I’m Kind Of Sick of the World

I had three devices operating simultaneously, and somehow still managed to be wrong about everything.


My flight from San Francisco arrived at 11:45 p.m., and I was exhausted. My car needed gas, extending my hour drive home (without traffic) to an hour fifteen. I just wanted to crawl into bed.

Sucked Down the Information Sewer

Then the damn local news and talk radio station started telling stories of a shooting in Boston at MIT. A campus cop was shot, according to the news, during hold-up at a convenience store near campus. Dozens of police SWAT vans, cars, and helicopters were on the scene.

So I got home and flipped on a 24-hour news channel on the television. The radio news was at least two hours behind. The flashing lights and black panel vans had migrated to a suburb of Boston. Residents—now witnesses—reported a minute-long gun battle in their sleepy streets. (One minute may not sound long, but one minute is eternity for people in the vicinity of a gun fight.)

Police scanner traffic talked about two men throwing homemade grenades and other explosives from their speeding car.

Reports were fractured and inconsistent. No one could explain how the MIT campus police murder, the convenience store robbery, a carjacking, and the real-life first-person shooter video game were connected.

I was following everything on Twitter, Reddit, news websites, television, and police scanner apps.

And I knew nothing.

I had the names of the suspects wrong. So did a lot of people.

I went to bed at 4:30 a.m. thinking one thing and woke up at 8:30 a.m. hearing I’d been completely bamboozled.

Information Isn’t Always Helpful

I wish I’d ignored the entire Boston Marathon bombing.

Ignored is probably the wrong word. I wish I’d just missed it.

The time between the bombing and the shootouts I was in another world. I was on business, but the really cool business of gamificaiton. I didn’t watch much news or read newspapers. I was immersed in the noble practice of making the world more like a game, making work more human. Even though my iPhone battery kept dying in a couple of hours, I couldn’t stay connected to wifi (no fault of the facility or organizers), and I had a stomach thing the whole time, three days of gamification beat the hell out of feeling useless and scared.

Sometime Knowledge Is the Opposite of Power

There was nothing for me to do about the Boston bombing and its investigation. There still isn’t. So how could knowing more about it—more that turned out to be flat wrong—help me or others?

It couldn’t. Not living in St. Louis. Not with my skills and experience and talent. I was of no use to the people trying to capture the culprits or nurse the wounded or comfort the survivors.

We convince ourselves that we must know everything as it’s happening. We don’t. Stuff blowing up on TV reported by hyperventilating anchors creates a false sense of urgency and danger that leads to paranoia and surrender of control.


I’m going on an information diet.

If it’s really important and really urgent and I personally need to know or get involved, someone will tell me. And that someone won’t be a news anchor.

Thin-Slicing, Experts, and the Power of the Human Brain Help Capture Suspect Two Alive

The police in Watertown responded magnificently. But the most brilliant strategic move gets little notice from the press.

hannebery boat

For about sixteen hours, hundreds of law officers, FBI agents, helicopters, and satellites scoured a relatively tiny area of Boston suburbs for one wounded terrorist. At the same time, they kept the public relatively safe, off the streets, and out of the way of their manhunt.

But they didn’t find their man.

By seven o'clock, Col. Timothy Alben admitted they didn’t know where Dzhokar Tsarnaev was. They believed he was still in the Greater Boston area, but they couldn’t know for sure.

So authorities lifted the “shelter in place” request, allowing people to leave their homes with a powerful admonition: remain diligent.

Col. Alben made clear that there was no “all clear.” The world is a dangerous place, but Watertown, Massachusetts was beyond dangerous. Somewhere in that quiet neighborhood lurked a dangerous, desperate, wounded animal who knew how to shoot a gun, build a bomb, and throw a grenade. Tsarnaev had means and motive to kill anyone he encountered, and Col. Alben warned people not to give Tsarnaev the opportunity.

Lifting “Shelter in Place” Led To Tsarnaev’s LIve Capture

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the human brain’s “thin-slicing” ability in Blink. Experts can spot tiny anomalies that technology, to date, cannot.

We often think of experts as highly trained, long experienced professionals. In truth, though, we’re all experts on something, and David Hanneberry is the world’s leading authority on the boat in his backyard.

Hanneberry’s mind had mapped every bulge, roll, and slack of the tarp covering the boat, which his step son described as Hanneberry’s greatest love, after his wife. When Hanneberry’s eye glimpsed a little flap of the canvas, he knew immediately something was wrong.

That one little ripple of canvas, which no algorithm on the world’s most powerful computer could have detected, led to a bigger problem in Hanneberry’s mind: blood where blood shouldn’t be.No doubt the blood lit up Hanneberry’s amygdala, the little almond-shaped nodes in the brain’s limbic system that triggers the flight or fight or freeze response.

Alert, curious, and cautious, Hanneberry spotted a cut line that held the canvas in place. Not torn or worn through, but cut clean with a knife.

He lifted the canvas and exposed the wrong of all wrongs: bleeding man in his beloved boat.

The Limits of Technology and The Power of People

Had the “shelter in place” ordered remained in effect, it’s very possible that Tsarnaev would have died in David Hanneberry’s boat. All the helicopters and algorithms never would have told authorities that the canvas was flapping wrong. Big data didn’t know how that canvas was supposed to flap; only Hanneberry’s brain knew that.

By lifting “shelter in place,” the police exponentially increased the computing power available to spot something wrong. It worked. Keeping people off the street was a great tactical move. Lifting the order when they did seemed to be perfect timing.

I doubt the police lifted the order to increase the number of eyes searching for Tsarnaev. But it worked brilliantly. And we now know the real power of crowd sourcing, thin-slicing, and the human brain.

Cross-posted from Hennessy’s View.