Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Are You a Critical Thinker? Spoiler: Probably Not

It is mesmerizing to me how awful human beings are at processing and assessing information, forming conclusions and buttressing beliefs. Being a denizen of the Internet means I get to be surprised, almost daily, at the new and creative ways people come up with to be bad at reasoning.

Almost equally mesmerizing is that the people who are the worst at reasoning and logic fancy themselves to be the best at it. These people are honestly not hard to identify. They commit simply logical fallacies while congratulating themselves about how smart and logical they are. And I actually don't blame them. From their limited scope, it's abundantly clear to them they are smart, reasonable and intelligent. They do not possess the cognitive ability to recognize their lack of cognitive ability. In psychology this is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. If you don't know it by name, you are sure to know it by concept. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias of illusory superiority. People who suffer from it are incompetent, but lack the ability to recognize true competence. People who are untrained in a particular discipline tend to overestimate their ability from a position of ignorance.

This is why, for example, you have people not trained in science confidently saying things like "every scientific body in the world is wrong about subject X." Or why you have someone on the news who has no clue what it's like to grow up in poverty, expertly pontificating that people who are born into poverty just need to "pick themselves up by the bootstraps." People suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect speak with complete confidence, and utterly humiliate themselves without even knowing it.

The thing with critical thinking is, it takes practice. It's a very unnatural, intentional, and difficult process where you teach yourself not to rely on your instincts or gut-feelings, but on facts. I have found that very few people rely on facts, they rely on "facts." They rely on what their preferred source of information tells them is fact instead of seeking to know the truth of the matter.

If you don't think you suffer from Dunning-Kruger, I have some bad news for you. You probably suffer from it worse than others. So how can you tell if you're a critical thinker or just incompetently playing at one? Well here's a little impromptu test for you.

Don't cheat. If you don't know the answers, own it. It's the only way to get better.


1. A politician says, "You should vote for me because crime has gone down 30% in my state since I became governor." Can you name the logical fallacy?

2. A doctor on television encourages you to try out a new diet. Should you? Why or why not?

3. If you were told that dihydrogen monoxide kills more children every year than cancer, has been found in every serial killer in history, it contains two hydrogen atoms which are extremely explosive, and just a teaspoon of it can kill you, would you be outraged to know that it exists in every elementary school in America?

4. You see a news report about a Republican Senator involved in a prostitution scandal. Your grandfather scoffs and says, "You just can't believe anything the media says!" Can you name the fallacy?

5. Your friend thoroughly believes the Illuminati is real and is pulling all of the strings from the shadows. Do you know what cognitive bias they may be suffering from?

6. If a politician says, "You're either with me, or you're with the terrorists!" Can you name the logical fallacy?
7. A friend of yours says they don't believe seatbelts save lives because their uncle died in a car crash when he got flipped over and could not get his seatbelt loose. What fallacy are they committing?

8. Your uncle decides to drive across country for your graduation because he "doesn't do airplanes." What bias is he suffering from?

9. A co-worker says "Evolution is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I don't understand how humans could possibly have-evolved from a single-celled organism!" Can you name the fallacy?

10. A friend of yours says, "No Patriot could possibly vote Democrat." After you inform them that you are both a patriot and vote Democrat, they respond with "No TRUE patriot would ever vote Democrat." What is the fallacy?

If you had a hard time answering these, you are probably not a critical thinker. That's ok. Please don't take offense, no one was born a critical thinker. Like I stated earlier. It takes work, practice and intentional effort. But as mentioned, own it. Learn what you can do to become a critical thinker. It will only help us all in the long-run. It keeps us from falling for dubious arguments from politicians, questionable claims by the news media, and helps us to accurately second-guess people in authority when they try to push their agendas on us. A critical thinker should be able to answer all ten of these questions with no problem because they have gone through the process of learning. They're not any smarter than you, me or anyone else. They've just put the work in. So if you had trouble answering these I encourage you to start on your path to critical thinking today.

If you were able to answer all ten of these with no problem, then I know you are not congratulating yourself right now. As much as you know about flawed thought processes, getting these answers correct does not mean you're smart. Only that you're more aware then most of just how flawed the human mind is, including your own.


1. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy (After that, therefore because of that). Humans have a tendency to associate events in close proximity as causal. When in fact, establishing causality is extremely difficult. The more adept and trained that people become looking at data, generally the less confident they feel about declaring a cause for a trend. I cannot state this enough, saying X is definitely the cause of Y is a very difficult thing to do. And when someone says "X is definitely the cause of Y, it's so obvious!" That's a clue they have no idea what they're talking about.

2. Maybe! It could be that the diet is great, or it could be that the diet is bogus and meant to peddle products to people. For this kind of thing, trusting in established medical processes is generally the best and safest choice. There are many fad diets that are, in fact, harmful. Anyone claiming any new miracle solution on television is probably peddling snake oil, however.

3. All of the facts presented in question 3 are true. However you may recognize dihydrogen monoxide by it's more common designation H20, or water. This is a perfect example of how groups with an agenda can use real, actual facts to point to a very wrong conclusion.

4. The genetic fallacy. This fallacy is concludes that ANY information that comes from a particular source is wrong by default. Even if a source is untrustworthy, it is irresponsible to de facto dismiss everything they say as false. Like anything else, corroboration with multiple sources is the most reasonable course of action.

5. The Agenticity bias. Human minds have evolved to believe there is some unseen force behind the curtains, in the dark, just out of our reach pulling the strings. Again, determining causality is difficult, but there is speculation that our minds tend to cope better with reality even if there is an enemy pulling the strings, rather than believing there is nothing pulling the strings and the world is a chaotic collection of random events. It has also been suggested that this bias was a prior survival advantage. If we hear a rustling in the grass, it's advantageous for us to run whether there's a predator in the grass or not. So it may have benefitted us in the past to believe there was something there, when there was not.

6. The bifurcation fallacy. This is a fallacy that presents two options and implies to the listener that there are two options, and only two options. Humans tend to think in terms of extremes. We tend to think the world is black and white. When, generally speaking, that's almost never the case. That's why this fallacy is easy to bite into. It plays right into our tendency to think in black/white terms.

7. Appeal to anecdote. This is a human tendency to dismiss all data, statistics, and research into a particular subject because you knew a guy who once found the opposite to be true. Well here's the thing with statistics. They are all about likelihood. You are more likely to lose the lottery than win. Just because there are thousands and thousands of lottery winners does not make that any less true. Sometimes people beat the odds. That does not mean playing a losing bet is a good idea. And by the way, not wearing your seatbelt is a losing bet.

8. The Attentional bias. This is a bias that means humans tend to pay more attention to emotionally dominant stimuli than actual numbers. Humans pay attention to what frightens them. Humans are terrified of sharks, but not of coconuts. Coconuts kill more people every year than sharks. People are terrified of snakes, but more people die every year from toddlers pushing TV's on top of them than from snake bites. In fact, more people die every year from TV's falling on them, than they do from terrorism globally. This is why a few years ago, everyone in the United States freaked out when one person died from Ebola, but didn't raise an eyebrow when 500,000 people died from Heart disease. The attentional bias drives us to do things to "make the scary feeling go away" rather than focusing energy and effort on bigger problems that are actual threats to us. A lot of people don't do airplanes when it is far and away the safest form of travel. About 900 people die from plane crashes every year. About 30,000 people die from car accidents in the United States alone, annually.

9. Argument from personal incredulity. People tend to reject (or fear) what they do not understand. Just because you do not understand how something works or how it can be possible does not make it any less likely to be true.

10. No True Scotsman fallacy. This is a fallacy which is an appeal to purity and is actually a subset of the Ad Hominem fallacy. Generally, anyone who makes a No True Scotsman argument is making an appeal on behalf of their group or admonishment against another group. "No True American would ever vote for the ACA." "No True Muslim would ever be violent." "No True Christian would ever be hateful." etc. These statements tend to puff up one's own group and/or diminishes the morality or humanism of another group. Bonus points if you can name the fallacy which is the tendency to side with your group no matter what, and character assassinate the other group no matter what.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Don't Touch My Map!

Newton's laws of motion are wrong. They are not an accurate representation of reality. Bear with me here, these are bold claims, I know. I say that somewhat provocatively. How can I possibly claim the fundamental laws of classical mechanics taught at every school in the world for the last three centuries are wrong? Because they are. And talking about how and why they're "wrong" is actually a very telling look into how humans map reality.

Newton's laws, first published in Principia Mathematica in 1687, were so profoundly impactful, European nobles often had their portraits painted holding copies of Principia Mathematica and the Holy Bible. Newton's laws became the cornerstone for understanding motion and the forces applied to them for over 200 years. All that changed in 1905, when a smart-ass punk who worked at a Patent Office published a paper that talked about space and time, and how the motion of objects near the speed of light behaved. This upstart named Einstein came up with a mathematical formula that yielded much more accurate results than Newton's laws of motion. Special relativity was born, but was this the end of Newtonian physics?

We still teach Newton's laws of motion to this day in every high school and college in the world. Why? Three reasons. First, Newton's laws work just fine on objects that are not close to the speed of light, but are inaccurate for much faster objects. Objects so fast, they are generally not seen on Earth. Relativity yields accurate results on objects that are moving slowly and near the speed of light. Relativity is a more accurate map of reality than Newtonian physics. Secondly, Newton's laws are much simpler, much easier to solve for and easier to apply. Relativity is complicated and difficult to solve for, even though it's more accurate. Third, Newton's laws are good enough for most things. Let's face it, in our day to day lives we don't deal with objects that move near the speed of light. So for an investigator trying to reconstruct a fatal car accident scene, solving for F=MA is way easier to do and gives adequate results rather than trying to solve for ds^2 = -dX^2/0 + dX^2/1 - c^2 in order to account for 4D space and time dilation. Sure, the latter formula will yield a result that's 0.000001% more accurate, but F=MA works just fine.

Thus Newton's laws are not an accurate representation of reality, but they're a really damn good approximation!

So how does this apply to epistemology and how humans form and hold beliefs? Beliefs do not have to accurate, they just have to be good enough, like Newton's laws of motion. Newton's laws of motion are an excellent approximation of reality, as are most beliefs. Beliefs are a survival mechanism. Humans cling bitterly, and often violently to their beliefs because challenging them is, literally, trying to take away a survival tool from the brain. Challenging someone's belief in something usually triggers a fight or flight response. Especially if that belief is held dearly and sincerely regarded as integral to their identity.

When humans gather a set of beliefs, this set forms cohesively to become their map of reality. This map is how they navigate, make sense of and survive the world. What's really startling is this map often filters information and updates itself mostly without our awareness. We have seen it a million times. People will often invent wildly absurd beliefs in order to keep their existing beliefs intact. If something conflicts with their map, they invent new beliefs to buttress old ones. If someone believes, for example, "Obama hates America" their map will often ignore or reject information to the contrary, and add information which confirms that map onto the map itself. This is called confirmation bias. This is when a belief is consistently and repeatedly self-confirmed so many times, and for so long it's literally unfathomable to the brain that there is any chance it's incorrect.

And the proof is in the pudding. I have heard Mormons say, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Mormonism is true." I have heard Muslims say, "I know with every fiber of my being Islam is true." I have heard Republicans say, "I know with every ounce of my being Obama hates America." I have heard Democrats say, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Republicans are destroying America." And you know what? I agree with all of these people. They truly and honestly deeply believe those things, because they have gone through an unchecked process of confirmation bias for so long, they are literally incapable of believing anything different. These are people who literally think Satan is more moral than Obama, or that Republicans are no different than ISIS. "No matter what you say I will never change my mind, and whatever you do, don't you dare ever, ever touch my map! "

Here's the dangerous part. Maps of reality are useful. They help people make sense of and understand the world. But convincing someone their map is incorrect is often met with vitriol. To quote Mark Twain, "it is far easier to fool a man than to convince him that he's been fooled." "Don't touch my map! I KNOW my map is right, and everyone else's is wrong!" There's a certain arrogance in claiming "I KNOW my map is right." It's basically saying, "Not only do I know better than everyone else, but there is no chance I'm suffering from any kind of bias or delusion" which, ironically, is a conclusion that is deeply biased and deluded. But this is how insidious bias is. Bias is so strong, it can convince us that we are not suffering from any kind of bias. Delusion is such a treacherous trap, we can easily become blind to our own delusion.

I think a much more humble, responsible and sensible approach is always asking yourself things like "is my map correct? What kind of biases am I suffering from? What processes am I putting in place to vet information? Do I ever consider the possibility that I'm wrong? Do I only accept information that agrees with my beliefs? Do I dismiss conflicting information to my beliefs out of hand?" These are the kinds of questions which help keep people anchored in reality instead of running off, care-free straight into ConfirmationBiasVille. America, and the world will be much better off when people are freely able to say, "I know that I'm biased" and lay down the arrogant, and incorrect position of, "I know that I'm right."

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Defending My Decision to Not Own Guns

We have all met people who are afraid of flying. It can be scary, sure. But flying is safe. Really safe. Anyone who has given even a cursory glance at the statistics knows this. There are routinely more automobile deaths in South Carolina in a given year than there are airplane related deaths in the entire world. Yet, there are people who will still drive all the way across the country because flying is scary, even knowing these statistics. This is called the attentional fallacy. It's paying attention to emotionally-dominant stimuli rather than the actual facts and figures.

Recently, I was chided a bit by a friend for not owning a handgun with "what are you going to do if someone breaks down the door to your house and tries to harm your family?" The correct answer is, "that's probably not going to happen, but I guess the same thing I'm going to do if the wings to the airplane I'm flying in fall off. I guess I'm going to die." So why not own a gun? Because owning that gun carries a risk. Not owning a gun also carries a risk.

Per the FBI, the state I live in has a murder rate of .06 people per 10,000. The County I live in has a homicide rate of .03 per 10,000, half my state average. That means in any given year, my family and I have roughly a .0003% chance of being murdered. Not only is murder rare where I live, but almost 100% of them are drug-related. In addition, 84% of murders in my state occur between friends, family, acquaintances or lovers. That means the chance of some stranger kicking my door in to murder and rape my family is about 0.000252%. Could it happen? Yeah, it could, but it simply doesn't. Furthermore, even if someone broke into my house to rape and murder my family there's no guarantee owning a gun will prevent this attack.

So yes. There's some off-the-wall chance someone will kick in my door and rape and murder my family, but the chances are so low, it's not even on my risk radar.

Now to the risk of keeping a gun in my house. Children often accidentally shoot and kill themselves with their parents guns. Far more often than the phantom rape and murder home invasion scenario. According to the CDC, child death by gunfire is twenty times more likely in homes that own guns. There are some things you can do to mitigate that risk, like keeping your guns locked in a safe. Nonetheless, a gun sitting in a home is six times more likely to harm a member of that home than it is to harm an intruder. That means, strictly by the numbers, owning a firearm for home protection actually puts your family at more risk than not owning them.

That being said, I have no problem with people who own guns. I support the 2nd amendment and people's rights to own firearms. All that being stated, not everyone is fit to be a gun owner. I certainly am not fit to be a gun owner. I am forgetful and absent-minded. There have been many times when, I did own a gun, I would leave it lying around. I lose my keys like every other day because I'm not very good at routine things like putting my keys in the right place, or putting a gun in a safe. So when I had children who were capable of climbing and getting into my closet, knowing my tendencies for forgetfulness, and knowing the statistics on gun violence, I made the proper decision to get rid of my firearms.

That was the right call for me and my family. That doesn’t mean it's the right call for everyone. I have friends who are very responsible gun owners, much more so than I ever was. It could be that their decision to own gun is correct.  However, most people are not aware of the risks of gun ownership or just dismiss them completely because owning a gun "feels right" and home invasion is "scary." But again, attentional fallacy. Emotionally dominant stimuli often times "feels" right, but is in fact, wrong.

Ben Franklin once said, "the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math." On the same token, I think gun ownership in the US is a tax for people who do not understand statistics. And unfortunately they pay that tax with the blood of their children. So, that risk may be acceptable for some, but it's not for me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Trump is a 2, 7 off-suit.

It's May 2016. I, like a lot of other Americans, are still in disbelief that Trump has carried the Republican nomination during this election cycle. It's true that most analysts said early on "Trump would never win the Republican nomination." That's because every single poll from the beginning of the election cycle had Trump faring the worst against either Sanders or Clinton in a general election forecast. Therefore, every political analyst reasoned there was no chance that voters would nominate Trump knowing he would crash and burn against the Democrat nominee in November. Yet they voted for him anyway, virtually guaranteeing a Democrat victory for 2016.

Neither Republicans or Democrats are immune to math and statistical probability. The numbers look bad for Trump. Really bad. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. His numbers have been atrocious since the beginning, and that did not affect Republican voters. It's clear that GOP supporters are sick and tired of the status quo, so in response they placed their chips on a losing bet.

Now I'm sure everyone reading has a passing familiarity with poker. Even if you don't you surely can understand that some hands are better than others. That does not guarantee the stronger hand will win. I'm sure we've all seen the World Poker Tour where a guy goes all in with only a 10% chance of winning, and then somehow gets lucky and pulls the one card he needs on the river. It happens. But it was still a stupid bet.

Trump is a stupid bet.

This is not new information. Cruz supporters, Rubio supporters, Bush supporters, Carson supporters, etc. have all begged and pleaded with the electorate not to vote for a guy who is going to get clobbered in the general election. GOP analysts, from the start, have pleaded with Republican voters, telling them "voting for Trump is guaranteeing a Democrat victory." The national Republican party has fought tooth and nail against Trump from the very start because they were well aware of just how abysmal his chances against Clinton or Sanders were.

This information has not bothered Trump supporters one bit. They've gone all-in with a 2, 7 off-suit. The odds are really bad. But, to hell with the odds! Trump all the way! They proudly proclaim that everyone underestimated Trump. But that's not so. No one underestimated Trump. What the political analysts did was way overestimate the competency and rationality of the Republican voter base. Sure they said "Trump would not win the GOP nomination" but what they were really saying is, "Republicans are smarter than to vote for a losing bet." They were wrong.

Republicans have voted to play 2, 7 off-suit and are loud and proud they have done so. Congratulations. In a sense you're right. No one thought you guys would actually vote to do something so unbelievably ill-advised. Yet you did. And now the polls are forecasting possibly the worst loss in a presidential election since 1988.

Now, all that being said, could Trump still win? Absolutely. A lot can happen between now and November, like an indictment, for example. There's a lot that could sway the election between now and then. But, that does not change the fact that Republicans voters made a bet they only had a 12.4% chance of winning. And now they have to hope and pray they hit that one river card, which has an 87% chance of not happening, and Clinton will be laughing all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania avenue.

Note: At the time of writing this blog post, every single election forecast has Clinton obliterating Trump in the general election. The most favorable poll to Trump (The Rothenberg & Gonzales poll) still has Trump behind Clinton by a whopping 60 electoral votes. There is a fair chance Trump could lose to Clinton by 256 electoral votes or more. My personal prediction is that Clinton will win by no less than 80 electoral votes and may win by as much as 300.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Iron Skillets are the Reason You Exist

I had an interesting discussion with a chemist today. They talked about how at one point had the entire periodic table of elements memorized, could recognize molecules in peoples names, and could rattle off most of the information on the periodic table without too much trouble. So I thought I would take a shot at stumping them.

"Do you know where all of the elements on the periodic table came from?" I said. They looked at me somewhat puzzled. "What do you mean where did they come from?" I could see the confusion on their face. Maybe this is the first time they have ever thought about this, maybe they just assumed that these things just always were. But, that's not the case.

I also had a feeling the person, even though trained in chemistry, may not know the answer to this. The reason is because origin of the elements on the periodic table is not rooted in chemistry, rather astrophysics.

The most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen, by far! Hydrogen makes up about 75% of the mass of the entire universe. The second most abundant element is helium, which makes up almost all of the remaining 25%. That means that elements 1 and 2 on the period table make up 99% of the entire mass of the universe. Elements 3-118 make up 1% of the mass. Without getting into any technical detail, it's evident that hydrogen and helium were the only 2 elements present at the time of the Big Bang (or formed within 10 minutes or so of the Big Bang through a nucleosynthesis process, to be pedantic). In laymen's terms, at the time of the Big Bang there was a LOT of really hot, intense energy, and within minutes the energy was converted into matter (specifically hydrogen and helium). For more information on how energy converts to matter and matter converts to energy, see Einstein's theory of relativity which conclusively demonstrated that energy is matter (E=M).

Great so now we have hydrogen and helium. Where did every other element come from? Take a guess... from hydrogen and helium. That's right, everything from carbon to gold to oxygen to iron to xenon comes from just hydrogen and helium. But how? How can oxygen become gold, etc?

The short answer is, it can't. Well, not on its own. Helium tends to stay helium and hydrogen tends to stay hydrogen thanks to electromagnetism. So when two differing atoms approach one another they don't fuse together, they repel sort of like the repelling ends of a magnet (well exactly like that, actually). What is required for atoms of two different type to overcome electromagnetic repulsion in order to fuse together and create a new element? A lot of heat and pressure. A lot.

Once you have enough pressure to force these atoms close enough past the point of electromagnetic repulsion, together they start trading protons and becoming new elements. Two hydrogen atoms (atomic number 1) form together to create helium (atomic number 2). A helium atom (2) combines with another hydrogen atom to form lithium (3). So on and so forth.

So where does this fusion happen? Mainly in 2 places; stars and supernovae. The core of a star is a nuclear reactor on a grand scale. The energy and heat given off from stars is the result of nuclear fusion happening in its core. It's hot outside today. Thanks nuclear fusion!

Atoms are being smashed together constantly inside of a star to create newer, heavier elements with more protons. Helium smashes together to become lithium, lithium mashes up to become beryllium, then boron, then carbon, then nitrogen, then oxygen, etc. Each time two atoms fuse, an obscene amount of energy gets released (literally an atomic bomb).

This process repeats, and repeats and repeats. So every element on the periodic table from hydrogen to iron forms inside the core of a star. And with every fusion the star continues burning like a champ. But when the fusion process gets around to iron, something lethal to the star happens. Iron atoms don't play nice. Iron does not fuse with other elements like its predecessors. When iron starts forming inside the star, it's a death sentence. The star stops losing the energy gained from fusion, because iron has caused fusion to slow down, and eventually stop.

Star Killer
Thanks a lot, iron. Forget the "Red Matter" from Star Trek lore. You want to destroy a star? Your iron skillet did that.

But you should be thankful to your iron skillet, without it you probably wouldn't be here. After fusion stops in a star, the star collapses onto itself. Stars that are the right size detonate into a supernova. Just about all other forces of nature stand in awe of the fury and power of a supernova. Whereas the fusion inside the core of star, literally cannot produce enough energy to fuse anything to iron, a supernova has so much energy it creates every element on the periodic table from number 27 to 118... all at once.

Mother Nature's way demonstrating your insignificance.
To give you some sense of just how much energy is released in a supernova, when a star goes supernova, it temporarily outshines every other star in its galaxy combined. That's right, take the light from a hundred billion stars and for a brief moment this dying star makes them all look dim. While it's doing this, it throws all 118 elements of the periodic table out into space. Including carbon and oxygen from which you are made.

The carbon atoms in your body used to be inside the core of a star, and thanks to iron threw that carbon out into space. And now, here you are. Probably cooking eggs on your iron skillet without even taking a moment to thank it for blowing up that star for you.

Enjoy your omelette.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Lowry Gambit

I’m a chess player. A few years ago I planned to attend a chess tournament in Charlotte, NC.  I announced to my chess club that I would be driving and invited others to ride along.  To my joy, two experts committing to coming with me. As a class player, I was very much looking forward to picking their minds for four hours in order to get some great advice on improving as a class player to ascend to the sacred ground of expert. This time spent would be invaluable.

Before I left, this weird, old guy whom I did not particularly care for mentioned he would also like to ride with us to Charlotte. This was disaster. This old guy, Paul Lowry, was a non-stop talker. He is the kind of guy who dominated a conversation and never let anyone get a word in.

Even worse, he was weird. He told the strangest stories and he had a lot of them. In fact, his weird stories came non-stop.  The trip, which looked so promising at first, fell into the hands of disaster with the inclusion of Paul.

The four of us were making our way up to Charlotte and my annoyance was already brimming from the outset. The guy would not shut up. On our way back, I found myself snickering at a few of his corny jokes.

The next time this quarterly tournament came up in Charlotte, Paul invited himself along again. This time it was just the two of us. I was not particularly looking forward to this trip.  By the end of our four-hour round trip I was convinced that Paul was an amazing guy who had some fantastic stories to tell.

Paul was a retired firefighter who relayed some fantastic stories about some beautiful young women who loved firefighters. He told me about his background in history and philosophy. Paul told some stories to me about moonlighting for the mafia when he was much younger and stronger. 

Paul was a historian and loved chess history. He could recite any number of significant chess tournaments in history and the impact they had on opening theory.  Paul had memorized amazing stories about chess players and their failures and triumphs on the board. Paul had regular correspondence with GM Yasser Seirwan who referred to Paul as the finest chess historian he had ever met.

Paul was also a writer and had poetry published. He was also a real ham. He used to tell people all the time, “You know Fischer would never play me. He always avoided me for years.” To which people would inevitably respond, “really?” Paul would always cooly respond, “Yep. Herb Fischer, that scoundrel would never play me.”  He was a jovial guy who loved people and would even offer people draws when he had a winning position out of kindness. Paul cared nothing about his rating. He cared only about brightening people’s lives.

Paul had a very extensive collection of really obscure chess books, and a lot of them signed by the original authors. His vast collection of out-of-print books were easily worth thousands of dollars.

He relayed a story to me once where he sat down with an opponent and told his opponent, whom he had never met, “I’m in a bad mood today. And if I lose, one of us is going to get hurt, and it won’t be me.”  Later in the game his opponent was up two pawns and offered Paul a draw. Paul said, “why on Earth are you offering me a draw, you’re clearly winning!” The guy responded, “I just don’t want any trouble from you man.” Paul laughed and said, “I was only joking with you! I resign.”

As mentioned before Paul was a real talkative guy, and everyone knew it. He had a reputation as a talker, but once you got past his idiosyncrasies he really was awesome to be around. Once at a very large tournament that I personally organized, Paul’s cell phone went off right in the middle of the round. What was hilarious was that his ringtone was “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers. So imagine a completely silent room and then all of a sudden, “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man!” Paul quietly stood up and walked out the room. One of the tournament directors had to calm him down because he was so upset that he had offended everyone by allowing his cell phone to go off. The truth was that as soon as he left the room everyone erupted in laughter because they understood the irony of Paul having a ringtone entitled “Ramblin’ Man.”

It was now I who was picking up the phone to call Paul to invite him along with me to tournaments. I had developed a real liking for Paul and the two of us entered a team tournament together last year and finished in second place out of eight teams.

Paul donated his entire collection of books to his local chess club when he tragically passed away on June 17, 2012 after a bout with cancer. I visited him twice in hospice where we relived some of our favorite memories together. A month later, I delivered a tear-filled eulogy honoring Paul at the 2012 Columbia Open Chess Tournament.

Paul taught me that life is worth nothing without people. It’s easy to get caught up in getting better at chess, improving your rating but it all means nothing without making someone’s life just a little bit better because you were a part of it. I miss Paul dearly, and I think about every time I move a chess piece. So every time I sit down at a board, Paul’s memory and influence remains and I’m astounded at how close I came to making up some excuse not to take him to that first tournament.  Had I done that, I would have saved a little aggravation but missed out on having a marvelous friend. Chess players know that our most important lessons come with each loss, and I certainly learned a whole lot when I lost Paul. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Life is Strange

"Everyone's the hero in their own story," is a phrase I heard recently and have been reflecting on, and it's true. In everyone's mind, they're not the bad guy. Everyone is trying to do the right and honorable thing. Often times our intentions create a massive blind spot for us to properly assess our actions and behavior. As humans, we are excellent prosecutors for other people's actions, and excellent defense attorneys for our own.