The difference between complex and complicated

Very short, to-the-point video by 2010 TED Fellow Eric Berlow. Reminds me of elements of what Bud is trying to do with his book.

So I want to share with you a couple key insights about complexity we’re learning from studying nature that maybe are applicable to other problems. First is the simple power of good visualization tools to help untangle complexity and just encourage you to ask questions you didn’t think of before. For example, you could plot the flow of carbon through corporate supply chains in a corporate ecosystem, or the interconnections of habitat patches for endangered species in Yosemite National Park.

The next thing is that, if you want to predict the effect of one species on another, if you focus only on that link, and then you black box the rest, it’s actually less predictable than if you step back, consider the entire system — all the species, all the links — and from that place, hone in on the sphere of influence that matters most. And we’re discovering with our research,that’s often very local to the node you care about within one or two degrees. So the more you step back, embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers, and it’s often different than the simple answer that you started with.

On voting and technology

Coming from India, the world’s largest democracy, and having lived in the UK and US, both strong democracies of their own, I have always been interested in the subject of voting, and with the advent of technology, specifically e-voting and how that can change voting behaviour. I’m currently reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, and one of the (many) interesting quotes in it is this:

…(the) cyclotron of social betterment is propelled by technology. Society evolves in incremental doses; each rise in social organization throughout history was driven by an insertion of a new technology.

So how come then, electronic voting machines never really took off here in the Western world even though they are used in what many people think is a less-developed country, India?

A long time ago, I tweeted something to this effect and was directed to two useful resources: this article in Wikipedia that clued me in, amongst other things, to the fact that Brazil was the first country in the world to ‘conduct fully electronic elections’, and this University of Birmingham research on the practice and theory of electronic voting by Mark Ryan.

There is a lot of research to support the fact that electronic voting isn’t safe and so on, though one of the most interesting comments (via e-mail) was by Samanth Subramanian, a friend I discussed this with a while ago (and whose words I’m quoting with permission):

There’s something surprising about this issue that one of my professors once told me. In the so-called Third World, public sentiment — by which we particularly mean the sentiment of the lower middle classes and the vast numbers of poor — is WITH electronics. Somehow (and my professor cited some surveys that had been done about this) these people tend to feel their vote is safer and less likely to be manipulated if it is cast electronically.

In the First World, on the other hand, public sentiment is apparently WITH paper; again, with paper, people in countries like the UK seem to feel that their vote is safer that way.

This is a weird inversion, very counter-intuitive. But that might be one reason why a country like the UK or the US does not switch to all-electronic voting — simply because, in a survey of its voters, a majority would not want it.

Anyhow, the reason I suddenly pulled all this together into this post is because I’ve noticed a couple of interesting events over the last few months: one, this article about Hari Prasad, a winner of this year’s Electronic Foundation Pioneer Awards, who was arrested (and later freed) in August for his research on the vulnerability in Indian voting machines, based on confidentially getting access to one.

And two, this TED talk by David Bismarck on e-voting without fraud, which I think is a big step forward:

I think technology will find a way to solve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction somehow. Bismarck’s research may well be some part of the answer.


I like the concept of ‘flow’, as described by Kellee Santiago, TED Fellow, game designer and founder of thatcgamecompany:

A fundamental aspect of game design is creating “flow.” A state of flow is achieving the right balance between challenge and experience. If we’re presenting the player with something that’s too difficult for them while they’re playing it, they’re going to be really frustrated. But on the flip side, if it’s too easy, and their skill level is very high, it’s going to be boring. The sweet spot is called the state of flow.

The term comes from the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his observations of people in the 1970s. He studied how people achieve happiness and how we define it. He came up with the word “flow” because most people describe that feeling as being carried along in the water. So it not only is a great tenet of game design, but it really applies to our whole life, and life design.

More here.

Seth Priebatsch: The Game Layer on Top of the World

I know it seems like its raining TED talks here. I’m actually going to try my best to highlight all the good ones I possibly can, because there are some excellent nuggets of knowledge in them and curating them is no easy task.

Seth Priebatsch from SCVNGR talks here about game dynamics. It’s a very entertaining talk, with some humorous examples that illustrate how the dynamics between connections is now more important than the connections themselves. In other words, the game layer is more important in this decade than the social layer.

So, the social layer is all about these connections. The game layer is all about influence. It’s not about adding a social fabric to the Web and connecting you to other people everywhere you are and everywhere you go.It’s actually about using dynamics, using forces, to influence the behavior of where you are, what you do there, how you do it. That’s really, really powerful, and going to be more important than the social layer. It’s going to affect our lives more deeply and perhaps more invisibly. And so it’s incredibly critical that at this moment, while it’s just getting constructed, while the frameworks like Facebook, like the Open Graph, are being created for the game layer equivalent, that we think about it very consciously, and that we do it in a way that is open, that is available, and that can be leveraged for good.

Margaret Gould Stewart: How YouTube Thinks About Copyright

I only recently noticed that TED has started providing transcripts of the talks they upload. That’s something that really enhances my user experience. I also realised that they provide 6 minute talks in addition to their usually 17-18 minute ones. Useful to know, again!

Some good stuff in this talk by Margaret Gould Stewart, who heads the user experience team at YouTube. She speaks about how media houses like Sony allowing users to remix and re-use copyrighted content can only be good for them in the long run, using the lovely J K wedding video example.

By empowering choice, we can create a culture of opportunity. And all it took to change things around was to allow for choice through rights identification. So why has no one ever solved this problem before? It’s because it’s a big problem, and it’s complicated and messy. It’s not uncommon for a single video to have multiple rights owners. There’s musical labels. There’s multiple music publishers. And each of these can vary by country. And there’s lots of cases where we have more than one work mashed together. So we have to manage many claims to the same video.
YouTube’s Content ID system addresses all of these cases. But the system only works through the participation of rights owners. If you have content that others are uploading to YouTube, you should register in the Content ID system, and then you’ll have the choice about how your content is used. And think carefully about the policies that you attach to that content. By simply blocking all reuse, you’ll miss out on new art forms, new audiences, new distribution channels and new revenue streams.

Matt Ridley: When ideas have sex

I was intrigued to learn about I, Pencil, an essay by Leonard Read, through this TED talk by British author Matt Ridley, who speaks about the meeting and mating of ideas that encourage innovation. He mentioned it with reference to how most of us don’t really know the whole story behind things – like how to make a computer mouse, or, as the essay says, even a pencil.

Some quotable quotes from his talk:

(…) So we’ve created something called the collective brain – we’re just the nodes in this network, we’re the neurons in this brain. It’s the interchange of ideas – the meeting and mating of ideas between them – that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit, however many bad things happen. In the future, as we go forward, we will of course experience terrible things: there will be wars, there will be depressions, there will be natural disasters, awful things will happen in this century, I’m absolutely sure.

But I’m also sure because of the connections people are making, the ability of ideas to meet and to mate as never before, I’m also sure that technology will advance and living standards will advance. Because through the cloud, through crowdsourcing, through the bottom-up world that we’ve created where not just the elites but everybody is able to have their ideas and make them meet and mate, we are surely accelerating the rate of innovation.

Elif Shafak: The Politics of Fiction

We all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle, we all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class, but if we  have no connection whatsoever with the world beyond the walls we take for granted, we (too) run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink, our hearts might dwindle and our humanness may wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbours, colleagues, family – if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded by our mirror image.

…..communities of the likeminded are one of the greatest dangers of today’s globalised world. And it’s happening everywhere – amongst liberals and conservatives, agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor, east and west alike. We tend to form clusters based on similarity and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people.

Rory Sutherland’s TED Talk

From a TED interview with Rory Sutherland:

Is your advice to Obama that he should sit and have a talk with Paul Romer?

Yes, exactly that. I think so.

It’s a fundamental question about making change happen. In truth, much as people in central government love to issue strategy because it’s what they’re there for, a lot of important change happens from the bottom up. Where Britain’s conservatives have been quite good is in looking round the world for good ideas, in the sense that there are some very good Swedish ideas on education involving starting your own school that they’re currently looking at.

I felt a bit kicked because I just blogged about Paul Romer and charter cities a couple of weeks ago!

If you read the full interview, he mentions a lot of very simple yet through-provoking things about the web – like how face-to-face communication brings some amount of awkwardness to situations, which communicating through the web eliminates, and also how sometimes you just don’t want personal interaction, such as when you’re checking into a hotel in the night after a long flight. I just had that experience myself recently, so completely identified with that bit. All you really want at times like those is your room key, with details to be dealt with later.

On that note if you haven’t seen Rory’s talk at TED Oxford in July, you should. Very inspiring.