92 posts categorized "Paul W. Smith" Feed

Thinking Outside the Book (by Paul W. Smith)

Beginning surgery copy

As I was growing up, we had a kindly old family doctor who would make house calls if you couldn’t come to his office (yes, I’m that old).  When he retired, his son took over the practice and took care of me during my anxiety-ridden teenage years.  There was a time when I had difficulty sleeping and Doc Jr. prescribed warm milk with a drop or two of vanilla before bed.  Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure he’s the doctor on whom the character Marcus Welby, MD was based.

Fast forward to more recent times, and medicine (even on TV) is a bit different.  One of my favorite fictional docs is Gregory House, whose medical genius far surpasses his bedside manner.  With his A-Team of talented young physicians in tow, House solves the most difficult diagnostic puzzles, often trying 3 or 4 off-the-wall treatments before finding the correct one.  His best line to a patient?  “You’re going to die, but at least we know why.”

The medical profession has known since Galen that classroom knowledge can take you only so far; actual practice on real humans is the only way to grow the experience base and nurture the requisite intuition.  When my primary care physician begins a statement with “In my 16 years of practice….”, I feel reassured.  I’ve checked, and the Physician’s Desk Reference doesn’t list warm milk with vanilla as a substitute for Xanax.

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Sampling Error (by Paul W. Smith)

Sampling error

Sampling error is a useful tool in the hands of anyone who routinely gathers data, which is pretty much anyone.  It has great value for two-year olds, who spend nearly all of their waking hours collecting data about the world.  It is equally as valuable to adult scientists whose working hours are generally spent recording data for a living.  Simply put, when the data humans gather doesn’t agree with their preconceived view of the world, the convenient explanation is “sampling error.” 

Sampling error is the natural consequence of the inability to examine everything.  If you ask everyone on the planet whether they prefer red wine or white, you will get a very accurate idea of which is the most popular (Note:  those who don’t drink wine are outliers, and can be eliminated).  If, on the other hand, you ask this question of ten people in line at the fish market, you might get all whites.  Since this is completely unreasonable, you can invoke sampling error, and get on with your Pinot Noir. 

As handy as sampling error can be in some situations, it also has a dark side.  Back in the 60’s,  cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason was busy trying to understand why people unfailingly make certain predictable mistakes in reasoning.  He concluded that folks always tend to favor information that supports their own personal beliefs and preconceived notions, regardless of whether or not that info is true.  Pete’s term for this partiality?  Confirmation bias.  In the case of the wine example, it’s clear that those who answered “white” either aren’t serious wine drinkers, or else they didn’t understand the question.  These too are “outliers” to be ignored. 

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Creep (by Paul W. Smith)

Sloth Creeping BW

If you’re an engineer, creep is the slow, permanent deformation of a body resulting from the continued application of heat or stress.  If you’re a regular human, it might signify stealthy movement, or perhaps a detestable person. To a select few, Creep is a song from Radiohead’s Pablo Honey album.  The fact that a creep can creep while listening to Creep is one of the many delights of the English language. 

The detestable thing about stealthy movement, aka creep, is that it often ends badly. As we learned from the classic boiled frog parable, we are wired to detect sudden large changes, but often miss the accumulated effect of many small ones.  Twenty years ago, Dick Carlson warned Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, overlooking how the big stuff actually gets big to begin with.

My wife and I used to enjoy a Sunday brunch buffet at a rooftop restaurant along the California coast where the outer ring of tables rotated once every hour.  I suspect that the rate was carefully chosen so as to avoid motion sickness (not a good thing in a restaurant), and yet still offer a pleasantly shifting view of the coastline.  Both the food and the panorama were wonderful, but it was a bit unsettling to go for seconds only to find that the omelet station had moved.

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For the Memories (by Paul W. Smith)

Ancient Scribe

Memory is not to be trusted.  It is unpredictable, frustratingly fleeting, and only gets worse with age.  It will forever cling tightly to useless facts and yet misplace the freshest, most essential ones.  I can remember my childhood phone number, the tune and lyrics to Let It Be, and most of the Gettysburg Address, and yet I can’t seem to recall the office computer password I reset last week.  I doubt that I am alone in this. 

Memory is such a crucial element of our very existence, so why are we so poor at remembering things?  We should have plenty of storage space; anywhere you search you will find that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons, although when pressed on this number, scientists can’t seem to remember where it came from. 

It is tempting to believe that this memory-fail has a lot to do with the flood of information coming our way, making it increasingly difficult to find a suitable clearing in that vast forest of brain cells.  But this is a problem that pre-dates the flood; the challenge of recollection is as old as recorded history.

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3.61 Degrees of Separation (by Paul W. Smith)

Separation Cartoon

That basketball game you really wanted to see is sold out? Relax, I have connections. You want the best price on a new car? No problem, my brother-in-law works at the dealership. Frustrated in your job search? Forget about patrolling the Internet – “networking” is to modern employment what “plastics” was to Benjamin. From entertainment to shopping to working - and pretty much anything else - it’s not what you know that counts, but who you know.

If connecting to the right people is the secret to success, the 1929 epiphany of Frigyes Karinthy provides some encouragement. Frigyes was the regrettably named Hungarian playwright who first suggested that every other person in the world is six or fewer steps away. His claim was even more remarkable when you consider that to place a phone call to someone in 1929, you had to go through an operator, using up one of your steps before you even got started.

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Stuff Happens When You Fool Mother Nature (by Paul W. Smith)

Fooling Mother Nature 2

Butter is milk fat that is rapidly converted by the body into people fat. Butter had been around for 4000 years with no real competition until 1869, when French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès horrified American dairy farmers with his patented, lower-priced spread known as margarine.

Frantic political lobbying and prohibitive licensing fees ensued. Margarine was blamed for destroying the moral order and threatening the American way of life. Some states banned it outright. When margarine makers added yellow coloring to their naturally grey product, butter makers cried foul, claiming this was a sneaky ploy to deceive the public (never mind that the familiar yellow of butter was itself the result of artificial coloring).

Margarine-makers countered by supplying a separate capsule of yellow coloring to be added by the consumer. In Wisconsin, the heart of America’s dairy land, even this was a crime punishable by heavy fines. It wasn’t until 1967 that this margarine-coloring law was finally repealed.

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