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September 29, 2023

BehindTheMedspeak: Why a lazy doctor is your best bet


John Kay's Financial Times column explored the conundrum of why heroes are those who solve problems rather than avoid them.

Certainly this holds true in medicine, at least in my field: Anesthesiologists with a reputation for being "good in emergencies" seem to be held in higher esteem than those who aren't, even though avoiding emergencies — and thus having little experience with them — seems to me far preferable and indicative of a superior level of expertise.

And if you are lazy like me it very quickly becomes clear — say, within a week or two of beginning your residency — how much easier it is to avoid trouble than to get out of it.

Here's Kay's piece.

No one remembers a cautious captain of industry

I have been reading Joseph Conrad's "Typhoon," the least sentimental of Christmas stories. It describes how Captain MacWhirr and the crew of the Nan-Shan spent the day saving the ship from a storm in the South China Sea. The typhoon broke open the camphor chests belonging to the 200 Chinese labourers on board, leaving a pile of anonymous silver dollars.

The resulting problem has become known as Captain MacWhirr's dilemma. How can you distribute a prize among a group when only the individuals concerned know the size of their contributions and must be expected to exaggerate them? Capt MacWhirr concluded that the only possible solution was to divide the money equally.

Game theorists have constructed a solution to Capt MacWhirr's dilemma that gives an incentive to everyone on board to tell the truth. If you want the answer, I refer you to the Journal of Political Economy for 1981.* But the economists' solution, arithmetically ingenious, is impracticable. Capt MacWhirr "got out of it very well for such a stupid man", as his second officer observed.

The story of Capt MacWhirr is often interpreted as an account of how an unimaginative but determined individual can rise to the occasion. But Capt MacWhirr faced a second and even more common dilemma in which his intellectual limitations served him less well. He saw the signs of the oncoming storm but, having consulted the manuals of seamanship, ignored their recommendations. "Suppose", he says, "I went swinging off my course and came in two days late, and they asked me 'where have you been?' 'Went round to dodge the bad weather,' I would say. 'It must have been dam' bad, they would say. 'Don't know,' I would have to say, 'I've dodged clear of it.' "

If Capt MacWhirr had followed the textbooks, he would have been known only as the skipper who failed to bring his ship into port on time. If Margaret Thatcher had acted to deter Argentina from invading the Falklands, rather than ordering a taskforce to remove the occupying forces after they had landed, she would probably have been remembered as an unsuccessful one-term prime minister.

In politics, business and finance, as on the seas, the hero is the person who tackles a problem, rather than the person whose actions prevent the problem arising. The statesmen we need are those who avert wars and prevent depressions, but such individuals gain little credit. They encounter Capt MacWhirr's second dilemma. These wars and depressions might have been dam' bad. We don't know; we dodged clear of them.

Capt MacWhirr's second dilemma explains the paradox illustrated by Jim Collins in "Good to Great": more successful leaders attracted fewer column inches. Al Dunlap of Scott Paper declared his admiration for Rambo: "Here's a guy who has zero chance of success and always wins." But Mr Dunlap's company was acquired by Kimberly-Clark, whose chief executive for 20 years, Darwin Smith, avoided the storm by taking the company out of the competitive coated paper businesses and into high-value-added consumer products.

Mr Dunlap was a celebrity but Mr Smith is little known. We prefer to read about Lee Iacocca and Lou Gerstner, who held the helm in the storm, or Jack Welch, who managed the ship through turbulence largely of his own creation.

In the financial world, the cautious captain will be fortunate to remain long on the bridge. Since bonuses depend on maintaining a head of steam, diversion from a straight course will prompt a mutiny. It was not difficult to see the credit storm coming. But better for the chief executive to risk his career in the coming tempest than to sacrifice it in a vain attempt to persuade his colleagues to take a circuitous route.

We crave heroes. So we admire ambulance drivers more than traffic police, business visionaries more than competent managers and creative financiers more than advocates of sound money. That is why we often find ourselves at the centre of the storm.

* A Superior Solution to Captain MacWhirr's Problem: An Illustration of Information Problems and Entitlement Structures (Gene E. Mumy, The Journal of Political Economy Vol. 89, No. 5 [Oct., 1981], pp. 1039-1043).

September 29, 2023 at 04:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

3,000-year-old wooden arrow discovered in Norway

Screenshot 2023-09-29 at 9.50.23 AM copy

Pictured above, the arrow was in unusually fine condition when discovered this month.

From the New York Times:

Ancient Arrow Is Among Artifacts to Emerge From Norway's Melting Ice

As the earth warms, glacial archaeologists are in a race against time to preserve objects before they are destroyed by the elements. Recent field work yielded a surprisingly intact 3,000-year-old arrow.

Espen Finstad was trudging through mud in the Jotunheimen mountains of eastern Norway this month when he happened upon a wooden arrow, bound with a pointed tip made of quartzite. Complete with feathers, it was so well-preserved that it looked as if it could have been lost just recently.
But Mr. Finstad, a glacial archaeologist for the county of Innlandet, knew better. By his estimate, the arrow is probably about 3,000 years old.
"I was really excited," he said. "I’ve never seen something like this before because it was so complete."
The find, which Mr. Finstad and his colleagues believe belonged to a reindeer hunter in the late Stone Age or early Bronze Age, is among thousands of artifacts and remains that have emerged from melting ice in recent years, as climate change thaws permafrost and glaciers around the world.
Last month, the global surface temperature was 1.25 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average, making it the planet's warmest August on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That heat is rapidly melting the ice, from the American West to Kilimanjaro, the Dolomites and the Himalayan mountains.
The thaw presents a fleeting opportunity for glacial archaeologists: They must find the historical treasures just as they emerge from the ice and before they are destroyed by the elements.
"We're sort of in a race against time," said Lars Holger Pilo, a glacial archaeologist and a colleague of Mr. Finstad's. "We really need to work even harder to save as many of these artifacts as we possibly can."
Screenshot 2023-09-29 at 12.11.48 PM
[The wooden arrow, with a quartzite tip, was preserved under ice.]
For more than a decade, their team, which runs the Secrets of the Ice project, has scoured mountain passes across the country. The project, a cooperative effort between Innlandet County Municipality and the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, was founded in 2011.
Since then, the team has discovered around 4,000 artifacts and remains, including a 1,000-year-old wooden whisk and Viking mitten, medieval horseshoes, Bronze Age skis and more than 150 arrows.
Similar work is taking place near Anchorage, Alaska, as well as in northeastern Siberia and Mongolia.
Among the most exciting finds have been Yuka, a 39,000-year-old baby Mammoth found in Siberia in 2010, and a 280-million-year-old tree fossil found in Antarctica in 2016. But the most famous of all is Ötzi — a 5,300-year-old iceman found in 1991 by hikers on the northern Italian border with Austria.
At first presumed to be an unlucky mountaineer, Ötzi was later determined to be a Copper Age fellow, making him the most well-preserved mummy in history. He has since shed light on the social bonds, diets and lives of Copper Age humans.
"We are always hoping for an ice mummy," Dr. Pilo said. "But, of course, the chances of that are really small."
For now, he and his colleagues are content with the 250 or so objects pulled this year from the melted sludge in Norway, including a Viking Age knife, an iron horse bit, and several arrows, including the 3,000-year-old artifact.
What makes the arrow so impressive, Mr. Finstad said, is its preservation: Though it is broken into three parts, the arrowhead remains attached to the shaft, as do the feathers, known as fletchings, which help to stabilize the arrow's flight path. Once the scientists carbon date the arrow, they can determine its exact age.
William Taylor, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who was not involved in the Norwegian field research, said the "incredible" thing about the near-intact arrow was that it helped to fill in gaps about how such objects were made and used.
"We're often sort of guessing at the big picture from whatever was robust enough to weather through the centuries," said Dr. Taylor, who conducts similar research amid melting ice in Mongolia. The arrow, he added, "leaves nothing to the imagination."
He noted that the clock was ticking to find objects before they deteriorate.
"This is a discipline that exists almost exclusively because we are in the sort of throes of catastrophic global climate change," he said.
Mr. Finstad, the Norwegian archaeologist who discovered the arrow, described the finding as among his "top 10" favorites because its near-pristine state had helped him envisage the lives of those who had lived and died in the same mountains.
"You also kind of feel a special connection to the people who lost it," he said.

September 29, 2023 at 12:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What is it?

Screenshot 2023-06-30 at 12.39.28 PM

Answer here this time tomorrow.

Hint: smaller than a bread box.

Note: a reader asked me if "smaller than a bread box" means "can be made to fit inside a bread box without destroying it."


September 29, 2023 at 08:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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