, and we can't say, "I think it's the nuts. Let's lock 'em all up, and medicate the shit out of 'em."

Next post will be about systems within systems.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gun Violence And Numbers As A System Levrage Point

I put off writing this post, worried that I might be missing something. This one's supposed to be about Donella Meadows' least effective leverage point for intervening in a system, numbers, and numbers as a way of reducing mass shootings.

Meadows uses her bathtub analogy to illustrate the effect of numbers -- or parameters -- on systems. How far do you have to turn the handle to get how much water. Is the drain open or stopped. Then she switches to the national debt, which despite changes in taxation and spending, continues to rise. She includes personnel changes under the jheading "Numbers," as well. Bill Clinton had a slightly different effect from George Bush, but only slightly. (Meadows was writing during the Clinton administration, and much concerned with the effects of overshoot on the economy.)

In the case of mass shootings, proposed changes in the debate seem to be about numbers. How fast can a gun shoot, and how many rounds can it hold? Can we get more honest people to carry concealed weapons, and hire police to patrol all schools? Can we eliminate fire arms sales to criminals and the delusional?

Meadows writes, "If the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely kick start it. If it's wildly variable, they don't usually stabilize it. If it's growing out of control, they don't brake it." She uses the phrase "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

Prohibiting all firearms except, say, black-powder muzzle-loaders might have reduced the heartbreak at Sandy Hook by 96%, but that would have been twenty-five lives saved. The president says we can't eliminate the danger, but we shouldn't let that stop us from eliminating some.

Maybe we can do better, if we move up the list. The next post will be Daonella Meadows' eight-most effective leverage point, "Material stocks and flows."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gun Control And Systems Theory

Meadows says that she isn't trying to give us recipes for finding and using leverage points, but to encourage more widespread thinking in systems.

I guess I'm guilty of wanting recipes. this series of posts is supposed to get me thinking in a specific subject -- mass shootings -- in terms of numbers, stocks and flows, negative feedback, etc. Maybe I'll also spread the word about Thinking in Systems a little further. (I think that that would come under the heading, "1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.")

My next post will be based on "9. Numbers."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Donella Meadows And Leverage Points

Donella Meadows begins her famous essay, Places to Intervene in a System, by defining leverage points as "places within a complex system (a corporation, and economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything."

She quotes her teacher, Jay Forrester, as saying that people intuitively know what the leverage points are, and consistently push them in the wrong direction. The classic example of this is economic growth, with people always wanting to remedy the problems cause by growth with more growth.

The nine leverage points she discusses in the essay came out of a meeting about NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO at which she impulsively, and out of frustration, listed them on the easel on the dais.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Gun Violence And Systems Theory: Thermostats and Bathtubs

The standard example of a "system" is a house thermostat. It's a heater on-off switch connected to a themometer. Somebody decides that the house should be at 68 degrees -- the "goal" -- and sets thermostat to turn the heater on if the temperature falls below that, and off when the temperature goes above. The heater is only either off or on. You can't really crank it up; it's just on more if you make the goal 75, and less if you set the thermostat at 60.

Donella Meadows uses a bathtub as her system example. There's water going into the tub from the faucet, and leaving by the drain. (Let's say there's a leaky plug.) The bather decides the goal of the system is six inches of water and adjusts the flow from the faucet to keep it at that level. The flow down the drain is "negative feedback," and the flow from the faucet is the "positive feedback."

The bather also has a goal for water temperature, and has a hot water valve (positive feedback) and a cold water valve (negative feedback), and a water heater, with a thermostat, in the basement.

A tub containing more water will hold its temperature longer. It will drain at the same rate, but be useful longer than a tub with less water to begin with. The capacity for water and the amount of heat in the water are both examples of "material stocks."

Meadows also mentions other systems connected to the bather and plumbing. There's the well or municipal water utility, the hydrological cycle, the bather's checking account, and the economy. This is interesting to me as an analogy for the system that includes gun violence.

I really don't have an agenda for or against gun control. (Alright, I'm tepidly pro-gun.) But I have a sneaking suspicion that the system that includes mass shootings is complex enough that the place where society can intervene is remote from gun ownership.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Gun Control, Disappointment, And Systems Theory

President Obama was in Minneapolis today, launching his initiative to limit shootings like the Sandy Hook Elementary slayings.

Everybody has an idea about gun control. Expect to be disappointed.

And not just the people who expect to forestall tragedy by limiting the kinds of arms citizens can own. I had a boss -- kind of an overbearing guy, and one who was two or three inches taller than I -- who gave me a lecture, with harrowing anecdote, on his Second Amendment rights. I hadn't expressed an opinion and he mistook what that opinion was.

What a dick. I hope I'm never in a crowded theater, with him, when some maniac pulls out a weapon. Caught in the crossfire.

Let's think about mass shootings like systems analyst Donella Meadows would have. Meadows wrote an essay, "Places to Intervene in a System."

The places (in increasing order of effectiveness) are:

Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)
Material stocks and flows
Regulating negative feedback loops
Driving positive feedback loops
Information flows
The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints)
The power of self-organization
The goals of the system
The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

I'll go through the essay, trying to define each intervention point in terms of gun control. My next post will be a recap of Meadows' sidebar explanation of systems theory.