What I’ve Been Reading

Part of my morning commute usually involves catching up on Twitter and most recently the financial information coming out of Zero Hedge along with a couple of other sources from Maudlin Economics. Many of these articles probably don’t warrant a full blog post but I thought I might start aggregating them on Sunday mornings with any thoughts I had. This has the potential to happen only this Sunday but it’s good to have goals.

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Mara has apparently been reading every article on the Atlantic lately based on my inbox but this one caught my eye. A certain faction of conservatives, namely goody goody two shoes in Nebraska and Oklahoma are fighting Colorado’s marijuana legalization saying that the states have no right to preempt federal drug laws, the irony being that it’s almost always the conservatives who yell the loudest about federal encroachment on their rights when it comes down to health care, welfare or anything else that might help people who actually need it. In this instance, the issue is being fought brought by law and order type conservatives who don’t like that citizens of those two fine states are going to Colorado to buy their pot. The issue here that the article highlights is that the states are under no obligation to enforce federal laws passed by Congress that are too sweeping for the feds to enforce on their own.

Federal drug law has always relied on the states for enforcement because the feds don’t have the manpower to enforce it. States go after little dealers in the system (which is why our incarceration rate has quintupled since Reagan’s misguided and disastrous drug war went into effect. States throw people in jail for non-violent possession crimes while the Feds can go after the traffickers. However, the states are under no obligation to actually do this and in the case of states like Colorado, can actually pass laws that are inconsistent with that. Thinking of it another way, if Congress passes laws that are too broad in scope, the states are in no way obligated to fill in the gaps. This is actually a good thing for democracy as it keeps an important check on federal power. It will be interesting to see how the suit of Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado proceeds. If the conservative side wins, we will have set a precedent for removing one of the last checks on Federal power and take a big step farther down the path of centralized government.

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This week, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) decided to end its 3 year old cap on the franc to the euro and let the market move freely in relation to the franc’s value. In response, the franc soared in value related to most major currencies, the euro being the biggest move where it appreciated 17% or so. The cap was originally put in place back during the last financial crisis when the SNB decided to limit the volatility of its currency. And so for years, the franc has been exceptionally stable against the euro. The mechanism for how this was done is beyond the scope of this post but the short version is that the Swiss would print francs and buy Euros to support the cap. By doing this they acquire lots of Euros in their foreign asset fund which seemed like a good idea at the time because the Euro was one of the strongest currencies around.

Fast forward to 2015 and suddenly the Euro is a mess. We’re talking more and more about a Greek exit from the euro which is a total unknown. Deflation is sweeping Europe which is a BAD THING in the grand scheme of things for an increasingly indebted world. On Thursday, the European Central Bank (ECB) will almost assuredly begin its own qualitative easing where it floods the market with Euros to fight the deflation. All signs are pointing to a weakening Euro and there is no end in sight. Imagine you are the SNB holding a bucketful of Euros and you might see why they want to bail out on dragging their own currency down with the Euro. Of course, this move has lots of implications. On a immediate level, allowing the franc to appreciate is bad for Swiss exports. In the ongoing currency wars, countries try to improve their economies by weakening their currency which typically increases exports. So why would the Swiss do something to actively hurt their own exporters? For one, they may have decided they don’t export that much stuff to the EU anymore and in fact they don’t. With the exception of Germany, the only country in the EU doing well (also a topic for an entirely different post), Euro dominated countries don’t account for a big chunk of Swiss exports. Instead, economies like Japan, the US and China are the ones buying expensive Swiss watches and fancy cheese.

Because Switzerland never joined the EU, they now have the flexibility to pivot their economy and make it less dependent on the disaster that is unfolding across Europe. That is what they are probably doing. One of the interesting side effects of this move is how it can roil markets. That’s because in our over leveraged, low interest rate financial system, investors are always reaching for yield. One strategy is to trade in a currency that has low volatility like the franc. Firms were happy to loan francs to day traders at highly leveraged rates (loaning 50 francs with only 1 franc as collateral is leverage). They could do this because over the last two years, the franc had an average volatility of .1 percent. It seemed totally safe. Until it wasn’t when the franc got really volatile this week. Everest Capital, a hedge fund in Miami, shut down a $830 million fund that hemorrhaged cash. Other hedge funds are in the same boat.

The takeaway from all this is that times, they are a changin’ in 2015. The dollar looks to get stronger as the EU begins fighting deflation. Even in the US, prices are falling and retail sales aren’t too great. In looking at retail sales, if you remove auto sales, this Christmas season was the third worst this century meaning only the Christmases of 2001 and 2008 were worse. Mmm, that doesn’t sound like a recovery to me. That sounds more like the US consumer is continuing to deleverage in an attempt to get their financial house in order. And when the US consumer doesn’t buy cheap Chinese crap, China’s economy gets sluggish. And when that happens, well, who knows what the end result is.

If you have a perverse affinity to monetary policy and its effects on our global financial system, it should be a fun year.

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Apparently the people who lived in our house for the last 50 years didn’t ever want a back yard and had no fence. With a road behind us that cuts through from one major street to the other, it felt like we lived next to a freeway at times. This week, we had a fence put in which has also allowed the garage to be cleaned out since it was holding all the lawn furniture. It’s starting to feel more and more like we don’t live in a homeless shelter.

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On Maintenance And Repair

When I was a kid, not so many years ago geologically speaking, I found a .22 rifle in the barn at my grandparents farm. It didn’t really work and it was hard for me to ascertain exactly why given my rudimentary gunsmith skills as a 13 year old. But I didn’t have a .22 rifle and it seemed to me that if I could only figure out how to make it work, that omission in fate’s plan could be altered. So I asked my grandfather if it was ok if I tried to make it work again. To his credit (though the overprotective parents and governmental agencies of today would probably disagree), he agreed telling me only to “be careful where you point it.” So I went about finding the screws that held it together, took it apart, cleaned things, put it back together, loaded it, pointed it in the general direction of an innocent tin can and pulled the trigger. Much to my surprise, it went off with that satisfying .22 plink though I’m sure the can emerged unscathed. However, the action did not feed a new round into the chamber.

So I unloaded it and went about trying to figure out how to make that work. Again having no idea what I was doing but with general 13 year old’s understanding of friction, I took the bolt out and oiled what I assumed to be a mechanism related to the stuck bolt. Somehow all the pieces went back together, the gun was reloaded, the trigger pulled and this time the bolt got the second round loaded about halfway. I repeated the process, toying with something new, repeating it about 3 times if I recall correctly. Finally, I figured out something through trial and error and upon firing a round, the bolt slid back and forward completely with a solid click. Suddenly, I had a .22 rifle.

I recall that event as an exceptionally satisfying moment. Something had been broken and I had fixed it. I seem to have a strong inclination for fixing. Broken things offend my sense of reality. I have a particularly challenging time at Christmas when I pull light strings out of the box knowing half of them will be worthless. Taking something that is broken and making it work again is an exercise in observation, attentiveness, trial and error, patience and an attitude unwilling to accept that fact that things break.

This all comes up as I read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value Of Work. Like so many of the beautiful things in life, I ran into this book serendipitously as I browsed in the Dallas Public Library online catalog. The book is a philosophical examination of our devaluation of the manual trades seen through the lens of removing shop class from the public education. For those of my readers who don’t even know what shop class is or was, once upon a time in a land not so far away, our education system was more rational. Knowing that not every student was bound or even suited for college, classes were taught in secondary school that readied students for other careers. I took home economics and shop class in junior high, two classes the kids of today probably have no conception of. I distinctly remember building a flour scoop out of tin that my mother uses TO THIS DAY. I built a tack hammer out of steel rods in shop that 25 years later hangs on a peg in my garage and is at least occasionally used. I remember learning how to balance a check book and make biscuits in home economics. Apparently, these critical skills aren’t even taught in our education system anymore. Shop was a way for the mechanically inclined to learn about drill presses and table saws and lathes. It provided the foundations of the manual trades like plumbing or electrician. Somewhere along the way, we decided that those trades weren’t fit for our kids and we are systematically removing the classes of shop and home economics from our educational system. We look upon blue collar jobs with a mixture of disdain and pity until our toilet overflows and then we just desperately want someone to make it go away.

One of the first ideas in this book is the ethics of maintenance and repair. We live in a consumerist society where everything broken (and many things that aren’t!) are thrown away. We rush out to find a replacement to take its place and soothe the existential anxiety in our psyche. The idea of maintaining something through regular care and attention is a lost art. This value loss is evident throughout our society not only in our constant need for something new to buy but in our inability to maintain our bodies, our government, our financial state and our psychological well-being. My grandfather would have no more thrown away something broken that might be fixable than he would have bought water in a bottle at a convenience store. Of course, this meant there was a lot of broken shit around the farm but it also meant that his 13 year old grandson would have the chance to fix a .22 rifle that had sat in the corner of the barn for years. It also meant that he could run into a problem and through self-reliance, come up with a solution because he was attuned to the inner workings of things as well as the true cost of replacing them. We no longer have that attenuation nor that self-reliance as values. In fact, we are bombarded daily about replacing the things we already have and that function perfectly well. The ethic of immediate gratification has been drilled into us and we have begun to accept it as fact. It is difficult to logically question the slightly uncomfortable feeling I get watching a Ford F-150 ad that subconsciously encourages me to replace a perfectly working car. It is even more difficult to enjoy what we have and nurture it.

Yet the satisfaction that comes from fixing something broken or creating something new out of existing parts is qualitatively different than the satisfaction of replacing it. Buying something provides a brief surge of dopamine and pleasure that fades rapidly as we grow accustomed to the item. Fixing something boosts esteem, confidence and understanding. Throwing things away is a pervasive new ethic we have only recently acquired, one driven by an omnipresent advertising industry and an economy that can only function with regular and extensive consumption. We are told that consuming leads to happiness and many of us no longer are even capable of fixing something broken. Even when we desire to, we’re often thwarted by the object in question that has been designed in a way to prevent maintenance or repair. As an example, there at least some models of Mercedes Benz with no oil dipstick.

This consumption ethic runs deeply in our moral system as we now find it easier and easier to throw almost anything away from TVs to spouses. We don’t even notice that we do it many times. I recently went to lunch with Mara and some friends and we poked fun at the idea our grandparents would wash ziploc bags without considering the implications of our readiness to cast aside something used a single time. We do this because we think it makes our life easier and in fact, it probably does. But nothing fulfilling was ever easy and we do not replace the time gained from throwing away ziploc bags or broken lawnmowers or perfectly good TVs with time spent on activities or relationships that fulfill our soul. And then we complain on social media about our inability to be happy. The irony is immense.

In my industry of software development, the job no one wants is “maintenance developer”. You’ll never see that on a resume or a job listing. You try not to tell candidates there may be a great deal of maintenance involved with the position while at the same time trying to discover in the interview if the potential candidate has difficulty doing maintenance. Maintenance and repair of any thing whether it’s a car or a software system or a firearm requires the curiosity to discover how the system works, the patience to fight through all the things that don’t fix the problem, the vision to put yourself in the shoes of the original creator and an appreciation for existing work that many people no longer carry. Software developers from the consumerist society disdain maintenance work and are quick to push for a rewrite or development of a new system. Maintenance is dirty, difficult work that has been lessened in my industry and our culture, not necessarily in that order. Yet the developer who can apply a mechanic’s mindset to existing systems is almost always in demand much like mechanics or plumbers or electricians in the material world. Everything around us will continue to require maintenance and eventually, the mindset and culture focused on replacing that which works perfectly well will break down irreparably.

Our cultural and personal ethos, whether considered or silently adopted, is a function of our belief system where the inputs are what we consider valuable and the outputs are happiness and fulfillment. Our current ethos is maximized to provide the most short term happiness while building up physical, financial, psychological and societal debt we hope to never deal with. Our belief system has changed over the past 40 years for a plethora of reasons. We no longer are a rural society where each family had to be capable of providing for itself. We created a consumerist society by moving manufacturing jobs overseas in pursuit of the cheapest method of production. We pushed for a one size fits all education system where a college degree is the pathway to a career which devalued an apprentice or trades school path. The cost of things is our only value function where we decide on everything based on its price never considering the long term attributes of quality, ease of maintenance or effect on the society at large. We have a laser-like focus on the short term and our own immediate happiness which has tremendous negative effects on the debt we carry personally, emotionally and societally.

What can we do to change this? For one we need to reconsider our attitudes towards the future of work and our disinterest in the manual trades. We will always need people who work with their hands and allowing kids to find their way into those careers should not be discouraged. Instead of free junior college for everyone, the President could provide primary funding for apprenticeships and shop classes. Of course, that’s never going to happen but continuing to push a model that believes everyone is fit for college and should get a degree solves nothing. Our problem isn’t that we’re undereducated, it’s that many of our young people are loaded with debt with no hope of ever paying it off, all for a piece of paper that they are discovering does little for them in a world where the middle class is slowly being eroded.

Second, from a personal level, we could be more aware of what we throw away. Adopting a more Stoic philosophy and focusing on being happy with what we have will go a long way towards eliminating the trash culture we have. It will have negative impacts on our consumerist society but we need to change that as well if we hope to ever have a real recovery that isn’t just the stock market going up.

Last, develop an appreciation for what is required to maintain and repair those things we have chosen to bring into our lives. Begin to notice the desire to replace our possessions with newer shiny possessions and question it. What causes me to want a new TV when I have a perfectly good one? What causes me to pay $70 for an oil change when I know exactly how to do it myself and it requires only slightly more time?

In an unhappy, narcissistic world focused on consumption, one of the fastest ways to finding meaning lies in a return to an ethic of maintenance. Replacing the fleeting, ephemeral pleasure of the new with the long lasting satisfaction derived from fixing or creating something is a lofty and noble goal. It requires more time, effort and dedication but in return provides long lasting relationships and a greater understanding of those things we choose to bring into our lives. And maybe, just maybe, it will give us fodder to write blog posts about a curious kid with a broken gun and a grandfather with a mechanic’s mindset. I think I’ll go pull out that old .22 and see if I can’t give it a good cleaning. It’s squirrel season and a walk in the woods with my grandfather’s gun might go a long way towards easing the soul.

On Antifragility

Une maison est une machine-à-habiter. A house is a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture (1923)

Le Corbusier was a French architect, urbanist and writer influential in the early 20th century on urban planning. He was an idealist who saw the slums of Paris and dreamed of imposing order on them. He saw the slums as crowded, dirty and lacking morality. Le Corbusier envisioned a Contemporary City with 60 story cruciform skyscrapers enshrouded in glass to house the homes and offices of the wealthy. These huge buildings were placed in large, rectangular green space areas. In his utopian city, as you moved farther from the city center of the skyscrapers, zigzag multistory buildings would house the less wealthy. Early on, Le Corbusier recognized the impact the automobile was going to have and his ideas influenced the modern urban planning zeitgeist of urban centers redeveloped to be high density areas connected to outlying suburban and rural lower income housing by freeways.

Le Corbusier looked at the randomness and disorderliness of the slums and longed to impose order and homogeneity on them. He saw inefficiencies in the organization of humanity and created a landscape that was efficient if nothing else. His greatest desire was to make things a machine as evidenced by the opening quote. Things should fit in a box in the most efficient manner possible. Of course, the problem is, in nature and in humanity, the efficient and the homogenous are delicately fragile. Something that is highly efficient has little redundancy built in and fails at the first wrench thrown into the works. Homogenizing the living arrangements of the poor results in even greater disparity in class structure, in modern times leaving a vacuum often filled with gangs, drugs and violence (see the Cabrini-Green Housing Project). We know now (though we have yet to internalize it at any real societal level) that separating the classes by gates, walls and miles of freeways leads to inhospitable cities lacking in vibrancy. It may be efficient to put all the offices downtown and have all the proletariats drive in from the suburbs but it leaves the city desolate and the people unhappy.

Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder is Nassim Taleb’s latest book dealing with concepts he has spent the last several years exploring. It defines a new term, antifragile, as the exact opposite of fragile, more than robust or resilient but actually a system, body or item that improves under stress. This new term is required in many ways as our language lacks the precise description of the concept. Robust is the closest we can achieve but this is lacking in that something robust deals with stress well, is neither harmed nor improved but doesn’t actually grow stronger under stressors.

The concept is fascinating and applies to many aspects of modern life, typically in the negative. For the past half decade or more, we have been marching away from the antifragile in politics, economics, medicine, personal health, personal and national financial responsibility and philosophy. Our systems are more and more planned and efficient, hallmarks of the fragile. We struggle mightily to remove the variability in the system whether that’s our economic system or our daily health. We bail out TBTF banks to prevent them from failing and causing a ripple effect on the world economic scene and we sit on the couch taking ADD medicine and Prozac to avoid the highs and lows of emotional daily life. We pore over daily status updates and Twitter feeds and empty news stories constantly increasing the noise and pointless information while decreasing the signal and meaningfulness in our lives. Every day, our society becomes more fragile and largely, so do we as individuals. If there is one thing nature hates, it’s a planned, efficient fragile system yet that’s what we are constantly striving to create. Avoiding the risks and bumps of a system by kicking the can down the road necessarily fails poorly.

The urban planning of Le Corbusier with its hope for utopia and imposed order on a functionally messy and disorderly system was doomed to be fragile. In a complex system, top down planning cannot hope to capture all the possible ramifications of decisions and outside effects. These decisions eventually will manifest themselves in novel and disturbing ways. Our economic system, protected by the elites of government from the variability necessary to make it stronger, failed magnificently in 2008 and nothing has changed. The interconnectedness and complexity of the economic system dictates that future variability and shock will cause unforeseen and disturbing effects.

I’m hoping to write several posts on the topics and ideas of this book examining the concepts of fragility and antifragility and how they relate to so many aspects of our current cultural, personal and socio-economic lives. To be fragile is to largely be miserable and while it is difficult, it is not impossible to move farther on the continuum away from fragility and towards a more robust and possibly antifragile life and culture.

On Consequence

Webster defines consequence as “something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions”, e.g. the economic consequences of war. We often think of consequences as a direct reaction to some action, positive or negative. My dog knows there are consequences when he decides to have a snack out of the litter box, namely I yell “WRONG! BAD DOG!” a couple of times, open the door, and he gets to spend some time outside thinking about what he’s done. However, there are times (and I know this because I clean the litter box and there is never enough proof that two cats live in this house) when he’s home alone and gets to snack sans consequence. That’s because the consequence of my yelling at him and tossing him outside resulting from his action of eating cat poop is largely an artifact of whether I find out about his actions.

Typically, the severity of consequences that result from an action are dependent on the action. Drive home drunk from a bar and there is a chance that you will suffer the consequence of being arrested and charged with DWI. Drive home drunk from a bar the wrong way down the highway and kill three people and you WILL be charged with manslaughter at least. Consequence is a probability function based on both the action being discovered and the severity of the action. When my dog gets to stay at home alone and snack on cat poop at his leisure with no consequence, this is a bad thing as it relates to his good behavior because dogs don’t have the ability to rationalize past events with current or future consequences. For a dog, the consequence needs to be delivered in close proximity to the action. If I come home and find the cat box clear of all poop and yell at my dog, it does exactly zero good because he has no idea why I’m yelling at him.

If I want the canine behavior of eating kitty poop to cease, I have to take two steps. First, I have to prevent said behavior from happening when I’m not around to deliver consequences or I need to set up some sort of consequence delivery method for the times I’m not around. For example, if every time my dog sticks his head in the litter box, an RFID transmitter sets off an electric collar around his neck and gave him a little jolt, it would not be long before he ceased sticking his head in the litter box. This is how retrievers are taught to avoid snakes and it’s pretty effective. Alternatively, I could close the door to the room with the litter box when I’m not home eliminating the behavior entirely. Of course, that action has the consequence of having Rocky the cat take a dump in my shoe and thus instead of enforcing a desired canine behavior, my actions get negatively reinforced. I digress.

Second, I need to consistently and forcefully administer the same negative consequence every time the dog gets an inappropriate snack. If one time I congratulate him and give him a Milkbone and another time kick him viciously, he won’t connect the consequence with the action no matter how immediately the consequence is delivered. Negative behaviors must be reinforced with negative consequences and positive behaviors must be reinforced with positive consequences. If B.F. Skinner taught us anything, it is this.

With no consequences, behavior can run rampant. In the case of my dog, the behavior isn’t really that bad. Eating cat poop doesn’t seem to negatively affect his digestive tract, only my Puritan sensibilities. He doesn’t have any evil intentions when he does it. It’s just his poop eating nature. But when humans and corporations discover they can avoid all but the most minor of consequences, especially if the actions were malicious to begin with, then intentions can quickly become pointedly evil.

Last week, Halliburton the company pled guilty to a single criminal charge in relation to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. The company admitted to destroying evidence related to computer simulations of the number of collars used to keep the pipe centered in the well. Halliburton recommended twenty one collars but BP installed only six on the Deepwater Horizon. The computer simulations showed there was little difference between the two scenarios. Upon completion of the simulations, “unidentified individuals” directed employees to destroy the simulations in what must have been an attempted act of self-preservation.

For their crime, Halliburton was fined $200,000 and placed on three years of probation. The probation was probably from dying of laughter at a $200,000 fine, a sum smaller than many employees’ bonuses I would imagine. In contrast, BP agreed to pay $4 billion in its settlement with the Justice Department in regards to Deepwater. Transocean, the builder of the rig, paid a fine of $400 million. And yet Halliburton, a company that is pleading guilty to destroying evidence in what is one of the worst environmental disasters in our country’s history, paid a fine of $200,000. For some perspective, in the second quarter of 2013, Halliburton recorded a profit of $679 million on revenues of $7.32 billion (with a big capital B).

This is but the most recent example in a long line of sordid and sad examples of our government, sworn to protect the people, dealing out consequences to a corporation that couldn’t possibly incent the behavior we’d prefer. No one was fired. No one was even paraded up the courthouse steps. The company, not people, was fined and placed on probation. In what way could this possibly send a message the next time a decision has to be made on keeping evidence around that is damning to Halliburton? “Unnamed individuals” who direct employees to destroy evidence should be hung up by their toenails in the public square, not quietly allowed to remain anonymous. Without consequence, only anarchy reigns. To change society as it currently stands, we must actively police those who would take advantage of an era of no consequences and we must impart swift and meaningful consequences on those who break the rules. Without the accompanying shock of punishment, those amongst us who are immoral and power hungry will continue to run amok.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, we have found ourselves increasingly immersed in a culture of moral hazard driven by the financiers of Wall Street and implicitly aided by the weak and ineffectual government we have created. The costs of these disasters are foisted upon the public at large and rarely find a roost with those who conceived and implemented the plots. The large banks are back to raking in billions of dollars while the people of America are left to struggle. Halliburton pays a laughable fine and continues with business as normal while the people of the coast suffer the consequences of Halliburton’s actions.

Until the destructive actions of these responsible parties are met with swift and vengeful consequences, we will continue to limp along barely existing while the rich and the powerful continue to feast on the spoils of the system.

Thinking About Dressing Up While Planting Basil

Basil the plant, not Basil Exposition or Basil Rathbone, both worthy of mention but not of planting. It’s near the end of May and the early fall garden had grown neglected and weed filled like so many exciting adventures do. The broccoli and cauliflower all had gone to seed producing nary a morsel of salad material and the collards were thinking about bolting (if only they had longer legs). So Sunday morning we ripped everything out in preparation for an early summer garden which in the often hellish like climate we live in may rank near the top of the Top 10 foolhardy things I have done somewhere between going to grad school and attempting to read A Theory of Justice without clawing my eyes out.

Luckily, there are many things that we can grow here in June, July and August, most of which are imports from Africa, that other hellish continent outdone in heat, humidity and disaster only by Wichita Falls. Okra, Southern Peas and the hottest of peppers do ok in the heat along with luffa, a gourd that turns into both that thing you use to scrub your back and a rambling tangle of vines not unlike my blog posts. Having run out of steam on Monday (it was a holiday after all), I came home and planted several of these while considering the implications of the state of today’s masculine fashion a topic not usually considered while trying to remember where you actually planted that row of okra.

These sartorial thoughts were in fact not brought on by the dirt or the okra or the basil (though Basil Rathbone was a debonair, well dressed man) but instead by this article written in 2008 by an English professor who embarked on a year long experiment in dressing better. It is reasonably short, well with in Facebook attention span length and I recommend reading it. I ran into the article on Hacker News and the comments on the article are really what got me to thinking about the state of male fashion in general but certainly in the IT world I live in specifically.

Some history might be in order. At my very first tech job acquired at the ripe old age of 26, I think I went to work an entire year wearing a baseball cap each day. It was, as they say, my thing. Coworkers would see me out at night without one and not recognize me. I truly believed that people who sat at their computers all day pounding out keystrokes that turned into bits and bytes and other assorted digital representations could hardly be expected to get up and you know, comb their hair every day. Why would I? The computer didn’t care what I looked like. It wasn’t like I met with clients or even other coworkers some days. This attitude is representative of about 50% of the developer population as evidenced by the comments on Hacker News. Most developers look at dressing up in anything beyond jeans and a t-shirt as an exquisite waste of time at best and an affront to their very ability as developers at worst.

On the flip side, and it literally is a flip side, there seems to be no middle ground in the haberdashery of software developers, you have those who have come to the realization (the forty year old in me says “maturity” quietly while yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn) that well dressed men in general seem to have an easier time of it in some way. It may be the level of respect afforded a man who looks good in his clothes or some vestigial remembrance of experience in Catholic school with a overbearing principal but most people see a man in dress clothes with a degree of awe or at least deferential respect.

But leaving aside the IT world for a moment where a male dressed in a suit is often addressed with the question “How’d the interview go?” which can be dicey when he actually had an interview and doesn’t care enough about his current job not to change clothes or when his goldfish died and he just returned from the funeral. In general, men seem to be largely incapable of dressing for a given situation anymore, say the theater or the symphony. We run around dressed as somewhere slightly north of disheveled most of the time and then when the occasion warrants are unable to muster the ability or taste to dress to it. Saturday night, we went to the theater (no the “theat-ah” is it is New York or London but still, a play on a Saturday night) and we saw no fewer than three men dressed in short with untucked shirts. Yes it’s Dallas. Yes it’s a little hot. But do we have no shame, no sense of propriety? Once last year, at an opening of a Dallas Theater Center show, I saw a man, perhaps late twenties, dressed in some sort of Ralph Lauren Polo shorts so tight I that I knew his religion. When did we as men all become so lost in the world of taste and fashion?

Cary Grant once wrote an article for GQ in which he talked about how he dressed and gave the reader advice on what to do in the clothing department. He ended it like this:

Somewhere I read that Harvard’s Professor Archibald MacLeish was asked by a student about to graduate into our highly competitive world what advice he could give him. Professor MacLeish’s answer was, “Wear your Sunday suit every day.” The inference, of course, being that the suit would give the young man such confidence in seeking positions that he would eventually own many Sunday suits, for any and all days.

Splendid advice even by itself, but it’s probable that the professor meant not only his Sunday or best suit, but also his Sunday or best smile, disposition, and behavior—knowing that each begets the other. So wear, not only your clothes, but yourself, well, with confidence. Confidence, too, is in the middle of the road, being neither aggressiveness nor timidity. Pride of new knowledge—including knowledge of clothes—continually adds to self-confidence.

That so eloquently captures what it is to dress well. It is a feeling about oneself that says “I’m confident”. Wearing an untucked fishing shirt over shorts and dock siders to the theater says “I’m incapable of caring” or “I refuse to pretend like anything is important” or “This is the only set of clothes I can feel comfortable in”, statements which seem to be the norm and make me profoundly sad.

None of the above is to say I wish to return to the days when everyone wore a suit. Clearly that cat is out of the bag unskinned and running away at full speed. Still, I wish men had a better sense of when to be dressed nicely. Even if your wife dragged you out of the house when the Heat-Pacers game just started to go watch a ridiculous play on Enron (which is not a ridiculous play at all but just closed this weekend and thus requires no write up as you can’t go see it), pretend like the situation is more interesting and dress up a little. Who knows, you may find that just by taking the time to pretend you care increases the amount you do actually care.

On Adventure And Detachment

Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness–a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

So begins White Fang, Jack London’s fine novel about the taming of a wolf-dog against backdrop of the Yukon territory of Canada, a novel of man’s struggle against the Great North. The common theme in much of London’s writing was the harsh unforgiving wilderness of the Northwest and man’s attempts, often futile, at taming it. For as long as something untamed has existed, man has wanted to explore it both as a platform for possible riches and as a vehicle of exploration into the self. The lure of the wilderness is powerful. Jacques Barzun in his epic historical work From Dawn to Decadence speaks of Primitivism and Emancipation as overarching themes of Western Civilization, ideas that appear continually with force throughout the last 500 years in Western culture. Primitivism is the desire to return to a simpler age than the advanced one we currently live in. Contrary to common belief, an appeal to Primitivism is centuries old. Emancipation, the freedom of the individual to explore his rights and abilities is another theme common to our civilization. We want to find ourselves, explore our inner child, discover our inner greatness unshackled by the contraints of civilization and a well paying job. Emancipation and Primitivism often go hand in hand in literature, the arts and the dreams of people sitting at desks staring at computers the world over. The idea of dropping everything and living life to its fullest is deceptively alluring.

This idea is central to Chris McCandless and the film Into The Wild. McCandless was (if you haven’t seen the film and hate spoilers, now would be the time to forget the tense of the last verb and go watch the film. I’ll still be here when you get back.) a young man who upon graduation from Emory University in 1990 gave away his entire savings and set out on a cross country trip that would culminate with a trip into the Alaskan wilderness two years later. McCandless’ story is expertly told by Sean Penn in the film. The viewpoint is entirely sympathetic to McCandless’ desire to drop out of the advanced society he seems to hate and glowingly details this return to Primitivism as a way of finding one’s self.

Most of us have dreamed of throwing caution to the wind in an undertaking modest society would find uncomfortable at best and insane at worst. Hiking the Appalachian Trail, swimming the English Channel, mailing the keys to the house back to the bank and driving down to Mexico to see if we can find Andy Dufresne sanding a boat on some windswept sparkling white beach. The desire to give up everything and hit the reboot button is ingrained in our collective psyche, almost instinctual (or maybe that’s just Microsoft’s world wide dominance since that’s the only way to cure a Windows PC sometimes). We find the thought of starting over strangely compelling. Of course the reason for that is it’s easier to start over than it is to fix something broken. This idea that if we could just start over, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes and things would be different is strong. None of us like to admit failure. Detachment from those failures, whether our own or others, is a strong impulse.

McCandless’ story is this desire for detachment from the problems of the past writ large. This is not the story of someone who decided to climb Everest or hike the Appalachian Trail. This is the story of a young man who felt betrayed by his parents and their treatment of him, not unjustifiably so. That betrayal manifested itself as total detachment from the society he saw as corrupt and wasteful. He took the easy road, severed all human ties with his parents and became a nomad. Early in the story, McCandless believes that happiness can be achieved without permanent human relationships. His love of nature and the world is highly Romanticized. He uses his belief that people are naturally terrible to each other as a springboard for his detachment. Only later, far too late, does he realize that happiness is most powerful when shared and that in fact it is Nature that is harsh and unfeeling. He wasn’t an adventurer contrary to his wikipedia page description. He was a reckless idealist, unprepared for almost everything he encountered who was fortunate in the two years running up to Alaska.

His story is compelling on several fronts. The generalized idea of dropping out to find oneself goes back 500 years or more and has a strong literary history in Thoreau, London and others. Here we have a man who left the creature comforts of his known existence and did just that. The moral themes of the story are also compelling. McCandless is said to have a powerful moral compass. He never forgives his parents for the lies and abuse. He refuses to sleep with an underage girl instead choosing to share in something she loves. He seems to touch everyone’s life for the better that he meets. Yet when it comes to his own survival, he chooses to leave it largely to chance. He walks into the Alaskan wilderness armed with a bag of rice, a fishing pole he doesn’t seem to ever use, a book on edible plants and a .22 caliber rifle. This is tantamount to suicide and one could argue a strongly immoral choice. This isn’t Thoreau living in a cabin in the woods. McCandless is woefully unprepared for the harshness of his chosen path. This isn’t a man dropping off the grid. It’s misguided idealism in place of adventure.

Eventually, he comes to the realization that human relationships are necessary for true happiness. As in any good tragedy, this realization comes too late. When he tries to return to civilization, the river he crossed in early spring is full with snow melt. He finds his way back to the camp he had been staying in and slowly starts to spiral into starvation and madness. His total lack of preparation leaves him uninformed of the fact that a quarter of a mile from where he tried to cross the now raging river is a hand cranked tram on which he could have easily crossed. He returns to his camp to eventually starve to death.

Is Chris McCandless a tragic hero? Aristotle said that the tragic hero has to be a man “who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” On the surface, McCandless’ tragic flaw is manifested in his total lack of preparation. Even a minute amount of knowledge about the area he was hiking into would have prevented his death. Even a tiny bit of critical thinking could have told him that a bus didn’t end up in the Alaskan tundra on its own (he lives in an abandoned bus for the 4 months he is there). We have a young man who seems exceptionally intelligent without the foresight to have a backup plan. His desire for total emancipation from civilization seems to divorce him of the ability to be prepared for not just the worst circumstance but even a slight bump in the road.

The scenes in the movie are breathtaking and the very real sense of adventure you get from McCandless’ travels is powerful. You do come to feel a strong sense of pity for him as the story unravels. That pity is twofold in nature. On the surface, the eventual realization concerning happiness and his inability to make good on that realization evokes the pity common with all tragic heros. But I found myself pitying him in a more subtle way as it relates to his apparent inability to form lasting relationships. People are just passing through his life and vice versa. The armchair psychologist could say that is a direct artifact of his relationship with his father. However, lots of people have crappy relationships with their parents and still live normal, adjusted lives. In McCandless and his realization of the tragic hero archetype, we have this more fundamental flaw at the heart of things. His lack of preparation in all things is a physical manifestation of his inability to form lasting relationships not just with people but with situations, locations, careers, etc.

That is why McCandless was a tragic hero, one that speaks to the rest of us in a meaningful way. Chris McCandless dies in the Alaskan wilderness because he couldn’t ever get over the fact that his father lied to him (and was possibly violent but the key theme to the story seems to be the lies). His desire for Emancipation leads him to walk into the wilderness without a map, a real weapon or even adequate shoes all because of this misguided desire to rely totally on his wits and abilities. The irony is that with the exception of his father (and that scary train guy), every other person in the story is fantastically good to McCandless. Yet he never realizes this in time to change. We associate with McCandless our own desire for Primitivism and Emancipation from problems created by people in our lives. But this is a mistake. Far better though harder to resolve the things that cause these desires.

Into The Wild is a great movie, one that raises age old questions of what it is to know one’s self. It is a story of tragedy, one beautifully told with the Primitivism of the Alaskan wilderness as a backdrop. You find yourself rooting for McCandless as you do with any tragic hero and his tragic flaw raises many of the same questions Thoreau and London did in their writing. It is a fascinating modern tale of the tragic hero.

Free Will, Sharing and Facebook

Facebook has been in the news a great deal lately. Early this week, they made some changes to their site design. Yesterday, they announced Facebook Timelines which is essentially a digital representation of your life that will be available on the web unless you choose for it not to be. Neither of these changes have been received well by Facebook users. If you’re on Facebook, I’m sure you’ve seen many posts related to the topics, specifically the new UI design. There are a couple of ideas I want to discuss that are related to these changes. The first is the idea, often seen in the threads like those I just mentioned, that you don’t pay Facebook anything and you don’t have to use the app. You can choose to not use Facebook. I think this is incorrect for a large number of Facebook users. The second idea is the biggie from Facebook, the idea of frictionless sharing. Both are connected through the idea of choice.

I chose to give up Facebook for Lent this year. I’m not a huge Facebook user but it’s a convenient way to stay in touch with people and as it turns out, get invited to things by people I don’t regularly see, typically former coworkers. We have a private group that we use to announce happy hours, football watching and other group events. During the 40 days of Lent, I received not a single invitation to events thrown by Facebook friends because I wasn’t on Facebook. This isn’t entirely due to my absence as I live out in the boonies and am kind of a hermit. However, what happened when I gave up Facebook for 40 days was the default situation changed. Instead of the default being that I got invited and could choose whether I attended or not, I just didn’t get invited. This is because Facebook is the default social application on the web. I had little recourse to change the default while not on Facebook short of just calling people randomly to see if something was going on. While this is how the world worked in the past, the world has changed. The merit of the change is certainly up for discussion but in certain cohorts, Facebook is the default. Without access to Facebook, you lose access to those people.

This idea that we don’t have to be on Facebook sits on the concept of free will. Free will is the idea that as human beings we have the ability to make any decision we want, carte blanche, free of outside constraints. Free will has long been an active topic in philosophy and religion. Most people believe that we truly do have free will, that given a choice between A and B, you can just as easily choose one over the other. This is the core of the argument that “You don’t have to be on Facebook.” For example, someone who believes I have free will thinks that I can make the choice to walk into a crowded theater and yell “FIRE!” at the top of my lungs. However, I believe (as does most of society thankfully) that free will is constrained by social determinism, the idea that the choices you have are limited based on your desire to remain a citizen in good standing in society. Because I don’t want to go to jail, I can’t yell FIRE! in a theater. My choices are constrained by the social mores of the community I live in.

What does all this have to do with Facebook? When someone says “stop complaining, you don’t have to be on Facebook”, it is really just an argument in favor of total free will as it relates to how that person interacts with his friends, family and cohort. However, because Facebook is THE default social application and because so many of our interactions are becoming digital in nature, not being on Facebook is tantamount to not having friends. Many of us are constrained by the social choices our friends and family make, assuming we don’t want to become hermits. Extreme? Possibly but I am not a huge Facebook user and I didn’t get invited to events for 40 days when I left Facebook. Someone for whom Facebook connects the many people in their lives do not have the easy choice to give up Facebook.

Additionally, Facebook will now have something called “frictionless sharing.” This was announced in the f8 conference by Mark Zuckerberg this week. Frictionless sharing is the idea that when you watch a movie or read a link or listen to a song, that activity will be posted to your Facebook timeline if you have authorized the app that controls it. For example, if you authorize the app for Bob’s XYZ Health Service, every time you visit a link at Bob’s XYX Health Service, it will get posted to your news feed. Perhaps you think you’d never do something like that? Think about the last time you encountered a Terms of Service for software you bought or installed. Did you read it entirely? Or did you just click “Agree”? The request for authorization could be as arcane and difficult as a Terms of Service and many people would just click “OK”. Or people won’t think through what they are actually clicking.

There are two fundamental things wrong with frictionless sharing. First, it’s one very huge step on the slippery slope towards the destruction of privacy. Once you authorize an app, there is almost no telling what will get posted to your timeline if it remotely involves that app. Let’s say for example I authorize the hypothetical Bob’s service above. One day, many months later, I go into Google and search for “colon cancer symptoms and treatments”. The second link in the results happens to be a sponsored link from Bob’s. Not thinking anything about it, I click on that link. The link gets posted to my feed but because I’m busy looking up colon cancer treatments, I don’t notice. 12 months after that, I’m diagnosed with colon cancer. My insurance agency denies coverage because they found my search online and ruled it must have been a pre-existing condition. It matters not that at the time I was looking up information for my dad. I still get denied coverage. Or what if it’s a picture sharing app and one day you download some erotic pictures from your camera that you took with your significant other? The examples go on and on. People will make mistakes and in our increasingly connected digital world, a mistake of this nature can be absolutely life changing.

The second thing wrong with frictionless sharing is the idea itself. Throughout time, we have been a social creature. Even before the Internet, we shared our lives, our joys, our griefs with each other. But sharing is necessarily full of friction. The most important friction in sharing is the very act of it being explicit. The concept of sharing revolves around the idea that I chose to share something with you. The phrase “frictionless sharing” is an oxymoron, one created by a company whose single overarching goal is to get you to put as much information about yourself and your life online in manner that gives them the most access to it. Frictionless sharing should terrify you.

Even before the latest changes, we were probably at the point where you should assume everything you do in regards to Facebook is public. These latest steps by Facebook move us down a path where even actions you take outside the application may become public. Don’t ever forget that you are not actually a user of Facebook. You are the product, the thing that they are selling to their actual users, the people who buy ads and invest in the company. Because you are not a user, you should assume that your desires and needs are not considered in almost anything Facebook does. You are the product. They are trying to sell you. Keeping that at the foremost of your mind when you are making decisions regarding sharing data with Facebook will go a long ways towards protecting your privacy.

Book Review – The Great Cholesterol Con

Let’s go on a little journey. Imagine if you will the following situation. A US pharmaceutical company, always on the outlook for ways to improve people’s lives, creates a drug that is exceptionally good at treating patients with chronic and acute pain particularly in cases of arthritis. The drug is submitted to and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that bastion of public protection, created to protect and promote public health. The drug gains worldwide acceptance among physicians who are treating patients with chronic pain. Over 80 million people worldwide prescribed the drug at some time. The pharmaceutical company has sales revenues of $2.5 billion in the fourth year of its acceptance because of its amazing success. This is clearly a story of the system working correctly, no? The research and development of a drug that is widely accepted, approved safe by the governmental agency designed to protect the public from rogue agents has to be a great success story.

Unfortunately that’s not the case. The drug described above is Vioxx. After 5 years on the market, it was voluntarily withdrawn by Merck after data in multiple studies showed that there was a dose-dependent increased risk of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) among users of Vioxx. Over the course of its 5 year usage, it is estimated that Vioxx caused between 88,000 and 139,000 heart attacks, 30 to 40 % of which were fatal. There is some evidence that Merck either withheld data or reported it in a suspiciously favorable way that showed an increased rate of overall mortality from the FDA. At the very least, what we have here is an incident where a major pharmaceutical company had a drug that was exceptionally profitable. That drug was on the market for 5 full years before anyone managed to notice that it was definitely causing an increase in cardiovascular events and possible reducing the overall mortality of people taking it long term. The system does not protect us and can be easily manipulated by those most likely to profit.

This incident occurred through the usage of selective reporting of data in studies sponsored by the pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, this is the norm in our current health environment. Studies and study authors are often directly sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. Many times, the study data is directly interpreted by the industry. Since it is in their interest to present their products in the most positive light possible, it should come as no surprise that an incident like the Vioxx one came to be.

As it turns out, it’s entirely possible that another incident is ongoing except that it is 10 times as large as the Vioxx one above. Statins are a class of cholesterol lowering drug that had total sales revenues in 2009 of over $25 billion. They are led by atorvastatin (Lipitor) with a sales revenue in 2008 of $12.4 billion. The current thinking in the health industry today is that cholesterol is associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and thus, statins are prescribed to lower cholesterol in an effort to lower the risk of CVD. Unfortunately, the evidence to support such a conclusion is mixed at best and quite possibly not supportive of the conclusion at all.

That’s the thesis of the book The Great Cholesterol Con. The book’s author, Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, goes into great detail about the studies that have been used to support the cholesterol causes heart disease theory. He very clearly shows that the data is not nearly as ironclad as the pharmaceutical industry says, especially as it relates to cholesterol causing heart disease.

The main principle under discussion is the Diet-Heart Hypothesis which says that if you eat too many foods with saturated fat and cholesterol, the level of cholesterol in your blood will rise which will be deposited in the arterial walls causing them to thicken and harden which over time will lead to a heart attack or stroke due to a blockage in one of the arteries. This has been the main hypothesis for heart disease for many years. Unfortunately, it’s completely wrong.

It is Dr. Kendrick’s assertion that the hypothesis is flawed in two ways. First, the level of cholesterol in your blood has nothing to do with what you eat. The second, and more important, is that that doesn’t matter because cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease. In support of the first point, the book uses a two pronged approach in support. The first is an analysis of what happens in individuals who have Smith-Lemli-Optitz Syndrome (SLOS) which is a an abnormally low cholesterol level. If you go to the above link, you’ll see that having abnormally low levels of cholesterol is horribly bad for us. And yet, we are being prescribed medicines by the millions to artificially lower our cholesterol. The second prong is explaining what the body actually uses cholesterol for. As it turns out, cholesterol is in high demand in the body, such high demand that you can’t possibly eat enough cholesterol to provide your body with the requisite amount. So the liver synthesizes 4 to 5 times the amount you eat just to keep up. If you eat less cholesterol, your liver has to make more. If you eat more, your liver makes less. This is called downregulation. It makes no sense at all that by eating less saturated fat and cholesterol, we’ll have less of it in our bloodstream because the liver is always going to produce the amount the body needs to function properly.

Regarding the idea that cholesterol and saturated fat don’t cause heart disease, Dr. Kendrick presents multiple examples of instances where either the saturated fat and cholesterol intake of populations drop but the rates of heart disease increase or vice versa. The two main studies here examine the effects of rationing on WWII Britain and the French Paradox. In WWII Britain, rationing forced the population of the UK to eat much less saturated fat and more vegetables and fish were eaten. During the 12 years this happened, the rate of heart disease trebled. The French Paradox is obviously one that most people are aware of. The French eat lots of meat, lots of cheese, lots of things that, if the diet-heart hypothesis were true, should mean an increase in heart disease across the population. Instead, the French actually have a much lower incidence of heart disease relative to other populations. There is other evidence presented in the book but these two alone provide data that how we are treating heart disease is wrong.

Returning to statins, the book argues that statins actually act not through a cholesterol lowering mechanism but through some other as yet unknown mechanism. Several studies are presented that show statins have an effect on heart disease regardless of cholesterol level in the study participants. In other words, even if you already have a low cholesterol level, statins occasionally protect you from heart disease. The presents a problem in the theory that the cholesterol lowering effects of the statin are responsible for the lower incidence of heart disease. Dr. Kendrick does believe that statins have some positive effect on the incidence of heart disease but that it is not because they lower cholesterol and the evidence he presents is compelling.

However, while you might be thinking that since they have a positive effect, it shouldn’t matter whether they act on cholesterol or some other mechanism, the reality of the situation is much less positive. Here are three facts supported by multiple studies concerning statins:

  • Statins do not reduce overall mortality in women.
  • Statins do not reduce overall mortality in men without heart disease.
  • Statins do not, therefore, reduce overall morality in >95% of the adult population.

What does all that mean? It means that even if you take statins and even if they reduce the incidence of heart disease, overall mortality is unaffected in 95% of the population. In other words, taking a statin will change what they write on your death certificate under “Cause” but the “Date” portion will remain unchanged. That means that while statins lower the incidence of death by heart disease, they increase the incidence of death by other factors. What you get out of years of paying through the nose for a statin prescribed to prevent heart disease is not a longer life but just a different kind of death.

Additionally, statins have a list of side effects and contraindications long enough to scare practically anyone that reads them closely. Remember how the body needs cholesterol to function properly? There are multiple incidences of people taking statins who suddenly have acute memory loss. This would make sense because one of the uses the body has for cholesterol is in the brain synapses. Statins are known to cause muscle pain and even rhabdomyolysis. The reduction of cholesterol in pregnant women may lead to very serious birth defects. The list goes on and on. And yet there are leading “experts” out there who think we might ought to put statins in the drinking water.

The pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest to the tune of over $25 billion in revenues in keeping statins at the forefront of the fight against heart disease even though it is abundantly clear that they have an almost negligible effect on overall mortality. This book goes into great detail the problems with statins, their minimal benefit to the greater part of the population and the grave dangers that are being overlooked in the widespread use of them. As in the Vioxx case, just because the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA says it’s good for you doesn’t actually mean it is. If you are on a statin or have been told by your doctor that you should be taking one, you owe it to yourself to read this book to see what you’re actually getting yourself into.

What Is The American Way of Life?

Lexington Green asks this question over at Chicago Boyz while providing his own answer. It’s a phrase you often hear but that rarely is explained. I wonder if it isn’t largely personal in nature and possibly dependent on your political proclivities. However, given the existence of the concept, I also feel that there are common threads through the idea that weave it into a general belief system for most Americans. Since I’ve often heard the phrase but never taken the time to define it for myself, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do so.

Leave us alone. Stealing the concept from Grover Norquist, I think Americans would typically want to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit financially, spiritually and politically. We believe that we are the best judges of what is good for us and that no amount of central planning will ever take the place of our own decisions.

Hard work done intelligently should produce just rewards I Corinthians 3:5-9 says that God will reward us each according to our work. We have internalized this as a national concept. We believe that if we work hard and produce something of value, our efforts will typically be rewarded or at the very least not drastically hindered by forces outside our control. If we develop something successful, it will not be taken from us by the more powerful and we will be left to exploit our hard work in whatever manner we see fit.

The system is not rigged Closely related to the above point, we will be treated honestly and fairly as individuals, both by our fellow citizens and by our government. Favoritism and cronyism will play no part in the advancement of our ideas and efforts.

We have the freedom to change our own circumstances For better or for worse, we can always pick up and do something else, always of our own volition. This may be from a career standpoint or a geographical one.

We are not responsible for the follies of others There seems to be a strong sense of justice in American citizens and we are typically most offended when we feel that someone has escaped the effects of bad judgment. You should have the right to screw up your life but you should not expect anyone to provide a helping hand when you do so.

We are compassionate If you do screw up, we are likely to help out but we would prefer this help to come from families, friends and charities and not the central government.

We have the right to defend ourselves at all costs This is true in both domestic and foreign issues. This was important enough to encode in the Second Amendment and our history as a nation has typically shown that we are slow to respond but when we do, it is with the entire force of the American nation.

Generally, my idea of the American Way of life is largely Jacksonian in that the people should be in charge of the Republic. Andrew Jackson, despite many flaws, believed that the common people should be deeply involved in American democracy and that when they were not, the democratic tradition was subverted. I believe the American Way of Life is defined by the empowerment of the people to improve their situation, protect their family, friends and property and to live a life of their own choosing.

Complexity

I sit on the Library Advisory Board for the City of Wylie and we had our monthly meeting last night. At one point in the discussions, it came up that a relatively minor technical problem had happened at the library and that it had taken almost a week to fix. In discussing this event, several of us suggested that any number of people could have fixed the issue in a much shorter period of time. However, as it turns out, they were (and are) not allowed to do such things because of what we call in the technical world “process”. Certain procedures and protocols have to be followed in such instances because they exist, not because they are useful.

This is one of many examples of bureaucracy that I’ve run into, not just on the library board but in life in general. Bureaucracy thrives on complexity because it allows inefficiencies in the system to be hidden and avoided. These inefficiencies not only frustrate the people who have to deal with the bureaucracy, they also naturally mean that bureaucratic systems function at a much lower level of output than they could.

Clay Shirky wrote a fascinating article on the complexity of business models earlier this month. In it he argues that the future of media mostly likely lies not with the monolithic media conglomerates of today but instead with new creators of media that do not rely on the built in complexity that current media companies thrive on. One of the key quotes:

To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

You can see this type of attitude all around the world, not just in TV companies but in record companies, governments, Goldman Sachs and the Catholic Church, just to name a few that have been in the news lately. Complexity thrives until it doesn’t and then we revert to simplicity, often in dramatic, spectacular fashion. If you’re in the technical field, you hear horror stories about just this type of event any time 1 or more technicians get together. Complexity seems to be the bane of actually getting things done.

So why do we allow it to happen? Initially, increases in complexity tend to impart a competitive advantage on the entity being complexed. Moving from a world where I have to produce everything I need to live to a world where I can write code on the computer and buy everything I need is mostly good, especially on an individual level. The problems start occurring when the complexity reaches a level that parasites can begin to extract value without being punished or even noticed in many cases. Many times, even if they are noticed, they are practically immune to punishment or rejection because of the complexity of the system they live in.

Take for example the Rubber Rooms of the New York City Education system. Here, teachers who have committed infractions ranging from incompetence to the molestation of a school child live out amazingly boring days while waiting on arbitration of their case, all the while earning their full salaries and pension benefits. Their average length of stay? Three years. Even if the teachers are eventually dismissed, they are entitled to their pension. Here, one layer (or 30) of complexity too many has been added to a bureaucracy and now the system is failing.

Or consider the saga of the NUMMI plant, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota begun in 1984 in hopes of bringing the Toyota system of car making to GM to reintroduce quality cars. The NUMMI plant worked fantastically but when the time came to introduce the model and methods to other plants within the GM ecosystem, it didn’t work because other plants were not interested in more efficient models because it would potentially take away their power and prestige.

In the case of GM, the bureaucracy established by the company and their union eventually led to the company becoming the largest bankruptcy in US history, all paid for by taxpayers. Once upon a time, GM was a shining star of American capitalism but it ended up a disaster largely because of a huge, sprawling bureaucracy that fed on the complexity of the system. There is no guarantee that it will ever recover.

Our financial system is currently a morass of complexity that is so intertwined with our government, another huge sprawling bureaucracy, as to be indistinguishable in many ways. We found this out the hard way when the near collapse of the financial system threatened to bring down our government and many others. The financial system has become a parasite on the economy, one that appears to be providing benefit but is fact sucking the very life blood out of its victim. Once upon a time, banks existed to provide the capital and liquidity necessary to contribute growth and prosperity to our economic system. Now many banks exist as the ends instead of the means, producing nothing other than outlandish profits and bonuses for management and employees, seeking rent from the American taxpayer.

The difference between many large complex systems that have failed in the past and the complex systems of our day is that we extracted a huge amount of value from the real economy to keep the zombie systems alive. Shirky ends his article with these thoughts:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

While that may have been true in the past, our inflexible institutions have instead been propped up at vast expense to the middle class in a misguided effort to protect our economy from collapse. The problem with that is no evolution has happened at all, no new ecosystems have arisen to take the place of the failed ones, simplicity has not come to the fore in the absence of the complex. Instead of new traditions and businesses emerging from the ashes, we are still beholden to the complex beasts of yesterday.

Complex systems can only be allowed to exist insofar as they provide more value than simpler systems of the same type. When they do not, the only thing that makes sense is to allow them to die, either quietly or loudly and with much fanfare. But by propping up the dead and pretending they are still alive, we only manage to stink up the place for the foreseeable future.