Check Your Units, 2023 Edition
A Corgi-sized meteor as heavy as 4 baby elephants hit Texas, eh? Is energy equivalent the same as weight? Are animal meteors meatier? So many questions …
Spreadsheets Strike Again
In this BBC podcast, stand-up mathematician Matt Parker explains the latest big spreadsheet screwup: overstating European productivity growth.
There are a bunch of killers in spreadsheets, but in this case the culprit was lack of a time axis concept, making it easy to misalign times for the GDP and labor variables. The interesting thing is that a spreadsheet’s strong suite – visibility of the numbers – didn’t help. Someone should have seen 22% productivity growth and thought, “that’s bonkers” – but perhaps expectations of a COVID19 rebound short-circuited the mental reality check.
Believing Exponential Growth
Verghese: You were prescient about the shape of the BA.5 variant and how that might look a couple of months before we saw it. What does your crystal ball show of what we can expect in the United Kingdom and the United States in terms of variants that have not yet emerged?
Pagel: The other thing that strikes me is that people still haven’t understood exponential growth 2.5 years in. With the BA.5 or BA.3 before it, or the first Omicron before that, people say, oh, how did you know? Well, it was doubling every week, and I projected forward. Then in 8 weeks, it’s dominant.
It’s not that hard. It’s just that people don’t believe it. Somehow people think, oh, well, it can’t happen. But what exactly is going to stop it? You have to have a mechanism to stop exponential growth at the moment when enough people have immunity. The moment doesn’t last very long, and then you get these repeated waves.
You have to have a mechanism that will stop it evolving, and I don’t see that. We’re not doing anything different to what we were doing a year ago or 6 months ago. So yes, it’s still evolving. There are still new variants shooting up all the time.
At the moment, none of these look devastating; we probably have at least 6 weeks’ breathing space. But another variant will come because I can’t see that we’re doing anything to stop it.
– Medscape, We Are Failing to Use What We’ve Learned About COVID, Eric J. Topol, MD; Abraham Verghese, MD; Christina Pagel, PhD
There are no decision makers…
A little gem from Jay Forrester:
One hears repeatedly the question of how we in system dynamics might reach “decision makers.” With respect to the important questions, there are no decision makers. Those at the top of a hierarchy only appear to have influence. They can act on small questions and small deviations from current practice, but they are subservient to the constituencies that support them. This is true in both government and in corporations. The big issues cannot be dealt with in the realm of small decisions. If you want to nudge a small change in government, you can apply systems thinking logic, or draw a few causal loop diagrams, or hire a lobbyist, or bribe the right people. However, solutions to the most important sources of social discontent require reversing cherished policies that are causing the trouble. There are no decision makers with the power and courage to reverse ingrained policies that would be directly contrary to public expectations. Before one can hope to influence government, one must build the public constituency to support policy reversals.
Nordhaus on Subsidies
I’m not really a member of the neoclassical economics fan club, but I think this is on point:
“Subsidies pose a more general problem in this context. They attempt to discourage carbon-intensive activities by making other activities more attractive. One difficulty with subsidies is identifying the eligible low-carbon activities. Why subsidize hybrid cars (which we do) and not biking (which we do not)? Is the answer to subsidize all low carbon activities? Of course, that is impossible because there are just too many low-carbon activities, and it would prove astronomically expensive. Another problem is that subsidies are so uneven in their impact. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences looked at the impact of several subsidies on GHG emissions. It found a vast difference in their effectiveness in terms of CO2removed per dollar of subsidy. None of the subsidies were efficient; some were horribly inefficient; and others such as the ethanol subsidy were perverse and actually increased GHG emissions. The net effect of all the subsidies taken together was effectively zero!” So in the end, it is much more effective to penalize carbon emissions than to subsidize everything else.” (Nordhaus, 2013, p. 266)
(Via a W. Hogan paper, https://scholar.harvard.edu/whogan/files/hogan_hepg_100418r.pdf)
Cause and Effect
Do we want a better way?
Stabilizing an Unstable Equilibrium
On Problem Statements
Saras Chung’s plenary commentary at ISDC 2020 reminded me of this nice article:
The Most Underrated Skill in Management
There are few management skills more powerful than the discipline of clearly articulating the problem you seek to solve before jumping into action.
BY NELSON P. REPENNING, DON KIEFFER, AND TODD ASTOR
A good problem statement has five basic elements:
• It references something the organization cares about and connects that element to a clear and specific goal;
• it contains a clear articulation of the gap between the current state and the goal;
• the key variables — the target, the current state, and the gap — are quantifiable;
• it is as neutral as possible concerning possible diagnoses or solutions; and
• it is sufficiently small in scope that you can tackle it quickly.