Simplicity itself

Ten years ago I got interested in complexity.

I was working for doctors, and their behavior fascinated me. Medicine is the original complex system, far too large and intricate for any one person to comprehend. To become doctors, students attack this mountain of spaghetti and spend years memorizing parts, learning formulae, repeating mnemonics. They are stretched beyond capacity; the task is impossible. In postgraduate education this is all put into action. A few years of no sleep, life-and-death decisions, and a whole new layer of complexity is introduced: clinical practice, a completely different set of information.

After this something unexpected occurs. It all becomes simple.

I don’t mean to say that medicine gets any easier. Clinicians get new science projects every day, full of mysterious signs and symptoms. But the way they talk about it, it seems no more complicated than frying an egg. If you ask a physician what happens in the internal medicine ward, you’ll get a breezy answer like “It’s all I’s and O’s” or “Titrating ‘lytes all day”. To believe them, the entire job consists of monitoring how much fluid goes in and out and how much sodium and potassium is in the blood. Everything else is a side dish.

This sounds easy. All I’d have to do is steal some notes on electrolytes and hydration, put on a white coat, and walk back and forth in the wards telling people to put in more or less saline drip and more or less salt! Then I’d be a rich, famous doctor.

Well, no. Not going to try that. But I bet I’d do okay at least for a while. These successful physicians know that the majority of their time is spent on three or four simple tasks. Most of their education is in reserve for the exceptions. If Mrs. Patient’s left leg turns red and swells up, I’m clueless, but the physician knows how to proceed next. On a typical day, Mrs. Patient’s left leg does not swell up. It’s all I’s and O’s and titrating the ‘lytes on the medical floor.

From working with physicians I learned that they go through complexity into simplicity. The overwhelming detail of medical education past them, they follow the same few rules and do the same few things for most of their careers, using 1% of their expertise 99% of the time. But you can’t just learn that 1% and set yourself up as a dermatologist, because you need that other 99%.

If you talk to experts in almost any field, you hear similar things. As a computer system administrator, I do three or four things all day long. The other thousand things I know how to do come up rarely. Bartenders make gin and tonics all day long; once a month someone asks for a mojito and they’d better know how to make one. I’ve heard similar reductive talk from aircraft pilots, engineers, cooks, and artists. Sometimes it’s a couple of techniques, or a couple of formulas, or a repetitive diagnostic path. The slang in a profession is revealing of this phenomenon; as in the medical example above, the 1% knowledge turns into rhymes and mnemonics.

The progress from ignorance through complexity to simplicity recalls similar patterns in spiritual disciplines. I think of Zen Buddhist monks who, on attaining enlightenment, announce that it’s all about sunlight on a block of wood or something. Or Jesus telling his fellow Jews that the entire Law is summed up as “Love God and love your neighbor”.

What I wonder is this: what’s this process? What about our minds reduces all this detail to a few bits of information, successfully, but only after all the complexity has been mastered?

I bet the answer is really complicated.

11 thoughts on “Simplicity itself

  1. an ortho of mine once opined that you had to learn the book only to forget it. Not because the book was useless, far from it, but because *they never present like they say they will in the book* but you have to know just in case. Cause if you fail to recognise the obvious you are useless regardless of the number of rediculously obscure and hard things you have done, because most of life is mundane. Hours of boredom interspersed by moments of shear panic… fuck me why does anyone do this.

  2. What a wonderful post! I don’t tell you this enough, but I consider you one of the true gems of my friends list.
    Anyway, I can say that the phenomenon you describe is true of piano players as well. 90 percent of it is the same chord progrssions over and over…the complexity I’ve mastered through years and years of schooling and experience is only required every so often…
    A lot of the time, though, what is required is simplicity expressed in complex ways. If that makes any sense. There’s an unlimited number of ways to play a chord progression. Perhaps what makes the expert an expert is the ability to do simple things in subtle, intricate, multifaceted, nuanced ways. And that entails some complexity.
    I don’t know. You know what I’m saying – you’re the brilliant one. I’m just drunk.

  3. Seven years of being drilled with knowledge tends to ingrain it into your thoughts 😛
    Professional faculties (medicine, engineering, law, etc) strongly emphasize research methodologies. Given enough time and resources, many people from those backgrounds can tackle problems in each others’ fields. I bet that if you gave a complex problem for someone to solve, many with those backgrounds would approach the probelm in a similar fashion.

    1. Exactly.
      Though I was going to use the ‘random ant on the infinite map’ example.
      The one thing the human brain does remarkably well is pattern recognition. Many animal brains have abstract pattern recognition capability, but as far as I know, none come close to the human brain.

  4. Babbage
    I sort of touch upon this in <a
    FOLDOC entry that I put together… wow, almost ten years ago,
    about Charles Babbage:

    as (necessarily) the first person to work with machines that
    can attack problems at arbitrary levels of abstraction, fell into a
    trap familiar to toolsmiths since, as described here by the English
    ethicist, Lord Moulton:
    “One of the sad memories of my life is a visit to the celebrated
    mathematician and inventor, Mr Babbage. He was far advanced in age,
    but his mind was still as vigorous as ever. He took me through his
    work-rooms. In the first room I saw parts of the original Calculating
    Machine, which had been shown in an incomplete state many years before
    and had even been put to some use. I asked him about its present
    form. ‘I have not finished it because in working at it I came on the
    idea of my Analytical Machine, which would do all that it was capable
    of doing and much more. Indeed, the idea was so much simpler that it
    would have taken more work to complete the Calculating Machine than to
    design and construct the other in its entirety, so I turned my
    attention to the Analytical Machine.'”
    “After a few minutes’ talk, we went into the next work-room, where he
    showed and explained to me the working of the elements of the
    Analytical Machine. I asked if I could see it. ‘I have never completed
    it,’ he said, ‘because I hit upon an idea of doing the same thing by a
    different and far more effective method, and this rendered it useless
    to proceed on the old lines.’ Then we went into the third room. There
    lay scattered bits of mechanism, but I saw no trace of any working
    machine. Very cautiously I approached the subject, and received the
    dreaded answer, ‘It is not constructed yet, but I am working on it,
    and it will take less time to construct it altogether than it would
    have token to complete the Analytical Machine from the stage in which
    I left it.’ I took leave of the old man with a heavy heart.”
    “When he died a few years later, not only had he constructed no
    machine, but the verdict of a jury of kind and sympathetic scientific
    men who were deputed to pronounce upon what he had left behind him,
    either in papers or in mechanism, was that everything was too
    incomplete of be capable of being put to any useful purpose.”
    [Lord Moulton, “The invention of algorithms, its genesis, and
    growth”, in G. C. Knott, ed., Napier tercentenary memorial
    (London, 1915), p. 1-24; quoted in Charles Babbage
    Passage from the Life of a Philosopher, Martin
    Campbell-Kelly, ed. (Rutgers U. Press and IEEE Press, 1994), p. 34].

    Ideally, programming is the very model of
    removing all simplicity and dealing just with complexity — if you do the same thing over and over, you
    should make a program do it; if you’re programming the same thing over
    and over, you should make a module/macro/whatever for doing it so that
    you can just use that module, tell it your specifics, and have it do
    the work. So ideally, all the routine/simple/patterned stuff is
    abstracted out, and programs are just a matter of the
    complex/specific/antipatterned stuff.
    Sometimes people end up working in languages that are so broken as
    to make some kinds of abstraction impossible, and so their code can
    end up unavoidably full of the sort of repetitiveness we see at
    The Daily WTF.
    But more frightening is the problem that the mere act of abstraction
    (automating the simplicity) itself entails some kind of overhead —
    overhead either in the form of having to accommodate the conceptual
    framework of the tool, or overhead in the form of just having to deal
    with the interface — what’s the tool called, what are its routines
    called, do you have to call them in some special order, etc.
    That’s where the Babbage Syndrome starts.

    1. Re: Babbage
      I like the way you phrase that. What we call “computer programming” is better rendered as “regularity-removing”. That makes the advantages and disadvantages pretty clear. The ideal computer programmer would be able to compress tasks into a series of literally random letters and numbers.
      It seems that the only way to really make money is to do stuff that’s beneath your talents. So the work would be more regular.
      But we’re all idiots and want life to be so interesting we burn out as fast as possible.

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