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Mar 23, 2019

The false starts and all that Zen

A very common, but largely invisible part of my work is pursuing opportunities for the College that turn out to be dead ends. One recent example: we were told about some decent office space available in another building. I had to go and look, negotiate with to different programs, complete a couple of forms, communicate with Academic Affairs a few times. All in all, perhaps 8-9 hours, maybe a little more of my time plus the time of several other people. The space turned out to be not that great – we were looking at the wrong floor plan. It does not have access to bathrooms in the evenings and has no windows. I can think of several other dead-end projects, some a little longer, others a little shorter. Probably up to 10 percent of my time is wasted that way. For faculty, the closest thing would be applying for a grant and getting a polite rejection letter. You spend all this time, come up with all ideas, write the narrative, estimate the budget, …. and nothing. Can’t even put it on your CV.

Actually, Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School, has called publically for her peers to publish their failure resumes. Hers is quite funny, and one day I will publish mine (a much longer than hers). In my dean’s job, however, only a smaller portion of the false starts has to do with my personal and professional failures that can be overcome. In most cases, it is like the office space story – a small hiccup somewhere else lead to this waste of time. The imperfections in human communications, and glitches in the bureaucratic machinery constantly make our work less than efficient.

It is easy to pretend to be all Zen about it, or say that it is just the cost of doing business. In real life, no one likes to waste time on things that do not work out. The way I tend to do this is to forget as soon as I can, and move on. It is like paying your parking ticket: the faster you get it over with, the better off you are. Mulling over it, assigning blame only makes it last longer.

The false starts are sometimes described as educational experiences. In theory, one learns something from every one of them. In real life, it is not exactly so. The story with the office space has no lesson, for example. Should I have been doubly vigilant, and made sure it is the right work plan? Should I have though to ask about bathrooms? Would I track down the error about the floor plan, to fix a systemic problem? None of these actually makes sense. I’ve learned nothing, because there is nothing to learn. It is just the random noise of the universe, and there is more of it than we all like to believe. It is not sad or tragic, just mildly irritating.

People say that when I get much older, I will grow to enjoy every moment of life, with all the false starts, errors, and random events. Is there a way to learn the trick sooner? Does Zen actually work?

Mar 11, 2019

Leaders as superstitious pigeons

TED Radio Hour released a show on luck, fortune, and chance. One of the ideas  is that we routinely underestimate the influence of chance on our successes and failures. Human brain is a relentless pattern-seeking machine; it does not tolerate randomness very well, and is always in search for an explanation. We look up to successful people, trying to understand what unique personality traits or strategies have made them so successful. No one wants to hear that those people just go lucky. It is because if success can be explained, we can, I theory, repeat it. If it is mostly by chance, we cannot, and it is not very inspirational.

Among the management types, the joke is that all successes are the results of our leadership, and all the failures are the result of external circumstances beyond our control. The joke contains more than a grain of truth. I have never seen a leader to say – we are very successful, because we got lucky. Very rarely one says, we failed, because I screwed up. I have never heard: “things are bad, because we ran out of luck.”

My College is doing slightly better in terms of efficiency – we are producing more student FTE with a lower faculty workload. To be completely honest, I have no idea why that is the case. I can produce a dozen different theories, including the theory of my brilliant leadership, but all of it will be pure guessing. There are too many factors in play, and it is impossible to isolate any of them to establish causality or even a plausible correlational hypothesis. In reality, it is most likely to be a random fluctuation, the statistical blip that is always present in complex social systems. My former doctoral student Ivan Smirnov keeps marveling at the fact that social scientists routinely underestimate the possibility of chance in their experimental work. Unless you repeat treatment 50 or more times, you are never sure if your success was just a random event. Well, management is not even a true social science; it is a lot of “intuition,” and “beliefs.”

Appreciation of the universe’ randomness is healthy. It makes us a little humbler, and a little more compassionate. People’s misfortunes are often explained by random chance, just like successes. By the way, the last segment of the show explains that chance is not distributed randomly across the population. It is much easier to get lucky if you come from a more privileged background. The lottery of birth is still the most powerful predictor of success. We know that intellectually, but it is so difficult to accept on the intuitive, subconscious level. Our brains automatically link what we do with the success we have. It is an evolutionary adaptation, for evolution wants to us to repeat successful behavior. Yet, how much of the Skinner’s superstitious pigeon is in everything we do?

Mar 4, 2019

Dealing with incommensurability after police shooting

Congrats, you were not afraid of the word. Incommensurability is an old term meaning that two theories cannot be reconciled with each other. Lyotard took it a little further and shown how some discourses are just not compatible with each other and cannot be translated. I thought about this word ever since the OJ trial, when it became apparent to me and many others, that in America certain discourses are just incommensurable. People see the same story and weigh the same evidence, but come to opposite conclusions.

Take the case of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American young man killed by two police officers in March 2018. The officers, it was announced recently, will not be charged, because they truly believed he had a gun (it turned out to be a cell phone). Over this weekend, the two stories have become absolutely incompatible. On one side – the legal system has spoken, the two cops truly believed it was a gun, because they checked with each other, “are you hit?” Tragedy, yes, but no criminal intent or conduct. On the other side is the simple intuitive considerations of justice. Do you mean to tell me that it is OK to shoot someone’s son, brother, and father 20 times, including six times in the back; shoot him for nothing, and it is not anyone’s fault? The most striking consideration that may be lost on those living outside the US is this: the story keeps happening again and again, and again, for many years, in many different cities, and every time it is “a tragic mistake.” It rarely happens to Whites or Asians, and disproportionally more often to Black men.

Our President was planning to do a town hall meeting today, and it would have been completely tone deaf if he did. He was wise enough to replace it with a series of political art performances, by a rapper called Consci8us, by a student theater and dance groups. Jacob Neusner, a Jewish theologian, has shown years ago that way to bridge the incommensurable discourses (such as Judaism and Christianity, in his case) is through story-telling. The mediation removes the need to agree with one or the other discourse, but allows relating to the other through one’s own life experiences. There was nothing one could have said on the substance of the case. To say, “The decision is correct, no one should be charged,” offends an entire community. To say, “They should have been charged,” questions the legal system. Instead, the President gave the opportunity for those voices frustrated by this and many similar decisions to speak in public. It is the best, the most responsible thing to do in his position.

And of course, there is another, more long-term way of dealing with the incommensurability of discourses. It has to do with changing the life experiences that make the two discourses so different in the first place. Many systemic reforms were discussed for years, but never seem to be implemented. Why do the police officers start (not end) a confrontation with a deadly weapon? Can they be asked to use tasers first, even if they believe there is a weapon present? If it gets to shooting, why are they not trained to stop after one shot and re-assess the situation? After all, many bullet shots are survivable, but not 20 of them. Is there any way to reduce the subconscious bias, when a Black man triggers such a sense of danger, while a similarly positioned White dude does not? I know it is hard, but has someone tried? We have some good techniques for anger control, for example, is there something out there for fear control? And of course, the big political issue is this: Cops are so jumpy, because they know how many handguns are out there. If they thought it would be a rare exception, they would be more able to control their own deadly fear. You do not need to take away all handguns, just significantly reduce free access to them to make that intuitive statistics work differently.