Books

My Book Choices For 2009

Every year I give a book recommendation for Christmas; in 2007, I picked "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin and in 2008 I chose "The Rise of The Creative Class" by Richard Florida. This year I did not want to pick just one book, so here are a few nonfiction paperbacks I read this year and could not put down, in no particular order:

  • "Franklin and Winston," by Jon Meacham: an account of the friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
  • "A Hope in the Unseen," by Ron Suskind: the story of a black kid from a blighted DC neighborhood, who is admitted to Brown University against the odds. The book covers his last two years in high school and his first year in college and is one of my favorite books of all times. I first learned about the book thanks to NPR's You Must Read This series.
  • "Influence: The Power of Persuasion," by Richard Cialdini. I blogged about the book here and here.
  • "The Pixar Touch," by David Price: a history of the animation company Pixar. I did not expect the book to be such a page-turner, but it was. I became interested in Pixar after I read an article in Harvard Business Review about "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity"; that article remains one of the most recommended by readers on the HBR website.

"Hollowing Out The Middle"

I recently finished reading "Hollowing out the middle: The rural brain drain and what it means for America" by Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas. It is a thin book (172 pages without counting the lengthy notes and references at the end) which raises as many questions as it answers, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of small-town America by studying an Iowa town the authors lived in for several months in 2001, using funding provided by the MacArthur Foundation. (Carr and Kefalas are associate professors in sociology at Rutgers and St Joseph's University, respectively.)

The name of the town has been disguised to protect residents' privacy, as the authors say it is customary to do in their field; surprisingly, they have one slip-up toward the middle of the book, although this might simply be another fictitious name they had chosen for the town in an earlier version of the work, which was many years in the making. Suffice it to say that the town, which counts a little over 2,000 residents, is in the middle of nowhere - one hour away from the closest mall and eighty miles from the closest Starbucks. (It seems that many Iowa towns have fewer residents than "Ellis" - if you download the files about cities in the state of Iowa from this US Census Bureau page, and rank cities by increasing order of estimated population in 2006, you will notice there are almost 800 "incorporated places", to use the census bureau's terminology, out of about 950 with population less than 2,000. Only 10 have a population higher than 40,000.) All this to say "Ellis" is not an atypical town by far.

One of the most important contributions of the book is the characterization of residents into four groups:

  1. Achievers are A+ high school students who use college as a way to escape small-town life and don't come back, except to visit their family.
  2. Stayers don't go to college, and sometimes don't even graduate from high school. They quickly transition into adult life, get married and have children at a young age. They are enticed to work at the nearby factory by wages that their seventeen-year-old selves find quite high, but they fail to realize that there is almost no opportunity for advancement, i.e., they will make little more than that twenty years later. 
  3. Seekers either don't have the Achievers' grades or don't have the money to afford a college education, but want to discover the world (or at least the rest of the country) beyond their small town, and use military service to that effect.
  4. Returners are either High-Flyers ("twenty-somethings who return to small towns armed with college degrees and entrepreneurial ambitions"), or Boomerangs ("former enlisted men and women who move back to Iowa after leaving the armed forces and the mostly female graduates of community colleges").

The authors spend most of the book describing these four categories in detail, and end with their reflections on what can be done to save rural America. They point out the apparent contradiction of lavishing so many resources on Achiever-type students, who are bound to leave town, while neglecting Stayer-type students, who will make the bulk of the local workforce and therefore play a critical role in small towns' survival. (Small towns die, for instance, when there are no longer enough students to keep the school open.)

The authors comment on some of Richard Florida's theories (the Florida of The Rise of the Creative Class fame) and their applicability to rural America. In particular, they wonder "whether creative towns can be conjured in places that have been largely emptying out." In addition, "most creative-class counties are in metropolitan areas [...] most nonmetro creative counties are found in New England and in the Mountain West states such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah." It is "difficult to see how Heartland small towns will compete with areas in the West that have more abundant outdoor amenities such as mountains, hiking trails, and ski resorts." Another issue Carr and Kefalas mention is that some small towns may not have the high-speed Internet access the creative class has come to rely on, and which has become a necessity to compete in a global world. The authors' key recommendation is to revamp the rural educational system to better serve the non-college-bound student population, a recommendation they detail at some length.


"Influence" by Robert Cialdini, Part 2

Here is the second part of my post on "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini. (Part 1, about the first hundred pages, is here.) Below are highlights from the remaining chapters. The book is packed with extraordinarily useful information and there is much more to gain from reading it in its entirety.

  • Still in Chapter 3 - Commitment and Consistency - Cialdini describes a technique used by car salesmen, which he calls the lowball on p.98 of the Collins Business Essentials paperback edition. The dealer quotes a really good price for a car, but in fact "never intends [the deal] to go through"; the offer's "only purpose is to cause a prospect to decide to buy a car." Then people's need for consistency takes over and "customers automatically develop a range of new reasons to support the choice they have now made." When the salesman comes up with excuses why he has to increase the car price after all, people's initial commitment to the car often prevents them from stepping back and realize what is happening. Interestingly, this technique can also be used for the greater good- see a study p.101.
  • In Chapter 4, Social Proof, Cialdini analyzes starting on p.129 why people didn't come to the aid of an assault victim who was terrorized on the street for half an hour and ultimately murdered while thirty-eight witnesses did nothing to help. He argues that "in an ambiguous situation [with many other witnesses], the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to [...] the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help." Along the same lines, he recommends on p.138 that victims of car accidents (having been one himself and witnessed social proof in action) dissipate any ambiguity and put specific people in charge - "Isolate one individual from the crowd: Stare, speak and point directly at that person and no one else." In his experience, people about to drive by without stopping then become very willing to pull over and help.
  • Chapter 5, on Liking, offers an amazing story about how "an innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about us." (p.189) An insert on that page describes how television weather forecasters are sometimes held responsible for bad weather, and subjected to threats from irate citizens. A forecaster from Arkansas recalls that a burly, drunk farmer came up to him in a bar one day and said: "You're the one that sent that tornado and tore my house up... I'm going to take your head off." The forecaster, who wanted to ask the bouncer for help but could not spot him, came up with the following answer: "That's right about the tornado, and I'll tell you something else, I'll send another one if you don't back off." I'm not kidding. The quote is on p.190.
  • Chapter 6, about Authority, stunned me with its account of a scientific study addressing the question: "When it is their job, how much suffering will ordinary people be willing to inflict on an entirely innocent other person?" (p.211) The study involved groups of two participants, one in a Learner role and one in a Teacher role. The Teacher served as the researcher's assistant and administered progressively more painful electrical shocks when the Learner answered questions incorrectly. (The Learner volunteer was in fact an actor and there were no electrical shock involved, but the Teacher volunteer did not know that and did not realize his behavior was the true subject of the study.) It turns out that "the typical [Teacher participant] was willing to deliver as much pain as was available to give," although the Learner begged him to stop, convulsed in pain, screamed, and did everything he could to convince the Teacher to stop. So why didn't the Teacher agree? Because the researcher - his boss - told him to keep going. On p.215: "It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study."
  • Chapter 7, on Scarcity, describes a study about jurors' reaction to evidence being declared inadmissible at a trial (p.254). "Thirty [experimental] juries heard the case of a woman who was injured by a car driven by a careless male defendant." The jurors awarded the woman $37,000 when the driver said he had liability insurance and $30,000 when he said he had not, but what's truly fascinating is that "if the driver said he was insured and the judge ruled that evidence as inadmissible [...] the instruction to disregard had a boomerang effect, causing an average award of $46,000." Cialdini concludes: "We react to information restriction [in a courtroom] by valuing the banned information more than ever."

This is one of the best business books I have read in a while and I highly recommend it.


"Influence" by Robert Cialdini

I'm reading an outstanding book by Robert Cialdini. It's called "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion", in the Collins Business Essentials edition. I've only read the first hundred pages so far, but it's really good. Here are a few highlights (page numbers refer to the paperback edition):

  • In the Reciprocation chapter, p.25-26: regarding how Lyndon Johnson was able "to get so many of his programs through Congress during his early administration" - it turns out that a lot of legislators owed him political favors, from his years in the House and the Senate. Cialdini then contrasts this with Jimmy Carter's problems. "Much of his legislative difficulty upon arriving [in the White House] may be traced to the fact that no one there was indebted to him."
  • Still in the Reciprocation chapter, p.42-45: Cialdini illustrates the impact of the larger-then-smaller-request sequence (where people, feeling bad about refusing a large request, end up accepting a smaller request they might not have agreed to if it had been asked upfront) in the Watergate. You can read on p.43 a list of reasons why approving the idea of G. Gordon Liddy to break into the offices of the Democratic National Committee made no sense at all. So why did Watergate happen? ...Because Liddy had made two other proposals before that one to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, one for $1 million and one for $500,000, and its three members felt bad about saying no a third time. At $250,000, it seemed like a bargain compared to the other two. Even more fascinating details can be found on p.45.
  • In the Commitment and Consistency chapter, p.65-67: have you ever tried to buy a popular toy for your child before Christmas, found out it was sold out, bought a cheaper toy to have something on December 25, and returned to the store in January to buy the popular toy your child truly wanted (now back on the shelves after being backlogged)? If so, you're not going to like Cialdini's opinion. The backlog might not result from poor forecasting at all - you've bought two toys instead of one, and you're pumping up sales in January, a period with usually low revenues. For the store, the backlog is a good thing. In Cialdini's view, you're falling victim to the need for consistency. In other words, some stores count on the fact that you promised your child he would get the toy, so you will buy it, even after Christmas, just to keep your word.

I highly recommend this book. It was first published in 1984 but it was updated recently and provides fascinating insights into how people get others to do what they want. An eye-opener.


Book Choice 2008

This year, I was asked again to provide a book recommendation for Lehigh faculty and staff. I picked "The Rise of the Creative Class" by Richard Florida, about which I wrote a post not long ago. (Last year I chose the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, "American Prometheus".) You can read all of this year's recommendations here. When I dropped by the Lehigh bookstore earlier today, I even noticed a display with all the faculty and staff's selection, so if you are in the Bethlehem area, you won't even have to order any of these books - it doesn't get any easier than that! Regarding other people's suggestions, I'll definitely purchase "The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 days that inspired America" once I finish reading some of the books that I already have. 


A Nation of Wimps, Part 2

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 7, "From Scrutiny to Fragility", which explains how parents' scrutiny and unchecked anxiety can affect the children's development and turn them into little fragile creatures. This is not an overstatement - invasive parents systematically, albeit unconsciously, sabotage their children by fostering dependence. "Parsing Overparenting", starting on p.128, provides an excellent overview of parents' behavior. Another interesting point, somewhat later in the book (sorry, I don't have the page number), is that children of invasive parents think they are the only ones with problems. They view their college classmates as perfectly well-adjusted, and convince themselves their case is unique. That is something I have heard before, even when the parents are not invasive - college students struggle with the loss of their network of friends back home, don't remember how to make new acquaintances, and worry everybody else is having a good time in college, widely hyped as "the best four years of one's life". Marano makes an interesting point on p. 186 when she brings the cellphone in the picture - the little device helps to stay in contact with old friends (thus delaying new connections), and with Mom and Dad (always happy to provide their advice over the tiniest details). I also liked the link between over-medication and Mom's and Dad's need to convince themselves that Junior's struggle is not their fault; instead, it is a chemical imbalance they bear no responsibility for.

Marano's prose, on a few occasions, becomes a bit grandiloquent, for instance when she talks about the attack on democracy (no less) presented by the falling silence in the classrooms (p.245). This overshadows her very valid point, that public speaking represents taking a risk and that students have become so afraid to make a mistake that they won't dare raising their hand. I do believe that today's higher education is relying more and more on teamwork, projects and presentations, which forces students to gain that experience, even if they don't like it. It is common, for instance, to have students present their college capstone projects to an audience, and some programs, such as Lehigh's honors program in integrated business and engineering, even requires a semester-long course on public speaking. While a debating course would certainly be a most welcome addition, most students do very much want to get the best job they can, and work on improving their weak areas when they know it will matter for their job prospects. This sounds prosaic, but a tangible reward at the end has always been the best way to push people to act. (I never raised my hand in college. I was an A+ student and I always worried I might say something wrong. I also profoundly disliked public speaking. The first semester I taught after grad school, I always had a bottle of water with me so that I could have an excuse to stop for one second if I became too nervous. Now I don't need water bottles anymore, and I love teaching so much you can't shut me up. People will change when they have to.)

I found myself agreeing with Marano's statement on p.250, which suggests that graduates from second-tiered schools might have a better chance at becoming "problem-solving superstars" and taking "the risks that underlie cultural innovation" because they are less worried to fail. Of course, Lehigh doesn't view itself as a second-tiered school - we are a first-tier school, people, because we are on the first page of the US News rankings. End of story. (We're particular about those things.) There is more to the first tier than the Ivy League. But, indeed, we are neither Harvard nor Yale, and maybe it's a blessing in disguise. I can't help but be amazed at the level of creativity of our students, which you can read about here, here, and here.

This very good and timely book concludes with a short chapter describing the main principles behind healthy parenting, and is squarely aimed at parents rather than their adult children, possibly disappointing the other segment of the population most interested in the book – the offspring of said hyper-parents, the "wimps" of the title and the "teacup children" of the book jacket. (The cover picture is a kid covered in plastic yellow tape marked "caution".) Sadly, the book isn't exactly upbeat about their odds - see the quote about undermining democracy and economy above. This might be because the topic of how to help such children become productive adults would require a book in itself, which Ms Marano might write at some point, but I'll say upfront that I've turned out alright. (The book focuses mostly on the upper-middle class, which is very different from my own beginnings. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know my parents did not have an easy life when they were growing up, and everything that wasn't immediately related to my studying for the best grades was a self-indulgence.) I've had my challenges, I've dealt with ultra-perfectionism and massive stress and fear of public speaking and social phobia and so on, but I've also gotten into MIT, ended up loving public speaking so much giving lectures has become one of the favorite parts of my job, used my work ethics to write a blog, a book, and many papers, all this on one cup of coffee a day and almost no stress whatsoever. My life isn't perfect, but I like to think I've done pretty well for myself.


A Nation of Wimps, Part 1

A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, by Hara Estroff Marano, really should be subtitled Apocalypse Now. (From the book jacket, which might have been written by the marketing department rather than Marano herself, we learn that: "Hothouse parents raise teacup children - brittle and breakable instead of strong and resilient. This crisis threatens to destroy the fabric of our society, to undermine both our democracy and our economy.") The topic is close to my heart, and I was happy to find a book on the issue at long last. It certainly struck a chord with me (I could not read more than a few pages at a time without having all kinds of feelings bubbling up), so I suspect it was very good, although I will probably have to read it a second time before making a final judgment.

Before I start discussing the main points, let me mention the positioning of the book - it seems oriented toward the invasive parents mentioned in the title, but is more narrative-oriented than many of the psychology and self-help books out there, with their questionnaires and their chapter summaries and their quotes and their inserts with bullet points. While it is nice that the author doesn't feel the need to spice up her writing with visual gimmicks, instead sending the message that invasive parenting is a serious problem that won't be solved by a list of action items spoon-fed to the reader (which would have been extremely ironic, given the subject), I did feel the book introduction lacked a way for parents to identify themselves as at risk for that behavior. I understand the book is meant to introduce a broad public to this problem, but the people who would most benefit from reading about invasive parenting are those who are already practicing it, although their first instincts will be to deny they are doing anything wrong. It would have been good to force them out of their denial early on. The subtitle might have the unfortunate consequence of turning them away. "Invasive" has a negative enough connotation that few parents will be willing to identify themselves as such. I would have preferred a term like hyper-parenting, which is less catchy but suggests intense parental involvement (something parents will probably take pride in) that can sometimes go over the top.

So what is the book about? I am going to make a summary based on the notes I scribbled at the back of the book, so there will probably be a fair amount of paraphrase because I didn't always write down the page numbers. The book roughly follows the growing-up process of a child, from toddler to teenage to college student, although it departs from that structure at times and moves fluidly from idea to idea, which makes the read similar to a conversation. The main idea, which is stated very convincingly, is that some parents - especially in the middle and upper classes - now take pride in living vicariously through their children; they openly rely on their kids to meet their emotional needs, micro-manage them, take their meaning from them, and provide all the backstage support so that the children have no experience in the logistics of everyday life. This, for those parents, is seen as a good thing (logistics are supposed to be a waste of time, a distraction from excelling in class or in extracurricular activities). Raising independent people is no longer the goal, at least for over-controlling parents, especially mothers formerly in the workforce, who treat children as their project and view parenting as a job. Parents encourage intense competition with other kids (which obviously flies in the face of socialization), and do not view their children's mistakes as learning experiences but as failures to be absolutely avoided.

Marano even entitles one of her chapters "We're all Jewish mothers now", where the Jewish mother is the archetype of vicarious living through one's children, feeling intense guilt and anxiety over "sexual predators, stranger abductions, even germs lurking in shopping carts. [...] Overinvolved parents [...] infantilize their children, creating dependent children who are stuck developmentally and are psychologically fragile. Their children are unable to manage everyday affairs." (p.64) Hyper-parenting leads to high amounts of social anxiety, as the child or teenager has not developed the progressive ability of dealing with new but common situations, and may even feel incompetent when his parents, who say they just want to help, are not letting him do things he should be able to accomplish by himself. At the college level, Marano suggests pre-gaming and binge drinking are ways to address that anxiety. As an aside, I liked her insight that alcohol abuse is a way for students who don't find themselves particularly worthy of attention to create a narrative for themselves, find a story to tell by posting pictures of the latest night on the town on MySpace. It is not unusual that kids fall apart in college as a result of their parents' over-investment.

Of course, falling apart can be defined in different ways: a student locking herself in her dorm room and refusing to go out and face the real world, or someone who doesn't go to class and spends his time partying and engaging in dangerous behavior. Parents might consider both as falling apart, while the college student will say the second one is simply long-delayed gratification. Many students in France did little work once they had entered the engineering school of their choice, because few of them planned to continue on to graduate school - so their GPA did not matter - and they needed to recover from the very intense two or three years where they had prepared for the entrance examination. (I don't remember the years of exam preparation as particularly intense, probably because I was commuting from the suburbs, forty-five minutes each way, which I spent reading novels, so I did not feel that my life had been all math and physics for two years and that it was time to go back to the real world. Also, I've never found getting drunk particularly appealing.) While not everybody has followed the same career path, some have now very nice positions in all kinds of industries, a sign that their brain cells did not die from all the alcohol consumption. Or maybe they did but no one has noticed. (Just kidding.) It is normal to spend some time recovering after a marathon, or even a sprint - witness the runners lying on the ground after the finish line. I don't view education as a leisurely stroll in life; people have to work very hard sometimes to get what they want, and there is nothing wrong with that. But sprinters, after some rest, are able to perform race after race. Kids who were high school valedictorians and start failing Calculus I or getting Cs and Ds might not see themselves as falling apart, but something certainly doesn't add up. The sad thing is, what can you do at that point to help them? Social anxiety can be tackled with counseling. The need to take a long, long vacation after spending years on a tightly regimented schedule is not that easy to address.

More tomorrow!


Blink, Part 3

Here comes the last part of my review of Blink, Lehigh's selection for the First-Year Experience program this year. Before I begin, let me say that I appreciate Lehigh choosing a "shortish" book for the program. I recently read in the New York Times that Amherst College's selection was Franklin and Winston, a book on - you guessed it - the friendship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. I love the idea behind the selection of the book, and I even have it on my shelves (although I haven't found time to read it yet), but that book is 512 pages long. Can you imagine all Amherst-bound high school graduates reading over five hundred pages of a history book? I can't. I love history and the book has received great reviews, but I doubt most students will finish the book.

(Last year, when I led the seminar about the Dalai-Lama's autobiography at Lehigh, everybody had started the book, but quite a few couldn't bring themselves to finish it, and that was only 271 pages in my edition. Honestly, I don't blame them - the first hundred pages weren't particularly exciting, although the book gets a lot more interesting once the Dalai-Lama is in exile.) Their first assignment in college, and they don't even complete it - can you imagine the impact this has on some? Feeling like "fakes" even before school has started. Maybe it'd make more sense to let them pick from a list of three or four books on different topics - history, science, business, or fiction. Of course you'd lose some of the "bonding" effect touted on the First-Year Experience websites throughout the country because everybody in the first-year cohort wouldn't have been reading the same book, but well, the kids have been bonding on Facebook all summer long, I am sure they can handle their roommate's reading a different book without having a nervous breakdown.

Anyway, I stopped my review of Blink at the end of Chapter 4, so today's post will be on the last two chapters, Chapters 5 and 6, and the conclusion. Chapter 5, "Kenna's Dilemma", is about a musician who enthralls the crowds when people hear him sing, but is getting no play time on the radio because focus groups have decided his songs wouldn't sell. The issue, it seems, is that focus groups' answers don't really predict what consumers will buy. The leading example in this chapter is the abysmal failure of the "New Coke" in the 1980s, which was developed in response to focus groups' overwhelming preferences for Pepsi. (The example starts on p.155.) One reason why consumers did not respond favorably to Coke's formula changes is that the tests in focus groups were "sip tests" - Pepsi apparently tastes better when people only have to take one sip of it, but many consumers who enjoy sipping Pepsi prefer Coke when they have to drink the whole can. (At least that's what Malcolm Gladwell explains. I don't drink soda, so I can't judge.) The other reason for the result is that "in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind" (p.166) - people also unconsciously react to the package when they assess the taste of a product. Regarding package considerations, the example of the brandy bottles p.162-3 is also worth reading.

The last chapter was, for me, the most difficult to read, not because it uses complicated language (it doesn't), but because it tackles the Amadou Diallo case, and I have a hard time reading about police officers' egregious behavior, which always upsets me. For those of you who can't quite place the name, Amadou Diallo is the black man from the Bronx who was killed by 41 bullets on a February 1999 night when plainclothes police officers thought he was taking a gun out of his pocket. The "gun" turned out to be his wallet. Diallo was taking in some air outside his apartment building and Gladwell suggests he thought he was going to get mugged, since, in his neighborhood, big bulky white men rushing out of a SUV at night are typically up to no good. The four police officers were acquitted of murder charges. Gladwell's account of the events surrounding the shooting isn't exactly going to brighten the day of wide-eyed, idealistic high school grads. But maybe they will have dropped the book by then.

On p.222, Gladwell explains that, in contrast with what Hollywood would have us believe, "most police officers - well over 90 percent - go their whole career without ever firing at anyone, and those who do describe the experience as so unimaginably stressful that it seems reasonable to ask if firing a gun could be the kind of experience that could cause temporary autism." (Gladwell uses the expression of temporary autism to describe a situation where clues of someone's pacific intentions are misread and alternative explanations for gestures are ignored.) Apparently, if the heart rate goes about 145 beats per minute, "bad things begin to happen", in the words of a former army lieutenant (p.225), "and at 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing." (Gladwell points out that the most notorious beatings by police officers, such as the one that triggered the Los Angeles riots, took place after high-speed chases - a situation known to increase drivers' heart rate dramatically.) Long story short, having police officers patrol by themselves rather than with a partner is a good thing because it "reduce[s] bravado" (p.233-4). Officers, on their own, tend to be more cautious, so their heart rate doesn't increase as much; they make fewer mistakes and are involved in fewer questionable shootings. This is actually a valuable anger/stress management technique: to stay in control, slow things down when they heat up.

The book's conclusion contains a fascinating story about gender discrimination in orchestras (specifically, a musician named Abbie Conant and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra), and how the practice of auditioning candidates behind a screen has led to women being admitted to top orchestras, without the fuss and controversy associated with better known approaches such as quotas or affirmative action. From p.250: "In the past thirty years, since screens became commonplace, the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold." Food for thought after the July 15 article in the New York Times on introducing quotas for women in science.


Blink, Part 2

My favorite chapter in Blink (the book assigned for this year's First-Year Experience at Lehigh, and the focus of my post yesterday) is Chapter 4: "Paul van Riper's Big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity." In 2002, Paul van Riper, who at that point had retired from the military after a distinguished career, was asked by the Pentagon to play the rogue commander, i.e., the head of the bad guys (Red Team), in a war game called the Millennium Challenge. From p.106: "The point of Millennium Challenge was to show that, with the full benefit of high-powered satellites and sensors and super-computers, that fog [the fog of war] could be lifted."

Van Riper consulted with a number of people before the game began, and even interacted with Wall Street traders, who - as it turned out - did brilliantly in war game simulations: "The war games required them to make decisive, rapid-fire decisions under conditions of high pressure and with limited information, which is, of course, what they did all day at work." (p.108) The philosophy of the Blue Team (the Pentagon) was that, with enough information, databases, matrices (which the book spells matrixes, but we'll forgive the copy editor), complicated analyses in the middle of battle, grand-sounding military philosophies, one could figure out the intention of the opposite team. In other words, the most powerful team always wins - power here is not about army forces but computing abilities.

Embarrassingly for the Pentagon, "Paul van Riper did not behave as the computers predicted." (p.109). The Pentagon/Blue Team thought that, if it knocked Red Team's communication towers, the "bad guys" would have to use satellites and the Blue Team could intercept the messages. But van Riper simply used lighting systems, as in World War II, to help pilots and control towers communicate with each other. "Had Millennium Challenge been a real war instead of just an exercise, twenty thousand American servicemen and women would have been killed before their own army had even fired a shot" (p.110).

Another fascinating part of that chapter starts on p.125, and focuses on predicting who truly is having a heart attack among people being rushed to the ER. Someone came up with a very simple methodology, combining the electrocardiogram with three risk factors, listed p.134 (about unstable angina, fluid in the patient's lungs and systolic blood pressure). Doctors had a very hard time accepting that all their knowledge led them to make worse decisions than a simple rule devised by some data-crunching scientist - they wanted their many years of experience to count for something. The only group that funded the man's research was the Pentagon, which was motivated by a desire to know when submarines should give away their position and surface to rush sailors to the hospital. The only reason why the rule was finally adopted by a public hospital in Chicago was that the hospital was so crowded that someone had to try something - anything - to triage patients more effectively. From p.135: "[Goldman's rule] was a whopping 70 percent better than the old method at recognizing the patients who weren't actually having a heart attack. [...] Left to their own devices, the doctors guessed right on the most serious patients [the ones who were having a heart attack] somewhere between 75 and 89 percent of the time. The algorithm guessed right more than 95 percent of the time."

This goes against intuition - it seems that more information should be better. It turns out we need a decision rule to make sense of the data, before our mind gets a chance to become overwhelmed and select the wrong factors in the decision-making process. In the Millennium Challenge, the Blue Team thought it would win because it had more information at its disposal - in fact, from p.137, "that extra information is more than useless. It's harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account."

I'll end the post on that philosophical note and wrap up my review of Blink tomorrow.