I’m in Europe. Here is the first of several vlogs.
Let’s talk about William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, you may know, was an American newspaper magnate in the early twentieth century. He owned just about all of the largest in papers in every major American city. He also expanded to magazines and created the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world.
Hearst became so wealthy that he built a frikkin’ castle on top of a mountain. Hearst Castle is now a major tourist destination – we made it a point to stop there on a family vacation in 2001. It’s big and bold and breathtaking, sitting high above the California landscape. It has some of the finest pieces of art in the world. There are like 150 pools. What they don’t tell you on the tour is that Hearst was a thin-skinned lunatic.
Wealth wasn’t enough for ol’ William. He sought power. He controlled the editorial positions and coverage of political news in all of his papers, thereby exercising enormous political influence. Problem was, Hearst routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures, and distorted real events. Consider this anecdote:
“We had a crime story that was going to be featured in a 96-point headline on page one,” remembers Vern Whaley, an editor for Hearst’s Herald-Examiner. “When I found the address that was in the story, that address was a vacant lot. So I hollered over at the rewrite desk, I said, ‘You got the wrong address in this story. This is a vacant lot.’ The copy chief that night was a guy named Vic Barnes. And he says, ‘Sit down, Vern.’ He says, ‘The whole story’s a fake.'”
Hearst basically invented yellow journalism, and he used it to get what he wanted.
In 1898, he called for war against Spain. Public support grew. And, uh, then we went to war against Spain.
After World War I, he called for an isolationist foreign policy. Public support grew. And, uh, we became an isolationist nation, despite the atrocities developing abroad.
He used his influence to win elections, twice winning a seat to the House of Representatives as a Democrat.
There was no one to check Hearst. No internet, no 24 hours news cycle, no Daily Show, no John Oliver. Hearst owned the largest papers, controlled what they said, and so he avoided criticism in the press. He was untouchable. William Randolph Hearst could get away with anything.
Let’s talk about Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane, you may know, was released in 1941 and is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Maybe the greatest. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling and cinematography, a miracle for its time. Here’s Roger Ebert:
Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.
What you may not know is that Citizen Kane was loosely based on Hearst’s life. Orson Welles never confirmed this, but, I mean, come on. It’s not that hard to connect the dots. Charles Foster Kane builds a newspaper empire, obtains massive amounts of wealth, builds a castle atop a mountain, and then begins a ruthless pursuit of power, ultimately ending in tragedy and death.
Remember the part where I said that Hearst was a thin-skinned lunatic? Right. So, yeah, he wasn’t really a fan of Citizen Kane. Not surpisingly, he didn’t like the idea of the film painting a very unflattering portrait of him.
And remember the part where I said that Hearst always got what he wanted? Right. So, yeah, he used his influence and resources to attempt to prevent the film from being released.* Welles and his studio resisted the pressure, but Hearst was ultimately successful in pressuring theater chains to limit showings of the movie.
*As it turns out, Hearst never watched the film.
The resulting box office numbers were mediocre. It was only later that the movie was appreciated and watched by the masses.
Let’s talk about William McKinley.
McKinley was our 25th President, serving from 1897-1901. He has the same expression in every single picture.
McKinley was also one of four Presidents to be assassinated, along with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and John F. Kennedy.
Why is it that we know so much about the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, but nothing about McKinley?* I mean, sure, he didn’t free the slaves or speak in a funny New England accent, but he was the President. And a good one! I think I speak for all of us when I applaud the Dingley Act of 1897, which led to rapid economic growth and a brighter future for all Americans. He won his re-election by a landslide and had the good foresight to pick Teddy Roosevelt as his Vice President.
*Or Garfield, but we can talk about him another time.
McKinley was an important man. A good man. We should know more about his assassination.
Thankfully, I have this blog. So, here’s what happened: On September 6, 1901, McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York, for an event called the Pan-American Exposition. Things were a little more lax in 1901, and McKinley was out and about shaking hands with the public* when he was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Perhaps the main reason we don’t talk about the assassination is because Czolgosz is an impossible name to say.
*McKinley enjoyed meeting with the public and was reluctant to accept security (lol). In fact, the President’s Secretary feared an assassination attempt would take place on this trip FOR THIS VERY REASON and twice took it off the schedule (lol). McKinley restored it each time (lol). Really, McKinley’s assassination is a result of an ‘ehhh it’ll be fine’ attitude.
Anyway, this guy Czolgosz had lost his job during the Panic of 1893 and turned to anarchism. He viewed McKinley as a symbol of oppression. So he decided to kill him. He attended the event in Buffalo, went to shake the President’s hand, and shot him twice. One bullet grazed McKinley, and the other entered his abdomen and was never found.
Here’s a drawing of the incident:
Thirteen days later, McKinley died from gangrene caused by the bullet wounds.
The next morning, Teddy Roosevelt took over, became wildly popular, and had his head etched into Mt. Rushmore. We forgot all about poor old Willie McKinley.
It was right around the turn of the twentieth century that William Hearst began dabbling in politics. Hearst was a Democrat. The sitting President, William McKinley, was a Republican. This was a problem for Hearst.
So, Hearst asked the best writers he could find to smear McKinley and bring him down. The gaudier, the better. In February 1900, a guy named Ambrose Bierce wrote a column and closed with a reference to the assassination a few days earlier of the Kentucky governor, William Goebel.
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here [to Washington]
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
In early 1901, an unsigned column (widely attributed to Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane) called McKinley a ‘bad man’ and declared:
If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.
The killing must be done. Six months later, McKinley was assassinated.
There’s no doubt – this is all very curious. Hearst was a massively influential man, he always got what he wanted, he printed an op-ed that called for the killing of the President, and then the President was killed.
But … no. I’m not accusing William Hearst of conspiring with Czolgosz (or others) to have McKinley killed. That’s not where I’m going with this, especially because I don’t want Hearst’s family to sue me for slander (even though that would be great fun and hilariously ironic).
Here’s where I’m going with this:
We live in a country where we can say and write what we want. It’s a great thing. But our words are not without consequence.
Was Czolgosz inspired by Hearst? Maybe, maybe not. But his newspapers certainly influenced the general public’s perception of McKinley. And perception can grow like a snowball, inciting anger and fear and a general sense of anxiety that is not always based in facts.
And all it takes is one person – a Czolgosz, a John Wilkes-Booth, a Lee Harvey Oswald – to turn that anger into something much worse.
And that brings me to Mr. T.
He said this two weeks ago:
Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Though the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.
Can … can you just not say that?
Yes, he backtracked, he said he never meant to imply that people should, like, get out their guns and kill Hillary Clinton. But there are crazy people who will hear those words and legitimately think about doing that.
Hearst and Trump have a lot in common.
A desire to be in politics
And Trump, like Hearst, speaks to a massive audience. But please, use some discretion. Watch your language. THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING. And please don’t incite violence, because that never ends well.
One other thing.
September 5th, Labor Day, is the 75th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release in the US.
And the day after that, September 6th, will be the 115-year anniversary of McKinley’s assassination.
The two events are hastily connected. Citizen Kane is loosely based off a guy who may or may not have inspired McKinley’s assassination.
But on those two days, let’s have a moment of silence. Not for remembrance. Not for recognition. But because sometimes it’s good to stay quiet.
Yesterday, Mark Teixeira announced his retirement after 14 seasons, the last eight with the Yankees.
I’ve gotten used to retirements by now. I used up everything I had when I saw Rivera and Jeter bow out in 2013 and 2014. And Teixeira is nowhere near the transcendent player that those guys were – he isn’t a homegrown player, he isn’t a Hall of Famer, he didn’t play on those championship teams in the late 90s and early 2000s.
But I’ve always liked Tex. And I will miss him.
I remember when the Yankees signed Teixeira on December 23rd, 2008. It was like an early Christmas gift – ’twas a cold December evening in my senior year of high school. The newswires brought good tidings, and the Yankees had their first baseman of the future. It was a massive contract – eight years, $180 million. At the time, it was the third largest contract ever signed by a player behind Jeter and A-Rod.*
*It’s now the 15th largest.
And for the first few years, he did not disappoint. In 2009, he led the American League in home runs, RBI’s, and total bases. He was #2 in the MVP voting, behind Joe Mauer. He was the #3 hitter on a team that won 103 games and the World Series. He didn’t play that well in the playoffs, but he did hit a dramatic, extra-inning walkoff home run in Game 2 of the ALDS. These were good times in Yankeeland.
On a warm May night in 2011, I saw him get absolutely mobbed behind second base after he hit a walk-off single.
The Yankees were trailing 4-3 going into the ninth. An odd series of events followed. Jorge Posada, in his final year, pinch hit for Eduardo Nunez and hit a double to right field, thanks to a misplay by the right fielder. Chris Dickerson pinch-ran for Posada. Then with two outs, Curtis Granderson hit a single into right that scored Dickerson to tie the game. Then Granderson stole second base. And then Mark Teixeira stepped up to the plate. And then this happened:
I’ll remember that night for two things. First, a great comeback win in the ninth. And second, the fan giveaway was… grass seed mix.
Tex had a weird knack for yelling obscenities after getting hit by a pitch. And, boy, did he get hit. He never stood particularly close to the plate, but somehow he was hit 36 times in his first three years as a Yankee. Like this. Owww:
And this. Owwwwwwwwww:
And sometimes he liked to yell at pitchers. Throw the ball over the plate!
Vincente Padilla hit him all the time:
Oh, Teixeira’s beef with Padilla was legendary. It went back to the early 2000s, when they were teammates in Texas. Padilla is a notoriously terrible person – he used to hit guys on purpose just because he wanted to, and then the opposing teams would retailiate, often by hitting Teixeira. Teixeira told Padilla to, like, stop hitting guys, and Padilla didn’t listen.
Tex: Padilla has no friends in the game because of his head-hunting ways.
Padilla: In this sport, as competitive ball players, we get pretty fired up. So I think, maybe, (Teixeira) picked the wrong profession. I think he’d be better off playing a women’s sport.
Hoo boy! Then Padilla accused Teixeira of having a vendetta against Latin players. Teixeira, of course, denied this:
Tex: I ask you guys to interview every one of my Latin teammates in this clubhouse right now and ask them. That’s why it is funny because it is completely erroneous. That’s a good word.
Padilla: He is always crying and complaining. If he has a base hit, he cries, if he doesn’t, he cries. I just meant that not even women complain as much as him.
Tex faced Padilla 19 times. He hit 3 homers and was hit 3 times.
They faced each other one final time in 2012, when Padilla was on the Red Sox. The Yankees were trailing 6-4 in the eighth. Tex was up as the tying run. And then this happened:
I was at that game. It. Was. Awesome. Tex milked that home run, and then some. He stared into the night and walked half way down the first line. It was the only time he ever did that.
Joe Buck’s call was perfect. Ripped! He got ’em! Tie game!
Tex was injured for most of 2013. He had a terrible, injury-plagued season in 2014. He was having a nice year in 2015 – 31 homers in 111 games – but then broke his leg and missed the rest of the season.
And now here we are in 2016, the last year of Teixeira’s contract, and the last year of his major league career. He’s having an awful year. But he’s shown glimpses of what he used to be. On Wednesday, he hit a home run and reached base four times. Last month in a game in San Diego, he hit two home runs, the second of which was his 400th career blast.
He still plays a great first base. Gold Gloves are pretty meaningless, but he’s won three as a Yankee, and he continues to be one of the best fielders in the league. I don’t know how many errors he’s saved Chase Headley by scooping up balls in the dirt that would have otherwise gone into the dugout. It’s been … a considerable amount.
He also looks a lot like Rachel Maddow:
And everyone on Twitter thinks he looks like a horse. I don’t really see it. But the tweets are hilarious.
Everyone gets old, and everyone leaves the game, sometimes with a bang, but most of the time with a whimper. Tex will be remembered as a good, solid player who may or may not have been worth the $180 million the Yankees paid him. I’ll just remember watching him play on those late, hot summer nights – his wide open stance, his weird bat waggle, his booming home runs, his frustrating groundballs into the shift, and his penchant for getting hit by pitches.
It was a good run in pinstripes, from that chilly December evening in 2008 to this frikkin hot August heat in 2016. Farewell, Marcus.
I am appalled by the amount of misinformation out there – on the economy, on crime, on investing, on baseball stats, on just about everything.
I am even more appalled by how when confronted with real, empirical stats, people don’t care. Lately I’ve heard a lot of this:
It doesn’t matter what the facts are, I don’t feel as safe as I used to.
I don’t care what the government says, the economy is worse than it was eight years ago.
I don’t care what sabermetrics say, lineup protection is really important.
Never mind that violent crime is on a decades-long trend downward.
Or that unemployment has halved, the deficit has plunged, and the stock market has tripled.
Or that I literally wrote a thesis on the myth of lineup protection.
People don’t care! None of it means anything. The other day, Jake Tapper of CNN confronted Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair, about the declining crime in this country. And here’s what Manafort said: “It doesn’t matter, people don’t feel safe.”
Sighhhhhh *takes swig of whiskey*
There are a myriad number of reasons why our feelings are different than reality. A lot of it has to do with the 24 hour news cycle. A lot of it has to do with how every bad thing is now broadcasted live, on people’s cell phones, for all the world to see, and it spreads like wildfire on social media. A lot of it has to do with political theater and fear-mongering. A lot of it has to do with the fact that everyone has a voice now. I mean, you’re reading this, aren’t you?
We are exposed to much more than we used to be. We used to live in these nice bubbles where our only source of news was the paper and the evening nightly news. Now we don’t.
I don’t doubt that people don’t feel as safe as they used to. But I was taught to question everything, to look at the data, to keep an open mind, to act pragmatically, and to call out BS when I see it. That’s what informs my feelings. I don’t care about thundering rhetoric or fear tactics or ridiculous online memes. I care about the facts. I hope you do too. I realize not everyone is a robot like me, but I expect facts to have some bearing on how you view the world.
Donald Trump is not a candidate the American people would turn to in normal times. He’s too inexperienced, too eccentric, too volatile, too risky. Voting Trump is burning down the house to collect the insurance money — you don’t do it unless things are really, really bad.
Here is Trump’s problem: Things are not really, really bad.
But people are angry nonetheless. Really angry. It’s unsettling to see this much anger when things have improved. What if things really were bad?
It can be difficult to have disagreements in real life without devolving into an angry demon monster. We don’t always have the facts at our disposal, we don’t always express our views eloquently, and if you’re in a large group it can be difficult to get a word in edgewise.
So, here is what I propose to my many thousands of readers. Let’s enter a new stage of life, where we listen to what others have to say, where we present evidence-based information if it doesn’t jibe with reality, and where we hold people accountable for spreading misleading information or outright lies. We can get there, I think, by following these five rules:
- Question everything.
- Look at the data.
- Keep an open mind.
- Be kind.
Imagine having an imaginary conversation with your Aunt Judy. She’s 67 years old, she first logged onto the internet in 2014, and her primary source of news is through email forwarding chains. Here’s a picture of her:
At a family gathering, Aunt Judy has a few too many glasses of wine and blurts out: THIS COUNTRY IS VERY UNSAFE, CRIME IS TERRIBLE, I REMEMBER WHEN I COULD LEAVE MY DOORS UNLOCKED, GIVE ME MORE WINE.
Now let’s follow the five steps.
Listen. Hear what she has to say, even it disagrees with your own opinion. Especially if it disagrees with your own opinion.
Question everything. Is this backed up by facts? Is crime actually going up?
Look at the data. There are literally an endless amount of sources that show that crime has decreased over the last several decades. It will take you five minutes to Google this.
Keep an open mind. Maybe crime is going up in certain parts of the country! Maybe gun crime is a real problem! Maybe this is a nuanced issue with many things to consider!
Be kind. Don’t yell at Aunt Judy. There is no need to get angry. Give her another glass of wine.
Aunt Judy may not change her mind, but maybe she’ll start to question her own beliefs. Maybe she’ll start to look at the facts. Maybe she’ll reconsider that third glass of wine. All of these things are small steps on the way to a more informed, a more civil, and a more intelligent society.
It is time for a new series on the blog – a deep dive into the many different cognitive biases that exist in our world. Much like my train stories segment, I expect this one to finish in about 64 years.
I’ve always had an interest in human psychology. One of the best classes I took in college was called Organisational Behaviour (I took it while abroad in Sydney, hence the spelling). OB is the study of the way people interact, particularly in groups. And by understanding how people interact, and how we make decisions, we can become more conscious of others and more aware of our own behaviors.
And part of becoming more aware of our behavior is understanding cognitive biases. These biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. They prevent us from acting objectively. They are also present in all of us. It is a deeply flawed part of the human machine.
Today I would like to talk about one of the most well-known cognitive biases: confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. It’s a fancy way of describing our human inclination to see what we want to see.
It is one of the *many* reasons why it’s so hard to have an open and intelligent conversation about politics, or the economy, or sports, or climate change, or basically everything ever. We surround ourselves in an echo chamber of agreement, through our friends and the news we watch and the social media accounts we follow. Everything is curated to agree with our own beliefs.
The problem with confirmation bias is that when we come across disconfirming evidence, we are more likely to dismiss it than critically evaluate it. The other day I was having an argument with someone about politics, which I really hate to do, but the person said something that was so blatantly wrong that I had to chime in. So, I did. I responded with a litany of data, all meticulously sourced, much of it recited by memory, because I am a robot. Didn’t matter. I got nowhere. Because when we want to believe something, we tend to only seek evidence that confirms our desired belief. We ignore the rest, even when presented with very honest facts.
The internet is a cesspool of confirmation bias. If I have a preconceived hypothesis about something – say, that Bigfoot is real – all I have to do is search for ‘Bigfoot sightings’ and I’m greeted with this:
Five hours of reading later, and I’ll be out in the street shouting HEY EVERYBODY, BIGFOOT IS REAL, OH GOD IT’S COMING FOR US and no one can convince me otherwise (to be clear, I don’t actually think Bigfoot is real).
I like to think of myself as a rational, critically thinking individual, but I am not above confirmation bias. No one is. It’s sort of hard-wired into us, part of an instinctual group mentality that has been passed down by our big dumb Australopithecus ancestors.
There are plenty of examples from my own life where my decision making, or general thoughts, were influenced by confirmation bias instead logic or reason or the truth. For example, when I was growing up, I was certain that the Yankees had the best fans in baseball, and they were revered across the country, and everyone who played on the Yankees was perfect, because that’s what I saw on TV. Every time I turned on the YES Network, I was inundated with messages about THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and TRADITION and THE POWER OF THE PINSTRIPES.
When I moved to Boston, I quickly realized that the Yankees, and their brand, are actually hated just about everywhere else in the country. It was a sobering discovery.
So, how do we get past confirmation bias? Well, according to the internet, just being aware that the bias exists is not enough (just like I know that too much ice cream is bad for me, but I DON’T CARE GIMME ICE CREAM, I WANT THE ICE CREAM). Here is what you should do:
- Open your mind. Learn how to think of a few far-our alternatives and keep an eye out for evidence that supports any one of them.
- But don’t abandon your first guesses too readily! Sometimes your initial expectation may be neither 100% right, nor 100% wrong.
- Embrace surprises when they happen to you. When you feel that something didn’t go exactly as you expected, consider that you need to refine some hypotheses about how things are working.
Confirmation bias is just one of the many cognitive biases that exist in our stupid brains, and I look forward to covering the rest of them over the next several decades.
I was recently asked by a group of loyal blog-readers for some life advice. They think I write good and think good things.
And I don’t know why, but I immediately reacted by turning into a Southern farmhand after a long day in the hot sun: Aw shucks, Daisy May! That’s mighty nice of you to say, but I’m not some big city-slicker, and I don’t really have much advice to offer. Then I returned to the field to tend to the cows.
But then I started thinking about it and, sure, here is my attempt to give some advice. And my advice can really be boiled down into two words:
When I have an idea – whether it’s a blog post, a vlog, whatever – I try to get it out there as quickly as I can. I’ve learned that the time I waste rolling an idea around in my head – imagining what-ifs, coming up with perfect reasons why and then perfect reasons why not – is counterproductive. So when I write, or create something, or make an important life decision, I don’t know exactly where it’s all going. I just start with one thing that feels right and I keep following right-feeling things and it usually turns out OK.
But a lot of times, when you try to do something for the first time, you start to think bad thoughts:
I don’t have the time or resources to do this right.
It’s very hard and I will suck at it.
I’ll get to it later.
I must be perfect at this thing — and then, and only then, can I pursue it.
The longer you wait, the more you convince yourself of how perfectly that idea could be executed.
This is called brain crack, as my friend Ze Frank says. Brain crack is bad, if it sits around in your head. You become addicted to the idea of ideas. You start to think about how good the idea will be, as opposed to thinking about how you’re actually going to get the idea into something tangible.
But no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time. And you’re almost guaranteed that the first time you do something, it won’t be very good. But someone who does something bad three times still has three times the experience.
So yeah – if you want to write, or make movies, or change careers, or do whatever, the best thing to do is…try. Even if it’s not fully fleshed out. Even if it really stinks at first. Even if you don’t get the recognition you want. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I mean, it’s good to plan. But if you’re passionate about something, you should just, like, do it.
By the way, I’m not particularly good at following this advice. But I think I’m getting better at it.
In 1998, I wrote and illustrated a five-page book called All About Cars and Trucks.
It was a national best-seller, read by millions of children across the country and later, the world. But then, some years ago, the books all went missing. No one knows what happened to them. Until … right now. I am happy to report that the investigative team at jfleishman.com recently uncovered a rare copy of the book, buried deep underground in the tombs of el-Mahalla, Egypt.
It has been re-printed here with the author’s permission:
One day a boy named Mike was born. Then 30 years later he was into trucks. 5 years later he started getting trucks and cars. Most people called him Mike Alexander. The kinds of trucks…
We meet our protagonist, Mike Alexander. I imagine Mike had many hobbies as a kid, but it took him until the age of 30 to realize that he really likes trucks.
But it wasn’t until he was 35 that he actually started buying trucks (and cars). Why did it take five years? What happened between the ages of 30 and 35?
Let’s take a moment here to look at the illustrations. They are … odd. And why is there a note that says ‘year 2000’ on top of the truck? And what is that thing in the middle of the page? How could something so hideous possibly be smiling?
It was shortly after this doctors realized the author was colorblind.
Let us read on.
…he had were Kenworth arrowcab, and old Lincoln, and Hun-v, Chevy dumptruck, and a Kenworth that was black. The size of the trucks were 200 tons. The sleeping cab in the Hun-v was as big as a station wagon’s trunk.
The book fails to mention that Mike is currently being smashed in between the Lincoln and the Hun-v*, which must be incredibly painful.
*Yes, this is meant to be Humvee, but I like Hun-V better.
Mike Alexander went a bit overboard with his purchase of cars and trucks. A Lincoln, a Hun-v, a dumptruck, and two Kenworth trucks. Why does one man need that many cars and trucks? What do you possibly need a dumptruck for?
The size of the Kenworth’s sleeping was as big as one very small car, as small as a Ford Fiesta sedan. There was also one more truck that Mike Alexander had. It was an International.
Well, why didn’t you mention this in the beginning? International’s aren’t cheap. So now Mike Alexander has six cars and trucks. I imagine this didn’t go over well with Mrs. Alexander.
Mike Alexander: Hi honey, I bought some stuff.
Mrs. Alexander: Oh God, not again…
Mike Alexander: Just a Lincoln, a Hun-V, a dumptruck, and two Kenworths…
Mrs. Alexander: What, why…
*five hours later*
Mike Alexander: Oh, I also bought an International.
Mrs. Alexander: I want a divorce.
The sleeping cab was as big as a Saab 9-5 or a Saab 9-3 1999. The Saab 9-5 have side airbags and go up to about 150 miles. The trucks go up to 70-75 miles an hour.
OK, I swear that’s a car on the right and not some severely deformed male nether-parts.
And as far as I know, Mike doesn’t own a Saab 9-5, so why do we need to know that it has side airbags and goes up to 150 mph?
And wait, are those supposed to be birds in the sky?
Time for the big finish:
The Saab 9-3 goes up to about 150 miles. My dad’s 1988 Saab goes up to 175 miles. My dad’s 1988 Saab has 100,000 miles on it. My grandpa’s Mercury Grand Marquis has 5,500 miles on it. Three years later Mike Alexander died. The end.
Wait, WHAT! No! You can’t end the story like that!
My seven year old self was not kind to the characters he created. My stories often ended in terrible, unspeakable tragedies. They also ended with more questions than answers, leaving the door open to sequels and trilogies and epic series that were, sadly, never written.
The story-telling on this last page gets very complicated, as the narrator breaks the fourth wall and address the reader directly. For a moment, we forget about Mike and focus on the narrator’s family. His dad has a 1988 Saab with 100,000 miles on it. It goes up to 175 mph. His grandfather has a Mercury with 5,500 miles on it. It’s an odd interlude with absolutely no connection to the larger story at hand.
But then, the narrator brings us back, harshly. Mike Alexander is dead. He was 38.
Rest in peace, Mike.
This is a story about perhaps the most overlooked guy in the history of the world, a guy who prevented millions of deaths, a guy who prevented a third World War, a guy who prevented perhaps the worst catastrophe of our time. All because of one decision.
His name is Stanislav Petrov.
This is a story about the 1983 Soviet nuclear bomb incident.
On September 25, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was sitting at the Soviet command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system, a top secret command station in the dense forests south of Moscow. The system was designed to alert the Soviet military if a missile had been launched from the United States. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.
So, yeah, he was an important guy. If Petrov alerted his superiors of an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was to launch an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States.
Shortly after midnight, the alarm went off .
The bunker’s computers reported that the United Stated had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the Soviet Union. Petrov, amazingly, didn’t panic, and decided that it must be a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the US was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missiles in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Petrov did not alert his superiors, then went back to hangin’ out in the Oko bunker.
Then, the computers identified four additional missiles. A loud klaxon horn began wailing.
Before we continue with the story – it’s important to note that Soviet generals were all generally paranoid and crazy and prone to act, even with insufficient evidence. Just three weeks before, the Soviets had shot down a Korean jet liner with 269 passengers on board, including a US Congressman and 60 other Americans, because they suspected it was a spy plane (it wasn’t). This pushed East-West tensions to their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It prompted Ronald Reagan to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Fun times.
And now back to the story. Petrov suspected it was still a computer error, so he asked his colleagues for visual confirmation. But it was late at night, and the atmosphere was cloudy, and the missiles were still beyond the horizon, and hilariously, his colleagues were drunk (“it can wait till tomorrow morning,” one of them said). They couldn’t confirm the attack.
Let me ask you, have you ever had to make a really big decision in a short amount of time? It’s the most stressful thing, ever. Like, ordering at a restaurant when the waiter is staring at you. Or deciding if you need to get off this exit, or maybe it’s the next one. Or choosing what shirt to buy at a store. Sometimes I am utterly incapable of making a decision, but I make one anyway, and I talk to my gut, and I hope it turns out OK.
But your gut is not a good way to make a decision when nuclear war is at stake. So with insufficient evidence, and a loud horn blaring in his ear, and a computer saying OMG THERE ARE FIVE NUCLEAR MISSILES HEADING OUR WAY, Petrov had to do one of the following:
DECISION 1: Alert your superiors and begin to launch a counter-strike. (Pros: you defend the homeland, prevent thousands of your people from dying. Cons: If it’s a false alarm, you’ve started World War III.)
DECISION 2: Do nothing and hope it’s a false alarm. (Pros: You’ve prevented a nuclear attack on the US and saved countless American lives. Cons: If you’re wrong, you’ve neglected to alert your superiors of a nuclear attack, which, um, will not go over well.)
One other thing – if in doubt, soldiers in Oko were trained to rely on the computer rather than their own instincts. And not only was the computer monitor flashing the warning signal, but it insisted that the strikes were confirmed at the highest level.
Petrov went with his instinct and did nothing.
And then, with sweaty palms, he waited.
As you probably remember, the United States did not start World War III in 1983. Petrov was right. It was indeed a false alarm, caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds had confused the satellites feeding the computer information.
His colleagues gathered round to celebrate the best decision any human has ever made. And then – I swear this is true – Petrov drank half a litre of vodka, slept for 28 hours, and went back to work, where his grateful comrades bought him a Russian-made portable TV as a reward.
There is no guarantee that a different decision would have led to nuclear war. Stanislav himself couldn’t have ordered a counter-attack, it was up to his superiors based on information he provided. But Stanislav (who is still alive!) says that the Soviet army did not have a culture that encouraged differences of opinion (this is not suprising). If he had confirmed the attack, nobody was going to contradict him. “All our military forces would be brought into combat readiness, with more than 11,000 missiles… complete overkill,” he says. “Nobody will correct me, they will all agree with me. It’s easy to agree, but I will be the only one responsible.”
This story was top secret until 1998. Petrov’s wife didn’t even know about it.
“All that happened didn’t matter to me. It was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.'”