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GP22July:  Santa Fe: What You See Is Not What You Get

Santa Fe Baggage. Life there should be simple, but it ain’t. Fifteen years ago when we went out to Santa Fe for a couple of months.  We learned that affluents from New York, Texas, and California had imported all their anomalies, putting the lie to the all the bucolic airs we attributed to the place.

For instance, the retiring head of a Dallas corporation had wrapped his new house in a security system that would do justice to Fort Knox. One of our favorite art galleries for gossip was owned by an ex-Playboy bunny who had discovered other ways to liberate fat cats of their spare change:  New Mexican art, of course.  Out on the plaza, we spied failed New York politicians, clearly relieved to be somewhere where a number of people had given up all pretense of making it. In Santa Fe, you only thought you were getting away from it all, but people had brought plenty of baggage.

Home of Complexity.  Urban civilization’s overlay had done good things to Santa Fe as well, such as the summer opera. Or, more importantly, the Santa Fe Institute (www.santafe.edu), the home of complexity. There scientists had nurtured complexity theory, modeling, for instance, in fairly convincing ways, how advanced life came to be and how it evolved. Complex scientists say that it’s much more pleasing and useful to use 20 or 40 variables to mirror the complexity of life and of human processes than to try to explain them with a simple equation that only looks at a couple of factors. In complexity theory, you admit that life is complex and try to get a picture of how complex processes work.

Ironically, then, fairly simple places gone awry Santa Fe for complexity, Princeton for chaos, the Peninsula for transistors and chips provide the incubators where profoundly different ways of thinking about things can germinate and flourish. Strangely, the isolation helps. Of course, it is no accident that Los Alamos is just up the road from Santa Fe, or that the Institute of Advanced Studies was already a temple for math, physics, and other things right at the edge of the Princeton campus.  Really big changes seem to take place in hamlets, very far from the cry of the cities

Bios. You will find on the Global Province (see Agile Companies) a company called BiosGroup (www.biosgroup.com), an operations research firm that applied complexity theory to business systems. We’ve just had our first talk with Stuart Kauffman, its founder and also one of the originators of the Santa Fe Institute. We’ll eventually include some of our discussion with him on Global Province. BiosGroup has completed some big-league assignments applying complexity theory to corporate systems in order to make them work better. Most systems, you will find, are sloppy patchworks both theoretically and mechanically, needing all sorts of rework. BiosGroup can help get them rethought. Complexity, then, is working its way out of the academy into the marketplace.

Fighting Fire with Fire. Well, we would all like to go back to Rousseau’s and Emerson’s nature, where things were innocent and sweet, but it’s not in the cards. Indeed, as in Santa Fe, we have made everything so complex that we will have to grapple with the slapdash, horribly intricate systems that we have wrapped around the planet. That means we need “complexity” to deal with “complexity.” Economically, we can still lick 2/3 of our problems with plain common sense. But 1/3 of the solutions aren’t intuitive and require subterranean, complex answers.

Albuquerque Surprise. And New Mexico has other surprises in store for us. In Albuquerque (the big city for New Mexico), Eclipse Aviation (www.eclipseaviation.com) is getting close enough to rolling out its Eclipse 500 jet to start taking orders. The price is $800,000 to $1,000,000, meaning that its price is 1/3 that of an entry-level business jet and its operating costs are projected to be 40% of what a business bird will cost. If this all works, we are talking about an air taxi, cheap to operate and buy, which can be used by commuter lines to take small numbers of passengers in and out of the thousands of under-used, small airports in the country, reshaping the unwieldy U.S. air system. It’s this on which James Fallows essayed in his new book, Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel, which you can find in our Infinite Bookstore.

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