Is It Luck? and Other News


On the Shelf

Albert Guillaume, Au Bac, 1898.


  • Americans are a lottery-playing people, a day-trading people, a people who in the summer of 2013 sent a song called “Get Lucky” soaring to the top of the charts. And yet we’re famously predisposed to underestimate the role of luck in our lives—as anyone who recalls Obama’s “you didn’t build that” brouhaha will know. We walk around in a dumb haze of self-determinism. In a new interview, the economist Robert H. Frank offers a useful corrective to those who would argue that success is merely the result of hard work: “I prefer just to look at how people naturally construct their life histories. We assemble narratives about ourselves routinely and the elements that go into those are the things that we can retrieve most comfortably from memory … When you’re riding a bike into a headwind you’re keenly aware of that. Every 100 yards you travel, you wish that wind would go away. You’re battling against it, it’s at the front of your mind. Then the course changes direction; you’ve got the wind at your back. What a great feeling that is for about twenty seconds, and then it’s completely out of your mind. You’re not even aware that the wind is at your back. You’re not having to battle any enemies in that sense and so it’s out of your mind. So when you think back to your career, what do you remember? You remember the headwinds you faced. You don’t remember all the tailwinds that were pushing you along. So there’s just these natural asymmetries that lead people to either ignore the role of luck entirely or overstate it to a considerable degree.”

  • James Gleick looks back at the career of Hugo Gernsback, who published a series of pulp magazines in the 1920s that literally gave science fiction its name: “He declared, and believed, that science fiction would be the true literature of the future. For him, imagination and prophecy were one and the same. If he could imagine a future of marvels and wonders, they were sure to arrive sooner or later. He broadcast his visions on WRNY, and the New York Times considered him an authority. ‘Science will find ways to transmit tons of coal by radio, facilitate foot traffic by electrically-propelled roller skates, save electric current by cold light and grow and harvest crops electrically, according to a forecast of the next fifty years made by Hugo Gernsback,’ the paper reported in 1926. ‘We may soon expect fantastic towers piercing the sky and giving off weird purple glows when energized.’ Antigravity. Floating cities. Flying men with power rays. He promised all these in the pages of Science and Invention.”
  • Advice for artists from Ralph Steadman, who says, Fuck it, skip the pencil, skip the drafts, just take out the heavy artillery and see what happens on the page: “People used to say, ‘Don’t you make a mistake?’ But there’s no such thing as a mistake, only an opportunity to do something else, change, adapt it as you go along. I’ve just been doing a drawing of Willie Nelson for someone, and I was showing it to someone and the ink was still wet, and it dribbled down the drawing. But it’s okay: I’ll pull it round somehow. I don’t like the second guess. I like taking the bull by the horns and going with it. Straight in there. Things happen, accidents happen, interesting things happen when you start drawing straight away into the white surface. One thing I love doing is slapping paint straight away on to a brand new piece of paper. There’s a great joy in that. Taking it from there. A lot of that goes on in the drawings. I’m not very fond of pencil.”
  • In which Inigo Thomas introduces a British audience to Ann Coulter, whose inflammatory blend of bigotry, punditry, and F-list comedy routines Americans know all too well: “ ‘What pisses me off is when they don’t get the punch line,’ Coulter has said of her audiences. The reactionary tone of so much American political humor is a strangely neglected subject: it’s become axiomatic that if you want to see your opponent trashed then you set out to see them laughed at, and that if you’re going to be a tribune of the people you’d better have the viciousness of the stand-up comedian. Coulter knows that … I was for a time Coulter’s editor at George magazine in the late 1990s, although attempts at editing were met with suspicions you were trying to censor her. Somewhere in my files I have a sheet of thumbnail photos of Coulter posing with a pistol.”