Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Science and Superstition

I won the football pool this week. I won $100.

Now, before both Readers zip to the bottom of this post to add congratulatory comments, consider that this is the 12th week of the NFL season, and that I have bet $10 for 10 of those twelve weeks. Even I can do this math. Hurray! I broke even!

Actually it's not so good as that. Consider, if you will, that I bet on every single week of the NFL season last year--that's sixteen games--and won, well, not even once. Again, this math is not beyond my reach. I am, for the two seasons that I can recall for the purpose of this essay, down about $160.

Now I know it's really not fair to look at betting from a historical viewpoint, as this is most likely to prove the foolishness of the endeavor, but it is fair to say that I am under no illusions about the profitability. I know I am going to lose more than I win. Still I enjoy playing, for reasons that I have explored in another post, and this essay is headed in another direction.

Specifically, I have begun to wonder about what makes for a reasonable strategy when it comes to making my pool picks on any given week. I mean, is it knowledge that drives the decision-making process?

Or, is it luck? Common sense tells me that it is some combination of the two, especially because we all--football fans and non-fans alike--know that any given team can beat any other given team on any given Sunday (or Monday or sometimes Thursdays or Saturdays). Even the best teams lose one game per season.

And this underscores my point. Which, if I were to have made it by now would be this: it isn't so much what we know about something that informs us about future possibilities--like the outcome of any given NFL game--but it's what we don't know. Or rather, it is what we don't bring to the decision-making process that makes the difference between whether we pick right or wrong; whether we win or lose.

In this case, I think it's a case of what you know that hurts you.

Consider a particular case. N___. She's won the football pool twice this year. In terms of just this year--recall that we don't do the historical thing--she's actually ahead for the year! She's making money!

What does she know that we don't? What's her method?

Is she a football fanatic? A fan, perhaps, but no fanatic. In fact she doesn't even watch football except when she's at work and it happens to be what we have on. This is not to say that she doesn't know anything about football. She's actually knowledgeable about the game, the rules and even knows many of the players names. She knows how to watch the game on television and can tell good play from poor, good players from bad.

She ain't dumb, that's for sure.

But she doesn't know anything that we--read male football fans--don't know. She doesn't read the stats--except to look at the standings from week to week when making picks, which almost everybody does--and she doesn't look at or listen to any kind of post-game analysis or anything as detailed and particular as, say, injury reports. Not even a few minutes of SportsCenter before bed. Glee, perhaps.

So, it's fair to say that N___ isn't relying on knowledge for her picks. But of course, she would tell you that if you asked. In fact, I have asked, and she told me. She is quite candid about her method, which, it is safe to say, she will share with anyone. Here is the N___ method of choosing picks:

First, she looks at each match-up. Sometimes, she'll know from personal experience (she plays every week) which teams are doing better than others. Sometimes she'll check the standings sheet that Bobby (the HOB Football Pool Commissioner) prints off the net when he makes each week's sheet. But if N___ doesn't know--and this, by her own account, is often--which team is more likely to win, she has a method for breaking the tie, the N___ method, so to speak, and it has nothing to do with football.

She picks the team that is from the city she would rather live in.

Now, you might argue that this makes it easy for her to eschew choosing the hapless Buffalo Bills or the hopeless Dallas Cowboys, but then you'd have to explain why she occasionally chooses New England or Green Bay and why she doesn't always pick Tampa Bay (ok maybe not) or Miami.

Hey, I'm not saying that I endorse the N___ method for choosing which team is more likely to win on any given Sunday, but I am saying that at least N___ cannot be accused of over-thinking her choices.

This leads me to my final point. Over-thinking, I think, is the sure-fire way to lose. I have no better evidence to offer in this argument than the circular logic of this very statement or my own dismal 0-16 showing last year. By the way, I think N___ won at least once,if not twice last year.

I think that in order to really understand the complexities of decision-making, even those seemingly simple or mundane choices, we have to ignore the trees and look at the forest.

As Malcolm Gladwell observed in his book Blink, the powers of human observation and the synthesis of information is a much faster and less conscious process than we realize or even like to admit. Yet we trust that 'gut feeling' to get us through many a difficult decision, not just the ones that involve wagers of a monetary nature. We make far more choices based on our 'instincts' and 'luck' than our 'skill' or 'knowledge'. I put both in quotes to accentuate the irony; clearly neither instinct nor knowledge is 'it'.

My father Bill used to say--after he'd beaten one of us children at a game in a particularly easy or befuddling way--"It was just Science and Skill versus Ignorance and Superstition".

I certainly didn't use the N___ method when choosing teams this week, but I'll admit, it was Ignorance and Superstition rather than Science and Skill that yielded the winning combination for me this week.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A New Chapter

In the six weeks after Mr. N died, I have to confess that at first I was relieved, not just for the cessation of his suffering, but for my own 'freedom' to go through a week without seeing him.

But if I was busy enough to need the time, I was not so busy that I didn't notice the void his passing had left. It's not a void of the painful type, which I know all too well, but rather the absence of the calming influence that this mission, if you will, has effected in my life. It's selfish, really. In those moments being with and dealing with others I am lifted out and away from my own self perceived miseries and find that I have, in fact, very few of of those miseries indeed.

This is not to say that my life seems so much better when compared to the dying, because if I can't say that I'm not trying hard enough for sure. Instead, it is the feeling of being outside myself, engaged with someone I don't know in a relationship that is meaningful to us both that I seek.

Yesterday began a new chapter in that story.

I met 'Buddy' B at his home in South Austin yesterday morning. He is 90 years old and rail-thin like me. He has bright blue red-rimmed eyes and a ready smile. He is very frail, of course, and a bit hard to follow in a conversation, but nowhere near the garble that I used to share with Mr. N.

At first, we talked about where I lived, worked and why I'd come. Then, I asked what he'd done for a living. He worked in the Piggly-Wiggly (long defunct in Austin but thriving elsewhere in the south) here in Austin for many years. He went to Austin High, which means that we share something already, but I am not sure if or how much of this he'll remember in our subsequent conversations. He was very pleasant to talk to and even a little funny. When I asked what he'd done in the grocery business, he replied "Not much!" He likes football and follows the 'Horns but said that he has to watch whatever is on the TV, which he noted with some dissatisfaction was "on all the time." I don't doubt him--while I was there, it was on some sort of a music channel, just playing Christmas music in a loud and seemingly endless loop.

I will learn more about him in the coming weeks and months, I am sure. He's old and frail but not ill or actively dying yet, and it looks as if it may be many months or even years before that happens.

I'm looking forward to this new relationship, not least because of the place where Buddy is staying. It's a home in South Austin, just off Slaughter Lane near our house. The home is similar to the one I managed to find for Lynda at the end of her days, privately owned and operated under a license from the State. These folks are young and friendly and I have to say that when I walked in, it smelled good! Not just ok, but actually good. They were preparing lunch for the residents--five or six in all--right in the open kitchen area behind the living area.

Buddy sat on the couch next to a man who didn't talk or even acknowledge me, but as I pulled up a chair next to the couch, the two ladies in wheelchairs at the kitchen table couldn't help but hear us talking and watched us the whole time. At one point, I turned to acknowledge them and as I left, I got to thinking about how this was going to be a much more interesting and pleasant experience than the anguishing and solitary visits I had for Mr. N for so many months. At Buddy's home, they are actually caring for the residents, with good food, a caring attitude and lots of smiles, which they shared with me. Of course the residents are old, but here they didn't seem so resolutely unhappy. It is amazing how far a little kindness--and good food--will go.

I left with the smile they gave me on my face. I like 'Buddy' and being a part of this new 'family'.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Way It Is

There is, after all, not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules. Technology and the market are offering a tantalizing array of channels, each designed to fill a particular niche - sports, weather, cooking, religion - and an infinite variety of news, prepared and seasoned to reflect our taste, just the way we like it. As someone used to say in a bygone era, "That's the way it is."

Ted Koppel, who was managing editor of ABC's "Nightline" from 1980 to 2005, is a contributing analyst for "BBC World News America."

So what Koppel? You say it like it's a bad thing.

I know the 'problem' as it exists for 'traditional' journalists. The problem I have is that you make it sound as if journalists have been around for as long, say, as priests, or even athletes or, heaven and/or glory help us, politicians.

Though I might wish otherwise, I think that what we have come to know in the last half of the 20th century in the U.S. as 'real' journalism--particularly print journalism--will be marginalized for quite some time, perhaps the first half of the 21st century. This is not to say that journalism has no value, or that it is irrelevant, or that it will be eventually erased.

What will be erased is the sense of altruistic entitlement that conventional journalists--not unlike the politicians that they 'cover'--feel they have inherited from their experience in the previous century. The boys from the old school think that writing about the world, covering a beat if you will, is best left to trained professionals who learned how to write 'back in the day'.

I come bearing news, sire. The world don't owe you no dime. It seems to me that what has really changed is one word in your conclusion. Frankly, I much prefer the 'infinite' variety we have now to the oh-so-very-finite and Neopolitan (three basic flavors) world of the 1960's and 1970's. I've had both, and I like the way things are now better, thank you very much.

Of course we trusted Uncle Walter (and you too, Uncle Ted), but that was because we had no choice. As children we looked up to you, literally, from the living-room floor. But we 'boomers' (your kids) are all grown up now. Or at least we think we are, though it's clear that we're still babies in the digital age.

Infants though we are, at least we have learned that we can absorb information from far more sources and at a far faster rate than we ever thought before. And even that rate of change is accelerating. Ok, so that's not really news. There were folks who doubted the ability of humans to drive automobiles faster than 60 miles per hour. There are still folks who doubt that men have walked on the Moon.

Oh well. In fact, we are capable--we must be capable, really, for we have no choice (again/always)--of dealing with this flood of information from more than three 'trusted' sources. We must--we are--learning to evaluate more information critically even as it comes at us faster. Watch twelve year-olds play "Black Ops".

Critical decisions come faster under many circumstances these days, and I think, are in many ways more reliable than the supposedly well-thought-out decisions that do not take into account the rate of modern information flow. Read 'Blink'.

Saying 'That's the way it is' is more than quoting Uncle W, it's what we call a cop-out, Ted. You are unfairly using his words, for that's not how it is, at least not any more.

And I really like it the way it is.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Two Books

Two new books--both purporting to be autobiographies--came out in print last week, both of which interested me enough to purchase. But, when it came down to a choice between one or the other, even though neither author will receive a penny of the proceeds, I picked the one who work I knew I could trust to be entertaining, if not entirely accurate.

No, I did not buy a copy of Decision Points, even though I am likely to at some point for much the same reason. Instead, I chose to buy a copy (albeit electronic) of Samuel Clemens' autobiography, otherwise known as the Autobiography of Mark Twain.

Since I haven't read either volume it would of course be a bit premature for comments on the works, but even before I open either one, there are some significant differences in the two works that swayed my decision.

First of all, even though he didn't actually write this work, Clemens did at least dictate it. This may seem like a trivial difference, especially these days when other equally famous but less literary types (no names here) are likely to have someone 'ghostwrite' the work for them, but for Twain the choice to dictate was forced upon him by time obviously grown short.

The introduction to his work, which I have already skimmed, makes prominent note of the fact that Twain not only tried and failed to write his autobiography on several dozen occasions after the age of forty, he had almost abandoned the idea till late in his life. Closer to death, however, he knew it was something he had to do, even if it meant stepping outside his boundary as a writer and examining himself instead as a famous and not entirely righteous character.

The other reason I bought Twain's book first is because it is anything but new. In fact, it is a hundred years old, and this by design. Claiming quite rightly that he would be unable to write an accurate and unvarnished account of his life and relate his opinions of his contemporaries without fear of damaging or embarrassing those people, he insisted that the work remain unpublished for one hundred years after his death.

This has been, I think, a troubling issue for every would-be autobiographer (not just the famous--me included), but none has ever taken it seriously enough to actually do something about it. Only Twain, with his supreme self-confidence and even, dare I say it, arrogance about his own opinions would have had the sense to know it wouldn't really be a good book--or a best seller--for at least a century. In fact, like many other famous and now dead authors, his wishes were largely ignored, but the incompetence of those writers who chose to ignore his wishes made their works instantly obsolete, thankfully for those Twain fans lucky to be alive in 2010.

Of course, now I am judging the book in advance of actually reading it, but I wanted to make note of the fact that when it came to a choice of how to spend my $9.99 this week, I chose to put it in the pocket of a long-dead but still admired literary hero.

Next week I shall likely succumb to the curiosity that is contemporary 'history' (having read the biographies--auto or not--of all the presidents since Kennedy), but this week I'll be gaining energy and insight for my own work from the greatest of old masters with a real sense of history.

Friday, November 12, 2010

If I was a Tiger

If I was a
Tiger

Oh sure
I'd terrorize
the villagers
but not the way
you might think.

If I was a
Tiger
I'd eat the
Important Ones first
The fat ones, rich
with crunchy bones
that scare
the skinny ones
when they pop.

If I was a
Tiger
Oh, I'd eat them all.
One by one
starting with the
tastiest
richest
of them all.

If I was a
Tiger
I'd eat
dessert first.

If I was a
Snake

Yes I'd still
tempt the villagers
but not with no
ordinary Apple.

If I was a
Snake
I'd tempt the
Strong Ones first
Them whose I
lights up
in their palm
fat Gucchi sacks
that pop
when you fill them
with MITunes.

If I was a
Snake
I wouldn't leave
the weak
just tempt them
with Dollar Stores
cheap makeup and
swarovski crystals.

If I was a
Snake
I'd save the best for last
to pair with the laughter.

Rush

Push past
the edge of
night nowhere
on the horizon
is it
as dark as
the inside of
my eye.

If you look
into that
abyss
I may not
let you out.

Scream
if you like.
Monsters don't wait
for me
to call them out.

They run
when I seethe.
Such is the
anger
they cannot rest
or hide
from my eye.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Expectations

The greatest distance between any two points would have to be that between expectation and realization.

Though this a personal observation, rooted in my own inability to reconcile those two forces in my life, I feel that this disconnect underlies much of what frustrates people in general these days, whether it is politics, religion or simply familial relations that seems to be the cause.

In my own case, I know that my expectations are often unnecessarily high or out of line with what should be a reasonable outcome, yet I find that setting expectations outside of the realm of limitations is inevitable and a consequence of my particular personality. I attribute it to either unfounded optimism or simple hubris.

In the former case, I count those times when I think I can get a job done in a certain amount of time even though I know it's physically impossible. I am forever deciding to do things, setting aside too little time for too many steps, and then having to adjust my sense of accomplishment downward notch by notch until it finally gets done, a day late and not quite as well I'd hoped. The optimism in the back of my brain tells me that without it, I would just be assuming the worst, and even though I might get things done when and how I expected, the very idea of setting the bar low seems contradictory.

After all, why would I set out to do something that can't be done?

Now when it comes to simple hubris, many are the times when I have simply assumed I had either the wits or strength to pull something off when in truth I knew going in that I had neither. In this case, the wide gap between those expectations and the logical outcomes I knew to be coming are more of a head-in-the-sand sort of approach as opposed to a perfectly willful ignorance of reality, but the result is the same. Shoulda coulda woulda knew better, right?

My observation here is not just about my own inadequacies--both Readers know that would fill a volume or two--but to make the connection to what I see going on around me, particularly in the political realm. Having just gone through one of those endless 'election cycles' I feel particularly beat up and anxious to say something, not because my politics were not affirmed--are they ever?--but because the current appetite for strident and voluble rhetoric seems to have brought a huge load of horse shit to the communal table. The distance between expectations and realization is so great that we can't even see the two in the same field of vision. One or the other is all we see at any given moment.

Expectations dominate. Why for example, can't we simply just turn off the financial crisis? End the war? Plug the leak? What is taking so long? Why can't simply just go back to the 'good old days' when everybody got along? What happened? When did we start destroying our society?

Well, here's the big news, at least as I see it. We aren't destroying our society. Nobody has ever just 'got along'. Financial crises, wars and leaks take time to fix. What has changed, I think is the speed with which we adjust our expectations downwards to contrast with realization. Previously, it might have taken months, or even years to come to the realization that things weren't working out just the way we'd planned. No worry, though, as there was always time for a 'mid-course' correction. No need to steer the ship onto the rocks just to prove that they are there, right?

Just a generation ago, the President said, "Mistakes were made" even as he kept us off the shoals. A few years later, with goals set high for 'winning' a 'War on Terror' and 'finding' WMDs in Iraq or bin Laden in Afganistan, we have set out on a course of unreasonable expectations that have never been rolled back to match realizations. Some wars are un-winnable and some things are un-findable. The result of this gap has been dismal, to say the least, and not just to the left. The right has suffered from this disconnect as well.

It's like looking for the 'cure' to cancer. Is it really our expectation that we will eliminate cancer as we did smallpox? Do we really expect to avoid death altogether, or are we just conning ourselves so we can go to sleep at night?

Ah, easier said than done. While I think I'll be able keep my expectations about politics and religion in check, I am still convinced I can rebuild that rusty little green Karmann Ghia sitting in my driveway.

After all, without a little hubris, nothing would ever get done.