Books on Failures, Ergonomics of Beliefs, Search Engine Terms

My move is complete and I have even got my internet service up after some troubles with AT&T. Also, I’ve got much more efficient at reading on the train. One book that was very good was Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and is highly recommended, although it is particularly hard to summarize in just a few sentences.

A reader had suggested Blink in response to my earlier request for a book on the ergonomics of belief. I was interested in the ergonomics of beliefs for a variety of reasons, chiefly that it seems to be a very important subject that has been almost completely overlooked. What got me interested in that subject was a passage in Collapse (by Jared Diamond) that summarized a paper which measured the perceived risk of a dam breaking. Those who lived quite far away and were unlikely to be harmed if the dam broke had a very low belief that the dam could break. As the closeness to the dam increased, the perceived risk of the dam breaking also increased, until a point quite close to the dam, at which point the perceived risk of the dam breaking fell off dramatically. The conclusion was that something so horrific that would very likely kill all of someone’s friends and relatives caused such pain that it was not contemplated, and people would, of necessity, shunt this idea out of their thoughts. Obvious implications would be to the design of syndromic surveillance systems, which I have written about here and elsewhere.

One of the very interesting projects Malcolm covered was Project Implicit over at Harvard, which has developed a test which quite effectively uncovers some of your implicit biases. Rather than further describe or summarize it, I would urge you to get acquainted with it here:

Also, I’ve read Success through Failure by Henry Petroski, which was a very good book which reminds us of the role that failures have played in advancing knowledge. His focus is on civil and structural engineering projects, but he understands the applicability of these principles to others areas as well. The best parts are where he analyzes how good engineers can design bridges that fail. There is a persistent trend of a major bridge failure occuring every thirty years or so. From the book:

“Why have major bridge failures occurred at thirty-year intervals, and why should we expect the pattern to continue?….. thirty years is about the time that it takes for one generation of engineers to supplant another within a technological culture comprising those working on a project or a succession of related projects. Though a new or rapidly evolving bridge type might be novel and challenging for its engineers to design, an older one that has become commonplace does not hold the same interest or command the same respect of a younger generation, who treat it as normal technology. Whereas the older engineers had an understanding of the assumptions and challenges that went into the basic design, as it and their careers evolvedthey went on to other things and lost touch with it. At the same time, younger engineers, having inherited a successful design, developed no great respect or fear of it.”

To which I would have a notes and a question to add: In a setting where skills are passed on as part of a working environment (learning by doing) as was the case for craftsmen (and Architects, too, until the middle part of the previous century) this type of knowledge is more likely to be transferred. Where knowledge is transferred in a static environment, i.e., learning by studying ossified theory, it is less likely that the skills needed to imagine failure, and thereby avoid it, will be transferred. My question is: what new technologies of today or the recent past should we keep an eye on for likely failures? It’s been about thirty years ago since DNA manipulation became possible on a large scale….

Why Most Things Fail, by Paul Ormerod was very well written and interesting, although some of his arguments were deeply flawed in several respects, primarily because of certain informational exclusions the author makes. Possibly, I will post on these flaws. But the book is a very good at showing the potential of linking game theory, biology, economics, and evolution. One of the themes I have always believed in and posted about here and elsewhere is the necessity of thinking outside one’s own narrow discipline, and C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures has always been a key text, which I think is both under-rated and poorly understood.

The Family that Couldn’t Sleep, a fascinating book by D.T. Max, covered the failure of the British Health establishment to react properly to Mad Cow disease. It really could have used more coverage of the Science of prions, though. It also covered the history of FFI (Fatal Familial Insomnia), another prion disease.

Some of the search engine terms that people are using to find this site. The selection is mine and some are bizarre and some are pretty typical and show up again and again.

Jerzy Popieluszko torture
\”noel le\” patents OR dmca OR foss
solveig fascist cheering
Thogh, korean map
interesting things about islam
Olga Corbett in the olympics
* The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind *

career prospects for scorpio in 2007
ikea the economist edition
Year 8 history test
Aesthetics “First Amendment” architecture
churchill empires of the mind
lynd ward graphic novel
world map showing outbreaks of pertussis
adam smith flatter structures
Urban Planning and Bird Flu
Boston pertussis outbreak
amartya sen comment on planning
knappa lamp plans
Why are pandemics so much more of a threat
Cholera in 1800’s from India
John Robb terrorists biographical info
biological warfare
Bell’s Palsy

Books on Failures, Ergonomics of Beliefs, Search Engine Terms

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