Simple Complexity at ten thousand five hundred feet

I never stop marveling at the sophisticated complexity of modern technology. The fine performance of that flathead V-8 engine in my 1951 Ford when I was in high school was fully understandable by the average teenager at the time. Today, most of us do not have a clue about how the technologies we use every day actually work.

It is even worse than that. When I taught university students how to do research, I often gave them a “basic skills” test at the beginning of the semester. The test included a question asking where their water came from. Most were unable to describe much beyond the kitchen faucet. Some might argue that we don’t need to know the technical details, just how to turn the faucet on and pay the bill. Tell that to the children of Flint, Michigan. Complexity has power, but can be very dangerous.

The Simple and the Complex in Technology

I’ve always been curious about how the technology I use works. I learned to fly airplanes in 1976. I already understood aerodynamics and studied it further in preparing to get my pilot’s license. Decades later when I retired, I built my own airplane, a Glasair Sportsman II, with the assistance and direction of some incredibly knowledgeable mechanics. You could say that I know my airplane pretty well.

But there is so much more to modern technology than that. When the fuel pressure indicator on the flat-panel primary flight display went wild (see previous posts, “Up in the Air Again,” and “Decision to Land”), I could not determine with certainty the technical source of the way out-of-range indication while cruising at 10,500 feet. Normal fuel pressure is 25 psi; at one point, indicated pressure shot up to 107.

Information Determines Emergency

Was the fuel pump failing? If so, why would the pressure be so high, instead of lower than normal? Would excessive pressure burst a fuel line or connection, leading to a fiery crash? Or, was it just a false reading due to a faulty sensor? No answer to this “mission-critical” question was possible in the air. Even if a catastrophic outcome were unlikely, if it is possible why risk it?

After I made an emergency landing, it took a couple of hours of disassembly and checking various potential sources of the aberrant fuel-pressure reading. A young A&E (Airframe & Engine) mechanic from Alaska diagnosed the problem. He determined that the fuel pump, with its reputation for being “bullet-proof,” was likely not at fault. Besides, producing such high pressure made no sense. Since there were no obstructions in the filters, the fuel-pressure ‘sender’ appeared to be defective (a $32- part). Lucas is a clever innovative mechanic. He used a pressure gauge from his air compressor to test the actual fuel pressure; he got a steady reading of 30 psi. The difference was likely due to the difference between how it read air versus fuel pressure. But it was steady and close to spec.

I had lots of time to contemplate simple complexity as we waited over the weekend to order the part for overnight shipment. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the nearest airport when I decided to land ASAP, we awaited shipment of a new fuel-pressure sender. The “overnight” shipment, ordered Monday, took two days to arrive. Due to the long wait, it cost about a thousand dollars in lodging, food, and incidentals to obtain and install that $32- part. The actual installation took about ten minutes.

No Fail-Safe Technology for the Planet

No matter how sophisticated human technology may become, it is never fail-safe. The ill-fated Challenger spacecraft had many redundant fail-safe systems when it exploded after launch due to a simple oversight. Teams of corporate engineers could not figure out the problem; it took famed physicist Richard Feynman to give a simple tabletop demonstration of the failure of an ordinary o-ring due to freezing weather. Bureaucratic inertia and profit motive were the culprits.

Systems-thinking-01_kindling.xyzThe culture of modernity is stuck in traditional thinking. We live in a world of complex adaptive systems within a vastly more complex Earth System. We must begin to practice systems thinking. No fail-safe technology protects the Earth System against the destructive effects of ever-growing economic production. But increasingly complex and wasteful technologies of extraction, manufacture, distribution, sales, and use devour depleting planetary resources and destabilize living earth systems. We must become aware of the possibility of all sorts of failures, from the smallest device to the planetary ecological and climate disturbances our technological hubris has now produced.

Ecological necessity now calls upon us to engage in a fix so large and complex that it is difficult even to imagine. Yet it is now imperative. “Houston, we have a major system failure,” which permeates our entire industrial economy. We must fix our planetary problem in the air. We have nowhere else to land.

The Heart of the Matter: It’s More than Your Doctor May Know

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I keep finding myself in conversations of health and illness, as I grow older. The Mad Jubilado experiences by the very course of nature and time more health related situations and conversations than in previous stages of life. In such conversations I have noticed a certain irrationality in searches for “the solution,” where no simple (and also effective) answer can usually be found.

Along with simplicity, too many “patients” rely blindly on the “authority” of various assertions by their doctors. It is so much more comforting to find a simple solution provided by an authority figure, requiring little thought and a one-step implementation, than to pursue diverse sources of information from scientific research.

The denial of complexity is similar to denying that there is a problem. Some folks about as old as this Mad Jubilado would like to live in an age like the ideal pastoral existence they think they remember from childhood. Some things always were more complicated than we remember; many others have become even more so.

Some folks, on the other hand, revert to the no-solution solution. I remember too many conversations about which I do not remember anything else but that they contained a certain attitude of fatalism in the guise of scientific skepticism. This seems to happen less often now since most folks seem to have at least some grasp of how certain things damage people and other living things. Such conversations go something like this:

Mr. A – “Did you hear about the medical studies that show that people who eat X have a 42% greater chance of contracting colon cancer than those who don’t?”

Mr. B – “Oh, well, it seems that every day they claim that something else we eat is going to give us cancer. What are we supposed to do, stop eating? Have they really proved it? I know lots of people, for example, who smoke and don’t have cancer. It’s ridiculous; I’m not going to worry about it. We can’t control everything.”

Defeatism, Denial, and Delusion in the face of complexity: None of these is particularly useful. We do live under historically unique conditions. So many materials and chemical compounds now impinge on our lives every day that were never present in the natural environment before industrial civilization.

We have a sense that so many things just could not all be bad for us. At the same time, those who profit from our ignorance try to convince us that the pollutant their industry emits and we are concerned about is really harmless. Don’t forget, the fossil-fuel companies hired the same public relations company to promote climate-change denial that worked for the tobacco companies to convince folks that cigarettes were safe.

We live in a single-cause-of-evil culture. We want to identify the bad guy and have the Lone Ranger come and take him out. Otherwise, things should just be rosy. Just look at foreign policy; well never mind, that’s another very long story… Fact is, life can be and often is, complicated.

And so it is with our health and its relationship with the medical industry as well as the many industries that pollute our air, water, and land. One small part of the denial of the overwhelming evidence of growing climate chaos is the denial of complexity, even to the extent of imagining vast (necessarily complex) conspiracies by climate scientists all over the world to construct stories of complexity in what deniers insist is a simple world.

Recently, by not believing the standard, simple, one-culprit story of arterial plaque that dominates the thinking and practice of cardiology, I was able to dodge what I call a “standard of care” bullet. What might have induced panic about a “life threatening” condition, was resolved by turning to more data on a variety of factors and a scientific analysis of the complexities of biochemistry.

My plaque score was off the charts. Yet I passed the stress test with flying colors, demonstrating by the performance and by imaging that I had no arterial blockages. Yet the cardiologist insisted that I was in grave danger and urging that I take high doses of a new statin drug. I investigated the facts of plaque beyond the ideology of the high-end cardiologist. I consulted with a lipidologist and learned about the complexities of blood lipids and plaque, apparently beyond what the most cardiologists know.

I discovered that a high score on a narrow measure of arterial plaque was not the final word on the matter. Old plaque is essentially scar tissue, yet retains the calcium that was in the original plaque. So it results in a high score. Scar tissue does not flake off like new plaque in the artery.

Facing complexity and seeking to understand it led to a better more complete understanding of risk management and a better approach to maintaining heart health. The heart of the matter reached beyond the standard of care typical of the practice of cardiology. The same prinicple applies to many areas of risk in our complex world.