Smart Complexifier

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Tom Peters argues that the analyst from hell is the smart complexifier:

Years ago, in my McKinsey days, one of my bosses was bemoaning the help we were getting from an “economic genius.” He said, “Tom, consider a matrix. One axis boils down to ‘simplifier’ vs ‘complexifier.’ The other is ‘smart’ and ‘dumb.’ Thus we are dealing with a 2X2 matrix. The analyst-from-heaven is the ‘smart simplifier.’ The analyst-from hell is ‘smart complexifier.’ He is, in fact, worse that the ‘dumb complexifier,’ who you can simply ignore, and the ‘dumb simplifier’ who might actually be of help.”

Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Buffalo has dwindled to half its peak size. Can Buffalo Ever Come Back? Perhaps, but that’s missing the point, says Edward L. Glaeser:

All this spending aimed at resurrecting Buffalo as a place — very different from government aid that seeks to help disadvantaged people, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit — was destined to fail. Urban migrations aren’t random. America’s deserts and mountain ranges aren’t densely inhabited for a good reason: few people want to live in such harsh places. Similarly, people and firms are leaving Buffalo for the Sunbelt because the Sunbelt is a warmer, more pleasant, and more productive area to live. The federal government shouldn’t be bribing them, in effect, to stay in the city.

A Life Saver Called "Plumpynut"

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Anderson Cooper praises A Life Saver Called “Plumpynut”:

Why are so many kids dying? Because they can’t get the milk, vitamins and minerals their young bodies need. Mothers in these villages can’t produce enough milk themselves and can’t afford to buy it. Even if they could, they can’t store it — there’s no electricity, so no refrigeration. Powdered milk is useless because most villagers don’t have clean water. Plumpynut was designed to overcome all these obstacles.

Plumpynut is a remarkably simple concoction: it is basically made of peanut butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, and enriched with vitamins and minerals. It tastes like a peanut butter paste. It is very sweet, and because of that kids cannot get enough of it.

The formula was developed by a nutritionist. It doesn’t need refrigeration, water, or cooking; mothers simply squeeze out the paste. Many children can even feed themselves. Each serving is the equivalent of a glass of milk and a multivitamin.

I hate to sound all Malthusian and rain on everyone’s parade, but this seems to be the real problem:

It’s hard to imagine a less industrialized country than Niger. On a list of 177 developing countries, the United Nations ranked Niger dead last — least developed. More than 70 percent of the people don’t know how to read. Most work in the fields and earn less than a dollar a day. Nomadic goat herders still roam this land — their children and their kids travel by camel. Goats seem to be the main garbage disposal, but clearly the goats are falling behind. You can still spot a skinny guard dog, but we were told all the cats have been cooked.

In the countryside, where 85 percent of people live, girls start marrying as young as 11 years old. By the age of 15 most are wed, and by 16 most have already become mothers. The average woman here will give birth at least eight times in her lifetime. But largely because of malnutrition, one in five of their children will die before they reach the age of five. Of those who survive, half will have stunted growth and never reach full adult height.

But now, with Plumpynut, more children are surviving and thriving.

Don’t Forget to Listen to the Ship

Monday, October 29th, 2007

David Foster shares some deep thoughts on Decision-Making in Organizations from Don Sheppard’s Bluewater Sailor:

When a decision is made in an organizational context (as opposed to a decision by an entirely autonomous individual), additional layers of complexity and emotion come into play. The person who must make the decision is often not the person who has the information/expertise on which the decision must be based. Indeed, the information and expertise are often distributed across multiple individuals. These individuals may have their own objectives and motivations, which may differ from the objectives and motivations of the formal decision-maker, and which may conflict with each other. And the making of the decision may alter power relationships within the organization, as well as influencing the phenomena about which the decision is ostensibly being made.

The above factors are illustrated with crystalline clarity in the story of a seemingly very simple decision, which had to be made onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer sometime during the 1950s.

Don Sheppard was the newly-appointed Engineering Officer of the USS Henshaw, with responsibility for its 60,000-horsepower turbine plant. But his knowledge of propulsion equipment came entirely from study at the navy’s Engineering Officer School. Reporting to Sheppard was the “Chief,” an enlisted man with no theoretical training but with twenty years of experience in the practical operation of naval power plants. When Sheppard assumed his new duties, the Chief’s greeting “bordered on rudeness.” The man clearly believed that engineering officers might come and go, but that he, the Chief, was the one who really ran things, who was the “Prince of the Plant.”

During maneuvers off the Pacific coast, a bizarre accident resulted in the Henshaw dropping a depth charge which exploded very close to its own stern. The shockwave was enough to knock down men who were standing on deck. Sheppard asked the Chief if he thought the plant might have suffered any damage:

He furrowed his brow, glaring at me. “Damage, sir? We’d know about any major damage by now if the plant suffered. i don’t think we got any problems, sir,” he answered — patronizingly — in a civil enough tone, but barely so. Who was I, an interloper, to dare question the Prince of the Plant?

But Sheppard remembered a movie he had seen in Engineering Officer School: it suggested that a shock like the one Henshaw had just experienced might have damaged the stern tube packing and the bearings through which the drive shafts ran. He mentioned this concern to the Chief, who discounted it with considerable sarcasm. “Maybe in some of them fancy movies it happened that way, sir, but nothin’s wrong here.”

Sheppard went to see the captain, and reported his concern about the possible damage. The spring bearnings could not be easily checked with the ship underway. The decision that had to be made was this: to check and possibly replace the bearings while at anchor, or to sail with the flotilla. The flotilla was comprised of eight destroyers, and the commodore was looking forward to having them all sail into Toyko Bay together. Furthermore, if Henshaw didn’t sail with the group, they would miss the rendezvous with the refueling tanker, and would have to refuel at an upleasant place called Dutch Harbor. But if they did sail and the bearings failed, they would have to be replaced while underway — a difficult and possibly dangerous task.

Legally and formally, the decision was the captain’s. But he knew little about the propulsion plant: it is doubtful that he really understood what the spring bearnings actually were. He had to depend on the opinions of his subordinates.

He asked the advice of those assembled for the conference. The Executive Officer said “sail.” The Chief recommended, “sail.” Now the captain turned to his Engineering Officer and asked very formally: “Your opinion, Mr Sheppard?”

What a dilemma the captain was in. Here, a junior officer with six days’ experience as a chief engineer is obviously wanting to pull out of the squadron sail and check all the spring bearings in direct contradiction to a professional, well-experienced engineering chief who’d been doing the job for twenty years.

If the captain said yes to the inspection and we missed the squadron sail, he’d look bad. He’d look even worse if he suspected they might be bad and they were, and they failed at sea. in rough weather he’d still be left behind and another ship would have to be used as an escort. The commodore had his dream set on his full squadron of eight destroyers steaming proudly into Toyko Bay. It hadn’t happened in a long time.

If I said we should inspect the spring bearings and the captain agreed with me, and the bearings were bad, it would injure the chief’s pride and his position in the engineering department. A wise-ass ensign would have shown him up, thereby throwing into question his professional ability.

If I said don’t sail and the bearings checked out okay, it would reinforce the opinion that officers stick together no matter how stupid the officers’ actions might be.

If I said don’t sail before a bearings check and we sailed anyway and the bearings failed, the captain’s competence would be called into quesion by the crew. He would have been wrong, and the word gets around the fleet mighty fat.

On the other hand, if I said we should sail, thereby taking a chance of a failure and the bearings were okay, it would just show my inexperience and that I didn’t really know what was going on. After all I had been a chief engineer for only six days. There would be little harm done.

Who is the real decision-maker in this scenario? The captain has the formal authority, but little relevant knowledge, either practical or theoretical. The Chief has the practical experience, but no theoretical training, and lacks the authority of officer rank. Sheppard has formal authority for the plant, together with theoretical training, but almost no practical experience.

Most likely, the true decision-maker is Sheppard. From the dynamics of the situation, I suspect that the captain would have done whatever he advised.

“Sail, Captain, I think they’ll be okay,” I answered, as the ship whispered to me that I was wrong.

As the ship whispered to him that he was wrong.

Henshaw sailed with the flotilla, and almost immediately came the report that Number 3 spring bearing was running hot. The starboard engine was stopped, and sailors began the arduous task of replacing the bearing. This involved sliding jacks under the shaft and lifting it up a few centimeters, then sliding out the 80-pound bearing and sliding a new one in. This had to be done as the ship pitched and rolled, while standing in icy bilge water. The task wasn’t complete when the report came that another bearing had failed — this time, the Number 2 bearing on the port engine. That engine had to be stopped also, and Henshaw was taken in tow by another ship of the flotilla. Sheppard pitched in with the work, and had his hand badly cut by protuding metal slivers. Others were hurt more seriously; one man had his right hand badly injured when Number 2 bearing broke loose, smashing his hand against the bearing foundation.

Glassy eyed from the painkillers…Smallwood held onto the throttle board, trying to keep his attention on the gauges. His head nodded. Chief Maclin sent him to his bunk. “I’m sorry, Smallwood,” he said, helping him up the ladder. “Goddamn, I’m really sorry.”

Chief Maclin turned to me, wiping a tear from his eyes, and without word or expression offered his greasy, bloody hand.

After everything was under control, the captain called Sheppard to his cabin for a debriefing on what had happened. First, he critized himself for the mishap that had led to the initial proble, the accident with the depth charge. Second, he criticized himself for not listening more seriously to Sheppard’s initial concerns about the bearings. But he also had something else to say:

“And third, Don, you, you’re a direct contributor.” My face dropped. I thought I was a hero. “If you thought you wre right — and you did think you were right — you should have put up more opposition, not roll over dead because of the obvious resistance of the three of us. I think, Don, that’s the greatest lesson for you to learn in this whole thing.”

The kind of political anaysis that Sheppard conducted before making his recommendation — what will be the effect of this alternative on my relationship with the Chief?..what will be the effect on the Chief’s image with his own subordinates? — is made every day by people in organizations, and must be made, given the realities of organizational life.

But while considering the political dynamics — don’t forget to listen to the ship.

The Logic of Failure

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

I’ve been meaning to read The Logic of Failure — subtitled Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations — for some time, but after reading this review I realize it’s even more up my alley than I imagined:

In any bookstore, you will find dozens or even hundreds of books devoted to “success.” In this book, Dietrich Doerner works the other side of this street. He studies failure. Doerner, a professor of Psychology at the University of Bamberg (Germany) uses empirical methods to study human decision-making processes, with an emphasis on understanding the ways in which these processes can go wrong. His work should be read by anyone with a responsibility for making decisions, particularly complex and important decisions.

Doerner’s basic tool for study is the simulation model. Many of his models bear a resemblence to Sim City and similar games, but are purpose-designed to shed light on particular questions. The nature of many of these models implies that they use human umpires, as well as computer processing. (Doerner uses the simulation results of other researchers, as well as his own experimental work, in developing the ideas in this book.)

Probably the best way to give a feel for the book is to describe some of the simulations and to discuss some of the conclusions that Doerner draws from them.

In the fire simulation, the subject plays the part of a fire chief who is dealing with forest fires. He has 12 brigades at his command, and can deploy them at will. The brigades can also be given limited autonomy to make their own decisions.

The subjects who fail at this game, Doerner finds, are those who apply rigid, context-insensitive rules…such as “always keep the units widely deployed” or “always keep the units concentrated” rather than making these decisions flexibly. He identifies “methodism,” which he defines as “the unthinking application of a sequence of actions we have once learned,” as a key threat to effective decision-making. (The term is borrowed from the great military writer Clausewitz.) Similar results are obtained in another simulation, in which the subject is put in charge of making production decisions in a clothing factory. In this case, the subjects are asked to think out loud as they develop their strategies. The unsuccessful ones tend to use unqualified expressions: constantly, every time, without exception, absolutely, etc…while the successful “factory managers” tend toward qualified expressions: now and then, in general, specifically, perhaps,…

The Moro simulation puts the subject in charge of a third-world country. His decision-making must include issues such as land use, water supply, medical care, etc. Time delays and multiple interactions make this simulation hard to handle effectively…a high proportion of subjects wound up making things worse rather than better for their “citizens.” Human beings, Doerner argues, have much more difficulty understanding patterns that extend over time than patterns that are spatial in nature.

Many subjects in this simulation showed obsessive behavior — they would focus on one aspect, such as building irrigation canals, and ignore everything else, without even really trying to understand the interactions.

Doerner wanted to know what kinds of previous experience would help most in this game, so he ran it once with a set of college students for subjects, and again with a set of experienced business executives. The students had probably been more exposed to concepts of “ecological thinking” — but the executives did significantly better. This argues that there are forms of “tacit knowledge” which are gained as a result of decision-making experience, and which are transferable to at least some degree across subject matter domains.

One simple but surprisingly interesting experiment was the temperature control simulation. Subjects were put in the position of a supermarket manager and told that the thermostat for the freezers has broken down. They had to manually control the refrigeration system to maintain a temperature of 4 degrees C — higher and lower temperatures are both undesirable. They had available to them a regulator and a thermometer; the specific control mechanism was not described to the subjects. The results were often just bizarre. Many participants failed to understand that delays were occurring in the system (a setting does not take effect immediately, just as an air conditioner cannot cool a house immediately) and that these delays needed to be considered when trying to control the system. Instead, they developed beliefs about regulator settings that could best be described as superstitious or magical: “twenty-eight is a good number” or, even more strangely, “odd numbers are good.”

One very interesting angle explored by Doerner is the danger, in decision-making tasks, of knowing too much — of becoming lost in detail and of always needing one more piece of information before coming to a decision. He posits that this problem “probably explains why organizations tend to institutionalize the separation of their information-gathering and decision-making branchs” — as in the development of staff organizations in the military. (It may also, it seems to me, have much to do with the hypercritical attitude that many intellectuals have toward decision-makers in business and government — that is, they fail to understand that the effective decision-maker must reduce a problem to its essences and cannot be forever exploring the “shades of gray”)

Red Rain

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Back in 2001, red rain fell on the Indian state of Kerala.

Dr. Godfrey Louis, a Professor of Pure and Applied Physics at Mahatma Gandhi University, collected samples, and put them under the microscope.

The rust-red cells he found had diameters averaging 10 microns, a little bigger than human blood cells.

Here’s where things get wild:

Over several months, Dr. Louis began experimenting with different temperatures to see if the cells would respond. As the temperature rose, he saw more activity. Eventually he got up to 300 degrees Celsius, which is 572 degrees Fahrenheit. He also increased the pressure to 300 pounds per square centimeter. It is assumed that normal Earth life would die at such a high temperature and pressure. But the red-walled cells in the Kerala rain water seemed to thrive.

During his experimentation with temperatures and pressures, Dr. Louis studied the cells under a microscope. As he watched,the cells produced smaller cells internally that were colorless, or whitish. He began calling those new, little cells “daughters” of the original “mother” cells. Once he counted as many as fifteen daughter cells bud inside one of the adult “mother cells.” As the daughter cells grew, their cell walls also became red and eventually, the daughter cells erupted through the wall of the mother cell. This is clearly a process of replication. The budding is what provoked some biologist to say the red rain cells must be a form of yeast, since yeast cells also replicate by budding. But yeast cells have DNA, as all normal Earth biology has. On Earth, replication of cells requires the presence of DNA. But Dr. Louis could not find DNA.

So, he sent red rain water to scientists at Cornell University in the United States for isotopic ratio studies of the elemental composition of the red rain water. Elements confirmed so far are hydrogen, silicon, oxygen, carbon, and aluminum. No phosphorous was confirmed, which would be present if Earth DNA were present.

Prof. Louis also sent red rain cell water to Cardiff University’s Center for Astrobiology in Wales, directed by now-retired Prof. Emeritus, Chandra Wickramasinghe to see if DNA could be confirmed — but to date, DNA has not been confirmed.

Wikipedia has much more.

Dramatic Comet Outburst Could Last Weeks

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

That’s no moon. Dramatic Comet Outburst Could Last Weeks:

A comet that suddenly brightened earlier this week has astronomers around the globe fascinated. And the show could go on for some time.

Comet Holmes, discovered in 1892, had in recent years been visible only through telescopes until a dramatic outburst made it visible to the naked eye. In fewer than 24 hours, it brightened by a factor of nearly 400,000.

It has now brightened by a factor of a million times what it was before the outburst, a change “absolutely unprecedented in the annals of cometary astronomy,” said Joe Rao,’s Skywatching Columnist.

The comet is now rivaling some of the brighter stars in the sky.
The comet is located among the stars of the constellation Perseus, which is about halfway up in the northeast sky in the evening. Perseus is almost directly overhead by around 2 a.m. local daylight time and remains well up in the northwest at dawn.

Maggots Rid Patients Of Antibiotic-resistant Infection, MRSA

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Maggots Rid Patients Of Antibiotic-resistant Infection, MRSA:

University of Manchester researchers are ridding diabetic patients of the superbug MRSA — by treating their foot ulcers with maggots. Professor Andrew Boulton and his team used green bottle fly larvae to treat 13 diabetic patients whose foot ulcers were contaminated with MRSA and found all but one were cured within a mean period of three weeks, much quicker than the 28-week duration for the conventional treatment.

Don’t look at the picture.

Some quotes:

“Maggots are the world’s smallest surgeons. In fact they are better than surgeons – they are much cheaper and work 24 hours a day,” Professor Boulton jokingly said.

“They have been used since the Napoleonic Wars and in the American Civil War they found that those who survived were the ones with maggots in their wounds: they kept them clean. They remove the dead tissue and bacteria, leaving the healthy tissue to heal.

“Still, we were very surprised to see such a good result for MRSA. There is no reason this cannot be applied to many other areas of the body, except perhaps a large abdominal wound.”

In their next study, they “will compare larval treatment with antibacterial silver dressings and the biogun treatment, which uses ionized air to create superoxide radicals and eradicate bacteria.”

Official: organic really is better

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Official: organic really is better:

The evidence from the £12m four-year project will end years of debate and is likely to overturn government advice that eating organic food is no more than a lifestyle choice.
Researchers grew fruit and vegetables and reared cattle on adjacent organic and nonorganic sites on a 725-acre farm attached to Newcastle University, and at other sites in Europe. They found that levels of antioxidants in milk from organic herds were up to 90% higher than in milk from conventional herds.

As well as finding up to 40% more antioxidants in organic vegetables, they also found that organic tomatoes from Greece had significantly higher levels of antioxidants, including flavo-noids thought to reduce coronary heart disease.

Costs for Simulations

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Clark Aldrich goes over the costs for simulations — which can vary quite a bit:

Branching story:

Simulation in which students make a series of decisions via a multiple choice interface to progress through and impact an event.

  • Custom short (Less than 10 minutes): 30K
  • Custom medium (Between 10 minutes and 30 minutes): 100K
  • Custom long (Between 30 minutes and 2 hours): 500K
  • Off the shelf short (per user): $30
  • Off the shelf medium (per user): $100
  • Off the shelf long (per user): $500

Interactive spreadsheets:

Simulation in which students typically try to impact critical metrics by allocating resources along competing categories and getting feedback of their decisions through graphs and charts.

  • Custom short (Less than 1 hour): 30K+
  • Custom medium (Between 1 hour and 4 hours): 100K+
  • Custom long (Between 4 and 8 hours): 500K+
  • Off the shelf short (per user): $30*
  • Off the shelf medium (per user): $100*
  • Off the shelf long (per user): $500*

+ plus cost of facilitation, * including cost of facilitation

Mini games:

Small, easy-to-access game built to be simple and addictive, which often focuses on mastering an action and can provide awareness of more complicated issues.

  • Custom short (5 minutes): 10K
  • Custom medium (10 minutes): 15K
  • Custom long (30 minutes): 40K
  • Off the shelf short (per user): n/a
  • Off the shelf medium (per user): n/a
  • Off the shelf long (per user): n/a

Virtual product or virtual lab:

A series of challenges/puzzles to be solved using on-screen representations of real-world objects and software.

  • Custom short (30 minutes): 30K
  • Custom medium (1 hour): 75K
  • Custom long (4 hours): 150K
  • Off the shelf short (per user): $10
  • Off the shelf medium (per user): $30
  • Off the shelf long (per user): $100


Real-time, often 3D sims that encourages participants to repeat actions in high fidelity situations until the skills become natural in the real-world counterpart

  • Custom short (1 hour): 100K+
  • Custom medium (5 hours): 500K+
  • Custom long (20 hours): 1000K+
  • Off the shelf short (per user): $100*
  • Off the shelf medium (per user): $400*
  • Off the shelf long (per user): $1000*

+ plus cost of facilitation, * including cost of facilitation

Increasing Cost

Here are some items that typically and significantly increase costs:

Note: All genre links include examples of the genre in [brackets]. Go to mini games and launch a few [examples].

He also shares an exasperating example of trying to sell a simulation project to a corporate training person:

Training Person: I can’t do simulations. They are too expensive.

Me: Not necessarily. There are many simple models. There are branching stories, virtual products, interactive spreadsheets, game based models, just to name a few.

Training Person: And are these more effective in achieving learning goals?

Me: Yes. They have very impressive long term productivity benefits.

Training Person: Those are great. But how about multiplayer ? Do you have any examples of multiplayer?

Me: OK. Here they are.

Training Person: Those are cool. But you have any with better scoring and coaching built in as well?

Me: Sure. Here are a few other examples.

Training Person: Animations and advanced graphics are really important to me. Do you have any examples of sims also with really great, smooth animation?

Me: Yup, I have a few right here.

Training Person: Our corporate colors are blue and red? Is it possible to customize it?

Me: Yes.

Training Person: Wow, that is so fantastic. That really blow me away. It’s too bad, really.

Me: What is?

Training Person: I can’t do simulations. They are too expensive.

Xenith X1 Football Helmet

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

The Xenith X1 football helmet aims to provide the next generation in concussion prevention:

The Xenith X1 football helmet is designed to reduce the sudden and violent acceleration and deceleration of the head and the brain after impact. A flexible bonnet is embedded with shock absorbers that gradually release air to dissipate the energy from impact. Traditional helmets use foam inserts.

Genetic Disorders Hit Amish Hard

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Genetic disorders hit the Amish hard, as centuries of intermarriage make tremendously rare diseases more likely:

The Amish make up only about 10 percent of the population in Geagua County in Ohio, but they’re half of the special needs cases. Three of the five Miller children, for example, have a mysterious crippling disease that has no name and no known cure.
The three Byler sisters were all born with a condition that has no cure and mysteriously leads to severe mental retardation and a host of physical problems. Last year, doctors figured out the girls have the gene for something called Cohen Syndrome; there are only 100 known cases worldwide.

Since then, more than a dozen other cases of Cohen’s have been discovered in Ohio Amish country.

“Nobody knew it was around here and we found, what, 20 to 30 cases in this area now that they didn’t realize. Nobody knew about it,” says Erwin Kuhns.

But for so many years, the Amish have had no names for these disorders. It was simply a mystery why half the headstones in Amish cemeteries were headstones of children.

The genetic problems come down to something called the “founder effect” because the nearly 150,000 Amish in America can trace their roots back to a few hundred German-Swiss settlers who brought the Amish and Mennonite faiths to the United States in the 18th century. Over generations of intermarriage, rare genetic flaws have shown up, flaws which most of us carry within our genetic makeup but which don’t show up unless we marry someone else with the same rare genetic markers.

Kuhns and Miller admit these conditions have gotten more widespread in recent years. So much so that concerned families pulled together, held an auction and raised enough to build a clinic within buggy range of all the Amish. They also hired a pediatrician and researcher named Dr. Heng Wang to start caring for their children.

Why Some People Are Lucky

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Watch this video. (It’s a Java applet.) When viewing the video, try to count the total number of times that the people wearing white pass the basketball. Do not count the passes made by the people wearing black.

Watch the video. I’ll wait.

I’ve commented on that video before, but it turns out that it’s also a favorite of Richard Wiseman, who recently explained to Forbes
why some people are lucky:

The human brain is amazingly good at detecting what it wants to find. When you are hungry, your brain focuses on finding food. When you are thirsty, it looks for liquid. The problem is, your brain can become so focused on seeing what it expects to see, it misses things that are obvious but unexpected. Lucky people tend to have a somewhat relaxed view of life. They are less concerned with mundane details and more prone to look at the bigger picture. Ironically, by trying less, they see more.

Exactly the same principle applies to the opportunities that bombard us in everyday life. In another experiment, I gave some volunteers a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. What I didn’t tell them was that halfway through the newspaper I had placed an unexpected opportunity. This “opportunity” took up half a page and announced, in huge type, “Win £100 by telling the experimenter you have seen this.” The unlucky people tended to be so focused on counting the photographs they failed to notice the opportunity. In contrast, the lucky people were more relaxed, saw the bigger picture and so spotted a chance to win £100.

There’s more. “Lucky people possess a whole host of opportunity-attracting traits.”

You will quickly exhaust your potential opportunities if you keep talking to the same people, taking the same route to and from work and going to the same places on holiday. But introducing new or random experiences is like visiting a new part of the orchard–suddenly you are surrounded by hundreds of apples.

Lucky people had developed various interesting ways of introducing such variety. One noticed that whenever he went to a party, he tended to talk to the same type of people. To help disrupt this routine, he randomly chose a color before arriving at the party, and then only spoke to people wearing that color of clothing at the party.

Yet another trait:

Lucky people experience a large number of seemingly chance encounters. They bump into someone at a party, discover that they know people in common, and from these connections end up getting married or doing business together. Or when they need something, they always seem to know someone who knows someone who can solve their problem.

I wondered if these “small world” experiences were due to knowing a large number of people, and being tied into more elaborate social networks than most. To discover if this was the case and quantify the nature of these networks, I employed a method described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. To explore the notion of social connectivity, Gladwell carried out an informal study in which he presented people with a list of surnames and asked them to indicate if they knew people with that surname. Similarly, I asked hundreds of lucky and unlucky people to look at a list of 15 common surnames, and indicate if they were on first-name terms with at least one person with each surname.

The results were dramatic and demonstrated the huge relationship between luck and social connectivity. Almost 50% of lucky people ticked eight or more of the names, compared with just 25% of unlucky people. Further work has shown lucky people tend to be extroverts who both meet a large number of people and keep in contact with them. The building and maintaining of such social networks significantly increases the likelihood of having a “lucky” chance encounter.

One Hill, One Marine

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

One Hill, One Marine:

World War Two is generally calculated from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But that’s a eurocentric view. The Japanese had been limbering up their muscles in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931, and in China by 1934. By 1942 they’d devastated every major Pacific military force or stronghold of the great pre-war powers: Britain, Holland, France, and the United States. The bulk of America’s proud Pacific fleet lay beached or rusting on the floor of Pearl Harbor. A few aircraft carriers and submarines remained, though as Mitchell Paige and his 30-odd men were sent out to establish their last, thin defensive line on that ridge southwest of the tiny American bridgehead on Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, he would not have been much encouraged to know how those remaining American aircraft carriers were faring offshore.
As Paige — then a platoon sergeant — and his riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled Brownings, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?

The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to seize any major objective since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Their commanders certainly did not expect the war to be lost on some God-forsaken jungle ridge manned by one thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942.

But in preceding days, Marine commander Vandegrift had defied War College doctrine, “dangling” his men in exposed positions to draw Japanese attacks, then springing his traps “with the steel vise of firepower and artillery,” in the words of Naval historian David Lippman.

The Japanese regiments had been chewed up, good. Still, the American forces had so little to work with that Paige’s men would have only the four 30-caliber Brownings to defend the one ridge through which the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25.

By the time the night was over, “The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men,” historian Lippman reports. “The 16th (Japanese) Regiment’s losses are uncounted, but the 164th’s burial parties handle 975 Japanese bodies. … The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”

Among the 90 American dead and wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.

The citation for Paige’s Congressional Medal of Honor picks up the tale: “When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire.”

In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings — the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition at its first U.S. Army trial — and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.

The weapon did not fail.

Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley first discovered the answer to our question: How many able-bodied Marines does it take to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat?

On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.

One hill: one Marine.

Prejudice: The Watson Case

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Sometimes David Friedman is willing to discuss ideas that no normal person would discuss publicly — like Prejudice: The Watson Case:

In the recent flap over public comments by James Watson, one of the things that strikes me is the odd misuse, in attacks on him, of the term “prejudice.”

A prejudice is a belief held in advance of the evidence. Watson’s biological claim — that human populations that have spent a long time separated from each other in different environments can be expected to differ in heritable characteristics — is so obviously true that I find it hard to imagine anyone honestly denying it. His application, his conclusion from his own observation that sub-Saharan Africans are on average less intelligent than Europeans, may or may not be correct, but without knowing what his observations have been it is hard to see how one can know that it is due to prejudice.

Unless, of course, one knows in advance that Watson’s conclusion is false. So far as I can tell, there is literally no evidence to support that position. At least, in all of the arguments on the subject that I have observed, those arguing for racial equality of intelligence do so not by producing evidence that it is true but by arguing that the evidence that it is false is inadequate or mistaken. Even if all of their arguments are correct, the conclusion is not that we know that racial groups don’t differ in intelligence but only that we don’t know if they do, or if so how.

Watson’s comment was surely tactless as well as imprudent; his conclusion may, for all I know, be mistaken. But all of the prejudice so far exhibited in the case is on the other side.

He goes on to discuss Ethnic Cleansing, Other Horrors, and the Racial IQ Controversy:

In the discussion set off by my post on the Watson controversy, one person writes:

“It is never too much to remember how much ethnic cleansing was made in the past based on ‘scientific evidence’ that some races were ‘not as intelligent as ours’…”

I think claims of this sort are often made, but I’m not sure there is any basis for them. Ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, so far as I can tell, had nothing to do with any scientific evidence, real or bogus, about the relative intelligence of races. In some cases the cleansers and their victims differed only in whether their ancestors had or had not converted to Islam in the distant past. In others, the justification offered for the cleansing was “it’s historically our land, and they have taken it over by immigrating and having more babies than we did.”

What about the Holocaust? I believe some Nazis made claims about Jewish inferiority of one sort or another. But the basis for their anti-semitism, so far as I can tell, was the idea that Jews were race enemies — in which case the more intelligent they were, the more dangerous. One can see that pretty clearly in Henry Ford’s (less malevolent) version of anti-semitism. I don’t know what justifications were offered for killing Gypsies, who were the other main “racial” target.

In the post-war period, I think the largest scale race killing has been the Hutu/Tutsi conflicts in southern Africa. It’s hard to believe that any significant amount of it was motivated by evidence of IQ differences between the two groups.

If we move from killing to enslaving, the case becomes a little stronger. My impression is that one argument used against freeing black slaves was that they were less intelligent and so unable to run their lives themselves — although it’s hard to see that as a plausible argument for enslaving them in the first place. But I thought the main justification offered — insofar as any was needed beyond the usefulness of slavery to slave owners–was biblical, the “sons of Ham” argument. And in any case, all of this predates the invention if IQ and scientific literature on it.

In the case of classical antiquity, slavery frequently involved slaves of the same ethnic stock as the slave owners. So although philosophers might make arguments about some sorts of people being natural slaves, it’s hard to see how any such arguments could have explained the actual practices.

So here is my challenge: Can anyone offer an actual historical example of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or slavery where either the main reason for it, or the main justification offered, was scientific or pseudo-scientific evidence that the victims were, on average, less intelligent than the perpetrators?