Thoughts on The Undoing Project and New Year’s Resolutions

With 2019 approaching, I’ve been immersed in a book about how people make decisions: The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. He’s the author of Moneyball. You remember the Oakland A’s, back in 2002, had a losing baseball team and no money. To improve how they chose their draft picks, they brought in a statistics geek, who studied players’ performance and translated moves into numbers. When the A’s shifted to relying less on expert opinions and more on data, they started winning. But there was a backlash from the experts. This is an insult! How can some number-crunching outsider make better choices than me, who’s known the sport my whole life? Michael Lewis writes:

“In 2004, after aping Oakland’s approach . . . , the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in nearly a century. Using the same methods, they won it again in 2007 and 2013. But in 2016, after three disappointing seasons, they announced that they were moving away from the data-based approach and back to one where they relied upon the judgment of baseball experts.” According to Lewis, the problem wasn’t failure of the approach; it was human nature. Everybody knew, because economists told them, that human beings make rational decisions based on enlightened self-interest. Using data fit that model: we get a realistic picture of the odds, and we choose the best match between what we want and what’s likely. But Lewis was seeing that people aren’t satisfied by probability. They “hunger for an expert who knows things with certainty, even when certainty is not possible.”

This was confirmed by the general manager of the Houston Rockets. Daryl Morey came to basketball from consulting. He also believed in data, and that got him in trouble on Wall Street: he wasn’t certain enough. “We’d tell our clients we could predict the 10-year price of oil; but no one can predict the price of oil. The best we can do is probabilities.” And his bosses said, “We’re billing these clients 500 grand a year, so you have to be certain.”

After he wrote Moneyball, Michael Lewis learned he wasn’t the first person to question the rational self-interest view of decision-making. A review of the book noted, “The . . . ways an expert’s judgments might be warped by the expert’s own mind were described, years ago, by a pair of Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.”

Who the heck were Kahneman and Tversky?

Well, it turned out Amos Tversky had won a MacArthur genius grant, and Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics. I found out about their work in 2011. Like Michael Lewis, I was so intrigued that I read Kahneman’s whole long, amazing book Thinking, Fast and Slow. At age 21, when Danny Kahneman was a new psychologist serving his year in the Israeli army, he was assigned to evaluate other new recruits. Watch them in an exercise and pick the best officer candidates—much like Moneyball. He said, “We noted who took charge, who tried to lead and was rebuffed, how cooperative each soldier was . . . who seemed to be stubborn, submissive, arrogant, patient, hot-tempered, persistent, or a quitter. . . . The impression we had of each candidate’s character was as direct and compelling as the color of the sky. . . .We were quite willing to declare, ‘This one will never make it,’ ‘That fellow is rather mediocre,’ or ‘He will be a star.’” Later Kahneman tested his predictions against the outcomes—how did these guys actually perform in officer training? He discovered his predictions were worthless. But because it was the army, and the assessments had to be made, he kept on making them.

Danny Kahneman realized this is a crucial quirk in human nature. Our judgment is not as reliable as we think, for a lot of reasons; but even when we know this, we rely on it anyway. He and Amos Tversky found this is true in all kinds of situations. Sports team managers, economists, financial consultants, judges, doctors—even scientific researchers, including them—have a tendency to fall in love with their own theories. “They fit the evidence to the theory rather than the theory to the evidence. They cease to see what’s right under their nose. Everywhere one turned, one found idiocies that were commonly accepted as truths only because they were embedded in a theory to which the scientists had yoked their careers.” Again, like Moneyball.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman

Where the blind spots in human judgment become dangerous is in fields like medicine, where patients are begging for certainty and doctors can thrive by pretending they have it. A study at the Oregon Research Institute found that when radiologists were shown X-rays of stomach ulcers, and asked how likely each one was to be cancerous, their diagnoses didn’t agree—and if you showed the same X-ray to the same doctor at two different times, he often didn’t agree with himself. Or in politics, where voters will reject a good candidate because of their own unrecognized biases, and choose the one who claims the loudest: “I know exactly what’s wrong, and I can fix it.” Or religion, where a church promises if you do A, B, and C, you’ll go to heaven, but if you do X, Y, or Z, you’ll burn in hell, even though in all of human history there is zero evidence that this is true.

One of Danny Kahneman’s great qualities as a researcher was he didn’t ask predictable questions. He didn’t say “Why do you believe this when it’s obviously wrong? Are you stupid or what?” He’d say, “We know people believe this, even when it’s obviously wrong; why is that? What kink in human nature is at work here, and how can we stop it from doing damage?” He and Tversky found that adult patterns of thinking are pretty hard to change. They did better with children. Kids are learning about everything for the first time. They don’t have so much skin in the game. If they make a mistake, they’re likely to think it’s funny and interesting, and go at it differently the next time.

But I do think that whether or not we older folks can rewire our own habits of making judgments and decisions, it helps to recognize these blind spots when we deal with other people. When a doctor or a politician or any other expert says, “Oh, I can fix that, no problem,” don’t just say “Oh, Thanks! That’s great!” Go home; check his record. Look her up on the Internet. Find other expert opinions.

Besides Moneyball, Michael Lewis also wrote the Wall Street book The Big Short. The movie version opens with a great line from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” But that ain’t so. Mark Twain never said that. The opening line of Lewis’s book is from Leo Tolstoy: “The simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man, if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”

So as we welcome 2019, my resolution is Trust but verify. Don’t condemn people for their quirks and blind spots (that includes me); but watch out for opinions that aren’t backed by evidence. And have a happy new year.

This post originated as a meditation on 12/30/18 for The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.
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Mutabilis: The Rose and Edward Gorey

by CJ Verburg

Rosa Mutabilis (Chinensis): one of my favorite flowers, from the SF Botanical Garden’s wonderful plant shop. Yesterday, after weeks, two green teardrops swelled into tight yellow buds. This morning I woke to these pale yellow flowers. Over the course of today they’ll blush toward peach, then turn sunset-pale pink. By tomorrow they’ll be a deep, vivid cerise.

In celebration, I made Ceylon tea in one of my favorite mugs, one that Edward Gorey designed to celebrate a technological advance in ceramics which delighted him. Heat sensitivity! A longtime master of secrets, suspense, and revelations, suddenly he could create a 2-stage object whose illustration (a lady enjoying tea on her recamier, framed by a black curtain) changed with the addition of hot liquid (the curtain vanishes to reveal a yegg snatching a statuette from her side table).

Theatrical magic! In the years we staged plays together on Cape Cod, a reliable offstage drama was the annual changing of the seasons. Every fall the green leaves of summer turned red, yellow, and brown and dropped off the trees, leaving behind a bleak landscape of vegetation so relentlessly taupe, and lacy branches so fragile, that one marveled at their ability to produce that vanished profusion of life.

It was Massachusetts’ frigid winters that dispatched me to California after Edward died. Every year I’d told myself: If it doesn’t get any colder than this, I’ll be OK. And then it did. Almost as stifling as the cold, though, was the loss of color. I cannot agree with the snippet of Shakespeare in this morning’s e-mail from the Globe Theatre in London:

‘At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows,
But like of each thing that in season grows.’
Love’s Labour’s Lost (Act I, scene 1)

Not me. I always yearned for roses!

Likewise, I put up a fierce and furious resistance when Edward was felled by a heart attack in April 2000. Not that I thought I had any leverage with Fate; only I was absolutely 100% not willing for him to die. I sat by his hospital bed; I held his hand, invaded by needles and tubes. I talked to him, read to him, begged him to rejoin us.

‘O feelings of horror, resentment, and pity
For things, which so seldom turn out for the best . . .’
The Insect God

Of the many aftershocks that followed Edward’s death, for me the most dreadful and unexpected was the co-optation of his work by its new owners, who goosed his unique style into a lucrative brand. That shift was already happening, of course — sales and royalties from his books and drawings were what paid Edward’s way. Death perhaps just speeds a transformation which is inevitable, or at least is the only alternative to being forgotten.

Still, I’m ambivalent about last month’s publication of the first full Edward Gorey biography, Born to Be Posthumous. Author Mark Dery is a cultural critic who didn’t know the man about whom he is now the official expert. Many of Edward’s friends, leery of this posthumous invasion of privacy, chose not to participate, or to speak only of matters Edward himself had made public.

My reaction to the book, as one who can’t yet face reading more than snippets, mirrors Joan Acocella’s in The New Yorker:

Dery’s book is often fun, but that’s mostly because Gorey was fun. As for Dery, he should have been wiser. His discussions of Gorey’s work tend to be brief and shallow . . . Everything is goosed up—above all, what Dery regards as the dark, dark mystery of Gorey. Look at the book’s title, “Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey.” In what sense was Gorey born to be posthumous? To me, he seems to have done O.K.—found some happiness, created some admirable art—while still living. As regards eccentricity: funny how certain artists are that way.

Chacun a son gout. I can no more stop anyone from making whatever they wish of my late friend than I could stop the Great Bulldozer from flattening him. Or stop New England from turning cold when winter comes.

Yet it struck me as miraculous, then and now, that I could board a December flight from BOS to SFO and disembark into 360-degree color. And as much as I admired the stoicism with which Edward Gorey and most of our Cape friends endured those winters, I wish I could give him a cutting of my Rosa Mutabilis. He’d love watching its slow transformation, like the lady and the yegg.

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Disarmed: a Free Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod story!

If you have friends who love a good “smart cozy” mystery, my Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod novels Croaked and Zapped might be exactly the holiday gift you’re looking for. You can find out, or just take a fun crime-solving break, with the free story “Disarmed.” Deliver this Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod mini-adventure to your phone and/or computer with one click on GoogleBooksiTunes/AppleBooks, Kobo, or Nook/Barnes&Noble. “Disarmed” is also available on Amazon, but they insist on charging 99 cents.

Happy Thanksgiving from me and Boom-Books!


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See You on Cape Cod – August 3-9

When I lived on Cape Cod, an off-and-on adventure beginning in my 20s, summer started out as beach-and- party season and wound up as dodge-the-tourists season. Nowadays it’s my annual chance to see the latest show at the Edward Gorey House, maybe throw a book-launch party, and catch up with old friends. I love living in San Francisco: unlike the East Coast, the winters don’t turn my lips blue or my toes white, and the summers don’t turn my face, arms, and shoulders painfully red. But when it comes to books and theater, star-filled skies, sea-scented air, birds and plants I’ve known since childhood, and leisurely conversations that are both wise and witty, I love returning to the Cape.

This year I happen to be writing a new Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod mystery novella called The Toastrack Enigma which parallels the Edward Gorey House’s art show, Murder He Wrote. The novella is a homage to Edward’s and my shared pash for Agatha Christie, manifested in my favorite of his books, The Awdrey-Gore Legacy. It’s also a homage to Edward’s penchant for torquing traditional forms, in that the plot veers from an ordinary day at the village diner-cafe into the briar patch of real-estate development and Indian land disputes. (Can you believe that this very week, a Congressional committee is once again debating the Mashpee Wampanoags’ legal status as a tribe?) And then I’m working with the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust to shepherd Edward’s theatrical creations — both pictorial and poetical — into print, a project that involves vigorous reminiscing with some of the players who gave them 3-D life.

If you’re on the Cape between Friday, Aug. 2 and Thursday, Aug. 9, please come say hi at one of these events. Free admission, refreshments, good books and good conversation! Click on a red link for details.

  •  Sturgis Library, Barnstable Village, 10:30-12:30 Sat. Aug. 4  Come check out my books, and/or have one autographed for you or a friend — and fill your beach bag at the library’s annual book sale!
  •  Falmouth Public Library, 6:30 PM Tues. Aug. 7  Recalling on- and offstage escapades with fellow Gorey troupe member & FPL librarian Jill Erickson — plus a reading from Zapped: An Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery, and of an Edward Gorey mini-mystery!
  •  Edward Gorey House, 8 Strawberry Lane, YarmouthPort, 6:30 PM Wed. Aug. 8  Why did Edward Gorey choose the mystery form, and what unique twists did he put on it? See this year’s show, “Murder He Wrote,” enjoy a glass of wine, and hear a scene from my Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery in progress, The Toastrack Enigma. For more info, call the Edward Gorey House at 508-362-3909 or visit their Facebook event page.


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Deadly AMAZON, the G7 Summit, and David Brooks

Beware tech-company claims of respect for privacy!

Mona Lisa Eyes (Danny Logan Mystery, #4)I was staggered to learn from a Goodreads e-mail that I’m reading a book called Mona Lisa Eyes. NOT!!! I spotted the title in my Kindle library during a clean-out last week, clicked to investigate, and deleted it. Apparently Kindle reported that click to its parent company, Amazon, which passed it along to another subsidiary, Goodreads. Now that entire worldwide corporate network not only records me as reading a book I haven’t read and never will, but is publicizing that lie, and probably selling it.

And I can’t undo this. There is no “Wrong!” button. I may be peppered for years with online ads targeting me for a nonexistent interest. Depending on how widely Amazon shills the data it collects (and makes up), I could be watched by every pair of eyes on a book cover for the rest of my digital life.

In this teapot-sized tempest I’m hearing echoes of David Brooks’s observations in today’s New York Times about shifting values, beliefs, and tactics as reflected by the meetings that just ended in Toronto and Singapore. “The failure of [the G7] summit . . . was about the steady collapse of the postwar order and the way power structures are being reorganized and renegotiated across societies and across the world. . . . In the low-trust Trumpian worldview, values don’t matter; there are only interests. . . . Friendship is just a con that other people try to pull on you before they screw you over.”

From my POV, today’s small Amazon lie reflects the glee with which corporate America has embraced this profit-enhancing worldview. To companies like Goodreads and Facebook,

Book Gun by Robert The – http://www.bookgun.com/

“friendship” is a con they can pull on their customers for the purpose of screwing them over. This is why it was dangerously nonsensical for the Supreme Court to declare that corporations are as entitled as human individuals to free speech. It’s built into the nature of corporations that “values don’t matter; there are only interests.” This is why Donald Trump, whose identity reflects a lifetime in corporate settings, has been identified by many traditional political players as the #1 threat to U.S. security. But it’s not just him. It’s the shift in orientation that Brooks describes, that the contrast in summits just showcased, and that every little lie by Amazon and its ilk affirms.

View all my reviews

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Bathtub Gin on Broadway: A Night in the Roaring ’20s at SF’s The Speakeasy

“You have a watch repair appointment tomorrow night.” That’s the first cryptic message slipped through my cyber-mail slot by The Speakeasy. It’s a reminder that this is Prohibition we’re stepping into. From 1920-1933, buying drinks in a nightclub wasn’t just breaking the law but the Constitution. Shh! If the feds find out what we’re up to, we’re history.

We’re history anyway, since The Speakeasy’s immersive theater starts with period costumes. If you can’t deck yourself out in a flapper’s beaded dress and headband or a natty suit and fedora, you may be re-togged at the club.

But first we have to get in. Step One: meet a woman in red trenchcoat on a certain North Beach street corner and ask her a certain question. She directs us to a watch-repair shop nearby, where a surly bouncer guards the oh-so-secret entrance.

And suddenly it’s the Roaring ‘20s! Scantily clad girls are prancing behind ostrich-plumed fans on a cabaret stage, while roulette wheels and card games get under way in the casino, and dramas erupt in the bar. Through windows in the hallways of this maze we peep and eavesdrop: In the office, the club owner and his wife are arguing. In the dressing room, the star singer threatens to start a slapping match with a chorus girl.

The joint is jumping! Cocktails appear and disappear. So do gamblers, showgirls, and customers. An emcee tells punchy jokes, a jazz combo plays, drunks lurch, a reporter gets the boot. Sandwiches? No thanks. We watch the show for a while in the cabaret, stroll through the casino, and almost get caught up in a bar fight. The only thing missing is a cigarette girl.

My involvement in theater and storytelling goes back to childhood; I vividly remember my sister and me acting out our own version of the TV show The Roaring Twenties, singing about Prohibition and bathtub gin long before we had any idea what they were. Now that it’s almost a century since the U.S. passed the only Constitutional amendment it later repealed, The Speakeasy has a slightly different role from its namesakes. This is storytelling in action — a grownup version of the make-believe history my sister and I performed for our stunned parents. 35 local actors are paid (yesss!!!) to steer a nightly crowd of participant-spectators from the arm’s-length entertainment in the cabaret to the hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye action in the casino. I was fascinated by the 4-D script: how does each actor know when to move from one scene to another, with so many going on at once? How often does someone from the audience step into the drama, and then what? Crucially, can this crossover between theater, gaming, and 3-D real-time reality become as engrossing — even addictive — as its virtual counterparts?

What do you think?

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Kedi: A Film Review with Roo the Cat

Every other time Roo and I have watched a movie together, I’m in the rocking chair and she’s on my lap. Our priorities — our interests in this pastime — barely overlap. Not this time. Kedi is a delightful documentary about the cats of Istanbul: not quite feral, not quite tame, they survive between the cracks. It reached out from the screen and grabbed her.

I wondered if Roo would be curious. I didn’t anticipate she’d be transfixed.

As soon as the meowing started, Roo hurried over to the screen: What’s going on? I, a creature of words, needed subtitles to understand the often profound observations and insights of the people who care for Istanbul’s cats; but evidently cats all speak the same language. When kittens came on, with their urgent baby mews, Roo craned, searching: Where are they?  I was reminded of my sister and me when our family got its first television, peering around the dials looking for the tiny people who must be inside.

Kedi is a pleasure whether or not you live with a cat, but if you do, it may be a unique domestic adventure.

As one Istanbul cat fan observed: Cats know there is a God. Dogs think people are God, but cats understand people are only the middlemen.


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Pen vs. Sword, or Why Language Matters

The pen is mightier than the sword. As a writer, I’ve always loved that idea. Not that either swords or pens carry much weight these days. Even Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr used dueling pistols. Is Microsoft Word mightier than an automatic rifle?

The marchers against gun violence last weekend were hoping the people with pens in Washington are mightier than the people with swords. But those pen-wielders haven’t shown much respect for words. It’s ironic: here we are at the epicenter of English, the most universal language ever, and what are we doing with it? Advertising. Tweets. Cell phones that finish our sentences. A president with a third-grade vocabulary who uses language as a weapon. It doesn’t have to be true; just keep shooting. Like the slogans in George Orwell’s novel 1984: War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. In 2018, all of those contradictions are realities. Dystopian is the new normal.

Make no mistake about it: language matters. Last week when one GOP senator promised to hold a fulsome hearing, I wondered: Does he know that fulsome doesn’t mean full? It means stinky, or disgusting, or excessively flattering. Was he telling the truth on purpose? Language is often used as camouflage. Look at an academic journal article or scientific report. Is there information in there, or just hedging of bets? Look at our June ballot proposals. Is this a subtle form of voter suppression? I have to laugh when I hear the White House deny that the Russians hacked into our election results. Why would they bother, when they can get such a huge return on investment posting fake news on social media? Fluency in language is essential for critical thinking — Step One in telling fact from fiction. You know Facebook now has a link in those dots in the upper right corner where you can flag a story as fake news. The problem is our yearning to believe any story that confirms what we already think.

Paying attention to language is work. “Use your words” is not a skill humans are born with. We have to be taught to communicate by speaking, instead of hitting and hollering. Recently my friend Felix Justice asked some of us to remember being four years old. The memory that called up for me was, what a savage I was. My sister and I constantly tried to kill each other. Not that we understood killing. What we understood was power. Control. Just like the self-described grown-ups who run governments and gangs. There’s equality: In this economy, the White House, the Mafia, and the drug cartels speak the same language. Not English, to communicate. Money. The 21st century’s lingua franca for power. If you have it, you’re a winner. If you don’t, you’re a loser. When people squeeze the universe into a ball, as TS Eliot said, when they reduce the interactions between humans and all forms of life and energy into slogans, there’s no middle ground. No negotiation. No reaching across the aisle. For that, we need language.

A lot of outstanding writers came to English as a second language. Vladimir Nabokov. Joseph Conrad. Or because a band of conquerors forced their ancestors to learn it. I’m working with an Italian immigrant to North Beach right now, a retired restaurateur who’s turned to writing; he’s having a ball with English, piling up adverbs and adjectives and circumlocutions like frosting on a wedding cake. It’s a wonderfully rich tool. Many of the great bilingual Nigerian, Indian, and South African writers, among others, chose English so they could reach the widest possible audience. Some point out that it’s a double-edged sword: a gift of oppression. Some are amazed that we who were born with this gift appreciate it so little.

My favorite comment about that contradiction, that irony, that paradox, is by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He was writing about Spanish, but as part of the international brotherhood of writers, I suspect he was thinking of English, too.

What a great language I have, it’s a fine language we inherited from the fierce conquistadors . . .
They strode over the giant cordilleras, over the rugged Americas, hunting for potatoes, sausages, beans, black tobacco, gold, corn, fried eggs, with a voracious appetite not found in the world since then . . .
They swallowed up everything, religions, pyramids, tribes, idolatries just like the ones they brought along in their huge sacks . . . Wherever they went, they razed the land . . . But words fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here . . . our language. We came up losers . . . We came up winners . . . They carried off the gold and left us the gold . . . They carried everything off and left us everything . . . They left us words.

—    “Lost in the City,’ Memoirs, 1976

Originally presented as a meditation at the Church for the Fellowship for All Peoples, San Francisco, March 25, 2018.

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FREE Time-Travel to Summer on Cape Cod

Tired of nor’easters? Fed up with snow, downed trees, and power failures? One click and you’re on your way to a short suspenseful  summer sleuthing adventure! “Disarmed: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery Story” is FREE on iTunes, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, and most other e-outlets. (Amazon insists on charging $.99.)

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Life, Death, & Writing

Along with the cold spell in San Francisco has come bad news from everywhere, it seems. This morning I ran across a poem that impressed me back in 8th grade and has stayed with me ever since: a useful reminder that a sense of proportion can be a lever to move the world.

Interlude III by Karl Shapiro

Writing, I crushed an insect with my nail
 And thought nothing at all. A bit of wing
 Caught my eye then, a gossamer so frail
 And exquisite, I saw in it a thing
 That scorned the grossness of the thing I wrote.
 It hung upon my finger like a sting.
 A leg I noticed next, fine as a mote,
 'And on this frail eyelash he walked,' I said,
 'And climbed and walked like any mountain goat.'
 And in this mood I sought the little head,
 But it was lost: then in my heart a fear
 Cried out, 'A life—why beautiful, why dead!'
 It was a mite that held itself most dear,
 So small I could have drowned it with a tear.
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