As I’ll talk about more in my next podcast, our world is changing at unimaginable rates, and these rates are increasing exponentially. One interesting and increasingly problematic aspect of this phenomenon is that many of our units of measure are becoming less useful. They are so small that we have to start dealing with multiples that are cumbersome. Consider something as simple as our monetary units—dollars, Euros, pesos, yen, etc. When we deal with the gross national product of a country or its deficit, say, can we really fathom how comparatively big or small a trillion dollars or euros is? And if that’s not bad enough, it’s compounded by the fact that the same unit of measure can mean different things in different countries; a billion in the UK has 12 zeros behind it, whereas a billion in the USA has only nine (1012 in the UK and 109 in the USA)!
Being unable to make these units and numbers meaningful also interferes with our ability to make smart decisions or engage in meaningful discussions, so all of us need to be concerned about this growing problem.
To me, much of the complexity is needless and self-induced. A good dose of simplification and reduction goes a long way towards resolving the problem. I’ve always liked the notion of KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid), and so I was intrigued to read in this month’s (January 2007) issue of Spectrum magazine of a proposal to deal with these very problems as they pertain to energy. Spectrum is of the many monthly publications I receive from IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers) where many of us have worked for years on standards for Learning Technology.
This wonderfully short and simple article “Joules, BTUs, Quads—Let's Call the Whole Thing Off” lays out an equally simple solution to the current problem of too many different and often too small units of measure for energy. The article includes a simple example showing how this problem makes it almost impossible to reasonably compare and choose from different energy sources. The proposal from several energy experts is to standardize on an existing single large unit of measure for all such comparisons: one cubic mile of oil (CMO).
Illustrations are often wonderful examples of the elegance, clarity, and simplicity. The illlustration included in this article is just that. It clearly compares how many different energy sources (dams, nuclear power plants, coal plants, windmills, or solar panels) it would take to generate one CMO each year for 50 years. As you can immediately see, using CMO as the only unit of measure makes the comparison clear and simple. Imagine instead what this would look like as a table containing all of the different energy units—from Joules to BTU’s to Quads—and all with enormous numbers in front of them!
Our challenge is look at our own fields of expertise for examples of this problem—too many units of measure and quantitative measures with too many digits—where comparisons are unwieldy and unmanageable. How many different terms or units can you eliminate by doing something similar? What kinds of comparisons can you make so much clearer and understandable if you do?
So KISS...and then tell me about it. Send me your comments via this blog or by other means. Share your results and help all of us collectively use the power of KISS to make this complex and exponentially growing world of ours a little better and more understandable. Here’s to all of us having better discussions and making better decisions.