Football, Finance, and Surprises

As the New Orleans Saints lined up to kick off the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, CBS Sports color commentator and former Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms was explaining why the Saints should have deferred getting the ball after winning the pregame coin toss. Simms suggested that the Saints, 4½-point underdogs to the Indianapolis Colts, would be in a better position were they not giving the ball to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who already enjoyed a four-point lead and had had 30 minutes to study the Saints’ defensive strategy. Simms had barely finished this thought when Saints’ place kicker Thomas Morstead surprised everyone – the 153.4 million television viewers, the 74,059 fans in attendance, and most importantly the Indianapolis Colts – with an onside kick. The ball went 15 yards, bounced off the facemask of an unprepared Colt, and was recovered by the Saints, who took possession of the ball and marched 58 yards down the field to score a touchdown and gain their first lead of the game, 13-10. The Saints would go on to win the championship in an upset, 31-17.

Although Saints quarterback Drew Brees played an outstanding game and the defense was able to hold a dangerous Indianapolis team to only 17 points, Head Coach Sean Payton received the bulk of the credit for the win, in large part because of his daring call to open the second half. Onside kicks are considered risky plays and usually appear only when a team is desperate, near the end of a game. In fact the Saints’ play, code named “Ambush,” was the first onside kick attempted before the fourth quarter in Super Bowl history. And this is precisely why it worked. The Colts were completely surprised by Payton’s aggressive play call. Football is awash in historical statistics, and these probabilities guide coaches’ risk assessments and game planning. On that basis, didn’t Indianapolis Head Coach Jim Caldwell have zero reason to prepare his team for an onside kick, since the probability of the Saints’ ambush was zero (0 onside kicks ÷ 43 Super Bowl second halves)? But if the ambush’s probability was zero, then how did it happen? The answer is that our common notion of probability – as a ratio of the frequency of a given event to the total number of events – is poorly suited to the psychology of decision making in advance of a one-time-only situation. And this problem is not confined to football. Indeed, the same misunderstanding of probability plagues mainstream economics, which is stuck in a mathematical rut best suited to modeling dice rolls.

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3QD Interviews Richard Dawkins

As I've mentioned many times (for example, here) at 3QD, Richard Dawkins has been one of my greatest intellectual heroes since I first read The Selfish Gene and then The Extended Phenotype in college. I was recently fortunate enough to spend some time with Richard in New York City. When about to meet someone whom one holds in as high esteem as I do Richard, one is often a bit apprehensive that the flesh-and-blood person behind the works that one has so admired might not live up to the inflated demigod of one's imagination, and so I was a bit nervous as I walked over to Richard's hotel to pick him up.

Screenhunter_01_may_12_0812I needn't have been. From the moment I said hello to him in the lobby of his hotel, Richard was warm, thoughtful, considerate, polite, and needless-to-say, exceedingly sharp as well as knowledgeable about, well… everything. As we were walking back from his hotel (to my sister's, where I was going to interview him and then have dinner) we spoke about genetic linguistics and some of the work of Cavalli-Sforza, and I was telling Richard about how learning German has recently made obvious to me many common Indo-European roots of words in English and my own language Urdu. For example, I never made any connection between the English word “bread” and the Urdu word for the same thing, “roti,” until I saw the German word for bread, which is “brot.” Now “roti” is just a dimunitive of “rot” (which still exists in Urdu as the word for a very large bread) and it is easy to see how “brot” could easily have become “bread” on the one hand, and by losing the initial “b,” also become “rot” on the other. I also told Richard about the odd dialect of German that is spoken in the South Tyrol where I live at the moment, and then he suddenly pointed at something excitedly: there was a man walking by us on Broadway with a cat balanced very comfortably on top of his head (I kid you not), calmly surveying the mad NYC rush about her! But he then immediately switched back to our conversation to ask about the third language (after German and Italian) spoken by a small minority in the South Tyrol, Ladin. And he knew more about it than I. This is how I found Richard: attuned to the environment, but also possessing immense reserves of knowledge, easily deployed, about whatever one happens to mention to him. [Photo shows John Allen Paulos, Richard, and me.]

To his credit, Richard was not too taken aback by the low-tech setup of a camera-mounted-on-my-suitcase, manned by my nephew Asad, in my bedroom at my sister's, the site of our interview. (There was a last minute confusion and we couldn't get the right equipment, like mics and a tripod, and so there are a few distracting sounds like phones ringing, etc. Sorry about that.) But I think we still managed to have an interesting conversation. Judge for yourself by seeing the video below. But before I leave you to watch the video, I cannot resist telling you about something that (really!) happened at dinner after our talk: on my way to add some more Bihari Kebab to my plate, I walked by Richard speaking to a very good-looking young woman, and this is what she was saying to him: “Wait, so you really don't believe in God?” 🙂

3QD Interviews Craig Mello, Medicine Nobel Laureate

Harvey David Preisler died of cancer six years ago. He was a well-known scientist and cancer researcher himself. He was also my sister Azra's husband, and she wrote this about him here at 3QD:

Screenhunter_1_9Harvey grew up in Brooklyn and obtained his medical degree from the University of Rochester. He trained in Medicine at New York Hospitals, Cornell Medical Center, and in Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute. At the time of his death, he was the Director of the Cancer Institute at Rush University in Chicago and the Principal Investigator of a ten million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study and treat acute myeloid leukemias (AML), in addition to several other large grants which funded his research laboratory with approximately 25 scientists entirely devoted to basic and molecular research. He published extensively including more than 350 full-length papers in peer reviewed journals, 50 books and/or book chapters and approximately 400 abstracts.

A year after his death, my sister started an annual lecture in Harvey's memory which is usually delivered by a distinguished scientist or other intellectual. The first Harvey Preisler Memorial Lecture was given by Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus as the infectious agent responsible for AIDS. This year, the lecture featured the most-recent winner of the Nobel prize in Medicine, Dr. Craig Mello, codiscoverer of RNAi.

Screenhunter_27_jun_30_1321Dr. Mello grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and graduated from Fairfax Highschool there. He went to Brown for college and later got a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He then also worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. James Priess at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washinton. Dr. Mello now runs his own lab at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester. This is from Wikipedia:

In 2006, Mello and Fire received the Nobel Prize for work that began in 1998, when Mello and Fire along with their colleagues (SiQun Xu, Mary Montgomery, Stephen Kostas, Sam Driver) published a paper in the journal Nature detailing how tiny snippets of RNA fool the cell into destroying the gene's messenger RNA (mRNA) before it can produce a protein – effectively shutting specific genes down.

In the annual Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientific Meeting held on November 13, 2006 in Ashburn, Virginia, Dr. Mello recounted the phone call that he received announcing that he had won the prize. He recalls that it was shortly after 4:30 am and he had just finished checking on his daughter, and returned to his bedroom. The phone rang (or rather the green light was blinking) and his wife told him not to answer, as it was a crank call. Upon questioning his wife, she revealed that it had rung while he was out of the room and someone was playing a bad joke on them by saying that he had won the Nobel prize. When he told her that they were actually announcing the Nobel prize winners on this very day, he said “her jaw dropped.” He answered the phone, and the voice on the other end told him to get dressed, and that in half an hour his life was about to change.

The Nobel citation, issued by Sweden's Karolinska Institute, said: “This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information.”

[Photo shows Dr. Mello with Azra and Harvey's daughter, Sheherzad Preisler.]

Just before his lecture, I had a chance to sit down in his office with Dr. Mello and speak to him about his work. On behalf of 3QD and our readers, I would like to thank Dr. Mello for making the time to explain his discovery in some detail. Asad Raza videographed our conversation:

Eating Our Popcorn While We Weep

Karen Ballentine:

Dear Abbas,

When I read that 3QD was devoting all of Monday’s blog to 9-11, I had mixed feelings. I know you grieve it, as many of us do. I know you lost a friend. And even for those New Yorkers who came out with themselves and their loved ones unscathed, as I did, still, it was traumatic.

Since then, as we know, so many others…the Bush Administration, the Hollywood executives, the lawyers, the real estate moguls, Anne Coulter, Osama, and every justifiably angry but tragically misguided jihadist has found what they need to promote their own agendas in that tragedy.

Even as we “New Yorkers”, the children of so many different nations, religions, races, and beliefs found our own community, and our own hope, the rest of the nation has been stuck on the virtual (via CNN and the web) trauma, without experiencing recovery, as we all did through the force of our common humanity.

That might be the key difference between 911 and Katrina: both Manhattan and D.C. recovered from the terrorist attacks on 911. But the nation did not.

With Katrina, on the other hand, the nation got over it, but the victims, the dead, their loved ones, their comunities, especially the poor African Americans of the lower ninth, as well as the working people all along the gulf…they did not.

In both cases, albeit for different reasons, America has let its people down.

So, to get to my request:

I don’t patronize the 9-11 movie industry, just as I have boycotted Holocaust films since I was 17. And I don’t watch Hollywood dramas of the Rwandan genocide, either.

I don’t need to have commercial cinema vindicate my feelings and views of human suffering, and I loath their pat versions of catharsis by focusing on heroes, however heroic, that can let us more easily eat our popcorn while we weep.

But I did come across this on Youtube, while I was searching for something related: the video of Jon Stewart’s first show after 9-11. It is raw, it is honest, it is affecting, and it is hopeful. Still.

It is not an intellectual viewpoint. It is an engaged, traumatized, and hopeful New Yorker’s viewpoint.

I had never seen it before. Possibly because I was then in the post 911 fetal position, which disinclined me to even bother to turn on the TV.

Maybe you have seen it. But Jon Stewart gives a great tribute.

But even if you have, watch it again.



Dr. Karen Ballentine is Project Manager at the Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery of the United Nations Development Program.