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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Complicated vs. Complex

Is there a difference between a complicated system and a complex system? Chapman explains the difference between complication and complexity, where he states that complication is a quantitative escalation of what is theoretically reducible to parts that can be understood; whereas, a system is said to be complex when the whole can not be fully understood by analyzing the components [1].

A definition of complex systems by CALResCo, a cosmopolitan non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the wider aspects of the Complex System sciences ( is a system that can not be described by a single rule and whose structure exists on many scales whose characterisitcs are not reducible to a single level of description. Their defintion also includes aspects such as a system with multiple objectives, and a system which exhibits unexpected features not contained in its specfications [2].

I agree on the first defintion related to reducibility, but not too sure I fully agree with the latter two definitions related to multiple objectives and unexpected features. Let's take for example a camping RV, it provides multiple objectives: (1) transportation, (2) shelter, (3) dwelling, (4) recreation, can we call it a complex system? I dont think so, it can be reduced to its components and they are all well understood from an engineering stand-point. We can call it a complicated system, with various subsystems (mechanical, plumbing, electrical, structural, etc..).

So according to Chapman's definition we can say that complex systems are also complicated, but complicated system do not neccessarily have to be complex.

[1] G. Chapman, “The Epistemology of Complexity and Some Reflections on Symposium,” in the Science and Praxis of Complexity, S. Aida et al., Editors, United Nations University, Tokyo, 1984.

[2] Complexity, Artificial Life and Self-Organising Systems Glossary, located at

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Teenagers Steady State - A Systems Analogy

I came across this Yahoo link, asking why teens do stupid stuff . Ok, so teens do stupid stuff. Not all of course, many are smart and very mature. But lets discuss the group of teens that decide "heck, let me try this", so they end up smoking, drinking, dating, sniffing drugs, or worse stealing, lying, having babies out of wedlock and eventually with a broken, torn apart life to say the least.

We know that a system comprises of elements, and among those elements are people. So if we consider the society a system of system or even a system just to make things easier to relate to, and teens to be one of the many elements in this system, we should expect that at some point all the system elements will reach a stable state. Why is one teen's stable state in a run-down street smoking pot while another teen's stable state is with a friend researching the latest and greatest technology and how to put it into good use for the benefit of the society. Why is one teen's stable state with a girlfriend, while another's teen stable state is with a friend at the Masjid worshipping and reading the Quran. Dramatic contrasts right? Then we find a teen who is in between, neither with a girlfriend, nor in the Masjid, but in the movie theater watching an R rated movie, and the next day reading some Quran.

These are three different states. We know that a system structure defines the way it responds and reacts to external stimuli and how it behaves, and not so much the environment surrounding the system. We also know that depending on how the structure looks like, it will react or respond differently to the environment. I was first introduced to this systems engineering concept in a seminar in 2005 by Dr. Harold Kurstedt, Professor Emeritus, Virginia Tech. When I heard him explain this, I said "subhan Allah".. This is in the Quran. Allah taught us this more than 1400 years ago, and we are just discovering it today, similar to the stages of an embryo in the womb.

Allah says in the Quran in the chapter of Al-Isra, 17:36 "And pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning)".

وَلاَ تَقْفُ مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْمٌ إِنَّ السَّمْعَ وَالْبَصَرَ وَالْفُؤَادَ كُلُّ أُولـئِكَ كَانَ عَنْهُ مَسْؤُولاً

So all these senses are responsible for what they do, they do not have excuses because of the environment in which they are in. Interesting fact, right we go on and blame the evil that is out there. Sure evil should not be blamed but fixed, or removed.

Refer to Allah's revelation in the Quran in the chapter of Abraham (Ibrahim) 14:22 "And Satan will say when the matter is decided: "It was Allah Who gave you a promise of Truth: I too promised, but I failed in my promise to you. I had no authority over you except to call you but ye listened to me: then reproach not me, but reproach your own souls. I cannot listen to your cries, nor can ye listen to mine. I reject your former act in associating me with Allah. For wrong-doers there must be a grievous penalty."

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلاَّ أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي فَلاَ تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُواْ أَنفُسَكُم مَّا أَنَاْ بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُمْ بِمُصْرِخِيَّ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَآ أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

A system developed with a certain structure will behave in the same way it was intended to, based on its structure. Dr. Harold gave the example of a slinky or spring, you hold it from one side, it oscillates down and up, why? Because of gravity? Wrong, because of the material of the slinky and its elasticity characteristics, to prove this, use a steel rod instead and hold it in the same vertical position as the slinky, will it oscillate up and down? No, hence gravity has nothing to do with its behavior.

similarly, those teens who sleep with their girlfriends, and those teens who spend hours in the Masjid learning the word of God, do so because of their structure. Indeed, their hearts are different, one has a heart full of darkness and disease, while the other has a heart full of light and belief. They have different structures and as a result will behave differently.

So does this mean the environment has no role at all, no it does have a role, its role is not a controlling role, but is a stimulator role. The gravity in the example of the slinky and the steel rod stimulated both, but they reacted differently based on their characteristics. Similarly, teens who are placed in the same environment that have different structures (hearts and belief) will react differently.

The Prophet (PBUH) ordered us to be in the company of good people in one of his Ahadeeth he mentioned that a person is on the same manners and style of life as that he accompanies, and ordered us to observe who we accompany. For we become affected by those around us, this effect is manifested especially if the structure is not sound. In other words even though the structure defines the behavior, placing the structure in contact with a bad environment could affect the structure itself and hence cause it to react differently.

Allah tells us in the Quran in chapter As-Saffat 37:24 "But stop them, for they must be asked"

وَقِفُوهُمْ إِنَّهُم مَّسْئُولُونَ

So we will be indeed accountable.

Allah also mentions in the Quran in chapter Al-Furqan in 25:28 "Ah! woe is me! Would that I had never taken such a one for a friend! "

يَا وَيْلَتَى لَيْتَنِي لَمْ أَتَّخِذْ فُلَانًا خَلِيلًا

Here we see the dweller of the hell-fire regretting that he was accompanying the bad friends of this life. These friends were a bad stimulus that eventually changed the structure of this person and as a result is own behavior changed.

Another reference is in the chapter of the Cave (Al-Kahf), in 18:28 "And keep thy soul content with those who call on their Lord morning and evening, seeking His Face; and let not thine eyes pass beyond them, seeking the pomp and glitter of this Life; no obey any whose heart We have permitted to neglect the remembrance of Us, one who follows his own desires, whose case has gone beyond all bounds".

وَاصْبِرْ نَفْسَكَ مَعَ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ رَبَّهُم بِالْغَدَاةِ وَالْعَشِيِّ يُرِيدُونَ وَجْهَهُ وَلَا تَعْدُ عَيْنَاكَ عَنْهُمْ تُرِيدُ زِينَةَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَلَا تُطِعْ مَنْ أَغْفَلْنَا قَلْبَهُ عَن ذِكْرِنَا وَاتَّبَعَ هَوَاهُ وَكَانَ أَمْرُهُ فُرُطًا

To sum up this discussion, take the example of a car. It was designed to move on paved roads at a certain speed limit, at certain temperature ranges. If there is a foot of snow on the road, the car will skid, not because of the snow, but because of the structure of the car (the wheels are not designed to operate on snow), but a snow plower will operate fine. Now lets take that same car and drive it over sulphuric acid, the wheels will get destroyed and now the car will not even operate over a paved road at the temperature it was designed to. So the acid affected the structure and hence a new behavior pattern emerged.

Teens are the same, their structures are affected by what is around them, and their behavior is defined by their structure. Do not ever think that their behavior is directly defined by their environment, it is not, but rather it is defined by their structure.

A conclusion I reached after 2 years of studying systems engineering. A system's structure is affected by its environment, and its behavior is affected by its structure.

Social service counselor, politicians and psychologists might find this useful in addressing complex problems, the solution lies in fixing the structure making sure it can withstand the environment.

Ah, we did not discuss that teen who is in oscillatory mode, one day near Allah, the next away and so one. This teen is going through the process of Mujadaha and has not reached a stable state, definitely better than the teen whose steady state has given way to Shaytan. This oscillatory state is where the structure is being patched, improved and then affected and so on... We should never expect that as believers once we are on the right path, we will stay there. That is why we need constant refreshing of our Iman and faith...

Is Islam a Complex System?

Jamshid Gharajedeaghi in his book "Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, A Platform for Designing Business Architecture" explains complexity and chaos as phenomena that appears when we use inadequate concepts to explain them. When we understand something, we no longer see it as chaotic or complex.

I would agree with his explanation, as humans we can not comprehend many natural phenomenas around us, one example is the movement of the planets, stars, sun, moon and earth, ocean tides and many other signs around us. So if we are left to our own decision making capabilities we will definitely not only not understand these complex systems, but we will also either not appreciate them, or just take them for granted and label them as mother Nature "did this and did that". However as believing humans, who believe in the unseen revealed by the Creator, we can start to get an appreciation for these phenomena and complex systems as well as understand them and understand how simple they really are, yet accurate and precise that they must be controlled by a divine power and controller.

Allah (Glory be to him) tells mankind in the Quran that he created the heavens and earth, and the planets and that all orbit in a precise movement. Just providing that fact makes believing in it simple and comprehensible. We then no longer see it as a chaotic system, but rather a precise, controlled system.

So in a nutshell we can say that Islam is complex only to those who do not understand it, and do not try to learn about. To the Muslim and Muslimah Islam is simple and clear. It is simply the submission to the one and only one Lord in everything the Muslim and Muslimah do.

Allah says in the Quran in the chapter of the Moon (Al Qamar) 54:17, 54:22, 54:32 and 54:40 "And We have indeed made the Qur'an easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition?"

وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِن مُّدَّكِرٍ

Again in the chapter of Mary (Maryum) 19:97 "So have We made the (Qur'an) easy in thine own tongue, that with it thou mayest give Glad Tidings to the righteous, and warnings to people given to contention".

فَإِنَّمَا يَسَّرْنَاهُ بِلِسَانِكَ لِتُبَشِّرَ بِهِ الْمُتَّقِينَ وَتُنذِرَ بِهِ قَوْمًا لُّدًّا

In the chapter of the Smoke (Al-Dukhan) in 44:58 Allah says (the mean of), "Verily, We have made this (Qur'an) easy, in thy tongue, in order that they may give heed".

فَإِنَّمَا يَسَّرْنَاهُ بِلِسَانِكَ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ

A clear proof that Quran, the word of Allah, and the miracle that is with us till the end of time, is simple, yet it contains every thing an human needs to live a successful life and be a winner in the hereafter, and to appreciate and differentiate between complexity and simplicity.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Simple Facts About Systems Engineering

I started my career as an electrical engineer, but I really leaned more towards the big picture. Once I solved a problem it would be very unlikely that I will find interest in solving it again or soliving a similiar problem. The engineer in me seeks new problems, gettign down to the nitty gritty details. However those I already solved would only be interested in overlooking them, giving advice on them at a high strategic level...

Some say systems engineering is really a management discipline more than an engineering science. I tend to agree, as systems engineers we are not neccessarily developing technological or engineering-oriented systems... what I mean yes most systems engineers out there are working on a project for a missle, a space shuttle, an enterprise information management system, and e-commerce application, etc... however a system engineer could be as well developing a human resoruce organizational policy, a school governance structure, a hospital management system, or a marketing strategy for a metropolitian city.

You might ask how, the answer is simply that systems engineers master methods and approaches for dealing with the development of complex systems. A complex system is one that flows from a complex process that converts organized human thought, resources and time into descriptions of organized sets of things that function together to achieve predetermined function. This is a slightly modified defintion from what Jeffrey Grady mentioned in his book, "System Validation and Verification".

A simple fact about systems engineering that Jeffrey Grady mentions in his book, is that the amount of knowledge that humans have exposed is far in excess of the amount of knowledge that any one person can master and efficiently apply in solving problems.

The development of any system is a problem-solving process that transforms simple statements of customers into a clear description of a system realizing a solution to the customer's need. Complex problems require the understanding of different perspectives, technologies and a very broad knowledge base that any one person can master alone, hence the need for specialists as well as generalists who could control, direct, organize and plan the various activities and outcomes of specialists work towards a unified solution, that is where the systems engineer comes in... So yes, I do agree a systems engineer is a sharp manager, with engineering background, who can engineer complex solutions and architect visions to problems solutions, who can become very technical and specialized not only in an engineering discipline what whatever discipline the problem seeking a solution for involves.

I do believe there will come a day when systems engineers will be developing government strategic plans, architecting hospital management systems, developing not-for-profit organizations' policies and service frameworks and a lot more solutions to areas which most engineers do not consider to be engineering, i.e not mechanical, electrical, civil or industrial systems.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

NSBE - Project Management Essentials

Please use this area for questions that you might have in any of the following areas,

1. Project defintions
2. Project life-cycle phases
3. Project integration
4. Project communication
5. Project risk management
6. Other topics we covered

You can access soft-copies of the workshop handouts and other references at this link (authorization required)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

N squared Chart Methods

An interesting systematic method for analyzing interfaces, has been around for a while, but very powerful.

Key points:
1. A function is defined as a black box
2. Inputs are always vertical from top or bottom
3. Output are always horizontal from left or right

Soon we will discuss how to apply N2 to a social service organization.. Say tuned..