Thinking about Occam’s Razor

March 3, 2015 by  

While watching an episode of Madame Secretary the other night, I was interested to hear the main character mention Occam’s Razor as she wrestled with a complex issue and the need to get at the variables, understand them and make decisions about how to proceed. Knowing my interest in complexity and complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory, a friend told me about Occam’s Razor awhile ago. I had never come across it before, despite lots of reading about complexity and complex systems – obviously not reading the right things, Ann! Thanks.

Wikipedia tells us that Occam’s Razor (which is also sometimes written as Ockham’s Razor) is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham in the 13th C – believe it or not. William was a respected English Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian.

The principle of Occam’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses which predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove to provide better predictions, but—in the absence of major differences – the fewer assumptions that are made, the better – according to the theory.

Called also the Law of Parsimony, it tells us to KISS or keep it simple, and not over-complicate. This of course makes a lot of sense and it also reminds us to quantify, qualify and verify our assumptions. Wikipedia goes on to say “ For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are better testable and falsifiable.”

The fact that we are still considering William of Ockham’s ideas, 7 centuries later boggles the mind, and makes me question how much more we know or don’t know today than we did centuries ago.

It also makes me wonder about the fit between Occam’s Razor and complex adaptive systems’ theory. This is for another time.

King Shaka International Airport in Durban

February 3, 2012 by  

We woke early and had a delicious continental breakfast on the porch at Makakatana, said our goodbyes and took to the N2 to Durban International for a flight at 130 to Port Elizabeth on the south shore.

The small staff at the lodge provided an excellent example of effective teamwork. Everyone did her or his designated job as well as supporting others and jumping in to do what needed doing. There didn’t seem to be any tension between whites who were rangers and office staff and several Zulu women who were kitchen, meal service and housekeeping. The camaraderie and respectful joking among them was good to watch even though we knew as guests we might not be allowed to see tensions that were under the surface.

The trip south by car is beautiful – everything very green and lush, acres and acres of planted eucalyptus trees and sugar cane, lots of pretty little Zulu villages with their round thatch-roofed huts reserved for the ancestors, and many cows – some grazing too close to the highway! The roads are very good and lots of people are employed repairing the roads and building new lanes, cleaning the roadsides, picking up any garbage. Everything is very clean. Speed limit is 120 km/hr and everyone moves fast, lots of trucks and “taxis” that the blacks cram into – 16 (or more) seater vans that stop on the side of the road to take people to work or shopping or whatever. They look stifling hot but seem to work in this evolving economy with 25pc and more unemployment rates depending on the area. Tourism is down considerably with recession in Europe and USA and people are feeling it.

Bad luck with weather in Port Elizabeth and we’re still here at 630pm waiting in the airport for a flight out which does not look promising but they don’t want to cancel yet. Apparently all flights from Joberg to PE have been canceled so it’s just a matter of time for us to be cancelled as well….

We’ve just changed our flight to an early one tomorrow to Cape Town. SAA was very accommodating. There is a Fairmont Hotel nearby so we will head there overnight.

Interesting story when gasing up the rental car at a Shell station on the highway (BTW the rest stops are the same as ours in Canada with gas, food and drink, cash machines and the like). There was a power outage at the station on our side of the highway so several red shirted employees with the Shell logo directed us to drive into the culvert under the highway to the other side where the power was working in that Shell station.

Getting gas here is a pleasure. Many uniformed employees, both men and women, are at the ready to pump your gas, wash your windows and check under the hood if you wish. They are very grateful for a 20 rand tip (about 2.50) which goes to help feed the extended family.

We are sorry to be leaving Zululand behind. From what we have seen they are a kind and gentle people who are struggling to make it in a rapidly changing world. HIV Aids and unemployment are huge challenges. The men seem to have trouble staying with the family. Many women are supporting their extended families on their own. Two days ago we took a very early morning game drive to Hluhluwe. On the way we saw dozens and dozens of kids of all ages walking along the highways to school, very neatly dressed in clean uniforms despite the fact that living conditions are very rough. It was 630am! We are told that kids walk very long distances (even 10 kms in some cases) and sadly teachers are in very short supply and poorly paid so the kids might get to school and no teacher is there.

Hippo Heaven

February 2, 2012 by  

We’re at Makakatana Bay Lodge in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park near Lake St Lucia in Kwa Zulu Natal province for one more night. Today we took a pontoon boat tour on the estuary of Lake St Lucia and saw many dozens of hippos resting in the water. As we motored gently by, they would lift their heads to look at us, snort a lot to say: dont come too close; and then submerge themselves again. Many had young ones and can be very aggressive towards intruders. Our boat captain, Warwick and our guide Louwrena were both very knowledgeable about the wildlife and could spot interesting birds and lizards from long distances. We didn’t see any crocodiles which apparently is unusual. Gord got an excellent shot of fish eagles sitting regally in the trees or taking flight to get away from the boat.

Our captain was a very respectful and knowledgeable guide who kept away from anything that would be unduly frightened. Our lodge is very wild, elephants come at night to forage, 3 water buffalo spend their time grazing in the front yard, monkeys live in the trees outside the porch where we eat breakfast and race across the rooves at night, and a warthog family come several times every day to drink from the pond.
This was our third day tour in this UNESCO World Heritage reserve. As we drove in the first day we were thrilled to see giraffe and zebra grazing beside the dirt roads. We spent the first evening on a drive with a wonderful young and very knowledgeable guide named Riley who sat with us for an hour watching a bull elephant alone in the setting sun and very close to our truck. Needless to say we have some great photos. We have been using the computers in the lodges to keep our messages going out and the photos are downloaded onto the ipad. Next time we will bring a cell phone and learn how to use it to tether – right, Kirk.
I am continuously blown away by the complex adaptive systems that we are learning about every day here – complexity being a subject I am very interested in!
We leave here tomorrow after breakfast and drive 3 hours to the Durban airport to return our rental car and catch a flight to Port Elizabeth. From there we pick up another car and drive to Cape Town along the famous Garden Route.

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Amazing Sights at Makakatana Bay Lodge

February 1, 2012 by  

We’re at Makakatana Bay Lodge in the northern part of Kwa Zulu Natal on the banks of Lake St Lucia not far from Swaziland. Having some wonderful viewings of giraffe, water buffalo, zebra, rhino, warthog families and many kinds of antelope with a fantastic guide named Riley who is both very knowledgeable and excited about his work. He’s also a great bartender and cook. We’ve had evening drinks with him on the savannah as well as a fantastic outdoor breakfast at the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park north of the Lodge in Zululand and surrounded by lovely hillside residences and small villages. We left the lodge about 5 this morning to travel to this famous park where there is lots to see.

On the day we arrived at the lodge we took a wrong turn and before we knew it we had glimpses of giraffe, zebra, warthogs and tons of colourful birds. It was very exciting to see these animals in the wild and protected. We spent one evening with this large lone bull elephant just watching him as the sun set and he wandered the plains. At a couple of points you’d swear he knew he was giving us a thrill – he was only 20 feet from our truck – and he seemed to pose for us. Riley was full of interesting information and knew just how close to get so as not to scare or disturb him but to give us a good sighting.

One of the pictures below is of Dung Beetles which live in elephant dung. Thanks to Louwrena, Riley’s colleague who taught us about these interesting creatures and actually had us hold them and their dung balls. The elephants wander the roads at night near the lodge – they come to eat from the trees and one night devoured the year’s crop of mangoes! By morning their dung is full of beetles which will live and reproduce in the dung – as well as recycle the dung into useful products for the ecosystem…a form of symbiosis. They are extremely efficient. Researchers found that a 1.5 km of dung attracted 16 thousand beetles who disposed of it in under 2 hours.

Having a wonderful trip and meeting many interesting people with lots of insight in to this wondefully complex country.

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An Organizing Framework for a Complex World

March 16, 2010 by  

Looking at my desk some days makes me despair. I never seem to get ahead of all the things that need doing. I’m beginning to think I need a new system to deal more effectively with it all.

Some days there’s no doubt in my mind that the complexity of our brave new world and all its “time saving” technology has just made it all more complicated. Other days I am so delighted with the tools that enable me to communicate with many people located all over the world, do my banking at all hours, and organize my thoughts into a neat and tidy proposal that can easily be whisked to the client across the ethernet.

Because I’ve been travelling more lately the keeping on top part of my life has taken a hit. Adding to it is the fact that I have a new Mac and I have to learn all its hidden secrets. To my delight yesterday’s Globe and Mail provided a new and interesting framework for managing my desk. The ideas come from David Allen in his Productive Living newsletter via Harvey Schachter’s Monday Morning Manager series.

The filing system looks intriguing. Instead of saying make 3 piles – do something with it, save it, trash it – as many simplistic organizing systems do, this one plumbs the depths of possibility more deeply with options like:

• I don’t need it or want it – Trash
• I still need to decide what this means to me – In Basket
• I might need to know this information – Reference Material
• I use it – Equipment and Supplies
• I like to see it – Decoration
• I’ve committed to this and need to be reminded – Project List (review weekly)
• I need to have this when I focus on a project – Support Material
• I might want to commit to this at some time in the future – Someday Maybe List
• I might want to commit to this after a specific future date – Calendar
• Its something someone else is doing that I care about – Waiting For List (review weekly)
• I need it when I do certain recurring activities – Checklist

I’m going to try this system for a few weeks and see if it helps. I’m thinking that a system like this might work on my e-files as well as my paper files. Staying on top of it all is a challenge I want to master. Maybe some of it is letting go of the idea that everything is well organized – and trusting that I will find something when I need it if it really matters. Back again to my favourite complexity truism – Trust the Process.