Tuesday, February 01, 2005

And We'll Give Him Bonus Points For Not Mentioning the Obvious Five Year Plans 

When Transit Authority President Lawrence Reuter told New Yorkers it would take three to five years to restore full service to the A and C I assumed it was a scam. Either this was part of the campaign for the next fair hike ("You want a C train before 2010? Four dollars a ride, fuckers!") or he was high-balling the timing so that when the trains started running in two years he would be praised for effeciency ("TA Cheif Complete Five Year Job in Just Under Two Years. Collects Massive Incentive Bonus"). Or maybe organized crime needed a new hangout since the MoMA was finished. Or maybe some obscure union rule states that 75% of the work must be done by retarded monkeys on vicodin.

I like New Yorker writer Ben McGrath's take even better. The reason why Reuter told us it would take "three to five" is that this is about how long the human mind thinks important improvements take. McGrath lists some tytpically McGrathian examples such as transforming a losing baseball team into winners, getting a black belt or training an air traffic controller. But he doesn't just rely an anecdote. He goes engages in actual reporting, calling up cognitive scientists. What's more, the scientists show enthusiasm for his theory! Note to Ben: Do you have any idea how much money Malcolm Gladwell makes off this kind of stuff? Write the book now.

I'd write the book myself (ain't too proud to steal, thanks) but my mind immediately runs to sales-killing verbotten topics. Is this kind of temporal forecasting hard-wired or habitual? Why "three to five" years rather than "four to six"? Is it heritable? Can you educate people to change their habits of temporal forecasting? Are there signficant differences in the ways different populations forecast the time it takes to accomplish major improvements? I'm pretty sure it's a firing offense to ask some of the questions at most American colleges, magazines and corporations.

(Important side note to the editor of that The Best American Series: take a long hard look at Ben's Knuckle Ball article from last year; if you can live with yourself without including it in this year's collection of Best Sports Writing, your soul is dead.)