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January 2009

Book review of The Numbers Game

I'd heard the ones about cancer before, but I hadn't heard this:

Asked in an experiment to guess how many abortions occur in the US for every million live births, students gave a wide range of answers. At the middle of the range was an estimate of 5,000. That figure is so far from the correct answer - 335,000 - that, in the words of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, it is "not even wrong."

But I used to give a quiz to one of my classes with similar questions. For example: how many battle deaths did the U.S. suffer in the Vietnam War?

I had quite a few college students--I forget the exact percentage, but I think it was 20 percent or so--answer more than 500,000. 

And they each had exactly as many votes as I do.

"The Most Remote Place on Earth"

Tristan da Cunha:

The island is so small that cartographers can't even put it on their maps (not enough resolution). Located in the South Atlantic between Africa and South America, this volcanic outcropping has the honor of being the remotest inhabited island on the planet, and that's including Antarctica and the North Pole. One of the islands in the archipelago is called "Inaccessible", which only seems appropriate, together with their motto: "Our faith is our strength."

"Ken Lewis, Failure"

I think labeling Mr. Lewis a failure is premature. But his reputation as a business genius has taken a big hit. (A Wall Street Journal columnist adds details.)

My wife and I used to have a little Bank of America stock. But after he bought Merrill, he started talking about how big Bank of America now was and how cool it was that they were so really, really big.  It sounded like the locker room talk of high school boys.

So I sold our BAC on September 26. At $35.40/share. I'm no business genius, but that's looking like a pretty good move.