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Related Words, Beliefs, Background

Worldview Theme #13: 

                 Dancing with Systems

alphabetical listing: A to K 

  alphabetical listing, continued: L to Z
algorithm -- a problem solving procedure or method that is known to eventually give a solution.

algorithm, evolutionary—a computer program used to solve complex problems by assessing the “fitness” of various candidate solutions.  After initial assessment,  new candidate solutions are generated by “mutations” and “sexual genetic recombination” and assessed in an iterative process that halts when an optimally stable solution emerges.

artificial intelligence -- involves the development and utilization of computer systems for problem solving, emulating, mimicking, or simply exhibiting intelligent behavior or behavior associated with human beings.

chaos theory --can be understood on two levels: popular and technical.  Popularly, chaos theory involves hidden patterns that underlie seemingly random events and suggest their interconnectedness. Technically it is the theory of  non-linear systems whose behavior can be modeled by mathematical equations that can’t be explicitly solved -- their solutions can only be studied by computer. In theory accurate predictions as to the future behavior of such systems can be made, but these solutions are only good if the initial state or conditions of the system are known to extraordinary accuracy.  For some systems, a very small uncertainty in initial conditions can have very large future consequences. Thus if your initial modeling fails to account for "a butterfly flapping its wings in China", the result may be unexpected very rough weather in North America!

complex systems -- a system in which there are many agents interacting with each other. The agents themselves can be simple, like grains of sand in a sand pile, or complex , like the people who interact in the free market system.

complexity theory--according to E.O. Wilson, this is "the search for algorithms used in nature that display common features across many levels of organization." Discovering such algorithms could lead to understanding how living cells emerge from non-living molecules, or how a conscious mind results from interconnected neurons. 

computer--a general purpose, programmable machine that manipulates data, performs mathematical / logical operations, and executes programmed lists of instructions typically at a high speed. Modern computers do this using semi-conductor based microprocessors, memory and other chips, and include various peripherals to allow the user to interface with the computer and conveniently input, output, access, represent and organize information in various forms.

control system--generally consists of subsystems / processes that control the output. Found  in both the natural and manmade worlds, they can be open or closed (feedback ) loop.  The former controls output based on input only: a toaster is an example--where color (darkness) of toast is the output.  Such simple systems do not measure output so they have no way of correcting for disturbances from a preconceived model.  Heat will be applied for a predetermined time regardless of the thickness or type of bread slice.  By adding a feedback loop that measures output--and using this information correct input--better performance / regulation is achieved.  Thus, in a thermostatically controlled closed loop heating system,  room temperature is measured and fed back to determine whether a heating furnace needs to deliver more heat to a room.  see feedback 

cybernetics -- the study of how systems learn and evolve, including how they manage themselves.

dynamic system -- a system in which component parts are interrelated so that changes in one part of the system have effects elsewhere in the system.

Earth's natural cycles--study of that very complex system, the roughly 8000 miles in diameter spherical planet  Earth, is facilitated by considering its numerous subsystems--some of which are naturally conceptualized as cycles of matter moving within and between the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere.  Driven by input of solar energy, especially critical to life is the closed system cycling of six chemicals--providing individual oxygen, water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur cycles. The key to understanding the appearance of the Earth's surface landforms--and operating over a much longer time frame--is the rock cycle.  

ecosystem -- a self sustaining natural community of animals and plants.

emergent properties -- unexpected properties that emerge when higher levels of complexity are considered, properties that can not be predicted from lower level considerations. Examples include 1) at the level of individual cells, it is unexpected that intelligence emerges at higher levels of complexity, (likewise the emergence of consciousness is unexpected) or 2) at the level of individual atoms, it is unexpected that simple one cell living organisms emerge at a higher level of complexity. Chaotic systems provide other examples. Where such  properties emerge, clearly the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. 

engineering design -- the process by which scientific principles, engineering analysis, mathematics, computers, words and pictures are used to produce a plan or design, which, when carried out, will satisfy previously identified and well defined human needs.

feedback--the information about the state of a system (output) that is fed back to the system input to adjust, regulate, or modify its behavior.  Positive feedback reinforces input and can lead to exploding (or imploding) output.  Negative feedback opposes input and can lead to stable behavior.  Both can be present in complex systems.  Examples include thermostats in heating / cooling systems, elevator position / speed controls, blood sugar regulation in the body, populations of prey / predators in ecosystem, etc.          see control system 

free lunch, there is no such thing as a--refers to the belief that neither a person nor a society can truly get something for nothing: even if something appears to be free there are always hidden costs. The costs may have to be paid in the future, someplace far away, by someone else, be distributed over many people, or they may show up in another form (such as an opportunity cost, environmental cost, increased disorder, etc.)  The physical basis for this belief--which becomes a principle for ecologists and others studying closed systems--can be found in the laws of thermodynamics.  Economists link it to opportunity costs being incurred when choices are made. (If something is free, no opportunities are forfeited!) 

global education--wholistic education that focuses on whole systems and emphasizes the interconnections and interdependencies that traditional, reductionist education often overlooks. It extends boundaries of concern, and strives to involve the whole person--seen as a thinking, feeling, and doing creature.

homeostasis and death--when external stresses overwhelm the organism's ability to maintain normal steady state conditions known as homeostasis, the results can be malfunction, disease, and--if the damage cannot be repaired and homeostasis restored--death.

information theory -- a part of cybernetics, its focus is the area of communication theory with respect to transmission of information contained in signals. A highly interdisciplinary subject, it both draws on and has applications in many areas: engineering, physics, computer science, psychology, linguistics, art, etc.

integrating vs. reducing--in studying organized wholes where a hierarchical multi-level structure exists, consider two contrasting strategies:  integrating or synthesizing and moving from lower level to higher level vs. reducing as part of an analysis and moving from higher level to lower level.  The first of these approaches takes a more "wholistic" view, the second a more "reductionistic" one. 

intellectual commons movement–involves many people contributing to solving a problem or creating a software based product without concern for intellectual ownership or financial gain.  The fruit of such efforts is typically made freely available to others in open source fashion.  Examples include free software (including web browsers) and Wikipedia.

Internet-- the publicly accessible global information and communications network consisting of millions of smaller computer networks (maintained by households, commercial, educational, and government institutions, etc.) typically interconnected by fiber optic / other cables and satellite / wireless links through standard communication (IP) protocols. It includes the inter-linked, hypertext transfer protocol (http) based, web pages viewed with a web browser known as the worldwide web (www).

  levels of organization--a term that many connect with systems theory, but in general refers to an organized  whole (either natural or manmade) that can be understood and studied by focusing on its parts, which are organized in hierarchical fashion. Two examples: 1) The Earth's living things can be studied by biologists who focus their attention on one of these levels:  biosphere, ecosystem, community, habitat, population, organism, organ, tissue, cell, molecule.   2) If an American citizen is having a problem and seeks government help, he or she might make an appeal to elected officials at various levels: city councilor, county commissioner, state assemblyman, congressmen, President--these being representatives at various levels of government.

metasystem transition -- the formation of a new, more complex system from a simpler system, where the new system consists of systems of the simpler type as its subsystems and includes a mechanism which controls the production and behavior of the subsystems. Such transitions can result in emergent properties. 

model -- a human construction created to represent a pattern of relationships in data or in the human or natural world. Models can take various forms: mathematical, computer based, mechanistic, etc.

moral hazard–results when a person or institution is partly shielded from risk (due to insurance, prospects of government bailout, safety features, etc.) and acts differently (is less careful creating a hazard.)  Example: drivers w/ airbags.

neural networks -- used both to understand / model how the human mind works and in the development of artificial intelligence, like the human brain, neural networks are designed to learn from experience. Just as the brain can compare data stored in short term memory to similar data contained in its long term memory, neural networks similarly employ pattern recognition software. They also use software that allows for tackling several parts of a problem at the same time until a solution is found -- something that incredibly complex system known as the human brain does.

noneconomic variables -- things important in the human world but difficult to quantify or put a monetary value on -- including environmental, educational, health, cultural, aesthetic, sociological, political factors.

nonlinear -- refers to system behavior that is not linear. Linear behavior is behavior that mathematically can be represented in graphical form where system state points plotted fall in a straight line. In words, linear behavior can be described as being predictable and proportionate. Example: suppose you are using a hanging spring scale to weigh something. Suppose something that weighs 5.0 lbs. extends the spring 1.00 cm from its unstressed position, and a 10.0 lb object extends the spring 2.00 cm. In other words, doubling the weight, doubles the extension. You’d predict that a 20.0 lb object would cause a 4.00 cm extension. This is linear behavior and it characterizes this system for weighing small objects. But what if you hung a 200 lb object on this spring scale -- would you get a 40 cm extension? Perhaps -- but most likely you’d have problems: 1) the spring could break, or 2) the spring could be deformed so that it would no longer function as it had previously. In other words, if you exceed the limits of this system’s linear behavior, you expect nonlinear behavior.

organ systems of complex animals--an organized group of tissues and organs which work together and perform a specialized set of functions is known as an organ system.  Complex animals including humans typically have ten such major organ systems: skeletal, muscular, integumentary (skin), nervous, endocrine, circulatory and lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and reproductive.

quantum computers--unlike conventional digital computers which fundamentally recognize only two states--called  on or off, 1 or 0, high or low, single bit, etc.--these computers of the future would use qubits (quantum bits). Such use of quantum mechanical states / phenomena would greatly extend computational capability and allow certain types of problems to be solved much faster than is currently possible.

reductionism -- the philosophical belief that understanding a complex phenomenon, system, structure, organism, etc. (or solving a complicated problem) is best done by breaking it into smaller, more manageable parts (problems), and studying those parts (or first solving those smaller problems). Often accompanying a reductionistic approach to understanding is the belief that the whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts. Reductionism is the opposite of wholism (holism).

sensitivity analysis--refers to studying how sensitive a model's output is to changes in input.

systems -- regularly interacting entities forming unified wholes.  Separated from their surroundings by a boundary, mass, energy and information flow both into and out of the system. These are also transferred within the system between its component parts.  While examples of systems can be found everywhere throughout the natural, manmade and conceptual worlds, they vary greatly in complexity. In the natural world cells, an animal's circulatory system, the human brain, ecosystems, the Earth, and the Milky Way Galaxy can be understood as systems.  In the manmade world we can similarly consider household cooling systems, automobile braking systems, computers, automobiles, buildings. In the conceptual realm computer models simulate real systems that exist in natural, manmade realms, along with parts of the human societal framework.  As these examples suggest, many systems are themselves composed of systems (called subsystems), and particularly complex systems may have many levels of organization.

systems, hard vs. soft--basically a hard system can be quantified  (adequately represented with numerical data), modeled and involved in simulations much more easily  than can a soft system.  Not surprisingly systems involving mindless elements interacting (like atoms and molecules) can be better modeled (with much more confidence) than systems which consist of interacting people!

technology assessment -- a procedure that involves   1) collecting information about the technology and how it will be used in meeting specified objectives, 2) identifying impacts of its use in various areas (environmental, economic, social, political, etc), 3) assessing impacts and identifying tradeoffs, 4) formulating, then examining alternatives, with quantitative models and forecasts, 5) making recommendations including designating a preferred alternative that best meets objectives while minimizing impacts / other concerns , and 6) making plans for monitoring performance.

top down vs. bottom up–contrasting approaches to bringing change, solving problems, structuring interaction (compare centrally planned economies, market based ones).

values -- abstract qualities, principles, beliefs, or aspects of behavior that a person or a whole society holds in high regard after making value judgments.

value judgment -- comparing either something concrete (person, object, etc) or something abstract (quality, principle, etc) to some idealized standard. A value judgment is what bridges the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”. Closely related is the act of valuing, which can be thought of as choosing (from alternatives) and taking appropriate action to acquire something (concrete or abstract) or hold onto it.

wholism (or holism) -- a philosophical orientation that promotes consideration of whole systems , rather than exclusive focus on individual, component parts. This consideration is urged in the belief that the essence of the system can not be grasped by merely analyzing its constituent parts. Examples of systems that lend themselves to wholistic study: a human being, the human species, the Earth’s biosphere, planet Earth, the Milky Way Galaxy, the universe. The opposite approach to wholism is reductionism.


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