Punchinello’s Chronicles

August 31, 2008

Butterfly Wings

When I first heard about “the butterfly effect” (I thought it was the butterfly theory), I was reminded of the saying that “for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.”

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

— Attributed to Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac of 1757

Alright, so it speaks to the cause and effect of details in a complex system. The basic principle is that in chaotic situations, small effects have increasingly wide-ranging and large effects. A butterly may flap its wings somewhere, which changes the air currents in that location. As the air changes, it may eventually alter the course of a hurricane somewhere else.

What about going the other way around? Can’t we see large problems, then notice small events and attribute them to a pattern? Let’s suppose that the world is organized in some fashion, intelligent or otherwise. Following that belief, logic tells us that everything is related in some way. Some things may be almost completely unrelated, but lots of other things do have a relationship.

I go into a Walmart store and notice that certain things that were available a few years ago, no longer are there for sale. At first, it’s not a lot of things, just a few. Then more things become unavailable. Next, I notice that the manufacturer and quality of what seems “the same” has changed.

It’s just a single store out of thousands of stores around the world. I’m just one person, noticing a tiny shift in the pattern of merchandise. But I also find out that Sam Walton died, taking with him his unique concepts and style of retailing. Is this the beginning of the end of Walmart?

“Ridiculous!” people might say. Okay, so what happened to K-Mart and Zayre? How about Sears? So what if I’m just a little guy, wandering around in a store somewhere? What about that kid who wondered how come the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes?

Butterfly wings are those little, tiny observations of things that seem to be nothing much, but which turn out to be fundamental changes in the world around us. A sailor can notice a very tiny shift in the wind and begin to prepare for a coming storm. A fisherman can see a shimmer of minnows across the water’s surface and understand that a large fish is feeding nearby.

Complex systems offer patterns, and if we look around, we can see those patterns as they shift and change. It’s hard to know what’s significant and what’s just an odd exception, but not all that hard. It’s like listening to a symphony and noticing that the fourth violin happens to be slightly out of tune.

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