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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Birthday Luck

happy-birthday-to-meI had been fitfully and uncomfortably sleeping, dreaming of a small dog licking my leg and stealing my snack. I awoke to find an escaped boxer with a cute face avoiding my eyes and licking her lips. Once the flight attendant found her rightful owner, who was not nearly as embarrassed as she should have been, I reassess my situation.

I’m still more than an hour behind schedule and said to be losing even more ground on account of intense headwinds. I’m still scrunched into a long metal tube with the seat-back in front of me compressing my kneecaps into my hips while hurtling cross-country, still several hours from arrival home in San Diego. I’m tired from lots of planes and being away from home for too long. I’m not in the most conducive spot I can imagine for counting my blessings.

But count them I shall, as part of this birthday reflection.  “Birthday luck” describes a nuclear explosion of luck that is supposed to happen inside you on that day, giving you the ability to do anything. I don’t really have birthday luck, of course, but my luck is so good that it’s hard to tell the difference.

We are self-serving creatures to the core, of course, and self-serving bias is our ongoing tendency to attribute our successes to skill and our failures to very bad luck. Being an early investor in tech stocks was really smart while being long and wrong in 2001 was really unfortunate. But the reality is that luck (and, if you have a spiritual bent, grace) plays an enormous role in our lives – both good and bad – just as luck plays an enormous role in many specific endeavors, from investing to poker to winning a Nobel Prize.  In fact, if we’re honest, we’ll recognize that many of the best things in our lives required absolutely nothing of us and what we count as our greatest successes usually require great skill and even more luck.

That my birth, which I celebrate tomorrow, was into a loving and stable family that valued education and industry was not my doing. That I was born into a land of freedom and opportunity that would allow and even provide the means for a child of working class parents with no educational background and one high school diploma between them to pursue and secure a world-class education was not my doing. I merely had to provide sufficient effort. That I was blessed with some ability and interest in a field that provides a good living and constant stimulation was not my doing. I merely had to provide sufficient industry. That I have a boss who supports and encourages me in work I love is not my doing. That I married extremely well and have three terrific and productive children who have also married extremely well is only partly my doing (and surely less my doing than I’d like to think). The wonder of delightful grandchildren is grace personified.

I could have been born in the 7th Century. I could have been born in North Korea. I could have been born into a family that abused me. I could have had to struggle for even minor educational advancement. My boss could be a jerk. My children could be disdainful. My wife could be a little less wonderful (though I doubt it). My grandchildren might never visit. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

So truly – happy birthday to me. For much of it – verily, for most of what’s happy about it – I have luck (and grace) to thank.

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.

The Tragedy of Errors

Lawn Chair LarryLarry Walters had always wanted to fly.  When he was old enough, he joined the Air Force, but his poor eyesight wouldn’t allow him to become a pilot. After he was discharged from the military, he would often sit in his backyard watching jets fly overhead, dreaming about flying and scheming about how to get into the sky. On July 2, 1982, the San Pedro, California trucker finally set out to accomplish his dream. But things didn’t turn out exactly as he planned.

Larry conceived his project while sitting outside in his “extremely comfortable” Sears lawn chair. He purchased weather balloons from an Army-Navy surplus store, tied them to his tethered Sears chair and filled the four-foot diameter balloons with helium. Then, after packing sandwiches, Miller Lite, a CB radio, a camera and a pellet gun, he strapped himself into his lawn chair (see above). His plan, such as it was, called for his floating lazily above the rooftops at about 30 feet for a while and then using the pellet gun to explode the balloons one-by-one so he could float to the ground.

But when his friends cut the cords that tethered the lawn chair to his Jeep, Walters and his lawn chair didn’t rise lazily. Larry shot up to a height of over 15,000 feet, yanked by the lift of 45 helium balloons holding 33 cubic feet of helium each.  He did not dare shoot any balloons, fearing that he might unbalance the load and cause a fall.  So he slowly drifted along, cold and frightened, with his beer and sandwiches, for more than 14 hours. He eventually crossed the primary approach corridor of LAX.  A flustered TWA pilot spotted Larry and radioed the tower that he was passing a guy in a lawn chair at 16,000 feet.

Eventually Larry conjured up the nerve to shoot several balloons before accidentally dropping his pellet gun overboard. The shooting did the trick and Larry descended toward Long Beach, until the dangling tethers got caught in a power line, causing an electrical blackout in the neighborhood below. Fortunately, Walters was able to climb to the ground safely from there.

The Long Beach Police Department and federal authorities were waiting. Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy said, “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.” As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter asked Larry why he had undertaken his mission. The answer was simple and poignant. “A man can’t just sit around.” Continue reading