Horrid Facts, Stubborn Facts

September 11.

Two words. Powerful emotions. Searing memories. Evocative stories. Fifteen years.

Fifteen years ago, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was sitting in front of a Bloomberg terminal when the first, cryptic hints about trouble at the World Trade Center crawled across the bottom of my screens (I think). I had been scheduled to fly to New York the day before and had reservations at the Marriott World Trade Center (3 WTC), which would be destroyed when the Twin Towers collapsed. Instead, I decided to stay home and go to a “Back to School Night” presentation at my kids’ school. As the day’s events unfolded, I recalled having been on the Merrill Lynch fixed income trading floor at the World Financial Center doing a STRIPS trade when I heard and felt the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I was really glad I didn’t get on that plane to New York.

My little, not so evocative story is insignificant within the context of the tragic losses, horrible evil and incredible heroism of the “American epic” to which that day bore inexorable witness. But it is what happened to me. It provides context and a framing device to help me remember and think about what transpired and what it means. It is emotional to think about still. But many other stories are far more important.

The image reproduced below is central to several other converging stories from that dreadful day.


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Trumping Truth with Stories


One of the few consistencies of a wild 2016 presidential campaign thus far is that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is willing to spin, obfuscate, exaggerate, misdirect, deflect, lie outright and double-down when called out for having done so. And, so far at least, it’s working. Truth – literal factual accuracy – just doesn’t seem to matter to him or to his supporters (who recently shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Light him on fire” at a black protestor in Las Vegas). If it feels right to them and fits into their favored narratives, from their perspective it is deemed true. What actually happened could not be less relevant.

This post-truth worldview isn’t a new-found tactic now that the Donald has entered the political world. For him, it has been a consistent way of life designed to benefit the Trump “brand.” He has thus routinely inflated his supposed net worth, often by billions of dollars, to make himself appear far more financially successful than he actually is. And he keeps claiming that his campaign is self-funded (because he’s really rich, donchaknow) when it demonstrably isn’t. But his Pinocchio-like behavior hasn’t been limited to things that, if believed, offer an obvious benefit to the Donald. Continue reading

It Can’t Be Wrong When It Feels So Right

“What ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more caressing.”

H. L. Mencken

Hooray for our sideDebby Boone released “You Light Up My Life” in 1977 and it became a #1 hit, the most successful single of the 1970s and won her a Grammy. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Anyway, at the song’s climax, she proclaims her love for the unnamed object of her desire and earnestly intones that “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”

Any parent of teenagers recognizes how dangerous such a claim can be and anyone who ever was a teenager and has the slightest bit of self-awareness can recognize that the claim is utterly false. Lots of things feel really, really right at the time but are really, really wrong. Yet no matter how ludicrous the claim obviously is and how clearly we see its falsity in moments of sanity, we follow its dictates time and again. As John Junor famously expressed it, “an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts.”

On our better days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles and by tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, assertive truth-tellers. However, on most days, much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, partisan, arrogant confabulators. The problem is what Stephen Colbert (who began his new late-night television venture this week) described as “truthiness” on his first episode of The Colbert Report a decade ago (watch it here). It’s the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if it’s not necessarily true or perhaps false.

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Jonathan Bernier and Confabulation

Friday was the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, the South African political giant and anti-apartheid leader who spent 27 years in prison for his activism before eventually being released and elected to become the country’s first black head of state. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and more specifically GM Masai Ujiri (who was born and raised in Nigeria), hosted a celebration called “The Giant of Africa” that evening to commemorate Mandela and to raise money for charity. Ujiri had asked the NBA over the summer to be able to host a home game on the anniversary; the league agreed and provided LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as opponents. The event was a star-studded affair and many celebrities were asked about their thoughts on Mandela’s life and legacy. One of those was the unfortunate Jonathan Bernier of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

Obviously, even though “everybody knows him” and he was “a tremendous guy” who “changed a lot,” Nelson Mandel wasn’t a hockey player. It’s easy to laugh at. To be fair, it probably isn’t reasonable to expect a hockey player to have a lot of knowledge about history and world events. And, like many professional athletes, he is no doubt asked to attend many charity functions for which he doesn’t have a lot of background. He has also apologized, saying “I got flustered with the red carpet and I was nervous.” But that doesn’t make the gaffe any less outrageous. He didn’t have a clue about what he was being asked about and, clearly, he shouldn’t have tried to fudge his way through the interview. But what he did was much closer to what we all do than we’d like to think. Continue reading

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

We Was Robbed

Worst Call EverOn June 21, 1932, after Max Schmeling lost his heavyweight boxing title to Jack Sharkey on a controversial split-decision, his manager Joe Jacobs famously intoned, “We was robbed.” It’s a conviction that hits home with every fan of a losing team and thus every sports fan a lot of the time. It’s also a point of view that has received a surprising amount of academic interest and study (note, for example, this famous 1954 paper arising out of a Dartmouth v. Princeton football game).

Traditional economic theory insists that we humans are rational actors making rational decisions amidst uncertainty in order to maximize our marginal utility. As if. We are remarkably crazy a lot of the time.

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More Probability Suckage

Source: xkcd

Source: xkcd

I have often noted (see here too) that we generally suck at math, to our great detriment. I have also noted that we are especially poor at dealing with probabilities. If a weather forecaster says that there is an 80 percent chance of rain and it remains sunny, instead of waiting to see if, in the aggregate, it rains 80 percent of the times when his or her forecast called for an 80 percent chance of rain, we race to conclude — perhaps based upon that single instance — that the forecaster isn’t any good. Data trumps our lyin’ eyes, but we don’t routinely see it (and even deny its efficacy).

Further evidence – as if it were needed – in support of my thesis has been offered this week in the reaction to Nate Silver’s projection that Republicans have a very real chance of gaining control of the Senate later this year. This forecast (“a Republican gain of six seats, plus or minus five”) is hardy earth-shattering to anybody who has been paying attention. The configuration of seats up for election favors Republicans and the Democratic President’s approval ratings are dreadful. There isn’t much reason to expect an upswing in Democratic support either, even though (obviously) almost anything could happen over the next few months. Dealing with probabilities necessarily means being wrong sometimes.

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9.11 and the Narrative Fallacy

The photograph above, taken by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is one of the iconic images of 9.11.  The picture was taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of that infamous day twelve years ago.   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.”  Even though he published many images from that day, Hoepker withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.” Continue reading

Joe Walsh and the Narrative Fallacy

walsh_joe_mad_g_mp_576In 1975, Joe Walsh replaced Bernie Leadon as a guitarist for the Eagles.  His guitar “duels” with Don Felder were a highlight of every subsequent Eagles concert.  In Part I of Showtime’s terrific Alison Ellwood documentary of the band (discussed in this wonderful piece by Bill Simmons), Don Henley describes Walsh as follows. “In those days, you didn’t know what [Walsh] was gonna do next. That was fun most of the time, although not all the time. It was fun depending on how much you’d had to drink to see a television go sailing off a 14th-floor balcony and into the pool, as long as nobody got hurt.”

Now, check out what Walsh says below, as a kind of retrospective.

“As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.”

That may be the quintessential example of the narrative fallacy in real life. We constantly create and are sucked in by stories — which have no necessary correlation with reality even if/when we are sure they’re true.

As an added Eagles bonus, the documentary includes the following Don Henley quote from 1977.

“The success of the first album scared the hell out of us. Why me instead of some guy down the street? Why me and some friends of mine who were just as good of musicians as I am, and yet it happened to me and it didn’t happen to them? I don’t know.”

In all probabilistic endeavors, success is determined by some combination of luck and skill. Most of the time, we fall for self-serving bias such that we disproportionately attribute our successes to skill and our failures to (bad) luck.  But especially when the success itself seems disproportionate (perhaps such that it’s a positive black swan), we can be overwhelmed by it. 

I’m an Eagles fan.  Excessive and sanctimonious? Sure. What great rock & roll band isn’t. But they receive more criticism than they deserve.  Their harmonies, especially, are magical. That they can show us something about ourselves is an added bonus.

99 Years Ago Today

Gavrilo_Princip_captured_in_Sarajevo_1914It was 99 years ago today, on the morning of June 28, 1914, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo — an act that became the cause of World War I.  Princip’s capture is shown in the photograph, right. As recounted in Mark Buchanan’s terrific book, Ubiquity, the shooting came about because the driver of the Archduke’s car made a wrong turn off a main street and into a narrow passageway, pulling right in front of Princip, a member of the Serbian terrorist organization Black Hand. Princip recognized the passengers, drew his pistol, and shot the Archduke and his wife dead.

The resulting chain reaction proved catastrophic. Austria began planning an invasion of Serbia. Russia guaranteed the Serbs protection.  Germany offered to help Austria if Russia jumped in and so on.  World War I was on. Continue reading