Friday, November 8, 2013

Slay the Dragon?

Sometimes bad things happen that no one sees coming. Sometimes bad things happen that people did see coming, whether or not they prepared for it.

And sometimes bad things happen that look like something no one saw coming, but it turns out they should have. A researcher in Switzerland named Didier Sornette called these things "dragon kings." He used the phrase to describe how an ordinary graph of French cities' populations couldn't account for the large population growth of Paris, but when additional information was added to the model, then the growth fit. Some economists suggest that the economic crunch of late 2008 was a dragon king -- although no one seemed to see it coming, the heavy investment by financial firms in incredibly risky schemes was in fact a clear indicator that something bad was inevitable.

Receiving a glitch-ridden, almost unworkable health-care registration system from a company that had previously failed to provide a workable registry for Canadian gun ownership might also be a dragon king, but it's kind of early to tell.

Now Dr. Sornette has teamed up with some physicists who are trying to run experiments on electrical circuit activity that can mimic dragon king behavior. They're using what's called "chaos theory" to try to determine if what looks like random behavior can be foreseen and perhaps even changed by different inputs. Chaos theory is a branch of math that uses very complex equations instead of the simple linear or quadratic equations we may (or may not) remember from algebra. When you solved those equations properly -- I have no first-hand experience, but I am told it can be done -- then the solutions could be plotted on a graph in a curve (quadratic) or a straight line (linear). Chaos equations do not have simply graphed answers and the plotted solutions often do not look like any regular shape. Mandelbrot sets are probably one of the better-known examples of chaos math.

If the researchers can affect the dragon king effect within the electrical circuit experiment, then they might possibly find ways to diminish the impact of a dragon king event or even eliminate it in real-life situations such as the financial industry.

Of course, not doing stupid stuff like making too many house loans to too many people who don't have the income to make their payments so when they default you don't get stuck with a bunch of houses you can't unload might be a big help as well. But I could be wrong.

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