Turning Side Effects in the Main Effects

 

Today is a day that has inspired men to rise up against their flaccidity. The drug Viagra was introduced to the market and the male gender had its own pill-driven sexual revolution. All based on a complete product failure as Andrew Hargadon so obliquely describes in his lecture…

  • “[Pharmaceutical companies] are spending enormous amounts of money and developing less and less new drugs…In the past three years, no new molecules have come from the big pharma companies…Viagra. It was a drug that original failed in clinical trials for the treatment of angina…and so they had to cancel the trials. But the patients refused to return the samples. So what Pfizer did is they went out and they figured out why. The real trick to pharmaceutical drug development is taking an existing drug, understanding its side effects, and turning those side effects into main effects.”

Failure never felt so good.

Embracing Bad

 

  • “Not only did Vince Gilligan’s five-season, hyper-violent prose poem to midlife male frustration tie up virtually every loose end in sight, it contained the Holy Grail of all storytelling: an Actual Moment of Truth. And not just this particular story’s truth, but one that extended to the beloved and bloated genre Gilligan both elevated and mocked. ‘I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.’ The strongest moments of the final season came as Walt realised that great truism so often underscored in stories like his: Once you introduce evil into your life, you cannot control it.” – Mary McNamara by LA Times

I always think that this lesson is one of the fundamental problems to what become “terrorist” organisations. Groups with well-intentioned grievances – IRA, PLO, etc – get frustrated by their lack of power and influence and turn to thuggery to enhance both. The problem is that when Good Friday Agreement or Camp David Peace Accords finally achieve some measure of progress, they can’t really put the evil scourge back in the bottle so easily.  The devil does not relinquish his Faustian Pact easily.

Kudos to Vince Gilligan for unflinchingly embracing the failures of life to depict a more honest and gripping story, but also to tell a more authentic morality play defining the limits of how far that embrace can and should extend.

Embracing Duality

 

Dreams are stories we tell ourselves.  These stories get us out of bed in the morning. And today of all days we celebrate those stories on World Storytelling Day.

But I personally adopt a contradictory perspective on stories and dreams. They are essential to our well-being…which is why they should be regularly attacked and even killed. One example is the set of stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. These models are the foundation to us going about our daily life and how all our modern technology works, but the sceptic in me seeks to constantly seek new answers and alternative perspectives. Another example are our “dreams” themselves which I argue repeatedly need to be sunsetted on a regular basis.

One of the best TED talks on storytelling is Tyler Cowen’s “Be suspicious of stories”.  An undercurrent of embracing failure pervades the presentation from the title to comments like the following…

  • “Probably I was wrong”
  • “It’s the people who realize that they don’t know anything at all who end up doing pretty well.”
  • “Be a little more messy…be more comfortable about agnostic.”

He asks a powerful question not about stories themselves, but at Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter would say, the ‘un-stories’ – "What are the stories that no one has any incentive to tell?"

For me, one of those themes is “Duality”. The notion that something can be both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ at the same time. The classic, though often misapplied, metaphor for this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. One of the reasons I enjoy the writer Douglas Hofstadter so much is that he regales in such paradoxes.

Curiously though, this story mode has become an incrasing staple of current day TV hits – Sopranos, Lost, Dexter, Homeland, House of Cards. The “bad guy” as protagonist. Is Walter White doing good or doing wrong?

My favourite “duality” portrayal is the episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” titled “The Can Opener” (below)

And everyone lived happily ever after (or did they?)…

 

Eire-bracing Failure

25 more letters

 

Is fheàrr teicheadh math na droch fhuireach.” Better a good retreat than a bad stand – Irish Proverb

Some Gaelic inspiration on St. Patrick’s Day ((thanks Valerie for the graphics).

Embracing Meltdowns

meltdown

 

What’s the best way to prepare for and learn from mistakes? Even the disasters of the worst kind? Make them happen. That is what scientists are doing with one of the most nightmarish failures of modern life – the nuclear reactor meltdown. Like one of the biggest in history that happened four years ago today at Fukushima.

The Argonne National Laboratory have contrived a way to create an nuclear meltdown in a controlled laboratory environment as described in this article, “First look at nuclear fuel in a meltdown”…

  • “Scientists have managed to take their first close-up look at what happens to nuclear fuel when it becomes molten, as it would in a nuclear reactor meltdown. In an innovative lab experiment, they discovered that uranium dioxide fuel behaves differently when molten than in its solid state…Uranium dioxide melts at over 3000°C, far too hot for most furnace container materials which would melt and react with the test samples…The melting of the uranium dioxide fuel represent the first stage of any nuclear meltdown…In a real nuclear reactor core meltdown, such as occurred at both the Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai’ichi plants, the molten uranium dioxide melts and reacts with the zirconium metal cladding on the fuel rods, and with the surrounding steel and concrete structure, forming a lava which scientists have called corium.”

The researches want to witness first-hand what actually happens in such an event. Standard operating procedure for such tragedies is to escape as quickly as possible. So there is not a lot of opportunity to hang around and check out what’s going on. Unless, you make such a failure happen on your own terms.

As it happens, our son Chase landed in Japan today. He is chronicling his 300+ mile walk from Tokyo to Kyoto along the ancient “Tōkaidō” (East Sea Road) connecting them with field recordings at each of the 53 stations along the route. He will be sharing his work on his own blog, “Dōchūki”.

Why Most Things Fail

Paul Ormerod - Why Most Things Fail

  

“Gales of creative destruction” – Schumpeter

World Book Day today. And I have no shortage of books on failure. They are a regular gift item and recommendation from friends and fans of this blog. The one I just finished is Paul Ormond’s “Why Most Things Fail”. It’s less about the dynamics or process of embracing failure and more about the imperative of embracing failure…

  • “Failure is all around us. Failure is pervasive. Failure is everywhere, across time, across place and across different aspects of life. 99.99% of all biological species which have ever existed are now extinct…More than 10% of all companies in America disappear each year…From biological species to companies to government policies, there appears to be an Iron Law of Failure which is extremely difficult to break.”

Ormond recognises that failure is all about risk and he makes an effective delineation between “risk” and “uncertainty”…

  • “Uncertainty in its strictest sense, refers to situations in which the probability of various outcomes is itself unknown” (eg. flipping a coin is not ‘uncertainty’, but the chance of an alien visit from outer space is).

Frozen Failure

Frozen is the gift of embracing failure that just keeps giving. Its “Let It Go” is an anthem to embracing failure. The song was celebrated with an Oscar win last year which is now legendary for the #FAIL by John Travolta introducing the song’s singer Idina Menzel (aka “Adele Dazeem”). This year’s Academy Awards gave that embrace just a bit more of a squeeze bringing John and Idina/Adele together to announce the Oscar for best song.

It turns out that Idina is a master of embracing failure as she reveals in this BuzzFeed interview “Idina Menzel Had The Best Response To Missing A Note From “Let It Go

  • “There are about 3 million notes in a two-and-a-half-hour musical; being a perfectionist, it took me a long time to realize that if I’m hitting 75 percent of them, I’m succeeding. Performing isn’t only about the acrobatics and the high notes: It’s staying in the moment, connecting with the audience in an authentic way, and making yourself real to them through the music. I am more than the notes I hit, and that’s how I try to approach my life. You can’t get it all right all the time, but you can try your best. If you’ve done that, all that’s left is to accept your shortcomings and have the courage to try to overcome them.”
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