Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Creating an Index

When you want to create an index, it can look like a daunting task. The sheer amount of text you have to type, page numbers you have to track down, references you have to include, and then if your page numbers change… With Word’s reference function, it’s actually pretty simple – all you have to do is mark the places where you want an entry. In this quick tip, I’ll help you learn how to mark entries in your index, and then create the index itself.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – Prison Construction

It seems as if the construction of prisons is all about the bricks, mortar, and iron bars. On the surface, constructing a prison is about preventing break outs. However, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil explains that the real construction of the prison isn’t in the walls and bars. The real construction is in the beliefs.

This is the second in a series of three posts about The Lucifer Effect. The first was The Devil Made Me Do It, and the final post in the series will be “Normal Evil“.


“The Rock.” It’s a short name for a tiny island in the middle of San Francisco bay that once served as a maximum-security prison. Even if prisoners escaped their cells, the water currents and relative distance of the shore meant near-certain death to anyone willing to attempt it. It’s not that people didn’t try to escape; however, their bodies were never found. As a result, the record of Alcatraz as an inescapable prison remains.

Alcatraz was a formidable prison. The “Battle for Alcatraz” attempted breakout, however, proved that, even if it was not escapable, it was possible for the prisoners to overpower the guards – at least temporarily. The real walls in the prison weren’t the ones made of concrete. The real walls were the ones that were created in the prisoner’s minds. The most troublesome and notorious prisoners called Alcatraz their temporary home and ultimately succumbed to the power of The Rock, a power that wasn’t expressed in its concrete structures, but instead in its relational power structures.

Power Structures

Lord John Dalberg-Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s the structure of power that makes a prison run. If there are too few controls, limits, expectations, and monitoring, the power of the guards spirals up and the power of the prisoners down. The result is the temporary corruption of the guards into tyrannical monsters.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), as it came to be known, showed how minimal oversight and poor limits on guard behavior caused them to emotionally torment the prisoners. In the Abu Ghraib, the conditions weren’t simulated and the results were real. Much to the military’s disgrace, the conditions established at this and other prisons had guards doing unthinkable things to prisoners.

When the Geneva Conventions were removed by changing the status of the prisoners from prisoners of war to unlawful combatants, the safety valves were shut off, and the power of the guards was allowed to escalate to impossible levels. Add to this mixture of circumstances, poor supervision, and a severe lack of resources, and the power structure became unsustainably out of balance.

Even good men and women who had faithfully served their country began to disengage their morality (see Moral Disengagement) and do unspeakable things. Lord Acton’s statement had become all too real. These guards had been corrupted by the power that they held over other people’s lives.

Not every guard changes at the same rate. Not everyone’s moral beliefs and boundaries are bent, moved, or disengaged so quickly – but, ultimately, it seems that everyone’s beliefs are “adjusted.” Most frequently, the adjustments are in a failure to speak up. They’re not acts of commission, but are instead acts of omission.

Acts of Omission

To understand the power of the group and how hard it is to speak up for what’s right, we have to step back in time to 1955 and the work of Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College. Imagine you’ve been recruited with other volunteers to study perception. The challenge is easy. You’re there to compare the length of lines. One reference line and three possible lines, one of which matches the length of the first. You might expect this to be the sort of visual illusion test that is designed to test how we process visual information and some of the hidden flaws. (See Incognito for more.)

However, of the eight participants in each experiment, only you were a volunteer. The other seven people were confederates of Asch. They were there to see how you could be influenced by your desire for conformity. It turns out that, on a test that expected a very low error rate, 75% of the subjects gave at least one incorrect response when pressured by incorrect answers by the other confederates.

Instead of speaking up and giving the correct answer – one that was easy to identify – they gave an incorrect answer. The repetitions of the experiment, with the aid of fMRI machines, indicate that the areas of activation aren’t about conflict but are in areas of visual perception. This says that, literally, the person’s perception of the line was changed.

How can you express your true perceptions when you no longer have true perceptions – your perceptions are literally changed?

On Your Death Bed

If you listen carefully to the regrets of the dying, you’ll find, as Bonnie Ware did, that number three on the list is “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” She records this in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Everyone wants to know what they’ll regret most. Perhaps more interesting is that another variation of the regret of omission is number one on the list – “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” That is, they regret that they couldn’t be themselves – to express themselves completely more frequently.

Private Prisons

Back in the SPE, even the most morally-strong failed to speak out against the abuses that were happening. The prisoner who was on a hunger strike couldn’t rally the support of the other prisoners. Part of that was due to a lack of communication and rapport building, but at least some of it was tied up in the power of conformity. The Hidden Brain relates the story of the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit, where in August 1995, a woman was brutally beaten while people all around did nothing.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of Kitty Genovese in The Tipping Point. Kitty was stabbed to death. Thirty-eight people ultimately admitted to hearing her screams, and exactly zero called the police.

The morally-conflicted guards disengaged, performed small acts of kindness towards the prisoners, but failed to elevate their concerns either by confronting the aggressors or reporting the concerns through the chain of command at the mock prison.

Prison Building 101

The great lesson from the SPE is that to build a prison you need no walls. You need no bars. You need only those capacities within the human mind to succumb to group pressure and the lack of initiative needed to stand up and fight for what is right. President Franklin Roosevelt said it best: “Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own mind.” Perhaps the real prison is doing nothing to test the walls in our mind. Perhaps doing nothing is The Lucifer Effect.

Article: The Actors in Training Development: Distribution Specialists

The dull murmur of instructors and students casually chatting before a class begins has been replaced by the hum of server fans and air conditioning in computer rooms. The instructor standing in front of a class has been replaced by the flow of packets from faraway servers to the student’s computer. It’s the distribution specialists who keep these connections flowing and the servers humming along.

Part of the TrainingIndustry.com series, the Actors in Training Development. Read more…

Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Table of Contents

A table of contents is a must in any relatively long document, whether it’s a proposal, a book, or anything that has a lot of sections. Thankfully, you don’t have to manually enter these sections, format the spacing or update the page numbers on your own. In this quick tip, I’ll show you how you can use Word to not only populate a table of contents, but also update it with little more than the click of a mouse.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – The Devil Made Me Do It

Young children can say things that adults could never get away with. Ask a child why they did something wrong, and one answer you may get is, “The devil made me do it.” The personification of evil, they proclaim, can override their free will and cause them to take one more cookie after they’ve been told no more. We laugh at this childish idea. Of course, no one can make you do something against your will. Hypnotists reportedly can’t get you to do something you don’t want to do. So how silly is it that “the devil made me do it?” The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil tries to help us understand that this may not be as far-fetched as we’d like to believe, but the devil isn’t in the details – the devil is in the system.

This is the first of three posts about The Lucifer Effect. The second post will address constructing a prison, and the third about “normal evil“.

Studies at Stanford

The linchpin of The Lucifer Effect is the study that Philip Zimbardo ran at Stanford University. The study randomly assigned healthy students into either a guard or a prisoner role. The situation was structured to create anonymity, deindividualization, and dehumanization. The structure worked too well. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely, because it was spinning out of control, as the mock guards were abusing the mock prisoners. (As a sidebar, Zimbardo has done other things as well, but none more popular than this experiment. One of his other books, The Time Paradox, is one I read years ago.)

Somehow, the reality that this was an experiment was lost and everyone descended into the belief that the prisoners and the guards were real. They started to act like the situation wasn’t contrived but was instead a result of misdeeds by the prisoners. The escape hatches (metaphorically speaking) to get out of the study were easy enough to realize, but, strikingly, no one reached for them, because no one seemed to believe that they could use them.

In this experiment, the power of the situation – or the system – overwhelmed the good senses of the guards and the prisoners and plunged them both into behaviors that weren’t characteristically theirs. Instead, these students’ behavior was shaped, as Kurt Lewin would say, by their environment.


Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist who contributed greatly to our ability to understand how people behave. His famous equation is B[ehavior] = f[unction](P[erson], E[nvironment]). Put simply, the behavior of anyone is a function of both their person – their unique traits and personality – and the environment that they’re placed in. The mathematics of the function itself is unknown. The complexity of the person and the complexity of their environment make it difficult to predict how someone will really behave. (See Leading Successful Change for more discussion on Lewin’s equation.)

Our legal system rests on the notion that people are responsible for their behaviors, and the environment has no impact on our behavior. (See Incognito for more on this foundation.) However, Lewin says that this is incorrect. In Incognito, Eagleman explains how our will is far from free. Kahneman shares similar concerns in Thinking, Fast and Slow. He goes so far as to say that System 1 (automatic or emotional processing) lies to System 2 (higher-order reasoning.) The result of that deception is that we’re not really in control, we just think we are.

This is the dual-control model that Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis about the rational rider and the emotional elephant. Our laws are constructed for the rational rider without the awareness that the rider isn’t really in control. We make only occasional allowances in our system of government for temporary insanity. This is the slightest acknowledgement where there are times that our emotions get the better of us – and would get the better of anyone.

However, the other variable to the equation is more challenging. Defining the environment is about what courts see as extenuating circumstances – even if they don’t exonerate people – that are worth considering. Zimbardo proves the power of the structural influences on the behavior of carefully screened, well-functioning students. However, he’s not alone in raising the alarm about how good people can be made to do bad things.

Shocking Authority

In the post-World War II world, it’s hard to understand how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party could exterminate so many Jewish people. It’s unthinkable – yet it happened. The question was why people would agree to do such awful things. Stanley Milgram, as a Jew himself, was curious as to what people would do when they were told to. How quickly and easily would people bend to the power of authority. The experiment was simple in structure. Two volunteers would be selected and paired so that one was the teacher and the other was the learner. The teacher would be assessing the effect of electric shocks on the ability to improve learning retention.

At least it looked simple. The real assessment was whether normal people would be willing to administer what they believed to be life-threatening shocks to someone hidden from them. The learner was not a volunteer at all. The learner was a conspirator (or agent) of Milgram’s. The teacher would feel a small shock, then the learner and the teacher would be separated and would communicate through audio only. The teacher would administer what they thought were progressively larger and larger voltage to the learner – while he’d scream, indicate concerns for his heart, and generally indicate his displeasure.

In the presence of a researcher who pressured the teacher to press on, over 90% of people administered what they thought to be potentially lethal shocks to someone in another room. Of course, there were no shocks after the test shock the teacher received. However, the actual outcome of the research was that it was all too easy to get people to disengage their morals in the presence of a false authority. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this terrifying research.)

Moral Disengagement

Bandura artfully explains the mechanisms that allow for Moral Disengagement. The tools of moral disengagement are the same tools that Zimbardo used to construct his mock prison experiment. The system setup for the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed – effectively – to disengage normal, healthy people’s moral safeguards. Free of these bonds, they were free to do anything. The study design in effect created a bubble of reality, of society, of culture that was free to evolve separate from the “real world” outside of the walls of the mock prison.

Bandura affirms that morality is relative to the environment that a person is in. In Paul Ekman’s autobiographical book Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code of My Life’s Pursuit, he shares how a chief’s statement that he would eat Ekman when he died made him a respected man. In this culture, the statement of eating a dead man caused him to achieve respect, while in most cultures, this idea would be repulsive.

Perhaps the greatest surprise wasn’t that morality was relative to culture, it was the speed with which the prison’s culture evolved on its own. It took hours to start to form and days to have a firm hold. By the end of the first week, it was strong enough to have psychologically broken three prisoners and to have shaken Zimbardo’s awareness of his responsibility for controls.

The Devil is the System

Maybe the childish beliefs aren’t so strange. Maybe the devil really did make them do it. However, maybe it’s the systems that we put in place that are the real devil. Maybe it’s the system that is The Lucifer Effect.

Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Keep With Next

Every once in a while, it seems like no matter what you do, formatting isn’t getting you the results you want in your document. Sure, breaks can separate one section from another – but how do you make lines stay together? The keep with next function is Word’s way of allowing you to keep the important things on the same page, even if you change formatting or add breaks, and I’ll show you how to find and use it in this quick tip.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

Book Review-Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys

Raising all kids today is hard. Since I’ve only attempted to raise kids in today’s environment, I can’t comment about whether it’s harder or easier than previous generations. I can say that the grandparents I talk to tell me that they believe it’s harder. It’s for that reason that every parenting program, resource, and book is a welcome tool to better understand, cope, and succeed in the critical task of parenting. Michael Gurian’s book Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys is one tool.

Gurian plays the conclusions fast and loose, sometimes making leaps that would make Superman afraid of heights. Occasionally, he reaches conclusions directly in contrast with intense research. Despite these challenges, he does have important messages to send, messages that should help all parents understand more about the children they care so much for.

Dominant Gender Paradigm

The starting point for much of Gurian’s perspective is his belief that we, as a society, see men as the dominant gender. We believe that men unfairly earn more than women. We believe that women are denied opportunities that they should get because of their gender. These perspectives echo feelings of racial minorities in the past and today.

In my experience with friends and colleagues, I’m aware that they (both women and minorities) are discriminated against. In technology, where I’ve spent most of my career, women report being undervalued, overlooked, and, worse yet, harassed. I can tell you that the discrimination, both with women and minorities, is real, because I’ve heard the stories – and, in some cases, I’ve been a firsthand witness to it happening.

However, I’ve also seen the reverse happen. I’ve seen groups of people who hire only from within their group. In Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, I learned how different societies value in-family and in-group members to the exclusion of others, and how it negatively impacts their overall economic growth in the long term and limits their ability to grow individual organizations. The needle on the gauge goes both ways. Sometimes the dominant group is excluded too – not as much as minorities or women – but it happens.

The question isn’t whether it happens in either direction. The question is what to do about it. The question is whether employment quotas worked to eliminate the discrimination for minorities. The question is also what is happening that we’re not even aware of. Are we unfairly discriminating against our boys because of the belief that they’ll one day become men?

By the Numbers

If you look at the numbers, men make more than women. However, that’s not the whole story. American boys and men commit suicide at four times the rate of girls and women – despite what we might believe about girls being more emotional and therefore more susceptible to commiting suicide. Boys also account for two-thirds of the Ds and Fs issued in school. (Glasser argues there should be no Fs in Schools Without Failure.) Boys are also four times as likely to be suspended or expelled.

Certainly, there are biases that need to be eliminated. There are inequalities that we need to address; however, it’s not like they’re one-sided. If I gave you these numbers without identifying the gender, you might rightfully claim that there’s a crisis and something must be done. However, because the victims are boys, the concern is ignored.

In most parts of the world, girls are doing better than boys on most health and psychological indicators. Gurin is not advocating that we stop helping girls. He’s advocating that we start helping boys.

In a World Without Fathers

Our Kids speaks to the challenges of kids without fathers active in their lives. At the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, fewer fathers are present. They’re simply missing. As a result, children are being raised by mothers – if they’re being raised by anyone at all. The father’s influence, which might be rough on the edges, is exactly the kind of tumbling that is needed to take the corners and sharp edges off of boys who need a struggle to grow.

It was E.O. Wilson, a biologist, who said, “I have been blessed by brilliant enemies.” This is not to say that fathers are enemies of their boys – far from it. Rather I’m saying that the need for refinement exists in all of us, but particularly in our boys. Fathers are strong sparring partners that allow boys to grow.

Boys will be Boys

To someone with both boys and girls, I can tell you with assurance that they’re different. I recognize that this is not a revolutionary statement for most of you – but I can say with conviction that they are different. However, I can also say that each individual boy and each individual girl are different. Yes, gender does play a role in what children need; however, individual differences exist as well.

Gurian asserts that boys need the rough and tumble life, that life is dangerous for boys and that our overparenting, called “helicopter parenting,” has robbed our children, and particularly our boys, of the growth that they need. By eliminating all possible threats to our boys, we’ve deprived them of the need to overcome.

I’m reminded of the category Balan from the Dyirbal language – the language of the aboriginal people of Australia – that includes fire, women, and dangerous things (which I discovered through Ambient Findability). Boys need to learn about these things with just the right amount of safety.

Growing Up Boys

What happens when boys grow up, but they don’t mature? Are they overgrown man children? Perhaps a man in this case becomes just a tall boy. Aging is assured. Maturing is not. When we deprive our children of stress, challenge, and conflict by depriving them of nothing else, we’ve done them the greatest disservice of all. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, while cautioning against the downside of chronic stress, extolls the value of short-term stressors. We need stress in our lives to help us mature. We need stress to make us better.

Women Need Powerful Men

There’s an unfortunate reality that reports of men raping and dominating women have become commonplace. This is unfortunate, in part, because not all the reports are true. It’s more unfortunate because some of them are. Reports of rape – both accurate and inaccurate are thankfully the exception and not the rule. Most men are no longer overgrown man children.

Women don’t need men to lord over them. They don’t need to be victims. For them to express their life, they need to know that they’re equal partners in life. It’s too easy for any of us, including women and men, to move into victimhood and take up permanent residence. (A good place to start on victimhood is Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting.)

Women don’t need men who are carbon copies of themselves, they need men with character, who are powerful in their ability to support and grow with the women that they care about.

Family Rings

Gurian speaks of three families: the nuclear, the extended, and the community. Robert Putnam speaks of the decline of this social capital in Bowling Alone and the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids. Our social fabric is straining to stay intact. Our mobile world has moved us farther from our extended families and has transplanted us from one community to another several times during the course of our lives. The structure that we have to help raise our children is different than it was.

I can remember being told to go out and have fun. Others I know have told me that their parents told them to go out until the street lights turn on – and then to return for dinner. Children didn’t have cell phones or even wrist watches. There was a natural order to things that we’ve disrupted. Ironically, the fact that we’re more connected makes us more distant. (See Alone Together for how technology is changing our relationships.)

Today, parents who allow their children to walk to the park unsupervised are considered criminals, because they put their children at undue risk. They’re considered neglectful for not walking down the block. The ways that used to work to raise children are no longer trusted. Strangely, the actual number of crimes against children isn’t appreciably increasing; however, our awareness and hysteria about it is.

Providing nuclear family support for the growth of our children (and specifically boys) has become more and more challenging. No longer do we have regular contact with our extended families, and as we pick up that role, we’re also warier of our communities.

Processing and Ruminating

It’s no secret that, stereotypically, men and women process thoughts and emotions differently. What isn’t well known or understood is that the way that boys process information is less about rumination and more about processing for completion. Women turn over ideas like a dryer, continuously tumbling them until they’re dry and then occasionally running them on an anti-wrinkle cycle. Men, on the other hand, process information, decisions, etc., for completion.

Instead of the idea being stuck in an endless anti-wrinkle cycle of being turned over, they’re processed and done. This can free a man’s mind from the tyranny of reconsideration. Processing allows freedom, where rumination is enslaving.

Citizen Science

Gurian encourages everyone to perform what he calls “citizen science.” That is, he’s encouraging experimentation and testing of hypotheses. I consider the idea that you would explore and test your world something to applaud but the idea of calling it “citizen science” deplorable. The problem is in our human nature. We’ve got confirmation bias that tells us we’ll find what we’re looking for. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on biases.)

By applying citizen science without controls and observation, we’re quite likely to reach the wrong conclusion. In the end, I believe some of the gravest errors that Gurian makes are because he’s performed citizen science on too small of sample sizes and his confirmation bias has gotten the better of him.

I do, however, invite you to try your own citizen science and look with a careful eye at Saving Our Sons – you’ll likely find some things you agree with and some that you don’t.

Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Breaks

When you want to control how a document looks, using breaks is a helpful way to start. By separating your document, you can keep headers from getting stuck at the end of a page, and even change the formatting one section to another without having to manually select and format them. In this quick tip, I’ll show you how to use breaks to split your document into sections, whether you just need to start something on a new page or have to overhaul the whole document.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

Book Review-The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t (Statistics and Models)

In the first part of this review we spoke of how people make predictions all the time. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail- but Some Don’t has more to offer than some generic input on predictions, it has a path for us to walk about the models and statistics we can use to make better predictions.

All Models are Wrong but Some are Useful

Statistician George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The models that we use to process our world are inherently wrong. Every map inherently leaves out details that shouldn’t be important – but might be. We try to simplify our world in ways that are useful and that our feeble brains can process. Models allow us to simplify our world.

Rules of thumb – or heuristics – allow a simple reduction of a complex problem or system. In this reduction, they are, as Box said, wrong. They do not and cannot account for everything. However, at the same time, they can be useful.

The balance between underfitting and overfitting data is in creating a model that’s more useful and less wrong.

Quantifying Risks

Financial services, including investments and insurance, are tools that humans have designed to make our lives better. The question is, making whose lives better? Insurance provides a service in a world where we’re disconnected and we don’t have a community mentality where we support each other. In Hutterite communities – which is a division of the Anabaptist movement like the Amish and Mennonites – all property is owned in community. In a large enough community, the loss of one barn or one building is absorbed through the community. However, that level of community support doesn’t exist in many places in the modern world.

Insurance provides an alternative relief for catastrophic losses. If you lose a house or a barn or something of high value, insurance can provide a replacement. To do this, insurance providers must assess risk. That is, they must forecast their risk. The good news is that insurance providers can write many insurance policies with an expected risk and see how close they get to calculating the actual risk.

Starting with a break-even point, the insurance company can then add their desired profit. For those people and organizations that believe there’s good value in the insurance, their assessment of risk or willingness to accept risk is such that they want the insurance buy it. Given that people are more impacted by loss than by reward, it’s no wonder that insurance is a booming business. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on the perceived impact of loss.)

The focus then becomes on the ability of the insurance company to quantify their risk. The more accurately they can do this, and take reasonable returns, the more policies they can sell and the more money they can make. Risk, however, is difficult to quantify, ignoring for the moment black swan events (see The Black Swan for more). You still must first separate the signal from the noise. You must be able to tell what is the rate of naturally-occurring events, and which events are just normal random deviations from this pattern.

Next, the distribution of the randomness must be assessed. What’s the probability that the outcome will fall outside of the model? When referring to the stock markets, John Maynard Keynes said, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” The same applies to insurance: you must be able to weather the impact of a major disaster and still stay solvent. Whether it’s a particularly difficult tornado season or a very bad placement of a hurricane, the perceived degree of randomness matters.

Then you have the black swan events, the events that you’ve never seen before. These are the events that some say should never happen. However, many of the times when this has been used, the risk was well-known and discussed. A hurricane hitting New Orleans was predicted and even at some level prepared for – though admittedly not prepared for well enough. This is not a true black swan, or completely unknown and unpredictable event. It and other purported black swan events were, in fact, predicted in the data.

When predicting risks, you have the known risks and the unknown risks. The black swan idea focuses on the unknown risks, those for which there’s no data that can be used to predict the possibility. However, when we look closely, many of these risks are predictable – we just choose to ignore them, because they’re unpleasant. The known risks – or, more precisely, the knowable risks – are the ones that we accept as a part of the model. The real problem comes in when we believe we’ve got a risk covered, but, in reality, we’ve substantially misrepresented it.

Earthquakes and Terrorist Attacks

Insurance can cover the threat of earthquakes and the threat of terrorist attacks. However, how can we predict the frequency and severity of both? It turns out that both obey a similar pattern. Though most people are familiar with Edward Richter’s scale for earthquake intensity, few realize that it’s an exponential scale. That is, the difference in magnitude between a 4.1 and a 5.1 earthquake isn’t 25% more energy released, it’s 10 times more. Thus, the difference between a magnitude 6.1 and an 8.1 earthquake is 100 times more energy released.

This simple base-10 power rule is an elegant way to describe the release of energy that can be dramatically different. What’s more striking is that there is a line that moves from the frequency of smaller earthquakes to larger ones on this scale. It forecasts several large earthquakes for a given period of time. Of all the energy released in all the earthquakes from 1906 to 2005, just three large earthquakes—the Chilean earthquake of 1960, the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, and the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004—accounted for almost half the total energy release of all earthquakes in the world. They don’t happen frequently, but these earthquakes make sense when you look at the forecast along the line of frequency of smaller earthquakes.

Strikingly, terrorist attacks follow the same power law. The severity rises as frequency decreases. The 9/11 attacks are predictable with the larger framework of terrorism in general. There will be, from time to time, larger terrorist attacks. While the specific vector from which an attack will come or the specific fault line will cause an earthquake will be unknown, we know that there’s a deceasing frequency of large events.

Industrial and Computer Revolutions

If you were to try to map the gross domestic product by person, the per-person output would move imperceptibly up over the long history of civilization, right up to the point of the industrial revolution when something changes. Instead of all of us struggling to survive, we started to produce more value each year.

Suddenly, we could harness the power of steam and mechanization to improve our lives and the lives of those we care about. We were no longer reduced to living in one-room houses as large, extended families and began to have a level of escape from the threat of death. (See The Organized Mind for more on the changes in our living conditions.) Suddenly, we had margin in our lives to pursue further timesaving tools and techniques. We invested some of our spare capacity into making our lives in the future better – and it paid off.

Our ability to generate data increased as our prosperity did. We moved from practical, material advances to an advance in our ability to capture and process data with the computer revolution. After a brief dip in overall productivity, we started leveraging our new-found computer tools to create even more value.

Now the problem isn’t capturing data. The Internet of Things (IoT) threatens to create mountains of data. The problem isn’t processing capacity. Moore’s law suggests the processing capacity of an individual microchip doubles roughly every 18 months. While this pattern (it’s more of a pattern and less of a law) is not holding as neatly as it was, processing capacity far outstrips our capacity to leverage it. The problem isn’t data and processing. The problem is our ability to identify and create the right models to process the information with.

Peer Reviewed Paucity

The gold standard for a research article is a peer-reviewed journal. The idea is that if you can get your research published in a peer reviewed journal, then it should be good. The idea is, however, false. John Loannidis published a controversial article “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” which shared how research articles are often wrong. This finding was confirmed by Bayer Laboratories when they discovered they could not replicate two-thirds of the findings.

Speaking as someone who has a published peer-reviewed journal article, the reviews are primarily for specificity and secondarily for clarity. The findings – unless you make an obvious statistical error – can’t be easily verified. While I have done thousands of pages of technical editing over the years where I would verify the author’s work, I could test their statements easily. For the most part, being a technical editor means verifying that what the author is saying isn’t false and making sure that the code they were writing would compile and run.

However, I did make a big error once. We were working on a book that was being converted from Visual Basic to Visual C++. The book was about developing in Visual Basic and how Visual Basic can be used with Office via Visual Basic for Applications. There was a section in the introduction where search and replace done by the author said that there was Visual C++ for Applications. Without anything to verify, and since the book was working on a beta of the software for which limited information was available, I let it go without a thought. The problem is that there is no Visual C++ for Applications. I should have caught it. I should have noticed that it wasn’t something that made sense, but I didn’t.

Because the ability to validate wasn’t easy – I couldn’t just copy code and run a program – I failed to validate the information. Peer-reviewed journals are much the same thing. It’s not easy to replicate experimental conditions. Even if you could replicate experimental conditions, you’re likely to not get exactly the same results. So, consequently, reviewers don’t try to replicate the results, and that means we don’t really know whether the results can be replicated – particularly, using the factors that the researcher specifies.

On Foxes and Hedgehogs

There’s a running debate on whether you should be either a fox – that is, know a little about many things – or a hedgehog – that is know a lot about one thing. Many places like Peak tell of the advantages of focused work on one thing . The Art of Learning follows this pattern in sharing Josh Waitzkin’s rise to both chess and martial arts. However, when we look at books on creativity and innovation like Creative Confidence, The Medici Effect, and The Innovator’s DNA, the answer is the opposite. You’re encouraged to take a bite out of life’s sampler platter – rather than roasting a whole cow.

When it comes to making predictions, foxes with their broad experiences have a definite advantage. They seem to be able to consider multiple approaches to the forecasting problem and look for challenges that the hedgehogs can’t see. I don’t believe that the ability to accurately forecast is a reason to choose one strategy over another – but it’s interesting. Foxes seem to be able to see the world more broadly than the hedgehogs.

The Danger of a Lack of Understanding

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the financial meltdown of 2008. There’s the enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the development of derivatives. (I covered correlation and causation and the impact on the meltdown in my review of The Halo Effect.) The problem that started with some bad home loans ended with bankruptcies as financial services firms created derivatives from the mortgages.

These complicated instruments were validated with ratings agencies, but were sufficiently complex that many of the buyers didn’t understand what they were buying. This is always a bad sign. When you don’t understand what you’re buying, you end up relying on third parties to ensure that your purchase is a good one – and when they fail, the world comes falling down, with you left holding the bag.

The truth is that there is always risk in any prediction. Any attempt to see if there’s going to profit or loss in the future is necessarily filled with risk. We can’t believe anyone that says that there is no risk.

Bayes Theorem

I’m not statistician. However, I can follow a simple, iterative formula to continue to refine my estimates. It’s Bayes theorem, and it can be simplified to:

Prior Probability (Variable) (Value)
Initial estimate of probability X
New Event
Probability of event if yes Y
Probability of event if no Z
Posterior Probability
Revised Estimate XY
xy + z(1-x)

You can use the theorem over and over again as you get more evidence and information. Ultimately, it allows you to refine your estimates as you learn more information. It is, however, important to consider the challenge of anchoring, as discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow and How to Measure Anything.

The Numbers Do Not Speak for Themselves

Despite the popular saying, the numbers do not, and never do, speak for themselves. We’re required to apply meaning to the numbers and to speak for them. Whatever we do, however we react, we need to understand that it’s our insights that we’re applying to the data. If we apply our tools well, we’ll get valuable information. If we apply our tools poorly, we’ll get information without value. Perhaps if you have a chance to read, you’ll be able to separate The Signal and the Noise.

Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Keyboard Movement and Selection

Keyboard shortcuts are a well-known way to reduce the amount of times you move your hand from your keyboard to your mouse and vice-versa when you’re editing your document. However, there are ways to navigate your document and even select text using just your keyboard as well. I’ll show you in this quick tip how to reduce the number of times you reach for your mouse when you want to select text or move around your document.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.