Degrees of Freedom
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Degrees of Freedom • Posted: Jul 03, 2009 16:02:29Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

There is a concept within mechanics and statistics that refers to variance along a dimension. That concept is labeled "degree of freedom". Picture a blank piece of paper. The position of a mark on that paper can be described with reference to an imposed scale along the bottom of the paper, an x-axis, and to another along the side, or y-axis. The potential position of the mark is said to vary within two degrees of freedom, many more if we consider the possibility of the paper moving through space, turning, rotating, twisting, distorting, or even being reflected in either a flat or warped mirror.

The amazing thing is that almost without thinking we plot a great many things in our own lives with reference to multiple degrees of freedom. Consider the task of walking or driving a car, or perhaps playing basketball. With slightly more conscious thought we might also plan a meeting with a friend, say for dinner on Friday next at 6 pm. In doing so, we think "who will we meet?", "why?", "on what day?", and "at what time?". We might also ask "where?" and if we need to make reservations? All of those questions are relevant. We then set our appointment within multiple dimensions. But we also leave open multiple degrees of freedom. For instance, "what will we eat or drink?", "how much will we spend?", "who else will attend?", "how much time will we spend?", "what will we talk about?", etc., etc. Set too many parameters and we could quash the fun. Set too few and we could miss making connection all together.

In the news this week, a team of engineers and contractors failed to appreciate and set parameters within all essential relevant degrees of freedom for a project they were working on. The result? A brand new multi-story building, a significant way toward completion, fell over like a faulty toy erector set. No earth quake involved, but to considerable embarrassment. Similarly, last week the world witnessed a ham-handed attempt by Iran's ruling elite to maintain the status quo through falsifying a state-wide election. Neither Iranian citizens nor the world could be duped or bludgeoned into believing the published results. Quite a surprise for the bumbling elite, I'm sure. Not so for the rest of us. Arrogant ignorance is its own worst enemy. Those who would deceive and falsify invariably fail to appreciate the subtle complexities those who adhere to truth perceive and which stark reality imposes. Hence, deception is very often quite plainly revealed.

With finer deliberation, the U.S. Congress is currently in the process of addressing climate change and trying to revise the way health care is delivered. For each issue, the number of variables is significant. And it is becoming increasingly unclear whether we have adequate insight into every degree of freedom that need be considered. If we do not, the proposed solution will likely teeter like that building in Shanghai. Case in point, it has been assumed for decades that preventative health care saves money over the long run by addressing developing health issues long before they require expensive interventions. But a new study published last week suggests that might not be true. If preventative health care increases overall health and longevity, the cumulative cost of health care over longer lives for so many healthy citizens may far outweigh the cumulative cost of major interventions delivered as needed for a less healthy citizenry. Thus, new degrees of freedom insert themselves into the national discussion as we are forced to consider the practical value to society of living longer. Not an easy equation if we consider population variance across the differing generations and complexities of the economy that need exist throughout the various stages of their lives to support continuous health care for all involved.

Things do not get any easier on a personal level as we consider plans for our individual careers within a rapidly reorganizing world economy. How will we fit in? Will income meet our needs? How will potential change affect us next year, five years from now, ten years from now? It's a head spinning dilemma. Our ignorance of the far too numerous relevant and essential degrees of freedom involved seems overwhelming. Further study is most definitely in order.

May yours proceed insightfully.

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009