Category: Life or something like it

Sample Size of One: Towards a Possible Solution

This post explores an alternative to fix the replication crisis (particularly in the behavioural science and economics fields, and if relevant, in other fields too). This post is in continuation to an earlier post titled Sample Size of One: The Rose Negotiations. It would help to read that one first before coming to this one.
 
What can we do to solve our human desire to create or find patterns and thumb rules to how we function? Or to find keys to getting humans to behave in a particular manner, be it to drive a more healthy culture, or improve finance sense among populations. Especially when few patterns exist. And when our desire might be overly simplifying a pattern which might be far broader than what we might want it to be.
 
Here is a broad suggestion towards what a possible solution looked like, at least in my head.
Consider a “hypothetical” scenario where a group of researchers wants to find the effects of an ‘opt-in/opt-out response’ for organ donation.
Up until now, behavioural economists or scientists would identify a large, diverse study group of volunteers, and conduct the experiment. Let’s suppose at the end of the study, they found that 70% of respondents opt for the organ donation program when the form requires them to physically opt-out of organ donation.
Now, a non-profit across the world tries this tactic on a local population, but perhaps has a less than encouraging (and far less than a 70% success rate) outcome. This leads to questioning the research findings, and the broader hue and cry around the reproducibility and replicability of such studies/ experiments.
 
For a moment, consider currencies. They are always fluctuating, and there is a definite exchange rate to convert between any two currencies at at a given point in time.
Or consider diverse marketplaces across the world. Any single product would be differently priced in these different marketplaces. And within a single market, the price variance might not be too much. But it might vary if you went to a market in the next village.
 
Coming back to trying to find an alternative to traditional experiments that try to find thumb rules to then apply to social or business causes.
 
The alternative I see, is where the economist or scientist creates a simple experiment or study around the hypothesis they would like to test. They would then put it on an online platform (and share it with their colleagues and counterparts across the world, who would then deploy it among local populations).
The experiment would be introduced via a website. Deployment could be done online with voluntary participants, or random people. The experiments would run in perpetuity (hence online), and results of the same would keep evolving over time and geographies.
 
The outcome for the same opt-in/ opt-out hypothesis with this alternate deployment might look something like this:
The experiment is designed to be unbiased, simple (easy to deploy without the original team of researchers being physically present), and yet robust enough to provide meaningful data.
The results of this experiment would not be captured as a single value (like 70% in the first hypothetical scenario), but rather as a function of (age/sex/location/study response/point in time).
As a result, what the outcome might look like, is diverse data points from across the world at diverse points in time.
It is possible that patterns will emerge in localized groups, or even at a nation-level for some experiments (since respondents or the general population might share a similar national history, current political and economic environment, and similar fears and concerns – whether it is about inflation, unemployment, or a multitude of other variables that were possibly getting ignored when a research study focused on finding a thumb rule.
With a global, perpetual study, for the same opt-in/ opt-out experiment, we might perhaps get results like an average of about 65% in Mumbai, India, but a 20% on the outskirts of Mangalore, India, and maybe even an 80% in Itanagar, India.
That way, researchers and anyone trying to use these research findings would be mindful that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all finding. But rather that perhaps (cautiously), one might expect to get a similar response to an organ donation campaign in a town in Country 1 and a city in Country 2, because their outcome values over a particular period of time have been similar.
 
And these values that emerge across individuals and locations are not fixed values. They are ever-evolving, to reflect the evolution of humans in a particular society, given the context of its changing sociopolitical and socioeconomic landscape, among other variables. So perhaps the same individuals too could participate in the same experiment multiple times over the years, with different results. In that sense, it would be similar to taking an IQ test or an MBTI test.
Which means, the same non-profit that is driving an organ donation exercise in a particular country in a particular year, would refer to the current result outcomes for different parts of that country, to determine what strategies they might have to employ (government intervention, financial incentives, etc.), towards driving a more successful change effort.
 
An obvious extension of this proposed solution will be in the next post.
 
#SampleSizeOfOne #BehaviouralScience #BehaviouralEconomics

The Behaviour Triangle

 

A humorous take on the paradox that exists between the views or tendencies of us common humans, versus that of therapists, who seem to take the more empathetic approach, versus some behavioural science practitioners who try to leverage behavioural knowledge to grow business without it necessarily being beneficial to customers themselves.

A related interesting read someone shared: Nudge Theory needs to take more external factors into account.

#Humour #BehaviouralScience #BehaviouralEconomics #Nudge #psychologist #Behaviour #Behavior

Sample Size of One: The Rose Negotiations

Image: source

The Replication Crisis is an ongoing crisis where it has been difficult or impossible to reproduce findings of scientific studies.

The field of behavioural science too, has had its challenges with replicating past research findings. Some years ago, peer-reviewed scientific journal, Nature Human Behaviour, attempted to replicate 21 social and behavioural science studies published in the top peer-reviewed journals, Nature and Science. It could replicate only 13. Other such studies conducted too, resulted in disappointing results.
 
Is it surprising if behavioural science and behavioural economics research findings are difficult to replicate? Till recent decades, many studies were undertaken by professors on captive university students; a long shot from representing world diversity. Findings from one country could throw up different results in another country based on many variables like the history of that nation, recent and current economic progress, poverty levels, trust levels, level of ethics in government, enforcement and business, among other factors. We see diversity even in our interactions with foreigners on social media.
 
And yet, we as humans, are always trying to find a simple common denominator. A thumb rule. A recipe or formula that we would like to think would apply to the world population.
 
Instead, what if we looked at behavioural science endeavours the other way around? Why struggle to have larger and more diverse sample sizes to represent world diversity and improve study accuracy? Instead, what if we started with a simpler sample size? One that we are more sure of, and that offers more accurate data points. What if we start with us as individuals? The observations, feelings, rationale or reactions of the individual (hence ‘Sample Size of One’)? And from there, cautiously see if and to what extent, it applies to other individuals or groups?
 
Whenever we experience a situation, we could try and assign values to various parameters. Then, similar situations created for others in other parts of that city, country or the world, would give us more data sets. We could then look for a single line passing through diverse cultures, or spot similarities in diverse groups. Similarities in similar groups from contrasting countries too? Or not.
 
What we will have, is readings across these situations or experiments across countries and cities. At present, if an experiment with a sample size of 10,000, finds 70% respondents behave a certain way in a scenario; we extrapolate it and believe 70% of world population might behave in a similar way.
 
Instead, what if we had that scenario, but had different data sets for different locations? That way we might find clearer patterns (there goes the human in me again) among groups in diverse cultures where a certain improvement intervention might respond similarly to another one which had similar outcomes from an experiment.

This thought occurred to me during a recent festival and an interaction with a flower woman in the market. Here’s the story.

Sample Size of One: The Rose Negotiation

My family is a bit religious. During Dussehra puja a few weeks ago, I was back at the market, buying flowers and fruit.

A woman in the market has a flower stall and sells bouquets. I always buy roses from her. On regular days, a rose costs INR 10. On festive days, she sells them for either INR 12 or 15.
I asked her how much for one.

“INR 15”, she smiled and replied, “but you can have them for INR 12. How many do you want?”

I asked for ten. Like always, I asked her to cut them to a particular length. I said I’ll pick up the other stuff on my list and come back for the roses.

Back at her stall 15 minutes later, she said the total was INR 150.

I said, “but didn’t you say you’d give them at INR 12 a piece?”

Now she seemed confused, like she had goofed up the prices.

In the past too, I have always paid her the full price, whether she offered a discount or not. After all, these vendors pay a premium to buy flowers during special occasions. And on that day too, I had intended to pay her the full INR 150 either way.

But there’s the funny thing.

When she first offered a discount and later forget about it, I felt a mild disappointment or something. And it is possible others might have felt the same way in that situation. It is odd, since I was ready to pay full price, right? A loss aversion of sorts.

Trying to quantify my feeling on a Disappointment-Delight scale [-10 to +10] (-10 being very disappointed, 10 being very delighted), I got:

  1. If I go to the stall on a regular day, and I am charged INR 10 for a rose: 0 (on the scale)
  2. When the woman first quoted the festival price of INR 15: -5
  3. When she said she’ll let me buy them at INR 12: 5
  4. When I made a mental note to still pay her INR 15 a piece: 9 (it is always priceless to expect and see smiles on the faces of those who work hard to make a living, when you pay them full price and not be the asshole who squeezes an extra buck out of them)
  5. Her later quoting the original rate of INR 15 a rose: -8
  6. Me then paying her the original rate of INR 15: 3

Despite my intended payment amount and her final quote being the same, my delight level dropped from a 9 (in pt. 4) to probably a 3 (pt. 6).

-End of story-
 

What do you think? Could experiments/ experiences like this one, experienced by a single person, be then gauged on a list of parameters for other people in the same city, country, and in other parts of the world? The objective not being to find a single global thumb rule or measure (like 70% or 8/10 on delight). But rather, to see how different groups of people fare on each such experiment/ experience. It need not be a labour-intensive effort. Data could be crowd-sourced.

Could this approach be a little less presumptive and a little more accurate than prevailing forms of research studies?

Read about a possible alternate solution that I propose, here: Sample Size of One: Towards a Possible Solution
 
#SampleSizeOfOne #BehaviouralScience #BehaviouralEconomics

Wonder Why so many Americans are wary of Vaccines

 
In the past, US Anti-vaxxer protests have not gone unnoticed by the world. And while it was surprising then, anyone who was curious enough to dig a bit deeper, also saw that the US had at least a few more vaccinations prescribed to newborns-through-18 than many other countries. So, at least to me, questioning the need for all the vaccines by some groups seemed understandable (though not justified, especially when one’s personal choice could put others’ health at risk too). But thanks to Covid-19, a good part of the world became keen to get vaccinated, so they could go back to a normal, pre-Covid kind of life.
 
Early on with the Covid-19 vaccines, it seemed a bit concerning that educated populations from developed countries, were trusting of the Covid vaccines. Especially considering that in the past, vaccines took years to develop, even for less rapidly mutating diseases. And yet, in a record time, a few pharma companies had created vaccines for a dangerous variant of the flu that the world had not seen before. And one that continued to mutate into concern-causing variants through the vaccination drives. So while a considerable population of the developed and developing world scrambled for vaccines, it was not surprising how part of the population in the US continued to resist getting vaccinated.
 
The media and propaganda played a big part no less. Readiness or resistance toward the vaccine getting influenced by one’s political stance or religious beliefs. It gave us a glimpse of what the combination of human bias, politics, religion and media, are capable of.
 
While most of us have lost at least a few friends or family to Covid, and seeing how the vaccines have been safe so far, it was surprising to see some people in the US stay put on their decision not to get vaccinated.
 
As per a BBC article from a few days ago, US President Joe Biden was insistent that employers ensure their staff gets vaccinated. And a number of US citizens across professions remained adamant about not taking the shot, even if it cost them their job. Many seemed to be from the healthcare sector.
 
I wondered if those from the healthcare sector, being closer to the problem and solution, knew something about the vaccines that the rest of us did not. Especially since the virus continues to kill about 1500 Americans daily.
 

A few months ago, I was reading the exceptional book, ‘The Signal and the Noise‘ by Nate Silver [get a copy of it, it is priceless!]. An incident detailed in the book from American history made me wonder if that could be one of the causes that sowed the seed of doubt about vaccines or strong government interventions among Americans, making them continue to resist it. Especially since the country is among the top in innovation, so we are talking about an intelligent people, not some isolated, small town population in an underdeveloped country, cut-off from world perspective.

In the 1970’s, there was a common belief at that a major flu epidemic struck roughly once in a decade, and by 1976, the world expected one to hit.

In January, 1976 at Fort Dix, David Lewis, a nineteen year old private who had returned from holiday, had the flu – a common occurrence at army bases, thanks to soldiers returning from holiday bringing back some variant of the flu from their hometowns, and into cramped up bases, where it would spread. However, it was almost always the common variants, causing no concern. However, private Lewis, while on a march, collapsed and was later declared dead. The cause was pneumonia.

Hundreds of soldiers suffered from the common A/Victoria flu that year. Blood samples sent to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed that some had the more disturbing H1N1, or swine flu; the one responsible for the 1918-20 Spanish flu. Around 200 soldiers at Fort Dix tested positive for swine flu, with private Lewis being the only casualty. While flu season had passed by then, scientists feared that by the next winter, there could be a severe outbreak of a more mutant strain of swine flu.

US President Gerald Ford’s secretary of health, F. David Mathews, estimated a potential death rate of a million. Fighting to repair his public image, President Ford thought that preparing his country for the epidemic would be the perfect way to do it. He rallied Congress to allow a USD 180 million plan to manufacture 200 million doses of vaccine, and ordered a mass vaccination program.

It was winter in the southern hemisphere, but to everyone’s surprise, there were no instances of H1N1. Criticism started to build. No other western country had called for such drastic measures.

Instead of admitting their mistake, the Ford administration went rogue. It created panic-causing public service announcements and telecast them at regular intervals. One TV message showed a healthy fifty-five year old mocking the vaccine, only to shown on his deathbed moments later.

The result was an American public that was fear-struck, by the disease and the vaccine. Under pressure from drug manufacturers, Congress indemnified them from legal liabilities that could arise from manufacturing defects. Vaccine production was rushed, without adequate testing. Compared to government estimates of 80%, polls found that only about 50% Americans intended to get vaccinated.

The vaccination program began in October. Three Pittsburgh citizens died shortly after receiving their shots. Similar news poured in from other cities, causing concern among those who had taken the shot.

By late fall, a bigger problem emerged. 500 of the 50 million vaccinated, began exhibiting symptoms of a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis. This occurrence among the vaccinated, was ten times its usual incidence in general population (one case per million). Manufacturing defects due to the rushed production seemed a possible cause. The vaccine program ended on December 16th.

Long story short, the outbreak at Fort Dix was an isolated one, with no other H1N1 cases across the country. The government faced USD 2.6 billion in pharma liability claims. Cities and towns saw upright citizens who had contracted Guillain-Barré. Within a couple of years, the number of Americans willing to take flu shots dwindled to about one million.

One cannot say for sure if a horrific experience like this is what might have left Americans so wary of Covid-19 related government assurances and the vaccinations themselves. But it did make me wonder.

 

 

Hyperboles and Statistics don’t Mix Well

Do you use hyperboles often?
I do. Mostly with close friends and family, but when necessary, with clients or my students. Helps convey the meaning or gravity of an idea or situation.

Like when Gordon Murray says something like,
“Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because you didn’t fucking cook it!”

However, when you’re in a responsible position and you’re talking statistics about an important matter, hyperboles (obviously!) do more damage than good.

What’s your favourite or funniest hyperbole you’ve used?

Mine are usually said in the moment, so I don’t really remember them later.
But one I’ve used a few times with clients who create assumptions on a business model and then go on to create multiple layers of assumptions atop those assumptions, I’ve said something like, ‘now, it’s like you’re trying to pick curtains for the windows of your castle in the sky.’

Better Use of Time

Image: source

We humans have always dealt awkwardly with time. Some look for new ways to kill it. Others, better ways to fill it.
And the lockdown has really done a number on how we treat time; most likely amplifying our pre-Covid perception of time. So we have either gotten better at killing time (longer binge watching sessions), or a bit more efficient in some ways, to include the added house work (especially in places like India, where a lot of us were accustomed to having house help do a ton of the housework, but suddenly found ourselves needing to do it through the lockdown).

While I toggle between filling and killing time, I have struggled with trying to better manage it. And while I’ve always been aware of how short life is, the number of deaths in the last year have really highlighted the brevity of it.
Here are 4 habits I’ve been toying with in the hope of managing time better; with varying degrees of success:

  • Instagram on Weekends only: Sometime during the lockdown last year, I saw the crazy amounts of time I was spending daily on Instagram and wondered, “WTF?!” While I would see a good meme or funny pic or a picture that helped me connect two random thoughts together, it still felt like a criminal waste of time. So, I got into the habit of installing the app only on weekends, and uninstalling it on Sunday night. No Instagram during the week! At first, you might feel a restlessness and urge to flip through the app. But that restlessness is not about how important Instagram is to your life. It’s more like life asking you why the hell you’re wasting it on seeing mugshots of people, cars and pets, or funny videos, and not on something more worth your while. Now, I don’t miss Instagram at all, and even forget to install it on some weekends. And either way, Sunday night, it has to go. In case some of you wondered why I take forever to reply to Instagram messages; sorry. 😛
  • No Social media apps: Apart from maybe a WhatsApp, and any work related apps (like Slack, etc.) get rid of any social media type apps from your phone. Nothing to do with weekends, just get rid of them forever. Check them on the laptop if you must. No app, no temptation to keep checking them.
  • Don’t Multitask: You’ve probably heard both sides of this. Multitasking is great. Multitasking doesn’t work. Sometime when I started working in the venture capital sector, I finally realized how scattered my attention is. And given the multitude of work tasks, the only solution for me was to run quickly through different tasks. And to multitask. Sure, it helped to an extent. But in the years since, I have also tried ‘not multitasking’. Over time, my verdict is, ‘don’t multitask’. It does not work, because you are half-assing everything, and no one can ever work on or create something they are proud of, with a multitasking mindset. Instead, set limits of 60-90 minutes to dedicate to each task. Do nothing else at that time. Ideally, not even listen to music. And see the difference. The upside to this is also that you’d hopefully become picky (in a good way) about the type of work you choose to do, since it’s easier to focus on work you love, than just random work. Of course, it is easier said than done, and I struggle with it too, but the few times I can, the results justify the effort.
  • Single Topic Browser Tab: Here’s something that works well if you can stick with it. It is to do with browser tabs. Till recently, I prided myself in the diverse things going on in those 40-50 odd tabs that would be open in my web browser. But I’ve come to realize that it is the equivalent of multi-tasking. So what I do now, is starting with one tab, I limit the tabs to only those relevant to the task at hand at the moment. So for instance, if I was checking LinkedIn, only the LinkedIn page would be open – log in, check, reply to messages/comments, logout. Then if I were to research on some topic, if more than one tab is open, it would all be related to the topic and nothing else. Once I’m done, close all those tabs and move to the next. If checking Facebook is next, same deal – log in, check, logout.

Let me know what habits have been helping you better manage your time.

CoHid

Two days ago, I was reminded of a Medium post I had read in the early days of the pandemic. One of the interesting things about it, was that the author attempted to understand and explain how the Covid-19 virus might be acting; and therefore, what might be working as a line of treatment, and what might not. Whether the details were right or wrong, there was a sincerity in the author’s approach and intention in trying to explain the virus in more detail than most governments, world bodies and news platforms have in all the months since.

You would agree that since early last year, most of us across countries have been subjected to copious amounts of fake or unverified news – be it from country leaders, news outlets, world bodies or the garbage dump that is social media. And some of them have caused plenty of death and damage – from people trying to drink sanitizers to procuring or injecting medicines without it being prescribed to them; or worse, an overwhelmed medical fraternity trying to cope while perhaps governments and world bodies were not being as transparent about what they knew.

What is really surprising (more like concerning), was that in the days after I read this particular article, when I tried to look for it to share with someone, I could not find it. The post was not there, and the particular account on Medium had been suspended. A bit premature, considering nobody had the faintest clue about the virus anyway?

On the upside, two days ago, I realized I had saved a copy of it on an app. Using the post and author details, I even found a ‘True or Fake’ post about it that broadly rubbished it. And I found another article written a few days after the post was published that debunks it too. However, the fact that it was posted on April 05, 2020, and was taken off in 12 hours of being posted, seemed odd, since it was not exactly suggesting witchcraft.

Here are a few highlights from the post itself, that I believe could have been useful in the world’s attempt at dealing with the virus, and could have saved many lives since last year. Now I am not from the biology field, so pardon my attempt to explain this. You’ll also find the full Medium article in the link below.

Here’s what I understood from the Medium article:

Source: https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/how-your-lungs-work/oxygen-and-blood
  1. How oxygen and blood works -oxygen enters the lungs, which has millions of alveoli (air sacs) which are surrounded by blood capillaries. The hemoglobin (iron-containing oxygen-transport metalloprotein in the red blood cells) in blood helps with the exchange – it absorbs the oxygen from the alveoli and carries it in the blood, circulating it across the body. The blood also collects Carbon Dioxide from the body and transfers it via the same process back into the lungs that exhale it.
  2. According to the author, the Covid-19 virus enters the lungs and binds with the heme groups (a metal complex, with iron as its central metal atom that binds and releases molecular oxygen) in hemoglobin, making it unable to absorb oxygen from the lungs and supply it to the various organs. This in turn, leads to multi-organ failure as the organs are deprived of oxygen.
  3. One of the key points of the 8-ish minute read, was that a large problem with Covid, is not that the lungs are incapable of pumping, But rather, that the oxygen going into the lungs is unable to be carried to the organs. 
  4. The picture I got from the description, was that the virus that damaged the hemp groups, created a sort of layer on the alveoli/blood vessel interface.
  5. As the hemoglobin is permanently damaged, the kidneys release Erythropoietin, a hormone that instructs the bone marrow to create new red blood cells with functioning hemoglobin (elevated hemoglobin apparently being one of the indicators of the storm to come).
  6. It got into some more details around how the free iron from the infected hemoglobin is floating around the body, becoming increasingly difficult for the liver to deal with. The liver then secretes the aminotransferase (ALT) enzyme, another important sign to watch for as the patient’s condition grows critical.
  7. He then proceeds to say that the only solution left, is not a ventilator, but maxing out on oxygen given to the patient, even suggesting a hyperbaric chamber if one is available. A hyperbaric chamber is a pressurized chamber where air pressure is two to three times higher than normal air pressure. Used to treat conditions like decompression sickness, gas embolism, carbon monoxide poisoning, etc., the chamber helps the lungs can gather much more oxygen than would be possible breathing even pure oxygen at normal air pressure.
  8. He highlights the importance of Hydroxychloroquine – In Malaria, the parasite targets hemoglobin as a food source, and hydroxychloroquine (or chloroquine) are used to treat the condition. Since hemoglobin is affected in Covid-19 too, the author believes chloroquine would similarly help guard the hemoglobin from being affected by the virus.

This article is important and it being taken down last year is concerning for 3 reasons:

  1. Even though there is some debate around exactly what happens to the lungs with Covid-19, this author’s theory is comparatively similar to the ongoing one about how the cytokine storm caused by the virus and the treatment (steroids) can cause multi-organ failure.
  2. It states that ventilators don’t help at all. Since it isn’t about the lungs not being able to pump (for which you’d need a ventilator), but rather the body not receiving oxygen. Yet countries like India scrambled to manufacture tens of thousands of them when perhaps they should have been looking for something that actually addresses the problem.
  3. It clearly highlights the need for oxygen, which is not a solution in itself, but seems like the last straw that patients need while the main treatment takes effect. Yet countries like India were caught grossly short of medical oxygen during the second wave.

Simply put, the medical community is overwhelmed with just saving lives. So it was up to world bodies, research labs, world governments and their medical advisors and others, to get information, study it, trawl the web looking for potentials and possibilities in the flimsiest of notions, and helping find solutions.

And yet, where we as a world were suggested the most absurd of solutions, from banging utensils, to lighting lamps and chanting absurdities like ‘Go Corona Go’, to having a bright or UV light inside the body to kill the virus, or injecting the body with disinfectants; I think it was criminal on the part of Medium and whoever else involved, to have taken down that post on 5th April, 2020, even though it has gaping holes in the theory or solutions.

Here’s the link to download the article: Covid-19 had us all fooled – Mycahya Eggleston
(I’m sorry there are lines missing on the top and bottom of each page, was quite a challenge to convert it to PDF)

Here are two videos you should check out:

  1. Managing COVID 19 Through Timelines I Dr. Mathew Varghese – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffqYYWY06rs
  2. Top scientists shaken by revelations that Covid isn’t natural but a lab-made virus that ‘escaped’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlO8sKRynBY

Don’t Worry, Nothing’ll Happen

What was missing before and during the 2007-08 global financial meltdown, and during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Or during the Spanish Flu? Or in Nazi Germany? Something that perhaps could have prevented the resulting tragedies?

 

In 2002, somewhere on the outskirts of Mangalore, I was part of the way through third-year engineering. One day, we had classes in an adjoining campus building, one we thought was exclusively for junior college which was also on campus.

After class on the first floor, a few of us close buddies were talking about random topic by a large open window. It was the first time we were in that building which seemed empty on that day. One of my buddies, this giant we call ‘Bear’, was suspiciously quiet through the conversation between the rest of us. Known for the occasional prank, it was almost as though he was concocting something sinister while the rest of us spoke. Then, and without warning, he picked me up, and held me outside the large window. It was a sunny afternoon, and I could feel myself slowly slipping out of the Bear’s hands. As I said, ‘WTF’ and asked him to pull me back in, he very calmly goes, ‘nothing’ll happen, man’. Horrified, my head was doing a ‘time-to-eventuality’ countdown, as I struggled without much success to get a grip on his arm. Finally, after the prank probably got boring, he got me back in. And while I was still breathing a sigh of relief, he seemed really calm, almost like he was confident of his estimates on the safety margin he had for that prank. And yet, I knew that I had little grip, and that I was mere seconds away from slipping to the tipping point from where there was nothing Bear could have done to stop the fall.

(Mis)calculations, and (over)confidence is a cocktail we humans seem addicted to. And sometimes we get the proportions right, and sometimes, terribly wrong. And the worst times are where we are overly confident of the proportions despite glaring evidence to the contrary.

This excerpt from the book ‘The Signal and the Noise’ by Nate Silver mentions one such instance. The global financial meltdown of 2007-08, triggered by the collapse of suspicious mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO). [Excerpt at the bottom of the post]

As per this excerpt, apart from overlooking the obvious risks of these precariously balanced investment instruments, even as late as 2005, S&P conducted a simulation to assess housing prices. It found a potential 20% drop over the next 2 years. But S&P perhaps was content in knowing that their simulation successfully captured the risk. And that was it.

Cut to more recent times. There are far lower chances of a developed or developing nation getting into a full-scale war, than there is of a virus outbreak.

And yet, most countries across the world, many of whom probably have dozens upon dozens of battle possibilities and multiple theatre scenarios, most were caught with their pants around their ankles when Covid-19 hit. From delaying shutting down international borders, to shutting state-borders and trying to contain the spread.

Covid-19 was of course, a virus more dangerous than most the world has seen in recent times. But yet, the countries that did manage to contain it in the months that followed, were not the most confident or the ones most capable or equipped in containing it. It was almost in all cases, those countries whose leaders accepted (either publicly or in private), that they were dealing with something beyond their abilities and experience; so they followed a more basic, first principles approach to tackle the challenge. And emerged largely successful.

As is common knowledge now, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld). The quicker we accept the situation when something is outside the realm of our understanding, and resist the urge to apply our standard actions and reactions to it, the faster we can begin to deal with it.

The problem is, these instances keep repeating and will continue to repeat. In our personal lives, and also in more far-reaching world events. We are wired in such a manner, that each time a crisis is approaching or presents itself, we tend to react in the same manner. By wasting time in applying what we know, without attempting to first understand.

 

Answer: Humility

 

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the face of humble leadership the world yearns for.

 

The Next Educational Diversion from our normal human behaviour

In my book, I briefly discussed the topic of quality in the world of innovation and automation.

My view was that through the quality revolution in the US and Japan and then other parts of the world, logically back then, someone visualizing the year 2021 might have assumed a world where everyone has quality integrated into their lives. From punctuality to cleanliness, to meeting deadlines and creating high quality products efficiently, and designing efficient processes and having employees adhere to them.

However, general human behaviour and smartphones really did a number on that possibility. Now, a lot of us tend to waste a lot of time mindlessly going down rabbit holes on the web. And how many of us are punctual? We also buy things we don’t need, and spend money we don’t have yet. And our general sense of quality isn’t much to aspire to.

So, what was the upside of the quality revolution, you might ask?
I think it was more of an educational diversion from our normal human behaviour so that we could then get our machines to be efficient instead of us.

And right now, I see something similar happening on the tech development front.

I recently got familiar with the project management software Jira. And user stories. And all I can think is, it isn’t going to be long before AI will handle a good part of all tech development. And we humans would simply have to communicate our tech requirements in a very simple manner to a system that will build it for us.

Tony Stark: Paint it.
Jarvis : Commencing automated assembly. Estimated completion time is five hours.

Imagine something similar with the next website or app you want to build in the coming years.

Between Gender Pronouns and Spelling People’s Names

I had been seeing a lot of social media profiles with a ‘He/Him’ or ‘She/Her’ mentioned alongside the name, but didn’t completely understand the purpose. A close friend recently explained them as gender pronouns. Given in particular the LGBTQ+ community, the world needs to become increasingly sensitive to the different gender pronouns. Affixing it to one’s name could be considered a global effort towards creating more awareness about the diversities and subtleties of gender.

To make it a bit clearer, in the past, the powers that were, often kept pronoun references intentionally (and forcefully) simple (he/him and she/her), irrespective of how an individual identified themselves. However, with greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community across the world, we need to move toward a world that recognizes and appropriately addresses different individuals, so as not to be impolite. Currently, for those who don’t identify as male or female, use ‘They/Them/Their’ pronouns. Perhaps with time there might be more unique ways to identify each type in the LGBTQ+ community. The current habit of individuals mentioning their individual set of pronouns online is an effort to help sensitize the world community to pay more attention to gender differences. I have a lot to learn about this myself, but thought I’d share the little I know. And a question at the end.

In recent times, the world has become increasingly careless about people’s names – from not capitalizing the first letter, to getting the spelling wrong, or worse still, not realizing after having spelt it incorrectly (to be able to apologize and correct the mistake). Relatives sometimes misspell my name. And if you remove the last ‘n’, it is a girl’s name here in India.
Two amusing personal incidents came to mind around this.

I was once moderating a panel discussion around design thinking at a conference, and the organizers had managed to misspell my name on the placard and not realize it. I’m not affected by my name being misspelt, so I simply turned the placard away from the audience, lest they think that was my name.

The second was even funnier. One morning, I get a feedback request call (can’t remember for what service), the conversation goes something like this:

Woman: good morning, ma’am, I’m calling from XYZ business. This is a feedback call. Is it Ms. Shruti?
Me: [wondering wtf] Hi. I think you mean Mr. Shrutin. That’s me speaking.
Woman: [very confused] Sorry sir, is Ms. Shruti there?
Me: I think you have the name wrong. It is Shrutin, and I am the one you are asking about.
Woman: [even more confused] But it says Ms. Shruti?
Me: Ma’am, do I sound like a woman to you?
Woman: No sir!!
Me: Then try and understand this, the name is Shrutin, your rep might have misspelt it as ‘Shruti’, and someone entering it into your system therefore might have conveniently added a Ms., and you are looking at it and asking for a Ms. Shruti.
Woman: [sounding relieved] Oh sorry. Got it sir. I’ll make the necessary change. So sorry again.

Which brings me to my question:

In a world that, in part thanks to social media and also our own aimless hurriedness that causes us to pay less attention to people’s names (even if they are customers or guest speakers); how easy (or not) might it be for us to start recognizing gender based pronouns and addressing people accordingly?

– Shrutin Shetty [He/Him]

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