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Sources of Error

In high school chemistry, we had to write down at least some speculations about why any results that differed from the expected ones were that way, in a section called “Sources of Error”.

We were taught that “human error” was not a valid type of error to blame our problems on. That is, we could say things like, “this reaction does not go to completion so the yield is lower than the calculations suggest” or even “not all of the water evaporated from the precipitate before it was weighed”, but not, “I think I must have messed up the calculations” or “I mis-labeled the beakers and mixed the wrong ones”.

Somehow, I ended up with a life philosophy analogous to this principle, where I consider it OK if things go wrong that are, more or less, outside my control, but I blame myself (or others) if something could have been done about it, even in retrospect.

Lately I’ve been teaching myself to accept human error. Everything that could or does go wrong in the course of a long international backpacking trip is, in some sense, human error. Human error is an unavoidable, and thus in some sense legitimate, part of life. Maybe it’s right to penalize students for things that they do wrong in their chemistry experiments, but it doesn’t make for a very pleasant perspective when applied more broadly.

What prompted this long monologue? Things have been going wrong, and all of them are, to some degree, my fault. Some of the more major ones include:

  1. Falling victim to pickpocketing. This could have been prevented by not carrying my wallet in such an easily accessible location, or at least not carrying all my valuables in it; or, I could have been aware of the acute risk while entering the Barcelona metro and kept a firm grip on my stuff. After the event, I spent a lot of expensive phone minutes calling credit card companies to cancel cards, which, had I remembered that I wouldn’t be liable for fraudulent charges if I called within a few days, could have waited for Wi-Fi and Skype.
  2. Injuring my arm/shoulder in the waves at the beach in Tel Aviv, the day before I was going to leave for Istanbul. I didn’t mention it earlier, but I got hit at an odd angle by a wave and strained my shoulder, causing intense pain and inability to move my arm in many directions for about a day, which had me seriously considering going to the hospital and/or calling off the rest of the trip. Thankfully it’s mostly better now. Theoretically, at least, this could have been prevented by not flailing my arms when a forceful wall of water approached.
  3. Somehow managing to cut my finger while closing a door, on a sharp part of the doorjamb or lock mechanism, on the morning I was leaving Edinburgh. Sounds minor, except that I must have hit an artery given the amount of blood that came in spurts with my heartbeat. In retrospect, I might have been less clumsy had I not been running around trying to pack at the last minute on too little sleep. (This wound mostly healed after about a week, allowing me to painlessly use my right hand again, just in time to injure my whole arm [see above].)
  4. Many other minor annoyances, which are, in fact, the inevitable nature of leaving my comfort zone and not being an expert. For example, booking tickets on an airline that charges 46 euros for a checked bag, when there might have been a better option had I planned further ahead and known I would have luggage. Or, for another stupid mistake, leaving my swimming shorts at the house in Israel.

Am I a bumbling fool? Maybe, but it doesn’t help much to think that way. Instead, I’m now trying to learn from my mistakes where I can, and rehabilitating “human error” as an excuse to salvage some dignity in the face of failure.

Posted from Istanbul, Istanbul Province, Turkey.