Thursday, December 20, 2012


There was a great interview of Nassim Taleb on the BBC Daily Business broadcast that very succinctly summarizes his concept of anti-fragility.  As an industrial engineer, I have always promoted system robustness so seeing a fundamental flaw in it is a great piece of learning.  I find this rewarding for two reasons.  Most importantly, I am a better engineer and consultant as a result.  But also, experts have a notoriously hard time giving up ideas that have been a core part of their world-view so it is great to know I can. 

So what is anti-fragility?  Contrasting it with robustness is the best way to explain.  Systems are made up of many components.  Fragile systems are those where the failure of one of these components causes a failure of the whole system.  So robustness is an approach where you try to make each component resistant to failure.  If you prevent these small failures, you don't get the system-wide failure.  But this is where you get Taleb's Black Swan.  When you get a problem big enough to fail one of your robust components, the whole system fails so completely that it becomes a disaster.  The 2007 banking crisis is the example that made Taleb famous.  We also see it in modern forest fire prevention.  The more we prevent small fires from breaking out, the more disastrous the eventual state-wide wildfires we get.

So anti-fragility takes the opposite approach.  Let's design the system components so that they fail easily, but so that the system as a whole gets better as a result.  Small and frequent forest fires made the whole forest safer.  The more companies that go bankrupt in a country, the less risk there is that the whole economy will crash. 

Here is an example I have been considering in my personal life.  Many new parents are trying to prevent their infants from getting sick in any way.  Don't let them anywhere near a peanut, piece of dirt, germ . . .   But what seems to be happening is that the kids grow up to be more fragile rather than less.  They are more likely to have allergies, asthma, and other immune-system related diseases.  I like the old way better.  Let our kids grow up playing in mud, eating dirt and 15-second rule Cheerios.  I read somewhere that the Chinese have such a low incidence of peanut allergies because their kids start eating boiled peanuts at such a young age they haven't had a chance to develop an allergy yet. Plus, this seems like a less stressful way to live. 

Where else should we anti-fragile rather than robust?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The solution to climate change - rapid evolution

If a species becomes threatened with extinction due to rapid changes in its ecosystem, is it possible for evolution (natural selection) to speed up?  In the past, researchers have used microbes and yeasts because they can test many generations in a small period of time.  They hoped to apply what they learned to things like islands after tsunamis, forests after fires, the earth after the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs, and that kind of thing. 

It is now getting personal because of the impending climate change.  Will humanity be able to evolve through the changes that are looking more and more inevitable?  A special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society summarized the findings on what researchers have termed “rapid evolution” (RE).  This is not my area of expertise, but I think I can adequately summarize the basics. 

Here are the factors the help a species evolve rapidly:

·         Starting with a large population.  I think seven billion is pretty large!!
·         Genetic diversity.  I think we have that too,  There are some real bizaros out there.
·         Rapid intrinsic mutation rate. Thanks to all the crap we now put into our bodies, I think we got that too.
·         Strong natural fitness.  Definitely not all of us, but there are some incredible specimens out there.
·         Space in the ecosystem.  Since we are killing off the other species in advance, I think we have done this for ourselves.
·         Some luck.

Hmmm.  Maybe there is hope for us.  Well, some evolved version of us.  I wonder what that humanity would look like . . . .

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cognitive Resonance in a funny comic strip

I have blogged before about the phenomenon of cognitive resonance.  This is when we explain something we have done so that it makes rational sense, even when the real reason might not have been all that rational.  This is not a conscious thing (well, at least it doesn’t have to be).  It is just a natural way our brain works.

This makes sense from a long term adaptability perspective because we often make decisions or behave in ways that are based on emotion, instant gratification, and other suboptimal reasons but it is better not to think of ourselves as irrational.  For our brains to naturally do this and not even let our ego know about it works pretty well.

The most famous (at least among us behavioral science geeks) example is a study where people were asked to do a really boring task, either for free or for $20.  Then they asked them about the experience.  Which ones do you think thought it was most boring?  Their hypothesis was that the $20 people would because of the reward.  But the opposite happened.  The $20 people knew that they did it just for the money so it was OK for it to be boring.  But the people who got nothing had no justification. So their unconscious cognitive resonance retroactively convinced them that the task was not so boring, allowing them to feel better about having done it.

As a behavioral engineer, my job is to figure out how to use research results like this to design better systems, jobs, consumer products, or whatever.  And as usual, a comic strip says it better than I ever could.

Usability of post office delivery cards.

Usability of post office delivery cards.

I received a package through the US Postal Service that was sent Certified Mail.  It was delivered while I was at work (as I imagine happens a lot), so when I got home there was a postcard in my mailbox with an “Attempted Delivery” notice.  It seemed clear enough.  It gave me a few options:
  • They would redeliver it, again requiring me to be home (for security).
  • They would redeliver it without requiring me to be home (more convenience, less security)
  • I could pick up the package at the Post Office (the most security but the least convenience).

So why am I writing about this on a Human Factors blog? Simple, I signed the card, left it in my mailbox, and . . . .  nothing.  What day are they supposed to deliver it? 

I could imagine that it would take a day or two because the Post Office doesn’t know what my choice would be ahead of time.  They could have kept the package at the PO in case I came to pick it up, but then not been prepared for options 1 or 2.  But then they can’t deliver it.  Alternatively, they could have sent it with the carrier to cover either options 1 or 2 and not been prepared for option 3. 

Better service would have allowed me to log onto the USPS web site in the evening, input the package tracking number, and let them know in advance what to do with it.  Then I would have it just one day later.  But they don’t have that.

So it should have come the next day, right?  But for some reason, it did not.  Did they return it to sender?  That would be crazy to do so quickly, but you never know (it has happened to me in the past).  Is it being held at the Post Office despite the fact that I signed the card?  That would suck because I returned the card and so I have no tracking number.  Can I pick it up at the PO just with my ID?  No way to know. 

And on the original postcard it didn’t even say who the package was from, so I couldn’t call them to see if they could help.  Did they have a tracking number as part of their receipt?  Probably.  But who was it?  And since I returned the card, I may not have been able to check that for the sender contact info anyway. 

This is not a hard UX problem.  The card could have more information.  They process could be simpler.  There could be a web solution for everything.  UPS and Fedex seem to have these problems solved.  I hate to say it, but no wonder the USPS is going out of business.  They wouldn’t be losing such market share if they could just get the basics down.

Guest blogging on EID

I was asked to guest blog for the Ergonomics in Design journal, which is a publication of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  These should show up about once a month and will be a little more specifically focused on human factors issues.  My first one is here.  I know I range a little wider on this blog.

I am looking forward to getting some new readership and I will cross link those posts here to get some good discussion going.  Don't worry, you won't miss anything by following me here :-).