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If you have ever pushed your kids on a swing, you know that timing is important. If you add the power of your next push just as the child reaches the apex and begins to fall back, you will swing your child higher and higher with little effort. On the other hand, if you add the power of your next swing at the bottom of the arc just as the swing is moving toward you at maximum speed, you will nearly stop the swing and likely injure yourself and/or your kid. Please don’t try it.

boy wearing blue shirt sitting on swing

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In sports as well, the timing of when you add your effort is critical. In golf, for instance, many beginners think a lot about their hands, probably because we use our hands for many daily tasks such as texting, flipping burgers, playing video games, etc. While the hands are certainly important in the golf swing, they are the last thing to bring to bear on the golf swing, not the first. If you add your hands and wrists at the last moments right before you hit the ball, you will  be accelerating the club face as you hit the golf ball. You will have greater velocity and also more stability and hence more accuracy for the shot. 

woman playing golf

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The golf swing is a complex athletic move that I cannot describe in detail. Here’s what is important in this context. Some parts of the golf swing (notice the word: swing) are much like a pendulum. The longer parts of the body (e.g., the arms) take longer to swing on their own. The shorter parts of the body take a shorter time to swing on their own (e.g., the hands). In addition, the shortest pendulum (the hands) is at the end of the longer arm swing. This means that for the arm swing and the hand/wrist moves to multiply effectively, you must engage the hands and wrists toward the bottom of the arm swing when the arms are already moving at top speed. 

What is True in Mechanics and Sports is also True in Social Engineering.  

If you work in a highly competitive, even cut-throat sales environment, in which there is a long tradition of stealing commissions, grabbing each other’s customers, etc., having the sales manager say something like, “You know what? Let’s cooperate! Put the customer’s interests first, not your own commission” is pretty much useless. A manager’s exhortation to cooperate is a short term high frequency “push” but it will be just as ineffective as trying to start your golf swing with your hands, or trying to push a swing with all your might when your kid is swinging toward you at top speed. If the cultural milieu is cut-throat, the manager’s statement will not be sufficient to change that culture. What the sales people will do is make sure that they have a semi-plausible story ready about how stealing someone else’s commission was really best for the customer. 

group of people raising right hand

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On the other hand, imagine instead that sales people have shared commissions for years and that the company takes many steps to build social capital and cooperation among everyone on the sales force. Now, the manager may do something publicly to praise an actual instance of cooperation. It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or over the top. It is a gentle push that adds energy to what people are already doing. This is akin to adding the hands to a good golf swing or adding your swing push just as your kid begins to descend. 

Don’t get me wrong. If your house is on fire, you should leave. Grab your kids and pets but don’t bother with last weeks losing lottery tickets. 

But — you also need to understand why your house caught fire – perhaps faulty wiring – and why the fire was not immediately doused – e.g., your fire extinguishers are out of date. If you don’t fix underlying problems, your next house is likely to catch fire as well. 

If your culture is so materialistic and superficial that a blow-hard sleaze bag who seems to have great material wealth is celebrated no matter how he or she came by that wealth and fame, you may have to deal with the short term problem first, but unless you also deal with the underlying cultural, social, and economic problems, you’ll likely find yourself in precisely the same situation again. The same or other foreign enemies will attempt to exploit those same weaknesses again by finding a different celebrity with deep underlying character defects. Those enemies will push particularly hard during a crisis or an election and they will push particularly hard in the errant directions that society is already trending toward. 

The String’s the Thing Wherein We’ll Capture the Conscience of a King

Next time you have access to a piano, try the following experiment. Gently push down the C, E, and G keys above middle C. Keep them pressed down with your right hand and then strike middle C sharply with your left hand and let it go. What you will hear is that the strings of C major (C, E, G) will vibrate for quite a time after you release the middle C key. If instead, you gently push and hold down the D, F, and A keys above middle C, you will hear very little sound coming from them. Why? Because the harmonic resonance of  middle C is greater with the C, E, and G than it is the D, F and A keys. Similarly, some people will tend to “resonate” with certain messages more than others will. 

close up photo of person playing piano

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This is why, for example, Russian fake news that was meant to suppress the black vote carried false stories to indicate Democratic candidates didn’t care about the “Black Lives Matter” movement, while false stories about how Democratic candidates don’t care about gay rights were targeted toward the LGBTQ community. Of course, even putting Russian election interference aside, candidates typically target their messages to those that will “resonate” with particular voters. For instance, a candidate who believes in an isolationist foreign policy, forgiving student loans, low estate taxes, and better benefits for veterans might focus a speech to a group of veterans on their desire to see better benefits for veterans.  The same politician, when speaking to college students, will tend to focus on forgiving student loans. That has been “business as usual” for my entire adult life. What was really new to me in 2108 was this: an entire raft of Republican candidates promoted the idea that they were concerned about making sure that insurance companies covered pre-existing conditions. In fact, they had always voted against it and were suing to make this provision of Obamacare illegal. 

Prior to the existence of lying news networks and fake web sites who would echo such lies, politicians of either party would be reluctant to employ blatant lying about their positions because, even putting ethics aside, they would be easily discovered. However, if some of their constituents only believe fake news networks, then such politicians feel that they can lie with impunity The news presented on such networks resonates with what the lying politicians say and resonates with what those viewers want to hear and believe about the people toward whom they are already favorably disposed.

person woman music musician

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Resonance and the Overly Long Time                                                     Lag.

While managing a research project on the psychology of aging at Harvard Med School, I lived in a suburb called Woburn. This rented house had a hot water heating system, and at some point, during a particularly bitter cold New England winter, the furnace stopped working. I could have called in a professional, but instead, I tried to fix it myself. As a part of this system, there was a small gauge that looked a lot like the gauges in a level, but this one was upright and generally half filled with water. I noticed that now, instead of being half filled with water, it was only about 1/10 filled with water. I didn’t exactly understand why this could be problematic but the instructions said it should be half filled with water and there was a valve to let more water in. So, slowly and cautiously, I opened the valve. Nothing happened. I opened it a bit more. Nothing happened. I opened it a bit more. Nothing. I was about to give up and call a repair person. All at once, the little vial began to fill. Yay, me! I turned the valve off because the instructions also said the gauge should not be overfilled. But it kept filling. And filling. Damn! I made sure the valve was closed tightly. It kept filling anyway! Double damn! The gauge exploded! I had been the victim of — well hubris, of course, because I thought I could figure it out — but also a victim of delayed feedback. When feedback is delayed, all sorts of havoc can ensue. 

photography of green and red fire works display

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You may have experienced a similar time lag issue with hotel showers. You turn up the hot water and the shower water stays cold. You turn it up more. It stays cold. You turn it up more and it still stays cold. And then…all at once you’re being boiled to death in your own shower and you begin wondering who will find the naked body. 

Back in the early days of using LOTUS NOTES, there was a button on my screen that said, “REPLICATE.” And if I clicked on that button, a replication process would start. (Basically, it was downloading my email from the server to my ThinkPad). But sometimes, the mouse click did not register. This might not be a giant issue. In other cases, I would simply click again and this worked for most applications. But in this case, NOTES put up another button, in the same exact spot as the REPLICATE button, that said, “STOP REPLICATION.” The State of the Replication Process, however, was not accurately reflected by the State of the Button on the screen! This was endlessly annoying and could easily have been avoided. There was plenty of screen real estate to put a “REPLICATE” button along side the “STOP REPLICATION” button. Once connection speeds were faster and the computational facilities themselves were faster, this UX issue ceased to be an issue because there was no noticeable time lag between the state of the process and the state of the button. 

man holding remote control

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However, I still run into similar issues with Cable TV remotes. Do you? The time lags associated with clicking something on the remote and something happening on the screen is so long, that you begin to wonder whether the battery has gone dead or whether it is aimed wrong or whether the button was not fully depressed. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the entire system is truly electronic. I have begun to believe that the button press actually sends an ultrasonic dog whistle to a pack of hungry weasels who hear the whistle. To them, it’s a signal that they are about to be fed. They begin scampering in unseen cages toward their food dishes. The scampering of their feet is picked up by sensors under the floors of the cages. These sensors cause dials to change in a control room staffed by retired school janitors who push a series of buttons that change the channel or the input designation or turn on captioning, but only after they finish the New York Times crossword puzzle they are working on. Then, and only then, does the desired action take place. But if and only if you’ve been patient enough not to hit the button a second time. 

adult audio concert control panel

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Of course, if you are the user in this scenario, there is a fix. Push the button once and only once. Now, go outside and run around the neighborhood for fifteen minutes before interacting a second time with the remote. Sure, it takes a long time to get to your program but you’ll be in much better shape after just a few months of this regimen. 

On the other hand, if you are the designer of such systems, you might consider that it would be less expensive in the long run to replace the ultrasonic dog whistles, the weasels and the retired janitors with an actual system of electronics which, after all, is supposed to run at nearly the speed of light.

landscape photography of field with wind mill with rainbow

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The Takeaway

In comedy, timing, as in life, and UX design, and pushing your kid on the swing, and your golf swing, and social interventions, and election interference, and human short term memory limitations, is everything. 


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