Monthly Archives: March 2007

Something about the patient

I amy be preconditioned, since I just read Blink, but notice what Reynolds says here about a patient he took to the hospital because he "there was something about him that set alarm bells ringing".

That’s experience speaking.

I think experience like that takes at least 5 years to develop, to the point where you get a "feel" for how a number of complex variables interact without knowing it. I have some of that feeling myself: I spend a lot of time walking into companies to do presentations or interviews for research projects, and end up getting a "feel" for what the issues are in the company almost as I walk in the door. Other people within consulting and research – that is, problem solving activities – that I know have described the same experience. Of course, you have to do a lot of documentation and testing and so on, just as Reynolds runs the ECG. But very often, the first feeling you get when you arrive somewhere ends up being your conclusions and recommendations also.

Of course, I may delude myself, and engage in on-the-fly evidence distortion and theory confirmation rather than theory falsification. But I wonder… 


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink. London, Penguin.

Sometimes you make the right decision in two seconds, because intuition tells you so. This book is about those two seconds.

Snap judgments work because we use our unconscious to look for small cues that we don’t know that we know. If we try to rationalize the process and explain why we reaced a decision, it will bear little relationship to reality: They are different decision-making processes.

Many interesting examples: Art experts instantly spotting fakes, analytically oriented strategies losing to quick improvisation in war games, police making fatal mistakes (such as the Amadou shooting), experts being able to tell when someone is lying by looking for millisecond facial expressions. The skill of snap judgements can be trained (and many police forces do.)

This is a light read, but well researched. I picked it up before a long plane ride, and did not regret it. (Looked at it in 2005, but I had overdosed on these kinds of books after reading The Wisdom of Crowds, which isn’t nearly as good.)


Military intelligence

Keegan: Intelligence in warKeegan, J. (2003). Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. London, UK, Pimlico.

Case stories of intelligence (from the Battle of Abukir, Shenandoah Valley, German-English sea battles in WWI, Crete, Midway, the U-boat war, and the hunt for the V-1 and V-2) and its strategic importance in warfare.

Main point (p.23):
"It is the intrinsic difficulty of communication, even, indeed above all, for the agent with ‘access’,  which limits his – or occasionally her – usefulness in real time. By contrast, the enemy’s own encrypted communications, if they can quickly be broken, will, of their nature, provide intelligence of high quality in real time.
The history of ‘how, what, where, when’ in military intelligence is therefore largely one of signal intelligence. Not exclusively, human intelligence has played its part and so, latterly, has photographic and surveillance intelligence. In principle, however, it is the unsuspected overhearings of the enemy’s own signals which have revealed his intentions and capabilities to his opponent and so allowed counter-measures to be taken in time."

On keeping the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt a secret: "Gossip helped to refine the picture. Some of the academics who were to accompany the expedition began to boast, a notorious failing of clever men leading unimportant lives."

From the conclusion (p398):
"[…] it strikes this author that the organization of intelligence-gathering and subversion within the same body is undesirable. Subversion is a weak way of fighting, differing from conventional warfare by the total unpredictability of its results; moreover, in a democracy, it is always liable to disavowal by legitimate authority and denunciation by authority’s political opponents. Intelligence-garhering, by contrast, can yield conflict-winning outcomes and , if securely and soberly conducted, is an activity only those of ill-will can condemn.
      Yet, in the last resort, intelligence warfare is a weak form of attack on the enemy, also. Knowledge, the conventional wisdom has, is power; but knowledge cannot destroy or deflect or damage or even defy an offensive initiative by an enemy unless the possession of knowledge is also allied to objective force."

The Wealth and Powerty of India

Gurcharan Das. (2002). India Unbound: From Independence to the Global Information Age. New Dehli, Penguin Books.

India Unbound is fascinating – a combination of autobiography and an essay series, where Gurcharan Das reflects on the various stages in his life and how what he learned changed his views on India, its politics and economic development. Das is a commentator and an essayist, and the book is colored by this: It repeat itself and belabors the same point from many angles. For a novice of Indian it is useful, best read with access to a computer so you can look up words and places like "haveli" and "octroi" as you go along. Das’ language is fluent and content-packed, with an elegance reminiscent of Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (whom, incidentally, he criticises, rightly, for an overly simplistic explanation of India’s lack of progress).

Highly recommended. This essay borrows much from the book. Check out his columns here.

Some quotes:

On India after independence: There were two competing visions. Mahatma Gandhi had a vision of self-reliant villages, with a reinvigorated agriculture and craft production. He opposed modern urban industry because it dehumanized man. Jawaharlal Nehru had a modern scientific mind, and he was much impressed by the economic gains of the Soviet revolution; but he was also committed to democracy. He had a vision of democratic socialism with the state leading the process of industrialization. He spurned capitalism because it exploited and it created inequalities. Both Gandhi’s and Nehru’s ideas were flawed, however, and we have spent a long time chasing after them. Gandhi distrusted technology but not businessmen. Nehru distrusted businessmen but not technology. Instead of sorting out the contradictions, we mixed the two up. We have to deal with holy cows: smal companies are better than big ones (Gandhi); public enterprises are better than private ones (Nehru); local companies are better than foreign ones (both). They so mesmerized us that the succeeding generation, whose job was to jettison these foolish ideas, failed to do so and did us incalculable harm. (p.11) 

When ordinary human beings err, it is sad, but when leaders do, it haunts us for generations. (p. 51) 

If America is a melting pot, India is a mosaic. (p. 72)

The economists, it seems, turned out to be hopelessly optimistic about the ability of poor countries to transform their economies through investment in import-substituting manufactures and overly pessimistic about their ability to export. (p.75)

The more rules there are, the less people will do on their own, and the more effort they will spend in getting around the rules. […] The ordinary person will generally do the right thing, left to his or her own devices. The important thing is that people believe that only results will win them rewards.

In Hindu society the Brahmin (priest, teacher) is at the top of the four-caste hierarchy, followed by the Kshatriya (variously landholder, warrior, ruler). The Vaishya or bania (businessman) comes third, and the Shudra (laborer, artisan) is last. Below the four are casteless "untouchables" and tribals. The three upper castes constitute roughly 15 percent of India’s population, and have ruled th ecountry for three thousand years. About half of India is laboring or Shudra caste, divided in turn into hundreds of subcastes. [occupational or geographic]. More than 20 percent of the population are the casteless or "untouchables" and tribals for whose uplift Mahatman Gandhi worked all his life. The remaining 15% of India belongs to other religions: 11 percent Muslim; the rest Sikh, Christian, Parsee, etc. (p.140)

Modern India’s tragedy is not that we adopted the wrong economic model in the 1950s, but that we did not reverse direction after 1965. 

Businessmen are fine producers of goods and jobs, but they are cowards and do not speak out. 

The talented immigrant’s new choices

This is the kind of commentary that makes me remember why I continue to subscribe to the Economist. Especially since I am writing this from a campus in India.

I miss the US when in Norway, and Norway when in the US. The same, I suppose, is true for every other person with international experience. The Namesake seems to capture it perfectly. On my list of must-sees.

Update April 6: Elder daughter Julie read The Namesake six months ago. She had her formative years in the US, and saw the book as a pretty good description of herself. I’ll leave it to her to eloquently enunciate the details.