Monday, September 27, 2010

Secret Pain: a quiz

I am taking a little quiz of my readers.  Tell me whether the following
seems true or false to you:

Any pain you have -  from massive but silent heartbreak to
a bruise on the outside of your left foot which hurts
every time you step on it - feels as if you're carrying 
around a secret from the world and makes you feel special.

Use the comments to reply, and I'll let you know how it


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Questioning Success: Learning From Aristotle

            .                         ?                       .
Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan criticizes
Aristotle quite severely even though they are both
peripatetic thinkers, but on one point they agree:
Success* can be difficult to measure or even recognize.

Taleb talks about banks which make ungodly profits in
a very short term and pay their directors huge bonuses,
even though a slightly more distant perspective would
soon show those profits to actually be not only losses,
but also  the destruction of jobs and pensions and 
reasonable prosperity. 

Aristotle asks a question which startles any reader with
a pulse:  how do we know that the Greek Kings who
went to war with Troy were more successful than Priam,
the King of Troy who not only saw his city destroyed,
but all his sons killed, his wife, daughters, non-warrior
population and grandchildren enslaved in defeat?

Of the Greek Kings, the only one who could have even
understood the question was Odysseus.  (Plato had him
choosing a quiet life away from fame and away from
even the question of success when he went to choose
his next life.  He chose last, but taking the soul no
one else wanted, said "I would have taken this quiet
artisan, even if I had chosen first.")  The other kings...

Well, the best emblem for the other kings may  be
Agamemnon sailing home, confident that he
had done what it took to succeed,  proud of himself
for sacrificing even what was closest to his heart,
his only daughter to obtain success; and thus secure in
his feeling of success, he sailed home to be murdered
in his bath by his still angry wife and her lover.

As he died, looking at his own blood dripping in the
bath, did Agamemnon compare his own fate with Priam's
and wonder whether it was he, the victorious warrior,
or was it Priam, the defeated one whose city was destroyed
and who had lost all his sons but who died still loved by 
his wife, which was the more succesful? 

_ -  __ ---___ ----   _______  ------ 

* When an Ancient Greek philosopher such as Aristotle
talks about happiness, the closest concept we have in
America today is success.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Value of Prizes, a catechism

Q - Who was the final recipient of the
   .   Enron Prize For Distinguished Public Service?

A - Alan Greenspan.

Q - When did he accept the award?

A - November 2001, two weeks before Enron
declared bankruptcy and 4 and 1/2 years
before Kenneth Lay, the presenter of the
award was found guilty of conspiracy,
false statements, securities fraud and bank fraud.

Q - Who were other recipients of this prize?

A - Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Colin Powell.

Q - Should a political hero like Gorbachev, a war hero like Powell
   .  or a moral hero like Mandela be held accountable for not being
   .  more careful about questioning the source of a prize he was
   .  willing to accept?

A -

-  -  -  -  -   -  - -  -  - -- -- --   -  - - - -- -- - -  -- -- - -  - - -- - -
Source:  The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, page 168.
Photo on page 170 shows Greenspan accepting award before
he even dreamed of taking co-credit for the Greenspan-Paulson
Financial Collapse of 2007.

-  -  -  -  -   -  - -  -  - -- -- --   -  - - - -- -- - -  -- -- - -  - - -- - -

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

We Don't Learn to Swim

Only God controls his thoughts, Catte,
She said to me.  The rest of us
Are the creation of our thoughts,
And we swim in their consequences,
Our reactions the waves we ride
Until we are pulled under, and
No light penetrates, and
Even the surf is so distant
It sounds intelligible.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Higher Education

In the David Brooks New York Times column yesterday,
there was a very depressing statistic:  just over 50% of
male graduates of Harvard last year went to work as
financial consultants and over 40% of female Harvard
graduates did too.

If these numbers can be believed, they are very depressing
for two reasons:

1) they confirm how that higher education
    functions mainly as the servant of success;
2) they  show how conformist even the best
    educated minds are with such a large number
    of Harvard minds clustering around a single
    field of endeavor.

Perhaps it was ever thus.  Still the hope that
education would lead to the questioning of success
rather than the serving of it, and that it would
make the educated more independent minded, not
less so are ideas which retain their hold on
some of our imaginations.

The good news for parents who really care about
education is that they have less reason to care
if their kids get into these highly competitive
schools, seeing as rather than educating young
minds, the elite schools are rather just training
them to serve the financial sector.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Loneliness of Obama

I have to say that I am very disappointed that
as Obama has had to deal with a tide of hatred
that no recent president, including Bill Clinton,
has ever had to deal with before, so many
natural supporters feel comfortable abandoning
him, because he has not done enough.

When I look at how out of touch with reality
both sides of the vocal political spectrum are
at the moment, it makes me tremble for my
country in that history does not suffer fools

To keep from fanning the partisan flames
any higher, I won't discuss the delusions of
the right; but those on the left who wish for
Obama to do more, seem not to have any
understanding of the huge forces, both
inchoate and organized, arrayed against him -
not to mention the incredible difficulty of
the political problems he inherited.

When Obama was running, he took the calculated
risk of somewhat encouraging the messianic fervour
of some of his supporters.  Especially among the
young, many had hopes and expectations simply
not consistent with the political realities of the

It seems to me almost everyone underestimates
the potential for some violent outbreak in the
current climate of fear and resentment.  Obama's
political enemies are not going to stop attacking
him in vicious terms, wishing on him the worst
possible outcome they dare imagine. 

Meanwhile many liberals talk earnestly about why
they can't help being disappointed by his this or
that and turn their backs on him and somehow
don't seem to realize how alone Obama is or what
a tightrope he needs to walk, not only to survive
himself, but to keep the body politic from
exploding into ungovernably divisive rancor.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Questioning Success

                            _ - - _                         $$

Charles Ferguson who made the very clear-eyed
No End in Sight, a documentary which showed the
problems of the Iraq war before the view became
fashionable, has a new doc coming out about the
Alan Greenspan - Hank Paulson financial meltdown
from which now we're still trying to recover.

His doc is called Inside Job, and from the trailer one
can see that like Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black
Swan) - but using a different set of evidence - he
believes that the meltdown was plainly foreseeable,
to the players who brought it on.  (Or in Taleb's terminology,
this seeming Black Swan was not really a Black Swan.) 

Ferguson was one of the first filmmaker's to express
and I am sure this will be a fascinating study in many
ways.  I am looking forward to seeing the movie
and urge anyone who wants to understand the crisis
to go see it.   At the same time I hope in his desire
to tell the truth about the money-players who made
so much money while destroying so many people's
lives, he doesn't overlook our own culpability in
what happened to us.

As much as we would like to blame only
Wall Street for our current problems, a usually
overlooked root cause of the meltdown and crisis
is that as Americans we love success.

Our ancestors came here looking for some form
of success; and usually finding it in a different
form than they originally imagined, we as a
people have come to accept and value success
in whatever form it comes: wealth, attention
or even actually achieving something which
helps others.

The one thing we rarely do is question success.
When someone is successful, we rarely ask why.
We usually credit the other person as the source
of his success and never ask if perhaps luck or
unscrupulousness or even weakness in the face
of peer pressure was the cause of his success.

Yes, in the run up to the Greenspan-Paulson meltdown,
personal weakness of character in the face of peer
pressure - in this case peer  pressure took the form of
other people's success - led to great wealth.

Many in the financial industry realized the sub-prime
mortgage market was based on a rotten foundation
and therefore  bound to fall, but the enormous sums of
money their peers were making created an anxiety about
being left out which led all but the most asocial
traders or most self-confident and self-sufficient money
managers on a dance of short term gain and long term

The famous quote by Citicorp's Chuck Prince that
"We have to keep dancing until the music stops"
makes it pretty clear that many in financial industry
knew that (in the words of the Squirrel Nut Zippers)
"in the morning there'll be Hell to pay."   

But what if they were wrong?

Or what if they were right but others, the
unscrupulous, made out like bandits while they, 
the clear-eyes seers of truth, were left out in the 
cold ?   

The success of others - especially if we view them as
peers - is too strong for most of us to resist, even if
we know the success may be built on shaky ground.*

As Americans, we believe that nothing succeeds like
success.  Success is self-justifying until it blows
up in our face, revealing a cost we really weren't
prepared to pay.  At this point it becomes easy to draw
the conclusions which we could have come to earlier,
if only we were less enthralled with the successful,
if only we were willing to question success while the
answers might still do us some good.

* To view this from another perspective, see Dan 
Ariely's psychological explanation of this process,
especially paying attention to the 11th and 12th 
minutes of this fascinating video.

/:/)                        $