January 7th, 2017

A Letter from a Liquidator

Back at the beginning of the Great Recession, there were articles like this, about stores going out of business and the companies that helped them do so.


One of the companies named in this article, G.A.W., sent me a letter. A store in my town is going out of business, and I have received an invitation to one of these sales, right down to the bring the letter and you get points to the prize that someone will win, and bring the envelope and you'll get even more. That little nugget is hidden in a footnote all the way at the bottom of the letter.

The letter has all the elements. Invitations to loyal customers before generally being promoted. A prize giveaway. The requirement to have the invitation to get the early discounts, but you can bring someone along who didn't get the invitation.

It's January, and January is a come to Jesus month for retail. If you didn't make enough in the holiday season, January is when you may decide that paying the rent until the next big month of sales just isn't worth it.

That time has come for my local, independent book store.

I'm totally going to the sale. I've continued to buy books there during the entire time I've been raving about e-books. I've continued to buy gift certificates there for other people during that time. I'm gonna miss 'me when they're gone, but I cannot say I'm particularly surprised. A lot of other stores which were damaged by the transition to digital media but which survived found some kind of merchandise niche. My favorite local chain that displays this is Newbury comics. When their music (yeah, I know, you didn't see that coming, Left Coast readers, did you?) business fell off a cliff, their nerd merch business let them continue soldiering on.

I don't know why Willow Books never found a merch business. They experimented. They started selling used books. They sold more and more coloring books for adults and jigsaw puzzles and similar. But this town supports more than one The Paper Stores in surprisingly close proximity (one of which is right next to a toy store and a gift store -- seriously, you wouldn't think it would be possible, but if you're looking for a present for someone who is hard to shop for, those three shops are pretty much guaranteed to offer something awesome for a reasonable price, which is probably why the trio continue to do business as a cluster). And Willow couldn't seem to take their own cafe -- which existed more as a theoretical entity on its website than a place you could actually go to eat or drink -- seriously, much less anything other than books.

And paper books has gone from being a tough business to an increasingly impossible one.

Quote from _Black Box_

"Our empathy for the victim is, emotionally speaking, almost synonymous with our fury at those who caused her death. (New para) But this has recursive effects... It is partly because we are so willing to blame others for their mistakes that we are so keen to conceal our own. We anticipate, with remarkable clarity, how people will react, how they will point the finger, how little time they will take to put themselves in the tough, high-pressure situation in which the error occurred. The net effect is simple: it obliterates openness and spawns cover-ups. It destroys the vital information we need in order to learn.

I was a little iffy on this book based on the first chapter of the free sample. But this quote alone has nearly sold me on it. I'll finish the sample and then decide.

I don't know if my experience of empathy is like neurotypical people. But I will say this. When things go wrong, I want two things. I want to know why, and I want to know how we can fix it going forward. Secondarily, I want to be compensated. If the first part is completely satisfied -- if you convince me you know what happened and you explain to my satisfaction how you have made sure it won't recur, I will often find that to be compensation enough.

But boy, if you don't want to investigate, correct and explain? That second part becomes all I care about. I don't _start_ with blame, but I can end up there.

I do think, however, that this description is a really good match for a set of responses to negative events that I find very puzzling and unhelpful.


I bought the book. There was a page that was just awful about science being "mankind's" something or other. Ugh. Oh well.

Second half of the book is why do people double down in core beliefs when they encounter powerful disconfirmation (apocalypse fails to happen on schedule, type of thing).

"That is why, when we mess up, particularly on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened. We feel uncomfortable, twitchy. (New para) we have two choices. The first is to accept that our original judgments may have been at fault. We question whether it was quite such a good idea to put our faith in a cult leader whose prophecies didn't even materialize. We pause to reflect on whether the Iraq War was quite such a good idea given that Saddam didn't pose the threat we imagined. (New para) The difficulty with this option is simple: it is threatening. It requires us to accept that we are not as smart as we like to think. It forces us to acknowledge that we can sometimes be wrong, even on issues on which we have staked a great deal."

Is your brain doing that vinyl screech sound as it cuts a new groove across the disc, permanently damaging it? Because it should. I don't know anyone that is _that_ committed to being right all the time, and I sure hope you don't either. Because, yuck.

The real reason that being wrong is threatening is that it forces us to make a lot of other major adjustments if we accept that we were wrong. Get divorced. Abandon all relationships with people who continue to be in the cult. Give up one's job as a pundit on Fox News. Etc. It's not hard to accept that one is wrong. What _is_ hard is what happens when you go tell everyone else that you were wrong (and maybe they are still wrong), and all of a sudden you've been kicked out of your family, or your job, or your social circle, or lost your kids or whatever. _That_ is hard.

I _wish_ it was a simple as being some arrogant I'm Always Right jackass. But honestly, most people who get stuck in denial are not jackasses; they just have very powerful incentives to pretend they don't know what they now know.

This is probably why I loved _One Fell Sweep_ so very much. This is _exactly_ what happened with the Draziri.

ETA: Next couple pages quote from _Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)_, which I read because one of the authors was Carol Tavri and I liked some of her other work. I really _loathed_ that book. *sigh*

To be clear: I am not arguing with the basic idea that if you make people go through a high commitment exercise in order to join a group, they tend to have remarkably bad judgment of the quality of the group they just joined. That is absolutely true. But that's actually more like a sunk cost thing than a I Don't Want to Admit I Was Wrong thing.

A few pages further on, author is trying to explain prosecutors and why they don't let go of a suspect even after the suspect is cleared via DNA evidence.

"Many prosecutors see their work as more than a job; it is more like a vocation. They have spent years training to reach high standards of performance. It is a tough initiation. Their self-esteem is bound up with their competence. They are highly motivated to believe in the probity of the system they have joined."

The profession selects for aggressive assholes who never concede a point and who tend to think in terms of rules and games, rather than in terms of people and justice. You get what you select for. They were not _trained_ to be this way. They were _selected_ for this. Trying to explain this as a general human trait -- or trying to show how prosecutors are representative of a human trait -- or whatever is just ridiculous, because we all can look at this and go, that is just insane.

There are two distinct phenomena here. The prosecutors are what the author has been saying all along: all wrapped up in identity and self-esteem. But it is NOT representative of humanity as a whole. Most people who are in denial are responding to other incentives NOT doing it because of identity/self-esteem/gasification/never concede a point assholery, etc.

This seems petty, I know, but this is supposed to be a deep dive into the psychology. And he's getting it really wrong.

It keeps getting worse, too.

"Imagine what it must be like to be confronted with evidence that they have assisted in putting the wrong person in jail; they they have ruined the life of an innocent person; that the wounds of the victim's family are going to be reopened. It must be stomach churning. In terms of cognitive dissonance, it is difficult to think of anything more threatening." Eyebrow raise. What about doctors who have a patient die in the middle of a routine operation? What about a person who is obeying all the laws and driving carefully, only to hit and injure or kill an elderly or very young person or mentally unwell person step out in front of them? What about a programmer who did the very best she could, but who discovers that an error in her work led to someone dying of the wrong dose of radiation, or because a safety system malfunctioned or whatever?

I doubt there is an adult in our society that can say with certainty that there is zero chance their actions will ever lead to harm or death on the part of someone else. Some of us have to confront it more directly than others, but if you think you are in the clear, you probably just haven't had your nose rubbed in it. The way people deal with this is the review their actions, identify where they went wrong, and make amends. Say I'm sorry. Participate in a process of change. Pay compensation. Etc. The idea that it is somehow magically worse for participants in the criminal justice system just makes me go, what? I mean, our oldest written material documents cases of people unjustly imprisoned (heck, Joseph was unjustly imprisoned because of a false accusation of rape when he declined the overtures of Potiphar's wife -- but I bet you can come up with an older instance).

NO WAY can anyone with a lick of sense be wandering around thinking they can't possibly have made a mistake. Altho I will happily concede that there are a lot of people without that lick of sense out and about in the world.

I feel like there are a lot of people out there trying to make this some sort of Special Snowflake situation. It's So Bad to Convict the Wrong Person. Well, yeah. But a lot of other things are So Bad, too. Fix it. Fix the process. If they are actually having trouble adjusting to the idea that they made a mistake, there is actually something notably wrong with _them_. That's NOT NORMAL HUMANITY.

I'll give another example. I used to know someone -- not calling them a friend -- who showed up a little late for a party saying she'd run into someone else's car, and then driven off without stopping. She was admitting to a hit and run. Her excuse? My husband would be so mad. NO ONE at that party that was normal. We didn't make that a normal human response. Also, she refused to pay up at one of the poker games at that party. AGAIN, refusing to pay up at a game of chance is NOT NORMAL.

This should NOT be treated as an aspect of normal human psychology. This _should_ be treated as a diagnosable aspect of ABNORMAL psychology. We have textbooks for this. It should be in them.

To be clear: I'm saying we should be diagnosing and/or prosecuting those elements of the criminal justice system that are displaying this behavior. Seriously. Change the rules of the game, and the players will also change. You might have to get a bunch of new participants (and in fact, as more and more police officers go through college justice programs rather than just go through police academies, we are seeing major changes in behavior, too), but that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Anyway, author does quote some people saying that it is what I think it is (external incentives like "their political future and a culture that values winning over justice"). Then he dismisses it saying, "But often the scale of denial went way beyond any of this." Yeah, whatever.

ETA still more: he eventually acknowledges that a huge chunk of the justice system DOES NOT resist DNA and other exonerating evidence.

I've been thinking a lot lately about why human organizations come up with batshit detailed rules about stuff that fundamentally no one cares about. Conservative religions and dress codes. Heck, corporate anywhere and dress codes. You name it. I cannot help but feel that what we are trying to do with these rules is deal with a small percentage of people who are just hard to deal with. So we make rules and try to make everyone obey The Rules rather than tell that small percentage of people, hey, asshole. I hate what you are doing. Please stop. And then have to listen to the asshole, totally predictably, lay into us for whatever springs to the top of their brain at the moment.

Rules are great. I love 'em. But I also know that the more of them you have, the more you attract a certain species of asshole that abuses the hell out of them. And I feel like trying to tease out why that kind of asshole tenaciously sticks to a position despite all the disconfirming evidence without saying, goddamn it they are assholes, and they LOVE situations like being a prosecutor or belonging to a cult. If you try to figure it out without starting from the position of OMG YOU ARE AWFUL, you just wind up slandering humanity in general without actually learning anything useful.

Also, why are you still reading?

Here. The author likes quoting Scheck. I'll let Scheck make my case for me. "The Innocence Project and other advocates have spent hundreds of hours just arguing against finality doctrines that are used to block inquiries that no pair person would resist,". See? Scheck doesn't think this is normal human behavior. This is _abnormal_ psychology.

I completely agree that the system needs a procedural overhaul top to bottom. I think we are headed in the right direction, in that we have disrupted the position of the police academy. But clearly, a lot more is needed. That author's dismissiveness of political implications is disheartening; no one will make any progress here without addressing how to make political incentives work the right way.

Mention of a book _Medical Errors and Medical Narcissism_ by John Banda. Someone else is putting this in abnormal psychology land.

Involved several pages about WMD in Iraq and Blair and Bush making up story after story about wtf. Conclusion: "This is important because we often suppose that bright people are the most likely to reach the soundest judgement." *sigh*

OK. So FIRST huge incentive for both Blair and Bush never to admit they were wrong. Second, NOT the brightest bulbs!

What's up with Facebook ads?

Especially since the start of the year but, to be fair, possibly somewhat before that, Facebook ads have been for things I actually want to buy. And I don't mean, serving me ads for things I searched for, looked at a detail page for, and then decide either not to buy at all, or at least not to buy right now -- you know, you go look at a handbag on eBags, and you are stalked by ads for it on all sites you visit for the next week? Wait, that's never happened to you? Never mind then.

Anyway. The most memorable purchase recently was for Hickie's, a little silicone or something device that lets you replace the laces in shoes with something you can then just pull on. I had no idea these existed, but as soon I did, my next question was, does it come in pink? And once I knew it did, I bought it within minutes. There have also been a variety of unsuccessful attempts to purchase (all clothing that doesn't come in my size, basically, at least, unless I want to buy men's sizing which I don't always care to do). That is hardly Facebook's fault. That's the fashion industry's fault for not wanting to make stuff in sizes larger than 16.

After years of being alternately offended or amused by FB ads, to suddenly discover I look forward to the ads because I find stuff that solves longstanding problems (don't even get me started on my daughter's shoe issues), stylishly, for not too much money -- well, color me surprised and pleased.

So, what's up with Facebook ads?

More from _Black Box_

All may be forgiven!

I've encountered a section about the inflationistas of 2010 and thereabouts/thereafter. Oh, that's a juicy lot of Too Much Commitment to a Wrong Belief, right there.

Of course, every last one of those assholes had huge incentives to try to pressure central bankers and others to worry more about inflation than deflation. If the author ignores that, I'm gonna be annoyed.

Here is the list of people: Michael Boskin (HW era), Klarman (half his fund in cash pretty much always), John Taylor (the oddball in the group that isn't stinking rich, but his audience is the stinking rich, and Krugman has been calling him out for misrepresenting the work of economists he is quoting for years now), Paul Singer (OMG could you get more conservative) and Niall Ferguson (I so don't need to say any more at this point). Bummer is that the author represents these conservative a-holes as: "some of the most celebrated individuals in their fields", without acknowledging their massive political skew, or, for most of them, their personal incentives for supporting monetary policy that focused on inflation vs deflation. If you talk about people who are VERY political without acknowledging that, and then go, why would they do that? You don't come across as very well-informed, for starters, because you're looking in the wrong place for the explanation. Something about the drunk looking for his keys under the street light.

"Indeed, there was something intellectually courageous about the group choosing to make their predictions so public in the first place." Uh, no, actually. Self-serving nonsense that distorted our policies in a way that harmed the world for longer than we had to do.

Altho, where did Rogoff and Reinhart go in this mess? I had to explain to my sister the other day why I couldn't bring myself to buy Rogoff's book about cash, given his participation in this mess (and Rogoff has actually mostly my-bad'ed about the whole thing, unlike the rest of these idiots).

Author sort of does a weird thing by failing to address the asset inflation that the idiots were complaining about.

Wow. That was distressingly short. Never did dig into the many more double-downs on Hyper Inflation Now that happened (to be fair, there's just no point in drawing any more attention to the idiots, because if you pay attention to them for any length of time, you do figure out that they are ... idiots).

There really was an awful few months in the time frame in question (2010/2011), before what's his face had to leave his bond fund, where a _lot_ of advisors were spewing Inflation Just Around the Corner Just Like Interwar Germany!!!! And whenever I walked them through, okay, tell me how this is going to happen? Just at the point where their argument fell apart, they re-asserted, and this time, refused to walk down the path of okay, so commodity prices are going to somehow stay high even when no one is buying them any more? But most people recovered from that and even admitted, yeah, my bad, I was wrong about inflation, ha ha. IT IS NOT THAT HARD TO ADMIT BEING WRONG. Unless it is, because you have external incentives and/or have abnormal interior life.

I hope he goes after Einstein being such a jerk about quantum theory. Einstein deserves to be called out on that one.

"The most striking finding of all was that the celebrated experts, the kinds of people who tour television studios and go on book tours, were the worst [predictors] of all."

Yeah. Well. I think we're all learning that it's a lot more fun watching people screw up than get it right every time. I mean, blooper reels. Reality TV shows. Dr. Phil. Etc.

This is such a weird book! "You might suppose that the higher up you go in a company, the less you will see the effects of cognitive dissonance." I guess if you've never even _heard_ of the Peter Principle. Or contemplated the probable overlap between cognitive dissonance reduction activities and narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, come on! "I am great! So why did I just get fired/dumped/told off by friend or family member. They must just not appreciate me! Screw them!"

Or, for that matter, the Psychopath Test by Ronson -- he spends a bunch of time on CEOs and insensitivity to feedback/lack of empathy, inability to see that they screwed up, etc.

You know, part of how I am feeling is that only part of the problem are these personality disordered leader/pundit types. The rest of the problem is that we are collectively prone to believing their bull shit. It is really our expectations, hey this guy says he is the smartest, best leader ever! That must be true. Because he said it! The expectations, the willingness to believe these people is the real problem. But we actually _recognize_ that we've been misled, and move on to someone else. I'm not sure we're as good at better identifying good leaders. Like, the process we should work on is Spot the Bullshitter. Not, spot our own reframing to avoid acknowledging our screw up. Altho maybe it is the same thing in the end -- we keep reframing how the person in charge can't really be as awful as he seems to be, thus not disinvesting, not finding another job, not divorcing the idiot, not changing to a better educational program, etc.