Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Fog of War, brains, and guts

Robert McNamara in a 2003 interviewA few weeks ago I wrote an entry about the data-less mechanics of allies turning into enemies. My original intention was to focus on the importance of collecting data, but I eventually landed on the ditch of assumptions and preconceptions.

Having crawled out of the ditch, it is only fitting to revisit an episode of the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" as the center-piece of this posting. Lodged in the candid memories of the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, there is a revealing story supporting his sixth lesson: "Get the data."

In the documentary, McNamara recalls the beginnings of the USA campaign in Western Europe. A significant share of the allied sorties against the German lines was being cancelled even before take-off and hurting the mission's progress. As part of the Air Force's Office of Statistical Control, he implemented a survey requiring the air commanders to report the causes of all cancelled missions. The analysis of the data exposed an array of bogus reasons attempting to disguise the real cause for the aborted missions: the pilots feared being shot down by the unforgiving anti-aircraft defenses encroached in occupied Europe. Then Lt. Col., Curtis LeMay used the data to implement a heavy-handed solution (those were difficult times): he would lead all the missions and court-martial any crew that did not reach the target.

Businessman Guessing The gut feeling

Witnessing McNamara's recollection of his life, I was left to wonder whether "gut feelings" are just mental short-cuts to decisions based on actual data. It surely makes for better conversation, or movie scenes for that matter, to explain a farm-betting decision as the outcome of a gut feeling. Whether it is cowboy-style deciding to jump onto a horse from a moving train or Star Trek-style shouting orders non-stop under Borg attack, there is definitely an emotional appeal to our ancient roots. Maybe we have genes that keep trying to reconnect us with the times when the difference between a good meal and being the meal was a split second. Or maybe we just sub-consciously grasp for our humanity by avoiding yielding decisions to numbers on a computer screen.

So my question will betray a severed path between my brain and intestines, but I will pose it anyway: Are there people endowed with a super-natural awareness of reality, to the point where they can anticipate the truth hidden in numbers they have never seen? Or better yet, can people reach a degree of oneness with the world, where numbers on a spreadsheet (or use cases in a UML diagram :-) are just snapshots of their deep connection with the universe around them?

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