Worth Reading

Worth ReadingTechnology has changed the world in remarkable ways. But many products that are said to be revolutionary are nothing of the sort. Here’s one that I think is, and I can’t wait to use it all the time.

This Insane New App Will Allow You To Read Novels In Under 90 Minutes


Fixing the Math Suckage

DanicaI have repeatedly raged against our human failings with respect to all things mathematical and probabilistic (examples are here, here, here, here, here and here).  Therefore, I was delighted to see Danica McKellar (best known for playing Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, but also featured on favorite shows such as The West Wing and The Big Bang Theory as well as being a math whiz from UCLA) at this past week-end’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to promote various methods to help us (and particularly young women) to improve at math.  She was encouraging, engaging and even frequently insightful.  Danica (or at least Winnie Cooper) is also featured in The New Yorker today.  You can check out her books here. I encourage you to do so, especially if you are a young woman or have any young women in your life.  The odds are very good that you will be glad you did.


The best two-and-a-half weeks of the sports year start today (I know that “play-in” games were held earlier).  Since this site strives to be “data-driven” (check out the masthead) and since we tend to suck both at math in general and at probabilities, as a public service I offer this video explaining the likelihood that you (or anyone else) will have a perfect bracket this year. 

As a further public service, Nate Silver’s bracket analysis and that of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective are linked below.

And as one final public service, please enjoy the following too.  I always do.


The Missing Lead

big_butt_chairI’m a big fan of Jake Tapper.  I thought he was terrific at ABC News as the senior White House correspondent and I was disappointed when he wasn’t picked to host This Week both when George Stephanopoulos left in 2010 and when he came back in 2012.  As of 2013, Jake returned to CNN to become Chief Washington Correspondent and anchor of a new weekday television news show, The Lead with Jake TapperThe Lead, which debuted this week to generally good reviews, is the first CNN show to launch since Jeff Zucker took over as president of CNN Worldwide to revitalize the franchise.

I agree with the good reviews, but there’s a “big but” coming. Continue reading

Facts are Stubborn Things

When making his defense of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials in December of 1770, John Adams offered a famous insight:  “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  Legal Papers of John Adams, 3:269.  It is recreated below in the fine John Adams miniseries from HBO based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of our second president.


In a similar vein, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that “[e]veryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

I have often warned about our proclivity to and preference for stories to the exclusion of data (for example, here, here and here).  Because stories are so powerful, we want the facts to be neatly packaged into a compelling narrative.  Take a look at John Boswell‘s delightful send-up of this technique in the TED context below. 


We crave “wonder, insight [and] ideas.” Facts?  Not so much.  As Evgeny Morozov puts it

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

Felix Salmon’s excellent discussion of this argument in the context of Jonah Lehrer’s sad case (interestingly put into context here), which decries the use of “remixed facts in service of narrative,” establishes clearly (if unsurprisingly) that the facts are frequently too stubborn to fit neatly into a narrative-driven format — whether TED talk, blog post or bestseller.  According to Seth Mnookin and reiterated by Salmon, “Lehrer had “the arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater.”  Felix perhaps goes beyond Morozov to argue “that TED-think isn’t merely vapid, it’s downright dangerous in the way that it devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricksy emotional and narrative devices.”

To be clear, I am entirely in favor of using narrative to illustrate concepts.  I am also in favor of making difficult concepts, and science in particular, more accessible.  Moreover, there are many TED-talks I find inspiring, illuminating and useful.  However, the issue and the danger is in forcing uncooperative (“stubborn”) facts, what Morozov calls “messy reality,” into a glib narrative in ways that simply don’t fit. 

We are so susceptible to this problem (and the overarching bias blind spot generally) that we fall prey to it often and don’t recognize it. Indeed, Snopes would not exist without our propensity for not letting facts get in the way of a good story. If we are going to avoid it at all, we are going to have to (a) be constantly on the look-out for it; (b) remain skeptical of your own conclusions; (c) institute a careful process to look for and keep looking for our own errors;  and (d) institutionalize accountability (since, as Dan Kahneman emphasizes, we so readily see others’ flaws more clearly than our own). Stories are terrific and often helpful.  But they are dangerous too. May we all (and always) stubbornly insist on a fair, accurate and balanced marshalling of the facts to support every argument we make or consider.

Safety Not Guaranteed (Redux)

Last month I wrote about the conceit behind the indie film Safety Not Guaranteed, which had opened to excellent reviews.  The words of the title are found in a mysterious classified ad in a local paper seeking a partner for time travel.  The ad also states that applicants will need their own weapons and, ominously, “safety not guaranteed.” As I emphasized at the time, that’s a pretty good metaphor for investing and for life in general.

I am back to report simply that I have now seen the film and it is terrific.  It’s fun, interesting and thought-provoking.  The performances are excellent.  It will evoke questions about life, loss and taking a leap of faith.  Go see it.

Predictable Irrationality

If you are ever tempted to think that we are basically rational creatures, acting in accordance with our reasoned self-interest, think of this nonsense.  I can’t imagine caring more about anything than the safety and well-being of my children.  I have no doubt that virtually every parent feels the same way.  Yet a multi-state ring of apparently well-meaning parents, wary of vaccinations that prevent the disease, swapped or even purchased lollipops through the mail allegedly licked by a child sick with chickenpox after connecting via social media.  These suckers’ idea was to give the lollipops to their children so as to infect them with chickenpox and so they would develop immunity without the shot.  Let’s count the ways this is mind-numbingly stupid.

  • It ignores (denies!) modern science. Vaccinations are safe and effective.
  • Chickenpox can cause severe disease and death.
  • Sending a virus or disease through the U.S. mail or private carriers is illegal.
  • It also violates federal law to adulterate or tamper with consumer products, such as candy.
  • Why would anyone buy infected or contaminated body fluids from complete strangers and given them to their children? Is there any reason to trust them or to determine that some crackpot out to hurt their child isn’t scamming them?
  • Although it is possible, it is unlikely to achieve the goal of transmitting chickenpox. William Schaffner, M.D., president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, explains that “chickenpox is not spread through oral secretions but by the respiratory route. You have to inhale this virus for it to be successful. It’s spread through sneezing or couching or just breathing out the virus.”
  • There will definitely be other germs, bacteria and perhaps viruses on the used lollipop. So the child being given the used chickenpox lollipop probably won’t get chickenpox, but may be receiving something else, such as a staph infection or hepatitis.
  • Even if the scheme succeeds in getting a child sick with chickenpox,there may be “worst-case” consequences such as chickenpox encephalitis and chickenpox pneumonia. 

These are parents, doing this for their children.  So much for rational self-interest.

The Best Live Album of All-Time

Slate is asking readers to pick a best live album of all-time.  You can weigh-in here.  From Slate’s choices I would select Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison, closely followed by Bob Dylan and the Band’s Before the Flood (where is his live album from Albert Hall?).  I also love Aretha Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West and have a soft spot for Frampton Comes Alive because it was ubiquitous later in my high school years.  Great live albums that inexplicably didn’t make the list include offerings from James Taylor, Bob Seger and the Eagles.  Simon & Garfunkel’s The Concert from Central Park has to be on the list (I was there), but isn’t.  And where’s the Grateful Dead?