Some people are so easy to contact and some people aren’t.

I was reading Cowboys Full, James McManus’s entertaining history of poker (but way too much on the so-called World Series of Poker), and I skimmed the index to look up some of my favorite poker writers. Frank Wallace and David Spanier were both there but only got brief mentions in the text, I was disappointed to see. I guess McManus and I have different taste. Fair enough. I also looked up Patrick Marber, author of the wonderful poker-themed play, Dealer’s Choice. Marber was not in the index.

And this brings be to the subject of today’s post. Anyone who wants can reach me by email or even call me on the phone. That’s how it is with college teachers: we’re accessible, that’s part of our job. But authors, not so much. Even authors much more obscure than James McManus typically don’t make themselves easy to contact. Maybe they don’t want to be bothered, maybe it’s just tradition, I dunno. But I think they’re missing out. McManus does seem to have a twitter account, but that doesn’t work for me. I just want to send the guy an email.

People can, of course, duck emails. I tried a couple times to contact Paul Gertler about the effect of the statistical significance filter on his claimed effects of early childhood intervention, and I have it on good authority that he received my email but just chose not to respond, I assume feeling that his life would simpler if he were not to have to worry about that particular statistical bias. And of course famous people have to guard their time, so I usually don’t get responses from the likes of Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, or Nate Silver. (That last one is particularly ironic given that people are always asking me for Nate’s email. I typically give them the email but warn them that Nate might not respond.)

Anyway, I have no problem at all with famous people not returning my emails—if they responded to all the emails they received from statistics professors, they’d probably have no time for anything else, and they’d be reduced to a Stallman-esque existence.

And, while I disapprove of the likes of Gertler not responding to emails of mine making critical comments on their work, hey, that’s his choice: if he doesn’t want to improve his statistics, there’s nothing much I can do about it.

But it’s too bad it’s not so easy to directly reach people like James McManus, or Thomas Mallon, or George Pelacanos. I think they’d be interested in the stories I would share with them.

P.S. In his book, McManus does go overboard in a few places, including his idealization of Barack Obama (all too consistent with the publication date of 2009) and this bit of sub-Nicholas-Wade theorizing:

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Aahhhh, so that’s what it was like back in the old days! Good that we have an old-timer like James McManus to remember it for us.

But that’s just a minor issue. Overall, I like the book. All of us are products of our times, so it’s no big deal if a book has a few false notes like this.

18 thoughts on “Some people are so easy to contact and some people aren’t.

  1. Would you care to elaborate on why this particular snippet (“theorizing”) is somehow a “false note”? For me a lot of current human behaviour can be and has been traced back using this type of evolutionary argument.

    Have I missed something? This makes sense to me.

    • Felipe: there is a lot of criticism of this kind of evolutionary psychologizing around, if you care to look. A superb dissection of evolutionary psychology (EP) can be found in David J. Buller’s book “Adapting minds”.

      In short: it is already hard to confirm an adaptive history for a trait, when it is physical. But it’s a formidable challenge to confirm adaptive hypotheses for mental traits, as EP tries to do. The reason is basically that we don’t have any good historical evidence. We don’t really know much about how our ancestors lived, how they behaved and what they thought. These activities leave no traces. But without solid historical evidence, a particular adaptive history is hard to corroborate.

      Fans of EP reasoning seem to think there’s some kind of evolutionary logic leading to valid conclusions about adapted traits even in the absence of good historical evidence, but that’s a mistake. Evolution is a historical process, based on all sorts of contingencies, not a logical progression of events according to known rules. Sure, we know the basic ingredients (heritable variation in fitness), but by themselves, these do not pin down any particular adaptive sequence.

      Unfortunately, it is extremely easy to come up with EP-style hypotheses, and indeed facile evolutionary explanations of all manner of traits abound. The kind of loose reasoning McManus displays has become a sport that everybody can participate in. It’s fun, but it’s not science.

      • +1

        One of many factors leading to specious arguments such as those common in EP is the common characterization of evolution as “survival of the fittest.” I think it’s more accurate to think of evolution as “survival of those fit enough to have survived under the circumstances in which they have so far found themselves.”

        • Your comment makes me think that the term “fittest” feeds into the optimality thinking that is also common: evolution crafts optimal solutions. We tend to think of a positive gradient from absolute to comparative to superlative (Wiki defines the superlative as “the greatest degree of a given descriptor”), so the fittest must surely be pretty damn fit. But in fact, the fittest will often not be particularly fit, just the best of a bunch of miserable “solutions”.

  2. Andrew, it’s funny you mention the folks you don’t count on hearing a response from. A friend and I were reflecting a few weeks ago on your occasional correspondence with Steven Pinker and we were speculating on the highest level of “famous person” someone with your level of fame as a public intellectual could get a reply from. If you are comfortable sharing, who is the biggest name you’ve ever gotten a reply from, and who’s the biggest name you can expect more-or-less to consistently get replies from? Or, if you’re not comfortable sharing that specific of info: what’s the highest level of fame you’ve ever gotten a reply from (e.g., member of President’s cabinet?) and what’s the highest level you consistently get replies from (e.g., other public intellectuals)?

    • Alex:

      I’m not quite sure how to define “highest level of fame.” I had an unpleasant exchange with David Brooks once; does he count as a public intellectual? I’ve never interacted with a cabinet officer.

      Generally I’ve found that other university professors will respond to emails. The only exceptions I can think of are Krugman (who’s maybe responded to something like 30% of my emails to him, with the last one over 5 yrs ago, I think; but he must get soooo many emails that I’m actually happy that he has the sense not to respond to mine!) and Gertler (the economist mentioned above who didn’t seem to be interested in my statistical suggestions). In general, I’ll get responses from professors. Then again, there aren’t really very many famous professors. There’s Dr. Oz, and Paul Krugman, and . . . ummm, that’s about it! I don’t think John Yoo and Niall Ferguson are famous anymore.

      • My experience has been that very few university professors respond to emails in which I point out problems with a statistical analysis. So I pretty much quit sending them.

        • By way of contrast, once many years ago (before email) I wrote to a University of Chicago math professor (whom I knew from being a graduate student in that department) pointing out an error in a book he had written. I got a prompt reply that started, “Oh, is my face red!”

      • Penrose! You have a personal letter from Roger Penrose!

        On the “fame” scale he is below Krugman and Pinker, but his product of (fame x awesomeness) is higher than either. Although Krugman does have that Nobel.

        • Also I got an email replies from Jenny Diski and J. Robert Lennon (on separate, unrelated occasions). Neither of these people is particularly famous but both are real writers, so I thought it was pretty cool that they’d respond to an email from an unknown person.

  3. > McManus does seem to have a twitter account, but that doesn’t work for me. I just want to send the guy an email.
    > But it’s too bad it’s not so easy to directly reach people like James McManus

    Unless he doesn’t respond on twitter, it’s not really fair to include McManus amgonst those that are hard to contact. Twitter is making it easier than ever to contact public figures.

  4. This is another evolution just so story. We are the “dominant” species because we are and have from day one been the meanest son of a bitch in the valley. We didn’t develop into that, we were born that way. We didn’t begin as Eloi and then trained up to to have a useful bit of Morlock. It may be that the meanest of the mean or the smartest of the smart got the fairest of the fair, but nobody got meaner or smarter just because his daddy had game. We’ve pretty much always had the whole package: thumbs, reasoning, language, altruism, savagery, xenophobia, all of it. We contain multitudes and always have.

  5. Ah, James McManus. Now that is a man who takes the mythology of poker far, far too seriously. It may be too old to find now, but video of him yelling “You’re disrespecting the game!” at the then-homeless Ellix Powers at an early 2000s WSOP final table is pure comedy gold.

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