Malcolm Gladwell is a prophet

Longtime readers know I love Malcolm Gladwell (I find myself writing that a lot now..."if you've read my blog before you all know I love this or that"). Well, thanks to a cancellation of one leg of my three leg journey to Rio de Janeiro, I'm stuck in Seattle an extra day, and so I went back and read an article from Gladwell's New Yorker archives.
It's a short article, and in the wake of the Columbia disaster, eerily prescient and relevant. As is his norm, Gladwell assimilates a number of related current ideas from a group of thinkers and pulls them together to shed light on a topic or event, in this case the Challenger explosion which had occurred 10 years earlier. In this case Gladwell tackles risk theory.
One of the ideas is that in complex systems, such as modern technological systems, many accidents are "normal." That means that they occur not because of one egregious error or failure but because of the interaction of a series of undetectable, minor breakdowns. These are often easy to diagnose and blame in hindsight, but for all practical matters nearly impossible to prevent.
The second idea is that of risk homeostasis, the idea that improvements in safety or changes that seem to reduce risk actually do not. They fail to do so because humans react to reduced risk in one area by taking greater risks in another. Gladwell cites the famous experiment in Germany in which the installation of antilock brake systems in a fleet of taxicabs in Munich actually led to more wreckless driving by the drivers of that fleet, giving them a poorer safety record than cabs lacking the new technology.
Risk homeostasis works in the other direction as well. When Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right-hand side of the road in the late 1960's (scroll down this page for a somewhat humorous account of the day they switched over and a list of all the countries of the world and their drive-sidedness), traffic fatalities dropped 17% for the first year because everyone drove much more carefully to compensate for their unfamiliar surroundings. I can vouch that I was extremely careful crossing the road in New Zealand and Australia because I had no idea which side of the road the cars were coming from. Maybe I should have rented a car and drove around the country there after all.
This is the last paragraph of Gladwell's article, which I highly recommend as it's only 7 pages and a quick read:
What accidents like the Challenger should teach us is that we have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life. At some point in the future-for the most mundane of reasons, and with the very best of intentions-a NASA spacecraft will again go down in flames. We should at least admit this to ourselves now. And if we cannot--if the possibility is too much to bear--then our only option is to start thinking about getting rid of things like space shuttles altogether.
He wrote that on Jan. 22, 1996. As Roger Ebert concludes in his review of The Right Stuff as part of his Great Movies series:
That a man could walk on the moon is one of the great achievements of the last century. But after seeing "The Right Stuff" it is hard to argue that manned flights should be at the center of the space program. In recent weeks the Hubble Space Telescope has been able to glimpse the dawning of the first days of the universe. Then we lost seven brave men and women who could do absolutely nothing to save themselves. To risk them while putting Hubble into orbit is one thing. To risk them for high school science fair projects is another.


Now that I've had time to really examine my photos (when it takes about 10 minutes to scan a slide using 16 passes, at 12 bit resolution, time is all you have), I find myself less and less satisfied. Part of it is that I dropped my lens and cracked two of my filters, and without a polarizing filter and a neutral density filter it's difficult to get proper exposures when you have so much bright blue sky, bright white glaciers, and shimmering azure lake and ocean water to shoot. That's my punishment for being careless, and no amount of spot metering or center weighted metering would save me from lots of photos with some under or over exposure.
But my composition needs work. Too many of my photos from this trip are by the book, and framed for maximum boredom. Maybe it's because for once, photography was third or fourth on my list of priorities while traveling. Or perhaps I'm out of practice. Or perhaps I need lots more practice, and some time studying theory. Probably all of the above.

The third place

Joel on Software writes about the erosion of the third place, a place besides work and home to gather with friends to socialize. Examples of a third place include bars, pubs, dance clubs, coffee shops. He notes:
Over the last 25 years, Americans "belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often." [2000] For too many people, life consists of going to work, then going home and watching TV. Work-TV-Sleep-Work-TV-Sleep. It seems to me that the phenomenon is far more acute among software developers, especially in places like Silicon Valley and the suburbs of Seattle. People graduate from college, move across country to a new place where they don't know anyone, and end up working 12 hour days basically out of loneliness.
Sheesh. He even knows where I live.
Based on this, if one were to work out of one's home, it would be critical to have multiple rooms. One for work, one for sleep, one for TV, etc.

Feeling my age

Perhaps the only downside of my travels to NZ, and traveling in general in your late twenties, is that everyone around you tends to be younger. All my life I've usually been the youngest of the group, and the tables turned as soon as I arrived in NZ. Boy, did my new travel companions love reminding me of it, too.
Now I know how it feels to feel old. It will take some getting used to.
Young at heart, young at heart...

This chemical we call love

Reading a magazine on my flight back to the States from Australia, I came across a reference to a study on love, concluded in 1999. Basically, the conclusion of the study is that giddy feeling we call love, the feeling we have when we first fall for someone, is nothing more than a chemical reaction in our bodies. The catch is that this reaction is designed to last for only 18 to 30 months, and then it wears off. It's biologically set to that duraction as it's just enough time to meet, mate, and bear offspring.
By the time the feeling wears off, force of habit, or the children, keep the couple together in marriage.
Perhaps that explains the phenomenon of starter marriages. Because more couples these days hold off on having kids, they pass through this chemical giddiness with no responsibilities to bind them. With the low barriers to divorce in modern society, they move on to the next person, seeking to rekindle the chemical sparks.
Other interesting notes: men are more likely to fall quickly and deeply into love, and lovesickness is biochemically similar to obsessive compulsive disorder. On the basis of my own personal experience, all of this smacks of some truth, unromantic as it may be. I look back on girls I've been head over heels about, and in many cases I don't feel anything for them just a few years later. And love does feel like an illness, and has been equated with such by poets down through history.
Then there's the idea that we've found our soul mate through the workings of fate. The author of the research pooh poohs it: "Thanks to the intensity and tunnel vision of romantic infatuation, we enjoy the illusion that we choose our mate. The reality is known to zookeepers - the most certain way to get members of any species to mate is to house them in the same cage." I've often thought we could marry many people in this world, and that it was unlikely we'd meet all of them in a lifetime. Perhaps someone can take the population of the earth, calculate the average number of people we meet in during our courtship years, and calculate the % chance that we'll meet the one person who theoretically is the best match for us.
I'm tempted to draw some conclusions from these findings. One, date a person for at least 30 months before considering marriage, because you need to see how you feel after the chemical fog in your head clears up. Don't base marriage on that dizzy happy feeling of attraction when you first meet. It's the selfish gene talking. Two, find someone that makes you laugh, because it's one quality which has nothing to do with how good looking the other person is.
And while the idea that love is just a biological reaction may not seem like the stuff of romantic comedies, we need not concern ourselves with what causes the feeling, only that it's a lot of fun to experience. And those relationships that do last for life deserve our wonder, for in some ways they are wholly unnatural, a unique social phenomenon created by committed human beings.
I found an archived copy of an article (no longer available for free on the London Sunday Times website) which discusses the findings in more detail. Fascinating stuff:
SCIENCE has now proved what the band Roxy Music knew long ago - that love is a drug. The giddy excitements of mutual attraction are nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brains of courting couples, according to the results of research conducted in laboratory conditions.
Mercifully, though, the chemically induced insanity is temporary, as Roxy Music singer Brian Ferry discovered more than 20 years ago when girlfriend Jerry Hall dumped him for Mick Jagger.
Men and women are biologically designed to be in love for 18 to 30 months, says the author of the research, Professor Cindy Hazan of New York's Cornell University. She interviewed and medically tested 5 000 people from 37 cultures and found that love's limited lifespan is just long enough for a couple to meet, mate and produce a child - there is no evolutionary need for the beating heart and sweaty palms associated with high passion.
Hazen has identified dopamine, phenylethylamine and oxytocin as the chemicals which 'produce what Elvis Presley famously described as "that loving feeling".
These substances, though relatively common in the human body, are found together only during the early stages of courtship, Hazan says.
But, "like a drunk grows immune to a single glass of alcohol, the effect of these chemicals wears off, returning people to a relatively relaxed state of mind within two years.
'By that time, couples have either parted or decided that they are easy enough with each other to stay together. Love then becomes a habit, especially if children are in the frame. But those chemicals rarely return in the relationship' even 11 further children are required.'
Some lucky people become, addicted to the love cocktail, Hazan found, and they are usually men.
They fall in love more quickly and easily than women, who are also more likely to end a relationship.
"These kind of people [love- potion addicts] are not in the love-rat category,' Hazan says. "[Men] are genuinely in love, 'Or at least the chemicals make them think they are, which amounts to the same thing."
She also found that most people learn to fall in love because they feel the other person is in love with them.
'Thanks to the intensity and tunnel vision of romantic infatuation, we enjoy the illusion that we choose our mate. The reality is known to zookeepers - the most certain way to get members of any species to mate is to house them in the same cage.'
Hazan's findings offer a scientific explanation for many famous bust-ups, Including that of the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who fell out of love soon after the birth of their second son. Another celebrity cited as proving Hazan's theories is golfer Nick Faido, 42, who dumped Brenna Cepelak, 24, bang on 30 months after their adulterous affair began.
Gwyneth Paltrow, who recently is won an Oscar for her role in the romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love, said of her failed three-year relationship with actor Brad Pitt: 'I was sure that Brad was the love of my life, and then suddenly one day 1 did not feel the same. Nothing happened, but doubt set in.'
The Cornell findings coincide with an Italian study published this week in Psychological Medicine and in New Scientist. It confirms the view that the feeling of failing in love is 'actually an illness indistinguishable from a common clinical psychiatric disorder'.
Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, found that lovesick people are actually suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, which is characterised by "obsessive, intrusive thoughts'.
Mairazziti writes that she was struck by the fact that 'the persistent, one-track thoughts of OCD sufferers mirrored the musings of people in love'.
She found that the two conditions were biochemically similar. Along with the love additives identified by Hazan, Marazziti found that the two states were linked by low levels in the brain of serotonin, a chemical the body produces to deal with stress.
In tests carried out on students since the early '90s, Marazziti found that serotonin levels recovered at least a year after courtship began, with subjects reporting that initial giddy feelings were replaced with more subtle emotions.
Marazziti's study also offered an explanation for the attraction often experienced between drinking couples.
'One of the effects of drinking is to depress serotonin in the brain, creating a passionate haze that lures you into thinking the person at the other end of the bar is incrediblv attractive ' she writes.