The Better Letter: The Tuned Deck

Life isn't tuned, but simplicity can keep it from being too dissonant.

We all “need room to be wrong sometimes.” But there are limits.

In August of 2010, a 40-year-old man identified only as “Mr. Lee” missed an elevator at a shopping center in Daejon, South Korea when the doors closed on him a moment too soon. Angered, Mr. Lee backed up his motorized wheelchair and bashed into the elevator doors. Unsatisfied at merely denting the object of his rage, he backed up and acted as a human battering ram again. He “succeeded” this time, crashing through the doors and plunging to his death. Not surprisingly, shopping center officials vowed to strengthen the doors of their elevators in order to protect future morons.

WARNING: The following is real security camera footage and is truly horrible.

If you’re like most people, you probably aren’t sure whether to laugh at Mr. Lee’s stupidity or despair at the extent, depth, and consequences of human folly. While few are as horrifying as this one, thankfully, it isn’t hard to find myriad examples of poor decision-making among the ranks of humankind. We all make many such mistakes, even though we may not remove ourselves from the gene pool for having done so.

We are all shockingly prone to bad ideas, ideas that escalate to terrible decisions, and then metastasize into actions that undermine, damage, ruin, or even end our lives. We’d all like to think that we’re a lot better off than Mr. Lee, and we probably are, but vanishingly few of us have a consistently good track record of decision-making and none of us is as good as we think we are. Even when we’re on the straight and narrow path to success, we are prone to wander

None of us is unbroken, unscathed, or unhurt. The idea that we act in our own rational self-interest with any degree of regularity is, quite obviously, ludicrous, and is falsified every single day by our choices and our lives. 

We can’t seem to help it.

Without comment, my late father put a sign up in my childhood bedroom that (probably wrongly) quoted an imploring Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

This week’s TBL focuses on one practical way to try to be a bit less foolish.

We are inherently biased toward complexity. We see complexity when simple has much greater explanatory power and we see complex order where chaos reigns. We associate complexity with expertise, innovation, and authority. Complex problems create environments where we are more susceptible to creative interpretation, social pressure, and incentives.

Simpler is better.

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The Tuned Deck

For many years, the famous card sharp Ralph Hull – from Crooksville, Ohio, no less – bewildered even professional magicians with a trick he called “The Tuned Deck.” He claimed that his standard, 52-card deck was magically tuned so that he could hear which card had been selected by a volunteer asked to “pick a card, any card.” No matter how many times Hull did the trick, even for expert audiences, nobody figured it out. The problem was that everyone was expecting and looking for something too complex.

Hull’s audience was expecting a singular and complex trick. Instead, Hull would start by doing a relatively simple and common card presentation trick (call it a Type A trick, perhaps a false cut). His professional audience would recognize that possibility and seek to test it and thus asked Hull to do it again. He would, but this time he’d do a Type B – but still common – card presentation trick (perhaps a palm), making it obvious he wasn’t using a false cut. The experts would recognize it wasn’t Type A and would consider Type B. They would test that hypothesis on the next viewing but, this time, Hull would use a Type C trick while making it clear he wasn’t palming. And so it would go for as many kinds of tricks as Hull knew before he would circle back around again, always an hour ahead of the posse, because the experts thought they had already ruled out the earlier types of tricks.

Hull’s expert audiences were fooled into thinking they were seeing a singular but complex (and heretofore unknown) trick. Notice that the trick was called “The Tuned Deck.” Instead, they got a series of simple tricks but in relatively random order. They were expecting uniformity and complexity. They wanted complexity. They wanted new and different. What they got was repeated but adaptive simplicity.

Of course, the right answer really was simple. But, like Occam’s Razor, it wasn’t simplistic. The trick was set up beautifully and the multiple but simple (to the initiated) tricks were rolled out in no particular order so as to confuse the experts (a typical audience would have been fooled by constant repetitions of Type A tricks). Per Einstein (perhaps), the trick was as simple as it could be but no simpler.

That qualifier is significant because, in a fascinating paradox, we also love the simplistic as well as the complex. We want sure-thing formulae. We want black-and-white. We don’t want the hassle of fine distinctions and careful analysis. We want to think that we can tune life.

For example (using one from my day job), markets are binary. They can only move up or down. That makes it seem as though figuring them out ought to be simple. We even talk that way. The market rallied today due to positive earnings releases. But markets are actually moved by the interrelationships of an infinite number of variables. We tend to want to focus on one big thing – e.g., the Fed, trading sentiment, or the political landscape – and to concoct if/then scenarios in response. We want a tuned market.

Unfortunately, markets (like life) are anything but tuned. They exhibit the kinds of behaviors that might be predicted by chaos theory — dynamic, non-linear, sensitive to initial conditions. Even a tiny difference in initial conditions or an infinitesimal change to current, seemingly stable conditions, can result in monumentally different outcomes. Thus, markets respond like systems ordered along the lines of self-organizing criticality – unstable, fragile, and largely unpredictable – at the border of stability and chaos.  

Our world is infinitely complex. We are, too. That’s why we cannot predict, tame, or control the future. Therefore, an overly simplistic analysis – guided perhaps by a singular variable – is a recipe for disaster. Complex solutions don’t offer more but cost a lot more. The best we can hope for is to create and test an appropriately probabilistic outlook, recognize its limitations, and act accordingly.

Leonardo da Vinci didn’t say it, but simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Unfortunately, doing so is far easier said than done. Our inherent biases and perceptual difficulties make our success rates all too low. Our lack of sufficient knowledge (we can’t begin to know all the relevant information) can doom us from the start. And (per Mark Twain – perhaps) what we think we know that just ain’t so makes matters far worse.

Keeping things simple is not as simple as it seems. We are not natural simplifiers. Instead, are hard-wired to look to add to existing systems rather than subtract to a simpler solution, even when (usually “though”) simpler is better. More complex things break more often, in more ways, and are more prone to error.

Making good decisions consistently is immensely difficult. We should resist complexity for its own sake. A deck of cards can’t be tuned. Neither can markets or life, boisterous cacophonies of competing forces and interests. If we are to succeed, we need to keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (probably) said: “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that, I would give you anything I have.”

Life done that way won’t be tuned. But it doesn’t have to be too dissonant, either. And that’s a pretty good start.

Totally Worth It

Pew Research has done an in-depth report on Twitter. Were Twitter a state, it would be the most progressive state in the nation, further left than Hawaii or Vermont. If it were a congressional district, it’d be the most Democratic congressional district in the country – more Democratic than the upper east side of New York City.

Some Americans are making an effort to break free of their echo chambers (including Twitter), actively seeking out multiple perspectives on any given issue. Matt Fuchs wrote about this trend in Wired: “The majority of US adults say one-sided information on social media is a major problem, though many might mean only information that counters their own beliefs,” Fuchs reported. “Visitors to sites like AllSides seek out views at odds with their own; they enjoy discussing political differences more than the fleeting satisfaction of tribal disputes on Facebook. Some are troubled by how their friend circles and social media followers mirror their own beliefs. A few… are looking to understand friends or acquaintances with differing political stances.”

Andy Smarick takes on the “take it seriously, not literally” line of defense in his latest for National Affairs. “Most people who care about American public life would admit that our political rhetoric is in a bad way. We seem to no longer understand the role veracity should play in the public sphere,” he argued. The “seriously, not literally” phenomenon, he asserts, is a key reason why. It “rests on the idea that there exists a difference between fact and gist—that we can advance the latter without obsessing about the former. … Do we look past the factual inaccuracies in the 1619 Project and just take seriously its overarching point about centuries of American racism? Do we ignore the false claims undergirding the Trump campaign’s election lawsuits and just take seriously their primary claim that institutional forces sought to undermine his presidency? Do we discount the lack of evidence for an accusation of sexual assault and simply take seriously the underlying point about sexism, abuse, and privilege?”

This is the best thing I saw or read this week. The most important. The most encouraging. The most interesting (with this). The most impressive. The most sensible. The coolest. The most unusual. The most instructive. The most astonishing. The most wrong (but mostly in a good way). The luckiest. The loveliest. The loneliest. The saddest. The savviest. The sweetest. Among the more vexing. Also among the more vexing. The most sobering. The most embarrassing. The pettiest. The most harrowingWow. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” was released 50 years ago this week.

Please contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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“Young white men from single-parent families … are more likely to end up in prison than young Black men from intact, two-parent homes,” ~ Ian Rowe and Brad Wilcox.

The following is both the most delightful and most disheartening thing I saw this week.

The sweetest cognitive bias: People overestimate their own IQ by 30 points (!), but overestimate their romantic partner’s IQ by 40. The study also finds there’s no correlation between “intellectual compatibility” and relationship satisfaction; i.e., you’re not more likely to have a happy relationship if your partner has a similar IQ to you.


Celtic Worship has a new mash-up of “Amazing Grace” and “He is Lord.” It is this week’s benediction. 

Thanks for reading.

Issue 68 (June 25, 2021)