Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Family Line

For my father and mother.

We are all part of the family line.
Stretching far into the past.
Whatever I am they were.
Whatever they dreamt, I can be.

We don't know who came before.
We can't remember their names.
But what they were stirs inside
those of us who remain.

Fathers begetting sons marrying daughters becoming fathers.
Mothers begetting daughters marrying sons becoming mothers.
Over and over, again and again.
It's the family line. The eternal family line.

I can't imagine life without my mother and father,
for they gave me life and my brother.
Anything admirable I am was founded on them.
In anything praiseworthy they had a hand.

All that I am, all that I'll be comes from the Family Line.
From my father and his father and his father too,
to my mother and her mother and her mother who
held tightly to their dreams, tightly to the family line.

I'll always be grateful for how I was made
Loved by people who gave -
gave me their heart, gave me their soul
so that I could know the family line.

Fathers begetting sons marrying daughters becoming fathers.
Mothers begetting daughters marrying sons becoming mothers.
Over and over, again and again.
It's the family line. The eternal family line.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Get me to a Nunnery.

I was the last person on a full Southwest Airlines flight from San Antonio to St. Louis so I wasn't very optimistic about my choice of seats. My usual fate for habitual lateness was to be wedged between Mr. Big 'n Sweaty and the strange little dude that keeps muttering to himself while looking at what he has in his bag and peering up and down the aisle.  It's not that I'm necessarily opposed to thwarting terrorism per se, it's more that I would prefer the nut job be seated next to someone who has a greater need to be a hero than I because I find staring at a person so that I can intervene when he starts his detonation sequence to be tedious. I've also found from personal experience that sometimes what looks like a terrorist setting out on his date with destiny is actually just some weirdo fiddling with his fuse.  But little did I know that day something much more heroic would be required of me than simply separating some simpleton from the Semtex.  As I peered into the cabin knowing smirks and chuckles filled me with foreboding.  And then I saw it:  the tell tale gap that signified an empty seat or small child. Bracketed by two...nuns...in full habit (damn! no child), including that head thingy that the radiation poisoned humans wore in that really bad Planet of the Apes sequel.  A wimple? Yeah, that's it: wimples.

These Wimplestiltskins instantly locked on me with expressions that had successfully seen off every single boarding passenger, including the legally blind ones.  If I have a soul they definitely peered into it to verify its serial number and see if I had any recall notices.  And in clearly inappropriate behavior for women who had taken vows of poverty not to mention chastity, they were sprawled all over the window and aisle seats, leaving about six inches of middle seat open.  So, resigned to my fate, I grimaced a hello and wedged my frame in the inter-wimple space.  As I did so their staring, begrinned heads swiveled with me like searchlights tracking a crippled B-17 over Berlin.

And then it got really weird. Because these two 50 to 70 somethings (the wimple really does wimple away the years, ladies!) were in full party mode.  Apparently they were part of a fairly but not completely 'cloistered' nunnery - which as I understand it is a nunnery where none of the nuns are known outside the nunnery because the nuns don't do non nunnery things with non nuns.  And they had been sent by the Head Nun to go to some sort of nun convention. And like convention goers everywhere these girls - I say girls because their demeanor was wholly girlish - were behaving with the enthusiasm of sailors on East Indies shore leave.  They were on the nunnish equivalent of a toot - a bender - this was their "Porky's" moment.  And as it turned out I was to be their amanu...amaneu...amanuiens...I was going to be the guy they were going to toot with - in other words, their tooter.

"Well my, aren't you a handsome young man", said the big one, which was a lie in all its particulars but recognizing that my role in this shore leave scenario was that of the Subic Bay barmaid with a heart of gold, I played right along "well I'd have to be to sit between you gals". After we had dispensed with biography and the most impressive bevy of sincerely insincere compliments exchanged between nuns and backsliding Presbyterians since the Peace of Westphalia the drink lady came along.  My normal response to stressful flying neighbors (unless they're looking 'bombish') is to hand the stewardess, oops, I mean flight attendant, oops I mean Mistress [insert name here] Provider of Libation and Distributor of Pain a full book of the drink coupons that Southwest uses to sedate excessive fliers like me and tell her to "keep 'em coming".  As I was handing over the book I spied the ladies of the cloth looking expectantly so quickly called an audible "and whatever these young ladies would like as well".  "Bourbon, neat" shot the alpha nun without a moment's hesitation while her smaller sidekick held up two fingers in an expression known the world over to mean "oh hell yes". For a moment Mistress Annabelle (for that was our Flight Dom's name) looked at us uncertainly, her smile wavering - as if to say "there is something quite wrong with this picture" that she couldn't quite put her finger on but that someone, somewhere had warned her about - but she shook it off, lashed us with a couple strops of her whip and moved to the next row of flying gimps.

Which kicked off one of he most fascinating two hours in my life.  Their tongues loosened by liquor, the nuns gave me the lowdown on convent life, regaling me with tales of skulduggery and intrigue that could be profitably used by a Game of Thrones writer.  It made me a little bit ashamed that despite at the time being a partner in the Big 'n Greedy consulting firm I couldn't match their Machiavellian tales - although I suppose Machiavelli, the Medici's and the Borgia's were Catholic so it's not surprising that their full time team has a leg up in that department.  We then proceeded to their apparently inexhaustible collection of jokes.  I gamely tried to match their prodigious output joke for joke but I think all those years spent on their knees 'praying' had given them a significant competitive edge.  Eventually I simply sat back and let it all wash over me, secure in my role as audience and drink purveyor.  I honestly don't believe that we stopped talking and joking and laughing the entire time.

At one point when the Alpha Nun stopped to catch her breath the little Beta Nun leaned over and whispered conspiratorially "you know you're not the first man to buy me a drink" to which I (with uncharacteristic aplomb) replied "well how about the first to buy you two?" while waving my drink book and calling for another round.  I suppose if I were Catholic that little maneuver would have bought me an extra million laps or push ups in Purgatory but since I'm what they call a "Reformed" Christian (albeit one still needing quite a bit of additional reformation) I am convinced that "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate" which in my admittedly eccentric reading of scripture means my little nun "tootilage" was in fact all God's idea. After all, they were His nuns.

But Roman or Reformed, in Purgatory or Predestined I don't think I've ever laughed more.  Nuns are cool.




Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Why it's hard to reform Harvard Trained Economists or Crack Whores - The Case for Epistemological Modesty

Something I wrote back in 2014.

Okay I'll admit that writing a piece on epistemological modesty demonstrates a certain lack of.....epistemological modesty. But Emodesty (oh please God, don't make me write epistemological again) is an essential ingredient in any constitutional republic or indeed any well functioning society.

So what is Emodesty you ask? It's the recognition that we fallible human beings know rather less than we think we do. There is a natural tendency to explain things that happen in causal "just so" terms: that glass full of vodka smashed on the floor because you were smashed on your feet. You see: cause and effect. Yet that example is flawed: the glass didn't smash just because of your BAC level was north of .3, it smashed because of a whole expanding tree of causality: the glass was glass, the temperature was south of 1500C so the glass was brittle rather than molten, the glass was held in your hand at a height sufficient to gain breakage velocity, the floor was tile rather than rubber, your hands were slippery from the soap you failed to rinse off and so when your smashed mind caused your normally modest gesticulation to explode into a grandiose gesture the friction between your fingers, the soap on your fingers and the condensation on the glass and the glass fell below some critical level that some poindexter could explain but I can't, leading the glass to first go up and then because of the Earth's gravity come flying back down above critical smashage velocity whereupon you were sent home in a cab to sleep it off. See what I mean? It was the damned floor, not six vodka tonics that caused your girlfriend to break up with you.

And I haven't even gotten to the most important reason we need Emodesty: human agency. When you throw humans into a causal tree - when they're part of the sordid "just so" story, so to speak - their dynamic responses to changes in their environment make prediction vastly more difficult.

This is why we have gotten pretty good at predicting tomorrow's weather but can't predict whether the stock market will go up in the next minute, hour or day much less what your date is going to do if you 'accidentally' touch her boob. Natural systems lack any sentient control or feedback loop (well, except when God wants to smite someone) and therefore in theory with enough information and processing power the causal, deterministic tree can be mapped forward from a known state with some level of statistical accuracy. Not so with us humans: we respond to changes in the environment which cause other humans to respond which causes us to respond to their response and so on and so forth. Thus, human mediated processes are far more dynamic and far less predictable or manageable than natural or synthetic systems.

There are several critical drivers of this 'random walk' result:

The information problem - Fred Hayek, a Nobel Laureate from Chicago (my fair school) won his Swedish Gong for explaining why central planners couldn't plan their way out of a wet paper bag. It turns out that there is an immense amount of information that each of us process to make economic and social choices every day. This information is distributed and particular to us and as such, is unavailable to any central authority that seeks to 'optimize' a process to achieve a 'desired' outcome 'for' us. For example, the simple task of figuring out how many T Shirts of which colors, styles, sizes and assortments will be demanded in which locations at what price at what time of the year is beyond any central planner's ability to compute. However, a market composed of many distribution, manufacturing and selling points interacting with millions of customers every day figures it out, even if there's always some ridiculous end of year blowout sale to move the chartreuse XXXL women's half tees with the bare midriff that buyers were sure was going to take the big 'n hefty market by storm last winter.

The just so fairy tale problem - when we seek to manipulate others, we put ourselves in their shoes without being them. So a Harvard trained economist (God help us all) pretends that he's a crack whore on the mean streets of Scarsdale...wait, Hell's Kitchen and then explains how his pet theory or project or more likely manipulation will cause this crack whore cum Ivy League honors graduate living in Scars...Hell's Kitchen to choose the sunny uplands of purity, chastity and rare single malt scotches rather than the crack pipe, Antoine and his list of nice 'friends' who "just want to spend a little time with you". Which works just about as well as a crack whore modelling Biff and Muffy's marital reconciliation which isn't going well because Biff's a real whiffenpoof and Muffy's preference for small batch Gin turns her into a martini whore. We all like fairy tales, particularly ones where we manipulate others to do what we think they ought to do. And like all good fairy tales, we (the prince, or princess or frog who becomes one) always end up getting what we want the way we want it, even though it's not us doing any of it, even the wanting.

The dynamic response problem. Even if we could get all of the information that the crack whore had at a given point in time and even if we were a crack whore who understood crack whores and knows all about Antoine and his so called 'friends' we would still struggle to predict how crack whore #1 would respond to interventions by (Harvard trained) crack whore #2. This is because in human relations every action has a reaction that is driven by so many unknowable factors that it's as if in our smashed glass example the floor kept flipping from tile to cotton wool while gravity fluxed from none to Jupiter's and we cycled between the alcohol consumption of Mormons, backsliding Baptists and Welsh poets.

This is why people who try to use the state and it's immense power to take, hurt and humiliate others into being 'good' or at least 'better' shouldn't. Because inevitably they end up doing things that lead to outcomes that were not predicted in places that they didn't expect that have consequences that weren't in the spreadsheet that Biff typed up to hide his list of glee club 'friends' from his drunk whore of a wife. Frederic Bastiat - the last good French economist (yeah, I'm lookin' at to you, Piketty) called this 'Things seen and things unseen' - the tendency of of interventions into human interactions (which is all an economy or glee club or S&M bar is, really) to generate unpredictable outcomes elsewhere that swamp the so called benefits of the intervention and make the intervener look stupid to the people he is trying to manipulate even if he gets pelted with praise from the other Harvard trained economists (God help us all).

And tragically, our fair Government in the Imperial Capital of Washington DC is just one big fricking manipulation. Indeed a better name for the place would be 'Manipulations R Us' because toying with us is what they specialize in. And sadly, most people, drowning in their own 'just so' logic and towering self righteousness lack the epistemological modesty - hell, they can't even spell it or know what it is, much less have it - to restrain the pack of thugs, pugs, mugs, looters, shooters and Senators that infest the capital like tapeworms.

Their motto, indeed our glorious Federal government's motto is "make them pay". Or maybe it's "gimme, gimme, gimme" - either way it's bad.

In future installments I shall give those willing to undertake the arduous process of recovering their EModesty some rather juicy examples. Recovering one's EModesty is sort of like going to AA to recover your sobriety: it's a lot of sitting around and saying "Hi, I'm Bill and I'm a self righteous, blinkered, manipulative bastard" and then the crowd goes "Hi, Bill". Sadly, there are virtually no EM groups active in Washington DC or Cambridge MA at the present time. God help us all.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Daisy Jane

I was listening to some old music from my high school days in Jakarta.  In particular Daisy Jane by the band America.  Critics will tell you that America's music was "unremarkable", "pedestrian", even "bland" and I suppose they're right. But for me their songs are the soundtrack to a particularly pivotal time in my life.  I was fourteen or so and was learning for the first time what it was to truly, deeply love someone else and to invest that person with a significance that had heretofore been invisible to me. That more often than not the object of my affections had no inkling made no difference at all.  It was my amazement that I could feel so deeply that came first eventually to be followed by the markers of manhood necessary for it to be requited.  But oh what strange and wonderful emotions I felt back then. For it seemed that anything was possible and that everything could be beautiful.

Now that I'm on the wrong side of fifty and divorced I know that the game of love is filled with at least as much pain as joy and that it often can end up more akin to a marathon or forced march. Like most of us, I've collected (and inflicted) my share of emotional cuts, scrapes and bruises and they've made me cynical about others' (and my own) motives - why is she interested in me?  What does she want? -  until it seems there is nothing left inside but jaundiced suspicions.

Yet...yet...when I listen to the old songs I still feel the stirrings of possibility and hope.  Somehow against all evidence to the contrary I continue to believe in love.  Believe that there is someone somewhere out there for me, someone who will make this world brighter, less lonely.  It may be a pipe dream but it's a good dream and I refuse to give it up. Which is why I still listen to Daisy Jane.  Yeah, I'm a sap, so what's your excuse?

Daisy Jane
By America

Flyin' me back to Memphis
Gotta find my Daisy Jane
Well, the summer's gone
And I hope she's feelin' the same

Well, I left her just to roam the city
Thinkin' it would ease the pain
I'm a crazy man
And I'm playin' my crazy game, game

Does she really love me
I think she does
Like the stars above me
I know because
When the sky is bright
Everything's alright

Flyin' me back to Memphis
Honey, keep the oven warm
All the clouds are clearin'
And I think we're over the storm

Well, I've been pickin' it up around me
Daisy, I think I'm sane
And I'm awful glad
And I guess you're really to blame, blame

Do you really love me
I hope you do
Like the stars above me
How I love you
When it's cold at night
Everything's alright

Does she really love me
I think she does
Like the stars above me
I know because
When the sky is bright
Everything's alright

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

University of Chicago Horror Story or....the Fall of the House of Friedman.

This is the reading room of the William Rainey Harper library, the under-graduate library at the University of Chicago. Kind of pretty huh – well we’ll see how pretty it looks to you after you’ve heard my tale. Because it was here, well just outside here, that I made one of the most shocking discoveries of my young life – one that would change me forever. I had just matriculated the U of C fully intending to get my Phd in Economics until - realizing that Phd meant you had to actually understand calculus rather than just pass the class - I settled for that "Gentleman's C" of degrees: the MBA.

As career and money minded harlots in the high temple of academe we MBAs were held in a certain amount of contempt. Because while we were reasonably smart and hard working we were also terribly normal. And of course there was that odd spot of bother that most of had with the calculus. I realized that I wasn't in Kansas anymore the first day that I moved into my apartment just off campus. I ran into my next door neighbor on the elevator and after introductions I asked him what he was studying and he said "linguistics" to which I replied "that's cool, which language?". He reacted as if I had Ebola: he stepped back and his face turned bright red as he hissed "It's Ling-Guist-ics! Not languages!"

"Oh, ah, so I see...um so what is the difference exactly?"

At that he fled towards his room muttering sinister imprecations about "fucking MBAs" or something to that effect. I never saw him again - I believe he asked to be transferred to another apartment because before I knew it he had been replaced by this nice evangelical Christian Japanese couple - or at least they strummed evangelical tunes with Japanese words which I assumed were Jesus oriented. In other words: more freaks who disturbed the intensely secular and intellectual karma of all the other Maroons.

Because that was what we were: Maroons. You see the U of C was founded with a huge check from John D. Rockefeller Junior. Junior had a knack for giving away money that was at least as brilliant as his dad’s was for making it and it was the University’s good fortune to be standing directly underneath him when he gushed forth. This is one of the reasons that the University of Chicago is tied with Cambridge University in England for the most Nobel Laureates associated with a University despite being one tenth as old. Because when JD Jr. brassed up the other big name US universities were all busily climbing the social register – sneering, discriminating and oppressing while prioritizing the admission of callow white boys who had as they so quaintly put it: “sand”. Although why they wanted so many beachcombers I do not know. So for many years Chicago got all of the smart kids who hadn’t been to the beach resulting in a lot of the sort of prizes that smarty pants win.

So what was I talking about again? Ah, yes Maroons: it turns out that at the time of the great Rockefeller Money Flood Harvard was considered the primo college brand and since they were called the Crimsons the branding geniuses at U of C HQ decided: “hey, Maroon is a drab imitation of Crimson so let’s brand ourselves as a drab imitation of Harvard” – they might have been geniuses at calculus but they didn’t know squat about marketing. Nor had they ever seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon. What a bunch of maroons.

So the other Maroons really looked down on us MBAs even more than they looked down on the budding shysters over in the law school - which hurt our feelings not at all because if all those flaky maroons thought lawyers were swell then we sure as hell didn’t want them to think we were. Which is probably one of the reasons we came up with the idea for “Liquidity Preference Functions” in the first place - the liquidity preference is a concept in financial economics that says ceteris paribus (not that it ever is) people would rather have a five spot in their pocket than an IOU from their loser brother in law because they can use the five spot to fulfill their real liquidity preference for alcohol while no one in their right mind would take the idiot B in L’s marker for love or money or more to the point for that alcohol - which of course wasthe point of our Liquidity Preference Functions. And when the weather was nice we held them out of doors in the quadrangle in front of Stuart Hall which was the old neo Gothic pile where all of the B School’s lectures were held. It was also right below the undergraduate reading room of the William Rainey Harper library – command central for the strangest mob of undergraduate matriculants ever to matriculate with their pants on.

Imagine the scene: It’s five pm on a Friday in September at least four weeks before midterms. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the beer is flowing. The stereo system is pumping out the Rolling Stones Tattoo You album at collegiate decibel-age and the boy ‘n girl MBAs are starting to get their weekend college grooves on, something that at least half of us hadn’t experienced since the last time we were in college and had dreamed about almost every night since (OK, maybe it was just me but still). And what did we hear through Mick Jagger’s wails? the shouts and curses of undergraduates from library windows far above us. Shouting at us to turn the music down and go inside. Naturally we thought this was just undergrads pulling our chain because they wanted some of our beer so we pointed out that any girl could come down and get beer for free and under duress said that any guy she was with could have some too (the business school was seriously short of women and none of the women we had were interested in undergraduate men, well…boys really) - but they didn’t come down, not even the chicks. They didn’t want our beer, they didn’t want to meet a bunch of studs who were this close to making the big bucks. They didn’t want us at all. They wanted to study. No, honest. I am not making this up. Ask anyone who was there.

And that’s not all because the story gets even darker. Not only did they want to study, they wanted us, the noble, normal ones to go. So they called the cops on us. On a Friday at five thirty pm in September when the birds were singing and the sun was shining and the beer was flowing. And did I point out that the beer was free to almost all comers? When the cops arrived we of course gave them a snootful which they happily quaffed as they explained sorrowfully that we would have to go. We said “Aw C’mon” to which they responded with sheepish, outstretched arms as if to say “we agree with you brilliant MBAs and would prefer to drink beer, meet women and rock on with you and we do not understand the bizarre aliens jeering at us from upstairs any more than you do but we work for bizarre aliens just like them only worse so to keep our jobs we’ll just take your beer and make you go inside.” It was that bad. Even the cops were trapped in the darkness. Cops who wouldn’t – couldn’t hang with us and show the girls their cool guns or even make their sirens go "woop woop". Dark times I tell you, dark times.

And that searing experience has colored my perspective on life to this very day. Because if undergraduates at an accredited college at five o’clock on a Friday a full four weeks before midterms when the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the beer is flowing for free turn it down to study more (did I point out that it was Friday evening four weeks before midterms?) then the world is a much darker and less comprehensible place than I had believed possible. It’s a place where Muslims can chop people’s heads off with kitchen knives and viruses can cross oceans and freak governors out. It’s even a world where lawyers (!) not only can become President but have the inside track to all that power (!??) despite (obviously) being the functional equivalent of crooks..

No, I'm afraid my innocence died that day in Chicago amidst the free beer, Rolling Stones and hysterical jeering freshmen, never to return again. May God have mercy on our Souls