Friday, February 15, 2008

Innumeracy, cats, and performance evaluations

Researchers from UCSB helped develop the Ocean Impact Map showing human influence on the oceans. The map is interesting. What really got me thinking is Ben Halpern's oft-repeated oceanographer's lament:
"The deep water is such a vast, relatively unexplored area, we just don't know what kinds of impacts we're having on those ecosystems," Halpern says. "We spend trillions of dollars going to the moon and we don't really know what's going on in our own oceans yet."
Trillions? Really? After poking around on the web a little, it looks like $25-28 billion in late-1960s dollars was spent on Apollo. Throw in another $2 billion to make an even $30 billion 1969 dollars. What's that worth today? About $176.24 billion (exercise for the reader: how does that compare to the cost of the second Iraq war?). What's an order of magnitude or so among scientists? One nice introduction to innumeracy I used in freshmen critical thinking classes was Hofstader's "On number numbness", a column he wrote for Scientific American and reprinted in the book Metamagical Themas.

The space-fans have their own oft-repeated "fact" (but I haven't had time to check the numbers):
During the same time period, [Americans] spent as much money on cosmetics as was spent on Apollo.

A couple other interesting bits of trivia about Apollo: how the Apollo 11 flag was engineered (much more interesting than it might sound), and how much better those awful black and white slow scan television pictures actually looked to the folks in Australia seeing the feed from the dish (a movie that you need to see :)

Two unrelated things: At LAX Thursday I saw several people reading Save the Cat. It's a book about screenwriting that I am thinking of reading to see if any of it is relevant to software engineering. Finally, Bob Sutton has another interesting take on annual performance evaluations of employees. Here's a great quote:
Then there is another, more extreme argument, that the performance evaluation process is fundamentally flawed. That doing it well is like doing blood-letting well -- it is a bad practice that does more harm than good in all or nearly all cases. This is the position taken by the famous quality guru W. Edwards Deming -- he was vehemently opposed to using them at all.