Had an interesting conversation this afternoon with Brad Bass. Brad is a prof in the Centre for Environment at U of T, and was one of the pioneers of the use of models to explore adaptations to climate change. His agent based simulations explore how systems react to environmental change, e.g. exploring population balance among animals, insects, the growth of vector-borne diseases, and even entire cities. One of his models is Cobweb, an open-source platform for agent-based simulations. 

He’s also involved in the Canadian Climate Change Scenarios Network, which takes outputs from the major climate simulation models around the world, and extracts information on the regional effects on Canada, particularly relevant for scientists who want to know about variability and extremes on a regional scale.

We also talked a lot about educating kids, and kicked around some ideas for how you could give kids simplified simulation models to play with (along the line that Jon was exploring as a possible project), to get them doing hands on experimentation with the effects of climate change. We might get one of our summer students to explore this idea, and Brad has promised to come talk to them in May once they start with us.

Oh, and Brad is also an expert on green roofs, and will be demonstrating them to grade 5 kids at the Kids World of Energy Festival.

This is depressing.

We were at the bank this morning, setting up some investment plans for retirement and for the kids to go through University (In Canada-speak: RRSPs and RESPs). We started to pick out a portfolio of mutual funds into which we would be putting the investments, and our financial advisor was showing us one of the mutual funds he would recommend when I noticed the fund included a substantial investment in the Canadian Oil Sands. “No way” says I. So we went to his next pick. Same thing. And the next. And the next….

The oil sands have been described as the most destructive project on earth. They are the major reason that Canada will renege on its Kyoto treaty obligations. They will devastate a huge area of Alberta, and threaten clean water supplies and the wildlife of large parts of North America.

So, I was struck by the irony of funding the kids through University by investing in a project that will so thoroughly screw up the world in which they will have to live when they grow up.

But then I thought about it some more. Pretty much the entire middle class in Canada must have money invested in this project, if it shows up in most of the mutual funds commonly recommended for retirement and education savings plans. Most of them probably have no idea (after all, who actually looks closely at the contents of their mutual funds?) and of those that do know, most of them will prefer the high rate of return on this project because they have no real understanding of the extent of the climate crisis.

Those funds are being used to maximize the profit from the oils sands, by paying for lobbyists to fight environmental regulations, to fight caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and to fight against alternative energy initiatives (which would eat into the market for oil from the oil sands).

How on earth can we make any progress on fighting climate change when we all have a financial stake in not doing so?

We’re fucked.

Many years ago, Dave Parnas wrote a fascinating essay on software aging, in which he compares old software with old people, pointing out that software gets frail, less able to do things than when it was young, and gets more prone to disease and obesity (actually, I can’t remember whether he mentioned obesity, but you get the idea – software bloat). At some point we’re better off retiring the old system rather than trying to keep updating it.
Well, this quote by Thomas Friedman that showed up on Gristmill over the weekend made me think more about how our entire economic system is in the same boat. We’ve got to the point where we can’t patch it any longer without just making it worse. Is it time for industrialization 2.0? Or maybe it should be globalization 2.0?
The question is, do any of our political leaders understand this? No sign of any enlightenment in Canada’ House of Commons, I’m afraid.

Greg reminded me the other day about Jeanette Wing‘s writings about “computational thinking“. Is this what I have in mind when I talk about the contribution software engineers can make in tackling the climate crisis? Well, yes and no. I think that this way of thinking about problems is very important, and corresponds with my intuition that learning how to program changes how you think.

But ultimately, I found Jeanette’ description of computational thinking to be very disappointing, because she concentrates too much on algorithmics and machine metaphors. This reminds me of the model of the mind as a computer, used by cognitive scientists – it’s an interesting perspective that opens up new research directions, but is ultimately limiting because it leads to the problem of disembodied cognition: treating the mind as independent from it’s context. I think software engineering (or at least systems analysis) adds something else, more akin to systems thinking. It’s the ability to analyse the interconnectedness of multiple systems. The ability to reason about multiple stakeholders and their interdependencies (where most of the actors are not computational devices!). And the rich set of abstactions we use to think about structure, behaviour and function of very complex systems-of-systems. Somewhere in the union of computational thinking and systems thinking.

How about “computational systems-of-systems thinking”?