30 March 2008

Cool as a Construct: Transforming High School

One of my central insights to life came in high school. It is, oddly, a lesson whose import I still struggle to convey.

I attended three high schools and was, marginally, a part of a fourth. I attended high schools in Northern California, Southeastern Washington, and here in San Diego. People outside of California probably don’t realize how distinct is each region: the Bay Area is as liberal as Orange County is conservative; Palm Springs is as dry as Eureka is wet; Beverly Hills is as affluent as El Centro is poor. Living in different regions of California is like living in different states. I worked for uncles on farms in Montana; my Montana cousin was a day older than me and we spent time with his friends and classmates from this little farming community.

One thing was common to all these high school communities. Cool was essential to acceptance. If a person was not cool, they had trouble with all the rest. Athletic helped. So did good looking or smart or funny. But lacking an element of cool, all that was for naught. If your classmates thought you were cool, you were set. If they thought you were not cool, well, you may as well go kiss a rock.

By the time I got to San Diego, I had learned something about cool: cool was a construct. It was just made up. What made a person cool in San Diego – the affable easy-going “dude” of the surfers in flip flops – would have made that person alien and distinctly un-cool in Montana, where it was the ability to ride bulls, not waves, that commanded respect. My own sense of liberation probably went too far. I was a terrible student in high school. Atrocious. One semester, I remember my poor father wondering how I could have received 26 absences in one class. (Years later, I was consoled to learn that the amazing singer / songwriter Tom Waits did not just skip some of the same classes I did, but went so far as to drop out of the same high school from which I graduated. I felt somewhat vindicated.)

Knowing that cool is a construct is both liberating and, if one is not careful, alienating. I felt both. But it laid the foundation for a particular kind of worldview. When I was about 15 or 16, my English teacher couldn’t quite figure out a short story I wrote in which the protagonist, Butts Cigar, killed a parallel character from Russia named Buttiski and once he looked down at the corpse, he found a reel of tape that played the same instructions that Butts had received – a moment of existential revelation for Butts and a probably defeatist (or at least ambivalent) ending. The story included mention of parents and teachers as programmed programmers. The idea of programming was still nascent in 1975, but it seemed to me an apt description of the process of socialization.

Years later, I discovered the management philosophy of W. Edwards Deming. Deming stressed the importance of systems – in education or business or government. Deming pointed out that systems are just made up and that once they are, individuals too often focus their attention on performing well in them rather than on changing those systems. This insight seems to me both obvious and profound – as with any useful insight.

As a case in point, let’s go back to high school. (Please, says the reader. Let’s not.) Michael Kauffman used to sit on the board of the Deming User Group with me here in San Diego. I learned quite a bit from him about collaborative creation as an alternative to improvement. Michael continues to work with schools to transform the experience of education rather than improve it.

There might be no better example of the futility of improvement (rather than transformation) than the current mania for standardized testing. Three generations ago, my daughter might have been a teacher, nurse, or mother. A generation ago, her career options might have numbered in the dozens. Today, my daughter plans to be a professor of cognitive science – a field so new that the vast majority of her professors in the cog sci department do not even have degrees in the field. Never have we lived in a time of more options and variation. Never have we lived in a time of greater emphasis on standardized testing. Does no one else see this as foolishness on steroids? We don’t need to improve our ability to score on standardized tests: we need to transform how high schools prepare children for adulthood.

Michael recently posted about the drop out rate in high schools. As it turns out, the states report graduation rates with two sets of books: Mississippi, for instance, calculated their graduation rate as 87 percent in reports submitted to DC and in another exercise reported a rate of 63 percent.

His post shows how things are worse than reported. I think even this misses a bigger point: our education system has stable outcomes, regularly failing about 20% of the students it begins with. Given our emphasis on performance within systems, we have construed this to mean that students are failing. But a system that regularly “fails” such a percentage of students ought to be labeled as a type of failure. More emphasis on meeting the current criteria will not help this or result in transformation. Only starting anew at the state of the individual – each individual – offers hope to make the system work for students.

There are so many ways to succeed in life. We all know people who performed miserably in school but shame us in their business or romantic success. By no stretch of the imagination does school guard the single door to success.

One way to begin the transformation of schools is for communities to begin the conversation about what makes for a “successful” life. Generating a list of what determines success – determinants as varied as competence in relationships and adherence to exercise and diet plans to the ability to make money and influence people to a sense of meaning and engagement in the everyday – is to quickly point out all that is missing in a dozen plus years of education. Until schools do a better job of addressing the many dimensions of being human, they will continue to do a poor job of addressing the needs of more than 50 to 80% of their students. They “fail” the various kinds of students because they fail to address the various ways of being human. Changing this will require transformation.

After all, school is a social construct. Like cool, it is just made up. We don’t have to accept this. We can make up something new – something that better accords with the reality of what it means to be human in the 21st century.

29 March 2008

Michael Gruber on Life and Fiction

Recently completed Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows. Through his characters, he makes these provocative points about life and fiction.

"And so, thus adrift, I naturally produce nothing but more fiction. I am a lawyer and what is a lawyer but someone hired to produce a work of fiction, which, in court, will be compared with opposing counsel's work of fiction by a judge or jury, and they will decide which fiction most closely resembles the fictional picture of the world in their respective brains and decide for one or another side and thus is justice done."
Later, in a conversation between this same lawyer (Mishkin) and an aspiring film maker (Crosetti), they are speaking about,

Whether movies really determined our sense of how to behave, and more than that, our sense of what was real.

"Surely not," Mishkin objected. "Surely it's the other way around - filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in their films"

"No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street in a western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It's the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real old west. They were expensive and heavy and no one but an idiot would wear them in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional western gunslingers. And it's not just thugs. Movies shape everyone's reality, to the extent that it's shaped by human action - foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it's movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We've all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment when resistance turns to passion. He's seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not."

"So screenwriters are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind."

"You got it," said Crosetti.

28 March 2008

Fast Car Friday

Still as poignant as pop songs get. Still a remarkable and beautiful singer songwriter. If you're already having a melancholy weekend, listening to this song will help you to savor it properly.

27 March 2008

Urgent! Urgent!

Perhaps no one thing better characterizes the corporate environment than a conflation of importance and urgency. Given that importance inside of big corporations is so often hard to establish, and deadlines so easy to set, people tend to gravitate towards the urgent, treating it as if it is important. Nothing seems more certain to create rework than urgency. Worse, it creates stress, trumps thought and creativity, and works to continually subordinate long term vision to short term bursts of adrenaline. Things that are important will change status quo. By contrast, urgent just seems to sustain the status quo.

But urgent makes even people doing unimportant work feel important – if only for a bit. An aggressive deadline can make otherwise tedious tasks seem more important, of seeming consequence.

I watch the scurry – even get drug along with it at times, working with these teams – and am reminded of Deming’s brilliant quip: “Best efforts. We are being ruined by best efforts. Everyone doing their best. We’d be a lot better off if some people just came in late and read the newspaper.”

25 March 2008

It Is Time to Sue George Bush for Policy Malpractice

But I don't understand why these sharks just thrash about on the floor and then die. They were so powerful in the ocean.

Tim Hackler asks, Is democracy a natural state of mankind?, in a provocative editorial. He offers this:

Here is a thought experiment to put things in perspective. Imagine a map of the world in 1800. color in all the countries that took part in or were directly influenced by the Enlightenment (let us say, England, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, the US, Canadian, and the Scandinavian countries).

Now jump forward two centuries and color in all the countries with working democracies (as defined by the Economist Intelligence Unit). It is virtually the same map. Every one of those 22 nations (or their derivatives) today has a working democracy. And how many countries have a fully functional democracy but were not among, or did not spring from, those 22 countries? Just one – Japan.

I completely agree that Enlightenment thinking is predecessor to democracy - or at the very least, it needs to be coincident with it. A particular way of thinking about the world based on reason and data is necessary as a foundation for one particular version of that - the use of reason and votes in the formulation of policy.

But as with the shark, context is often the least visible thing in the equation - yet it is crucial.

The whole notion of evolution, though, depends on context. The environment determines what works and what does not – natural selection is a slow but appropriate response to the environment. Without an environment, natural selection has no traction, no relevance. The finches immortalized by Darwin’s study were different from one another because the food they ate – their environment – was different.

It is likely no coincidence that the man who though he could kerplunk democracy down into Iraq without a context like Enlightenment thinking is a man who is disdainful of evolution. “Let there be democracy,” George declared, but to no avail. He was speaking into a void.

It is not bigotry to point out that different societies are at different stages of development. It says nothing about a 6 year old’s intelligence to suggest that she is not ready for college. It says nothing about Iraqi’s potential to say that the country is not ready for Western-style democracy.

At least 150,000 Iraqis have been killed since our invasion. About 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced by the violence (a comparable percentage of the US population would equate to nearly 2 million dead Americans and 50 million American refugees.) Now, we've reached the milestone of 4,000 dead American soldiers.

Some brave souls continue to work on reviving the shark. It’s not obvious, though, what they can do without water. If you bring a shark into the forest, you can pretty much guarantee casualties. This, more than anything else, will be George Bush’s legacy. When future generations talk about his lack of environmental awareness, they could just as easily be talking about his foreign policy as his energy policy.

23 March 2008

Blog Devotion

This was in the latest issue of Funny Times. I could not resist posting it.

Six Word Meme

Holly (HRH) hit me with a meme. It sounds simple. It is not.

Those hit with this meme need to describe their life in six words. Not less. Not more. Here I go.

As if I had a clue.

Why Abundance is So Scarce

“If survival of the fittest were truly the basic theme of evolution, then today we should all be microbes.”
- Ludwig von Bertalanffy

There seem to be three big obstacles to abundance: “only” thinking, inability to see the larger whole, and inability to design one’s way out of current scarcity.

Zero sum games are games like the NCAA tournament – one team’s victory comes at the expense of another team’s playoff hopes: for me to win, you must lose. By contrast, in nonzero sum games (more often called variable sum games), the outcome is not fixed. For instance, in a relationship, it is quite possible for a couple to play games that make them both worse, or both better.

This applies to communities as well. Imagine three farmers living in low-lying water. They build paths connecting the three houses. The paths linked together actually block out the water. They now have an enclosed area, a triangle of land, that is shared between them. In such a reality, the sense of ownership is different. Each farmer depends on the other to continue to maintain the path so that all have farm land. [Thanks to my buddy Rick for this example of a sensibility he wishes he could have brought back from his time in Germany to the US.]

In his brilliant book Nonzero, Robert Wright points to nonzero games as the mechanism for progress. If one Northwestern tribe has an abundance of salmon and another has an abundance of furs, cooperation by trade makes both tribes better off, allowing them to be warm and well fed. Trade may well be the simplest example of a nonzero sum game.

As economies become more advanced, they become more characterized as nonzero sum games. People working in an economy more dependent on land, for instance, are more inclined to think zero sum. Such societies are more violent and more given to absolutes. By contrast, people working in an economy more dependent on information and knowledge are more inclined to think nonzero sum. These societies are prone to negotiation and willingness to see things from multiple perspectives.

Inability to see beyond zero sum rules is probably the biggest obstacle to peace and progress. Such a world view is probably best characterized by the phrase, “There is only so much.” As soon as people believe that, the only reasonable thing to do is get yours – at any cost. What is more rarely seen is the possibility of dropping the “only” in this phrase, transforming it from “There is only so much,” to “There is so much.” The first defines a scarcity mentality. The second, an abundance mentality.

There are two things that could destroy a community. A scarcity mentality that leads to in-fighting (this can happen even within companies). An abundance mentality in a community that has not designed its way out a dependence on scarce resources.

“Only” thinking, as in, there is only one way to do things or only one truth that defines things or only one perspective that matters, breeds scarcity. As long as people and communities cling to “only” thinking they will have an abundance of evidence of scarcity.

There does seem to be an impulse towards the progress that depends on greater cooperation – the movement from tribes to city-state and city-states to nation-states for instance. And all this progress seems dependent on seeing a greater whole than exists now, seeing beyond the limits of current boundaries. Abundance, then, seems to rely on a few things: getting beyond “only” thinking, seeing larger wholes, and, as seen with the farmers able to create land out of a swamp or tribes negotiating trade deals, a design competence.

22 March 2008

Happy Birthday Sandi & Jordan!

It is an odd and inexplicable Davison family tradition. My great grandfather married a Canadian. She had a child on her birthday. My own grandfather married a Norwegian (skipping out on the Canadian tradition for one generation), but my uncle married a Canadian who had a child on her birthday. I, too, married a Canadian and 21 years ago, she had a child on her birthday.

There is no one who knows Sandi better than I do and there is no one more impressed with her. She's not perfect, though, and I exploited her poor judgment, convincing her to marry me.

Jordan is the girl that any father would brag about. I exercise an excessive amount of restraint by doing so only rarely. In the quarter just ended, she delivered her first university lecture (right brain vs. left brain) in the cognitive science class she worked in as a TA - a nice milestone for a junior. She very convincingly announces that she's going to be a professor of cognitive science. I believe her. It has been an extraordinary privilege to watch her become an adult from this front row seat.

We celebrated for Sandi and Jordan with nearly 40 friends and family, food enough to feed probably 100, live music, a speech, games and conversations. Given it was Spring Break, we even had some Canadians join us - friends from when my wife was in diapers.

Here they are - in various stages - my two favorite women.

20 March 2008

Consumption Junkies

Ron Araujo and I car pooled to work at one time and were in the same graduate program in economics. I think that Ron and I laughed together as much as I have with any co-workers (and if you ask my series of exasperated supervisors, that would be a remarkable amount of laughter).

NPR broadcast an inteview with Ron yesterday. As CFO of Mission Federal Credit Union, he was explaining how the Fed's rate move would translate into personal loans. He is still quick and I can swear that I heard an edge of laughter in his voice, even as he talked about something serious. Ron does a fabulous job of making it all sound simple and obvious - something I wish our profs had done. It's easy for me to imagine that in a few years, Ron could be one of those talking head guys on CNBC. Once again, I was made inordinately proud of my friendship with someone who has done well. (Pretending, once again, that this somehow has something to do with me.)

His interview made me think, though. The price of money has dropped. Loans are cheaper. But the flip side of this is that the reward for saving is lower. And I had a blinding flash of the obvious.

It is true that lowering interest rates can help to stimulate the economy by stimulating spending. But we're in a fairly precarious spot because our savings rate runs close to zero. Stimulating borrowing and discouraging savings is unlikely to help that. Might it be that we're taking short term measures that just make our underlying problems bigger?

[A British ATM is in the news for dispensing twice as much money as it should. Next time I talk to Ron, I need to ask him: why couldn't we "stimulate" the economy that way? Random ATM withdrawals enhancement program (RAWEP) sounds like it would be a hit with a polity that has made gambling a multi-billion dollar industry.]

A Life of No Regret and Less Reflection

In the news:

Washington - US President George W Bush says he has no regrets about the invasion of Iraq five years ago. In a speech at the Pentagon, Mr Bush said that "removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision - and this is a fight America can and must win". The president dismissed what he called "exaggerated estimates" of the war costs.

So, we know that George has no regrets. This is unsurprising, as regrets actually require enough imagination and curiosity to consider alternatives. But I am surprised that he didn't mention what is, to me, the obvious lesson of the Iraq War.

When an aging, short, overweight, bureaucrat in a suit tells you that something is "a slam dunk," what he really means is that it cannot be done.

18 March 2008

The Rockets Run is Over

The best winning streak in the NBA since I've hit puberty is now over.

The Boston Celtics stopped the Rockets - making them feel the absence of Yao. The Rockets simply had no answer to the Celtic's big men.

I know that my buddy Daryl is disappointed. I also know that there is no other team he'd rather lose to. You see, before coming over to Houston to become their GM, Daryl's first job in the NBA was with the Celtics. As their COO, he was responsible for getting revenue, but he was already working with MIT profs on models for predicting which players were most likely to perform better than expected. He is not only fond of the Celtics organization but he had a hand in shaping the team. When he sees the Celtics, it’s not hard to imagine that he can see the Rocket's future a couple of years out.

Congratulations, Daryl. Just wait until next streak.

15 March 2008

80 Year Old Man Awakes From Consensus Trance: Bernard on Society

My work goes through waves of intensity. For now, I’m in a wave of 80+ hour weeks and days away from home in a time zone 3 hours away. I let this spill into my lunch date with Bernard, arriving late. He looked like he was on the verge of crying.

“Bernard,” I inquired. “You’re okay?”
He just looked at me and shook his head. “I just feel a little overcome,” he said.
“You seem to be getting more sentimental of late Bernard.”
“Senti-mental," he played with the word. "What good is mental activity without some sentiment?” He waved his hand, offended just enough by my insensitivity to feel his own a little less acutely.
“Point taken,” I replied.
“My life is nearly over, Ron. In all my thinking, there is only one conclusion I can safely make: I didn’t love enough. I didn’t love well.” At this he paused and, like a small kid who’d been sobbing, shamelessly wiped the back of his hand across his nose.
“The defining thing about life is that it ends. You have to keep that in mind. Most everything bad you do – from sloth to cruelty – seems to stem from forgetting this simple fact.
“Pay attention to the fact that life eventually ends and see if that doesn’t make you more sentimental.”
I had no response to this. I had been hoping for something more emotionally neutral, like philosophy. I felt a little awkward, wondering if conversations with Bernard were destined to be more emotional as he got older.

After we’d ordered, Bernard started in.
“We tend to forget that even reasoning gets moved along by emotion. What I’m about to say makes no sense to someone who thinks that sentiment has no place in logic.”
“Well, you are obviously in the right emotional place,” I say.
“You can be such a twit,” he chides. “Here’s a fact that those neuroscientist, cognitive science people like your daughter have yet to fully learn: emotional states are like the elevator that takes you to different floors of your mind, from which you can access certain thoughts or thought processes, reasons you can’t reach from any other floor. Existential angst gives your reasoning a different edge than contentment; anger makes a different route for reason than curiosity. It’s why so often drama changes minds more than arguments.”
“Bernard, I’m really fatigued. The wrong week to visit the east coast is the week of time change. You’re making me feel melancholy.”
“Good. Maybe then you’ll get what I have to say.”
“You didn’t already say it?”
“No, listen. This is what occurred to me at 3 AM this morning."
"Oh," I said. "So you're on east coast time as well?"
Bernard looked intently at me. "No, you dweeb. I'm an old man. Just listen.
"Society is a consensual trance, like a person hypnotizing himself in the mirror and then walking away from the mirror forgetting that he’s under hypnosis, thinking that everything he perceives is real.”
"What?" I was confused.
"We have programmed programmers, - parents and teachers - who tell children how to be. Where does their idea about how to be come from? Society. The society that they made up by adults telling children how to be. We're hypnotized, but it is us who have done the hypnotizing. Society isn't just made up. It's a spell."
“But societies are real,” I protested.
“Sure. But what is that reality based on? Think about the power of a hypnotist. He spends about 10 minutes with you and suddenly, you believe things that aren’t true. You’re a great singer, he might tell you, or carrying a heavy load, or walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. If you’re hypnotized, you believe this. It all seems incredibly real. And this is something you believe after just a few minutes of his spell.” Bernard’s eyes welled up again. I still could not make the connection with what he was saying.
“Now compare that with society,” he continued. “Compare that with the time society gets to color your conscious, the time it gets to tell you that you’re awful or wonderful, that you’re a saint or slut, a brute or a gentleman.”
“This is making you sad, Bernard?” I literally scratched my head. “It’s interesting. It’s provocative. But sad?”
Bernard laughed. “You don’t get it?”
“No. I don’t.”
“You know, emotional insensitivity is overlooked as a means to resist new ideas,” he shook his head. “I’m 80 and now I get this? I finally get that this,” he waved his arms expansively, “this is a consensus trance.”
“Your insight changed your emotional state. I thought you said it worked the other way around.”
“Don’t feel like you always have to be contentious,” Bernard advised me disgustedly. “Sometimes you change floors and sometimes the floors collapse on you. Sometimes you move to the floors and sometimes they move to you. I’m trying to save you some grief.”
“So what am I supposed to do with your latest insight?”
“Well, first of all, how are you doing on the love thing we talked about?”
“I …” I was at a loss. Of late I obviously haven’t been able to properly translate what my heart was saying. It was apparently getting lost in the mail, or lost in this male, in a manner of speaking.
“Here are two things you have to convey to those beautiful children of yours. One, this is all made up. Society is a game we’ve agreed to pretend is real. Make sure that they know this is all pretence.”
“And then what? I mean, that sounds like a state of mind that might lead them to drop acid and sit on the beach watching waves crash.”
“It might. Once you kick out the props out, lives stand precariously. If someone doesn’t feel safe with you and you tell them that their life is a game, you’ll just terrify them. Or sound like an idiot. You take away the social constructs and what you are left with is ingenuity and love. If you don’t have the love, you don't even have the ingenuity. Without safety or love, a person can’t even get into the region of the brain that can create its way out of a situation. Knock out the props for society without love and you reboot civilization into a time of chaos and force.”
“Sounds scary.”
“Well, it’s a form of enlightenment. If that doesn't scare you a little bit ..." He trailed off. "Enlightenment doesn’t mean that you are dismissive of what makes society tick. It just means that you are not consumed by it. You might even play the game some. It’s just that you remember it is just a game.”
"You don’t live your life tone deaf to the consensual trance, blind to it. You have to see it. You’ll feel profoundly alienated if you don’t. But you have to be distanced enough from it that, like any good hypnotist’s show, you can laugh, shake your head, and even question whether the folks under hypnosis are just faking it. Every society is a form of madness."
"Well," Bernard paused. "Yeah, from the right angle. But it's not like it's a bad thing. Necessarily."
“So, I teach them it’s a game but one that matters?”
“Yeah. That’s a good way to put it.” He looked at me intently. “You know, if you can pull that off, you might just turn into a father yet.”
“It’s kind of sad, though, thinking that this is just a game.” When I’m fatigued like this, my emotions feel less robust, my natural optimism is muted.
“At first,” said Bernard. “But once you’ve told someone else, there is a certain joy in it.” He smiled like a kid. “Just a game! Think about the liberty in knowing that.” He laughed aloud. “You know, you cheered me up today.”
“I’m happy I could do that,” I lied. And before I could stop myself, I wiped the back of my hand across my nose like a kid who’d just finished a good cry.

14 March 2008

Homeward Bound

I saw a small, whining child in the airport who was probably 3 years old. His t-shirt read, “MY PARENTS ARE EXHAUSTED.” They were.


In Charlotte, N.C., I chose to eat at the BBQ. I like to eat food that reflects a regional personality, and I’ve just flown an hour and a half from Indianapolis to San Diego and am now, oh, an hour and a half further from San Diego. It seems small consolation to try odd and unhealthy foods. I order the fried okra and squash casserole with my sandwich. The okra is greasy and not that great, but the squash casserole is actually quite good – it could be served, in some fashion, in restaurants either crude or elegant.

But after I’ve chosen these sides, the man at the counter says, “Would you like a fried pickle,” with a southern accent that I can hardly refuse.
“Fried pickle,” I stupidly repeat. “Is that popular?”
“It is in more enlightened parts of the country,” he says. “But if you are from an undeveloped region of the country, you might not know about them.”
“That would be me,” I say. “Today I’ll choose enlightenment.”
He smiles happily and puts a breaded, fried pickle on my plate. About 30 minutes later, I swing by his station. “Here’s a sentence I never thought I would form when I woke up this morning,” I tell him. “That fried pickle was wonderful. Thank you.”
“Now you are enlightened,” he beams.
“Now I am enlightened,” I say. “And to think that all this time I was only one fried pickle away.”
“There you go,” he twangs.
As I walk away, I feel inexpicably pleased. This must be what enlightenment feels like, I think. I look back over my shoulder. My new friend at the counter has already turned his attention to the next person in line, but he catches my backwards glance. He smiles broadly at me and gives me a farewell nod. This must be the reason I’ve flown backwards to get home. A fried pickle. Suddenly blessed with enlightenment, I have a second realization: the pickle was not that great – I would have much rather gotten home a couple of hours earlier.

My enlightenment was enhanced when the next flight was delayed. Apparently, the folks at US Air sold us the tickets and boarded us on the plane before figuring out that we could not make it to San Diego on a single tank of gas. Stopping for gas in Phoenix turned our 5.5 hour trip into 7 hours. It seemed in-terminal (as in, I didn’t think that we’d ever make it off the plane and into a terminal).

Riding in coach, I once again conclude that I ought to have either been born rich or been short. A young teenage girl sitting in front of me with her mom and sister, headed to San Diego to vacation, put her seat back all the way even before we took off. About an hour and a half into our 7 hour trip, tired of contorting my legs into odd angles to conform to her seat back, I leaned over the seat and kindly asked her if she couldn’t sit up straight for at least two or three hours of our long flight. Looking startled, she quickly moved her seat up and did not once incline backwards again – for the next 5+ hours. When we landed in San Diego, I was so appreciative that I leaned forward one more time and thanked her for her kindness to my legs. She smiled and said, “No problem.” I then handed her a $20 bill and told her to take her mom and sister for fish tacos. Her expression of surprise and delight was worth some multiple of the $20.

13 March 2008

Jorge Amado's Plan to End Racism

Yesterday, I stopped at Subway for a sandwich. The young guy who started my sub then said, "Sir, I ask this only because I care about the quality of your sandwich: are you willing to have this black guy put on your vegetables?" I stared at him. "Please realize sir, he is black." This was obviously his idea of humor and the young man to whom he was referring looked somewhat bemused and mostly resigned. I said to him, "It's an odd country. You can be white and black and black is what you are labeled." "Yeah," he said. "I'm half nigger and half cracker." Oh good, I thought, my sandwich is going to be made by a young man filled with self loathing. Unsurprisingly, it was tasteless. I should have said something witty or acerbic or critical, like "Oh yeah!" but instead, all I said was, "I'll have the cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, and olives."

In the wake of Geraldine Ferraro's racist remark about Obama, I do wonder about this. How is this that a man who has one white parent and one black is automatically considered a black man? ("I don't know why people are so shocked that she would say this," quips Bernard. "Those Italians are notoriously racist.")

In a great scene from one of Jorge Amado's novels, a group of Brazilians are gathered around discussing race. Brazil has a little of everything and in spite of a reputation for being generally tolerant of one another, race problems emerge. The characters are getting quite philosophical about all this when (I believe it was) the blacksmith breaks his silence. "The answer is to have everyone interbreed until even God can't tell them apart," he announces. At 20, this seemed like a brilliant solution to me but I got very little cooperation in my attempts to put it into action.

Maybe, just maybe, when we finally read that Obama is a white guy whose father was black, we'll be en route to this world of racial confusion. I may have scuttled my personal plans to execute Amado's plan, but I still think that racial confusion might be the final solution to racist confusion.

12 March 2008

Rockets! Run! Continues!

Tonight, the Rockets won their 20th game in a row. How cool is that? Well, only one team has ever done better.

From (Source: The Associated Press):

NBA's longest winning streaks

Games Team Date
33 Lakers Nov. 5, 1971-Jan. 7, 1972
20 Rockets Jan. 29-current
20 Bucks Feb. 6-Mar. 8, 1971
19 Lakers Feb. 4-Mar. 13, 2000

So, the best streak ended 36 years ago. My buddy Daryl, the Rockets GM, is 35. This is the best streak in the NBA since he was born. This is me applauding.

11 March 2008

Dick Cheney, Sensitive Soul

The Sept. 11 commission reported yesterday that it has found no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda, challenging one of the Bush administration's main justifications for the war in Iraq.

Along with the contention that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials have often asserted that there were extensive ties between Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network; earlier this year, Cheney said evidence of a link was "overwhelming."

I've been too hard on Dick Cheney. Once, I even went so far as to call him one of the three stooges of the apocalypse. But it turns out that I've been wrong. Dick Cheney is just a man easily overwhelmed, a sensitive soul prone to hide in undisclosed locations when he becomes emotional.

Look at his picture. It is easy to label the man as angry or hostile. One is tempted to discount his mis-read on Iraq as an inevitable outcome for a man who listens to his gut, an organ that must be perpetually in turmoil, feeding him a string of curses that would make even a drunken sailor blush. ("No, I don't have data. But my gut tells me that Iran has a secret weapon that will make our boys in uniform begin to feel oddly attracted to each other.")

But look again at that expression. Think about a man who finds even a paucity – no, an imagined dollop - of data to be "overwhelming." It is hard not to see this face as one about to collapse into tears, or perhaps cries of fright. It is rare that such sensitive souls make it to such lofty positions of power. It is time that we see Dick Cheney for who he really is. Dick Cheney is a beacon of hope for every child who has found himself crouched beneath his desk in reaction to moving poetry or reports of starvation. Easily overwhelmed, yet unafraid of power.

I feel like such a cad. I am overwhelmed with regret.

10 March 2008

Spitzer Scandal

About a year ago, I predicted that Spitzer would be elected president in 2012. Damon broke the sad news to me in what struck me as an overly gleeful font. This morning at breakfast, the Fox News commentators put a fork in it: Spitzer's political career may be over. It seems that the reformer met up with a high-priced prostitute when in DC. (No word yet about how aspiring politicians are supposed to tell the difference between high-priced prostitutes and cheap politicians.)

Sadly, the news is about his libido. (You know what they say: big libido means a big fall.) Little is said about why the man rose to prominence and why it is important for someone to take his role.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a surge in the percentage of households that own stock (whether directly or through mutual and pension funds). To leave this money sloshing around without some regulatory oversight is to invite a series of ENRON-like fiascos in which senior executives and financial representatives easily manipulate the average investor. Imagine how ugly any sport would get after decades without a referee and you get an idea of what Wall Street could become – has at times become.

Spitzer was one of the few politicians who seemed able and wiling to go after the Wall Street’s coarser elements, protecting the average investor. The stupid politicians will see this imbroglio as an opening to steal Spitzer's votes. (The man recently won as governor of New York by an overwhelming majority.) The smart politicians will see this as an opening to steal his unique market position as the guy who protects the average investor.

The wrong lesson to draw from this is that this niche does not need to be served. Any politician who is savvy enough to create a career like Spitzer’s is going to have a real edge in any political contest. The sad thing is, these kinds of careers take decades to establish and just minutes to self sabotage.

Vatican Adds to List of Sins

"(Within bioethics) there are areas where we absolutely must denounce some violations of the fundamental rights of human nature through experiments and genetic manipulation whose outcome is difficult to predict and control,"

Worded like this, it makes it seem as though bioengineers are trying to compete with religion, which through medieval times had a near monopoly on attempts to re-program human nature in ways that have been difficult to predict or control.

07 March 2008

Mingus Among Us (Even After His Eviction)

My cousin Scott sent me an email with these two videos juxtaposed. As he puts it, "they're a bittersweet pair."

In the first, jazz legend Charles Mingus is evicted from a property he was trying to turn into a music school for children, and then arrested. In the second, we get to see children - an awesome Japanese high school band - performing a Mingus composition. Is it justice if the person wronged isn't righted until after his death?

06 March 2008

News Commentary

Marathon hopeful, 101-year-old , training hard
Already Britain's oldest employee, 101-year-old Buster Martin now aims to become the world's oldest marathon runner by completing the London Marathon and celebrating with a pint of beer and a cigarette.

Training for a marathon is hard for a 101 year old? This is news? What is news is that this father of 17 returned to work at 99, bored with retirement after two years.

For those of you wondering how he has stayed so fit and managed to father 17 children, it could be that Buster has done housework as a means of to both ends: studies indicate that men who do housework get more sex. It is not that men are unaware of this; they just keep hoping for shortcuts, like chocolates and empty promises.

Barak Obama raised $55 million in February.

To put this in perspective, it represents less than 2/1,000th of 1% of the federal budget and less than 3/10,000th of 1% of annual GDP. We still spend less on elections than we do on Halloween candy each year.

Home prices are dropping. The media reports this as bad news. Oddly, this same media had earlier reported rising home prices as bad news, a sign that homes were becoming unaffordable. I guess this is how the media keeps their reporting balanced; any direction the pendulum swings can be construed as bad news.

Forbes latest list of billionaires has some interesting data, among other things seeming to support the notion of globalization. "Two years ago, half of the world's 20 richest were from the U.S. Now only four are. India wins bragging rights for having four among the top 10, more than any other country." In second place, bumping Bill Gates and nudging up against Warren Buffet, is Mexican investor Carlos Slim, whose net worth has doubled in the last two years to $60 billion. The 1,125 billionaires on Forbes' list are worth a combined $4.4 trillion. Assuming a 10% interest rate, their combined net worth would generate Obama's $55 million in donations in about an hour. Facebook's 23 year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the world's youngest self-made billionaire. (At 23, I'm pretty sure my net worth (a shaky balance sheet that included a number of albums and a Bang & Olufsen turntable on one side and student loans and a '65 mustang prone to monthly break downs on the other) was probably closer to a negative $5,500.) With all that money, it is probably no wonder that Zuckerberg would need to create a social network site like Facebook. Many friends can be had for considerably less than a billion and someone with this much money would need some way to keep track of them all.

Personally, I'm hoping to get on Forbes' list within the next year as I begin hostile take overs of other blogs, leveraging my small number of comments to take over first Scott Adams blog and then begin picking off the blogs of people like Andrew Sullivan and Arianna Huffington. How will I finance the purchase of these blogs? By highly leveraging my comments and obscure rating into stock I expect hedge fund managers to snap up. Why would they snap this up? Because next month, some other hedge fund manager will bid the price even higher. Now is the time for savvy investors to get in on the ground floor. I'm pretty excited about this, but I digress.

Mike Huckabee bowed out of the Republican primary contest. This has nonetheless been a boon to his career. He'll be starring in a new Broadway Musical: Gomer Pyle, New Mayor of Mayberry. The drama revolves around the mayor's move to outlaw evolution in the town; that Gomer Pyle is mayor seems evidence that he has succeeded.

05 March 2008

Rockets Win Again with Rookie GM

The Houston Rockets just set a new team record tonight, winning their 16th game in a row. They've won 4 in a row without Yao, a remarkable feat even if it was not tacked onto such a streak. (No one in the NBA has had a longer winning streak this year.)

The New York Times wrote this about the Rockets' General Manager,
Morey, the rookie general manager of the Houston Rockets, is a wizard in the field of quantitative analysis, a friend of Billy Beane’s and a “Moneyball” true believer. He is the N.B.A.’s highest-ranking stat savant, the first mathematical magician to run a team.

Although all this is probably true, it misses what I think is the more important point about Daryl's success.

I met Daryl about 12 years ago. At the time, he was a recent college grad fascinated by oddly obscure ideas like self adaptive complexity. We clicked (there are not too many people who share interests in systems dynamics or find the ideas behind them stimulating) and since then I've followed his career with an odd mix of pride and amazement. The reporters frequently comment on his great mind, but Daryl is simply a likeable and delightful person.

Before sitting in Fenway Park watching the Red Sox with Daryl, I fancied myself a baseball fan. Listening to Daryl casually debunk various "myths" of baseball and support his claims with data, I realized that I was not really a baseball fan: I had odd bits of knowledge and interest in the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. I realized that Daryl's most off-handed comment carried more weight than anything I had thought about for years.

Daryl is not just adept at analyzing data and determining what it means. He lets the data take him where it will - whether that is to the most obvious or most counter-intuitive conclusion. He does not just do this with sports data. He has done this with his life. I don't think that I've ever met a person who seems less concerned with tradition - that of others or even his own. Daryl accepts what the data says and is willing to test plausible theories - in any domain. Years ago, he put me on his "board of advisors," a move that amused and flattered me and has come to mean even more as his career continues to thrive. (That he would name me to such a position is proof that he's not just comfortable with data but is comfortable with odd ideas.)

Daryl did not play basketball in college, much less the NBA. His father does not own a team nor work as a famous sports analyst. Daryl’s career has not just risen with amazing celerity - he has done it on his own merit. I rather doubt that his high school friends would have pegged him as "most likely to be an NBA GM by 35."

There is a great deal I admire about Daryl. Perhaps what makes him most unique is not his ability with numbers and statistics but his willingness to accept the reality those numbers represent. Analysis can be taught. I’m not sure that Daryl’s willingness to change in response to the analysis can be taught and it is that – more than the actual analysis – that seems to me the truly extraordinary thing about his life, his career and his performance.

And Daryl – congratulations on the winning streak. You may just want to tell reporters that you’ve tried winning and tried losing and you just can’t see any advantage to losing or even one good reason to lose again.

04 March 2008

The Diminishing Value of Capital - Entering an Age of Puny Portfolio Returns

Tom Stevenson of The Telegraph, summarizes Warren Buffet's take on reasonable returns:

Take the assumptions about future investment returns in corporate pension schemes. The average in America is 8pc, despite the fact that a quarter of pension funds are in bonds and cash (for which a 5pc return would be a reasonable expectation) and the rest in equities, which rose by just 5.3pc a year on average over the 20th century as a whole (a remarkable period of growth for the US economy).

Buffet suggests that expectations for returns are unreasonable based on history. Worse, I suspect that returns to capital will drop considerably over the next few decades for two reasons that are rarely mentioned.

1. There are trillions of dollars seeking returns. This money has driven up the price of stocks twice in the last decade, driven up the price of real estate for the last two decades, and is now driving up the price of gold and other commodities. This money is bidding up the price of various investment options because of a simple fact: the demand for investment returns is greater than the supply.

2. Related to this, many of the more exciting investment options are in ventures that don't require an enormous amount of capital. Or, more accurately, they require capital still not easily tracked or accounted for by accounting methods centuries old. Investments in Google have little to do with their banks of servers or buildings and almost everything to do with the ingenuity and knowledge of their employees. This is problematic for capital because it suggests that the best investment opportunities can be coy about their need for capital. Contrast this with the investments of a century ago; General Electric and General Motors represented investments that consumed huge amounts of capital.

As returns drop, it'll be easier for entrepreneurs to get money. Companies that expect to compete on the basis of returns to capital can expect to lag an already poor performing market. By contrast, companies able to foster a culture more like that of an incubator will prosper. For them, the cheap capital will be a boon, enabling them to seed even more ventures. These companies - and the investors who hold stocks in them - will be the big winners in this coming period of cheaper capital.

03 March 2008

The Irrational Voter

This evening at the gym, I see Josh Groban and Rosario Dawson and a couple of other celebs urging people to vote. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but it is not hard to imagine.

Of course, the whole idea of voting is based on some fallacious notion about probability. You have better odds of buying a winning lottery ticket than you do of casting the deciding vote and I can pretty much guarantee that you are not going to win the lottery. Given that it is simply not rational to think that your vote will make a difference, only irrational people actually vote.

Wait. That seems to explain so much, doesn't it?


Pundits report the news before it happens and then authoritatively explain why it didn't happen as predicted. Hillary Clinton's campaign is over. So they say. They call themselves conventional wisdom and when they are wrong, they can all say, "We don't know how conventional wisdom could have been so wrong." When I get big, I'm not only going to talk about myself in the third person, but I'm going to refer to myself as some large and impersonal entity. ("Yes, dear, but conventional wisdom had been dead certain that you would love the real green dress.")

If you are willing to move to Kathmandu, there is an opening for a living goddess. It sounds like an interesting position, but I imagine that being the incarnation of Kali would leave one little room for personal self-expression.

Like an angry diner on a bad date cursing the waiter ("I did not order this heart break!"), the political machinery in Washington continues to try sending back the recession it did not order. But reality has its sense of humor, insisting that a prolonged recession is the perfect "cherry on top" for Bush's 8 years as leader of the free (for all) world. Proposing that his tax cuts be made permanent, Bush insisted that the problem was not government spending but was, rather, insisting that the government must pay as it goes.

It turns out that John McCain is "soft" on immigration because he is himself, an immigrant. John was born in Panama on a military base. Ralph Nader decried this as yet one more attempt by Republicans to eventually outsource every job in America.

The press has decided that they've lulled Barack Obama sufficiently that his expression of hurt surprise once they turn on him will make for priceless pictures and videos. Expect all favorable coverage to come to a sudden halt on Wednesday.

Crude oil prices continued their rise past $100 a barrel; sophisticated oil prices, by contrast, had already slipped past $150 a barrel months ago.

01 March 2008

Los Lobos

Combine the psychedelic music and imagery of Northern California with the folk music and imagery of of Baja California and you just might get this fabulous song and video from Los Lobos, a band from here in Southern California. It's the weekend - I'll save the talk of social evolution and politics until later. Enjoy.