The Power of Defaults

Have you ever had to sign up for something at work or school, like heath insurance or a savings plan? Usually such plans have many options. I heard an amazing statistic some time back that no matter how good of deal one of the options might be, a huge percentage of people will not choose it, no matter what. Even if one of the options was something like “30% discount”, and there would be no reason not to want it, there will still be a large percentage of people that won’t “opt” for it. These same people would be glad to have the “30% discount”, and if that was just the default option they would not select an option to “opt-out” of the “30% discount”. This large group of people will basically just stick with whatever the default options are no matter how good or how bad that is!

Before you judge these people too harshly and say what idiots they are — I admit I’m probably one of them, and maybe you are too! Ever since I heard the statistics about this behavior when signing up for health insurance some time back, I’ve been sensitized and tuned in to watching for it in all facets of life, and I see it everywhere!

I can’t tell you how many times now that I’ve seen someone tell how to use some new software or other tool, and say something like :

“OK, now, the first thing you want to do when you start using this software is go in and change all these default settings that control A, B, and C, and this will make everything so much more efficient and productive and easier to use ….”

I just want to scream and say :

“Why don’t you just make those the default settings!!!” I might not know how to change the settings, or I might not know there were settings like these that could be changed, or I might even just be too lazy to change them, but whatever the reason is, it wouldn’t matter if the software maker just put in the common-sense settings from the beginning as the default settings!!”

Some people just can’t understand this whole concept. They think everyone will be so invested in knowing everything about their heath plan, or their software, that as long as the options exist, people will spend all kinds of time selecting and optimizing the options, and it won’t really matter what the starting options were.

Other people like like Apple (or at least Steve Jobs) do get it. People don’t want to spend tons of time configuring options or preferences or settings, they just want to use the software for the stuff they’re interested in.

So what’s the point of all this, just to rant and vent off frustration? No, indeed, there’s a great deal of power here to be harnessed :

1. Realize the human tendency to blindly stick with the defaults, and watch out for opportunities gain a lot of value by choosing non-default options. (In a perfect world the default options would almost always be a good choice, but it’s not a perfect world, and often the default options are purposely set to a bad choice just to exploit us.)

2. For the things you have control of, set things up such that the default option is the thing you want to happen. For example if you want to do something at work that you think would be a great idea, you could ask your boss :

“A, B, and C seem like really good ideas. Can I start working on them”

or you could reword it to be

“A, B and C seem like really good ideas, and I believe that I’ll be able to start working on those soon as the opportunity arises. Just let me know if you have any concerns or additional instructions. Thanks!”

In the first case, your boss has to give you permission to do it. In the second case you still acknowledge your boss is in charge, and you’ve given him the default option of him or her doing nothing means letting you do it.

Deadliest Catch

“What an intriguing title for a blog post! I wonder what it’s about???”. Well – surprise surprise – it’s actually about the show Deadliest Catch. That may come as a surprise to many, but maybe you just haven’t given the show a chance.

Why would you possibly want to watch a reality TV show, where a bunch of guys week in and week out go through the same predictable situations – bad weather, storms, poor catch, trouble with the new guy on the crew (a “greenhorn”), … . You know the guys are making so much money from the TV show, they can’t possibly be as worried as they say they are about needing to catch enough to make payroll and their boat payments. Yes, there may be some acting, and pushing reality on this reality TV show, but watch carefully, when the first pot of the season is pulled onto the deck, and packed full of Alaskan king crab – at that moment the smiles are real, and the dialog from the captain as he yells instructions at the crew with excitement and energy is unscripted and authentic. In those moments and many others on the show, it obvious when the captain and crew forget they’re on a show, and remnants of the hunter / adventurer  drive that is still in all of our DNA takes over.

My favorite character on the show is captain Sig Hansen. Besides being the son of Norwegian immigrants (I like all things from Norway – the subject of a future blog), he’s as American as can be, and knows every old saying, idiom, axiom and adage. He’s without a doubt the smartest (or perhaps shrewdest is a more accurate term) of the boat captains on the show, nearly always finishing the season with the most pounds of crab in his tanks.

Next time you have a chance, watch a new episode of Deadliest Catch, or if a rerun from an older season comes on – even better!

Music is Irrational!!

That’s a harsh statement, and quite opinionated you may be thinking!  But wait, hear me out as I try and make my case.

Let’s start with what is sound? A sound can be characterized primarily by its frequency. What does that mean? Is it some abstract property like the frequency of the WiFi signal you’re connected to, or the frequency of radio station? Quite to the contrary! The frequency of sound has a very simple physical interpretation. All sound emanates from some kind of mechanical vibration of something hitting, scratching, or scraping something else. Take for example the saw blade in the picture below. It has 11 teeth located around its perimeter, and is turning at a speed of 40 revolutions per second. This means that a tooth is hitting the piece of wood 440 times per second. This just happens to be the precise frequency of the musical note “A”, and if you were standing next to this saw, you’d hear a perfectly tuned “A” buzzing its way thru the piece of wood.

This is the same pitch that you’d hear if you walked by a piano, and hit the “A” key as pictured below, or plucked the “A” string on a violin. Other keys have a higher pitch, and correspond to a higher frequency.

If you look at the third picture below, here’s where it really gets interesting! The large saw blade in the middle is still spinning the the same speed as before, generating a perfectly pitched “A”. Each smaller blade is spinning slightly faster, generating higher frequency sounds.


Notice the little sound bursts coming off each of the saw blades. They are all happening at different rates, yet you can easily see that some that are “in sync” with each other, while others seem not to be. Actually all the blades are in sync with each other, its just that some have simple ratios, and others more complex ratios. The easiest to see this on is “A” and “E”. Every third sound burst coming off the “E” saw blade aligns with every second burst coming off the “A”. This happens because their frequencies have a simple ratio of 3-to-2, or (3/2). If we list all the possible pairs you can make from these four notes we have :

A + E 3/2 Great!
A + D 4/3 Good
A + C# 5/4 Pretty Good
C# + D 16/15 Terrible
C# + E 6/5 ok
D + E 9/8 Bad

As you might have guessed, the third column is how good the two notes sound when played together.

There’s something really interesting going on here! The pairs of saw blades whose relative speeds can be expressed as the ratio of two small integers (like 4/3 or 3/2) are very synchronized, and they sound good when played together. Pairs that don’t have a simple ratio “clash”!

We can even take this one step further and play three notes at the same time like (A + C# + E) or (A + D + E). All of the notes in the first trio (A + C# + E) sync well with each other, and all three together produce an even more rich complex sound we call an A-major chord. If we try and do the same thing with (A + D + E), it sounds like something breaking. That’s because the “D” and “E” just don’t sync up nicely. They have a frequency ratio of 9/8, so only 1 out of every 9 sound bursts from the “E” saw blade aligns with a sound burst from the “D” saw blade. That’s just not enough alignment to sound good.

Hopefully it’s clear now – sound is characterized by its frequency, and when the frequencies of two or more sounds occur in simple integer ratios like 3/2, 4/3, or 5/4, they beat together nicely and form very pleasing complex sounds and harmonies we all love to hear.

So there you have it, something for everyone. For the left-brained math types, there’s the integer ratios of frequencies within a chord that form perfect resonances, and for the right brained art/music types there’s the deep appreciation for the infinite ways in which the notes of various pitches can be combined and sequenced to create the music that is such a vital part of our history and culture.

I wish that were the whole story and we could just end it there, but sadly we can’t.  Just like life itself where it seems like the longer you live, the more you find out things you thought were simple, aren’t so simple after all. So it is with music, notes, and harmony.

Here’s the problem : if “A” is precisely 440.0 Hz, then for perfect resonance, “D” should be exactly a factor of 1.5 times higher (3/2) in frequency, and thus the frequency of “D” should be 660.0 Hz. Why is “D” listed as 659.25 Hz in the keyboard picture above? (and if you look up the frequency of “D” on google, it will say 659.25 Hz too!) What’s going on here? If “A” is 440 Hz, then the best frequency to resonate with it would be 660.0 Hz, not 659.25 Hz.

The discrepancy here comes from the fact that our music scale divides each octave into 12 “equally” spaced notes, like the 12 keys on a piano keyboard between one “A” at 440 Hz and the next “A” in the adjacent octave at 880 Hz. In order to get to exactly a factor of 2.0 in 12 equal steps, the frequency of each adjacent note is raised by a factor of  1.059463094… or 21⁄12.  Sadly, like π, this is an irrational number, going on forever. When you create a music scale based on this irrational scaling ratio, it’s surprising music even works at all!

And yet it does! Whoever picked 12 to be the number of notes to span an octave knew what they were doing!  21⁄12 turns out to be an amazingly good geometric spacing such that many notes land remarkably close to the ideal ratios of 3/2, 4/3, and 5/4, but nevertheless they’re slightly off. Even an untrained ear can hear the difference when two notes on or off perfect resonance by even a fraction of a percent.

When playing a fixed note instrument like a piano, the frequency locations of each note is preset,  and can’t be adjusted on the fly. Other instruments like the violin, and even human voice can ever-so-slightly adjust the pitches of some notes within a chord to bring them into perfect resonance.

It turns out our music scale with its 12 notes per octave irrationally yet evenly spaced across an octave is not perfect, but close enough!