Daniel S. Griffin home about me

orange ribbons

11 June 2015 - Berkeley

Running the San Diego 100 last weekend provided me hours and hours to reflect on running and life. One particular reflection dealt with signals. The course, one hundred point two miles of trail, much of it rock strewn and technical, went on and off a number of different routes. An hour east of San Diego, it covered ground in Mt Laguna Recreational Area, on the Pacific Crest Trail, Noble Canyon and Indian Creek Trails, Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, and around Lake Cuyamaca. The various twists and turns were largely marked with orange ribbon. Markers were clustered at intersections of the trail to indicate turns and were also placed along the trail every few hundred yards as confirmation signals that the runner was still on track. Since the course was new to me, I paid special attention to these markings.

Nearly halfway through the race, I was trudging along alone and found myself on a wide dirt access road. Most of the route was on fire trails or single tracks so I paid close attention as the markings indicated a turn onto the dirt road. A few moments later I realized I hadn’t seen an orange marking in awhile and was quite worried I’d taken the wrong turn and would have to turn around - something I was not looking forward to. Instead, I of course increased my pace, frantically searching the trees and bushes along the road for little orange ribbons. I would crane my head to try to spy around a bend as soon as I approached it.

Finally I did see an orange ribbon and, as often was the case during the race, the orange ribbon provided a special bolstering to my step. Smiling, I focused back on the path I was on and saw etched in the soft dirt before me hundreds of footprints clearly from the runners ahead of me. For the next several miles, until I returned to rocky ground and night fell, I had only to look down and spot the treads before me to be assured I was on my path.*

We so often focus on only looking for the most official of signals. As we forage for information in search of answers, searching for indicators from these formal signals often dominates the locus of our attention. This can be quite a distraction from the actual goal and can keep us blind to information we already have ready at hand. This reminded me of an experience in Afghanistan where, attempting to confirm whether an individual apprehended on a mission was or was not a high value target, we frantically searched again and again through our files and databases to see if we had biometric data on this target. If so, having the soldiers on the ground conduct an iris scan would have been simple.

Frustrated that there was not a clear answer whether we had biometrics or not, I tried checking again the similarity between the photograph of the man on the ground and what we had of our target. They clearly looked similar. Then I noticed the height of the target listed on our card. It was quite distinctive and upon radioing down that information it was quickly evident that we did not have our man. So enamored were we with high tech gizmos and formal signals that we had wasted considerable time.

But, identifying indicators in advance can be incredibly useful. I’m not sure what to do with these two stories. I do appreciate them, though, and in additional to being amusing, I hope they might encourage a little more intellectual humility and perhaps some creativity and reasoning from first principles.

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* During the night I discovered a new signal. Urine marks all along the trail from the well-hydrated runners ahead of me were clearly visible by my headlamp on the rocky trails. These runners might never have guessed the joy their expedient urinating brought me.