Ah Yes, I Remember It Well

February 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t think Brian Williams was lying.  Obviously he wasn’t telling the truth. The helicopter he was in was not hit by an RPG. But a lie is a deliberate falsehood – telling people something that you know to be untrue. Surely Williams is not so stupid as to think that he could get away with such a fabrication. He would have little to gain, and, as we are seeing, much to lose.

Instead, I think it was what Williams says it was – messed-up memory.  At some point in his recalling and recounting of the incident, he swapped in someone else’s experience for his own. After all, he was in the same place, he was in a helicopter, and did talk with the soldiers whose chopper was hit. So maybe he was feeling roughly the same emotions that he imagined they felt.

Once that idea became embedded in his mind, he constructed a story that fit. And the more often he told that story, the clearer and sharper it became both as a coherent narrative and as a memory.

Robert Krulwich too is a non-print journalist. He’s worked at ABC, CBS, and NPR.  Take four and a half minutes and watch this video. It’s an animated version of a “This American Life” story showing how Krulwich appropriated an anecdote that happened to his wife. He would regale friends with the anecdote, recounting it as an eyewitness, when in fact he had only heard about it second-hand from his wife. Yet he was absolutely convinced that he was there.

Should Krulwich be banned from the media? Should we distrust everything that he has ever reported?

What Krulwich and Williams did is something we all do. Forty years of research about memory has shown that memory is not a camcorder; it’s an editing program. We edit – dropping some details, altering, sharpening, and even adding others. We hit “Save,” and when we next call up the memory, we are opening not the original but the most recent edit of the file.

Unfortunately, most people still think of memory as a camcorder, and they are convinced that if someone remembers something that is not true, he must be lying and is therefore untrustworthy.* They’re wrong, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t see how Williams is going to survive this one.


* Reaction to bad memory is not quite so simple. In this case, politics plays a part. Over on the right, the air is thick with schadenfreude over Williams’s troubles. Those same delighted folks were much more forgiving of Ronald Reagan’s memory lapses and conflation of movies with reality.


February 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

For Seattle fans, it was what poker players call a “bad beat” – a big pot and a hand that’s nearly sure to win but then loses on the final, unlikely card. A loss like that can dampen enthusiasm for things beyond football, at least in the short run. On the other hand, a sudden and satisfying victory can whet other appetites.

PornHub, which purports to be the most popular place for porn, ran its data on traffic before, during, and after the big game (their full report is here). The chart below shows the data for the home cities of the two teams plus Phoenix, where the game took place.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As you might expect, the Super Bowl took a bite out of porn, and more so in Boston and Seattle than in other cities.  The folks who would ordinarily be checking in to PornHub started leaving early for an hour or two of pre-game hype, and of course they stayed for the real game.  Even Katy Perry held their attention at halftime.

But after Pete Carrol’s game-losing call and Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception, porn paths parted. The seekers in Seattle hurried back online while those in Boston apparently stuck with their TVs for some of the post-game ceremony.

Then, about an hour after the game, porn traffic in Boston rose and didn’t begin to taper off until after midnight. But in Seattle, the post-Bowl bump was shorter lived. Even though the night was young (8 p.m. PST) the Seattle fans lost their interest in PornHub. Phoenix, in the Mountain time zone,  is a useful comparison. Even though the hour was later, Phoenix pornophiles were still checking in as their disheartened Seattle counterparts were logging out.

In the end, it was Seattle that was deflated.

A Most Unreflective Businessman

February 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I won’t do business in New York,” my father once told me.  When I asked why, he described how New York customers would cheat in order to push down the price they paid for his steel.

I hadn’t thought about that for a while. The memory came back just after I saw “A Most Violent Year” set in the grimy and graffiti-covered New York of 1981. The hero, Abel Morales, is trying to expand his heating oil business, but someone is out to thwart him. His trucks are hijacked, the oil stolen. His employees are threatened and beaten up.  In addition, the DA trying to clean up the heating oil business has gotten a 14-count indictment, and the bank withdraws the loan they had agreed to.

My father’s customers did nothing violent or illegal, just unethical and dishonest.  Why would they do that, I asked my father. I was young and naive. “Guys in New York,” he said, “it’s a tough market.”

I was amazed that he could be so understanding.  But he recognized that people in business acted not solely on the basis personal morality. In some markets, you had to be a little dishonest in order to survive. That’s the point that both Abel and the “A Most Violent Year” try very hard to ignore.  Instead, the movie, at least on its surface, seems to be trying to convey the message – that cliche that runs from old Westerns to the latest thrillers – that even in a corrupt world, an honest man acting honorably can come out on top. The bad guys may lie, cheat, steal, kill, kidnap, or whatever, unconstrained by any moral sense; yet the good guy, using only honorable means, will win. The good guy’s goodness and the bad guy’s wickedness are never in doubt. Doubt, in fact, is usually irrelevant.

Because Hollywood prefers this simplified view of morality, we have very few honest films about business. In “A Most Violent Year,” at least we see a more realistic businessman – successful, even wealthy, but not all powerful, running a small company, dealing with everyday crises, trying to negotiate loans so he can stay afloat. More often in Hollywood films, businessmen are the sinister, greedy, and powerful CEOs of large corporations. The Montgomery Burns caricature in “The Simpsons”  is not too distant from executives in serious movies.

I can think of only one movie centered on a businessman faced with moral problems that have no simple, untainted solution – “Save the Tiger” from 1973.

“A Most Violent Year” could have been such a movie, but Abel never admits to himself that his motives and actions are anything but pure. The trailer gives some suggestion of his resoluteness. 

Others recognize that the the heating oil business is a compromised and compromising world. “Everyone in this room is fully capable of lying to their own mothers on their deathbeds,” says Peter Forente at a meeting of the fifteen important players in the business. Forente is the son of a mobster now in prison, but Peter is trying to do things differently to the extent he can. When Abel asks him for a much-needed loan, Peter tells him, “I don’t want you to be in this position. We are not nice people to borrow three quarters of a million dollars from.”

Abel’s wife – her father too was connected to organized crime – is aware of how that world works.  She has been keeping two sets of books, and she’s been skimming money over the years, apparently without her husband – the head of the company – knowing.  She has put  enough money aside that Abel won’t have to borrow from the “not nice people.”  She shows him a slip of paper with the sum on it.

What do you expect me to do with this?
Use it.... Abel...
Is it clean?
It’s as clean as every other dollar we’ve ever made.
That’s a fucking bullshit answer.

[a few moments later]

I’ll get it done. And it won’t be as a cheat.
(Yelling, but controlled enough to not wake the kids.)
Oh you are too much. You’ve been walking around your whole life like this all happened because of your hard work, good luck, and charm. Mr. Fucking American Dream. Well this is America... but it’s not a dream, and that wasn’t good luck helping you out all those years... IT WAS ME! Doing the things you didn’t want to know about...

Somehow, Abel acts as though he still does not to know about those things, continuing to believe in his own rectitude. In fact, compared with the other oil dealers, he is more honorable. Yet, despite the phony books (which he helps to hide under his house when law enforcement comes snooping), despite the felony indictment, despite all those dollars he made being equally clean (i.e., not so clean), he fails to confront or even acknowledge the moral ambiguities. Abel is like so many other protagonists in American films.  All conflict is external. Life is about solving problems. Self-doubt would only get in the way.

No Pass on the Passive

February 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The idea that the passive voice must be avoided at all costs is of course wrong-headed. Still, passive voice remains a refuge for writers who would rather not say who’s doing what.

Ross Douthat, in his column today (here) on the causes of political correctness, twice says that liberal economic policy proposals “are mostly blocked.”

the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have.* Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

In that first phrase, Douthat allows that it’s the Republicans who are doing the blocking, but then he adds a clause about the “liberalism’s inability” to pass economic legislation as though this inability were something different from the Republican Party. This is a little like talking about “the Colts inability to score points” without mentioning the Patriots defense.

A few paragraphs later, when Douthat repeats this idea, he doesn’t even bother to go beyond the passive voice: “because the paths to economic distribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way . . .”  How about this rewrite: “Because Republicans block all tax and spending proposals that might discomfit the rich. . . .”

I am not saying that Douthat is wrong about the relation between the Republican’s disproportionate** dominance and the cultural left’s attention to political correctness – I think it goes beyond even what he’s talking about. But I hope that Douthat’s attempt to obscure the role of Republican legislators, in part by using the passive voice, has not gone unnoticed.***

* Douthat announces this “we can’t afford it” view of Medicare and Social Security (which account for most of “welfare state we already have”) as though it were undisputed fact. It isn’t. Nor is there agreement as to how long it will be until these programs become unaffordable if nothing is changed.

** At the national level, more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans.

*** Yes, I am well aware that this sentence breaks not only the rule against passive voice but also the rule outlwawing “not-un–” construction.