Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition has been posited as an explanation for how experts in their field can rapidly make decisions and embark on an appropriate level of action without spending a long time assessing the significance of a host of cues and processing a long list of possible action options.

Sometimes pattern recognition is startling, some times prosaic. On a recent backcountry ski trip to a little cabin, some people in the group recognized immediately the location to turn downhill to reach the cabin and even the small turns to the left and right that must be negotiated to get there. Talking about this later, one of the "pattern recognizers" explained that it was a "gestalt" of cues. Things like, the trees are scrappy to the north, there is an opening in the trees, and the slope angle is right. Others not recognizing any patterns or even single cues attempted to use a GPS to find the cabin. The pattern recognizers found the cabin immediately, the GPS users wandered around for half an hour, eventually abandoned the GPS and followed the attractant calls of the people at the cabin.

Last night, I received an email for an upcoming trip this weekend, and my pattern recognition software said "trouble ahead". I was not sure why, until I woke up this morning (I must have been pondering it in my sleep) and realized that there is a pattern to this trip that is common with all the other trips I have seen that run into problems. Too big a group, an inexperienced leader, travel into an area with few navigational cues, no snow for about 8 days so there many existing tracks to confuse people, a group with too wide a disparity of skill, experience and fitness.

As usual in these situations, I feel somewhat helpless to do anything about it. The majority of people do not want any advice on how they run their trips and will shun even the most tactfully offered suggestion. Plus, there is the problem of the less than competent having insufficient skill to recognize their own shortfalls. So, while I can see a host of problems that could follow, the naive see only an easy day out.

I hope the latter is true, but I fear for the former.

 A lot of woods to get lost in.

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