Tag: Book-notes

David Quammen on Why Big Populations Survive and Small Ones Go Extinct

“Big populations don’t go extinct. Small populations do.
It’s not a surprising finding but it is a significant one.”


Why do small populations go extinct?

While the answer is simple to outline the scientific details are more nuanced. For now, lets stick to the outline version.

“Small populations go extinct because (1) all populations fluctuate in size from time to time, under the influence of two kinds of factors, which ecologists refer to as deterministic and stochastic; and (2) small populations, unlike big ones, stand a good chance of fluctuation to zero, since zero is not far away.”

song of the dodo

Deterministic factors are those involving straightforward cause-and-effect relations that to some extent can be predicted and controlled: hunting, trapping, destroying habitat, introducing new animals that compete with or prey on existing ones, etc.

Stochastic factors “operate in a realm beyond human prediction and control, either because they are truly random or because they are linked to geophysical or biological causes so obscurely complex that they seem random.” We’re talking things like weather patterns, epidemic disease, infestation of parasites, forest fires, etc. Each might cause a downward fluctuation in the population of some species.

In Song of the Dodo, David Quammen gives the following illuminating example.

Think of two species that live on the same tiny island. One is a mouse. Total population, ten thousand. The other is an owl. Total population, eighty. The owl is a fierce and proficient mouse eater. The mouse is timorous, fragile, easily victimized. But the mouse population as a collective entity enjoys the security of numbers.

Say that a three-year drought hits the island of owls and mice, followed by a lightning-set fire, accidental events that are hurtful to both species. The mouse population drops to five thousand, the owl population to forty. At the height of the next breeding season a typhoon strikes, raking the treetops and killing and entire generation of unfledged owls. Then a year passes peacefully, during which the owl and the mouse populations both remain steady, with attrition from old age and individual mishaps roughly offset by new births. Next, the mouse suffers an epidemic disease, cutting its population to a thousand, fewer than at any other time within decades. This extreme slump even affects the owl, which begins starving for lack of prey.

Weakened by hunger, the owl suffers its own epidemic, from a murderous virus. Only fourteen birds survive. Just six of those fourteen owls are female, and three of the six are too old to breed. Then a young female owl chokes to death on a mouse. That leaves two fertile females. One of them loses her next clutch of eggs to a snake. The other nests successfully and manages to fledge four young, all four of which happen to be male. The owl population is now depressed to a point of acute vulnerability. Two breeding females, a few older females, a dozen males. Collectively they possess insufficient genetic diversity for adjusting to further troubles, and there is a high chance of inbreeding between mothers and sons. The inbreeding, when it occurs, tends to yield some genetic defects. Meanwhile the mouse population is also depressed far below its original number.

Ten years pass, with the owl population becoming progressively less healthy because of inbreeding. A few further females are hatched, precious additions to the gender balance, though some of them turn out to be congenitally infertile. During that same stretch of time the mouse population rebounds vigorously. Good weather, plenty of food, no epidemics, genetically it’s fine—and so the mouse quickly returns to its former abundance.

Then another wildfire scorches the island, killing four adult owls, and, oh, six thousand mice. The four dead owls were all breeding-age females, crucial to the beleaguered population. The six thousand mice were demographically less crucial. Among the owls there now remains only one female who is young and fertile. She develops ovarian cancer, a problem to which she is susceptible because of the history of inbreeding among her ancestors. She dies without issue. Very bad news for the owl species. Let’s give the mouse another plague of woe, just to be fair: a respiratory infection, contagious and lethal, causes eight hundred fatalities. None of this is implausible. These things happen. The owl population—reduced to a dozen mopey males, several dowagers, no fertile females—is doomed to extinction. When the males and the dowagers die off, one by one, leaving not offspring, that’s that. The mouse population fluctuates upward in response to the extinction of the owls, a rude signal that life is easier in the absence of predation. Twelve thousand mice. Fifteen thousand. Twenty thousand. But while its numbers are so high it will probably overexploit its own resources and eventually decline again as a consequence of famine. Then rise again. Then decline again. Then …

The mouse population is a yo-yo on a long string. Despite all the accidental disasters, despite all the ups and downs, the mouse doesn’t go extinct because the mouse is not rare. The owl goes extinct. Why? Because life is a gauntlet of uncertainties and the owl’s population size, in the best of times, was too small to buffer it against the worst of times.

Still curious? Read The Song of the Dodo.

Why is it so Hard to Kill a Cockroach with your Shoe?

The Cockroach Papers by Richard Schwied is an interesting book if you are looking to learn more about biology or evolution. Cockroaches are built for survival no matter what the world throws at them. Their ability to adapt is just amazing.

Here are some of my notes from the book.

Food and Water
German cockroaches, Blattella germanica, the most common domestic roach in the United States, have been observed to live 45 days without food, and more than two weeks with neither food nor water.

Cockroaches will eat almost anything including glue, feces, hair, decayed leaves, paper, leather, banana skins, other cockroaches, and dead or alive humans. They will not, however, eat cucumbers. They are particularly fond of dried milk around a baby’s mouth.

The roaches are not confined to any particular environment and live in a tremendous variety of places, from underneath woodpiles in Alaska to high in the jungle canopy in the tropics of Costa Rica. They are even found in the caves of Borneo and under the thorn bushes in arid stretches of Kenya. Wherever they live, they are masters at surviving. They are, Schwied writes, “undeniably one of the pinnacles of evolution on this planet.”

Why is it so hard to kill a cockroach with your shoe?
Schweid observes that “when a cockroach feels a breeze stirring the hairs on its cerci, it does not wait around to see what is going to happen next, but leaves off whatever it is doing and goes immediately into escape mode in something remarkably close to instantaneous fashion.” Studies show that a cockroach can respond in about 1/20th of a second, so “by the time a light comes on and human sight can register it, much less react by reaching for and hoisting something with which to squash it, a roach is already locomoting towards safety.”

Cockroach blood is a pigments, clear substance circulating through the interior of its body, and what usually spurts out of a roach when its hard, , outer shell—its exoskeleton—is penetrated or squashed is a cream-colored substance resembling nothing so much as pus or smegma.

Cockroaches have two brains—one inside their skulls, and a second, more primitive brain that is back near their abdomen.

Schweid says “Pheromones, chemical signals of sexual readiness, operate between a male and female cockroach to initiate courtship and copulation. A sexually receptive female assumes a posture with her abdomen lowered and her wings rais and gives off a pheromone that attracts males.” If he finds a virgin female, a male cockroach after some antenna rubbing foreplay will turn away from the female and raise his wings, “an invitation to her to mount.”Copulation frequently lasts an hour. After sex, female cockroaches store the sperm and use them as needed. The sperm may last her a lifetime.

“The evolutionary strategy employed by cockroaches to reproduce is considerably more efficient than that employed by humans.” Oddly, there are certain species of cockroaches that can, at least for a generation or two, reproduce without any sperm. Schweid says “the females unfertilized eggs will develop and hatch—always producing new females.”

Betty Faber, the former staff entomologist for the New York Natural History Museum, says “Females go to bed—by which I mean disappear back to the harborage—at night earlier than males.”

Schweid writes, “cockroaches, while not social insects in the entomological sense of bees or ants with clearly assigned tasks that benefit the whole community, do clearly take pleasure in the company of other roaches, and the aggression pheromones draw them together, eliciting their effects regardless of the sex or age.” Cockroaches reared singly develop more slowly and take longer between molts than do those reared in a group. Although those groups can be too big “just as development is delayed in young cockroaches if they are isolated, over-crowding also extends the time between molts. So there is yet another kind of pheromone, called a “dispersal pheromone,” and it serves as the chemical signal that it is time to look for a new, slightly roomier harborage. This chemical is found in the insects’ saliva, and has just the opposite effect of the aggression attractant, in that it repulses cockroaches and causes them to look elsewhere for harborage.”

In case you’re thinking we can just nuke the little critters you should know that cockroaches survived the atomic bombs test blast at Bikini. “There is such a thing as a lethal dose of radiation for a cockroach, but it is a lot higher than our own.”

“While few humans may eat them, the roach has both external and internal predators and parasites. There are centipedes that have a primary diet of cockroaches. Mantises, ants, and scorpions will eat them, as will a variety of larger animals including toads, frogs, possums, hedgehogs, armadillos, mongooses, monkeys, lizards, spiders, mice, cats, and birds”

Roaches are nocturnal and pass their days sleeping.

Male aggression
“Cockroaches, like so many other species including our own, have male aggression rituals. They have their own inventory of aggressive behaviors, a scale of conflict that begins with threatening postures. Beyond that they graduate to antenna lashing—a form of which is also present in male/female encounters to determine if a female is sexually receptive–and biting. Sex and territory seem to be the primary motivations for fighting between male cockroaches: These clashes never end in death, but always in the retreat of one fighter.”

Trapping a cockroach
“Stale while bread moistened with warm, slightly soured beer” is the most reliable and effective. “This is typically placed at the bottom of a small jar—a Gerber’s baby food jar, say—around the interior rim of which a petroleum jelly like Vaseline has been applied. The cockroach can climb in from the outside but can’t climb back out.”

What should you do if you get a cockroach stuck in your ear?
“It is, according to all accounts, painful and horrifying, although a little mineral oil or lidocaine sprayed into the ear is usually enough to dislodge the intruder.”

Exterminators primarily employ two methods to kill the cockroach: gas and gel. The gel is way more effective but many still rely on the spray. Why? “The major problem that exterminators have with the gel is that it has no immediate knockdown effect.”

John Wickham, an English pest control consultant defined knockdown as: “The inability of the insect to move in a sufficiently coordinated manner to right itself and progress normally.” When a roach eats gel bait—the safer of the two methods—it heads home before the active poison kills it.

“Customers who are paying $75 an hour like to see these roaches struggling to get up, in agony and convulsions, and the sprays, with substantial knockdown effect, provide them that gratifying visual reassurance that the problem is being solved and that they are getting their money’s worth.

It’s unlikely this poison will have much long term impact. “Almost as soon as an effective poison goes into widespread use, cockroaches begin to develop Resistance. And, typically, the most efficacious products developed, those that do the best job, turn out to be more detrimental to our own health than are the roaches.”

If you want to learn more about cockroaches read The Cockroach Papers.

Is Everything Obvious Once You Know The Answer?

Reading Duncan Watts new book Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer can make you uncomfortable.

Common sense is particularly well adapted to handling the complexity of everyday situations. We get intro trouble when we project our common sense to situations outside the realm of everyday life.

Applying common sense in these areas, Watts argues, “turns out to suffer from a number of errors that systematically mislead us. Yet because of the way we learn from experience—even experiences that are never repeated or that take place in other times and places—the failings of commonsense reasoning are rarely apparent to us.”

We think we have the answers but we don’t. Most real-world problems are more complex than we think. “When policy makers sit down, say, to design some scheme to alleviate poverty, they invariably rely on their own common-sense ideas about why it is that poor people are poor, and therefore how best to help them.” This is where we get into trouble. “A quick look at history,” Watts argues, “suggests that when common sense is used for purposes beyond the everyday, it can fail spectacularly.”

According to Watts, commonsense reasoning suffers from three types of errors, which reinforce one another. First, is that our mental model of the individual behaviour is systematically flawed. Second, our mental model of complex system (collective behaviour) is equally flawed. Lastly—and most interesting, in my view—is that “we learn less from history than we think we do, and that this misperception in turn skews our perception of the future.”

Whenever something interesting happens—a book by an unknown author rocketing to the top of the best-seller list, an unknown search engine increasing in value more than 100,000 times in less than 10 years, the housing bubble collapsing—we instinctively want to know why. We look for an explanation. “In this way,” Watts says, “we deceive ourselves into believing that we can make predictions that are impossible.”

“By providing ready explanations for whatever particular circumstances the world throws at us, commonsense explanations give us the confidence to navigate from day to day and relieve us of the burden of worrying about whether what we think we know is really true, or is just something we happen to believe.”

Once we know the outcome, our brains weave a clever story based on the aspects of the situation that seem relevant (at least, relevant in hindsight). We convince ourselves that we fully understand things that we don’t.

Is Netflix successful, as Reed Hastings argues, because of their culture? Which aspects of their culture make them successful? Do companies with a similar culture exist that fail? “The paradox of common sense, then, is that even as it helps us make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it.”

The key to improving your ability to make decisions then is to figure out what kind of predictions can we make and how we can improve our accuracy.

One problem with making predictions is knowing what variables to look at and how to weigh them. Even if we get the variables and relative importance of one factor to another correct, these predictions also reflect how much the future will resemble the past. As Warren Buffett says “the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.”

Relying on historical data is problematic because of the frequency of big strategic decisions. “If you could make millions, or even hundreds, such bets,” Watts argues, “it would make sense to got with the historical probability. But when facing a decisions about whether or not to lead the country into war, or to make some strategic acquisition, you cannot count on getting more than one attempt. … making one-off strategic decisions is therefore ill suited to statistical models or crowd wisdom.”

Watts finds it ironic that organizations using the best practices in strategy planning can also be the most vulnerable to planning errors. This is the strategy paradox.

Michael Raynor, author of The Strategy Paradox, argues that the main cause of strategic failure is not bad strategy but great strategy that happens to be wrong. Bad strategy is characterized by lack of vision, muddled leadership, and inept execution, which is more likely to lead to mediocrity than colossal failure. Great strategy, on the other hand, is marked by clarity of vision, bold leadership, and laser-focused execution. Great strategy can lead to great successes as it did with the iPod but it can also lead to enormous failures as it did with Betamax. “Whether great strategy succeeds or fails therefore depends entirely on whether the initial vision happens to be right or not. And that is not just difficult to know in advance, but impossible.” Raynor argues that the solution to this is to develop methods for planning that account for strategic uncertainty. (I’ll eventually get around to reviewing the Strategy Paradox—It was a great read.)

Rather than trying to predict an impossible future, another idea is to react to changing circumstances as rapidly as possible, dropping alternatives that are not working no matter how promising they seem and diverting resources to those that are succeeding. This sounds an awful lot like evolution (variation and selection).

Watts and Raynor’s solution to overcome our inability to predict the future echos Peter Palchinsky’s principles. The Palchinsky Principles, as said by Tim Harford in Adapt (review) are “first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.”

Of course this experimental approach has limits. The US can’t go to war with half of Iraq with one strategy and the other half with a different approach to see which one works best. Watts says “for decisions like these, it’s unlikely that an experimental approach will be of much help.”

In the end, Watts concludes that planners need to learn to behave more “like what the development economist William Easterly calls searchers.” As Easterly put it:

A Planner thinks he already knows the answer; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors…and hopes to find answers to individual problems by trial and error…A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

Still curious? Read Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer.

Vaclav Smil: Why America is not a New Rome

On television, modern histories of Rome lead one to think that Romans were rather well off, enjoyed a lot of free time, and commanded the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world. That is, until the Americans came along.

America’s post WWII strategic and military dominance combined with affluence inspired comparisons to ancient Rome at its most powerful. With trouble in Iraq, mounting debt, and a teetering economy, America no longer seems invulnerable. Comparisons have shifted towards the ineffectual, bloated, later empire as Rome collapsed. Commenting on the fall, Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said it was “the greatest perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.”

The vision of America as a new Rome resonates with us. There are obvious parallels and amusing similarities. In Why America is not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil, a scientist and lifelong student of Roman history takes a closer look at the America-Rome analogy.

Smil excels as he methodically unearths the meaning of empire and the relevant periods-of-time necessary for meaningful comparison. Smil ends up agreeing with Patricia Schroeder’s view that an empire “means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from it and alien to it.”

Depending on how you measure an empire, the Roman Empire wasn’t even the greatest. Consider the amount of land controlled as a proxy. Rome was the most extensive empire for only about 150 years, between 220 and 370 C.E. At the peak, the Romans controlled about 3% of ice-free land. To put this in the proper perspective, at the peak of its empire the British controlled about 23% of the ice-free land. If you were to rank empires based on land sizes throughout history, Rome would not even make it into the top 20.

After a close examination of modern US history, Smil concludes that if we are to “pay any attention to the root meaning of our words, hegemony makes a much better descriptor (of the United States) than empire. Smil quotes Schroeder in saying “Those who speak of an American empire bringing freedom and democracy to the world are talking of dry rain and snowy blackness. In principle and by definition, empire is the negation of political freedom, liberation, and self-determination.

Finally Smil offers a recent example of how the US is not cut-throat enough to be considered an empire. “Would an imperial power allow a prime minister of a country that it had recently conquered (and whose reconstruction and defence cost it thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars) to repeatedly visit a neighboring nation (which had been the great power’s avowed enemy for more than a generation and which actually helped to kill some of its soldiers stationed in the neighboring land by providing lethal explosives) and to have a cordial tête-à-tête with its president, who openly calls for the destruction of the great power whose very existence he deems satanic?”

The answer, of course, is no. But that is precisely what the Americans have done by allowing Iraq to engage in diplomatic relations with Mohammed Ahmedinejad, whom Smil refers to as “president of harshly anti-American fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Tehran.” So depending on how you look at it, America is either too nice or too weak to be considered an empire. While not an empire, that does not mean that comparisons about various aspects of society and culture cannot be made.

On innovation

Taking a closer look at the cultures proves exceedingly difficult as well. Much of what we know about Rome is unverifiable best-guesses. Of the Romans, Smil says they “were neither impressive inventors nor the leading technical innovators of their time and that their legacy of systematic, incisive intellectual inquiry compares poorly with that of their Greek predecessors and their Chinese contemporaries.” American creativity, on the other hand, is a bright spot.

Intellectual inquiry

While we know the Romans undoubtedly possessed excellent organizational capability, they were, Smil says, “oddly incurious in most fields of intellectual inquiry, content to live largely off the Greek legacy.”

On energy

America’s high energy consumption makes “the two societies fundamentally incomparable. America is an unequaled example of a large modern economy that derives most of its power from the combustion of fossil fuels, supplemented by generation of primary electricity that converts it to useful tasks with high efficiency and that consumes energy at a very high per capita rate. In contrast, Rome’s energetic foundations, much like those of every ancient society, rested on the low-efficiency combustion of wood and the muscular exertions of people and animals,with overall per capita energy use being a small fraction of modern rates.” While easy availability of energy enables opportunity in America it constrained every aspect of Roman society.

Life expectancy

Romans were handcuffed with an extremely short life expectancy. While most Americans can expect to live until around 80 years old, the average Roman would have been happy to hit 35. While there were many causes for this, including poor medical care, war, poor sanitation, famine and disease, the greatest cost might have been a seemingly glacial pace in societal progress.

On city life

“For an ordinary Roman citizen,” Smil says, “the city was not a stunning cosmopolis of marble temples and showy fora; it was a squalid, fetid, unsanitary, noisy, and generous amalgam of people, animals, wastes, germs, diseases, and suffering.”


One of the differences between the American economy and the Roman one was structural. “In 2005 only about 1.5% of the US labor force was engaged in agriculture, about 11% in manufacturing, 9% in extraction, construction, and transportation, and the rest (78.5%) in a multitude of largely urban-based services. The Roman economy, like those of its ancient contemporaries, was fundamentally different. Classical writers left a record in which urban and military affairs take center place. … Given the low productivity of traditional agriculture, it was inevitable that most Romans spent their lives in fields and yards and along seashores, cultivating crops, threshing grains, pressing olives, producing wine, taking care of domestic animals, and harvesting marine foods.”


Smil does agree with the popular notion that the US is in a constant state of decline, having apexed long ago. “A closer critical look at US power reveals the country to be a weak, ineffective hegemony that has little in common with all those tiresome labels about “only remaining superpower” and “global domination” … while many of its indicators have increased in absolute terms, it has been in gradual relative retreat for more than two generations.”

Smil concludes that the most notable commonality between ancient Rome and modern America is the “vastly exaggerated perception of their respective powers, be they judged in terms of territorial extent, effective political influence, or convincing military superiority. If words are to retain their meaning then I am far from alone in concluding that America is not an empire, but I believe that even American’s undoubted global hegemony is of a very peculiar kind, much less effective and much more fragile than commonly thought.”

Polybius, the Greek historian of ancient Rome, should get the last word. At the outset of his great opus, The Histories, he remarked that those studying isolated histories are like a man who “after having looked at the dissevered limbs of an animal once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the (living) creature itself in all its action and grace.”

If you’re interested in learning more, purchase Why America is not a New Rome.

Future Babble: Why expert predictions fail and why we believe them anyway

Future Babble has come out to mixed reviews. I think the book would interest anyone seeking wisdom.

Here are some of my notes:

First a little background: Predictions fail because the world is too complicated to be predicted with accuracy and we’re wired to avoid uncertainty. However, we shouldn’t blindly believe experts. The world is divided into two: foxes and hedgehogs. The fox knows many things whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Foxes beat hedgehogs when it comes to making predictions.

  • What we should ask is, in a non-linear world, why would we think oil prices can be predicted. Practically since the dawn of the oil industry in the nineteenth century, experts have been forecasting the price of oil. They’ve been wrong ever since. And yet this dismal record hasn’t caused us to give up on the enterprise of forecasting oil prices. 
  • One of psychology’s fundamental insights, wrote psychologist Daniel Gilbert, is that judgements are generally the products of non-conscious systems that operate quickly, on the basis scant evidence, and in a routine manner, and then pass their hurried approximations to consciousness, which slowly and deliberately adjust them. … (one consequence of this is that) Appearance equals reality. In the ancient environment in which our brains evolved, that as a good rule, which is why it became hard-wired into the brain and remains there to this day. (an example of this) as psychologists have shown, people often stereotype “baby-faced” adults as innocent, helpless, and needy.
  • We have a hard time with randomness. If we try, we can understand it intellectually, but as countless experiments have shown, we don’t get it intuitively. This is why someone who plunks one coin after another into a slot machine without winning will have a strong and growing sense—the gambler’s fallacy—that a jackpot is “due,” even though every result is random and therefore unconnected to what came before. … and people believe that a sequence of random coin tosses that goes “THTHHT” is far more likely than the sequence “THTHTH” even though they are equally likely.
  • People are particularly disinclined to see randomness as the explanation for an outcome when their own actions are involved. Gamblers rolling dice tend to concentrate and throw harder for higher numbers, softer for lower. Psychologists call this the “illusion of control.” … they also found the illusion is stronger when it involves prediction. In a sense, the “illusion of control” should be renamed the “illusion of prediction.”
  • Overconfidence is a universal human trait closely related to an equally widespread phenomenon known as “optimism bias.” Ask smokers about the risk of getting lung cancer from smoking and they’ll say it’s high. But their risk? Not so high. … The evolutionary advantage of this bias is obvious: It encourages people to take action and makes them more resilient in the face of setbacks.
  • … How could so many experts have been so wrong? … A crucial component of the answer lies in psychology. For all the statistics and reasoning involved, the experts derived their judgements, to one degree or another, from what they felt to be true. And in doing so they were fooled by a common bias. … This tendency to take current trends and project them into the future is the starting point of most attempts to predict. Very often. it’s also the end point. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, tomorrow typically is like today. Current trends do tend to continue. But not always. Change happens. And the further we look into the future, the more opportunity there is for current rends to be modified, bent, or reversed. Predicting the future by projecting the present is like driving with no hands. It works while you are on a long stretch of straight road but even a gentle curve is trouble, and a sharp turn always ends in a flaming wreck.
  • When people attempt to judge how common something is—or how likely it is to happen in the future—they attempt to think of an example of that thing. If an example is recalled easily, it must be common. If it’s harder to recall, it must be less common. … Again, this is not a conscious calculation. The “availability heuristic” is a tool of the unconscious mind.
  • “deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated.” (Robert Shiller) … It’s tempting to think that only ordinary people are vulnerable to conformity, that esteemed experts could not be so easily swayed. Tempting, but wrong. As Shiller demonstrated, “groupthink” is very much a disease that can strike experts. In fact, psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” to describe expert behavior. In his 1972 classic, Victims of Groupthink, Janis investigated four high-level disasters: the defence of Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and escalation of the wars in Korea and Vietnam and demonstrated that conformity among highly educated, skilled, and successful people working in their fields of expertise was a root cause in each case.
  • (On corporate use of scenario planning)… Scenarios are not predictions, emphasizes Peter Schwartz, the guru of scenario planning. “They are tools for testing choices.” The idea is to have a clever person dream up a number of very different futures, usually three to four. … Managers then consider the implications of each, forcing them out of the rut of the status quo, and thinking about what they would do if confronted with real change. The ultimate goal is to make decisions that would stand up well in a wide variety of contexts. No one denies there maybe some value in such exercises. But how much value? The consultants who offer scenario planning services are understandably bullish, but ask them for evidence and they typically point to examples of scenarios that accurately foreshadowed the future. That is silly, frankly. For one thing, it contradicts their claim that scenarios are not predictions and al the misses would have to be considered, and the misses vastly outnumber the hits. … Consultants also cite the enormous popularity of scenario planning as proof of its enormous value… Lack of evidence aside, there are more disturbing reasons to be wary of scenarios. Remember that what drives the availably heuristic is not how many examples the mind can recall but how easily they are recalled. … and what are scenarios? Vivid, colourful, dramatic stories. Nothing could be easier to remember or recall. And so being exposed to a dramatic scenario about (whatever)… will make the depicted events feel much more likely to happen.
  • (on not having control) At its core, torture is a process of psychological destruction. and that process almost always begins with the torturer explicitly telling the victim he his powerless. “I decide when you can eat and sleep. I decide when you suffer, how you suffer, if it will end. I decide if you live or die.” …Knowing what will happen in the future is a form of control, even if we cannot change what will happen. …Uncertainty is potent… people who experienced the mild-but-unpredictable shocks experienced much more fear than those who got the strong-but-predictable shocks.
  • Our profound aversion to uncertainty helps explain what would otherwise be a riddle: Why do people pay so much attention to dark and scary predictions? Why do gloomy forecasts so often outnumber optimistic predictions, take up more media space, and sell more books? Part of this predilection for gloom is simply an outgrowth of what is sometimes called negativity bias: our attention is drawn more swiftly by bad news or images, and we are more likely to remember them than cheery information….People who’s brains gave priority to bad news were much less likely to be eaten by lions or die some other pleasant death. … (negative) predictions are supported by our intuitive pessimism, so they feel right to us. And that conclusion is bolstered by our attraction to certainty. As strange as it sounds, we want to believe the expert predicting a dark future is less tormenting then suspecting it. Certainty is always preferable to uncertainty, even when what’s certain is disaster.
  • Researchers have also shown that financial advisors who express considerable confidence in their stock forecasts are more trusted than those who are less confident, even when their objective records are the same. … This “confidence heuristic” like the availability heuristics, isn’t necessarily a conscious decision path. We may not actually say to ourselves “she’s so sure of herself she must be right”…
  • (on our love for stories) Confirmation bias also plays a critical role for the very simple reason that none of us is a blank slate. Every human brain is a vast warehouse of beliefs and assumptions about the world and how it works. Psychologists call these “schemas.” We love stories that fit our schemas; they’re the cognitive equivalent of beautiful music. But a story that doesn’t fit – a story that contradicts basic beliefs – is dissonant.
  • … What makes this mass delusion possible is the different emphasis we put on predictions that hit and those that miss. We ignore misses, even when they lie scattered by the dozen at our feet; we celebrate hits, even when we have to hunt for them and pretend there was more to them that luck.
  • By giving us the sense that we should have predicted what is now the present, or even that we actually did predict it when we did not, it strong suggests that we can predict the future. This is an illusion, and yet it seems only logical – which makes it a particularly persuasive illusion.

If you like the notes you should buy Future Babble. Like the book summaries? Check out my notes from Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, The Ambiguities of Experience, On Leadership.

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James March: On Leadership

After reading The Ambiguities of Experience, I set out to read another book by James March: On Leadership.

The genius of March takes a while to appreciate. I assure you, however, this thought-provoking book is packed full of wisdom you won’t find in the business best seller section.


On Leadership offers a stunning demonstration of stubborn nonconformity, through the lens of some great works of literature. The questions March poses are simple; the answers are not.

The book, based on March’s lectures in a leadership course he taught at Stanford University from 1980 to 1994 is one of the best resources on the subject I’ve come across. The lectures were based on three primary convictions.

The first was that the major issues of leadership were indistinguishable from issues of life. A proper discussion involved reflecting on grand dilemmas of human existence as they presented themselves in a leadership context. The second conviction was that great literature was a primordial source of learning about such issues for educated people. An inquiring, skeptical, and tolerant gaze was cast on leadership, primarily through a lens provided by four great works of literature – Othello by William Shakespeare, Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. The third conviction was that education, including education in business schools, should not attempt to furnish students with recipes or prescriptions for success.

Here are some of my notes from the book:

If we are to believe the current thinking, the issue of leadership has been resolved.

What is certain is that the industry recycles, sometimes with blatant opportunism, materials and techniques whose link to leadership is not readily apparent: 360 degrees, group dynamics, etc.

The fundamental issues of leadership — the complications involved in becoming, being, and confronting, and evaluating leaders—are not unique to leadership. They are echoes of critical issues of life more generally. As a result, they are characteristically illuminated more by great literature than by modern essays or research on leadership.

Future leaders are taught to remove inconsistencies, ambiguities, and complexities through precise objectives and well-conceived plans. … However, inconsistency and ambiguity have a role in change and adaptation, and the compulsion toward coherence could be an incomplete basis for understanding or improving leadership and life.

In general, effective leadership implies an ability to live in two worlds: the incoherent world of imagination, fantasy, and dreams and the orderly world of plans, rules, and pragmatic action.

There is often ambiguity about outcomes and their attractiveness. There is ambiguity about who is responsible for the outcomes. As a result, reputations are social constructs negotiated among observers, accountants, journalists, academics, leaders, competitors, friends, and enemies. Reputations diffuse through a population of observers and often change over time.

History is pictured as being the result of intention and actions of leaders. Biographies of leaders are a steady element of lists of best selling books. These writings develop notions of the role of leaders in society, on the attributes of leaders, and on the relation between being a leader and being a proper person. they create a language of leadership, a language filled with ideas, vision, power, and virtue.

To an overwhelming extent, contemporary ideologies of action within theories of choice see action as instrumental, coherent, and justified subjectively. Action is instrumental in the sense that it is taken intentionally and is based on expectations of future consequences for the objectives of the actor. Actors are intendedly rational. Action is coherent in the sense that goals and alternatives are well-defined and the decision rule is clear. Actors choose from among alternatives by calculating and comparing their expected returns. And the justification for action is subjective. It is assumed that the value an individual associates with a particular outcome cannot be compared meaningfully with the value another individual associates with a particular outcome. There is no interpersonal comparison of utilities. Values, thus, are assumed to be irrefutable.

Human behavior has often been described as stemming less from calculations of consequences than from the fulfilment of an identity, a logic of appropriateness than a logic of consequence. Moreover, such a bias for action has been praised as resulting in more deeply human, even more effective, actions.

Nothing significant about leadership is likely to be said by people who have been leaders. People who have been leaders are no more capable of an intelligent appreciation of leadership than Americans are of appreciating the American experience, men are of appreciating masculinity, artists are of appreciating art, or the elderly are of appreciating old age. Comment.

In the contemporary western world relationships based on contracts (economic relations) have increased in importance relative to relationships based on senses of belonging (family, group, nation).

Our understanding of the actions of individuals is often influenced by various myths and interpretations of the world that determine what we think of as true, beautiful, and just.

Do we expect a good leader to be clever or innocent? Being clever involves a worldview in which every player pursues individual interest, a virtuous action is one that is effective, and the end justifies the means, with God rewarding the toughest by allowing them to survive—unless he simply bestows the gift of cleverness on those he loves. In this scheme, we admire the wily politician who achieves personal end at the expense of gullible fools, the crafty negotiator, and manipulator.

Being innocent involves a worldview in which people are naturally good, virtue is based on a clear knowledge of good and evil or, at the very least, on simple actions, God rewards virtue, history is marked by human progress.

We only tolerate cleverness when it is crowned with success, while the failure of innocence is attributed to the perversity of the world.

We condemn the military commander whose troops have committed atrocities, because he is morally culpable if he know about them and unworthy of his command if he did not know (because he should have).

What happens in a world populated by a mixture of clever and innocent people? In one standard morality/evolutionary tale, at first, the clever ones dominate and exclude the innocents from all positions of power. the distinctions between the powerful very quickly become tenuous, however, as only the clever have survived and cleverness no longer represents a decisive advantage in a competitive situation. The deviants who remain worthy of confidence now become rare and much sought-after allies and find themselves associated with victorious coalitions. This does not lead to a stable equilibrium, however, as when a society of trust is established once again, opportunistic behavior can become worthwhile.

The person responsible for a decision will tend to interpret its consequences in a favorable light, whereas a changeover of power can lead to accusations that past strategies were failures.

It is therefore very difficult to maintain a balance between efficiency and the capacity to adapt, as there is a tendency, in the case of success, to specialize and refine the procedures that have been successful; and, in the case of failure, to be impatient for positive results and novel innovations.

The stories of successful change recounted after the event by leaders, consultants, or researchers are deceptively simple, as they depict the leader as a hero guided by a vision that goes against the prevailing ideas and is brought to fruition through heroic efforts.

Most original ideas are bad ones. Those that are good, moreover, are only seen as such after a long learning period; they rarely are impressive when first tried out. As a result, an organization is likely to discourage both experimentation with deviant ideas and the people who come up with them, thereby depriving itself, in the name of efficient operation, of its main source of innovation.

The choices of an organization therefore depend on the respective importance that it attaches to its mean performance and the achievement of a few dazzling successes.

As a general rule, politically weak, peripheral, or subordinated groups will advocate diversity and decentralization, while dominant groups will sing the praises of unity and centralization.

The genius therefore makes it possible to explore unknown and sometimes profitable paths in a situation in which the exploitation of the run-of-the-mill skills mastered by the institution does not serve in a crisis. When exploration becomes too costly or creates too much uncertainty and threatens established positions, the institution abandons the genius.

Organizational leadership is a contradiction in terms. The essence of organization is routine, conventional behavior, bound by the standards of knowledge, morality, and legality of the time. The essence of leadership, on the other hand, is escaping the routine, the standard, and the contemporary to implement a new morality, knowledge and legality quite different from that seen by others. Leadership is pre-eminently anti-organizational. Leaders confront organizations rather than build or serve them. Comment.

Modern leaders are, in a similar way, deluded into heroic commitments by the St. Catherines of modern life — journalists, pundits, and professors. The promises are the same—that heroic action will be rewarded by honor and respect—and those promises are as false today as the ones made to Joan by her voices.

War and Peace develops Tolstoy’s theory that history does not follow any defined structure, but arises from the complex interaction of countless insignificant events.

Power gives rise to desire, envy, and celebration, but also to revulsion, fear, and jealousy.

The taste for power can be considered an individual characteristic that varies from one person to the next, from one culture to another, from one sex to the other. Like the thirst for vengeance, ambition, or love, it is potentially insatiable.

If there is to be change, we need to reconsider our ideas about order founded on the domination of leaders and an endless tug-of-war among contending interests.

War and Peace proclaims that most people cannot escape from the corruptions of society, but that it is possible to attain some degree of wisdom, based on a lack of faith both in accepted truths and in great expectations along with a capacity to lead a simple life and perform everyday tasks effectively.

Widely diffused competence and initiative, allied with coordination via mutual adjustments, allows for efficient reactions and avoids the need for costly specialists or hierarchical controls. Heroic leadership is neither required nor helpful.

It is unfortunate that studies of visionary leadership focus too much on the lone leader and not enough on the way that he or she can maintain a climate propitious to the blossoming of original visions.

The logic of reality entails two aspects of relevance to a leader. On one hand, reality is complex and our knowledge of it is limited, so we are not sure whether a particular action will achieve our desired goal. This awareness can lead to paralysis (what is the point of doing anything if the results depend on chance?) or cynicism (what is the the point of fighting for a better world if we are not certain of the effect of our actions?). On the other hand, reality can be created by action. It need not necessarily be taken as given.

Heroic leadership demands great action and great commitment. Such commitment is usually justified by expectations of great consequences.

For Quixote, intention is primary in judging virtue; consequences are secondary.

It is often, therefore, easier to understand certain aspects of leaders’ behavior by focusing on the pleasures that they can gain from their actions rather than on the consequences they achieve.

“Do you not see, senor, that what is gained by restoring Don Quixote’s sanity can never equal the enjoyment his delusions give?”

There are two essential dimensions of leadership: “plumbing,” i.e., the capacity to apply known techniques effectively, and “poetry,” which draws on a leader’s great actions and identity and pushes him or her to explore unexpected avenues, discover interesting meanings, and approach life with enthusiasm.

The plumbing of leadership involves keeping watch over an organization’s efficiency in everyday tasks, such as making sure the toilets work and there is someone to answer the telephone. This requires competence, not only at the top but also throughout all parts of the organization; a capacity to master the context (which supposes that the individuals demonstrating their competence are thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of the organization); a capacity to take initiatives based on delegation and follow-up; a sense of community shared by all the members of the organization, who feel they are “all in the same boat” and trust and help each other; and, finally, an unobtrusive method for coordination, with each person understanding his or her role sufficiently well to be able to integrate into overall process and make constant adjustments to it. These aspects are essential for the smooth operation of organizations, but they do not appear in most treatises on leadership, no doubt because they are too mundane or too closely linked to a precise context and specific techniques.

Leadership also requires, however, the gifts of a poet, in order to find meaning in action and render life attractive.

A leader must know how to appreciate life and be aware of reality, without falling into the cynicism and bitterness that can arise from the knowledge that our efforts are probably in vain.

If variations are almost always less efficient than tried and tested methods, particularly in the beginning, how can we encourage exploration?

There is a sizable industry devoted to producing books about leadership and optimal leadership styles. For the most part, such books, portray relatively heroic attributes of leadership as producing relatively heroic consequences.

In our contemporary sophistication about the limits of elementary efficiency, we sometimes forget the simple fact that organizations cannot work well unless ordinary tasks are performed routinely and well.

Organizing so that problems are handled quickly and more or less automatically by whoever is there requires certain general attributes within the culture, certain kinds of individual feelings within the organization, a distribution of individual competences, and some organizational arrangements.

If you are going to encourage initiative, you need to be tolerant of small deviations from what you would do yourself in the same situation. Delegation implies the right to be wrong.

These four things—competence, initiative, identification, and unobtrusive coordination—are very conventional. They are found in any standard book on administration. Because they are so conventional and so standard, many of us who think we are sophisticated sometimes act as through they are unimportant.

As managers rise through an organization, managerial power is celebrated; the trappings of managerial importance are increased; but it becomes less clear that a leader’s actions have major effects on organizational performance.

The procedures and drama of decision are organized to emphasize the importance of management and managers, to reassure us of the significance of leaders.

As a result of these rituals and ceremonies, it seems very likely that most organizational leaders exaggerate their control over their success.

The managers we see in an organization are typically people who have risen to their present positions by being evaluated as success in previous positions. Such success encourages them to see their own histories as the consequences of their own actions and competences.

Organizations work because they have mutual trust without personal favoritism.


Still curious? Read the book and check out my notes from The Ambiguities of Experience.