The Other End of Sunset

Sunday, August 27, 2006

We bring old things to life

Good morning, OtherEnders. How are you today? It’s a sunny, but cool, weekend day here in the East Bay. I'm sitting in my favorite breakfast place, just down the street from my house. I mean, although I have (almost) learned to cook eggs, I can’t do an omelette with avocado and bacon, and I am out of coffee at the moment, so I am having a nice visit with my favorite food place.

Some guy just walked by and told me “Better check that battery,” while nodding at my Mac. Yeah. Ok. Let’s talk risk management – what are the odds that I will have a problem with my battery? And, apropos of nothing at all, the guy rode a street bike in here, down a street, with no bike lane, where the average speed of cars is about 50 mph. I wonder what his aggregate risk exposure is?

But I guess people’s perspective on risk varies. People don’t seem to do any rational thinking about odds, or actual threats, but rather default to a very simple model: If I have heard something bad can happen by doing Action A, especially if A is not the most normal thing I do, I should avoid A.

Avoiding A might make sense. But on the other hand, it does take some mental action to avoid A – it is likely not free, right? But it might be better to spend this energy somewhere else. For example, avoiding Action B, which is more normal, might do a better job of reducing your total aggregate risk.

However, normal risks aren’t as interesting to the influencers as abnormal risks. Plane crashes make better copy than trip-and-fall deaths. But which is a better risk management strategy – not running with scissors or not flying?

I guess part of the problem is a perspective problem. True risk management involves populations, not so much individuals. Yes, populations are made up of individuals, but sometimes to see true risks, it helps not to think about the individuals, but rather the overall group. Planes take lots of people at once, but are nowhere near the highest cause of accidental death (or even the highest cause of transportation related deaths). They are high visibility, but low frequency.

But, press-types will often focus on high visibility risks, regardless of frequency. (If you are interested in weirdo discussions of death, check out the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.)

The same problem exists in security – the highest frequency problems may not be the highest visibility, and our focus on the high visibility leads us to provide fixes that don’t materially decrease the dangers. Although I could talk about information security (and give some discourse on cryptography, or the vicissitudes of biometrics), I won’t do so, because the song is the same, just a different verse. Instead, let’s focus on my current favorite target – airline security.

We are now busily taking liquids out of bags, while a kid is able to check half a dynamite stick through in his luggage. And the press is all happy that we found the guy – on landing? And we have changed our security procedures – again – after the recent set of plane diversions and arrests. For the data-oriented among you, there is substantial evidence that the “liquid explosive” plot couldn’t possibly actually have worked. (For example, check out this article). But my best friend can’t take her mascara home with her. I feel safer. She feels she has less striking eyes. Somewhere, a terrorist is giggling.

All due respect, but, if I have a vote, I'd rather the security folks worried about the dynamite instead of the nail files or mascara. Or maybe we could worry about people getting on planes with knives, which seems largely unabated.

Note that I am NOT saying that high visibility, low frequency events are not relevant. Clearly they are. The defining moment of this century was very high visibility, and very low frequency. However, it didn’t involve creative use of hypothetical explosives…

Also, given that JR died of a rare form of liver cancer generally found in old, overweight men, personal tragedies of the low frequency sort are just as hard for those affected.

But, on the population scale, we should worry about high frequency events, regardless of visibility. Wouldn’t it be nice to lower our actual risk, not just make ourselves feel better?

All in all, sometimes what we think is the problem, isn’t actually.

Now that I think about it, this is a good rule of thumb for life, not just security. Oh well.

I don’t mind the sun sometimes
The images it shows…
--Butthole Surfers, Pepper

One of the great things about radio – either XM or over the air – is that sometimes you get reminded of something that you once knew, once liked.

For example, the Butthole Surfers. Great band. They had a (sort of) hit. Pepper. Really fun song. Well, is it a song? Most of it is spoken, not sung, and there isn’t that much “music” either. But anyway, it’s fun.

And it’s a lucky find, from the radio – I was driving home from the gym, and listening to some random radio station, and lo and behold – the Butthole Surfers! I wanted to pull over and listen for a while. Why doesn’t this happen more often?

Now, some of you have seen my music collection. I own a fair amount of music, and most of it is on my iPod. Pepper is probably there. But I am not sure. There is so much music on my player that I, on average, can’t find anything. Which means that I only listen to stuff I remember, in advance. And so I don’t get surprised by music very often.

I could try setting my player on random shuffle. However, some percentage of the stored music stinks, so the random play model doesn’t work either – way too much of what emanates from the earphones is garbage. A bad song comes out, and you have to hit skip, quickly, before the bad music – disco, for example – turns your brain into mush.

Skipping songs isn’t a problem normally, but what if, for example, you are listening to your iPod while lifting weights? And the evilness that is, say, the BeeGees pours into my poor ears during a really hard bench press set? I might hurt myself, in the physical involuntary twitch at the start of the song. Dangerous.

However, it would be nice to hear a song that I can’t remember – it’s nice to get changes sometime.

I can taste you on my lips
And smell you on my clothes.
Cinnamon and sugary
And softly spoken lies
You never know just how you look
Through other people’s eyes.
--Butthole Surfers, op cit

This whole discussion is a bit strange, though. It’s interesting that great technology is giving us the opportunity not to encounter new experiences – or remind us of older ones. With an MP3 player, and a DVR, and (perhaps) a DVD player, one can live for weeks without ever encountering live entertainment.

I have gone for weeks without ever seeing a television advertisement – and I watch a lot of TV. Mostly I watch shows I know that I like off of my DVR – and it turns out that the shows I like are on lots of times, on several channels. So, when I actually get time to watch TV, I often watch what’s on my DVR, and skip the commercials.

But how do I know that a new show has appeared, and how do I know I should watch it? If I skip the ads, I won’t see the ads for the shows. And I may, or may not, catch buzz from the Blogosphere, or my friends, or whatever. So, I miss shows, or songs – and then sometimes catch up later – usually by DVR-ing the end of season marathon…

What an odd problem to have – there is so much information available to me, that my adaptive strategy is, essentially, to avoid trying new things.

The TV in my bedroom has no DVR. The other day, I was hanging out upstairs, with the TV on, and I discovered how used to a DVR I was. For example, I was bummed that I couldn’t pause a particular program to take a phone call. And I wanted to see a House, and there weren’t any on. So I flipped through the program guide, and found some random program and watched it. And when it stank, I flipped. After a flip or three, I found a really cool program on motorcycles. And then one on the great flu pandemic. Cool! Neither of which I would have seen if I'd been in normal DVR mode.

But even when I'm not DVR-ing, I find myself questioning whether I want to watch some new program live, and be tethered to it, or just skip it. Somehow the mental energy required to try something “new” seems oddly high. What a weird psychological issue.

Again, a life lesson as well. The energy to try something new rises, and we get stuck – we choose to stay with what we know, without looking around or paying attention. Does this lead us to appreciate music that we know, more than we should, and thus miss new acts? Do we stay in personal situations that don’t work because we inherently believe that new will be worse? Or is there some place at which such inertia is good? Maybe when the cost of looking is high?

But what’s the cost of listening to a new song, or watching a new TV show? Or, maybe, watching an ad. Sometimes the best thing that can happen to one is sitting just down the dial on a new station, or on a different night on TV, or maybe in the next office. Not always, but sometimes.

Here’s to new experiences, and terrific old ones that continue…