Monday Morning Insight: Decision-Making — Right and Wrong, Good and Bad

(Another entry in our continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


I thought of this week’s quote when I read business coach Chris Brogan’s newsletter, which I highly recommend if you’re trying to improve your connections with your customers.* On Sunday his newsletter focused on decision making, and it reminded me of a great quote I read years ago in Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi:

You must train day and night to make quick decisions.

I used that quote frequently when I was in the service, especially when I counseled the folks who worked for me on my expectations and their performance. As you might expect, decision-making was a key topic — the Air Force evaluation form had a specific section for us to cover “Judgment and Decisions.” And often the decisions we had to make were time-critical; for example, my own decisions about how to control and clean up rocket propellant spills and fires, or about diagnosing and repairing satellite ground systems to restore strategic communications.

I told my officer and enlisted Airmen that when they started to feel paralyzed by a decision in front of them they should concentrate on making the right decision more than on making a good one. I explained that a decision is neither good nor bad at the time you make it, because the outcomes are still unknown: at the time we make a decision, it can only be either right or wrong.

That is, every decision is based on the situation as we know it, and in the case of crisis situations in which quick decisions must be made we almost never have complete information. But every decision is also inherently a prediction of what is likely to happen, and our predictions (sad to say) are subject to error.

A decision may be correct — the appropriate response to all the factors we’ve got in mind — yet still yield a negative outcome. Only after we’ve made the decision and have experienced the consequences can we make a value judgment of whether the decision was good or bad.

The right decision may turn out bad for any number of reasons — we may have missed some key factor, external influences may have come into play that were beyond our reckoning, etc. — but the possibility of a bad outcome should not paralyze us if we know what the right decision is in that moment. The fact that right decisions may have bad outcomes (and vice-versa, though it’s less likely) is part of the basic irrationality of the world; i.e., why the world, in some respects, fails to make sense.

Here I’ve tried to illustrate that when we make a decision — NOW — it’s either right or wrong, but whether the decision turns out to be good or bad is determined LATER. In my experience, it is unlikely for the wrong decision — one that is incorrect or inappropriate for some reason — to yield a good outcome, but it is at least possible.


If social media is any indication, many second-guessers don’t seem to recognize this temporal element to decision-making. Hindsight — that wonderful tendency to look in the rearview mirror of life and see how things might be different (strong emphasis on “might”) if only a different decision had been made — is only 20/20 because often our glasses are tinted. Whether rose-colored or some other shade, through those glasses we never see things as they really were, but only as we imagine they were, colored by all we know now. (Robert Frost was right about the saddest words in the world: “it might have been.”)

As an aside, this also makes me ponder the limits of machine decision-making. Will computer science get to the point that machines can formulate criteria on which to base a decision (knowns and possible unknowns, risks and rewards, potential outcomes, etc.); prioritize and weigh those criteria; evaluate the given situation according to the criteria; and then make a decision, observe the outcomes, and make a value judgment on the effectiveness of the decision? How many “do-loops” and “if-then” interactions do we go through with every single decision we make — even the trivial decisions, let alone the really important and sometimes time-critical ones? In our efforts to make a machine consciousness, will we be able to program those complex, dynamic processes into a machine? And since much of our decision-making operates outside of rational, conscious thought, will a machine’s unconscious (or, even, subconscious) processes ever develop to the point that it will not freeze when faced with a new situation requiring even a simple decision? This is partly why I’ve told panel audiences for years that I think the search for artificial “intelligence” is a bit mistaken. I maintain that artificial “knowledge” is necessary, in the full sense of theory of knowledge, for any machine intelligence to approach our own — and that is a much higher bar to clear.

But for now, when you are faced with decisions this week, I hope you’ll trust yourself to make the right ones, and that in so doing you will help train yourself to make quick decisions when they’re really necessary. The question of whether those decisions are good or bad will have to wait until you know all the consequences — but in my estimation making the right decision should make a good decision more likely.


*If you’ve spent much time on the Internet the last few years, you’ve probably heard of Chris Brogan — he’s only written a half-dozen or more bestselling books and built an extensive social media empire. If you want more information about him, check out his Owner Media Group, where you can sign up for his newsletter. (Or for something completely different you can sign up for my newsletter at this link.)

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Excerpt from a 4th of July Speech

Ten years ago, I was the speechwriter for the Acting Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Michael Dominguez. And ten years ago today, on 4 July 2005, he spoke on behalf of then-President George W. Bush at the “Let Freedom Ring” event in Philadelphia.

During the ceremony, Mr. Dominguez was among the first to ring the “Normandy Liberty Bell,” a replica of our Liberty Bell commissioned by Frenchman Patrick Daudon for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing. The Philadelphia ceremony was the first time the bell was brought to the U.S. (As seen below, it is now on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.)

Normandy Liberty Bell
(The Normandy Liberty Bell. Photo by Susannah Clary, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Mr. Dominguez spoke only briefly, and it was the first and only time one of the people I wrote for was directly representing — essentially, standing in for — the President. For the sake of my own sense of nostalgia, and to mark this Independence Day, here’s an excerpt from the remarks we prepared:

Whenever and wherever freedom rings, the world must take note.

The world took note when the Allies stood together against tyranny and aggression in two world wars.

The world took note of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements, when we extended the self-evident truths of the Declaration — that we are all created equal — to those who had been treated unequally for so long.

The world took note when Afghani and Iraqi citizens voted in free elections.

And in the future, as freedom continues to ring through all nations, tribes, and tongues, the world will continue to take note.

I didn’t attend the event, so I don’t know if Mr. Dominguez actually used the prepared remarks — we learn quickly as speechwriters that what we prepare is often a guide and sometimes just a suggestion! And while the words are not stirring enough to go down in the annals of oratory history, I think they were at least fitting for the occasion.

And for this occasion, I can only add: Happy Fourth of July! And thank-you to all of our troops serving at home and abroad, ensuring that we as a people remain free and independent.

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Getting Just Deserts? I’d Rather Just Have Desserts

It has been “interesting” these past few weeks, for varying degrees of the word, watching the attacks and counterattacks of the Hugo Award fracas* and dealing with the fallout and toxic residue. Being a person of little import or influence may have shielded me somewhat, for which I’m thankful. At least for the moment, some of the ire seems to have abated, indignation reduced from a full boil to a slow simmer.

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake
(Getting just dessert is certainly tastier than getting one’s just deserts. Image: “Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake,” by Josh, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Despite the fact that my nominated story was part of the notorious slate of candidates that locked up more categories than anyone thought possible, several friends — including some who were aware of the controversy — sent me nice congratulations. And a few of them, in congratulating me, said it was “well-deserved.”

I value their support very highly — things that are rare are precious — and I appreciate the sentiment, but “deserve” carries a specific connotation to me such that I prefer not to use the word. My way of looking at it is perhaps peculiar, and one that others may consider odd, but I think no one “deserves” an award (least of all, me). To put it in a more direct way, I don’t “deserve” a Hugo Award — but maybe not for the reason that you think. The way I see it, no one does.

My first objection to saying that I or anyone else “deserves” an award goes back to my time in the Air Force, when I was writing evaluation reports and promotion recommendations and such. Even though “deserve” can mean “be qualified for” or “be worthy of” — and I hope that’s what my friends meant — I learned not to use the word because it can also carry the connotation of being “entitled to” something. No one is entitled to or has an automatic right to such a reward or place of privilege.

Thus I would not say, “Technical Sergeant So-and-so deserves promotion to Master Sergeant,” but instead would say she was ready for promotion, was qualified for and already taking on some of the roles of the higher rank, or perhaps that in my opinion she should have been promoted sooner. Likewise I would not say that Lieutenants Frick and Frack “deserve” Air Force Commendation Medals, but instead that they had each “earned” a medal by virtue of their service.

So when I think about the Hugo Awards — for “excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy,” and the “most prestigious award in science fiction” — I think that I do not “deserve” such recognition, and indeed none of us does, in the sense that none of us are entitled to it. None of us has a right to anything such as that.

The second reason I dislike using the word “deserve” is that in contrast to the phrase “just deserts” it seems to me everyone has things happen to them — good and bad, but particularly bad — that they don’t deserve. When we use the word that way, such as “Oh, that’s terrible, he didn’t deserve that,” the implication is that the person did not earn or have control over the outcome but rather that fate had conspired against them for reasons unknown and unfathomable. She did not deserve to endure that pain and suffering, he did not deserve to contract that disease.

To flip that from the negative to the positive: Even when I think of the good things that have happened in my life, I am loath to say that I deserved them. Some I could claim to have earned, but many seem arbitrary, in the sense that I did little or nothing to earn them, that fate conspired in my favor perhaps for no reason at all, when I might have deserved — really deserved — far worse. I am grateful for all such blessings, but I do not feel that I deserve them.

All of that is a long way of saying that I don’t think I “deserve” a Hugo Award nomination, much less an award itself, because things like that are (to me) not, strictly-speaking, deserved. Even so, I am grateful for the nomination and I might, just might, possibly, have earned it. Why? Because I did the work.

I wrote a story. In fact, the work I did on my story (or that any of the nominees and would-be nominees did on their stories) was complete long before the nomination period opened. I cast that bread upon the waters, so to speak. I did the work, cashed the check, and expected no further reward.

I still expect no further reward. I don’t “deserve” any further reward. I appreciate that some people think that the work — not me, personally, but the work I did — is worthy of recognition. I acknowledge that others disagree: some on the basis of the work, some perhaps for reasons unconnected to it. But I am buoyed by every report that someone appreciated spending time in my make-believe world; I claim no right or entitlement to any accolade, but I am humbled to think that anyone considered my work to be worthy of recognition.

I admit that all the controversy surrounding the nominations has made this a less pleasant experience than it might have been. A friend whom I respect even contacted me with the suggestion (encouragement? urging?) that I should withdraw my nomination, to avoid being caught, dragged under, and having my career drown in the raging turmoil. I appreciate the concern, and to some degree share it; the idea was, and in some respects still is, tempting.

But to paraphrase what I told some other friends when the furor was first cresting: whenever the uproar threatens to steal all my joy I try to concentrate on two things. First, I wrote the best story I could. Second, some people seem to have liked it. I would not go back and undo the first, and I will not cease to be thankful for the second.

And, for the record: I’m also thankful for desserts. Especially pie.


N.B. The above was adapted from an article I sent out in my newsletter. If you want to receive my newsletter, then I may question your judgment but you can sign up for it here anyway.


*I hesitate to call the Hugo Awards controversy a “war,” since at heart this is all contention over works of imagination. Far more has been written about it than may be possible to read (part of the hazard of any controversy involving writers). For my own take on the matter, if you’re curious, see What I Nominated for Hugo Awards, and Three Ideas to Consider and The Hugo Awards: Considering the Controversy.

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My Question: How Many Times Did Bergdahl Try to Escape?

UPDATE, 8 June: I have seem some indications on the news that Bergdahl did indeed try to escape at least once. Good for him.

I suspect some charges still await him, and he will have his chance to defend himself against them.

In the end, I hope we will see honor upheld.

Amid the furor of whether Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier for whose return the administration freed five senior terrorists, only deserted his post and was unfortunately captured or actively sought to turn himself over to the Taliban — i.e., whether he was AWOL or a defector — I have not seen anything that indicates whether the young man ever actually tried to escape from his captivity.

POW*MIA Medallion
(“POW/MIA Medallion,” by Vince LoPresti, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Why does that matter? Because one of the chief responsibilities of any U.S. servicemember who is taken captive is to try to escape. (Even I learned that, and I was in the Air Force.)

It will be interesting to see, if details of the case are released, whether Bergdahl is found to have willingly violated Article II of the Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces, which states,

I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.

One might make the case that Bergdahl was captured against his will, though his former comrades have cast doubt on that. But I also wonder if Bergdahl sought opportune moments to escape during his five years of captivity, or if he effectively violated Article III of the Code of Conduct:

If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.

“I will make every effort to escape,” if I am acting in accordance with the Code of Conduct. Thus, my question: did he, and how many times?

I look forward to seeing how this plays out, and what charges are eventually brought against the young man.

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I Slept Well Last Night (as Orwell said)

I slept well last night (as Orwell said)
Quite peaceably in my comfortable bed
Knowing my guardians, sturdy and rough
Stood ready to do violence on my behalf.

A Veteran's salute
(“A Veteran’s salute,” by The U.S. Army, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

To all those who served, are serving, and will serve, thank you on this Veterans’ Day. It was a privilege to serve with you in my small way, and it is an honor to live under the peace you secure. I salute you.

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First Pair of a Four-Part Soviet Mission to Mars

Forty years ago this week, the Soviet Union was in the midst of launching the first two spacecraft of a four-vehicle mission to the red planet. Each was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton booster.

(Mars 4. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

The first of the spacecraft, Mars 4, was launched on July 21, 1973 — so 40 years ago today, it was on its way. Unfortunately, it was unable to enter orbit when it got to Mars.

It was put into Earth orbit by a Proton SL-12/D-1-e booster and launched from its orbital platform roughly an hour and a half later on a Mars trajectory. A mid-course correction burn was made on 30 July 1973. It reached Mars on 10 February 1974. Due to a flaw in the computer chip which resulted in degradation of the chip during the voyage to Mars, the retro-rockets never fired to slow the craft into Mars orbit, and Mars 4 flew by the planet at a range of 2200 km. It returned one swath of pictures and some radio occultation data which constituted the first detection of the nightside ionosphere on Mars. It continued to return interplanetary data from solar orbit after the flyby.

The first of its companion spacecraft, Mars 5, was launched on July 25, 1973 — so 40 years ago today it and its Proton booster were undergoing final preparations for launch. Mars 5 successfully achieved Martian orbit, but operated for only a short time.

After a mid-course correction burn on 3 August, the spacecraft reached Mars on 12 February 1974 at 15:45 UT and was inserted into an elliptical 1755 km x 32,555 km, 24 hr, 53 min. orbit with an inclination of 35.3 degrees. Mars 5 collected data for 22 orbits until a loss of pressurization in the transmitter housing ended the mission. About 60 images were returned over a nine day period showing swaths of the area south of Valles Marineris, from 5 N, 330 W to 20 S, 130 W. Measurements by other instruments were made near periapsis along 7 adjacent arcs in this same region.

The next two missions, Mars 6 and 7, would be launched on August 5th and 9th, respectively. The loss of Mars 5 would make their operations harder, as it had been “designed to act as a communications link to the Mars 6 and 7 landers.”

Despite their ultimate failures, the series of launches themselves were quite an achievement: preparing and launching two big boosters one right after the other, and then doing it again two weeks later. One of the most interesting experiences of my Air Force career was getting to observe the initial stages — primarily mating the spacecraft to the launch vehicle — of a Proton launch campaign at Baikonur. Having seen what goes into a single launch, that they launched four payloads in such a short time is very impressive.

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The Mystery of Salyut 2

Forty years ago today — April 3, 1973 — the USSR launched Salyut 2 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton K rocket.

(Line drawing of an Almaz space station. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

According to the National Space Science Data Center, Salyut 2 “was designed for scientific research and testing of onboard systems and units” and failed “11 days after launch [due to] an unexplainable accident.”

The Wikipedia entry tells a different story: that Salyut 2 was one of the Soviet Union’s Almaz modules — a space station designed for military use, in answer to the USAF’s proposed Manned Orbiting Laboratory — and the first of the Almaz units to reach orbit. The station’s true purpose was hidden in plain sight by its being designated as a Salyut module.

Wikipedia also includes an explanation for the Almaz/Salyut’s failure:

Three days after the launch of Salyut 2, the Proton’s spent third stage exploded. Thirteen days into its mission, Salyut 2 began to depressurise, and its attitude control system malfunctioned. An inquiry into the failure initially determined that a fuel line had burst, burning a hole in the station. It was later discovered that a piece of debris from the third stage had collided with the station, causing the damage.

The source for the additional Salyut 2 information is this Russian Space Web page, which also notes that

Soon after the accident, official Soviet sources announced that the Salyut-2 had completed its operations “after a series of tests.” For years, official Soviet sources continued to claim that “during entire flight (of Salyut-2) reliable radio-contact with the station had been maintained … and all onboard systems and science equipment of the station had functioned normally.”

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Space History: the Nascent Strategic Defense Initiative

Thirty years ago today — March 23, 1983 — President Ronald Reagan announced a research program that would eventually become the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

President Reagan called for a major research-and-development effort on space-based defenses against ballistic missile attacks. Some of the work I did in the Air Force was related to SDI, which became known (usually pejoratively) as “Star Wars.”

Those of us who were geeks of one stripe or another didn’t really mind the nickname.

According to this excerpt from Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War by Frances Fitzgerald,

The announcement, made in an insert into a routine defense speech, came as a surprise to everyone in Washington except for a handful of White House aides. The insert had not been cleared with the Pentagon, and although Reagan was proposing to overturn the doctrine which had ruled U.S. nuclear strategy for more than three decades, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state were informed only a day or so before the speech was broadcast.

I find that fascinating: visionary, and quite bold. I appreciate that.

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Vanguard Launch Attempt, 1957

Fifty-five years ago today — December 6, 1957 — the U.S. tried to launch the Vanguard satellite from Cape Canaveral, atop a Vanguard rocket.

(Vanguard explosion. US Navy image, from NASA.)

Also known as Vanguard TV3, for Vanguard Test Vehicle 3, the spacecraft was “a 1.36-kg aluminum sphere 15.2 cm in diameter, [that] contained a 10-mW, 108-MHz mercury-battery powered transmitter and a 5-mW, 108.03-MHz transmitter powered by six solar cells mounted on the body of the satellite.” Its mission, other than testing the launch vehicle itself, was to “study the effects of the environment on a satellite and its systems in Earth orbit,” and to “obtain geodetic measurements through orbit analysis.”

As seen in the image above, the launch vehicle exploded shortly after lifting off the pad.

When I was writing speeches in the Pentagon, I included the Vanguard story in a speech I wrote for the Under Secretary of the Air Force to deliver on December 6, 2004:

At 11:44 Eastern time at Cape Canaveral, the test conductor gave the final “go” command and Paul Karpiscak, a young engineer, flipped the final switch. Out on the pad, the rocket’s first stage ignited. It rose about four feet into the air, but lost power and came crashing down after only two seconds. It fell against the firing structure, its fuel tanks ruptured, and it immolated itself in a roaring ball of flame.

That was the 6th of December, 1957. It was Project Vanguard — our first attempt to launch a satellite. The experience was so new to the engineers in the control room that, when they saw it blow up, someone shouted, “Duck!” — and almost everyone did.

To wrap up, … the Vanguard Story has a happy ending.

For one thing, as that first launch vehicle crumbled in flame, controllers noticed that the satellite’s transmitters were still beeping. The payload had been thrown clear of the launch pad — it bounced a few times on the ground, but it still worked! At least they knew their satellite design was solid.

And … three Vanguard launches were successful, starting with Vanguard I on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1958. It wasn’t the US’s first satellite — that was Explorer-1 — but Vanguard I is still up there. It’s the world’s longest orbiting man-made satellite, and still provides data on atmospheric drag and other phenomena.

The lesson I take from the Vanguard story is that failure is, much of the time, a necessary step on the way to success.

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Two DoD Comsats in One Launch

Thirty years ago today — October 30, 1982 — two Defense Satellite Communication System spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral on a single Titan 34D vehicle.

(DSCS III. USAF image.)

The launch of DSCS II (pronounced “discus two”), flight 15, and DSCS III, flight 1, marked the first use of the Titan 34D with the Inertial Upper Stage.

Several years later, after two failed Titan 34D launches, I would become involved in the Titan 34D Recovery Program; specifically, setting up the facilities for, and monitoring the environmental effects of, the first-ever full-scale nozzle-down test of one of the solid rocket motors, at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB.


And 10 years ago today, in 2002, Soyuz TMA-1 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying cosmonauts Sergei V. Zalyotin and Yuri V. Lonchakov, along with Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, to the International Space Station (ISS). Later in 2002, I ended up at Baikonur for the launch preparations of the Nimiq-2 satellite.

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