Archive | April 2013

Am I Sorry For My Mistake? Well…kind of, sort of, maybe; let’s discuss.

Some people really hate to own up their mistakes, and some mistakes seem to be more difficult for people to admit.  There are many factors for such reluctance or avoidance.  Here are a few obvious ones:  A person’s position of power and reputation, the amount of time lapsed from initial decision to the revelation, the difficulty of isolating causality (i.e. Did my words cause all the trouble?), or the magnitude of sheer embarrassment…etc.  For instance, managers are never wrong, neither are politicians…or, they sure act like that.  And when one actually apologizes, the apology is usually so convoluted and opaque (because they really don’t think they are wrong, or, they think that being wrong shouldn’t have mattered) that you wish they would just go away.  We tend to think that people in academia may be more honest, because of the peer review system and because they are after all, academicians.   Supposedly, they choose the profession because they believe in the pursuit of truth.

So, what’s my agenda?  It’s the recent brouhaha over the assertion by two Harvard economics professors – Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (R&R) — that when national debt exceeds 90% of the GDP (gross domestic product), economic growth suffers sharply.  Generally speaking, economic theories bore me, but the social psychological aspects of this controversy fascinate me.  Sadly, some aspects of social sciences seem to overlap with gossip.  So be it.

Which direction to go?

Did I just come from the other side? Or, am I heading there?

There are at least two major points in this controversy.  First of all, the directionality of the causal statement is suspect.  Is the debt a result of slow economic growth?  Or, is the slow economic growth caused by debt?  R&R’s data demonstrated a correlation between these two economic phenomena but not causality.  Yet, the authors strongly implied that debt is the culprit, and that therefore cutting debt is the proper course of action.  Even though many economists immediately refuted their thesis — published in May, 2010 — on both sides of the Atlantic politicians advocating austerity plans latched onto the R&R article as evidence to support their policy.  One study!  And a potentially flawed study at that.  In addition to questionable directionality inherent in the R&R study, many other economic researchers, using similar data that R&R used, could not reproduce the debt/growth correlation that R&R claimed.

The second point in this controversy regards mistakes.  It turned out that after some heated exchanges in the academia, R&R allowed University of Massachusetts researchers to look at their original data.  The UMass researchers found Excel coding errors, in addition to some omissions and debatable statistical formulae.  Once corrections were made, the reevaluated R&R data was consistent with what other researchers have shown since the original R&R publication; namely, GDP growth rate beyond the 90% debt/GDP ratio isn’t dramatically different from when debt/GDP ratio is under 90%.  There is nothing magical about the 90% cut-off, contrary to what R&R strongly implied throughout their original article.  And oh, by the way, the UMass researcher that caught the Excel mistakes was “just” a graduate student, supported by his professors.

When NASA engineers neglected to convert measurements to metric units, they couldn’t dodge their mistake because the Mars Orbiter crashed.  Yet, even though it has become perfectly clear that Reinhart and Rogoff made an error, they have been dancing around an “apology.”  In New York Times 4/25/13 edition, their non-apology Op-Ed piece by and large angered readers even more.  I don’t for one second condone all the vitriol and hate-mail these authors have received.  However, for them to claim that the politicization of their paper was misplaced is disingenuous at the very least.  After all, when national politicians touted the R&R paper as gospel and used their findings to legitimize their austerity policies, Reinhart and Rogoff made no protest whatsoever over this politicization.  In addition, they still denied that the errors were “serious.”  Seriously?  If your results seem “extraordinary,” then, you bear extra responsibility to ensure the accuracy of your work.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

In my more uncharitable moments, I wonder if these academic authors’ abrupt promotion to celebrity status overheated their heads.   Not unlike the Kardashians…eek.

If Reinhart and Rogoff want to continue arguing their thesis that debt leads to lower economic growth, in defiance of the data, that is their prerogative; it’s within their academic right.  But once their assertion has been proven erroneous, how can they, as professors at a prestigious university claiming international leadership, deny their responsibility to own up?  Especially given that policies based on their assertion could have, and have already had, tremendous impact, do they not have any sense of disquiet?

A pretty sight (a nice outcome), but pick it up at your risk.

A pretty sight (a nice outcome), but pick it up at your risk.

It is painful and wholly embarrassing to admit, in public, our mistakes, particularly the mistakes that have affected others.  A true classy person would not only own up her mistake but offer lessons for others; such a person could gradually rehabilitate their standing in their professional community and public at large.  I recall Doris Kearns Goodwin (a media commentator, a historian, and author of several books on President Lincoln) was once accused of plagiarism.  She quickly admitted her mistake and moved on.  (When researchers take copious notes, sometimes they may forget to record sources or to put proper quotation marks.  It happens.)  Though never a fan of Martha Stewart, I found her willingness to take responsibility for insider trading and serve jail time almost refreshing.  But then, I am dismayed to note that these days we regard such D+ behavior as commendable.  Stewart has since rebooted her business which, while not quite the empire it used to be, is viable and lively again.

I have detected little humility in Reinhart and Rogoff’s public expressions thus far; I won’t hold my breath.  I enjoy a Chinese saying, “When one door is closed, another will open.”  When we can admit a mistake, other possibilities to explore open up.

Have an extraordinary April/May week.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Some Week!

This has been a “horrible, terrible, no good, and very bad” week for the country…again.

Ever since the Sandy Hook shooting last December, it’s been on my mind … mental health.  Most of us have willingly and accidentally played frustrated psychoanalysts at one point or another.  Even the casual phrases, “she’s a nut case,” or “he’s deranged,” however jokingly uttered, indicate that we judge others’ mental health status at times.  Casual remarks side, though, can we really comfortably assess another’s mental state, especially a situation where we might consider alerting the “authorities?”

Mental Health

Mental Health (Photo credit: homelesshub)

Even experts in the fields of dealing with psychoanalysis rarely make such unequivocal declarations regarding another human mind.  Or, one could argue that perhaps precisely because they are the experts, they are all the more reluctant to issue a black-and-white verdict.  More importantly, for those of us who might occasionally wonder about our co-workers’ mental health states, it isn’t easy to be decisive about our judgment.  It’s difficult to detect troublesome signs on a daily basis unless the person in question makes a sudden outburst or exhibits dramatically errant behavior.  It’s much easier to make a positive pronouncement, or denouncement, in hindsight, or play an armchair therapist.

We ask for “signs” to watch out for our co-workers, fellow students, or family members, but signs are superficial manifestations.  Signs may be episodic because the person has a bad week, and they may mean different things to different people.  A quiet introvert suddenly becoming the center of attention?  Would occasional diatribes against government or fellow human beings set off an alarm?  How do we straddle conforming and acting uniquely?  Do we treat social dissent as potentially violent? (Before you say, “of course, not,” remember the WWII internment camps and the McCarthy era.)

Lucinda Roy, a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, had extensive interactions with the perpetrator before he committed the shooting spree.  Professor Roy had worked with Mr. Cho in one of her classes, and saw enough signs to disturb her.  She was one of the few people who managed to penetrate his wall and had some genuine interactions.  She had alerted the campus counselor and authorities, but ultimately, it was extremely difficult to prevent anyone from acting up…till he acts up.  The professor did not stay quiet, but to no avail.

The majority of people who may be somewhat mentally unbalanced do not shoot innocent people randomly.  Most people at work who are pushed over the edge and “go postal,” — while bad enough — don’t shoot mass numbers of innocent people, instead going after their immediate supervisors and the unfortunate few who happen to be nearby.

Even if we become highly suspicious of a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a friend’s child, how likely are we to approach the person, or the person’s parents, and say something…like what?  “Your son (sorry, the majority of these cases are committed by males) kind of scares me.  Have you taken him to a psychotherapist?”

It just isn’t easy to take action on mental health issues.  It requires enormous patience, a tremendous amount understanding, and a lot of time.  To have a national list of mentally-ill people is laughable at best; to have a similar list at each organization would be downright scary.  As a collective, we have made huge strides in medicine, computer technology, and weapon design, using rationality and intelligence; why are we so afraid of (or, stingy?) committing similar resources (not just money) to make improvements to recognition and treatment of people who need help with mental issues?

Shall I  be concerned by this little feller at my front door? Or, shall I be fascinated to take a picture?

Shall I be concerned by this little feller at my front door? Or, shall I be fascinated to take a picture?

What I am struggling to stay is this:  Our work life and life in general have gotten more and more stressful over the years.  We can’t seem to find enough time to chill and pay meaningful attention to our fellow colleagues.  Till something happens.  When stuff happens, we want explanations and we want to find someone or some aspect of life to blame.  And then, we go right back to living the same way, or seemingly so.

This is one of many reasons I have always advocated for people to take some time off, to reflect, to hum a song, to actually taste lunch, or to find a colleague with whom to share some stories and laughs…etc.  It cannot be just each employee “sneaking” the odd moment here and there.  Management needs to stop erecting more hurdles.  Make it a sacred principle to eliminate five rules for every new one you want to install.  And give employees more space to do their work at a less frantic pace, and to occasionally “play.”  I think such “simple” heuristics applies for schools too, don’t you?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Opposites Attract? Or, We Prefer To Hang Out With Like-Minded? Handling Differences/Conflicts – part II

Just as differences do not automatically lead to conflicts, they don’t inevitably cause mistakes either.  However, pushing ideas into feasible plans and on to development involves risks; that’s where potential mistakes occur.  If most people already feel uncomfortable with voicing different opinions, proposals, or ideas, the discomfort increases with the higher risks that come with realizing such ideas or plans.

Consider this colossal mistake: “In 2011, H.P.’s directors unanimously approved the acquisition of the British software maker Autonomy for $11.1 billion, a deal that was considered wildly overpriced even at the time. Less than a year later, H.P. wrote off $8.8 billion of that and claimed it had been defrauded.”  The presiding CEO of this purchase was Mr. Apotheker.  His own appointment was also considered a dubious choice at the time, and later a mistake given the loss.  A series of mistakes of such magnitude is bound to diminish even a giant like H.P.

Consider another proposal:  Yahoo CEO, Marrisa Mayer’s recent decision to not just curtail, but eliminate telecommuting at Yahoo.  All employees have to be physically stationed at the office now, with only occasional exceptions.  It’s way too early to pass verdict on this decision.

Concerning the H.P. case of purchasing Autonomy, how could one avoid such a mistake?  This isn’t like John Cleese’s guiding a missile by correcting multiple small mistakes (see below):  You can’t buy several multibillion dollar companies and see which one would work out.  Preventing this mistake, perhaps by reviewing options with a wide range of opinions and assessments in the boardroom prior to the purchase, would have served H.P. better.  According to the article, the board rubber-stamped the purchase decision, just as it did the hiring of Mr. Apotheker.  In Yahoo’s case, I contend that a more thoughtful approach might start with a trial run; it would serve both as a test as well as a signal to the workforce.  Or, Ms. Mayer could experiment systematically:  Allowing different groups to try out a few different combinations of telecommuting and office presence.  Then, reassess the options after, say, six months. I wonder what other input she sought before making such a decision with potentially far-reaching impact.

Nature's mistake?!  After all, we are in spring.

Nature’s mistake?! After all, we are in spring.

Trying out different ideas could be costly, so, we minimize differences.  If there are no differences, there won’t be trials, and there won’t be mistakes.  But neither will there be new developments.  That’s the “Quality Assurance” paradox.  In areas where mistakes can cause loss of life, such as design flaws in nuclear reactors or buildings or airplanes, etc (but surely, there were mistakes before they found viable constructions?), preventing mistakes is essential, and preventing differences may be one method.  But the vast majority of us benefit tremendously from the fruits of product development; and during the trajectory of developing some of these products, there must have been some mistakes.  If we punish each and every one of these mistakes, assuming that even the minor mistakes were narrowly-averted catastrophes, we wouldn’t have progressed very far.

John Cleese as a civil servant in the halls of...

John Cleese as a civil servant in the halls of the Ministry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, presented a wonderful speech about mistakes.  Here is a link to part of that otherwise copyrighted speech.  He used the “Gordon the guided missile” children’s book as an illustration.  On its way to the target, Gordon the missile’s built-in monitor signal has a constant feedback loop to see if it is on the right course.  “A bit further up and a bit further to the left.”  Or, “Must come down a bit and a foot to the right.”  Along the way, each mistaken move receives correction and eventually the missile manages to avoid that “one mistake that would have really mattered:  missing the target.”

A children’s book often offers the wisest lessons.  Intuitively, some mistakes are more tolerable than others.  How do we judge?  Are we willing to accept mistakes by physicians?  If not, are we saying that physicians can never make mistakes?

In the same TED Radio Hour, Brian Goldman, an ER doctor at Mount Sinai Toronto with more than 20 years service, shared some of his mistakes.  His first mistake, during his residency, concerned an elderly woman whose shortness of breath was treated with medication to ease a presumed heart condition (which turned out not to be the case), and promptly discharged.  Listen to the story for the details, but they’re immaterial to the point I am trying to make:  Had the doctor kept the patient in the hospital, the staff would have been able to provide frequent feedback while monitoring the patient, not unlike guiding Gordon the guided missile.  This doesn’t mean that the patient would be guaranteed a correct treatment, but she would have whole lot better odds in getting the right treatment.  So, was it a mistake in the initial diagnosis? Or in the decision to sever the feedback loop by sending the patient home?  Dr. Goldman now has a radio show where he encourages other physicians to share their mistakes.

Cleese makes a linguistic point, “We don’t have a good word for ‘a reasonable try which didn’t come off.’”

Sometimes we don’t have the time to make distinctions, and often we are too lazy to make distinctions.  So, we treat all mishaps and accidents as malfeasant acts and punish everyone with stricter rules and regulations.  Yes, some mistakes are Darwin Awards, others are merely mindless, and still others offer valuable lessons, but we still punish the ones who make these mistakes.  To what end?  “Zero intolerance” is, paradoxically, an equally stupid mistake.

I’ll end with Cleese’s eloquent expression:  The problems come when mistakes are denied.  If you don’t acknowledge a mistake, you can’t correct it. 

Do you have a story of valuable mistake to share?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Opposites Attract? Or, Hang Out With Like-Minded? From Differences To Mistakes – part I

English: Protons and electrons are attracted t...

English: Protons and electrons are attracted to each other because they have opposite charges. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, which is true?  I incline to go with the like-mindedness.  Even when opposites attract, the opposites are usually manifested in the area of temperament, rather than how people think and what they value.  We seek out those whose opinions are similar to ours; we read or listen to news outlets that closely reflect what we believe (if not exclusively, certainly most of the time), and our friends are by and large similar to us.  Depending on your perspective, Margaret Heffernan says that we behave so because we are either lazy or efficient.  (See TED and also a recent NPR’s TED Radio Hour.)  Otherwise, it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to forge a relationship with someone who is wholly unlike us.  Indeed, however we define diversity, we still tend to seek out those who think like us, be they different in cultural background, race, gender, age, life styles, etc.

Within organizations, Ms. Heffernan found in her data that 85% participants admitted that they were not comfortable raising issues they believed would lose.  In other words, people had decided, a priori, what the prevailing opinions or choices would be.  How would we ever weigh truly different opinions and proposals in such an environment?  We delude ourselves to think that it’d be easier to go along with the “majority’s” ideas or sentiment.  After all, constantly attempting to second-guess what others, especially your bosses, think and want drains energy too.  We implicitly operate based on “there is one best way, or one right way.”

Ms. Heffernan started her TED presentation by telling the story of two diametrically different doctors, a married couple, Alice Stewart and George Neal.  Stewart’s findings linking X-ray exposure and childhood cancer in the 1950s eventually lead to the disuse of X-ray examinations on pregnant women, albeit 25 years later.  Changes, even in the face of evidence, don’t come easily.  What Heffernan really wanted to drive home, though, is the point that being opposites or having conflict ultimately leads to progress.  Alice and George differed in treating patients and approaching research.  Neal preferred numbers to people and Stewart connected with patients easily.  The couple did not reside in an echo chamber.  Neal once said, “My job is to prove her [the wife] wrong.”  “It was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.”  A beautiful paradox.

However, trying to have several such relationships, especially in today’s workplace, could be really daunting.  Who has that kind of time and energy these days?  There may be naturally built-in “oppositions” in certain professions, especially the scientific and technical — or at least I hope so — but less so for the majority of organizations, including universities.

In Ms. Heffernan’s presentation, there was one point with which I had a quarrel.  She characterizes the oppositional nature of the relationship between Alice Stewart and George Neal as “conflict,” and conflicts are good.  I have posted about the “social functions of conflicts” before, and acknowledged that there are times conflicts produce positive outcomes.  However, I am wary of those people who seem to seek and create conflicts for the sake of conflicts.  More importantly, differences and disagreements do not automatically lead to conflicts.  Mr. Neal’s “opposition” was his attempt to provide different perspectives, and eventually validation, for his wife, and definitely not meant to cause conflicts all the time.

Different species...but coexist just fine.

Different species…but coexist just fine.

In a more contemporary example of different opinions, some of us had the privilege of watching for years “At The Movies,” where Robert Ebert and Gene Siskel, both eminent movie critics, sparred.  Ebert died last Thursday after a long battle against cancer.  When I stumbled upon the TED Radio Hour’s piece on differences and mistakes, I thought it was fortuitous so that I could write about “different ideas or opinions” in memory of Mr. Ebert.  A side bar: reprinted Mr. Ebert’s writing on facing death, titled, “I do not fear death.”  It’s a beautifully written essay, reflective, thoughtful, graceful, illuminating, and brave.

I will go into more detailed discussion on differences and mistakes next time.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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