Crash Ahead!!!

Anybody who has spent more than a few minutes on the web has seen some amazing doomsday predictions. Among my favorites are those relating to the great Yellowstone Caldera volcano, which is often described as about ready to blow and destined to create terror and mayhem even though Yellowstone is pretty calm as giant caldera systems go. For example, check out the following headline from the Toronto Sun on March 9, 2014, which provides a good representative sample of the genre.Headline

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September 11: In Memoriam

I originally posted this on the tenth anniversary of 9.11. It remains applicable today. Please note the addendum I have included below.

September 11 is one of those “Where were you?” events which, for me, also include the Kennedy assassination (my second grade classroom), Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” (my parents’ den) and the falling of the Berlin Wall (a New Orleans hotel room).

Ten years ago I was sitting in front of my Bloomberg terminal here in San Diego when I saw a headline scroll across the bottom of my screen about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.  Since I had been on a trading floor in the World Financial Center in 1993 trying to do a trade with a client near the top of Tower One when it had been bombed previously and remembered the earthquake-like rumble I felt vividly, thoughts of a dreadful accident involving a small private plane quickly turned to fears of terrorism and consequences that were far, far worse. 

As it happens, I still spent a fair amount of time at the World Financial Center (which is adjacent to the WTC) back then and had a reservation at the World Trade Center Marriott for September 11, 2001.  Fortuitously, I decided not to go to New York so as to attend a Back to School Night presentation.

Much has happened since that day, obviously.  We are a different country today than we were a decade ago, and not all the changes are for the better.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, progress isn’t always forward. But our advances are real and important as well.

The memories of September 11, 2001 linger — as they should — and still offer lessons for those of us who remain.  But today, first and foremost, let us remember those who died that day and honor their memories.

2013 Addendum:  I have visited The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial in New York City multiple times.  Both Memorials provided experiences that were both moving and powerful.  I encourage all of you to visit them. Other personal 9.11 stories worth reading are here and here.  My 9.11 pieces relating to markets and our behavior are here and here.

Beguiled By Narrative

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

The photograph above, taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is now one of the iconic images of that horrible day. In fact, the Observer New Review (London) republished it in 2011 as the 9/11 photograph. In Hoepker’s words, he saw “an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant — flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background.” By his reckoning, even though he had paused but for a moment and didn’t speak to anyone in the picture, Hoepker was concerned that the people in the photo “were not stirred” by the events at the World Trade Center — they “didn’t seem to care.” Hoepker published many images from that day, but he withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.”

In 2006, the image was finally published in David Friend’s book, Watching the World Change. Frank Rich wrote a 9.11 fifth anniversary column in The New York Times, framed by the photo, which he called “shocking.” Continue reading

“It just feels better and safer to me”

FeelingsThe Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times included a story about Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician who provides comfort to parents who doubt the efficacy of vaccinations for their children. Although he claims not to be an anti-vaxxer himself, about half of his patients forgo them entirely and he offers his own alternative and selective vaccination schedules to the others, which delay or eliminate a variety of immunizations that science strongly supports.

“We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014 and we’re at 400 cases. Why?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview in June (the number of cases has risen by another 50 percent since). “Because people listen to Bob Sears. And, frankly, I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world. Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.” As the Times reports, Sears and his ilk are having an impact. “California parents are choosing to forgo vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, a fact public health experts said is contributing to the re-emergence of measles and could lead to outbreaks of other diseases.”

I was struck by the article’s concluding line, which was a quote from a mother anxious about vaccinations for her young children and apparently desperate for someone to tell her that delaying or avoiding them is okay. “It’s not really research-based,” she said. “It just feels better and safer to me.”

In life generally and in the investing world, avoiding the findings of careful research on account of “a feeling” is extremely dangerous business. We all tend to like to follow feelings, ideologies, herds and stories instead of good data. Doing so is in our nature. But if we want to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes, we need to be data-driven at every level and all the time.

Read ‘Em and Reap: Smart People for Investors to Follow

JZJason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal has a list up today of “smart people for investors to follow.” I am honored to be on the list along with some terrific recommendations such as Tadas Viskanta (Abnormal Returns), Tom Brakke (The Research Puzzle), Shane Parrish (Farnam Street) and more. 

Read ‘Em and Reap: Smart People for Investors to Follow

Phi Beta Football Foibles

KAZOn November 24, 1951, Princeton defeated Dartmouth, 13-0, to win its 22nd straight football game and complete a second consecutive undefeated season for what was described, by the great writer John McPhee, as “Phi Beta Football.” In those days, Princeton still used a then-old, direct snap, pure power offense called the single wing even though most college teams were “mating the quarterback to the center of the line in the formation called ‘T.’” It was also the final game for Princeton tailback and legend Dick Kazmaier, the “Maumee Menace,” a future College Football Hall of Fame inductee and McPhee’s roommate. “Kaz” had been pictured on the cover of Time magazine that week (right) and would soon win the Heisman Trophy (the last Ivy League player to do so) in a landslide. But the game that day is not primarily remembered as having capped off an outstanding season and a brilliant career.

Instead, the legacy of that brisk late autumn afternoon contest rests upon two seemingly unrelated matters: allegations of intentionally dirty play by Dartmouth and our inability to perceive reality with any degree of objective accuracy, especially where we have a major emotional investment. Based upon various sources, the primary narrative from the game is that Dartmouth set out to injure Princeton players – particularly Kazmaier – and that after the Princeton star was injured and forced from the game in the second quarter, matters turned increasingly fractious. But that wasn’t the only proffered narrative. Continue reading

A Brain in Doubt Leaves It Out

As I have often argued, we like to think that we see the world as it truly is. Instead, we tend to see the world as we really are. Sadly, that reality is both literal and figurative.

As Nature has reported, if you take a look at the gif below, you’ll discover some really weird stuff about yourself and your brain.

Source: Prof. Michael Bach, University of Freiburg

Source: Prof. Michael Bach, University of Freiburg

Look at any of the yellow dots as the figure moves; it remains present and stationary. If you concentrate on all three yellow dots, they remain in place too. But if you concentrate on the central green dot instead, one or more of the yellow dots will seem to disappear and then reappear intermittently even though they are really there the whole time. Your brain simply doesn’t register their presence sometimes. This optical illusion, called motion-induced blindness, applies to nearly everyone. Continue reading