Monday, August 28, 2006

Absurd Decisions

Looking a gift book in its binding is, no doubt, an impolite act. Yet am I so pig-ignorant that that was my first response when friend Kenji very kindly sent me a copy of his latest book. As you can see it is all in kanje and kana. As I mentioned earlier, Japanese is one of the languages I can be misunderstood in. That is a silly way of saying I don't it speak well. At all. But my speech is fluent -- not to say mellifluent -- compared to my undeftness at reading the characters. I did, after much searching, Identify the glyph for Yama or 'mountain' which forms part of Kenji's surname. It is in the line closest to the devil at about the height of his belly button. It is three upright stokes joined by a horizontal stroke at the bottom, rather like a letter 'E' on its back. That made me pretty sure that Kenji had something to do with making the book because the yama was in the right place for the translator's name. On the reverse of the title page are the only words that appear in Roman characters, and very informative they are, to. They announce that "Les Decisions Absurdes by Christian Morel" is copyright 2002 by Editiones Gaulliard and is published in Japan by permission. Okay. That checks out.
Les Decisions AbsurdesBut ... What's it about?

The picture on the front is suggestive ... Of all the wrong things, no doubt. Is the Devil hectoring that poor maid because she loved her man and he done her wrong? i.e. the usual sex and violence artistic types are always shoving in our faces while claiming it's cultural uplift? That sorta fits with the title.
Alas! Inside there are diagrams. One looks like two boats with their courses plotted as they collide and lots of explanatory remarks
Not so much of the sex. Just the violence.
So I turn to a more academic pursuit. Look at the marvelous economy of design in the making of this paperback book. The front cover consists of the title, author, translator and attention grabber image. Standard paper back layout. Then there is the bottom section which appears to be marketing. A teaser, perhaps, or a handful of rationalizations for purchasing the book.
Now it gets interesting.
Les Decisions AbsurdesThe marketing is on a band that is tucked around the cover. That makes it easy for the publisher to change the copy if needed. It also allows the purchaser to remove it to have an uncluttered cover. What I particularly relish is that the cover art does not extend beneath the band. Why waste the ink?

Now it gets elegant.
All that glossy cover is a dust jacket. Slip it off to reveal a very sober, not to say plain, cover.
Les Decisions AbsurdesWell this was good for an afternoon's fun, but I was still stuck with the need to embarrass myself to death by asking what it was all about. So I Googled.

Turns out Christian Morel is a PhD in Poli Sci who directs Renault's Commercial Vehicles Division HR. He researches negotiation and decision making in a sociological context. "Les Decisions Absurdes" is one result of that research.
Suppose you rejoice in the bosom of your family group when a suggestion is made: "let's go to X" X happens to be an unpleasant journey away, but, no matter, it is a place that some members enjoyed in the past. So, having discussed the plan, off you go, across a dessert in a car without air conditioning to X. Well, conversation gets to this point:
"Hope you enjoy this."
"Why? Don't you?"
"Not really"
But you said ..."
"I only said because you said"
"But I just went along with everybody else. I didn't want to come here today."
An absurd decision. But one which the group agreed to after discussion.

It could be worse: Two oil tankers on a passing course. One decides there is no need for action and continues. The other decides to divert but goes the "correct" way (which is irrational in this case) causing a collision.

Absurd decisions are those made through errors of reasoning, group think, or loss of direction.
Everybody at NASA knew that the joint seals would degrade in freezing temperatures. Everybody at NASA knew their part of Florida rarely if ever froze. So when it did freeze nobody thought to take the responsibility to check the seals before launch. The result was the Challenger disaster.
A jetliner was on final approach into Portland in 1978 when the Captain became suspicious of the landing gear. They made several tests and circled the tower for some time. They were still trying to get the gear down when they run out of fuel and crashed. Nobody took responsibility to monitor the fuel level. There was lots at the start of the landing.

Or here is Kenji's favorite head shaker. A Swiss pilot was landing in New York after crossing the Atlantic. I imagine the radio conversation as something like the following:
"GCA, this is Swiss pilot requesting landing instructions." Spoken in a hyper professional calm voice.
"Swiss pilot please wait."
"Roger, GCA."
Time passes.
"GCA, This is Swiss Pilot. Our fuel is low." Spoken in a very cool, hyper professional calm voice.
"We hear you Swiss pilot. Maintain."
Time passes.
"GCA This is Swiss pilot. Our fuel is exhausted.' Spoken in a superbly cool, way hyper professional calm voice.
"Roger, Swiss pilot. Maintain."
Time passes.
"Swiss pilot? Swiss pilot? Where are you? You are off our scope. Swiss pilot?"

The pilot was so professionally laconic that the tower failed to understand what he told them.
This analysis of how absurdities creep into decisions is fascinating to a story teller like me. Lots of potential scenes to show character and move plot. But it is essential for any manager who wishes to avoid such absurdity in his bailiwick.
Christian Morel published his book in France in 2002. Kenji translated it into Japanese in 2005. But there is no notice of an English translation that I could find. Distressing.
Here's what I did find:
The French Publishers Agency
Le Journal du Management (in French)
But the most extensive is a talk Christian Morel gave to L'Ecole de Paris
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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fear or Spheres

We live near a large river which has been known to flood. Although the river takes a great meander about a mile away, a slough cuts the oxbow at the end of our road. A farmer's field separates us from the downstream part of the slough that is designed to catch the overflow. A lot survey determined that though part of our lot is in the hundred year flood plain, every bit of the house, at ground level, is just above it in the five-hundred year flood plain.
So picture an oxbow with the water swirling past through sturdy dikes and between that and our house a drainage slough which opens into a large field downstream. During the last serious flood the authorities required the people downstream of us to evacuate but only recommended evacuation for us. So we told the deputy that visited us that we would stay based on what we considered to be a rational risk assessment. The Deputy marked our window with a glyph that noted that fact and went on.
Later that evening, as the rain continued, we were knitting and reading when there was a loud thump on the door. It was our neighbor to ask if we were leaving, as they were. D and I both agreed that that thump had shot adrenalin through our system almost to the point of complete panic.
The flood passed within the dikes of the river with no more overflow than the slough could contain. With perfect prevision no one needed to evacuate. In the case it was prudent for those required to go to leave. It was also reasonable to permit us to go or stay as we choose.

Still it was astonishing that one thump could breed such panic.

There is an excellent diary at Daily Kos which continues this meditation in the context of aviation security:

Daily Kos: Don't Mention the Elephant in the Hand Luggage
Terrorism is not a legitimate threat to Westerners. There are almost no terrorists in the world who want to kill us, statistically speaking. We know this because any dispassionate examination of the state of Western society should be telling us that if there were large numbers of terrorists who wanted to kill us, we'd be under constant, unrelenting attack. And we aren't, so there isn't.

-- ml

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Nobody Likes Science.

He's Weird.

From DarkSyde at Daily Kos
While the demotion of distant Pluto has attracted considerable press, the news that Dark Matter Exists was virtually invisible. Sean Carroll discusses it on NPR's Science Friday.

Of course what we call a frozen rock is much more important than the discovery that there is a quarter of the universe we have only one clue about: it is.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Friday Goldpigs

The new crop flourishes.
-- ml

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Matt Does His Best

Matthew Yglesias | TPMCafe
Alan Brinkley's review of a new book on Lyndon Johnson touches, of course, on the ever-present "two Johnsons" theme -- "At his best, Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest of all American presidents . . . [b]ut Johnson was not always at his best

Unlike Our Current Incumbent, who is never near any one's best.
Except to steal it.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Science is a Bitch

The Observer:
Sean McCarthy says that no one was more sceptical than he when Steorn, his small hi-tech firm in Dublin, hit upon a way of generating clean, free and constant energy from the interaction of magnetic fields. ... But when he attempted to share his findings, he says, scientists either put the phone down on him or refused to endorse him publicly in case they damaged their academic reputations.
Successful science must not stray too far from conventional wisdom.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Analects of Management

My boss:
"My knowledge is a mile wide but only an inch deep.
When I need to go deeper you will provide."

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging

In Other Media

The early Midwestern sun warmed the roof of the chicken coop next to the small brick house in the middle of a field. On it lay a small ball of orange marmalade tiger fluff in very great pain. Henry peered at it. Then he ran to get Dorothy. "Mother! It's Daffodil! She's hurt!" We called her Daffodil because she was born when the daffs were in bloom.
Dorothy ran to see. The kitten, a male of course, had argued with a passing car and lost. But it still lived, the pink tongue moving weakly as the only token of a mew. Ann and Leonard and the three year old materialized beside Dorothy. "Run," she said. "Get a cardboard box to carry her." Henry scampered with Leonard not too far behind. "Here," said Henry, offering a box only just bigger than the cat. Dorothy set it on the coop roof and gently lifted the kitten into the box. "Open the door for me," she said as she moved to the car. Ann was already there and opened the door and pushed the seat forward to give access to the back bench. Dorothy settled the box in back. "Ann you sit next to it and keep the box steady."
We piled into the car with a bit less of the normal pushing for position. Dorothy backed onto the quiet street and headed for the vet's.
Holding the box with the four of us variously attached to her, Dorothy faced the Vet. "Please take care of our kitty," she said.
We climbed back into the car and drove home.
Our attention quickly diverted to other concerns.
Seven weeks later the Vet called. "You're kitty is ready to come home." "you didn't put her to sleep?" said Dorothy who thought her statement's intent had been clear.
Back we piled into the black sedan and crowded round as the Vet placed a somewhat bigger orange tiger cat in Ann's arms while Dorothy wrote the check.

The accident damaged the cat's head. The Vet wired the jaw back together in seven places. Most of the cat's teeth were gone. The few stumps remaining were not able to hold her saliva. She drooled excessively and developed a champion case of halitosis. Her left eye had been on her cheek. The Vet placed it back in its socket, but it was sightless. She had the equivalent of a lobotomy. This removed all the normal predator aggressivity of a cat. It left her a most placid animal. No matter how often she was brushed she shed enormous bales of short orange hairs.

We shortened her name to Daffy. Naturally.

As an adult Daffy construed her life purpose to be an ambassador to those benighted humans who did not like cats. She had an unerring sense for the cat hater in the room. She would jump into the unwary guest's lap, compose herself with forepaws on their chest, shedding, and gaze fondly into their horror struck face. She exhaled a loud purr, a cloud of atrocious breath, and a river of drool as if to say: 'There, don't you just really love cats?'

Daffy loved to be in warm places. The freshly stopped and emptied dryer was her favorite. Inevitably one day Dorothy was in a hurry and threw the next load of wash in without looking. The dryer began turning and emitting incredible yodels, yowls, and yells. Dorothy stopped the dryer and opened the door. Placing one paw before the other with the dignity of a Third Dynasty Pharoah Daffy strode forth. Thereafter the rule was to look before filling.

For some reason Dorothy fed Daffy pork kidneys. She purchased them whole from the butcher shop. We cut them up into small pieces Daffy could gum and swallow. I am certain this contributed mightily to her stench-e-licious breath.
They all too frequently returned from Daffy's delicate digestive system. Pork kidneys are not a pleasant sight straight from the butcher's. They do not gain by liberal slatherings of feline digestive juices. The other problem with pork kidneys is that they go off in no time at all.
To the revulsion of my own digestion.

Once Daffy was minding her own business in the front yard when a large airedale interloped by and challenged Daffy with a belligerent 'Woof!' Daffy ascended a nearby elm. The dog woofed again and Daffy went out on a limb over the dog on the sidewalk below. Daffy looked at the airedale who gruffly woofed a third time. Daffy stepped further out on the limb past its ability to support her. It bent and Daffy slid. With grace she landed, on her paws, on the dog's back. She dug her claws in. The dog slowly (14/15ths of a nanosecond) comprehended that the tide had more than turned. He started running to evade the searing pain. Daffy, who was just regaining her bearings, declined to continue this passage, released her claws, and stepped to the ground.

Every summer we moved some hundred and seventy five miles north to the family cottage for the summer. This involved packing the needful into the car including us kids and Daffy. After much fuss and feathers we would finally set off down Main Street to the highway. This was not an expressway but a two lane road with grass verges. At about mile ten every time, going or returning, Daffy would begin to heave. On the first heave everyone began to shout. Everyone pushed Daffy to the floor near the door. The driver was in a race to pull off the road and get the door open before the inevitable. Sometimes they were fast enough. Daffy would stagger out and barf. Then, her motion sickness dealt with, she would climb back into the car to enjoy the balance of the journey undiscommoded.
If the driver was slow, the noise increased and, once the car did stop, much opening and closing of doors, exiting and entering of cars ensued as Dorothy cleaned the vomit out of the car and everyone changed seats in hopes of evading the smell.

One morning Daffy attempted to scale the kitchen counter top and failed bringing a certain amount of crockery after her. From amidst the shattered remains Daffy looked with great embarrassment up to Dorothy.
Alone Dorothy took Daffy, full of years, to the Vet to consult. The Vet agreed and Daffy was put to sleep.
The Vet did an autopsy and found the largest kidneys he had ever heard of, or seen, in a cat. He pickled them and displayed them thereafter.

-- ml

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Handsome Sailor

This is my favorite memory of Navy boot camp.
Long before Melville wrote Billy Budd, the handsome sailor was the ubiquitous grace note of every fleet of sailors. In a field of neatness the handsome sailor is noticeably neat. He is trig, Not always, but frequently he is -- not small -- but compact. He packs a pound in a three-quarter pound tin. Where all are in uniform, he is the one remembered. But with all this incentive to arrogance, the handsome sailor is most noted for his open friendship to his mates and his enthusiastic cheerfulness.
Ray was the handsome sailor of my platoon in Navy boot camp. In his peacoat and boondockers he might have passed a hundred pounds. He was pure black sunshine from South Carolina. Everyone wanted him to succeed.
He did until we had our morning in the swimming pool. It is an oddity of humanity that landlocked Midwesterners join the Navy while coastal dwellers seem to prefer the Army. The Navy does not have time to teach swimming in boot camp. The brief morning in the pool is merely the needful step to create a record entry of each sailor's minimum qualification. One jumps in -- no diving as that would be suicidal from the decks of most ships. One moves a small distance however one can flail. One floats on the back for a minute. That's all.
Ray couldn't float.
He settled about six inches under the surface and had to break to the top when his breath ran out. He was ordered to spend his evenings, when everyone else could wash and polish, in the pool until he could pass the test. Otherwise he would be held over to graduate with a later company. As his platoon recruit petty officer I was ordered to accompany him to the pool and back.
The deadline approached with no change in Ray's flotation. There was no question of Ray's effort, he was as committed as anyone could be. So on the last chance the petty officer third class running the test called the Chief Petty Officer in charge of the pool over to watch.
"See," said the Third. "How can I pass him?"
After a brief look at Ray's submerged form the Chief took the clipboard and signed Ray as passed.
"He can float'" said the Chief. "He just has negative buoyancy."
-- ml

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