Wired for Patterns

As beings it seems to me that  – we are all wired to look for patterns partly to decipher meaning but also because the sheer amount of information we get can be so overwhelming.

We are also constantly comparing the “news” to our own reference points and expectations to  weight the content and relevance to our own situations.

Now the media stories seems to overshoot much of these expectations with so much coverage splashing over the metaphorical sides of the tea cup that we actively discount “news” when it gets too saturated.

One example is swine flu coverage. It is definitely an important story but the way in which it is being covered paradoxically switches many of us off the full significance of the event. There are two key facts about previous pandemics we should be picking up on (key patterns?.)

  1. In 1918 and other pandemics it was the second and repeat waves that were more lethal once the virus has been through larger numbers of humans and mutated a bit more.
  2. The secondary story on swine flu is how disorganised we have been  with group planning on previous disasters with very fragmented responses.

In 2007 Laurie Garrett: What can we learn from the 1918 flu pandemic? presented this talk at TED based on real analysis of earlier pandemics and global health planning.  Most of use can point to more local health issues to see that not much has changed.

Moving right along – Does this thinking apply to other “news” stories and events like the global financial crisis for example?

In recent weeks I have been fascinated to see surveys of business confidence go lower and lower and last week they have suddenly topped out at the highest for some time.

“(NZ) Business sentiment has perked up this month – the National Bank’s survey has recorded its biggest monthly gain since December 2000.

We want to see better news after months of coverage fatigue about the global financial crisis and so expectations appear to be over shooting again.

Two weeks earlier we had Aust economic index at 26-year low New Zealand is not more resilient than Australia although I’m beginning to think that we all have outrageous optimism partly because most local business markets are shallow and tough.

We could argue that Australia’s commodity boom has slowed them into the slide andc so NZ is ahead of the cycle and our primary commodities and huge fall in exchange rates has provided an early upswing of confidence that differentiates the NZ economy.

Translation NZ business sectors and local markets are small, highly developed and very demanding and so any glimmer of hope from export markets or the “weighless economy” has us revving our economic engines.

Central banks are aware of this tendency and so the Reserve Bank Governor Bollard was at pains to signal interest rates should stay low for at least a year to 18 month longer.

The lag between recovery of some market segments / indicators and actual local recovery can still be long enough to cause serious medium term issues for many of us.

The March exports number was way higher than the imports number and that has boosted confidence as have changes to housing and employment markets. (Trade deficit melts as imports shrink)

“In the same article economist Bagrie notes Structural imbalances, like negative household savings rates and a large current account deficit, needed to be corrected and that would not be quick or easy..” and we know rationally that is true but still the survey overshoots the hope index.

86685_132x99In today’s TED talk videos is a new 7 minute  presentation by Sean Gourley: The mathematics of war

“By pulling raw data from the news and plotting it onto a graph, Sean Gourley and his team have come up with a stunning conclusion about the nature of modern war — and perhaps a model for resolving conflicts.”

I won’t pretend to understand what Sean is saying in this 7 minute clip but I know the patterns he is discovering appear everywhere and deciphering the economic news is every bit as mathmatical as it is for any major human induced crisis.

The group dynamic does plot patterns and we can use some of that to make sense of the overall trendlines.

Sean does a good job of explaining the “so what” part of this analysis but at 7 minutes this is really a teaser and we need to go deeper.

For example I’d like to see the analysis of Iraq right as the end compared with  Irelands history and the transformation of the IRA into a more credible polticla rather than military force.

I think with maths the risk is that we can describe events much better but unless we go compare with other histories we can still miss the underlying out takes.

In the “Fog of War” did a much more personal analysis which we seem to have forgotten.

Now I’d like to see Robert (b 1916) make some personal sense of Sean’s math but for now I’m pleased that we have a chance to think about clustering information and media through some new filters.

I also caught part of a radio dicussion yesterday which described “belief” as a recessive gene. The idea being that as a society we have become much more evidence based but that is not something we see on the actual regular news.

For me Jon Stewarts satirical Daily show makes far more sense of the news than regular media as it acknowledges the bizarreness of the human condition.

So a recap formula might look like this

Sean Gourley + Robert McNamara – Jon Stewart  = many a true word is spoken in jest – we just need to know which ones and if our math/model makes sense.