Iraq Lessons

I have been thinking about the Iraq War lately, a week after its 10th-year anniversary. Through a blog post by Paul Krugman, I read an excellent piece by Kathleen Geier that I highly recommend. It’s a depressing read to see a group of individuals with influence argue for exactly the wrong thing. Maybe worse is how they forgave themselves with barely an apology.

From the piece:

This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

I’m not entirely sure society collectively has learned much from the Iraq War. Modern war allows people to feel pretty insulated from its effects, so people had no trouble tuning out a year or two into the mess. But I know that at the very least, the Iraq War influenced many individuals who were still coming of age at the time of the invasion.

I was in high school when it happened. Now when I look back at the entire episode, I think to myself, this was the first time I realized that a majority of adults are completely full of shit. Here, I thought, is group-think at its worst, not in a totalitarian society that literally monitors what people say and think as in 1984, but in what should be a free and thoughtful society. The thinkers, the politicians, the opinion-writers simply plant a toxic seed in the viewer’s mind full of half-truths and and an array of half-assed justifications: tyrant, oil, WMDs, freedom, like pharmaceuticals prescribed en masse to a sick populace. And then we see other people agreeing throughout the media-sphere, and arguing on behalf of war in some arena of ideas that is empty of any nourishing logic or critical thinking.

These are smart people, who have gone to good schools, who get paid to think about hard and complex issues for a living, and who can dress up ideas in nice prose. And in the end, they were exceedingly bad at what they do for a living at an incredibly important point in our history. What startled me the most was that these people never gave any regard to the real world, where real people would die and face the consequences. It was about ego, and image, and wanting to appear a certain way (or not wanting to appear a certain way: hippie). These are things any high-schooler is well acquainted with. Somehow, I thought, people must grow up from these kinds of traits. There has to be less name-calling, bullying, and image-consciousness as people get older. But it wasn’t true, and I learned my lesson then.

I was in an English Lit class when we had a sort of mini-debate about the Iraq War. Every week, my English teacher liked to include 10 minutes of in-class discussion on different events in the world to keep the class fresh and to try and get people to see the connections between developing good, evidence-based arguments and the world outside of writing literature analyses. I was an awkward, over-achieving kid who didn’t typically talk very much, but I loved these debates, as I was always well-read on current events. I remember passionately arguing against the Iraq War in class, asking basic questions. Has anything changed in Iraq since 9/11 that necessitates action? Or since the Persian Gulf War? And if it’s freedom we care about, or even 9/11 we care about, why not attack Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 Hijackers were from? Why are we close allies with Saudi Arabia? Why don’t we care about North Korea? I look back at much of my life and often times think: you were so stupid. But this wasn’t one of those times. These were simple questions that I had asked. Why didn’t the people in our media and the people holding elected office also ask these questions? Why did they brush them off with labels like hippie or traitor? Why did all but 1 Republican senator, and a majority of Democratic senators, vote for the Iraq Resolution?

The point of Krugman’s post is that the many commentators who argued on behalf of the war still have their jobs, and it is truly a mystery as to why. Some people feel bad for them, and feel bad for people like Colin Powell, as if they were innocent bystanders in the evil Bush-Cheney plan to invade Iraq. But these men and women had real power, and they paid none of the consequences resulting from their decisions. Thousands of American lives, and perhaps over a hundred thousand Iraqi lives, have been lost as a result.

There were some voices of reason at the time that we should remember and aspire to.

Governor Howard Dean, in February 2003:

Secretary Powell’s recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness. He said there would be no smoking gun, and there was none.

Senator Robert Byrd, in March 2003:

BYRD: Well, I’m not in favor of war in Iraq at this point. I don’t see Iraq as being directly and imminently an enemy or an attacker or a danger to the United States. Iraq is not an imminent — an imminent — I mean, directly ready to attack the United States.

KING: But how about long range?

BYRD: Well, maybe. There are others that are more imminently threatening, for example, North Korea.

But we just ought to lay this out on the table. Iraq does not directly constitute an imminent threat to the United States or to the American people.

KING: But obvious, though, he’s a despot, right? It’s obvious there are a lot of things there that shouldn’t be there for peace in the world.

BYRD: Yes, there’s no question. He’s a liar, he’s a prevaricator, he delays, he — I don’t — I hold no brief for him as an individual or for his policies. There’s no question about that. But here we are, about to make war on a nation that has not provoked us into war. We’re not under an attack. We’re not under the threat of an imminent attack from Iraq.


Book reviews

I sometimes get in the habit of reading a huge amount of news articles and blogs, often about a single subject over the course of a couple of days. Maybe it’s about sequestration, or Zero Dark Thirty, but in any event, reading about current events can wear me down mentally. It’s usually then that I shut down the computer and try and spend more time reading books, which manages to feel refreshing.

I had a chance to read a couple of very informative non-fiction books over the past couple of months. The first is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The second is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which I mentioned in a previous post about prospect theory.

I have mixed feelings about popular science books. When I say popular science, I basically mean Malcolm Gladwell books, like Blink, which try to decipher large volumes of psychological research into something for the average reader. The writing is clear, fun and breezy, and you feel like you’ve gained some significant knowledge about the world. The major danger in Gladwell’s Blink (the only one I have read) is that they are deceptively easy. Research into the mind is hard, and often messy, and the picture the reader receives is one of complete certainty, when that is far from the case. Furthermore, Gladwell introduces a compelling thesis of his own based on a selective reading of research, and the evidence for this thesis seems less convincing as the book goes on. Late in books he seems to come up with examples that he has to almost manipulate into his original thesis. This was my experience with Blink, anyway.

The Power of Habit is sort of like Gladwell’s books in the way it tries to approach complex science into the mind in an easy-to-read manner, but it manages to avoid most of the problems. Charles Duhigg, like Gladwell, has a general thesis, that habits overwhelm and determine huge amounts of our life, and he proceeds to expound on this through an omniscient narration of compelling events while interjecting with analysis and discovery. The early part of the book looks at a man who lost his ability to generate new memories, but still, he seemed to learn some things by way of habit, and even he seemed unaware that this was happening. Later the book delves into other fascinating examples, like Starbucks employee training and Target’s data operations which try to capture pregnant shoppers by sending them coupons earlier than their competitors.

Duhigg does a good job of illustrating different examples, as well as admitting the complexity of habits in different scenarios. Ultimately, at the end of the book, I did feel like I had a much firmer grasp of my own habits, and how I could improve upon them (and replace the bad ones). I also found myself thinking more about everyday activities that I had taken for granted. I finished the book a few days ago, but I still find myself thinking about parts of the book, and in particular, how I could apply the lessons in the book to my life. There’s a short Appendix focusing on this, so that’s helpful.

The drawbacks of the book are what appear in any kind of popular science book. In its efforts to draw in the reader, the narration is a bit too accurate and precise. This is common in journalism, where the writer paints a compelling picture of a character and some kind of nuance in his or her behavior before delving into some discovery or struggle, but it seems to me a bit too much like fiction in some instances.

The summary of research into the mind is generally good and nuanced, but the book also delves into some areas where I felt like Duhigg was trying too hard to fit examples into his thesis. There’s an example about Rosa Parks and the associated boycotts, and also Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. The accounts are compelling, and it is interesting to hear about them from the perspective of habits and social networks, but ultimately I felt these were out of place in the context of the rest of the book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is a completely different kind of book. Kahneman is a Nobel winning psychologist and economist, and he provides a very serious look at a massive amount of research into the way the mind works. The writing is precise and to the point even as Kahneman tackles extremely complex topics and scenarios. The writing here is not in the mode of Gladwell or Duhigg, as there are no cheap attempts at story-telling just to draw the reader in. The chapters are heavy and full of information; I found each chapter compelling but I had trouble reading more than 2-3 in one sitting.

I learned a great deal about how irrational we are from Kahneman’s book, and even though it was a slower, more difficult and draining read, whatever I learned was incredibly rewarding. There were several chapters I read multiple times because they were both complex and delightful in what they revealed. The book covers a wide array of topics, so it is more difficult to summarize vs. The Power of Habit, which has a specific thesis in mind, so I’ll leave that job to Amazon. You can also see my previous post mentioning prospect theory here.

Future Basketball Statistics

I have no doubt that NBA teams probably have sophisticated (and proprietary) databases and technically-savvy analysts looking at all kinds of basketball data to assess strengths and weaknesses of teams and individual players.

But as an outsider looking in, I was thinking about what areas of data analysis in basketball seem most promising for the future, given that we are now in a “big data” world.

First, basketball is really hard to analyze because there are countless variables interacting with each other all the time. In baseball, you can analyze a pitcher and a batter and ignore everyone else, basically, without losing too much information.  In basketball, there are always people active on the court beyond just the shooter. There are help defenders, there’s the guy that fed the shooter the pass, there’s the guy that fed the guy who fed the guy the pass, there’s the guy that set the screen, and there’s the guy on the opposing team in the paint who may be deterring a drive that was never attempted. So it seems like focusing on problems of interacting variables is something that should be given more thought than it has been given thus far.

Second, basketball is spatial, so it would be interesting to do more in this area. Already TV networks visually show shot selections for various players, but I don’t get the sense that it has gotten much deeper than that.

Third, as I alluded to in a previous post, people look at averages but not so much at the variability of players’ performances. Getting some measure of how consistent players are seems important in correctly assessing value.

Finally, analyzing injury impacts on players in a statistically-rigorous fashion would be interesting, and probably really helpful for teams who are considering signing players who are just coming off injuries. Andrew Bynum is one example of this. A database of ACL-injuries, pre and post-injury, and whether things improved over time, or whether you could predict the quality of a comeback based on the first 10 games, for example, seem like interesting questions to try and answer.

Some questions can be answered as more and better data are collected, but other questions are simply hard to quantify and answer with data. Quality of coaching seems like one area in particular where this holds true.

Expiring Tax Cuts and Angry People

Towards the end of 2010, President Obama and the outgoing Congress passed several key pieces of legislation, and among them was a temporary payroll tax cut. This applies to the Social Security (FICA) tax, and since it is an immediately visible tax decrease on every paycheck for everyone (rather than a lump sump amount received at tax filing time), the argument was that this was a strong and visible stimulative measure. Due to its popularity, it was extended for another year. Finally, in January 2013, payroll taxes reverted to what they used to be.

This whole exercise has been interesting to me. Talking to people, they unambiguously think of this as a tax rise, and they have been complaining that their paychecks have gotten smaller. They don’t seem very mindful of the fact that the rate is simply going back to what it was for the longest time, and that the tax cut was always there solely as a temporary measure. Rather than think of the 2 years in which they paid lower taxes as a net gain for their personal finances, they seem mostly pissed off that this didn’t continue forever. Moreover, I can’t help but feel that if this tax cut had never occurred, then in January 2013, from a psychological standpoint, they would feel much better than they do under the current circumstances of having seen a tax cut expire. This behavior is pretty irrational from a traditional economics perspective. After all, in one scenario, they were able to keep about 2% more of their paychecks for 2 entire years. In the other scenario, they would not have had that. And yet they probably wouldn’t have been pissed off as they are now.

This is more than just an intuition I have. I have been reading Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a psychologist by training but throughout his career he has ventured into behavioral economics with great success, and he won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. Part of his work focuses on prospect theory, an alternative way of thinking about decision-making in contrast to the rational system at the core of much of traditional economics.

In the traditional model, you compare two wealth states to assess utility. Preferences are symmetric, in the sense that moving from $30,000 to $20,000 is the same as the negative of moving from $30,000 to $40,000. But this symmetric feature clearly has its failures.

Another feature in the traditional theory relates to expected value calculations in decision-making. So if you had the choice of taking $800 for certain, or if you had a 90% chance of making $1000 (and 10% of making 0), most people actually go for the certainty of $800 even though the expected value of the other trade is $900.

With gambles, people exhibit loss aversion. So if someone had a 50% chance of losing $100 and a 50% chance of winning $110, most people would not take the gamble, because the disutility of losing money is far greater than the utility from gaining, even if the amount to be gained is greater than the potential loss. This defies traditional economic logic where people are perfectly rational and weight events by their probability.

Finally, where people are right now, in the present, matters for any kind of calculation of gain or loss.

To quote Kahneman: “Evaluation is relative to a neutral reference point. [. . .] For financial outcomes, the usual reference point is the status quo. [. . .] Outcomes that are better than the reference points are gains. Below the reference point they are losses. [. . .] When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains.” (Kahneman 282).

And so Kahneman’s thesis has two main channels, (1) people dislike losses more than they like gains, and (2) the reference point, that is someone’s current status, is really important in assessing the value of a change.

So when people think about their payroll taxes going up in January 2013, their reference point is December 2012, not December 2010, even though they knew the taxes would go up eventually. Furthermore, people always pay more attention to losses than to gains.


I mostly have modern computing and the internet in mind here: How have the technologies of the last 20 years made life better? How have they made life worse?

I ask these questions to try and come up with some answers about how I can improve my life, but I imagine these are issues most people deal with.

For the better:

1. Vast oceans of information about virtually anything you can imagine is out there for free. This is more than just “nice”; it has reduced the time we have to spend on various searches for information on a daily basis.

2. Building on the first point, educational start-ups are starting to take advantage of present bandwidth conditions and the free nature of the web to offer free education. Learning has never been as accessible or cheap as it is now.

3. Social networking websites have made it incredibly easy to keep in touch with friends and family, regardless of where you might be. Services like Skype and instant messaging have made it free to communicate.

4. Smart phones mean that we now have (1) and (3) with us everywhere we go. It is kind of awesome to think we have computers in our pockets more powerful than what was commonplace for the desktop less than 10 years ago. We can document important things around us with photographs and twitter, and we can find our way around more easily with navigational tools. Oh, and we can also call people.

5. Blogs have been incredible sources of analysis that did not previously exist. We now have critiques of traditional journalism as well as original perspectives on stories that may not have been heard otherwise. I know personally that just as much as from places like the New York Times, I have benefited from blogs in understanding the world around me. The analysis can be razor-sharp and it has made me a better thinker. Of course, my own blog, though not updated nearly enough, has made me sharper as I try to write down what I think.

6. Related to (1), the web has allowed people to hunt for bargains. Previously people would hunt through Sunday paper ads, and compare themselves. Now this can be done online, and furthermore, online companies can compete on price much of the time.

7. Entertainment is easier, faster and cheaper than it once was. Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, Steam, Amazon and Google have probably made it really easy to listen, watch and play on a whim’s notice.

8. There are countless productivity tools that have improved how we organize and do our work. Think of word processors, cloud backups, sharable documents and spreadsheets, instant messaging, and more specific tools depending on your industry (statistical analysis, film and photo editing tools, databases, electronic medical records).

For the worse:

Prior to starting on this list, it seemed to me that most of the flaws in these technologies are actually with the individual. In other words, put in the hands of an ideal human as measured by restraint, discipline, focus and will power, the flaws would not really exist. But none of us are this ideal person. And we can strive towards this image of ideal, but part of that self-improvement equation has to do with environment.

1. Too much choice in how we spend our time can be and often is a terrible thing. This is a strange critique, because the fault ultimately lies with the individual. Most of us have a tendency to be distracted, and when we are on our desktops, laptops or smartphones, we will inevitably be incredibly distracted for a significant fraction of the time. Too many options can induce a kind of paralysis. I find this is definitely the case with me. How many people have had days where you looked back and wondered what in the hell you just did over the last several hours? Browsing wikipedia, chatting with friends and reading articles out of a mixture of boredom, interest and immense distraction.

2. Focusing on a task at hand, whether that be reading, writing or something work-related is not something anyone is really innately born with. Like long-distance running, it’s something you have to practice consistently to be any good at. And in modern times, we probably don’t get very much practice. Most of our tasks are probably disjointed and broken up with countless activities available to us on our computers. Sometimes these detours are good, as they give us a break from the usual. But that takes for granted that we are very focused for significant periods of time. I’m guessing that’s not usually the case for most people.

3. I think people romanticize and beautify the idea of being on your own, in the woods with no phone or constant e-mail checking. But I think most people would admit there’s something nice about logging off for periods of time.

4. For all of the things that have expanded the information and educational tools and improved our productivity potential, I feel like depending on the day, the time-wasters could outweigh the life-improvers. This is related to (1) and (2). If I had better self-discipline and more focus, this would not be the case.

5. Even as the latest wave of technologies has attempted to make people more connected to each other, I wonder if the vast capabilities of the internet haven’t occasionally made me less social.

It’s clear that this new world of technology can be awesome, but it can also be terrible if we aren’t careful and vigilant.