There is no chance that someone can override it through logic or reason

Sunday, May 16th, 2021

Most people transition in and out of paralysis multiple times per night, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), but some experience switching errors and end up sleepwalking:

“Sleepwalking is a reminder that wake and sleep are not mutually exclusive,” Mark Mahowald, a professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota and a pioneer in understanding sleep behaviors, told me. “The part of your brain that monitors your behavior is asleep, but the parts capable of very complex activities are awake. The problem is that there’s nothing guiding the brain except for basic patterns, your most basic habits. You follow what exists in your head, because you’re not capable of making a choice.”


Sleepwalkers can behave in complex ways — for instance, they can open their eyes, see, move around, and drive a car or cook a meal — all while essentially unconscious, because the parts of their brain associated with seeing, walking, driving, and cooking can function while they are asleep without input from the brain’s more advanced regions, such as the prefrontal cortex.


However, as scientists have examined the brains of sleepwalkers, they’ve found a distinction between sleepwalking — in which people might leave their beds and start acting out their dreams or other mild impulses — and something called sleep terrors. When a sleep terror occurs, the activity inside people’s brains is markedly different from when they are awake, semi-conscious, or even sleepwalking.


Because sleep deactivates the prefrontal cortex and other high cognition areas, when a sleep terror habit is triggered, there is no possibility of conscious intervention. If the fight-or-flight habit is cued by a sleep terror, there is no chance that someone can override it through logic or reason.

Shots using viral vector technology haven’t been administered at scale

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

In Germany, one researcher thinks he has found what is triggering the clots in patients who have received a COVID vaccine:

Andreas Greinacher, a blood expert, and his team at the University of Greifswald believe so-called viral vector vaccines — which use modified harmless cold viruses, known as adenoviruses, to convey genetic material into vaccine recipients to fight the coronavirus — could cause an autoimmune response that leads to blood clots. According to Prof. Greinacher, that reaction could be tied to stray proteins and a preservative he has found in the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Prof. Greinacher and his team has just begun examining Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine but has identified more than 1,000 proteins in AstraZeneca’s vaccine derived from human cells, as well as a preservative known as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA. Their hypothesis is that EDTA, which is common to drugs and other products, helps those proteins stray into the bloodstream, where they bind to a blood component called platelet factor 4, or PF4, forming complexes that activate the production of antibodies.

The inflammation caused by the vaccines, combined with the PF4 complexes, could trick the immune system into believing the body had been infected by bacteria, triggering an archaic defense mechanism that then runs out of control and causes clotting and bleeding.


One reason vaccine-induced clotting might not have been reported in the past is because shots using viral vector technology haven’t been administered at scale. The Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the shot by CanSino Biologics from China use the same technology as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, but haven’t been linked to the condition so far.

The only similar shot widely administered before the pandemic is one against Ebola by Johnson & Johnson, which was given to at least 60,000 people as of last July.

Clotting occurs between one in 28,000 and one in 100,000, according to European data — extremely rare amid the hundreds of millions of doses administered so far, yet higher than one in 150,000 previously assumed by some medical authorities, Prof. Greinacher said. Most of the hundreds of people who have been diagnosed recover, but between a fifth and a third have died, and others could suffer permanent consequences.

The expanded Wilshire was emblematic of the newly auto-centric city

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

Chandler’s Marlowe novels take place in Los Angeles and “Bay City” (Santa Monica). My annotated version of The Big Sleep explains the historical importance of Wilshire Boulevard:

A historic and even prehistoric route, once traveled by the Pleistocene animals that ended up in the tar pits at La Brea, Wilshire was widened in 1924 as part of developer A. W. Ross’s scheme to move shopping away from the traffic-choked downtown.

The expanded Wilshire was emblematic of the newly auto-centric city: it could accommodate six lanes of traffic, had synchronized traffic lights, and funneled automobiles to a brand-new shopping district (named Miracle Mile in 1928) where each building had its own parking lot.

They didn’t foresee the high cost of free parking.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad sent their first-line of defense into the tunnels to start taking up positions

Friday, May 14th, 2021

At about 9 pm on Thursday night, the IDF began assembling ground forces along the border with the Gaza Strip, after having said earlier in the day that a ground offensive was on the table:

Yes, the IDF had deployed troops along the border but they did not cross into Gaza. What did happen was in the air where 160 aircraft had assembled for a massive bombing run over the Gaza Strip. Their target was what the IDF called Hamas’s “Metro”, an underground network of tunnels where Hamas stored its weapons and used to move throughout Gaza hidden from Israeli aircraft.

The “Metro” had been built in the years after the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip, also known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge. It was a network of dozens of kilometers of tunnels that crisscrossed Gaza and provided safety from Israeli aerial incursions.

According to reports, due to the deployment along the border and the news coming out in the foreign media of a ground incursion, Hamas and Islamic Jihad sent their first-line of defense into the tunnels to start taking up positions. These were the anti-tank missile teams and mortar squads meant to strike at incoming Israeli ground forces.

What these Hamas operatives did not know was that there was no ground offensive. Instead, once they were out of the tunnels, they were exposed to Israeli aircraft. Within minutes, the “Metro” attack went ahead.


Giving everyone new habits has become a focus of the church

Friday, May 14th, 2021

In 1979, a poor Baptist preacher was looking for a place to start a new congregation among people who didn’t already attend church, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), when he stumbled across a description of Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California:

The book Warren was reading said it was the fastest-growing region in the fastest-growing county in one of the fastest-growing states in America.


Warren’s focus on building a congregation among the unchurched had begun five years earlier, when, as a missionary in Japan, he had discovered an old copy of a Christian magazine with an article headlined “Why Is This Man Dangerous?” It was about Donald McGavran, a controversial author focused on building churches in nations where most people hadn’t accepted Christ. At the center of McGavran’s philosophy was an admonition that missionaries should imitate the tactics of other successful movements — including the civil rights campaign — by appealing to people’s social habits.


McGavran laid out a strategy that instructed church builders to speak to people in their “own languages,” to create places of worship where congregants saw their friends, heard the kinds of music they already listened to, and experienced the Bible’s lessons in digestible metaphors.


Most important, McGavran said, ministers needed to convert groups of people, rather than individuals, so that a community’s social habits would encourage religious participation, rather than pulling people away.


Today, thirty years later, Saddleback Church is one of the largest ministries in the world, with more than twenty thousand parishioners visiting its 120-acre campus — and eight satellite campuses — each week.


When Warren first arrived in Saddleback Valley, he spent twelve weeks going door-to-door, introducing himself and asking strangers why they didn’t go to church. Many of the answers were practical — it was boring, people said, the music was bad, the sermons didn’t seem applicable to their lives, they needed child care, they hated dressing up, the pews were uncomfortable.


He told people to wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts, if they felt like it. An electric guitar was brought in. Warren’s sermons, from the start, focused on practical topics, with titles such as “How to Handle Discouragement,” “How to Feel Good About Yourself,” “How to Raise Healthy Families,” and “How to Survive Under Stress.” His lessons were easy to understand, focused on real, daily problems, and could be applied as soon as parishioners left church.


He was never certain he would have enough classrooms to accommodate everyone who showed up for Bible study, so he had asked a few church members to host classes inside their homes. He worried that people might complain about going to someone’s house, rather than a proper church classroom. But congregants loved it, they said. The small groups gave them a chance to meet their neighbors. So, after he returned from his leave, Warren assigned every Saddleback member to a small group that met every week. It was one of the most important decisions he ever made, because it transformed church participation from a decision into a habit that drew on already-existing social urges and patterns.


“The congregation and the small groups are like a one-two punch. You have this big crowd to remind you why you’re doing this in the first place, and a small group of close friends to help you focus on how to be faithful. Together, they’re like glue. We have over five thousand small groups now. It’s the only thing that makes a church this size manageable. Otherwise, I’d work myself to death, and 95 percent of the congregation would never receive the attention they came here looking for.”


Every Saddleback member is asked to sign a “maturity covenant card” promising to adhere to three habits: daily quiet time for reflection and prayer, tithing 10 percent of their income, and membership in a small group. Giving everyone new habits has become a focus of the church.

The players were literally off the charts

Thursday, May 13th, 2021

Louis J. Rosenbaum had been the team ophthalmologist for the Phoenix Cardinals football team, but in 1992, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), he was brought in to work with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, and he met with an unexpected problem:

The players were literally off the charts.


The trouble was that Rosenbaum used commercially available Landolt ring charts, which tested visual acuity down to 20/15. Nearly every player maxed out the test.

Landolt Ring Chart

When Tommy Lasorda asked him to predict which minor leaguer would thrive in the major league, he didn’t have the players’ baseball statistics, but he did have the vision testing data from his other tests:

He chose a minor league first baseman with outstanding scores. The player was Eric Karros, a mere sixth-round pick in the 1988 draft. By ’92, though, Karros was starting at first base for the Dodgers and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. It was his first of thirteen full seasons as a major leaguer.

The following spring, Rosenbaum returned to Dodgertown with a custom-made visual acuity test that went down to 20/8. Given the size and shape of particular photoreceptor cells, or cones, in the eye, 20/8 is around the theoretical limit of human visual acuity.


This time, the player whose vision tests stood out to Rosenbaum was Mike Piazza, a lightly regarded catcher.

Piazza had been picked by the Dodgers five years earlier in the sixty-second round of the draft, the 1,390th player taken overall, and only because Piazza’s father was a childhood friend of Lasorda’s. Nonetheless, Piazza would make good on Rosenbaum’s prediction. He won the National League Rookie of the Year in 1993 and went on to become the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history.

Over four years of testing, and 387 minor and major league players, Rosenbaum and his team found an average visual acuity around 20/13.


Major league position players had an average right eye visual acuity of 20/11 and an average left eye visual acuity of 20/12. In the test of fine depth perception, 58 percent of the baseball players scored “superior,” compared with 18 percent of a control population. In tests of contrast sensitivity, the pro players scored better than collegiate baseball players had in previous research, and collegiate players scored better than young people in the general population.

In each eye test, pro baseball players were better than nonathletes, and major league players were better than minor league players.

“Half the guys on the Dodgers’ major league roster were 20/10 uncorrected,” Rosenbaum says.


In the Indian study, out of 9,411 tested eyes, one single eye had 20/10 vision. In the Beijing Eye Study, only 22 out of 4,438 eyes tested at 20/17 or better.


Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in a Swedish study had average visual acuity around 20/16.

Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400 over a major league season, used to insist that he only saw ducks on the horizon before his hunting partners because he was “intent on seeing them.” Perhaps. But Williams’s 20/10 vision, discovered during his World War II pilot’s exam, probably didn’t hurt either.

About 2 percent of the players in the Dodgers organization dipped below 20/9, flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye.


When Laby and Kirschen studied U.S. Olympians from the 2008 Beijing Games, they found that the softball team had an average visual acuity of 20/11, outstanding depth perception, and better contrast sensitivity than athletes from any other sport.

Olympic archers also had exceptional visual acuity — they scored similarly to the Dodgers — but not particularly good depth perception. That makes sense, Laby says, because the target is far away, but it’s also flat.

Fencers, who must make rapid use of tiny, close-range variations in distance, scored very well on depth perception.

Athletes who track flying objects at a distance — softball players and to a lesser extent soccer and volleyball players — scored well on contrast sensitivity, which is “probably set at a certain ability you’re born with,” Laby says.


In a study of catching skill among Belgian college students, some of whom had normal depth perception and others who had weak depth perception, there was little difference in catching ability at low ball speeds. But at high speeds, there was a tremendous difference in catching skill.


A clever follow-up study by an international team of scientists recruited a group of young women, all with normal visual acuity but some who had poor depth perception and others with good depth perception. Each woman had a catching pretest — in which she had to snag tennis balls shot out of a machine — followed by more than 1,400 practice catches over two weeks, and then a posttest. The women with good depth perception improved rapidly during the training, while the women with poor depth perception didn’t improve at all.


Conversely, a 2009 Emory medical school study suggested that children with poor depth perception start self-selecting out of Little League baseball and softball by age ten.

The project came to be known as Freedom Summer

Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

In 1964, students from across the country, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), applied for something called the “Mississippi Summer Project”:

It was a ten-week program devoted to registering black voters in the South. The project came to be known as Freedom Summer, and many who applied were aware it would be dangerous.


Each applicant was asked to list their memberships in student and political organizations and at least ten people they wanted kept informed of their summer activities, so McAdam took these lists and used them to chart each applicant’s social network. By comparing memberships in clubs, he was able to determine which applicants had friends who also applied for Freedom Summer.


The students who participated in Freedom Summer were enmeshed in the types of communities where both their close friends and their casual acquaintances expected them to get on the bus.


When McAdam looked at applicants with religious orientations — students who cited a “Christian duty to help those in need” as their motivation for applying, for instance, he found mixed levels of participation. However, among those applicants who mentioned a religious orientation and belonged to a religious organization, McAdam found that every single one made the trip to Mississippi.

The flowers acquired associations of decay and disease

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe meets his sickly, old client in the wealthy man’s orchid hothouse, which my annotated edition describes as “one of many symbols of wealth and decadence adorning the Sternwood residence”:

Orchid-collecting fever swept England and America at the turn of the twentieth century.


In literature the flowers acquired associations of decay and disease. In J. K. Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884), the sickly, impotent scion of an aristocratic family is smitten by their grotesque forms, “puffy leaves that seemed to be sweating blood and wine” and “sickly blooms” that appeared “ravaged by syphilis or leprosy.” His orchid fever ends in a fantastic dream encounter with a syphilitic orchid woman.

In H. G. Wells’s 1894 horror story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” the carnivorous flower with roots “like fingers trying to get at you” drugs its victims with its heavy perfume, then sucks their blood.

Naturally I had to find a copy of The Flowering of the Strange Orchid. It’s a quick read.

A few points stood out. First, when the orchid collector gets his rare flowers, which had been collected by a man who died in the process, his housekeeper declares, “I should be afraid of some of the malaria clinging to them.” This is just before malaria‘s life cycle was understood.

Second, when the collector survives the orchid’s attack, his housekeeper gives him “brandy mixed with some pink extract of meat,” which reminded me of Bovril and the odd history of its name.

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio

Monday, May 10th, 2021

In the summer of 2003, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” was poised to become a hit — but it wasn’t sticky:

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio.


Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.


DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular.


They sandwiched it between the types of songs that Rich Meyer had discovered were uniquely sticky, from artists like Blu Cantrell, 3 Doors Down, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera.


When WIOQ first started playing “Hey Ya!” in early September — before the sandwiching started — 26.6 percent of listeners changed the station whenever it came on. By October, after playing it alongside sticky hits, that “tune-out factor” dropped to 13.7 percent. By December, it was 5.7 percent.

In simple tasks, practice brings people closer together

Sunday, May 9th, 2021

In 1908, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), Edward Thorndike — the father of modern educational psychology — came up with a test for whether nature or nurture dominated ability at a task:

He figured that the way to distinguish nature from nurture was to give people the same amount of practice at a certain task and to see whether they became more or less alike. If their skill levels converged, Thorndike reasoned, then the impact of practice was overwhelming any innate individual differences. If they diverged, then nature was overpowering nurture.

In one experiment, Thorndike had adults practice multiplying three-digit numbers by three-digit numbers in their heads as quickly as they could. He was astounded by their improvement.


After one hundred practice trials, many of the subjects cut their mental computation time in half.


But while Thorndike saw across-the-board improvement, he also noted what sociologists often call a “Matthew effect.”


Thorndike saw that the subjects who did well at the start of the training also improved faster as the training progressed compared with the subjects who began more slowly.

Georgia Tech psychologist Phillip Ackerman has found that, in simple tasks, practice brings people closer together, but in complex ones, it often pulls them apart.

The only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s

Saturday, May 8th, 2021

America found itself short of meat, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), as World War 2 kicked into gear — but not all meat:

At the time, organ meat wasn’t popular in America. A middle-class woman in 1940 would sooner starve than despoil her table with tongue or tripe. So when the scientists recruited into the Committee on Food Habits met for the first time in 1941, they set themselves a goal of systematically identifying the cultural barriers that discouraged Americans from eating organ meat.


For instance, when the Subsistence Division of the Quartermaster Corps — the people in charge of feeding soldiers — started serving fresh cabbage to troops in 1943, it was rejected. So mess halls chopped and boiled the cabbage until it looked like every other vegetable on a soldier’s tray — and the troops ate it without complaint.


The secret to changing the American diet, the Committee on Food Habits concluded, was familiarity. Soon, housewives were receiving mailers from the government telling them “every husband will cheer for steak and kidney pie.” Butchers started handing out recipes that explained how to slip liver into meatloaf.


One study indicated that offal consumption rose by 33 percent during the war. By 1955, it was up 50 percent. Kidney had become a staple at dinner. Liver was for special occasions. America’s dining patterns had shifted to such a degree that organ meats had become emblems of comfort.


To date, the only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s.

This first exchange sets the tone for the novel’s famously sparkling dialogue

Friday, May 7th, 2021

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe’s wealthy client is “pretty far gone in years to have a couple of daughters still in the dangerous twenties.” He soon meets the younger one, and this first exchange sets the tone for the novel’s famously sparkling dialogue:

She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slate-gray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy.

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”


I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.


She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theater curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.


“You’re cute,” she giggled. “I’m cute too.”

The “tall” line presented a problem when Humphrey Bogart was cast for the film:

Bogart was only five feet nine. The problem was solved by rewriting Carmen’s line to read, “You’re not too tall, are you?” to which Bogie replies, “Well, I tried to be.”

The actor who most resembled Marlowe in Chandler’s mind was Cary Grant.

People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains just how much data a store like Target collects in order to shift customers’ buying habits:

Also linked to that Guest ID number was demographic information that Target collected or purchased from other firms, including the shopper’s age, whether they were married and had kids, which part of town they lived in, how long it took them to drive to the store, an estimate of how much money they earned, if they’d moved recently, which websites they visited, the credit cards they carried in their wallet, and their home and mobile phone numbers. Target can purchase data that indicates a shopper’s ethnicity, their job history, what magazines they read, if they have ever declared bankruptcy, the year they bought (or lost) their house, where they went to college or graduate school, and whether they prefer certain brands of coffee, toilet paper, cereal, or applesauce.


The company can link about half of all in-store sales to a specific person, almost all online sales, and about a quarter of online browsing.


People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. When someone gets married, for example, they’re more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When they move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they get divorced, there’s a higher chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.


There’s almost no greater upheaval for most customers than the arrival of a child. As a result, new parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than at almost any other period in an adult’s life. So for companies, pregnant women are gold mines.


One survey conducted in 2010 estimated that the average parent spends $6,800 on baby items before a child’s first birthday.


“As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else, too,” Pole told me.


One New York hospital, for instance, provides every new mother with a gift bag containing samples of hair gel, face wash, shaving cream, an energy bar, shampoo, and a soft-cotton T-shirt. Inside are coupons for an online photo service, hand soap, and a local gym. There are also samples of diapers and baby lotions, but they’re lost among the nonbaby supplies. In 580 hospitals across the United States, new mothers get gifts from the Walt Disney Company, which in 2010 started a division specifically aimed at marketing to the parents of infants.


Disney estimates the North American new baby market is worth $36.3 billion a year.


Expectant mothers, he discovered, shopped in fairly predictable ways. Take, for example, lotions. Lots of people buy lotion, but a Target data analyst noticed that women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester.

Another analyst noted that sometime in the first twenty weeks, many pregnant women loaded up on vitamins, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Lots of shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and an astounding number of washcloths, all at once, a few months after buying lotions and magnesium and zinc, it signals they are getting close to their delivery date.

Top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status

Wednesday, May 5th, 2021

Studies of athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status:

According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.

In a sample of Australian women competing in netball (sort of like basketball but without dribbling or backboards), arguably the best player in the world at the time, Vicki Wilson, had compiled only 600 hours of practice when she made the national team.

A study of athletes on Australia’s senior national teams found that 28 percent of them started their sport at an average age of seventeen, having previously tried on average three other sports, and debuted at the international level just four years later.

A wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021

The London Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. One of these unwritten rules was, don’t panic the passengers. Another was, stay in your lane. Then someone spotted the early signs of a fire:

Yet the safety inspector, Hayes, didn’t call the London Fire Brigade. He hadn’t seen any smoke himself, and another of the Underground’s unwritten rules was that the fire department should never be contacted unless absolutely necessary.


Hayes, the safety inspector, went into a passageway that led to the Piccadilly escalator’s machine room. In the dark, there was a set of controls for a sprinkler system specifically designed to fight fires on escalators. It had been installed years earlier, after a fire in another station had led to a series of dire reports about the risks of a sudden blaze. More than two dozen studies and reprimands had said that the Underground was unprepared for fires, and that staff needed to be trained in how to use sprinklers and fire extinguishers, which were positioned on every train platform. Two years earlier the deputy assistant chief of the London Fire Brigade had written to the operations director for railways, complaining about subway workers’ safety habits.


No one inside King’s Cross understood how to use the escalator sprinkler system or was authorized to use the extinguishers, because another department controlled them.


The entire escalator was now aflame, producing a superheated gas that rose to the top of the shaft enclosing the escalator, where it was trapped against the tunnel’s ceiling, which was covered with about twenty layers of old paint. A few years earlier, the Underground’s director of operations had suggested that all this paint might pose a fire hazard. Perhaps, he said, the old layers should be removed before a new one is applied?

Painting protocols were not in his purview, however. Paint responsibility resided with the maintenance department, whose chief politely thanked his colleague for the recommendation, and then noted that if he wanted to interfere with other departments, the favor would be swiftly returned.


Shortly after the explosion, dozens of fire trucks arrived. But because the fire department’s rules instructed them to connect their hoses to street-level hydrants, rather than those installed by the Underground inside the station, and because none of the subway employees had blueprints showing the station’s layout — all the plans were in an office that was locked, and none of the ticketing agents or the station manager had keys — it took hours to extinguish the flames.


During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.


NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.


Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.

In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.


Fennell began by interviewing the Underground’s leadership, and quickly discovered that everyone had known — for years — that fire safety was a serious problem, and yet nothing had changed.


So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus.

He called for public hearings that lasted ninety-one days and revealed an organization that had ignored multiple warnings of risks.


A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis — or create the perception of crisis — and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.