Uncertainty

Last night’s Convivium question, posed by John McIlwaine: how do you deal with Uncertainty?

I didn’t have a very coherent response, but did sputter out something about trying to learn more to reduce uncertainty, seeking to understand factors in play, and I referenced a New York Times story on Argentinian weather extremes which offered this condensation of factors in the uncertainty of giant storms:

Every storm is composed of the same fundamental DNA — in this case, moisture, unstable air and something to ignite the two skyward, often heat. When the earth warms in the spring and summer months, hot wet air rushes upward in columns, where it collides with cool dry air, forming volatile cumulus clouds that can begin to swell against the top of the troposphere, at times carrying as much as a million tons of water. If one of these budding cells manages to punch through the tropopause, as the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere is called, the storm mushrooms, feeding on the energy-rich air of the upper atmosphere. As it continues to grow, inhaling up more moisture and breathing it back down as rain and hail, this vast vertical lung can sprout into a self-sustaining system that takes on many different forms. Predicting exactly what form this DNA will arrange itself into, however, turns out to be a puzzle on par with biological diversity. Composed of millions of micro air currents, electrical pulses and unfathomably complex networks of ice crystals, every storm is a singular creature, growing and behaving differently based on its geography and climate.

With so many variables at play, it became apparent to modern meteorologists that predicting storms required sampling as many as possible. The perfect repository, as it turned out, existed in the Great Plains, where many of the world’s most dangerous storms are born. Here, in the spring and summer months, moist air off the Gulf of Mexico pools with dry air from the Arctic and southwestern deserts, which is all then corralled by the Rocky Mountains, forming a massive eddy. For meteorologists, this sustained volatility has made the plains the de facto national laboratory, where about 30 National Weather Service offices, tens of thousands of private radars and weather stations and hundreds of airports are sampling the air conditions before, during and after storms. Each sample, whether taken by radar or wind gauge, is a snapshot of that particular storm’s behavior and composition — such as air density, pressure, temperature, humidity and wind velocity — providing meteorologists a profile to look for in the future.

As often happens, I awoke this morning with a conversation in mindspace, this one having to do with the dynamics of Complex Systems, and the phrase

limn contingencies

floated to the surface. And that’s what I often find myself trying to do: sketching causations, incorporating stochasticities, tracking implications, assessing dependencies, always with an eye to the random, but rarely with a sense of arriving at a final solution. More an ever-growing appreciation for the ineffabilities of real-world complexity, with a soupçon of Micawberian “Something Will Turn Up!” … but I have to confess that another reflexive response to uncertainty is to make light, seeking irony or other embedded humor —the sardonic, the cynical, the parodic. Such responses are amusing, but hardly constructive.

Wende mentioned a heightened sense of perception (in a side conversation re: cataract surgery and other eye things), which fitted well with another set of thoughts that had been in the background recently, in the context of rediscovery of old favorites in the vinyl archive, and a consequent engagement in the vastnesses of my digital music files. The phenomenon of enhancement by new affordances (an upgrade to the viewing experience via a new monitor, or to ear quality via better speakers, or the effect on visual perception of new glasses) is familiar, as is the rapidity with which the heightened acuity becomes simply normal, until the next upgrade…

And so another Question spawned:

how can one revive the wonder once it becomes quotidian?

I think it’s largely a matter of direction of one’s Attention: the wonders are still there, e.g., the glories of the Milky Way when noticed on a clear night are pretty much eternal, but one’s mind may be otherwise employed. How is the mind to be reined in? In the words of H. Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.