Bodhi Day 2020 is two days away on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Today is December 6, 2020, Day 6 of the Bodhi Season.
My introduction to complex systems years ago (around the late 1990s) was one of those world-flipping moments for me. Through many years of software development before that, I’d been thoroughly trained to think exclusively in terms of procedural, compartmentalized, deterministic computability. That is a fine way of thinking when the software requirements are for automating well-defined processes. But events in the real world aren’t well-defined at all.
Very roughly, a complex system involves many moving parts, all with “minds” of their own, moving to rules of their own, interacting with everything at the same time. Economies, natural ecosystems, and teams of programmers are examples of complex systems familiar to most. The interesting characteristic of them is that predicting how the system changes over time ranges from really hard to impossible.
Around that time of my introduction to complex systems, my typical customers (business-oriented) were beginning to look towards software for more “intelligent” use cases. They wanted software to help them figure out what to do. That is, be a good crystal ball and predict the future.
It didn’t take long to see that the value of results from predicting what will happen in complex systems ranged from limited to useless. No matter how much data you have, the future eludes reliable and consistent predictability. This has recently been brought to center stage by our efforts to handle Covid-19.
Yes, we can and do make some pretty good guesses with the machine-learning analytics systems of today. But those pretty good guesses are based on much narrower scopes. We’re still wildly wrong much of the time and even when we’re “right”, those guesses still require real-time adjustments.
Businesses certainly do operate in a complex system. Decision makers have little control over governments, customers, the environment, and even the employees to some extent. Therefore, it’s best to let go of the idea of reliance on predicting the future. That goes for Zen practice as well as my job as a business intelligence architect. What’s good for an analytics platform is good for a student of Zen: widely-scoped awareness, adaptability, and resilience.
Fast forward to a few years ago, around 2014/2015ish. I was telling Ringo about my work. He’s in a completely different line of business. I explained how predictive models have a short shelf life because things are always changing; customer preferences, laws, new competitors, disruptive products, etc.
Then Ringo asked, “Wut hahpins if things change, but that change lead to exactly like some time befoh?”
Me: Well, we never step in the same river twice. Right? To our brains, it mostly looks the same, but it’s not, if you look at everything, the wider picture.
Ringo: But what if? What if everythin‘ wuz the same as a time befoh?
Me: I suppose that could happen. But “unimaginably improbable” doesn’t begin to convey how unlikely that is.
Ringo: But it could hahpun, couldn’t it?
Me: I guess …
After that conversation I stumbled on something called “Poincare Recurrence”. It’s the thought that some day the Universe may find itself in the exact state as some time before. So it should repeat exactly the way it did before.
How could that ever happen? Compare the vastness of the Universe to a puny deck of 52 cards. If we shuffle the deck, chances are no human has ever seen that order before.
I looked up how likely Poincare Recurrence could be. It seems like what Ringo suggested can happen within 10^128 years. That is 10 followed by 128 zeros. The number of possible shuffled decks is 10^68 (“rounded up”).
When talking about numbers in the mind-boggling range of 10^123 or 10^128, it’s easy for even computer people like me to subconsciously lose sight of the fact that the latter is more than a little bigger than the former. It’s not 123 versus 128, but 100,000 times bigger.
In my normal home life, I rarely think of numbers outside the magnitude of a thousand. My largest monthly bill, my mortgage is in the thousand dollars magnitude – 10 followed by 2 zeros. My caloric intake is in the thousands as well. At work, the software I work on rarely deals with numbers outside the magnitude of trillions – 10 followed by 11 zeros. I read that a stack of one trillion one dollar bills is 67,866 miles. That’s already hard to comprehend.
Poincare Recurrence did more than simply put into perspective what a big number really is. The relevance of that perspective for Bodhi Day is that it cracked my brain open to scales that “aren’t of this world”. A big wakey-wakey slap in the face. It’s easy to say the words, “ten followed by one hundred twenty-eighth zeros”, but it’s another thing to explore what that really means and what is therefore possible.
Maybe Heraclitus wasn’t quite right. Maybe we can step into the same river twice. It just may take a really, really, really long time.
Lastly, be sure to get your ingredients for your Bodhi Day rice and milk breakfast for this Tuesday (December 8)!
Faith and Patience,
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku