Dispelling Your Illusions

Freeman Dyson has a good review in New York Review of Books on Daniel Khaneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Freeman Dyson presents an anecdote from his own life to explain the illusion of validity:

An episode from my own past is curiously similar to Kahneman’s experience in the Israeli army. I was a statistician before I became a scientist. At the age of twenty I was doing statistical analysis of the operations of the British Bomber Command in World War II. The command was then seven years old, like the State of Israel in 1955. All its institutions were under construction. It consisted of six bomber groups that were evolving toward operational autonomy. Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane was the commander of 5 Group, the most independent and the most effective of the groups. Our bombers were then taking heavy losses, the main cause of loss being the German night fighters.

Cochrane said the bombers were too slow, and the reason they were too slow was that they carried heavy gun turrets that increased their aerodynamic drag and lowered their operational ceiling. Because the bombers flew at night, they were normally painted black. Being a flamboyant character, Cochrane announced that he would like to take a Lancaster bomber, rip out the gun turrets and all the associated dead weight, ground the two gunners, and paint the whole thing white. Then he would fly it over Germany, and fly so high and so fast that nobody could shoot him down. Our commander in chief did not approve of this suggestion, and the white Lancaster never flew.

The reason why our commander in chief was unwilling to rip out gun turrets, even on an experimental basis, was that he was blinded by the illusion of validity. This was ten years before Kahneman discovered it and gave it its name, but the illusion of validity was already doing its deadly work. All of us at Bomber Command shared the illusion. We saw every bomber crew as a tightly knit team of seven, with the gunners playing an essential role defending their comrades against fighter attack, while the pilot flew an irregular corkscrew to defend them against flak. An essential part of the illusion was the belief that the team learned by experience. As they became more skillful and more closely bonded, their chances of survival would improve.

When I was collecting the data in the spring of 1944, the chance of a crew reaching the end of a thirty-operation tour was about 25 percent. The illusion that experience would help them to survive was essential to their morale. After all, they could see in every squadron a few revered and experienced old-timer crews who had completed one tour and had volunteered to return for a second tour. It was obvious to everyone that the old-timers survived because they were more skillful. Nobody wanted to believe that the old-timers survived only because they were lucky.

At the time Cochrane made his suggestion of flying the white Lancaster, I had the job of examining the statistics of bomber losses. I did a careful analysis of the correlation between the experience of the crews and their loss rates, subdividing the data into many small packages so as to eliminate effects of weather and geography. My results were as conclusive as those of Kahneman. There was no effect of experience on loss rate. So far as I could tell, whether a crew lived or died was purely a matter of chance. Their belief in the life-saving effect of experience was an illusion.

The demonstration that experience had no effect on losses should have given powerful support to Cochrane’s idea of ripping out the gun turrets. But nothing of the kind happened. As Kahneman found out later, the illusion of validity does not disappear just because facts prove it to be false. Everyone at Bomber Command, from the commander in chief to the flying crews, continued to believe in the illusion. The crews continued to die, experienced and inexperienced alike, until Germany was overrun and the war finally ended.

The New York Times named Thinking, Fast and Slow as one of the best books of 2011.

Top Ten Physics Breakthroughs of 2011

Physics World begins thusly:

The two physics stories that dominated the news in 2011 were questions rather than solid scientific results, namely “Do neutrinos travel faster than light?” and “Has the Higgs boson been found?”

After that disclosure, the Physics World editorial team has compiled a nice end-of-the-year list. The first place goes to Aephraim Steinberg and colleagues from the University of Toronto in Canada for their experimental work on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics:

Steinberg’s work stood out because it challenges the widely held notion that quantum mechanics forbids us any knowledge of the paths taken by individual photons as they travel through two closely spaced slits to create an interference pattern.

This interference is exactly what one would expect if we think of light as an electromagnetic wave. But quantum mechanics also allows us to think of the light as photons – although with the weird consequence that if we determine which slit individual photons travel through, then the interference pattern vanishes. By using weak measurements Steinberg and his team have been able to gain some information about the paths taken by the photons without destroying the pattern.

See the rest of the breakthroughs and links to the original articles.

Original New York Times Review of George Orwell’s 1984

From the 1949 New York Times review of George Orwell’s 1984 (which was written in 1948 and published in 1949):

James Joyce, in the person of Stephen Dedalus, made a now famous distinction between static and kinetic art. Great art is static in its effects; it exists in itself, it demands nothing beyond itself. Kinetic art exists in order to demand; not self-contained, it requires either loathing or desire to achieve its function. The quarrel about the fourth book of ”Gulliver’s Travels” that continues to bubble among scholars — was Swift’s loathing of men so great, so hot, so far beyond the bounds of all propriety and objectivity that in this book he may make us loathe them and indubitably makes us loathe his imagination? — is really a quarrel founded on this distinction. It has always seemed to the present writer that the fourth book of ”Gulliver’s Travels” is a great work of static art; no less, it would seem to him that George Orwell’s new novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a great work of kinetic art. This may mean that its greatness is only immediate, its power for us alone, now, in this generation, this decade, this year, that it is doomed to be the pawn of time. Nevertheless it is probable that no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.

”Nineteen Eighty-four” appears at first glance to fall into that long-established tradition of satirical fiction, set either in future times or in imagined places or both, that contains works so diverse as ”Gulliver’s Travels” itself, Butler’s ”Erewhon,” and Huxley’s ”Brave New World.” Yet before one has finished reading the nearly bemused first page, it is evident that this is fiction of another order, and presently one makes the distinctly unpleasant discovery that it is not to be satire at all.

In the excesses of satire one may take a certain comfort. They provide a distance from the human condition as we meet it in our daily life that preserves our habitual refuge in sloth or blindness or self-righteousness. Mr. Orwell’s earlier book, Animal Farm, is such a work. Its characters are animals, and its content is therefore fabulous, and its horror, shading into comedy, remains in the generalized realm of intellect, from which our feelings need fear no onslaught. But ”Nineteen Eighty-four” is a work of pure horror, and its horror is crushingly immediate.

The motives that seem to have caused the difference between these two novels provide an instructive lesson in the operations of the literary imagination. ”Animal Farm” was, for all its ingenuity, a rather mechanical allegory; it was an expression of Mr. Orwell’s moral and intellectual indignation before the concept of totalitarianism as localized in Russia. It was also bare and somewhat cold and, without being really very funny, undid its potential gravity and the very real gravity of its subject, through its comic devices. ”Nineteen Eighty-four” is likewise an expression of Mr. Orwell’s moral and intellectual indignation before the concept of totalitarianism, but it is not only that.

It is also — and this is no doubt the hurdle over which many loyal liberals will stumble — it is also an expression of Mr. Orwell’s irritation at many facets of British socialism, and most particularly, trivial as this may seem, at the drab gray pall that life in Britain today has drawn across the civilized amenities of life before the war.

Here is the rest of that review. I first read 1984 when I was in high school. It wasn’t required reading at my school, but I think it should have been.
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(via Kottke)

Fly the Airplane

Earlier this year, I highlighted a fascinating account of what happened to Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

In the December issue of Popular Mechanics, we get an extended perspective of what went horribly wrong during that flight. Through an extensive transcript, we learn that the flight crashed due to human error. Here’s the conclusion from the Popular Mechanics piece:

Today the Air France 447 transcripts yield information that may ensure that no airline pilot will ever again make the same mistakes. From now on, every airline pilot will no doubt think immediately of AF447 the instant a stall-warning alarm sounds at cruise altitude. Airlines around the world will change their training programs to enforce habits that might have saved the doomed airliner: paying closer attention to the weather and to what the planes around you are doing; explicitly clarifying who’s in charge when two co-pilots are alone in the cockpit; understanding the parameters of alternate law; and practicing hand-flying the airplane during all phases of flight. 

But the crash raises the disturbing possibility that aviation may well long be plagued by a subtler menace, one that ironically springs from the never-ending quest to make flying safer. Over the decades, airliners have been built with increasingly automated flight-control functions. These have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty and danger from aviation. But they also remove important information from the attention of the flight crew. While the airplane’s avionics track crucial parameters such as location, speed, and heading, the human beings can pay attention to something else. But when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer decides that it can no longer cope—on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land—the humans might find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what’s going on. They’ll wonder: What instruments are reliable, and which can’t be trusted? What’s the most pressing threat? What’s going on? Unfortunately, the vast majority of pilots will have little experience in finding the answers. 

I also want to highlight one blogger’s perspective about this crash. Dustin Curtis writes:

Every time I read about or experience one of these situations, I am reminded of a story I read in The Checklist Manifesto about the emergency checklist for engine failure in a single engine Cessna airplane. The checklist has just six vitally important steps, including things like making sure the fuel valves are open and ensuring the backup fuel pump is turned on. But the first step is fascinating. It is simply FLY THE AIRPLANE. In the confusion of losing an engine, pilots often panic and forget the most obvious things they should be doing. It seems completely unnecessary, but this step ensures the best chance for survival.

The human body’s physical “fight or flight” response evolved to help it evade a dangerous situation, which historically involved extreme physical exertion. The rush of steroids into the bloodstream essentially turns off unnecessary systems, including some higher thinking processes, to aid in escape. Unfortunately, as we’ve evolved into more intelligent beings, that response hasn’t evolved along with us. The stress response is still optimized to prepare for a short period of extreme physical exertion, not for increased mental clarity. The result is painfully obvious with Air France 447: the co-pilot made an absurd error that no pilot in his right mind would make.

This is a superb reminder of how we let our guard down, panic, and act irrationally (or outside of our normal habits) in intense situations.

Types of Commenters on the Internet

NPR has a fun take on the hodgepodge of commenters you can expect to chime in for end-of-the-year lists (I will have one of my own soon). Which one do you think you are?

1. The Poisoned. “The fact that you included Adele on this list of 100 things you like makes it a total joke.”

2. The Really Pretty Sure Person, Who Is Really Pretty Sure. “I’ve never seen Game Of Thrones, but I’m really pretty sure it’s not as good as Boardwalk Empire.”

3. The Person Who Is Exactly Right. “It really seems like this list of things you thought were good is just your opinion.”

4. The Surprisingly Lucid Narcoleptic. “ZZZZZZZZZ” is the classic. “SNORE” and “YAWN” are acceptable variants.

5. The Mother Of Tim “Freckles” Matterley. “There is a musician in Ann Arbor named Tim Matterley who is better than all these songs! You would like his music. He has a web site at FrecklesMatterley.com, and you can get his songs free on your computer! Please check out Tim Matterley, who does not have a big record contract YET but is very very good!!!!” Two comments later, she will often come back. “Also, Tim Matterley is in this YouTube video where he plays ‘Imagine’ at a children hospital. I am just one fan but I think he is great and he will go far!!!”

6. The Read A Book Guy. “Not one of these movies is as good as reading a book.” On a list of books, by the way, he will say none of the books is as good as books used to be. He also hates Kindles, which he may or may not mention.

7. The Self-Punisher. “I always hate your tastes, so I knew this would be a miserable and useless list before I decided to click on it and read the whole thing, and now I know I was right.”

8. The Unwitting Outlier. “Has anyone really cared about George Clooney since ER?”

9. The Person With The Imperfect Grasp Of Obscurity.“These are all completely obscure picks nobody has ever heard of. The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo sounds like a Dr. Seuss book.”

10. Harry The Hipster-Hater, Who Really, Really Hates Hipsters. “This is all hipster music. I guess it’s okay for hipsters, but I’m not enough of a hipster to like hipster picks like this. Too bad I’m not hipster enough. Maybe I’d like it better if I were more of a hipster.” [His username: “notahipstersorry.”]

11. The Person Who Thinks You Were So Close. “I like all these picks, but you ranked The Descendants as your #4 and Martha Marcy May Marlene as your #5, and they should be the other way around. FAIL.”

12. The Person Who Never Says Die. “Why isn’t Arrested Development on this list?”

13. The Subject-Changer. “If we’re talking about great comedy performances, I don’t know how you can leave out [Barack Obama/the Republican debates/Occupy Wall Street/the Tea Party]. That was the funniest thing I saw all year.”

14. The Minimalist. “These blow.”

15. The Person Who Is Probably Too Hardcore For You.“The best film of the year was shot in Tokyo and the title translates to I [Bleep]ed Your Grandmother With A [Blank] And [Bleep] You Too. I guess that’s probably a little too hardcore for you. You should get outside the multiplex once in a while.”

16. The Person Who Is Laughing But Is Actually Not At All Amused. “You put Community on your list instead of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia? Ha ha ha yeah right.”

17. The Concerned. “What’s wrong with you? No, seriously, what’s wrong with you?”

18. The Person Who Wanted To Be Surprised. “Uh, way to go out on a limb. These are the same things you’ve been talking about all year and saying were the best things when they came out in the first place.”

19. The Disbelieving. “Really? Are you serious? Did you mean to leave off my favorite thing? Or did something happen? Did you forget it? Did you think it didn’t come out this year? Did you write it down and then accidentally delete it in a technology mishap? Do you not know how to spell it? Really? Are you kidding?”

20. The Humble Alternative. “If you really want to know what the best choices of the year were, I put my list up at my site, KnittingWithDagmarAndLaura.com — it’s not just about knitting!”

I like #6, #12, and #19 especially. You?

Jon Corzine and the Romance with Risk

By now, I’ve read dozens of articles about Jon Corzine and the fall of MF Global. But I think this piece in Dealbook is a best all-around explainer about Jon Corzine and his appetite for risk:

[Jon Corzine] pushed through a $6.3 billion bet on European debt — a wager big enough to wipe out the firm five times over if it went bad — despite concerns from other executives and board members. And it is now clear that he personally lobbied regulators and auditors about the strategy.

His obsession with trading was apparent to MF Global insiders over his 19-month tenure. Mr. Corzine compulsively traded for the firm on his BlackBerry during meetings, sometimes dashing out to check on the markets. And unusually for a chief executive, he became a core member of the group that traded using the firm’s money. His profits and losses appeared on a separate line in documents with his initials: JSC.

This seems like a surprise, however:

He was a popular manager, former employees say. An avuncular presence with a beard and sweater vest, he had a knack for remembering names. Even in the firm’s final hours, they recall that Mr. Corzine never lost his temper. His work ethic also impressed colleagues. He often started his day with a five-mile run, landing in the office by 6 a.m. and was regularly the last person to leave the office.

But the most mind-boggling revelation is that MF Global, through Jon Corzine’s insistence, shied away from implementing a rigorous risk management system at the firm:

Yet soon after joining MF Global, Mr. Corzine torpedoed an effort to build a new risk system, a much-needed overhaul, according to former employees. (A person familiar with Mr. Corzine’s thinking said that he saw the need to upgrade, but that the system being proposed was “unduly expensive” and was focused in part on things the firm didn’t trade.)

Risk management is perhaps the most important function for a bank/financial firm. There is no too steep a price to pay for having a system of checks and balances that would have caught MF Global’s downward spiral and perhaps have done something about it. I need not even mention the lost customer deposits that is now at the core of the investigation following MF Global’s bankruptcy.

On Investments and Time

Paul Graham, in this essay from 2010, makes a great point on investments (both in terms of money and our use of time):

In most people’s minds, spending money on luxuries sets off alarms that making investments doesn’t. Luxuries seem self-indulgent. And unless you got the money by inheriting it or winning a lottery, you’ve already been thoroughly trained that self-indulgence leads to trouble. Investing bypasses those alarms. You’re not spending the money; you’re just moving it from one asset to another. Which is why people trying to sell you expensive things say “it’s an investment.”

The solution is to develop new alarms. This can be a tricky business, because while the alarms that prevent you from overspending are so basic that they may even be in our DNA, the ones that prevent you from making bad investments have to be learned, and are sometimes fairly counterintuitive.

A few days ago I realized something surprising: the situation with time is much the same as with money. The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work. When you spend time having fun, you know you’re being self-indulgent. Alarms start to go off fairly quickly. If I woke up one morning and sat down on the sofa and watched TV all day, I’d feel like something was terribly wrong. Just thinking about it makes me wince. I’d start to feel uncomfortable after sitting on a sofa watching TV for 2 hours, let alone a whole day.

And yet I’ve definitely had days when I might as well have sat in front of a TV all day—days at the end of which, if I asked myself what I got done that day, the answer would have been: basically, nothing. I feel bad after these days too, but nothing like as bad as I’d feel if I spent the whole day on the sofa watching TV. If I spent a whole day watching TV I’d feel like I was descending into perdition. But the same alarms don’t go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I’m doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

With time, as with money, avoiding pleasure is no longer enough to protect you. It probably was enough to protect hunter-gatherers, and perhaps all pre-industrial societies. So nature and nurture combine to make us avoid self-indulgence. But the world has gotten more complicated: the most dangerous traps now are new behaviors that bypass our alarms about self-indulgence by mimicking more virtuous types. And the worst thing is, they’re not even fun.

Do you have days like the ones Paul describes? The day breezes by, and you seem like you’ve accomplished nothing?

Date a Girl Who Reads

I can’t remember where I saw it first, but this is lovely:

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes. She has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she finds the book she wants. You see the weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a second hand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee. Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas and for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry, in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow. Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who understand that all things will come to end. That you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

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(via Rosemarie Urquico)

Blogging Borders

While not an independent blog at The New York Times, Borderlines (authored/moderated by Frank Jacobs) offers a fascinating look at countries and the border lines that divide them. Why are some borders so strange? The series attempts to answer questions per specific case studies. And though the series began in October of this year, its few posts have already been thoroughly enlightening.

For example, there is this about Libya:

[T]hrough all the millions of words published in the last nine months about Libya, you’ve never heard of UNASOG, the United Nations Aouzou Strip Observation Group. Stuck along the Libyan-Chadian border, the 1994 peacekeeping mission has neither suffered casualties nor inflicted any, but it does have one particular claim to fame: at a duration of only one month, with a mere nine observers and a $64,000 price tag, it is reputed to have been the United Nations’s shortest, smallest and cheapest peacekeeping mission ever.

My favorite border story so far is the one about the (incorrectly-posited) straight border between United States and Canada:

Consider: What is the longest straight-line international boundary? Why, that has to be the American-Canadian border between Lake of the Woods (Minnesota/Manitoba) and Boundary Bay (Washington State/British Columbia), which runs for 1,260 miles along the 49th parallel north. Right?

Nope. It may look that way on a world map. But zoom in close enough and it turns out that the straight line running along the 49th parallel north is not really on the 49th parallel north. And it isn’t straight. Like, at all. Marked by a 20-foot strip of clear-cut forest, the border may seem straight as a ruler. But as it zigzags from the first to the last of the 912 boundary monuments erected by the original surveyors, it deviates from the 49th parallel by up to several hundred feet.

Borderlines is definitely worth checking out when you have a chance.

Higgs Boson Explainer

The physics world is all abuzz about the potential discovery of the Higgs boson, so-called the “God particle.” Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider say that two recent experiments hint at the particle’s existence (though the data is not conclusive). But what exactly is the Higgs boson, and why is it so important?

Here is how Roger Cashmore from the University of Oxford explains it:

What determines the size of objects that we see around us or indeed even the size of ourselves? The answer is the size of the molecules and in turn the atoms that compose these molecules. But what determines the size of the atoms themselves? Quantum theory and atomic physics provide an answer. The size of the atom is determined by the paths of the electrons orbiting the nucleus. The size of those orbits, however, is determined by the mass of the electron. Were the electron’s mass smaller, the orbits (and hence all atoms) would be smaller, and consequently everything we see would be smaller. So understanding the mass of the electron is essential to understanding the size and dimensions of everything around us.

It might be hard to understand the origin of one quantity, that quantity being the mass of the electron. Fortunately nature has given us more than one elementary particle and they come with a wide variety of masses. The lightest particle is the electron and the heaviest particle is believed to be the particle called the top quark, which weighs at least 200,000 times as much as an electron. With this variety of particles and masses we should have a clue to the individual masses of the particles.

Unfortunately if you try and write down a theory of particles and their interactions then the simplest version requires all the masses of the particles to be zero. So on one hand we have a whole variety of masses and on the other a theory in which all masses should be zero. Such conundrums provide the excitement and the challenges of science.

There is, however, one very clever and very elegant solution to this problem, a solution first proposed by Peter Higgs. He proposed that the whole of space is permeated by a field, similar in some ways to the electromagnetic field. As particles move through space they travel through this field, and if they interact with it they acquire what appears to be mass. This is similar to the action of viscous forces felt by particles moving through any thick liquid. the larger the interaction of the particles with the field, the more mass they appear to have. Thus the existence of this field is essential in Higg’s hypothesis for the production of the mass of particles.

We know from quantum theory that fields have particles associated with them, the particle for the electromagnetic field being the photon. So there must be a particle associated with the Higg’s field, and this is the Higgs boson. Finding the Higgs boson is thus the key to discovering whether the Higgs field does exist and whether our best hypothesis for the origin of mass is indeed correct.

For another interesting explainer of the Higgs boson particle and the Higgs field, see this quasi-political explanation by David J. Miller from University College London.