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The most important insight I have learned so far in my life is balance.


The idea came from my study of the nature of change (dynamics). Dynamics is the outcome of positive feedback loops (reinforcing loops) and negative feedback loops’ (counteracting loops, or balancing loops) interaction. Sometimes reinforcing loop is the strongest, producing growth or drop behaviour. But the growth or drop would not continue forever. It would slow down, indicating that counteracting loop becomes dominant. When there is reinforcing loop, there is counteracting loop; when there is larger reinforcing loop, there is larger counteracting loop; when there is strong reinforcing behaviour, there will be stronger balancing behaviour. That seems to be nature of change.


This reminds me of the traditional Chinese philosophy. Traditional Chinese philosophy contained primitive ideas of dynamics(易), positive and negative forces’ interaction (陰陽), balance/moderation(中道、中庸), relationship between extremity and regime shift (物極必反).

Balance is not only about engineering control theory or Socio-Ecological system dynamics. Think about homeostasis in personal health.

It is not only Chinese who notice it, i.e. there is idiom called “Feast or Famine”(時飽時餓,不是太多就是太少,不是極好就是極差,好壞不定的).

From the perspective of society, neither feast nor famine is desired. We usually prefer no more, no less—just—enough, and keeps it forever.


Naturally, while counteracting loop will balance back diverging(偏離) condition of reinforcing loop, due to the inherent delays, the correction may produce big swing as illustrated in Figure (a), or even regime shift (environment changes permanently, old way not works anymore). This may not be desired.
Figure (a) and (b)
Ideally, we might like to find equilibrium level and stick with it. There are three issues with this ideal: First, it is very hard, if not impossible, to ascertain(確定) equilibrium level accurately; Second, when there is shock, environment changes, equilibrium level changes again; Third, and the most fatal, inherent delays (stocks) can only be reduced but not eliminated completely. Therefore, the best we can do is to minimise the amplitude of oscillation like in Figure (b), so that rise and fall will be in relative peaceful (smooth) way.

In other words, being moderate does not mean we must find the exact middle point(中間點). It would be more like balance the condition back when we detect current condition becomes extreme. There will always be fluctuations—no worry about boring.


This is an era loss of ideology. Communism? Gone. Capitalism? Failing… What else can we refer to?

The problem of ideology/faith is people. People have tendency to like to take a principle to extreme. “Drink water is good for health.” Okay, so to keep healthy, I drink water as much as I can, but then I get sick. Why? “Too much water, water intoxication!” My goodness!

If people must have one single principle to simplify thinking (reasoning), I would recommend moderation.

It is the safest principle, because even if it is taken to the extreme, moderationism is still “moderate in moderation”. Still moderate!

“It can also be recursive in that one should moderate how much they moderate (i.e. to not be too worried about moderating everything or not to try too hard in finding a middle [point]).” from Wikipedia.


And “Moderation is the silken string running through the pearl chain of all virtues”—unknown source.

In the zero-centered multi-dimensional space, moderation can be understood as moving around 0, not too positive (+ve) and not too negative (-ve).


Caveat:
There are many advices like “balance between A and B”, not every A and B is the balance/moderation of what I mean. Moderation is a general principle inducted (not deducted) from many cases of A and B but by no means exhaustive, some may only valid in their particular context while some are really universal and timeless. All inductions are wrong, but some are useful.

Also, moderation does not mean compromise, take middle ground between two opposite positions on fact (e.g. global warming). This is a logical fallacy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_to_moderation).


Moderation is likely the principle for sustainability.

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Characteristic of ‘directional’ change: steadily accumulating underneath (invisible), until it meets threshold (crisis), then a minor tip is enough to shift abruptly to a new regime.

The motivation of writing this post comes from the discussion of religion in the comments section (at the end) of this post. Actually I have a plan to write it as a paper, but consider myself is still a beginner of Taoism philosophy and my English is not good enough to express Taoism terms, I have only drafted it in Chinese. In that book-style blog I also posted my view on reality, which I think is the only thing we have to believe and then the rest (including moral) can be derived from science and reasoning (Tao). This forms a complete philosophy of life that can replace religious dogma.

Key ideas:


  1. Yi (易) means “change” or “dynamics”. There is a classic text called I Ching (易经 in Simplified Chinese, 易經 in Traditional Chinese), also known as “Book of Changes”. It is a compilation of ancient Chinese wisdom when they tried to make sense of the change keep running around them. Unfortunately it is very old and so very obscure. It may be a divination book but contain ancient Chinese understanding of dynamics. In System Dynamics context, it can be interpreted as “behaviour”, as in Behaviour Over Time (BOT) graph.
  2. Tao (道), literally means “way” or “principle”, but I think it is better be understood as “principle of how nature works” or just simply “nature” or “science”. In System Dynamics context, it can be interpreted as “structure”, or more accurately, “building blocks of System Dynamics”, “principles of System Dynamics (science of change)”. It also includes evolution, science of change on organisms. The classic text of Tao is Tao Te Ching (道德经 in Simplified Chinese, 道德經 in Traditional Chinese).
  3. Note the word Te (德) in Tao Te Ching, which means “virtue” or “moral”. Chinese usually use compound word dàodé (道德) to mean “morality”, “principles of ethics”), showing close relationship of science and morality. Modern research on evolution of morality also tries to explain morality from evolutionary perspective.

Therefore, these three key ideas become the basis of a comprehensive philosophy of life that might be essential for achieving global vision. The philosophy requires critical thinking, which demand wisdom. To improve wisdom, need to tackle nurture as well as nature.

What do you think? I would like to hear your comment.

Some people (optimists like some economists) are confident (overconfident?) about human . They think that human can solve any problem as long as there is a need. This perception formed may be due to the industrial advancement (standard of living, science and technology, better institution) since the last few centuries. But can we attribute it solely to the human ingenuity? Why human did not achieve the great leap earlier (note that human has already been evolved to this current form since at least 50,000 BP, before the last fews centuries human history keeps showing rise and fall of the civilizations)? Some other people argue that rising of current civilization is mainly due to high EROI of fossil fuel. I cannot judge because I think it is hard to identify the root causes in an unrepeatable process like this.

While I have no plan to talk about reasons of rising of current industrial civilization in this post, it is a good example to show that how poor our knowledge be. While we can send people to the moon, we cannot eradicate war, hunger, AIDS, traffic jam; we still struggle in developing technology that can recognize people’s face un-intrusively and flexibly under natural environment like human does; or we cannot even predict how the water level of a bathtub change. There are lots of examples you can think of about what human still cannot do presently, even there is a will (e.g. forecast direction of winds that bring the volcano ash).

The most critical evolutionary constraint on human is to understand complexity (complex means difficult to understand, so a thing will not be called complex if we can understand it). For example, no one know for sure what will happen in the current Euro financial crisis. What if we let Greece bankrupt? What is the consequences (especially unintended consequences) of current decision to bail it out? We grow our civilization to this state of complexity but we don’t know how to manage it. In a world of changing faster and faster and becoming more and more interconnected (interdependence), we just realize how poor our ability to control it to achieve the vision we want.

This is my thought after reading this post:


The ultimate challenge for humanity, then, is to figure out how to make insight about complex systems evolutionarily successful.

At least, we need to recognize that we still ignorant of many things. We should be more humble. We should be more careful. We should be watchful about where our current direction leads us to be, and rethink the actual relationship between economic growth and human development. So I think the first step should be raising awareness about our poor ability to learn complexity (especially dynamic complexity).

If you think this is not an issue, then ask yourself: Are you happy? Do you feel your life is full of happiness? If not, why? Do you think you are happier than people before the industrial civilization? Or more simple question, happier than people who died before the internet has invented? You enjoy so many modern innovations, you should be much happier than them. If not, this is a sign of unhealthy development. Development should increase people’s happiness, not less. Let’s think about it.

from an Ecology Letters paper.

Regime shift is a scientific jargon to describe phenomena where direction of the change abruptly change (surprise!), shifting from one state to another, after passing tipping point. For example, an elastic rubber ring can be stretched longer and longer, but once the stretching passing its limit, it will snap suddenly. The rubber ring change from one state (a complete ring) to another state (broken ring), and cannot recover anymore.

Now the question is, is this finding applicable to other complex dynamic structures, like economy, climate, sustainability?

In my opinion, in descending order of importance:


  1. Universal love 大爱
  2. Critical thinking 独立思考
  3. Visionary 大视野
  4. Dynamics thinking 动态思维

We cannot know what will happen in the future for sure, but if they are equipped with these traits, I will be relieved.

Next question: How could we get these learning outcomes? (To be continued)

Just discover Scholarpedia. It might be a good try to gather all the knowledge we have in a place accessible to public, instead of subscribing million of journals. Would it change the way scholar converse?

It is interesting to see how epidemics and predator-prey model being presented in the differential equations format. What do you think if they are presented in stock and flow diagram, like Figure 4 of

The terms like “once-in-100 years drought”, “a 50-year flood” and “once-in-30 years wildfire” to describe how likely an event occurs are based on statistics, on the premise that the world works as if it is static (note the similarity of the words “static” and “statistics”).

But the world is not like that. It is changing (dynamic). So the yesterday “once-in-100 years storm” may become more frequent to “once-in-30 years storm” today due to climate change.

For example, given a distribution of river discharges for the years 1950 to 2000, can this distribution be used to predict how often a certain river discharge will be exceeded in the years 2000 to 2050? The answer is yes, provided that the environmental conditions do not change. If the environmental conditions do change, such as alterations in the infrastructure of the river’s watershed or in the rainfall pattern due to climatic changes, the prediction on the basis of the historical record is subject to a systematic error.


from Wikipedia.


Other good explanations are Teaching recurrence intervals and Two streams, two stories… How Humans Alter Floods and Streams.

This post is my comment to this news (in Chinese).

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