Saturday, May 25, 2013

Survivorship Bias by David McRaney

The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.
The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
In New York City, in an apartment a few streets away from the center of Harlem, above trees reaching out over sidewalks and dogs pulling at leashes and conversations cut short to avoid parking tickets, a group of professional thinkers once gathered and completed equations that would both snuff and spare several hundred thousand human lives.

People walking by the apartment at the time had no idea that four stories above them some of the most important work in applied mathematics was tilting the scales of a global conflict as secret agents of the United States armed forces, arithmetical soldiers, engaged in statistical combat. Nor could people today know as they open umbrellas and twist heels on cigarettes, that nearby, in an apartment overlooking Morningside Heights, one of these soldiers once effortlessly prevented the United States military from doing something incredibly stupid, something that could have changed the flags now flying in capitals around the world had he not caught it, something you do every day.

These masters of math moved their families across the country, some across an ocean, so they could work together. As they unpacked, the theaters in their new hometown replaced posters for Citizen Kane with those for Casablanca, and the newspapers they unwrapped from photo frames and plates featured stories still unravelling the events at Pearl Harbor. Many still held positions at universities. Others left those sorts of jobs to think deeply in one of the many groups that worked for the armed forces, free of any other obligations aside from checking in on their families at night and feeding their brains during the day. All paused their careers and rushed to enlist so that they help to crush Hitler, not with guns and brawn, but with integers and exponents.

The official name for the people inside the apartment was the Statistical Research Group, a cabal of geniuses assembled at the request of the White House and made up of people who would go on to compete for and win Nobel Prizes. The SRG was an extension of Columbia University, and they dealt mainly with statistical analysis. Other groups with different specialities were tied to Harvard, Princeton, Brown and others, 11 in all, each a leaf at the end of a new branch of the government created to help defeat the Axis – the Department of War Math.

Actually…no. They were never officially known by such a deliciously sexy title. They were instead called the Applied Mathematics Panel, but they operated as if they were a department of war math.
The Department, ahem, the Panel, was created because the United States needed help. A surge of new technology had flooded into daily life, and the same wonders that years earlier drove ticket sales to the World’s Fair were now cracking open cities. Numbers and variables now massed into scenarios far too complex to solve with maps and binoculars. The military realized it faced problems that no soldier had ever confronted. No best practices yet existed for things like rockets and radar stations and aircraft carriers. The most advanced computational devices available were clunky experiments made of telephone switches or vacuum tubes. A calculator still looked like the mutant child of an old-fashioned cash register and a mechanical typewriter. If you wanted solutions to the newly unfathomable problems of modern combat you needed powerful number crunchers, and in 1941 the world’s most powerful number crunchers ran on toast and coffee and wore ties to breakfast.
Here is how it worked:  READ MORE