Monday, July 07, 2008

Kluge The Book Signing…A Kluge-y Affair

I went one Saturday recently to a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City. My friend's husband introduced his son Gary Marcus...well it was sort of an introduction, and a bit of kvelling, and maybe a bit of embarrassing praise for this very personable and very brilliant young man. Gary has a long list of accomplishments including graduating high school at 15 or, as Phil Marcus says, he dropped out of high school to go to college. He graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts and went on to get his Ph.D. at MIT. Now he's a professor of psychology at NYU.

Gary's book is Kluge: the Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. He explained that a kluge (pronounced klooj) is "a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem." Think of McGyver using duct tape, a piece of wood, and a bit of wire to create a weapon and defeat the villains.

Gary was quite entertaining with his examples of kluges which he describes as poor design, using as an example the human spine. How many people have back pain? Almost all. Now the spine was a perfect design for four legged creatures, but evolution has no foresight or hindsight, and has to work with what is there. So the humans wound up with the same spine meant for walking on all fours.

Another example of a kluge is the "clumsiness'' of the human mind. For example, we have trouble remembering things: "Where the heck are my car keys? Where is my car?" Unlike computers, we don't have erasers in our brain. So if we go to work each day and usually park in the same place, but then one day park somewhere else, when we come out we cannot remember the location of our car on that day. Gary learned to put his car keys in the same place to help with this particular clumsiness.

He talked about the skydiver who on the first jump has only one thing to remember. PULL the cord! But 6% of skydiver deaths happen because divers FORGET to pull the cord. That is why pilots are trained to use checklists for everything – we cannot trust our memories.

The computer does not forget; every bit of data that goes in has a time stamp and an assigned location. The brain has no time stamp, and can't go to a specific location to find information but has to make do with a system that was kluged together from what nature had available. Some people think the computer is smarter than the human, but not so. Humans create the GIGO (garbage in-garbage out) programming. He gave an example of a GPS in England that did not take into account that the roundabouts (traffic circles) go in the opposite direction from what we are used to. The computer in the GPS did exactly what it was programmed to do!

He also talked about how humans can be manipulated by understanding that our mind is not perfectly designed for rational thought. When you call the estate tax by another name – "Death Tax" – it becomes something horrible. The tax hasn't changed, but the perception has. Gary talked some about marketing and how our minds can fool us. In a grocery store, when they say "Limit 12" on a product, people purchase in larger quantities than they need. Normally they might buy one or two of the item, but with the limit they buy 6!

Gary was charming and interesting and had an attentive audience. Unfortunately, the setup was a kluge itself – a poor choice of location by the front door with people coming and going, the buzzer going off when merchandise was not checked out properly, a vacuum cleaner or some such noise. And me, I got a phone call at the end, had to leave, and forgot to buy the book.

I went to the signing to hear Gary, buy the book, have him sign it, and to see my friend. But my friend wasn't there because she had to go to a family graduation at the same time which I didn't know because my email was out. I forgot to buy the book and get it signed. At least I found the car when we left!

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