Friday, March 27, 2009

Why We Make Mistakes

For years I've been fascinated with the concept of human decision making. I've enjoyed reading books that explore this concept. I'm also intrigued about the strategies that people use to justify their mistakes and the cognitive dissonance required to make your actual decisions jive with what you know is right.
Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average by Joseph Hallinan is my latest read on this subject. In the opening chapter of the book Hallinan describes a commercial airliner simply flying into the ground because they got too hung up on a small light that was burned out ans ignored the fact that the plane was slowly loosing altitude. I felt that this one simple metaphor described the rest of the book. We do lose focus of the things that are truly important. And all too frequently our focus was shifted by relatively trivial details.
Hallinan skillfully points out how uncommon common sense really is. But rather than just blame the decision maker he talks about how we can put ourselves into positions that will help to make better decisions. sometimes it takes a design difference so that, for instance, clockwise is off on all the knobs. Things like always putting the hot on the left and the cold on the right, etc. Sure it sounds like a simple design issue but he gave some frightening mortality statistic from an anesthesia machine that was clockwise for off on on drug and counter-clockwise for another.
Hallinan compared the airline industry to operating room. In the past few decades accident rates in the airline industry have dramatically dropped and there has been an increase in the operating rooms. Hallinan points to the main cause of this as the changes that have been made to the authority system in on and not in the other.
In the airline industry anybody the cockpit is virtually free of authority struggles. Many decisions are not based on rank or position. A 20 year old air traffic controller tells the pilot where to land and the pilot obeys and doesn't pretend that he knows better just because she's been doing flying since the controller was a kid. In the cockpit as well the co-pilot and even attendants are valuable resources and their input is encouraged.
Conversely, this authority system seems to be trending the other direction in the operating room. Doctors all too frequently are seen as unquestionable. Even in situations where nurses have spoken up to prevent the error Hallinan sights instances of flipped x-rays and the wrong limb being removed.
A few years ago my youngest daughter had to have a tooth pulled. We went to see the specialist with the x-ray from our dentist. She'd taken a fall on the driveway and one of her teeth was a starting to go gray. The x-ray seemed to confirm that the root on the graying tooth was dying. When we went to get her tooth pulled the nurse questioned the x-rays. She thought we we looking at it backwards. The dentist did not question her and called to have another x-ray taken just to be sure. She was absolutely right. In spite of the fact that one tooth was starting to turn gray it was the tooth on the other side that had the dead root. The dentist went ahead and pulled the dying tooth and the gray tooth eventually regained its color. Had that nurse not spoken up and, more importantly, had the dentist not accepted her advice Eve would have had to go back and have the correct tooth pulled later and they'd have had a very upset father on their hands. I'm very grateful to have had a dentist who was willing to admit that he could make mistakes and ultimate prevent them.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anybody who is aware that they can make mistakes. I also think it should be force feed to anybody who thinks that they can't.

Too Many Books, Too Little Time

So last week Victoria looked at the stack of books that I had on loan from the library and sent me this flair on facebook. It's true. I typically don't read but about 50% of the books I check out. Lately life has been so busy that I haven't had time to blog much. Today I had to go rescue my youngest from the clinic at school. So rather than design communications equipment today I'm home with a sick kid. So I think I'll take this chance to catch up on some reading bloging and book reviews.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Marilyn Manson Effect.

When I was a kid there was a big stink about a book that made it to the shelves of the library at school. Judy Bloom, who was famous for writing books targeted at fourth graders, had decided to branch out and write a book targeted at post-pubescent teens. Parents protested and got the book pulled off of the shelves. The local news and the local papers all interviewed the parents who felt victorious for getting this book banned. They felt like they had been handed an overwhelming victory.
So what was the end result? Well it wasn’t quite what they had expected. You see the local grocery store sold the same book in paperback and quite a few kids in school went out and bought it. I remember one boy reading a copy at recess that had clearly been handed down quite a few times. I’ll confess, I read it just to see what the fuss was all about. By protesting and getting the book banned from the school they freely gave the book more prime-time publicity than the publishing company would have ever been able to afford without it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, however if the boycotts and protests had been deliberate stunts perpetrated by the publisher I doubt if they could have achieved better results. If those “concerned parents” had just put up with it the mediocre book would have faded into obscurity.

I’m not a big fan of Catcher in the Rye. I wouldn’t call the book a waste of time, but I just could never see what all the hoopla was all about. I read it a few years ago in a book group I was in. During the post reading discussion I was the only one that didn’t really care for the book. Although they wouldn’t come out an admit it, I have a sneaky suspicion that the same thing was happening again. Take away the controversy and you’re left with a mediocre piece of work that wouldn’t have made any impact on society.

I think the Harry Potter books have benefited quite a bit form this same phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the books. I just don’t think they would have risen to such prominence quite so quickly without all the Bible-Thumpers complaining about witchcraft in our schools.

I read a comment on facebook were someone called this the “Marilyn Manson Effect”. If you take away all the controversy and hype Brian Warner would still be making slurpies at the 7-11. Have you listened to his “music”? He’s a talentless hack who’s only real skill is an ability to convince kids that he’s cool by upsetting their parents. Again if the parent hadn’t gotten so upset about him he would have had to go get a real job somewhere.

I’ve been tip-toeing around a current issue that has hit the news so as to not give it any publicity that it doesn’t deserve. My point is that sometimes it’s much better to just put up with something you disagree with. Protesting, boycotting and getting all upset about it will just give it more attention than it deserves.

Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word; and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection.
Colin Powell

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hockey Night

“Yeah I know how to play hockey. Everybody gets a stick and they have to hit this thing the net that looks like a checker only it’s bigger.”

“Look at that big building. Is that a skyscraper?”

“How do they make buildings that tall?”

“That building looks like a castle.”

“Look! There’s Jesus.”

“Why do we have to pay to park?”

“He’s playing that harmonica so people will put money in his bucket.”

“Are those girls with the shovels cheerleaders?”

“They look like they might be cold.”

“Where did you and Rachel sit last time you came?”

“That guy has funny hair.”

“Try to catch the parachute.”

“That big truck makes the ice all nice and smooth again and those girls pick up all the snow.”

“Why does that bird shoot flames out of its mouth?”

“But, Real thrashers don’t do that.”

“How come the bird doesn’t shoot flames when the other team scores?”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Why do people drink beer?”

“How come we lost?”

“Why isn’t the drive thru open?”

“Yeah, I’m still awake. I was just resting.”

Just a few random comments from my daughter during our date. Our dentist is also the Thrasher’s team dentist. Last week Rachel had an appointment and he was not going to be able to use his choice seats to the game so he gave them to us. Rachel went with me last time so I took Eve. It was nice to have her all alone so she didn’t have to compete for attention from her parents. We had a great time. Thanks for the tickets, Brett.