Our greatest tragedy

The human mind — our minds — cannot grasp relative risk. We cannot compare dangers and see them in proportion. Or rather, we constantly do compare them, and constantly get it completely wrong. This is our greatest tragedy.

We cannot overcome this tragedy because it is biological: The human mind (meaning, the nervous system in interaction with the endocrine system, which will be a new thread here anon) did not evolve to compare dangers. It evolved instead to respond effectively and immediately to the proverbial Saber-Toothed Tiger you see above — ie, to a few specific and spectacular dangers that presented themselves in the distant past of our species.

And what a pity, when all we need to do to make good decisions and policy is to do this back-of-the-envelope risk calculation:

 R(\theta,\delta(x)) = \int L(\theta,\delta(x)) f(x|\theta)\,dx

(I am kidding, of course. My point is that most of us cannot wrap our minds around the concept of risk, not to mention this equation, and therefore end up getting it wrong.)


So we get it wrong in ways big and small, disastrous and banal. Often the banal errors are the most disastrous ones.

A few anecdotal examples, chosen for their deceptive banality (with a few details altered or recombined to disguise or protect the individuals in them):


While driving alone to the airport, a teenage girl texts her friend that she is nervous because she is afraid of flying.


We’re at a Californian beach, applying top-notch sunscreen to our children, sunscreen that was shipped in by grandparents from Germany upon request because it is organic this and non-toxic that. But this particular sunscreen, being slightly easier to rub in, is marginally less non-toxic than one other alternative.

A friend therefore refuses our sunscreen, leaving her children completely unscreened, because of the risk of that residual toxicity.

After a fun beach outing, that friend cheerfully drives her children away, pulling out of the parking lot while talking on her cell phone.


The parents at a preschool in Los Angeles, wanting to make the child’s “birthday dream” come true (a school tradition), deliver a truck load of snow to the school. For a couple of days, as the stuff melts under the Californian sun, the kids get to build snowmen, throw snow balls and so on.

Some months later, the family sends out invitations to an unrelated event. The invitations are digital as opposed to printed, and arrive via email rather than through the mail.  This is because the family is “green”.


Sitting beside a tall and beautiful shelf which is not bracketed into a wall stud and which holds, among other things, a large flat-screen TV set, also not secured, a cosmopolitan individual in Los Angeles explains why she has chosen to avoid a particular travel destination for the time being.

The reason is the risk of a terrorist attack in that place.


I could go on, but (knowing my readers) I imagine that you are already too busy thinking of your own examples.

Let’s not make the list longer, but instead pause to analyze what we have, and to infer some general themes.

I have not, before choosing these banal examples, “done the numbers”. That is to say: I have not calculated the various risks these people confronted. Instead — and this is open to fine-tuning and correction — I appraised these relative risks the way you estimate how many marbles are in a jar.

Situation 1)

Statistically speaking, even with shoe-bombers in this world, flying is one of the safest things you can do. You are usually safer in a plane than in your own house (especially if that house is the one in Number 4.)

By contrast, driving is surprisingly dangerous, even when your attention is focused on the road. But:

Situation 2)

Here is that risk again: driving distracted. The other risk — toxins from our (organic, imported) sunscreen is infinitesimally small and may not exist at all.

In this case, the two risks are not connected at all, except in the mind of the person perceiving them: She expends mental energy on the non-existent risk, and blithely ignores the large risk.

She also — and this is one aspect of Our Greatest Tragedy — has no sense of irony about the situation.

Situation 3)

This situation does not involve any risks to the children or parents, but represents a collective misperception and another missed opportunity for ironic self-reflection.

The carbon footprint of delivering a truck load of snow to a lawn in southern California is to that of sending out paper invitations as the Eiffel Tower is to a baguette. (Go ahead and calculate your own carbon footprint.)

Situation 4)

Who’s not afraid of terrorism? It is the perfect Saber-Toothed Tiger. All we need to do is think of September 11th.

By contrast, how boring is it to talk about bolting furniture into wall studs in homes near the San Andreas fault?

Well, I believe we’ve got that one backwards again. I looked into this because I once interviewed all sorts of geologists and building engineers when researching a piece for The Economist. The big one is a matter of when, not whether. It is likely to be of magnitude 8.1, or about 1,000 times as strong as the biggest earthquake most Angelenos can remember, with the waves amplified in the soft-rocked Los Angeles basin like those in the water of a swimming pool.

What happens when the Big One ruptures depends on 1) the time of day, 2) the depth and location of the rupture and 3) pure chance. But securing water coolers, TV sets, knife holders and so forth (all of which would turn into lethal projectiles) could make the difference.



Why are we so atrociously bad at assessing danger? Maybe you can help me figure it out in the comments. Here are some observations:

1) Is the risk photogenic or familiar?

A Saber-Toothed Tiger is above all photogenic. It is frightening in a spectacular way. It taps into the neural patterns of our limbic system and mobilizes, hormonally, all our defenses.

Another example of a Saber-Toothed Tiger is the horrendous killing of a 12-year-old girl in California, Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her own home during a slumber party and later strangled. It shocked everybody who heard about it, and especially every parent. Californian voters quickly passed a sweeping new law, called “tough on crime”, with huge and unintended consequences.

By contrast, the best example of an un-photogenic and familiar threat, one that is not spectacular because it is commonplace, may be distracted driving. (And yes, I am indeed obsessed by this issue.)

It kills many Polly Klaases every year (about 6,000 people, ie twice as many as died on 9/11) and maims half a million, ie more than 80 times as many again.

But if a distracted driver runs through a Stop sign and over Polly Klaas who is riding her bike, the news report (if there is one at all) will not mobilize society into action. The event is too common, too familiar. It is not a Saber-Toothed Tiger.

So the laws against distracted driving will be lukewarm and ignored.

2) Over-confidence

One factor that seems to distort our risk perception is our perception of whether or not we are “in control”.

When flying, our control ends when we step onto the airplane. But when driving and texting, ‘I can handle it’. Others may run over and kill Polly Klaases but I can drive safely while texting, and I am important, so I must answer my friend’s text, asking ‘Wazzup?’

Well, I cannot. Because my species has brains that have not evolved for this situation. We all face the same cognitive limit.

3) The lack of irony

I already mentioned irony. I mourn its absence not just for aesthetic reasons. Irony actually seems to help us to readjust our relative risk assessments.

The humor seems to coincide with re-calculation, which then leads to insight: ‘I am being ridiculous. Let’s try this again.’

America seen through non-obvious places

Courtesy CLUI.org

This picture says a lot about the American character.

Or does it?

The question, rather than the answer, may be the point. That, at least, seems to be the premise of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which allowed me to use this and the other pictures in this post.

The Center is one of the strangest entities I know of. You might ask, what is it?

Let’s start with what it is not, despite the general sound of its name. It is

  • not a government agency,
  • not a think tank, and
  • not a lobby.

Well, then, what? After struggling to answer this question (which is what this post is about), I will venture these two options:

  • a deliberate mystery designed to make Americans aware of their peripheral vision, and possibly
  • an inside job, which is to say an incredibly cunning and subversive satire of America.

But that’s for you to judge. Let’s start with the facts:

The Center is located at 9331 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Outwardly, this is a nondescript block on a slightly depressing thoroughfare of the sort that the city is infamous for. Inside, however, it may be the strangest block in America. For the Center shares a building with the Museum of Jurassic Technology (of which, more in a moment) which is at 9341 Venice Boulevard, just one door down.

The contents of the Center include a vast database of pictures, descriptions, videos, maps and other information about American places. Furthermore, the Center occasionally organizes bus tours to some of those places. This can look as follows:

Courtesy CLUI.org

But that still tells you nothing. Why should this be interesting?

Well, trustworthy sources had brought it to my attention, so I went there for a visit.


I chatted with Matthew Coolidge, the Center’s founder, while gazing at a multimedia exhibit (ie, a video) of a stretch of California highway that I’ve driven on many times. It was slightly surreal and yet hypnotic.

“You seem to be drawn to drab, banal or ugly places,” I said to Matthew.

“What is ugly?,” he probed. Calling something ugly is judging, and judging distracts from observation.

My source had prepared me to expect subtle irony, so this was perhaps it. If so, Matthew played his role perfectly. He spoke dispassionately, like a scientist — “anthropogeomorphologist”, is the delightful word he used.

He said, more or less, that the Center’s mission is to make people aware of surroundings they usually try to ignore because they seem un-noteworthy. Office parks. Garbage dumps. Deserts. Highways.

“It’s like negative tourism,” as a friend of mine had put it. In other words, the places of interest are not the obvious ones (Disneyland, The Golden Gate Bridge, et cetera) but all the others. That leaves a lot of places.

For example, America’s vast empty places.

Americans do strange things in them.

Sometimes, for example, (as at the Nevis Range in Nevada) they bomb or nuke them for practice:

Courtesy CLUI.org

Strangely beautiful, isn’t it? Almost like art.

Other times, the places are eerie. Towns like St. Thomas, Nevada, for example. It is usually invisible, having been submerged under Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, when the Hoover Dam was built. But St. Thomas re-appears during droughts, emerging like a ghost town or haunted museum from the waters:

Savoring contradictions

As my source put it, most people who go on the Center’s tours or sojourn in its database soon find that the “juxtapositions accumulate force.” Whatever they might have thought about America before, they are tempted to re-examine it.

But what might the conclusion be? This is what kept bothering me.

Both Matthew and his Center are militant about not having an explicit point of view.

As Ralph Rugoff, an art curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery, puts it, this “flagrant nonpartisanship” is “slightly suspicious”.

If you are at all like me, it is also unsatisfying.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Matthew must have sensed my dissatisfaction when we stood together, for he suddenly asked me: “Have you been next door yet?”

Next door is of course the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

“Not yet,” I answered. “What is it about?”

“The less you know the better,” Matthew answered.

“Are they connected to you?”, I asked.

Matthew seemed to suppress a smirk: “No.”

Suddenly, a female voice wafted to my ears from behind us. “Connected only in spirit,” she said.

I turned, and beheld Matthew’s partner. I had never noticed her entering the room, but there she sat. She was patting a black cat.

Patting a black cat.

I went next door.

A few meters and seconds later, I entered the Museum. I was about to make my voluntary contribution into the money jar when somebody said: “Are you the journalist?”

“I am a journalist,” I answered.

“They said you should go in free,” came the reply.

How did “they” beat me, I wondered. Clearly, there had to be an internal door. I entered.

The museum is — how to put it — disconcerting.

It was dark and clammy. There were — or seemed to be, I can no longer tell — disquieting noises. One exhibit is a model of American trailer parks. Another, about “mouse cures”, consists of two dead mice on toast, with the explanation that this sort of thing was once said to have cured bed wetting and stammering in children. Another exhibit featured “salted teeth.” So it went.

The Museum baffled me even more than the Center next door.

Finally, I pieced together a narrative for myself:

The Museum seemed to be a meta-museum: a museum that mocks museums. It communicates bemusement at the human tendency to put things behind glass and stare at them, and at our underlying ignorance combined with confident superstition.

How, then, was it “connected in spirit” to the Center, as the lady with the black cat had said?

It had to be that the Center comments on America as the Museum comments on humanity, and that both, realizing that they are inside jokes, know that they must never explain the punch line.

Somewhat disconcerted, I left and began contemplating whether and how I might turn this into a story for The Economist, as I had intended. What that led to will be the subject of the next post.

Bookmark and Share

Either odd to us or to them and we opt for them

As most of you know by now, I am an admirer of British irony and wit, the subtler instances of which I occasionally highlight or dissect, as here, here, and here. At its best, it is a matter of tone, not a matter of telling jokes. And it is best delivered casually.

Today happens to be our weekly deadline day at The Economist, and I am right now (thanks to the London time zone that I am forced to observe in California) finalizing my piece in the next issue with one of our editors, Ann Wroe, who happens to be one of my favorites (and who is a successful book author in her own right).

In the piece, I quoted an American think tank whose name starts (as they all seem to do) with “Center For The…”

Ann changed it to “Centre For The…”. I asked: Do we change words to British spelling even when they are names?

And she replied:

Yes, words are anglicised even within proper names; it either has to look odd to us or odd to them, and we opt for them.

Bookmark and Share

Your pinko, Commie snob

Well, things change when you take a new beat, as I recently did (and as we regularly do at The Economist). In this case, I switched from a rather geeky beat–Silicon Valley–to a more general beat–politics and society in the Western states. Mostly, I’m thrilled about this new, and much bigger, hunting ground. But it comes with, shall we say, rather different reader letters.

Our reader letters at The Economist can be witty but tend to be flamingly, aggressively, rantingly, lividly hostile. What varies is the level of sophistication. Some readers really know what they are talking about, and really know The Economist, and eviscerate us effectively and brutally.

Others are, well, just plain amusing.

Here is one of the dozen or so I am perusing this morning, all informing me of my wanton and despicable ignorance and depravity. This particular letter writer reminds me that one of my recent articles

once again shows the elite arrogance and display of socialist bias on the part of The Economist.

Elite arrogance. Hmmm. Socialist bias. Hmmm.

That’s a classical liberal/libertarian from a classical liberal family writing for the world’s oldest classical liberal magazine, displaying a consistently elitist and socialist bias. Gotta love our readers. Can’t wait to read the next batch.

Bookmark and Share

Socratic irony

Somewhat unexpectedly, the topic of irony is becoming a subsidiary thread in the Hannibal Blog. It started here, continued here and, I’m sure, will continue even more. You recall that my definition of irony is “the savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.” This wording found approval, at a minimum, by Cheri.

Suddenly, however, I find the plot thickening. Robert Bartlett, a professor at Emory University who teaches this course on the three greatest Greek thinkers, informs me that

Irony in its original Socratic sense, in Greek eironeia, is really pretty different. In brief, it’s the habit of concealing one’s superiority. Aristotle, in the Ethics, lists irony as a vice, though he says it’s a vice characteristic of those who are refined.

Why refined? Because if irony is a vice opposed to the virtue of truthfulness, it is a kind of deceit. It is also much better or more attractive than the vice of boasting, of claiming to be more than you are. The ironic person claims to be less than he is, and in particular to be less wise. Aristotle, by the way, gives only one example of the ironic person: Socrates.

Socrates is famous, then, for his irony, for his kind of graceful concealment of his wisdom; he’s not a boaster, in this sense. This means that Plato chose as his spokesman, or at least as the central character in almost all the dialogues, an ironist, somebody who’s not altogether frank.

This is, of course, very different than my definition of irony. Then again, as I think about it, the genealogy does show up even in the modern phenotype. Which means: For those of us today who appreciate irony, it may  be worth remembering what the Athenians did to Socrates, and what many societies would like to do to ironists. Sarah Palin might claim afterwards that she mistook me for a moose. Put differently, here is the great man as the hemlock does its lethal work:

Britishness, masculinity and humor

I’m still digesting the cornucopia of impressions and ideas that came out of our (The Economist‘s) powwow last week. One observation, not new but reinforced: Those Brits are unbelievably good at public speaking, at humorous and witty banter that nonetheless has a point–and indeed pointedness–and force.

There were of course all those presentations. But the performances that stood out were the after-dinner speeches by two of our “most British” writers, both cavalier Oxford types. They were a) hilarious and b) profound. The two can go together.

There they were, in front of all of us, lightly and sprightly bantering away, to smirks at first, then smiles, then chuckles and eventually full-throttle guffawing. And yet the topics were dead-serious. They were debating which of the many pressing world issues we should take on as our next “cause”.

(We were founded 160 years ago to campaign for free trade, and since then we have always pushed for one liberal and progressive cause or another–that’s “liberal” in the true, original sense of the word. Sometimes we actually win. Then we have to find a new cause.)

The Commons, moments before hilarity

The Commons, moments before hilarity

Perspective Number 1: Non-British

After the dinner, a German colleague and friend of mine came up to me, and we reflected how we continentals just don’t grow up in environments that instill this public-speaking culture. That is why we are so in awe of the Brits. We love watching the debates in the House of Commons. Or, for that matter, the debating that goes on in each and every one of our famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist. Really, it is a pleasure just to sit back and listen to the cadences and ironies and codas.

Perspective Number 2: Female

So impressed was I that I kept talking about this at lunch the next day, as I was sitting between two female colleagues. One of them, a very senior editor, immediately said: “But that’s just the men!”

I looked genuinely puzzled. Not because my years in the Inquisition politically-correct America have taught me to shut up whenever any topic remotely related to sex (or “gender”, as Americans say) comes up. But because I genuinely had no idea what she meant.

But the other female colleague knew exactly what she meant. “Absolutely,” she said. The British boys of a certain social class learn public-speaking and ironic and witty mano a mano verbal fighting from the day they enter Eton and Harrow or whatever “public” school they attend. The girls don’t so much.

“No, it’s more than that,” said the other female editor. “Men are just much funnier.” This is when I knew that this conversation, like all the others during that gathering, would become very interesting. But, Americanized as I am, I just listened. (Larry Summers, anyone?)

Among the theories advanced: In the Darwinian struggle to reproduce, humor may have become a male strategy to display “fitness” to the opposite sex. Interesting.

Then: Somebody proposed that, especially in humor-challenged cultures such as America, the funniest people tend in fact to be lesbian women. We pursued that for a while.

And so it went. Never a dull moment, when you’re hanging around us writers of The Economist…. 😉

Back to irony

For un-ironic activities and subversive earnestness

Wanted: For un-ironic activities

What a bizarre article in the New York Times about an alleged crisis of irony, to be blamed in large part on Obama.

As you may recall from my previous thoughts on irony, I’ve never been tempted to consider irony thriving in American life to begin with. But now to mourn its decline because of an outbreak of naive and gushing earnestness about the prospects of imminent world-saving by the new savior?

I briefly suspected that the article was being retro-ironic when it proposed to prove the irony crisis by counting the appearances of the word irony in newspapers, before, several laborious paragraphs later, conceding that this was just plain silly.

Now I suspect that it comes back to that widespread American confusion over what irony is (not). Towards the end of the article, somebody finally attempts to define irony as “the incongruity between what’s expected and what occurs” which “makes us smile at the distance.” How could that be in decline?

Last time, I defined irony as “the non-aggressive savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising. Irony is not merely saying the opposite of what you mean.”

So irony is worlds apart from:

  • Sarcasm: This really is simply saying the opposite of what you mean. Hence: the lowest form of humor.
  • Wit: quick, sharp and probably biting associations between dissimilar things.
  • Humor: an ability find things funny.
  • Satire: the art of ridiculing somebody in power (possibly using irony, sarcasm, wit or humor as weapons).

My hunch: Irony is alive and well, inherently in situations and naturally in Britons. The rest of us can keep practicing. 😉

On irony

Having a sense of irony can be an isolating and lonely experience if you find yourself living in America. I should know.

While contemplating a post on irony, I pinged a former colleague of mine, Gideon Rachman (who is now a columnist and blogger at the Financial Times).

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman

That is because Gideon, as a Brit in the lovably dysfunctional family that is The Economist, has a great sense of irony. We teem with ironic Brits at The Economist.

I had a reason for molesting Gideon. He is the only one of us who dared make himself our Irony Correspondent. He did this in the Christmas Issue of 1999, with this piece on the role of irony in British diplomacy. Clearly, he must be the expert.

And what did I get in return? “I think you are turning into a bit of a hippy” (sic), he chastized me in his email. All this living in California cannot be good for my writing, he stipulates, because

English irony, with its self-deprecation and use of understatement is almost the opposite of what I see as the Californian tone of voice – earnest and gushing.

Earnest and gushing. Spot on. If there is such a thing as a quintessentially American “voice”, it is earnest and gushing. Often indignant. Occasionally sarcastic. Sporadically narcissistic. Don’t get me wrong. American writing can be moving, powerful and … good. But it is rarely ironic.

Irony: Definition & eulogy

Irony is not only the highest form of humor (whereas sarcasm is the lowest), it is a sure sign of a civilized mind. I define it as

the non-aggressive savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.

So irony is not merely saying the opposite of what you mean. Examples:

Oh, that’s so cool!, when it’s clearly not, is sarcastic and a knee-slapper around the Neanderthal campfire.

Protesting that rumors of your death are wildly exaggerated, as Mark Twain, an ironic Yank (they exist), did, is ironic. (The irony is entirely in the word exaggerated.)

Irony is not about punch lines. It’s not about jokes that bring the house down. It is about seeing the world in a certain way. That way is worldly and cavalier (another British concept). In this world view, it is unseemly to be outraged all the time, as Americans seem to be. Rather, one is expected to be shocked-shocked!, which is subtly different. The insanity of “it all” becomes your backdrop. It may amuse you; it may cause you pain; but it also produces the raw material for your irony. You do not use it to lash out against others (that’s sarcasm’s job). You use it to commune with some others, those who share your sense of irony.

Put differently, you could almost say that irony is Buddhist humor: Wit borne out of compassion, since we’re all in this mess together, whatever that mess happens to be.