About Zero Effectors

— Jonathan A. Handler, MD, FACEP, FAMIA

Zero Effectors noun, plural:

  • 1 a: hands-on medical informaticists who use knowledge, training, skills, and observation to create targeted inventions that meaningfully improve medical care and patient health.
  • 1 b: more generally, those who post content on this site that they believe others may find useful.
  • 2 a: those who post content on this site because they have something they want to say.

From where did the name Zero Effectors originate?

When I was growing up, wow, did I love the Sears Catalog! It would arrive with its hundreds of pages of full-color glory. I couldn’t wait to flip to the extensive children’s section and dream of someday having all those great toys. Over time, retailing trends changed, and the catalog was discontinued in 1993 (interestingly, the same year that the World Wide Web launched in the public domain). Sears struggled to keep up as “big box retailers” began their rise. But the real challenge for “brick and mortar” retailers was the rapid rise, transformation, and domination of retail by Amazon.com.

I got my start in medical informatics in the early 1990’s, during these transformative times. Some time later, I stumbled upon a well-written piece about how Ethernet works. I can’t remember where I read it, but plenty of others (e.g. here) have documented the story of this brilliant and fundamental technology advance. Robert Metcalfe, of Xerox’s PARC (of course), needed to connect hundreds of computers so they could all use Xerox’s new laser printer. He invented Ethernet, an elegant solution to the problem. I marveled as I read. Who knew that connecting computers to enable sending content to a printer would lead to a world where Sears was an afterthought? Where travel agents were largely irrelevant? Where we’d never again wait in line to see a movie, or even worry about getting good seats? Where I’d never again unfold a paper map while driving my car?

I had always loved this concept of a seemingly small intervention having a shockingly large downstream effect. My first taste of this was the Ray Bradbury classic short story, A Sound of Thunder, where a tiny, random event cascaded catastrophically through time. Far more interesting was my next taste, at a summer camp I attended for many years. The story was told that loggers would cut down trees and float them down a river. At times the logs would get tangled, creating a logjam. An expert would carefully examine the jam and select a “key log” — the one log that, when removed, would untangle the jam and restore flow. The story was an analogy for what we should seek to do for others. I resonated with the approach of thoughtful analysis followed by a highly targeted intervention to create a surprisingly large impact (just like the Ethernet did). I even formed a company and named it Keylog Solutions.

In 1998, I saw a wonderful movie called The Zero Effect, about the “World’s Most Private Detective.” The titular hero, Daryl Zero, offers his own term for the keylog solution, describing his work as “[solving] a problem first by observation, then by careful intervention — in other words the Zero Effect.”

My friends and I have sought, and sometimes found, the clever, targeted invention (our favorite form of intervention) leading to outsized impact. With luck and perhaps a bit of arm-twisting, some of them may join me in this blog of the thoughts and inventions of a group that I like to call — the Zero Effectors.

My opinions are my own, and not necessarily those of anyone else, including my employer.

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