We need more trains

The Amtrak tragedy is unfortunate and we shouldn’t rush to conclusions on why the accident occurred until the investigation is completed by the NTSB. I enjoy traveling on trains, I’ve used Amtrak Acela service, Eurostar, French TGV, Taiwan High Speed Rail, and Italian High Speed Rail. Train service needs to be expanded and faster, routes between places like Boston, MA and Burlington, VT take an entire workday and this is unacceptable. Fast train service will provide more flexibility by enabling more weekend trips and reducing carbon emissions.  Improving our national rail infrastructure will require investment by the government and/or private entities.

Amtrak Acela

I recently took Amtrak Acela from New York to Boston, and I have to say I really enjoyed my trip. Train service in the United States must be high speed and comfortable, the northeast corridor is paving the way.






Part 1: Understanding the Difference between Complex and Complicated Systems

Last March I was driving across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge into one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Sitting next to my good friend and former classmate, I commented what a complex design problem the bridge had posed, with two major crossings and requirements to withstand earthquakes and carry over 240,000 vehicles per day. Being an engineer, she pointed out that the bridge was not a complex bridge at all.  While it was undoubtedly difficult to build, it was not complex. Rather, it was a complicated structure.  The engineers were experts; using their professional knowledge on build bridging and previously documented learning, they were able to apply existing design principles to build an amazing structure that has stood since 1936.

Distinguishing between a complicated and complex problem or system is not an easy task for most. As Sargut and McGrath argue, if individuals in a business are unable to differentiate between these two distinct terms, it will be very expensive for a business in the long run. It’s necessary the distinction be made because how you approach a problem changes drastically depending on the type of system. What is the difference between complicated and complex? Simply put, a complicated system is predictable if it follows patterns that can be observed. This leads to a system that is definable such that past behavior predicts future behavior.

As my friend put it, intricate is probably the best word to describe a complex system. Complex systems are unpredictable and sometimes undefinable. In a complex system the initial conditions can lead to different outcomes. The question then becomes how can we define a complex system.  The three most important characteristics of a complex system are multiplicity, interdependence and diversity.  Multiplicity refers to the number of potentially interacting entities, interdependence to how connected these elements are, and diversity to how heterogeneous each element is.

Manufacturing is extremely complex, with a lot of interdependent pieces.  If we ignore those pieces our ability to solve problems falls apart. At times we are faced with problems that transcend a particular part of the process on which we are focused. If the scope of the problem is not realized, our ability to solve it is severely impaired because we may be searching for solution that address symptoms and not root causes.

How do you solve complex problems in contrast to their complicated counterparts?

Complicated problems have blueprints; you can draw on expert knowledge and previous experience to create a solution. You can perhaps consider these types of problems the ones where you can open a textbook and find the answer, or in the case of a business, consult an expert on the subject.

Complex problems are not so simple.  There is no blueprint, no readily modifiable solution. The solution is determined on a case by case basis. When it comes to complex systems, no two situations are alike. Forcing a pre-made solution to a complex problem can bring disastrous consequences, since using the wrong metrics on a complex system can lead to inefficiencies and a false sense of security which I will discuss in another section.



1. Sargut, Gökçe, and Rita McGrath. “September 2011.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.

2. Walji, Aleem. “Complicated vs. Complex Part I: Why Is Scaling Up So Elusive in Development: What Can Be Done?” The World Bank. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
Disclaimer: This work may not be modified or published for profit without written consent from the author: S. Adderly

Martin Luther King and the March on Washington


The Rev. Martin Luther king was one of the most famous Civil Rights Activists of the 20th century. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, King worked tireless to organize nonviolent civil disobedience to promote the advancement of civil rights. He is most known for helping organize the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest human rights rallies in United States history. There King went into American history as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech urging for integration and equal rights for African-Americans. August 8, 1963 was a watershed moment in the civil rights movement bringing more support to end discriminatory laws. Many credit the March on Washington with getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination against racial, religious minorities and women signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson. The subsequent Voting Rights Act prohibited having any qualifications to vote based on race or color.

I think what’s hard to grasp is 50 years ago discrimination would have been legal. It’s hard to imagine that 50 plus years ago, I would have to drink out of separate water fountain from my non-black friends and I wouldn’t be allowed to eat in certain places. It truly is amazing how far we’ve come in this period from segregation to the election of the first black president. Today is indeed a special day, 50 year ago it marked the beginning of a dream that was finally realized.



Why does negative information proliferate faster than positive information?

In a recent study of anti-vaccine twitter campaigns by Penn State researchers, it was concluded that anti-vaccination twitter posts spread quicker than posts supporting vaccination. It felt to me that this study was a small example of a larger phenomenon; doesn’t negative information always spread faster in all instances? Why is this the case? I think it has to do with the fact that negative information could have greater ramifications on the society as a whole. For instance, when there is negative information about topics such as transportation, the economy, or health-care, everyone might be impacted now or in the future in some way. When gas prices go up, news spreads quickly because of the large majority of people that own cars and are not looking forward to the burden of having to pay higher gas prices. Is the converse true when gas prices go down? There’s typically not much of a discussion when prices go down, perhaps occasional tweets or facebook posts about the lower prices of gasoline, going around in excitement, but not too often.

Each year the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) releases crash test information for new vehicles, is it not the cars that perform very poorly that get highlighted in web discussions, and on the evening news. They also publish a list of cars that performed very well, but I’d argue you would rather be more interested in which cars performed poorly, and then you’d check how the car you own or want to buy performed, and then you’ll look at the list of best performing cars.

Gossip plays a factor as well in spreading negative information faster, in the working-world, what’s more of a devastating topic to discuss someone getting laid-off or fired or someone being promoted. The former is more engaging due to the fact that most employees fear being made redundant, while many may not as be interested in talk of a promotion due to added duties or personal disinterest in the person who was promoted.

Emotionally does positive information make people feel bad or intimidated, heaven forbid that people actively wish for negative information to be generated for someone they know. I had a friend who actually deleted their facebook account because they told me they could not stand seeing other people happy, perhaps that’s the extreme case and requires counseling. I asked them if they would prefer negative information instead and they said no of course not, however they did mention they preferred hearing no positive information due to personal disinterest.

Perhaps, fictional madman news magnate Elliot Carver from the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies said it well:  “There’s no news, like bad news!” 

Further Reading:



Questions for the Prime Minister (PMQs) and an Introduction to the British Parliament

IMG_2869Last summer, while I was in London I visited the Palace of Westminster home to the houses of parliament and the mother of all parliaments. Every Wednesday when the House of Commons is in session members gather for 30 minutes at noon to ask the prime minister questions about his policies and thoughts on current events. The question time is moderated by the speaker of the house who interjects if members of parliament (MPs) or the prime minister are not following the protocols of the House or if the House becomes noisy and disorderly.

The lively debate and animated nature of the questioners make watching PMQs sometime entertaining, the prime minister has to be rather quick on his feet and usually have a few clever retorts to MPs asking questions. The members usually stand up and engage in jeering to express disagreement. It has become something of a national pastime in Britain where all major TV networks cover the question session. Tickets to question time are also one of the most sought after parliament tickets for visitors.  Questions are provided by MPs from all parties and the order that questions get asked in are determined randomly by a computer. The prime minister does not have advanced warning about what specific questions he will be asked about so he must prepare for all possible type of questions. If the prime minister is out of the United Kingdom on official business, the next most senior member of the cabinet takes the questions. Also in the absence of the prime minister the opposition questions will be lead off by the deputy leader of the opposition.

A few things that make the British government interesting is the fact that like most parliamentary systems multiple parties can hold power together. The parties that have been elected and hold power are referred to as the “government”, while the parties that don’t hold are referred to as the “opposition”. During PMQs the Prime Minister and his cabinet sit on the front bench next to him, with the opposition leader(s) and his shadow cabinet sit on the benches opposite.

While watching PMQs you’ll probably notice there are a lot of members of parliament (MPs) standing the reason for this is that the house of commons chamber was not designed to fit all members of parliament. The chamber was destroyed during WWII by incendiary bombs, and when parliament debated rebuilding it they decided to keep the size of the chamber to 427 seats even though there are 646 MPs in the parliament. Winston Churchill favored this design because it gave the appearance that parliament would always seem more full than it really was even if all members didn’t show up. They also opted not change the shape of the chamber to be more semi-circular which was seen as less adversarial design. Instead they decided to keep the traditional rectangular design that allows the two major opposite parties to face each other keep the adversarial feel. Churchill commented that the building had shaped Britain’s parliament into two-party system and that is the way it should stay. It’s good to see that democracy is alive and well in the United Kingdom.