Monday, November 1, 2010

Lila Mae, the Black Nerd

Lila Mae Watson, the protagonist of Colson Whitehead's novel The Intuitionist, is one of the ultimate nerds in American fiction. When asked, during an exam at the elite “Institute for Vertical Transport” about the shape of the "standard accident curve," Lila Mae responds:
The failure rate for elevators is expressed by RT equals one minus FT, where R is reliability, T is time, and F is failure. The equation is characterized by a ‘bathtub’-shaped curve with three distinct phases. The initial or ‘early failure’ phase begins with a relatively high incident of accidents—mostly due to installation errors—and then drops off sharply. This is the first wall of the ‘bathtub.’ The next phase, called the ‘random failure’ phase is a plateau and extends for the majority of the elevator’s service life. This flat plane is the bottom of the ‘bathtub.’ The accidents in this phase are unpredictable and generally result from passenger misuse or poor maintenance. It is also in this phase that the rare ‘catastrophic accident’ occurs. The curve ascends quickly again in the final, or ‘wear-out’ phase, when the elevator is past its period of prime use. The opposite wall of the bathtub. Most of these accidents can be prevented, again, by diligent inspection and careful maintenance during this crucial time(51).
Her proficient responses to these and other questions, as well as her devotion to a sophisticated approach to elevator inspection known as intuitionism, display Lila Mae’s sharp intellect and her abilities to comprehend and transmit complex ideas. In other words, she's nerdy.

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