Wednesday, July 14, 2010


For the last three days I've been reading Errornomics, by Joseph T Hallinan.  Unlike the similarly suffixed Freakonomics, it doesn't have that slightly snide, we're-so-clever-and-don't-we-know-it tone that makes that book just a little bit insufferable.  Instead of trying to demonstrate how all our received wisdom is wrong in as controversial a way as can be mustered, Hallinan's approach seems much calmer.  It's still based on statistical evidence, but without the smarminess.

Maybe that's why he's a Pulitzer winner.
Hallinan divides the book into chapters based around different mistakes that we make; being over-optimistic about our abilities, simplifying things in order to understand them, avoiding paying close attention to situations in favour of winging them, and so on.  Each chapter has some interesting examples, whether it's psychologists figuring out how to test whether you think you look more attractive than you really do, or concentrating on 'Controlled Flight Into Terrain' aviation disasters.  Along the way there's some interesting examples of how these techniques are applied commercially, whether it's printing pictures of attractive female employees on offer letters in order to increase the take-up rate of loans, or how playing appropriate music drives people to purchase either French or German wine.1

There's some very valuable insights about concentration, the benefits (or not) of multi-tasking, and how best to structure your work.  It turns out (as we all should have known all along) that paying attention to your email isn't going to make you more productive - you need to be able to work uninterrupted in order to produce quality.

One thing I didn't like so much was that the salient fact for every three pages or so is called out in a little grey sidebar, as if the text was just a magazine bound into book form.  Occasionally I'd be glad that they called out a particular finding ("Hope impedes adaptation" is an interesting insight, as is the study that shows that you need about ten years of doing something to get good at it) but mostly it was distracting, as if we're not trusted to understand the book without things being highlighted for us.

Then again, part of Hallinan's thesis is we do skim too much.  So perhaps that should be there.

Finally, he finishes with more helpful advice.  If you've been paying attention throughout, you should learn a lot from this book (even if some of the anecdotes are ones that have been stated again and again), but as a bonus Hallinan gives a summation of what you should do to avoid error:

  • Think small
  • Track your errors - write down what you think will happen so you don't just remember when you made a good prediction
  • Think negatively
  • Let your spouse proofread - sometimes, it's easier for a lay person to spot an error than a professional.  Just the same as it can be hard to debug your own code.
  • Get some sleep
  • Be happy
  • Act appropriately

By that last point, Hallinan means that if you're unhappy somewhere, you may very well be concentrating on the wrong things - if you're at the top of Scafell Pike moaning that there's no decent coffee, either hike down, drive to Manchester and get an espresso, or else learn to admire the view.  It's important to concentrate on the opportunities that present themselves that you can't get elsewhere, rather than obsessing with the things that you can't do.  Possibly that says something about which hobbies I should be pursuing in this crowded, polluted metropolis.

1 It would appear that although French music drives up sales of French wine and depresses German wines, and German music the opposite, the net effect of these is not equal; you'll generally sell more wine overall if you play French music than German music - I suppose the musette is mightier than the oompah.