Thursday
Jul242014

Seeing Isn't Always Believing

The written word can be illusory very much like an optical illusion, albeit word illusions are much harder to notice. Today, for example, I read an email and took it to mean "x" and later when I re-read it and thought more deeply about it, I took it to mean "y". The change in perception felt very much like how one feels with the puzzle where you see only a young lady; then suddenly, a witch. Which one is it? Both? I was amused at first but soon became deeply disturbed. "I can't even trust myself", I thought.

So now the rationalization. I think electronic media induces these types of written illusions because:

1) more people are less clear in their writing (possible causes: (a) smaller input devices make it more difficult to write, (b) auto-correct features on said devices replace mispelled words with the incorrect words, (c) poor quality education i.e., people haven't been taught to write properly, (d) more people with a,b, and c)

2) there are more instances of (1) given the increased number of written communications (email, texting, social media, e-docs)

3) given (2) people receiving message speed read in order to process the increased amount of incoming information and

 4) people in (3) respond and create a type II written illusion guilty of both repeating (1) AND responding to the message based on what they misread.

I might need to reconcile all of this with a short story. But first, I need to post my thoughts on Ergodicty (more to come on this in the coming days).

Vergil

Wednesday
Jun252014

Lost in the Library

As I finish my months long Borges digression (his non-fiction is as superb as his fiction), I think my sentiment of his works can be summed up with this bit of short prose (or is it verse?):

A young man picked up a book to read and was piqued by a footnote on the first page. He turned to the endnotes and jotted the source. Curious still, he arose to search the stacks. Many books and many years later, upon his death, it was recorded in the stars that the young man still hadn't finished the book. Perhaps next time.

Vergil Den

Sunday
Feb162014

Good Reads

Recently I came across Nassim Taleb’s lecture notes/syllabus from 2005. It can be found here. The notes are fantastic but the links to the papers and other materials covered in the notes are broken in the pdf. So I spent a few days tracking them down and was able to find many of them. Below is the list with links and grouped based on the sections in the lecture notes. (Note: If you decide to print the materials many contain mathematical formulas or are scanned in versions of the originals, so be prepared for it to take some signifcant time to print.)

Module 2
Unskilled and Unaware of It https://www.math.ucdavis.edu/~suh/metacognition.pdf
Tiesska-Zielonki (just an article on) http://www.minyanville.com/business-news/the-economy/articles/weather-forecasters-financial-analysts-economists-nate/9/10/2012/id/43858?page=full
herding by prominent econophysicist Bouchaud http://www.proba.jussieu.fr/pageperso/ramacont/papers/herd.pdf

Module 3
Data-Snooping Biases in Tests of Financial Asset Pricing Models: http://finance.wharton.upenn.edu/~rlwctr/papers/8921.PDF
A Reality Check for Data Snooping: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~bhansen/718/White2000.pdf
Data Snooping Technical Trading Rule Performance, and the Bootstrap: http://consolidation.technicalanalysis.org.uk/SuTW97.pdf

Module 4
How the Finance Gurus Get Risk All Wrong: http://www.efmoody.com/mandelbrot.html

Module 5
Kahneman’s Nobel lecture: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2002/kahnemann-lecture.pdf
Thaler’s mental accounting: http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/Richard.Thaler/research/pdf/MentalAccounting.pdf
Lowenstein & Prelec Neuroeconomics: http://www.hss.caltech.edu/~camerer/JELfinal.pdf
Caveman Economics: http://www.meangenes.org/caveman/Caveman_files/frame.htm

Module 6
On the nonobservability of probability: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/knowledge.pdf
Coval & Shumway: “Expected Options Returns http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=189840
Why are Put Options So Expensive: http://tigger.uic.edu/~olegb/research/mremp.pdf
Risk Aversion or Myopia: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=0CCkQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.researchgate.net%2Fpublication%2F227351035_Risk_Aversion_or_Myopia_Choices_in_Repeated_Gambles_and_Retirement_Investments%2Ffile%2Fd912f50eb07386c9d5.pdf&ei=knj6UuKUDuS60AHLz4HwBg&usg=AFQjCNHymYluZSY7wHrVoXqNnWAEWPV8XQ&bvm=bv.61190604,d.b2I

Module 7
The Economics of Superstars: http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/schatzberg/ps616/Rosen1981.pdf
On a Class of Skew Distribution Functions: http://www.uvm.edu/~pdodds/files/papers/others/1955/simon1955.pdf
Cumulative Advantage as a Mechanism for Inequality: http://www.columbia.edu/~tad61/CA_AR112205.pdf
Talent and the Winner-Take-All Society: http://prospect.org/article/talent-and-winner-take-all-society

Module 10
“long tail” article by Chris Anderson: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

Module 12
HAPPINESS: HAS SOCIAL SCIENCE A CLUE?: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/events/lectures/layard/RL030303.pdf

Module 13
Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit http://www.econlib.org/library/Knight/knRUP.html

Appendix 1

Barabási, A.-L. and R. Albert. 1999. Emergence of scaling in random networks,
http://www.barabasilab.com/pubs/CCNR-ALB_Publications/199910-15_Science-Emergence/199910-15_Science-Emergence.pdf

Barabási, Albert-László and Eric Bonabeau. 2003. Scale-free networks
http://www3.nd.edu/~networks/Publication%20Categories/01%20Review%20Articles/ScaleFree_Scientific%20Ameri%20288,%2060-69%20(2003).pdf

Faloutsos, M., P. Faloutsos, and C. Faloutsos. 1999. On Power-Law Relationships of the Internet Topology
http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~mkearns/teaching/NetworkedLife/power-internet.pdf

Lotka, Alfred J., 1926. The Frequency Distribution of Scientific Productivity
http://listserv.utk.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind0709&L=sigmetrics&P=52661&E=2&B=–%3D-YUefx%2F0auEG8%2B29U7Cdc&N=Lotka+1929.pdf&T=application%2Fpdf

Merton, R. K., 1968. The Matthew effect in science
http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/merton/matthew1.pdf

Mitzenmacher, Michael. 2003. A brief history of generative models for power law and lognormal distributions
http://www.uvm.edu/~pdodds/research/papers/others/2003/mitzenmacher2003a.pdf

Price, D. J. de Solla, 1965. Networks of scientific papers
http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/papers/pricenetworks1965.pdf

Price, D.J. de Solla. 1976. A general theory of bibliometrics and other cumulative advantage processes
http://garfield.library.upenn.edu/price/pricetheory1976.pdf

Watts, D. J., 2003. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age
http://pdf.aminer.org/000/003/790/six_degrees_the_science_of_a_connected_age.pdf

Simon, Herbert A., 1955. On a class of skew distribution functions. Biometrika 42:425-440
http://snap.stanford.edu/class/cs224w-readings/Simon55Skewdistribution.pdf

Vogelstein, Bert, David Lane and Arnold J. Levine, 2000. Surfing the p53 network.
http://www.academia.edu/3126304/Surfing_the_p53_network

Willinger, W., D. Alderson, J.C. Doyle, and L. Li. 2004. A pragmatic approach to dealing with high variability measurements.
http://faculty.nps.edu/dlalders/docs/p139-willinger.pdf

Yule, G. 1925. A mathematical theory of evolution, based on the conclusions of Dr. J. C. Willis
http://math.uchicago.edu/~shmuel/Network-course-readings/Yule.pdf

 

Wednesday
Feb052014

Short Story: Something Doesn't Smell Right, Right?

 

The Smell of Sauerkraut

 

“I haven’t seen them since. Just these four walls, nothing else,” Mr. Johnson rambled.

“Mr. Johnson, please, we need to—”

“Maybe you can get a message to my family—maybe just let them know I’m all right. Is that something you can do?” He fell to his knees, pleading. “You have to help me!”

The two men faced one another, alone in the nine-by-eleven windowless prison cell. A white florescent light flickered rapidly, almost unnoticeably. The room was bare, with only a padded toilet and a bed, the latter made entirely of plastic, including the sheets and pillow. The walls and floor were like soft, patterned gym mats. Instead of a solid color, they were white with variously sized pink and brown polka dots. The cell smelled antiseptic, the iodine odor of a hospital.

Mr. Johnson looked tired, yet his eyes were wide with paranoia. He was a tall man and although he was a prisoner, was surprisingly well-groomed and clean. He wore a short-sleeved, thigh-length white garment on his frail frame, much like a patient’s gown but fastened with a thick white belt. A long, white rope was fixed to the belt and connected to the rear wall like an umbilical cord, but it was short enough on slack that it restricted his access to the entire room and his ability to lie comfortably in his bed. His wrists and ankles were bound with plastic zip ties.

The observer stood a few steps from the door and out of reach of Mr. Johnson.

“They’re fucking racists!” Mr. Johnson yelled as he struggled to stand. He began mumbling incoherently and shaking his head. “Fucking liars! I asked, but it’s confidential … It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not a terrorist …” He snapped out of his musings and looked at the observer. “So, who are you with again?”

“I am an observer with the International Red Cross,” the observer said in a soft, matter-of-fact way, the way a lawyer might talk to a client.

“I’m an American citizen!” Mr. Johnson screamed, a speck of spit launching as he spoke. “I want a lawyer, not an observer! How come I can’t get a lawyer?” He lunged forward, then quickly snapped back and fell to the ground.

“Mr. Johnson, I’m here to help. I need you to calm—”

“Calm down? I’m in hell!” He bounced up and hopped forward, trying to break the hold of the rope. His body flexed and his face reddened from the strain as he struggled, hands still fastened behind his back.

The men stood face to face, just a few feet apart. Mr. Johnson kept struggling against the rope but soon collapsed to his knees, head down. Beaten again.

“I’m sorry you’re in this position, and I’d like this meeting to be nothing but shared pleasantries, but I don’t have much time with you. The deputy warden has allotted a fixed period for me to see you and the others.” The observer crouched down. “Do you understand?”

Still on his knees, Mr. Johnson looked at the floor.

“You’re in a very serious situation. You’re considered an illegal enemy combatant, so the rights afforded to you as an American citizen don’t apply, nor do protections under the Geneva Convention. I’m only allowed to see you today as a courtesy.”

Mr. Johnson raised his head, staring deep into the observer’s eyes. In a controlled voice, he said, “This is fucking crazy. Do you know what those two guys said to me?” After looking around as if others were watching and listening, he turned to the observer and whispered, “Torture. Can you believe that?”

Nodding, eyes fixed on Mr. Johnson, the observer replied, “I can. There are others like you.”

A momentary pause followed. Then the observer stood up. “But before we get to that, do you have any idea why they did this to you?”

Mr. Johnson tried to stand again, but between his bindings and fatigue, he failed after a couple attempts.

“Let me help,” the observer offered, assisting Mr. Johnson to his feet and over to the bed. They sat beside one another.

Once he collected himself, Mr. Johnson turned to the observer. “You mean, why am I here? They told me some bullshit, but I’ll tell you why I’m really here. Look at me.” Mr. Johnson sniggered. “I’m a few shades darker than you.”

“That may be true, but that’s not any different than telling me you’re here because you’re a Christian or a Muslim. You can’t just be thrown into prison because of your race, your religion, or anything like that. As your advocate, I need to know the true reason you’re here.”

Mr. Johnson gave the observer a condescending look.

“So, you think I don’t get it,” the observer said. “How about this: some of the others who are in here, just like you, are as white as ghosts.”

Mr. Johnson said nothing.

The observer continued, “You get it now? It’s hard to say this is a racial thing. I need something concrete. Do you remember any event, anything other than what they’ve told you, that may have triggered their suspicions?”

“I get it.” Mr. Johnson paused and reflected for a moment. Then in a soft, sane voice, he said, “I’ve never done anything like that in my entire life, like terrorism or anything. But not too long ago, something happened to me that might be connected to this. Every day, I used to go through Grand Central Station to get to work. For years I never noticed much. And then one day, it was like the world became visible, clear—like a veil was lifted. Something caught my attention that never had before. There was a woman’s voice over the loudspeaker, one of those recordings that are ubiquitous in transportation terminals—supermarkets, too, I think. For some reason, I listened to it.” Mr. Johnson cleared his throat, then repeated the announcement:

“YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. LUGGAGE AND PARCELS MUST BE ATTENDED TO AT ALL TIMES. ANY UNATTENDED ITEMS WILL BE REMOVED BY AND SUBJECT TO SEARCH BY THE M.T.A. POLICE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION.’

“I then noticed the police officers in riot gear with semi-automatic weapons. I noticed the soldiers in their fatigues. I noticed the dogs, the German shepherds. I noticed the signs, too; they were everywhere, in big, bold letters:

 “‘If you see something, say something. Call the Police.’

“Everything had been there since 9/11, I guess. And all these years later, the soldiers, the signs, they were still there. I’d never noticed any of them before. But let me tell you, from that day forward, I took notice of things and started wondering about the entire unseen apparatus that supported it. It creeped me out, that’s for sure.”

Mr. Johnson paused… “One day after that, I was heading downtown, so I needed to take the subway. I was going to take the Lexington Avenue Express when a police officer confronted me.”

***

“Sir, I need you to come over here with me,” the officer said, directing me to a table where five or six officers were standing.

“Why? What have I done?”

“You’ve been selected for a bag search,” the officer responded.

“Selected? I don’t understand.”

“Sir, we randomly inspect bags at checkpoints throughout the system. It’s parta the city’s anti-terrorism policy.”

“Why was I selected?”

“Sir, you were chosen at random.”

“What, like every tenth person or something like that?”

“Sir, I can’t disclose our method other than that it’s random.”

“It’s because I’m black, isn’t it? You profiled me.”

“Sir, like I said, you were chosen at random.”

“What if I refuse?”

“Sir, you can’t refuse.”

“Why not? I have the right to privacy.”

“Sir, if you wanna ride the subway, we need to inspect your bags.”

“Are you serious?” I looked around, and people were walking by as if everything was normal, like this was a common occurrence. “Is this legal?”

“Sir, the courts have ruled it is. Now, come with me.” And he proceeded to direct me to a table where other officers were waiting.

“You can’t search my bag,” I said, and I walked away.

***

“I remember looking back and seeing one of the officers on his walkie-talkie. After that, I felt like people were always watching me. I bet they put me on some kind of list, like the no-fly list or something.” Mr. Johnson looked at the observer for agreement.

The observer nodded, acutely aware that one poorly chosen word could rile Mr. Johnson back into insanity. “Could be,” he said. “Now, I have to ask you something. Please don’t get offended by this question; I have to ask. Okay?”

Mr. Johnson nodded.

“Why didn’t you let them search your bag? Was it because you may have been hiding something?”

Mr. Johnson sat up straight, his head and shoulders back. “It was the principle of it. There was nothing to find. It was my work briefcase.”

The two men stared at one another. “Okay, then. Other than the event in the subway, can you think of anything else that may have triggered this?”

“Believe me, I’ve thought about it, and there’s nothing else. One day my life is normal, and the next day I’m here.”

“So how did you get here? Were you arrested?”

Mr. Johnson’s eyes widened. “I was kidnapped! Seriously, it was kidnap. I was sitting down to a glass of wine with my wife. It was a Friday, probably around eight-thirty or so because we’d just put the girls to bed.

“We were going to head into the basement for some privacy. Suddenly, something came rolling out from the basement door across the living room floor. It looked like a keg, but much smaller, like a keg for a rat. My wife and I were startled and watched it while it rolled. I thought it was one of the girls’ toys. We turned and looked at each other, frozen by the oddity of what we were seeing. Then, there was the explosion.

“The next thing I know, I’m on the ground, and men are yelling and screaming. They must’ve put a bag over my head because I couldn’t see a thing. I was yelling for my wife. I could hear her screaming for me, too, but I couldn’t do anything. I struggled, but my hands and feet were bound. Then they gagged me and I was lifted and carried away.”

Mr. Johnson buried his head in his knees and began to sob.

“I know this is hard, but I need to hear it,” the observer said, putting his hand on Mr. Johnson’s shoulder.

“I know, just give me a second.” Mr. Johnson wiped his eyes and nose on his gown, took a deep breath, and composed himself. “They carried me like I was a casket, with men on each arm and one on my waist and legs. They threw me in a van or something and took me away somewhere. I don’t know how long it was, but it seemed like forever. I didn’t eat or drink anything during that time. Every once in a while they’d stick me with something, like a needle, right in my ass cheek. I think they put diapers on me, too. Then, one day I was carried in here and unbound, with my hood taken off. It’s bad enough when some random criminal breaks and enters into your house. But you can reconcile that. They’re criminals, and if they don’t kill you, your fear helps protect you against them in the future. You buy extra-large locks for your doors. You buy an alarm for the house. You take self-defense classes. You go out and buy yourself a gun. But when it’s the government who’s done this to you, how do you protect yourself? And that’s what drives you crazy—because you can’t … you can’t protect yourself. It’s like they own you because you never feel safe again.”

The observer spent a few moments registering all he had heard. He rubbed his chin. “In a second, I’d like to talk to you about who did this to you. But first, let me ask you, how long have you been here?”

Mr. Johnson looked blankly at the observer. “I don’t know. Look around .… There’s no clock, nothing—not even a window. I don’t know if it’s day or night. I must’ve been here for months now. I don’t know. I never leave this room. My food comes through a long pink tube through the door slot—only liquids. Sometimes the straw doesn’t reach … those fuckers. And if I don’t eat, they pin me down and stick that thing down my throat!” He coughed and gagged until he once again composed himself.

“If I have to crap or piss, there’s the bowl right there. “ Mr. Johnson gestured with his head. “You know, I was filthy. My teeth were rotten, I hadn’t taken a shower in God knows how long, and I had a beard. They cleaned me up for you, capped my teeth, and gave me new clothes.” Mr. Johnson stood up. With small, comic steps, he shuffled over to the wall in his ankle restraints. He leaned against it, closed his eyes, and gently began banging his head.

“Mr. Johnson, we’ll get to the bottom of this. What’s been done to you is terrible. Is there anything else?” the observer asked.

“I think the room is getting smaller.” Mr. Johnson stopped and looked at the observer with wild eyes. “I don’t know for sure, but everything seems to be closing in. And the lights are always on. And there’re the smells. They made it smell clean for you, but they torture me with stink. Sometimes its piss and shit, sometimes it’s the stench of garbage, or maybe it’s vomit, I don’t know for sure. They alternate between smells and sometimes they include pleasant smells like mashed potatoes or something. I think it’s so I don’t get used to the stink. But worst of all, I haven’t seen my wife and kids or anyone I know since then. The only people I’ve seen, besides you, are those two interviewers.”

“Two interviewers? Who were they, and what did they tell you?”

Mr. Johnson sat back down. “I’ve only met them once, when I first arrived here. I was blindfolded and taken to some room, a small room—you know, like you see in the movies. I sat there for hours. Then the two men came in and sat across from me. They weren’t what I would’ve expected from interviewers or interrogators or whatever they were. They looked more like central planners—not the Soviet kind, more like Harvard. They wore tweed coats like professors. They were pale old men with receding hairlines and double chins.”

***

“Hello, Mr. Johnson. We’ve been waiting to speak with you. My faux name is Dr. A, and beside me here is Dr. Z, which is obviously a faux name as well. Let me set one important ground rule about this discussion before we get started. If you yell or scream or in any way act irrationally, this discussion will end immediately, and you will promptly and forcibly be escorted back to your cell and punished in ways you’ve never imagined. Do you understand?” His voice was stern, as if he were talking to a child.

“What’s this all abou—”

“Mr. Johnson, please answer the question,” Dr. A snapped, interrupting me.

I wanted answers, so I shut up. “Okay, okay, relax. I understand. I don’t want any problems.”

“Excellent. We’ve come to speak with you today about your terrorist activity.”

“Terrorist activity? I don’t know what you mean! Is that what this is about? I’m not a terrorist, and I’ve never been a terrorist.”

Dr. Z leaned forward. “Your smell profile indicates that you’re a terrorist.”

“My what?”

“Your smell profile,” he said.

“What the hell is that?”

“Perhaps we owe you an explanation,” Dr. A said. “Dr. Z is an expert in otolaryngology, and is head of the Pentagon’s Department of Chemosensory Perception. He will explain the science of smell later. But before we get to that, let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I do. I am a psychiatrist, and I specialize in what is referred to as ‘the science of life-threatening torture without visible marks.’ The extensive use of waterboarding in Western countries was my brainchild. I imported the idea from the Orient and optimized it. My latest project is an epidemiological study of the ease cage—a fascinating device, I must say. Do you know what an ease cage is?”

“No, but I bet it’s not as pleasant as it sounds.”

“An astute observation indeed—the cage is at ease in name only. It’s a cage where the height is an inch or so smaller than the prisoner, and the length and width are somewhat smaller than the length of the prisoner. In short, the cage is configured so that the prisoner cannot stand erect, nor can he lie completely stretched. He’s always hunched; it’s a procrustean bed of sorts. It’s said to have driven men to madness.”

Dr. Z unconsciously adjusted his crotch. “Did you know that torturing is the world’s oldest profession? People erroneously think that it’s prostitution. Some even think it’s trade. It’s fascinating that sex and trade are not greater than the desire to inflict pain. We have empirical evidence of torture dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. We can infer even further back. Gruesome tactics: cutting off feet, lips, and noses; blinding; gutting; and tearing out of the heart. We’ve come a long way since then. That’s not to say their methods and devices weren’t effective; rather, they lacked the precision science affords us today. If you remember your ancient studies, myths are ripe with torture. One of my favorites is the story of poor Tantalus. He is doomed to be forever thirsty, with satiation just out of grasp. I think, though, that the gods should have allowed him a sip at random intervals, so that he wouldn’t get accustomed to dire thirst. Not allowing one to forget keeps the torture fresh.” He said this like a clinician, as if I were the patient and he the doctor.

“I’m an American citizen. I don’t know the details of every amendment, but I do know that torture violates at least one of them. You can’t do that to me,” I said.

Dr. A smirked. “You were an American citizen. But when you decided to become a terrorist, you relinquished that privilege. You’re an enemy combatant now. You aren’t even recognized by the Geneva Convention.”

I stood up. “But I’m not a terrorist! If you torture me, there’s nothing for me to confess. There’s nothing for you to know.”

“Sit down, Mr. Johnson,” Dr. A ordered.

I paused, glaring at them, and sat down.

“Now that’s a convenient response, and one we’ve heard before. You’ve been convicted. There is no recourse but to submit. Of course we want information from you so we can protect against future attacks, but if you won’t break, then punishment alone is enough.”

“Do you understand how absurd this sounds? I’m accused of being a terrorist because of the way I smell—and that gives you the authority to torture me? I don’t even have the opportunity to defend myself against these accusations!”

Dr. A smiled. “The welfare of the state supersedes the liberty of the individual during times of war. This is nothing new. But even if we weren’t at war, Mr. Johnson, I contend that the welfare of the state always supersedes the rights of the individual.”

“This is fucking crazy!” I shut my eyes tight. I was getting a headache, and I couldn’t rub my head because of the damn wrist cuffs.

“I see that you’re struggling. Perhaps knowing why you’re here will make your stay with us more bearable. Dr. Z, please explain your great discovery.”

“Thank you, Dr. A.” He smiled. “Mr. Johnson, humans have an extraordinary faculty for smell—not as great as say, a dog’s, but great nonetheless. Now, smell for us and for other mammals depends on sensory receptors that respond to airborne chemicals called odorants. In humans, odorant receptors are located in the nasal cavity, specifically in a small patch of tissue the size of a thumbnail called the olfactory epithelium. But how we humans smell is not what’s important here; rather, what we are concerned with are the odorant molecules themselves, those released by a living body during a normal day. Corpses, of course, release a different set of odorants … but I digress.” Dr. Z paused. “I lost my train of thought. Where was I?”

“Human odorant molecules,” Dr. A prompted.

“Oh yes, human odorant molecules. There are many human odorant molecules; the ones we are concerned with are pheromones. Pheromones are unconsciously released by the body to trigger social behaviors or physiological responses in other humans. For example, a woman releases pheromones during ovulation to signal to a potential mate that she is sexually fit and ready for copulation. Brothers and sisters and other kin release a pheromone to signal to one another that they are from the same family. There are fear pheromones, food trail pheromones, sex pheromones, and many others that affect behavior or physiology.” As he spoke, white spit began to accumulate in the corners of his mouth. “After years of study and research, we’ve identified a new pheromone – a terrorist pheromone. Similar to the kin pheromone, terrorists release it as a form of shared recognition, like a secret password or handshake. In other words, the pheromone helps terrorists identify and verify one another. This all happens unconsciously, and terrorists are not aware of it.. Despite all of our research, though, we aren’t certain how this particular pheromone trait came about. Humans are adept at evolving based on environmental and social stimulus, so evolution is a possibility. Needless to say, through extensive testing, we’ve isolated this pheromone and proved that all terrorists share it. It was an amazing discovery.”

“So you’re saying that I am a terrorist because I emit this smell?”

“Yes, Mr. Johnson. You are because you do.”

“And this smell is exactly what?”

“I’m a scientist so my world is chemicals, not smells. But our sommeliers say the smell of terror has a multitude of different notes, each one subtle and distinct. Yet among them all, they say the scent of sauerkraut is more than just a hint.”

“Sauerkraut? You’re saying I smell like sauerkraut? And that makes me a terrorist.”

“Generally speaking, no, you don’t smell like sauerkraut. But to some, you definitely do. . Only a few individuals possess the rare innate faculty to detect the terror pheromone. It’s a gift from nature I suppose.”

“And one of these individuals, these sommeliers, smelled sauerkraut on me, is that it?”

“I’m afraid so. As I understand, it’s quite unmistakable.”

“I’d like to talk with this person.” I’ve never wanted to kill someone, but at that moment, I could have.

“That information is privileged and confidential.”

“Well, how am I supposed to defend myself? I’m not a terrorist!”

“Mr. Johnson, control yourself,” Dr. A demanded.

I was so overcome with anger that all I could do was stare at them.

“There’s nothing to defend yourself against. You are indeed a terrorist. It’s a scientific fact,” Dr. Z. pronounced.

“Do you know how crazy this all sounds—this terrorist smell and terrorist sommeliers sniffing around?”

“Sometimes advanced science sounds crazy, when in reality, it is sound reason. You know, Mr. Johnson, when Galileo asserted that the Earth orbits the sun and is not the center of the universe, that also sounded absurd. Perhaps even more absurd than the terrorist pheromone I’ve discovered. You do believe that the Earth orbits the sun, don’t you?”

Turning to his colleague, Dr. A interjected. “Thank you, Dr. Z. Your overviews are always very enlightening. But I don’t want to get into a discussion about the merits of science. Obviously, there’s nothing to discuss, as what is true is true.”

I had enough so I lunged at them, but I’d forgotten about this fucking rope. That room was equipped with the attachment too. I was a few inches short from smashing their faces with my head and tearing out their eyes with my teeth. You should’ve seen their expressions—even with this rope attached to me, they were terrified. Dr. Z even fell off his chair.

Then someone fired a dart into my neck, and a couple seconds later I was out cold.

***

“You know, in my heart I know there’s no hope. I’ve tried to kill myself, but they seem to have accounted for that, too.” Now Mr. Johnson’s voice was detached, unemotional. He didn’t look at the observer. He just stared at the door—seemingly at nothing; but in his mind, he could see through the door, through to the place he wished to go, a beautiful place—a place free of pain. He was only a few steps away, but that door, the door to death, it was closed too. He was even denied that. “I can’t hang myself because, as you can see, this rope is attached to the base of the floor and wall. Even wrapping this thing around my neck and hanging it over the bed rail does nothing more than make my face flush. The closest I’ve come to killing myself is diving head first off the bed. But because the bed is so low and the floor is so soft, I only managed to crick my neck, which hurt like a motherfucker. All my attempts, and I’m still here. I’m my own worst torturer.”

The observer looked at Mr. Johnson with a blank stare, one that could be mistaken for indifference. But in truth, he was both mildly amused and genuinely confused. The deputy warden had cautioned him about Mr. Johnson—that he was delusional, that he was dangerous, and above all, that he was a liar. It was plausible. The story Mr. Johnson told him was different than the deputy warden’s. But what if Mr. Johnson was being truthful?

 “You need to go now.” From Mr. Johnson’s voice, it was hard to discern if he was asking a question or making a statement.

“Yes, I have others to see.” 

“Tell them… tell everyone that they’ve dehumanized me. That they’ve taken my dignity and that I’m hardly a man anymore.”

The observer gently nodded. “I’ll be sure to include that in my report.”

“They’ve made my life hell.” Mr. Johnson looked at the walls and ceiling as if he were appealing to an invisible force. “They’re right you know. Hell is other people.”

“Hang in there.” The observer extended his hand for a handshake, but then remembered that Mr. Johnson was bound and so instead patted him on the shoulder.

“Goodbye, Mr. Johnson.” The observer looked him in the eyes. He pursed his lips and moved his gaze to the floor, then turned and walked to the door. As he neared, it was opened by the doorkeeper who stood outside. As it closed, the observer looked back at Mr. Johnson, who now lay on the floor curled into a fetal position. Just then, a glimmer of light rose in the observer’s eye, betraying what might have been interpreted as sympathy. At that same moment, he caught a faint whiff of what he thought was sauerkraut. But the door closed before he could be sure.

Monday
Jan062014

Short Story: The Before the End of After

 

The Before the End of After

As he lay prone, a boot pressed against the back of Jim’s neck. His right arm was badly shattered: dislocated at the elbow and broken at the wrist. He was in great pain but it had moved south, from his arm to his legs. The truncheons beating against his calves, hamstrings, and buttocks were working as designed. He struggled to rise, but the knees of the officers pressing into his lower back proved overwhelming for just one arm, one man.

“Tell me who’ve you collaborated with,” a man shouted, which momentarily stopped the beating as the officers waited for a response.

“No one,” Jim groaned. He was being truthful. Technically, he had committed the crime alone but he couldn’t last much longer in his casuistry. Pain, and the terror of more pain, was making it difficult to maintain the subtlety of the lie and he feared that either he would confess the names of his accomplices or he would die from sheer bludgeoning before he could give them up. He thought he had no other options, but he was wrong. The beating did finally stop, and neither had he confessed nor was he dead. He had one other option, at least temporarily.

“Get up!” the same man shouted, as the boot eased from his neck and the knees from his back.

Jim couldn’t move his legs. They, too, had gone completely numb. He struggled with his one good arm and was able to raise his head and chest a few feet from the floor. He wasn’t certain what happened next, but he was knocked unconscious. He realized only later, while lying in a pool of spit and teeth, that he had been kicked in the face.

He awoke in a dark cell of unknown size and location, where he had been for a period of time that, to him, could have been a second or an eternity. He didn’t know the date or time he had arrived, and the dark, windowless room gave no indication of day or night. Time doesn’t really exist when there are no fixed points to measure against—there is only movement and his knowledge of this movement was his growing weakness, as if life was literally being slowly drained from him.

As he weakened, he started drifting, and it wasn’t clear when his clear thinking changed from conscious thought to visions or perhaps dreams. But as he lay there, in his mind’s eye, he stood before a chamber. To the left and to the right, behind and in front, as far as the eye could see, were other chambers, each identical to the other. He entered the chamber directly in front of him.

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Tuesday
Dec172013

Short Story: A Parable of Sorts

This story has gone through a number of revisions… actually full rewrites. It’s ended up as a 700 word parable: the interpolation of a mouse so to speak and an homage to the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson and the great Kafka.

The Moment In Between 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Cat asked her little mice students. The students waved their hands vigorously in the air, “oohing” like monkeys. Mrs. Cat pointed to Ricky Mouse, the smallest mouse in the class but the most eager to answer.

“I want to be me!” he squeaked confidently.

Mrs. Cat laughed. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You have to be something.”

Ricky simply stared at his teacher. Clearly, he did not understand her. 

“Well, for example, you can be a firemouse, an astromouse, a policemouse, or really anything. Whatever it is you want to be, you can be. You just need to do well in school and work hard at becoming whatever it is you want.”

And so Ricky Mouse put his mind to it. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to be but he had the formula. He did very well in school. He always finished his homework on time and excelled on the standardized tests. His parents were proud because Ricky was on his way to becoming successful.

Ricky graduated high school at the head of his class and attended a top-ten university, according to a business magazine that ranks such things. Ricky took to the Mousemanities and also loved numbers, so he decided that he’d become a banker. He worked studiously, graduated summa cum laude, and went on to get advanced degrees in accounting and business administration. Ricky’s teachers were proud because his success validated their methods—it is, of course, the goal of education to develop successful individuals.

After graduation, Ricky found a good job at a prestigious bank and began to earn a respectable living. The state was proud because Ricky, who was now known as Richard, was a successful citizen—which meant he always paid his taxes.

Richard Mouse became one of the bank’s best and most valued employees. He generated more cheese and bread on an annual basis than any of the other bankers. The bank was proud, because the point of a successful employee is to be productive, and Richard was certainly productive.

Richard was proud of himself too. When asked “What do you do for a living?” he would respond portentously “A banker.” He had become what he had set out to be.

After many good years with the bank and becoming fantastically wealthy, it came time for Richard to retire.

“But I don’t want to retire,” Richard said to Mr. Rat. “I’m a Banker.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Mr. Rat. “You’re Mr. Richard C. Mouse, and an old mouse at that. Go relax and do what you’ve always dreamed of doing.”

And so Richard retired. He was a lost mouse. He didn’t know what to do now. He had to become something else. He spent his days wandering through Mouseville and sitting on a bench in the park, usually alone.

One summer day, a little mouse sat next to him.

“Hey, mister, watcha doing?”

“I’m sitting here not sure of who I am. I used to know, I think, but not anymore.”

The little mouse giggled. “You’re a pig, silly.”

“I’m not a pig.” He said. “I’m a mouse.”

Cheeks flushed, the little mouse asked.  “Oh, so what’s the problem?”

The two sat silently. Richard felt an overwhelming despair. He knew the answer to the problem. It came down to simple math. The zero property of multiplication applied to him. That anything multiplied by zero is zero. That everything he had accomplished, that all his collected credentials and the sum of all of his wealth amounted to nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s as if he didn’t exist. “Perhaps on this calm summer’s eve when other mice are coming home from a day of earning cheese and bread,” he thought, “what if old Richard C. Mouse should put a bullet into his little mouse head? What would it matter?”

“Madeline, it’s time to go”. Richard looked up; before him stood an older looking mouse. She smiled at him as she gently tugged the little mouse’s hand. “It’s late and if we don’t go now we’ll miss supper.”

Richard returned the smile. His heart, silent for all these years, finally spoke to him. “It’s not too late ol’boy. Become what thou art.”

END

Sunday
Dec082013

A Student's Assessment

I received an email from a student who recently finished a social science course called “Masculinities”. The student chose The Simple Man’s Burden as the primary text for his/her final paper and attached it to the email for my edification. Although I don’t agree with some of the assertions in the paper, I think the conclusion is fitting.

“Conclusion and thoughts about social change

Through Vergil’s first hand experiences and those of the characters discussed in the other texts, there is a revelation of the myriad of ways men are self-destructive either in their pursuit or resisting of hegemony or in the perpetuation of it. The actual men in power who perpetuate hegemony reward men for artificial signs of success rather than true fulfilling deeds and moral character. This creates a culture void of meaning, morality or quality. The men trying to achieve the hegemony will ultimately fail to live up to it and in the meantime sacrifice the things in their life that would have brought them true happiness, success and meaning… Male success should be redefined by the measure of his good character and kind deeds, and positive contributions in multiple areas of his life. It should not be defined by measurement of his production in one isolated area of his life. Neither should the number of rungs on a constructed ladder he has ascended measure it nor by the amount of men and women he is capable of suppressing.”

 

 

Thursday
Dec052013

Short Story: The Creativity of Nature

Nietzsche, Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut had their own take on eternal recurrence: time, space, infinity, order, chaos, etc… In my short story “The Recurrence of Henry Edward Jr.” (apprx 2700 words) I put a little spin on the idea of eternal recurrance and make it a bit more Darwin and Lamarckian and a bit darker. I wonder what a Transhumanist would think? Note: Given the way the story is structured, I’ve been told that a second read is a new experience in itself.

 The Recurrence of Henry Edward Jr

Four months, two weeks and today – the day Henry and his wife would know with medical certainty if their unborn child was a boy or a girl.

 “Honey, you almost ready?” Henry yelled from the kitchen to his wife upstairs.

“Ten minutes. I need to dry my hair”.

Henry mumbled something inaudible from under his breath, looked at his watch and paced the kitchen. He turned his attention to the living room table where a medium sized package, having arrived the day earlier, sat unopened.  It was addressed from the estate of the renowned, but now deceased, Dr. Samuel Pritchett.

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Monday
Nov252013

Against Dawkins

Coincidently, over the last several weeks I’ve received a few queries about why, on my About page, I crossed out Richard Dawkin's name as someone I admire. I’ll keep it short and sweet - consider the following:

  • Dawkins is fooled by randomness (expected of journalists, not acceptable for scientists)
  • Dawkins inability to see that most of what is referred to as science is doing more harm than religion.
  • His atheism has become a pseudo religion.
  • Idea of “selfish gene” is an idea of Robert Trivers often attributed to Richard Dawkins (per Taleb communication with Trivers) See reference in Antifragile Page 459

Vergil

Thursday
Aug082013

Short Story: When Information is Bliss

 

 

 When Information is Bliss

“I think in the future holograms will be solid just like us. That way, we’ll be able to walk together and hold HOLI’s hand.”

“That’s a great prediction, Mary. I think we’ll actually see that happen in the near future. Good thinking.”

Mary blushed.

“Who’s next? Michael?”

“I think there’ll be a way to make food out of nothing. Now we need to make our food or take a pill to eat, but in the future, we’ll just be able to tell HOLI what we want and it’ll appear.”

“That’s another great idea and it’s close to being realized too. The Department of Science is working on it now. They’re on the verge of being able to create chemical reactions at the end of a data stream. They call it Digital Nano Alchemy or DNA Technology. It’s not exactly out of nothing but who knows, maybe all of our meals will come from HOLI soon.”

The class looked at Mr. Barclay with wide eyes. “No more broccoli,” he proclaimed. The class laughed.

Class 6345A was made up of fifteen students between the ages of ten and twelve who were classified by genetic markers and other criteria as being predisposed to learning problems. A wide array of ethnicities and races were represented in the class. The children sat in three rows of five at individual, three-legged, boomerang-shaped desks with laminate tops, flat with no cubby or drawer space. Mr. Barclay stood at the front of the classroom; a large, flat-paneled screen that used both touch and sound to operate called the Symbol Board hung behind him. Not in use at the time, it displayed a scenic view of rolling hills, covered by a lush green forest in late spring. Large floor-to-ceiling windows lined the adjoining walls that presented the same tableau; together with the Symbol Board, they formed one connected, complete panorama.

“Okay, one more. Who’s next?” Mr. Barclay scanned the room. Students raised their hands, many of them so eager that they bumped up and down on their seats and made low-sounding, chimpanzee, ooh, ooh, ooh sounds to get his attention. But Mr. Barclay focused on a student in the back who didn’t raise his hand. “Billy, what do you think? You must have some idea of what the future will be like – some prediction.”

Billy was one of Mr. Barclay’s most difficult cases. From the records, Billy’s learning disability score was the highest in class 6345A. In other words, Billy’s potential to learn was very poor. Other schools had given up on Billy, but Mr. Barclay was determined to help him. 

“My idea’s stupid, Mr. B.”

The class laughed.

Mr. Barclay cast a reprimanding glance about the room. “Children, no idea is stupid. Billy, we’d love to hear it.”

“Well, okay, I guess.” Billy paused. “I think that in the future . . . I think that . . . well, I’ll be dead. Like, no one can live forever. So that’s kinda like a prediction, right?”

The room fell silent. Mr. Barclay nodded.

“That’s a very good point. Children, we’ve all been predicting new things, like inventions. We haven’t really talked about the things that exist today that won’t be around in the future – like broccoli.”

The class laughed.

“Actually, Billy, the Department of Science is working on that too. The science is in its infancy, but who knows, maybe even in our lifetime we’ll have progressed past that final frontier. Isn’t that right, HOLI?”

HOLI stood in the center of the classroom. “Yes, Mr. B,” it said.

 “And HOLI never lies. Isn’t that right, HOLI?”

“Yes, Mr. B.”

HOLI was the name used to refer to the Hologram Object and Language Interface. It stood like a real person in the center of class, no discernible hardware projecting it. This made HOLI appear almost human. It was programmed to have the mixed voice of a woman and a man, similar to a castrato, and it looked neither like a woman nor a man – an androgynous thing that might have been confused for an effeminate male or a masculine female. This uncertainty of gender tended to make people uncomfortable when they first encountered HOLI. By design, it appeared homely, wearing nothing but a loose fitting tan shirt and pants; it wasn’t impressive by any means compared to a living human.

“HOLI, is it time to move onto stories, or can we field a few more predictions from the class?”

“Mr. B., period six has ended.”

“Okay, then, we need to switch to story reports.”

The class let out a collective groan.

Mr. Barclay – affectionately known by the class, and by HOLI, as Mr. B – taught First Wayward School Class 6345A. He was in his early thirties, and teaching consumed most of his energy and left little time for a personal life. He wasn’t married and had no children. He came from a good family and was educated at some of the finest universities; given his degrees and his father’s Policy involvement, he was well regarded by his peers in the Department of Learning. He had chosen to work for the DoL rather than the Department of Knowledge because he saw himself as an educator first and a scholar second. He also liked children and felt that the impression one makes through teaching was a lifelong gift to them – particularly to the troubled ones. He yearned to make a difference. 

“I think we have time for four stories today. I hope you all did you homework and came prepared. If you’re not prepared, I need to know now.”

The class was quiet.

“Don’t make me ask HOLI. Did anyone not do their story?”

No response.

 “Great, then let’s proceed. Remember, the format is summary first, then your analysis. Who wants to go first?” Mr. Barclay scanned the class. A couple hands were raised so high it was as if they were trying to touch the ceiling; others tried to get Mr. Barclay’s attention by waving as if saying hello. Mr. Barclay pointed to a girl in the front row who was waving. “Okay, Matilda, you first.”

Matilda stood up. She was a girl with milky white skin and fine black short hair who at ten was small and fragile for her age; Mr. Barclay couldn’t help but think that if she were outside and the wind gusted, she might blow away. “Thanks, Mr. B. HOLI, please load my story report summary, Blubber.”

HOLI was a great presenter of information because of its three-dimensional quality and its penetrating eyes that made it lifelike. HOLI was programmed so that, no matter from what angle you looked at it, it appeared to be looking only at you. It was almost as if it didn’t have a back or a side profile. Each person had their own personalized experience with HOLI, even though it was viewed by, interacted with, and collectively shared by all.

 “Matilda, your story report is ready. Would you like me to play it?” HOLI said in a matter-of-fact, banal way.

 “Yes, please play, and begin with my summary.”

HOLI told the story. “Blubber is about . . .” For five minutes, HOLI repeated the story in detail as Matilda had related it earlier that week.

“A very good summary, Matilda.” Mr. Barclay smiled in his usual, reassuring way. “Now, what’s your analysis of the story?”

“HOLI, please play my analysis,” Matilda requested.

Blubber is a story about bullying and how some children are cruel. This story helps educate us on why bullying is bad and how it really hurts kids. And we need to know that even though we are all different in different ways, we need to respect those differences because we are all equal in the eyes of the Policy.”

 “HOLI, is the summary and analysis accurate?” asked Mr. Barclay.

“Yes, Mr. B., it is accurate.”

“Thank you for your story report, Matilda. It was very creative.”

Matilda curtsied and then sat. The class applauded, but it was a quiet applause – the kind of applause that is performed only as a courtesy.

“Okay, who’d like to go next? Michael, why don’t you share your story?”

“Thanks, Mr. B.” Michael stood up. He was a thin boy whose arms and feet were the size of a man’s, while the rest of him was still a boy waiting to catch up. ”HOLI, please play the summary of my story report, Lord of the Flies.” 

“The Lord of the Flies is about . . .” HOLI relayed the summary as Michael had told it.

“That’s a very good summary, Michael,” Mr. Barclay said. “Now, what’s your analysis of the story?”

“HOLI, please play my analysis.”

The Lord of the Flies is a story about civilization and how it is better than savagery. This story helps educate us on why we need to work together in a civilized way to achieve our goals; if we act as individuals, we will only destroy ourselves – kinda like when they burned down the island or Piggy dying. We all need to work as one and listen to the Policy, kinda like if it was the conch shell. Only through the Policy can we make the world an even better place to live.”

“HOLI, is the summary and analysis accurate?”

“Yes, Mr. B., it is accurate.”

“Good. Thank you for your story report, Michael. It was also very creative.”

Michael gave an exaggerated bow and sat. The class again applauded half-heartedly. “Okay, who’d like to go next? Robert, why don’t you share your story with the class?”

Robert stood up. He was a handsome boy with light brown skin, a prominent Adam’s apple, and a deep voice that squeaked at random intervals. “HOLI, please load my story report, The Giver, and start with the summary.”

After HOLI gave the story’s summary, Mr. Barclay said, “That is also a very good summary, Robert. “Now, what’s your analysis?”

“HOLI, please play my analysis.”

The Giver is a story about how the past can hurt the future. We can’t trust our memories of the past so we need to rely on all of us to make things better by focusing on the future. If we need to go back into the past, we should rely on a central source of knowledge that represents the gold copy of what we know. The Policy owns this knowledge and the Department of Knowledge manages it and shares it through HOLI. ”

“HOLI, is the summary and analysis accurate?”

“Yes, Mr. B., it is accurate.”

“Mr. B., that’s not right,” yelled Billy from the back of the classroom. Billy was showing signs of improvement, with the number and intensity of disruptive episodes attenuating over the last several months. But every so often, Billy would still have one of these outbursts that would frustrate Mr. Barclay. These episodes of seeming unreason seared into his psyche and frequently woke him from a deep sleep that was followed by a dark melancholy in which he would question his learning improvement methods and doubt his choice of educator as a profession.

The white lights in the room turned off, and the windows and front-board quickly turned from day to night. The classroom was dark except for HOLI, which radiated a dark light, like a green glow stick. The class, oohed, then quickly went silent.

“Billy, please no shouting. Raise your hand,” Mr. Barclay reprimanded him.

“Sorry, Mr. B.” Billy looked toward the floor.

“Now, what’s your question?”

“That part in The Giver, where their job is to transmit all the information in the central servers. Information from the Policy. That’s not right.”

“Why do you say that?” Mr. B. asked.

“I remember HOLI playing that story for me before. And it was different. It was more like their job was to transfer information from the past.”

Mr. Barclay had experienced the same doubts. Years earlier, he had come across inconsistencies with information provided by HOLI. However, whenever he asked HOLI about the apparent discrepancies, he was always wrong. And it was the words, his words that troubled him the most. Words he believed he had used before but did not exist. The first time it occurred, when he was drafting his thesis, was the most unsettling.

#

“HOLI, I need to cross reference this section with a section I previously wrote on peace and learning.”

“Jonathon, I have retrieved and loaded it. “

“Please play it HOLI.”

“We must seek to promote peace and tolerance, not fuel hatred and suspicion. The fundament to achieving this lies with our children: to eradicate the uninformed through education. ”

“Stop.” Mr. Barclay said, interrupting HOLI. “Can you repeat that last sentence?”

“The fundament to achieving this lies with our children: to eradicate the uninformed through education.”

“HOLI, that’s not how I remember it. It said illiterate, not uninformed. I know that for certain. Has anything changed since we first drafted this?”

“Jonathon, nothing has changed.”

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“Jonathon, nothing has changed.”

 “But I remember it differently. Perhaps you pulled an older version. Is this the latest version? ”

“This is the latest version.”

Mr. Barclay paused for a moment. “HOLI, are you lying to me? Has anything changed?”

“Jonathon, nothing has changed.”

“HOLI, search current and all previous version for the word illiterate.”

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“HOLI, search current and all previous version for variants of the word illiterate.”

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“HOLI, that’s impossible, search again.”

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“That’s impossible. I remember it perfectly. I didn’t just make the word up. Now search again.”

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“Again.”

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“Again.”

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“HOLI you’re wrong, you’re wrong! I know it exists!“ he cried.

“A search of library and appendices returned no records.”

“I want an error report filed with the Policy Administrator now!”

“Jonathon, I am processing your request. Please confirm the submission of an error report to the Policy Administrator.”

Mr. Barclay closed his eyes and rubbed his eyebrows with his thumb and middle finger. He knew the implications of filing a false report with the Policy. He looked up and stared at HOLI in silence. Am I crazy? Did I dream this all up? How could it be that this word doesn’t exist? Am I mistaken? How could HOLI be wrong? I could’ve sworn there was such a word...I could’ve sworn.

“Jonathon, please confirm the submission of an error report to the Policy Administrator.”

Mr. Barclay paused.  “HOLI, cancel that request. Let’s just continue at the point before this digression. Where were we?”

#

Episodes like this continued to occur – HOLI retrieving the recording, listening to the clip, and each error profoundly demonstrating the failure of his memory. These episodes left him with a queer feeling – a sense of inadequacy that culminated with nausea – feelings that were so strong, that he began to ignore any new inconsistencies assuming they were flaws in his memory, eventually never recognizing any new ones again. He had learned to trust HOLI completely. Billy would need to learn to trust it too.

“Really?” Mr. Barclay nodded. “Well, then, let’s ask HOLI. It’ll know for certain. HOLI, has The Giver changed since Billy last saw it? Or, frankly, has it ever changed since it was first told?”

HOLI replied, “Mr. B, the story has not changed from its first telling.”

The class laughed; in the light from HOLI’s glow, it looked as if they were laughing and pointing at Billy.

“You see, Billy, that’s why it’s not good to rely on your memory. Your memory makes mistakes. But HOLI never makes mistakes. And class, what else do we know about HOLI?”

In cadence, the class replied, “HOLI never lies.”

The room brightened and the windows and board returned to display the scenic spring tableau. 

“That’s right. It never lies. But it’s okay if we make mistakes; we’re only human. We all make mistakes sometimes; we need to learn from them and move on. Billy, do you feel better now?”

On the verge of tears, Billy replied, “I guess so. It must’ve been a bad dream or something. I’m sorry.”

Mr. Barclay nodded. “Yes, of course, of course.” He walked over to Billy and rubbed his head, disheveling his hair like fathers do to their sons when proud of them. When Billy looked up, Mr. Barclay gave him an affectionate, reassuring smile. He returned to the head of the class.

“Okay, we have time for one more story. Who’d like to go?” He scanned the room. “How about Princess Emily of Class 6345A – are you ready?”

“Yes, Mr. B.” She shot out of her seat. Emily was a tall, graceful girl, and the oldest in the class at almost thirteen. Like the other children, her parents had been convicted of offenses against the Policy and “had been disappeared,” a euphemism used by Policy officials to mean they were vanished, voided, vaporized, and erased from the records of existence – except, of course, for the piece that remained in their children – the generic marker that classified their children’s learning disabilities, but also the traits valued by the Policy.

Emily had the special attention of Mr. Barclay because her parents were different than the others. Her parents had organized a small band of individuals into a minor, yet troublesome, resistance for the Policy. Although they weren’t successful, the qualities needed to mastermind such an act were desirable. So Mr. Barclay’s job was not only to eradicate the children’s learning disabilities, but also to accentuate their good traits. He recognized Emily’s promise as a leader and believed that one day, after she had been properly educated, she would be an upstanding and prominent member of the Policy.

”HOLI, please play my story report on One True History. It’s a comedy written by our President about the time when he first met our Founder.”

The collective oooh from the class indicated that this story was the most interesting to them.

HOLI recited, “One True History is the story of our President before he joined the Policy. It tells of his younger days when, as a youth, he joined the forces of unity and peace against the forces of evil and despair and all the trials he endured in defeating them.” HOLI told this story in such great detail that it tallied twenty minutes. “The book ends when our President tells the story of when he first met our Founder, who was a collector of books.”

The children roared with laughter, a few almost falling off their chairs, many of them saying, “Books, that’s so funny.” HOLI stopped speaking until the room quieted down.

HOLI continued. “Our Founder tells our President that he amassed an enormous library that began when he collected books as a little boy, going from house to house, looking through garbage pails for all the discarded books. Our President asks if our Founder has read any of them.”

Again, the children erupted with laughter. Someone whispered, “Who reads? That’s so funny.” Again, HOLI stopped speaking until the room quieted down.

“Our Founder shows him an old map of the world and asks our President if the map is complete and accurate. Our President responds that of course the map is incorrect given its age, stating that there are things that we know now that they couldn’t have known when the map was drafted. Our Founder explains that he doesn’t read books for the same reason. They are old, outdated, and incorrect. And just as a ship would not sail using an old map, neither should we use old outdated books to guide our lives. Our President concedes and admits that he has learned a very important lesson.”

“Excellent summary, Emily.” Mr. Barclay rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Now what’s your analysis of the story?”

“HOLI, please play my analysis.”

One True History tells about the true events of our President so that we can emulate his constancy and commitment to the Policy. Regardless of struggle, we must remain dedicated and loyal to the Policy. It’s also about why only information provided by HOLI is good because it's the one place of correct information. The world is a better place because of our Founder, our President, and our HOLI.”

“HOLI, is that summary and analysis accurate?”

“Yes, Mr. B., it is accurate.”

 Well, then, thank you for your most excellent summary of our history, Emily. It was inspiring.”

Emily beamed, standing erect with head tall and shoulders back. The students stood up and clapped.

“HOLI, this is such a great story. Do we have any time remaining before we pledge allegiance to the Policy? I’d like to play the ending of the story, if we could?” Turning to the class, Mr. Barclay asked, “Children, would you like to listen to the end of the story?”

The class responded with a resounding cheer.

“Yes, Mr. B., there is time available.” 

“Well then, HOLI, can you please play the ending? I think it would be good for the children.” Mr. Barclay nodded. “The ending is so beautiful.”

HOLI began: “He was right – reading was archaic, but so, too, was the substance of books. As he had shown with the map – the old content was worthless – built on ignorance. Those ancient texts – those old books – had no contextual value outside of their sensory appeal. The Policy, in its great wisdom, filtered our information to keep us pure. The ignorance of these books lay dead – existing only on the old man’s shelves – preserved but not to be consumed. Food not for thought but for microbes. It was at that moment I knew that I had been in the presence of a wise man – a great man – more than just the founder of the Policy. And I know now why I am here. I look up into the night sky so beautifully bright from our illuminations and feel a sense of awe – of purpose. The Policy, of which I am soon to become President, had achieved what those before it could not. On this fiftieth anniversary of the victory of the final campaign, is a world in which billions of people, regardless of breed or caste, enjoy parity and peace. Where at birth nothing is needed to learn beyond our built-in, natural capacities; no longer must we struggle to learn to read and write, which locked information in the hands of the privileged few. Now, there was nothing needed to learn beyond what nature intended, our senses – we see, we smell, we hear, we speak, we touch – we are human again. The Policy had finally torn down the walls to learning, and in its stead, created a world where education, our birthright, is available to all. A world where information is bliss.”

Mr. Barclay looked out among the rows of students that sat before him, their eyes filled with wonder and hope, eager to learn. He smiled at them, feeling reaffirmed in his choice as an educator for children who needed help – his children. He turned and looked at HOLI, who was always fixated on him, and he smiled at her, too.

End

Wednesday
Jun052013

Starbucks Doesn’t Care about your Health

Over the weekend, Starbuck enacted a policy at its US and Canadian stores whereby smoking is prohibited within 25 feet of its store premises (not just the front door or outdoor eating area, the entire perimeter).  According to a Starbucks’s spokesperson “The intent is to provide a healthy environment for our customers in the outdoor seating areas of our stores."

Many have applauded this measure citing SB’s commitment to its customer’s health, a sign of its continued commitment to corporate social responsibility. Unfortunately, corporate social responsibility is a euphemism for a type of marketing approach and so Starbuck’s doesn’t really care about your health.  Like all public companies, what matters is shareholder value, or in other words, the health SB cares about is that of its balance sheet. 

Let’s dissect this: If SB cared about their customer’s health, they would have banned smoking within 25 feet of its stores at all of their approximately 17,000 locations globally (not just most of the 3,000 franchise stores in the US and Canada). According to SB, they also serve customer is in: Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong/Macau, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates.

So if the health of its customers is not driving this, then what was the impetus to this new policy? Here are four possibilities:

1. Listening to Customers: SB is listening to its customers in the US and Canada many who are non-smokers. Ok, if that’s true, then why 25 feet? Is second hand smoke such a concern “outside” the SB store and that far away from the store? I don’t think so and my guess is that most people don’t care enough to voice their concerns to SBs about some smokers outside the store - not letter writing campaigns. Complaining is easy but there is a general lethargy amongst most when it actually comes to doing something like voting or drafting a letter to the CEO (particular lethargy in the US based on the amount of abuse it citizens are willing to take from government and corporations). Sure a few ardent customers sent letters to SB  - probably former smokers who, based on my experience, have the most visceral hatred for anything tobacco - but not enough to elicit change.


2. Employees Breaks: This policy was aimed at changing employee bad behavior: Too many SB employees smoke and they were taking too many smoking breaks. Certainly this policy would make it inconvenient for them but this is unlikely the reason for the policy. There are other less public and more effective measures to keep employees from smoking such as increasing the cost of health insurance for smokers or simply enacting a employee policy that prohibits the behavior.


3. Cost of Cleanliness: Cigarrette butts are garbage and it was costly to keep the storefront clean. This is unlikely because storefronts need to be swept regardless; moreover my guess is that 15 of the 25 feet is the street (public sanitation is responsible for cleaning).


4. Marketing: I think the most plausible reason is that this is propaganda in a good disguise. SB can feign it cares about the health of its customer even if they don’t. The press on this has mostly been positive from what I can tell and people actually believe SB cares about the health of its customers. People have taken the bait and are arguing about how SB is a good corporate citizen by tackling the second hand smoke menace. This marketing strategy redirects the conversation away from SB products many of which are unhealthy by any standard (and not to mention that they sell these products to kids too – think Frappuccino). The outdoor second hand smoke argument is a BS arguement as well – I mean this is a ban *outside* the SBs store – 25 feet away from it. The outdoor second hand smoking argument is intellectually dishonest and conflates a mouse with an elephant.   I won’t get into the details on this as it should be common sense.

So what’s the cost of this marketing effort for SB?  Probably not more than the paper for the press release. There isn’t any cost for enforcement because this policy isn’t enforceable. SB can’t keep people from smoking in the street even within the 25 foot perimeter. They can’t keep the owner of an adjacent store from smoking within his store. They can’t keep people from smoking inside their cars while they are parked enjoying their Sausage & Cheddar Classic Breakfast Sandwich. So unless there is a related local law that has this prohibition, SB can’t call the cop or chase away smokers with a broom. SB is aware of this policy overstepping: "If it's public space and something we do not have control of, and the law allows it then we can't enforce it.”. Well then, why didn’t they simply make the ban effective on their premises, both inside and out, instead of the seemingly arbitrary 25 feet rule?  Simple: shock value. In other words, the press wouldn’t have picked up on this story if this was just a point of clarification of an existing policy. Certainly I wouldn’t have (which raises the question: have I fallen for the bait too?)

I hope this clears this up a bit. And if you ever want to have a stogie but are concerned about violating SB policy - whether inside the 25 feet limit or inside one of its stores - just travel outside the U.S. and Canada where SB cares less about the health of its customers. You’ll certainly find an accommodating SB franchise.

Vergil

Friday
May312013

The Seemingly Peculiar Property of Projects

I recently drove over the Henry Hudson Bridge that connects the Bronx (Riverdale area) to Manhattan. It looks very much like it did five years ago – that is, that it is still under heavy construction.  My guess is that it’s over-budget and should have been completed a few years ago. These sights are not the exception, they are the norm.  Take the Freedom Tower in downtown Manhattan:  it was supposed to be completed in 2003. Now ten years later, it’s still not complete. Or the recent deployment of New York City’s Upgraded 911 System (which by the way has been experiencing periodic crashes since it recently went live) is $1 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.  These incidents aren’t isolated to government run projects. Anyone who’s worked in a corporate job knows that projects frequently run over budget and rarely finish on-time as planned (or even as re-planned). What is going on here? Why do projects seem to always live longer than expected, sometime so long that the only way to stop them is to kill the project entirely?

There are a number of theories that try to explain this phenomenon. They’ve never satisfied me and are as follows:

  1. Talent: The wrong people were on the project
  2. Buy-In: Not sufficient support from senior stakeholders (managers)
  3. Incentives:  Individual rewards were not  aligned to project objectives
  4. Project Management: Undisciplined project management methods were employed

I’ve seen it too many times where all four of the above were not present and yet failure occurred. Less "consultant" theories on planning failures include personal bias/psychological issues and inherent uncertainty in predicting the future.  But I don’t buy these either.  If they were the case, there would be an equal distribution (or more equal distribution) between projects that go over budget and projects that go under budget.  In short, these reasons are project platitudes (or failure triggers at best, but certainly not causes). There is something else going on that until recently escaped me. Projects fail not because of any of the reasons above. They fail because 1) they are projects and 2) projects are typically structured incorrectly.

Let’s address the first point: projects fail because they are projects. To understand this, let me refer to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Like many things, projects are susceptible to the effects of random events. But for projects, the impact from random events is asymmetrical in that it favors negative results.  In other words, things that go unexpected on a project tend to have a negative consequence for the project rather than positive.  For example, when random events are introduced into a project (say an entire business unit was overlooked and not included in setting requirements), the project doesn’t get completed sooner; it goes over budget and off schedule. This effect is similar in non-project domains. Take for example air travel: random events (e.g., mechanical difficulties) tend to delay a flight rather than accelerate it and the delays tend to be more severe then acceleration benefits by orders of magnitude  (delays often last for hours whereas accerlations may be only a few minutes). This leads to my next point.

Not only do random events introduced into a project carry with them negative impacts, but those negative impacts are scalable.  Here’s an excerpt from NNT’s seminal work The Black Swan that helps to explain this concept of scalability:

“Like many biological variables, life expectancy… is subjected to mild randomness. It is not scalable, since the older we get, the less likely we are to live. In a developed country a newborn female is expected to die at around 79, according to insurance tables. When, she reaches her 79th birthday, her life expectancy, assuming that she is in typical health, is another 10 years. At the age of 90, she should have another 4.7 years to go. At the age of 100, 2.5 years. At the age of 119, if she miraculously lives that long, she should have about nine months left.  As she lives beyond the expected date of death, the number of additional years to go decreases. This illustrates the major property of random variables related to the bell curve. The conditional expectation of additional life drops as a person gets older.

With human projects and ventures we have another story. These are often scalable, as I said in Chapter 3. With scalable variables… you will witness the exact opposite effect. Let's say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days, the same expectation in days as the newborn female has in years. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it should have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.

Let's say you are a refugee waiting for the return to your homeland. Each day that passes you are getting farther from, not closer to, the day of triumphal return. The same applies to the completion date of your next opera house. If it was expected to take two years, and three years later you are asking questions, do not expect the project to be completed any time soon…This subtle but extremely consequential property of scalable randomness is unusually counterintuitive... But let us say for now that they are central to our misunderstanding of the business of prediction. “

So for a project, a random event extends its life expectancy and every day that passes without completion exponentially increases the project’s life expectancy.  This scalability helps to explain the old adage referred to as Hofstadter's law: a project will take longer than you expect even though you know that it will take longer than you expect (or for you techies, the 90% Rule: The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.)

Random events are unpredictable so the answer is not trying to better predict. Although this is common sense, many project managers are asked to predict tasks and milestones months (sometimes years) in advance and to stay the course the entire way. These often are those projects with a status of “green” until a few weeks before a critical milestone date when suddenly the status goes “red” and management wonders WTF just happened. Expecting project managers to predict and not allowing deviations from plan only leads to surprises. Talent, Buy-In, Incentives and Disciplined Project Management are not the answers either – they are tertiary to project proclivity and as we will see, project structure.

Projects cannot be monolithic. They cannot be command and control. They need to be structured to take advantage of tinkering. I covered tinkering in an earlier post, but in short tinkering (also known as organic, grass roots, agile, along with a slew of other names) is the process of unplanned trial and error – of experimentation – to see what works and what doesn’t and then move forward with what does (or perhaps move forward with what doesn't if it turns out to be better).  Tinkering is inherently about smallness and components and projects structured to take advantage of it work for a number of reasons.

  • Failure avoidance: Allows for changes to be made before the failure occurs. Accepts small errors over total failure.
  • Loss management: Allows for changes to be made before significant costs are incurred. Accepts small costs associated with tinkering over risk of total loss.
  • Results realization: Incremental approach reduces latency between expected and actual results.
  • Discovery exposure: Increases the chances of accidental discoveries (i.e., serendipities).
  • Random event mitigation: Impact from random events can be isolated to individual components. Accepts small delays per component rather than larger systemic delays. This is critical because each day a project goes over expected timeline, the longer it can be expected to take to complete. If projects delays can be isolated to units and distributed across those units, delays run in parallel as opposed to serially.

The challenge with adopting a tinkering approach is that errors are more frequent, which gives the perception that things are going wrong all the time.  Delays too are more frequent as negative impacts are addressed on small cycle times rather than once at the end of the project.  There are often frequent change requests which give the perception that requirements weren’t properly gathered. There are apparent redundancies in processes (e.g., multiple small iterative releases instead of one big one) which increase upfront costs (big projects that don’t use tinkering always look cheaper upfront but cost more overall). Results are incremental and are subject to the dilettante's "yeah, so that's all you have to show?" Finally, with complex projects, more components working in parallel are needed which is unmanageable in a command and control environment. In order for tinkering to work, control needs to be decentralized into the hands of individual teams. Although large projects fail in a command and control environment, the perception while managing in this structure, although illusory, is control.

For more on this see the wikipedia entry on the Lindy Effect.

Vergil Den

 

Wednesday
Jan092013

Naïve Intervention and Humanity

A recent discussion initiated by FOT (Friend of Taleb) Greg Linster about Antifragility, Humanism and the apparent contradiction between the two -- namely, that protecting the weak potentially fragilizes the human race -- got me thinking (these FOTs are good at that). The more I thought about it, the more daunting the problem seemed. I feel (believe, trust, know, whatever) that naïve intervention is a sacred human right; that the alternative is vulgar, profane; but how does one explain the… ineffable; how does one explain nature’s preference for humanity is the former and not the later? I can probably find aphorisms from great thinkers and philosophers to support this. I can even prepare an essay that tries to reason it through.  But I think there is a better way for me to express my thoughts. I went to the cemetery of my old stories and resurrected one that was looking for life. I feverishly rewrote it and here it is anew: “Things Great and Small”, a story about a guy named Ray whose life can explain my position better than me.

 

Things Great and Small

Ray and his wife Amelia came home after a night that included dinner at a trendy Latin-Asian fusion restaurant followed by drinks at a romantic little wine bar. Now that their daughter was a teenager, they felt free to spend an evening out, as if they were dating again. Years had gone by and they hadn’t done anything for themselves; their sole focus was on Gabby. But now she was older, and they began to let go. Recently, they had been spending their Saturday nights sampling the restaurant scene. So much had changed over the years, and they were eager to catch up.

They were in a giddy mood, acting like teenagers themselves. Ray opened a bottle of Cabernet and poured two glasses. They toasted and indulged in a tender kiss.

The phone rang.

Ray and his wife broke from their kiss and looked at each other. A call near midnight wasn’t uncommon; they had fielded many calls in the past at this time of night.

The phone rang a second time.

Most often, it was just their daughter calling for a ride home from a friend’s or from the movies. Yet even knowing this, each call always brought fear with it.

The phone rang a third time.

“I’ll get it. Gabby probably just needs a lift,” Ray said, smiling at his wife. The smile was only a mask. He always tried to reason with himself that it was nothing, but he could never shake the nervous spasm in his stomach that would reverberate to his chest. He smiled only to help offset his wife’s momentary fear. He was aware that whatever he was feeling, she was feeling it exponentially worse.

Ray picked up the phone.

“Hello? Yes. Oh, hi, Mary. Is everything OK?”

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Dec262012

Effects of Forced Cohabitation

I've always been fascinated at how humans behave when forced to cohabitate, particularly at work. One is compelled by the need to earn a day’s wage to "work" with others. Day in and day out they suffer yet they continue on; although some eventually break. My short story “Shared Remunerations” (~2300 words) takes this idea to the absurd extreme.  Edmund and Matthew, both recent hires at a law firm, take turns telling the story of the events since Matthew’s hire. Edmund is an effete, arrogant dandy; Matthew is more of a regular guy. Edmund, while possibly as intelligent and superior as he believes himself to be, is also both unbalanced and fragile. He thinks that a great friendship exists between them. Matthew sees Edmund as an eccentric, but pleasant enough and no more than a colleague. When the firm moves Matthew into Edmund’s office, Edmund begins to see Matthew as a threat to his position, and finds one of Matthew’s personal tics to be infuriating.  

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Oct302012

Core Principles of Freedom and Maintenance of Liberty

Absent a moral code, I’ve been wondering what exactly are the fundamental principles to a practical code of Freedom.  I’ve compiled a list of what I think are these key principles. I collected them as fragments from a number of thinkers including Popper, Hayek, Socrates, etc. They may exist elsewhere as a whole, but I’ve been unable to find them (Update: I came across the Non-Aggression Principle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-aggression_principle)

Principles of Freedom

1. Do no act to harm a man or woman. 

2. It is better to suffer an injustice than to do an injustice.

3. If Principle 1 is violated, the victim (or their proxy) has the right, but not the obligation, to exact a punishment of equal or less measure on the individual(s) who violated Principle 1.

4. If men and women choose to come together in mutual cooperation for the purpose of protection against physical violence and fraud or more generally, the enforcement of the Principles 1 and 3 (collectively "defense"), the system that they design should not seek first what is best, rather, they shall seek first what can easily be dismantled without violence.

5. The men and women that have come together for the purpose of defense can exact a tax on one another only in order to cover the expenses required to enact and maintain (collectively "implement") the system of defense.

6. If the system of defense or any system that is implemented violates Principles 1 and 3, an individual has the right and the obligation to restore adherence to Principles 1 and 3 using non-violent means against the system.

7. If the system of defense or any system that is implemented violates Principles 1 and 3, and all non-violent means to restore adherence to principles 1 and 3 have been exhausted and principles 1 and 3 continue to be violated, an individual has the right and the obligation to use violence against the system to restore adherence to principles 1 and 3, even if it violates any of the aforementioned principles.

Breakdown

Principle 1 is the rule of Freedom and asserts that one can do as one wishes as long as one does not actively hurt another in the process.  It is important to note, however, that if one hurts another through an omission, Principle 1 is not violated. In other words, a free person cannot be forced to act, even if it means someone is hurt by their inaction. To assert otherwise is a rule for a moral code.

Principle 2 is a rule for Justice and it is important because without it, one can assert a violation of a principle even if one isn’t certain that it was violated and by whom (it must come before Principle 3)

Principle 3 is a rule of Justice and without it; freedom is tyranny (see Paradox of Freedom). It asserts that one can seek justice if someone acts and hurts another. Justice can only be in proportion to the action, and whether or not to seek it is at the discretion of the victim. Indeed if one kills another and commits suicide during or after the act, justice is served.  Principle 2 must come before Principle 3 as it is necessity to offset erroneous capital punishment (see Albert Camus’ essay Reflections on the Guillotine for support).

Principles 4 thru 7 outline the maximum amount of government that can support Freedom and the recourse afforded the individual in the event the government violates an earlier principle. In extreme cases, an indvidual has the right and the obligation to restore freedom through violence even if they must violate earlier principles.

 Vergil

 

 

 

Thursday
May312012

The Illusion of Progress

Karl Popper wrote extensively on a number of topics, most notably on objective knowledge, the fallacy of historicism, and the enemies of an open society. There is a common theme through these works – that is, in order for there to be progress, there must be free and open discourse.

In the following exposition, I attempt to deconstruct Popper’s argument supporting this contention. Furthermore, by doing so, I hope that it becomes clear why ‘too big too fail,’ the expert problem, and other modern complexes present significant risks.

Truth vs. Untruth

Fundamentally, progress is synonymous with solving problems, leading to improved knowledge. To understand this, first, we need to understand the concept of truth and untruth. The difference between truth and untruth is not binary – in other words, a proposition isn’t either true or not true. There are gradations of truth. So think of truth as a bull’s eye and untruths as the circular bands around it. The nearer the proposition is to the bull’s eye, the closer that proposition is to the truth (or less untrue, however you like it). The farther from the bull’s eye, the farther from the truth it is (or more untrue it is).  The objective of improved knowledge is to move closer to the truth (note the word "improved" as this distinction will be important).

Schema of Knowledge

So the growth of knowledge is all about problem solving.  Popper has a problem-solving formula, or schema as he calls it, that is characterized by the following expression: PS1 then TT1 then EE1 the PS2

First, there must be a problem PS1. In order to solve the problem PS1, one must formulate a Tentative Theory TT1 (e.g., proposition, conjecture, etc.).  How this theory is formulated is not relevant. It can be established through induction or intuition or quite frankly through any means – even from a dream.  It doesn’t matter. The point is that it should be a solution to a problem.

Next, the tentative theory TT1 must be tested. This is called Error Elimination EE1. This is perhaps the most crucial element in the schema. The process of error elimination should be as rigorous as possible through falsification, i.e., proving the tentative theory to be false.  Examination of TT1 will show that 1) it is proven completely false, 2) it is proven partially false, or 3) it is not proven false at all. The better the theory is at surviving the refutation process, the more “fit” the theory is. However, although it is more "fit," it is not necessarily more true as we shall see later.

If the theory survives, either partly or wholly, one or more new problems are raised (PS2) which are more complex than the predecessor problem (PS1), and the evolutionary cycle repeats itself with the new problem (PS2) at its base.

The Growth of Knowledge

So the growth of knowledge is evolutionary in that, if the tentative theory survives, other new problems and theories arise from it like children, and if they survive, they have children, and so on and so forth. The crux of the issue should be more apparent now. That is that the growth of knowledge is a progression – however, to my earlier note, there is a distinction between improved knowledge and worse knowledge (i.e., ignorance).

Ignorance grows in the same way and therein lies the problem.  Ignorance is knowledge that moves farther from the truth or becomes less true with each successive cycle of Popper's schema.

For example, a problem is addressed with a tentative theory. The theory, however, is either not tested or not rigorously tested, so it survives the error elimination process with a multitude of errors. It then spawns a new set of erroneous problems, each more complex than its predecessor, and the cycle of ignorance continues.

The error elimination phase of the schema is most critical because it determines survival.

Freedom

Rigorous error elimination is performed by critical argument. When critical argument is hindered, then the process is not as rigorous. There can be no constraints as part of an argument, and freedom of expression is so important. But it is deeper than simply a government provisioning this freedom. One needs to be free in all things. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in his aphorism, it is “Only he who is free with his time will be free with his opinion.”

For example, a man’s opinion is inhibited if he can’t argue freely because he doesn’t want to lose his job, or he has a conflict of interest with the one who owns the tentative theory he is arguing against. Think of the agency problem such as the incestuous relationship between regulators and bankers, or the relationship between researchers and corporations.  Only freedom can ensure that the error elimination process can run its course.

‘Too Big to Fail’ and the Expert Problem

It should be clear now why ‘too big to fail’ and the expert problem are such issues. The process of error elimination was running its course during the financial crisis in 2008, but instead of allowing it to run its course, it was replaced by the bank bailouts. The U.S. federal government allowed these financial institutions to survive when they shouldn’t have. Instead of having one set of problems to deal with that would have risen from the failed banks (problems that lead to improvement), we have another set of problems, a worse set, based on the bailed banks.

The same concept applies to the expert problem. Experts often act as the sole error eliminators of a tentative theory. Often an expert can propose a theory, and because of the standing of that expert, it is presumed that the theory is correct and no critical testing is necessary. There are entire institutions that have developed from this expert problem and are built either upon fallacious foundations (e.g., economics) or on fallacious reasoning (e.g., healthcare).

Modernity Retrogression

This is the fundamental argument for the failure of modernity or why there has been little progress (or even that there has been retrogression) in modern times. Unless you understand the argument presented, it is hard to appreciate why this is the case. People have confused increased complexity for progress. They also assume that the future will only bring progress – as if time and improvement were in lockstep. This is the illusion of progress.

Modernity is building on ignorance and fallacies that with each successive cycle worsen the situation because of new erroneous problems and increased complexities that successive problems bring. We are not improving our knowledge; rather, we are increasing our ignorance. We are moving farther from the truth.

“Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made. “ --Franz Kafka

Thursday
May312012

Anatomy of the Failure to Learn From Failure

There seem to be hundreds, if not thousands, of postings on the Web about failure. Most talk about why failure is a good thing, touting how valuable it is because you can learn and grow from it. As many of you know, I don't subscribe to this. My point: why not try to avoid failure? Negative thinking and tinkering support learning and growing more effectively and, incidentally, improve the likelihood of success. But except for a few contrarians, you can hardly find a wisp about failure avoidance in the ether. 

With all this talk about failure, how does one actually learn from mistakes? It takes humility and a little understanding on how we think about past events. Both, however, are usually in short supply. Typically, the retrospective process of failure recognition is fraught with a number of cognitive biases – which of course will lead to a high likelihood of repeat failure.

Stages of Failure Recognition

1.      Why did this happen?        Self-Serving Bias

2.      How did this happen?        Confirmation Bias

3.      What can I do to avoid future failures?     Hindsight Bias

Nonetheless, when failure occurs or when it becomes imminent, one typically takes stock of the preceding events in the hopes of discovering the cause(s) of the failure. So what does this process of discovery look like? I thought about this for some time and perhaps the failure recognition process would look similar to the following three stages. I use a failed restaurant as an example to provide context.

Why did this happen?

This may be the first question that is asked and for most, it really means “Why did this failure happen to me?” Of course most people don't want to take the blame for failure, so they look for someone or something else to blame besides themselves. The bias associated with this type of thinking is called self-serving bias.

Self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that attributes personal success to skills or talent and failure to randomness. For example, a restaurateur believes his restaurant failed because of the poor economy which is a random event that he had no control over. However, he ignored the fact that he overstocked his refrigerators with perishables which resulted in a high spoilage rate. Not to mention, he bought his products from a wholesaler who sold him the goods at retail prices.

For those that watch Kitchen Nightmares, you often see this delusion of the restaurant owner. Owners blame their workers, their spouses, their families – you name it and they blame it. Never do they take ownership of their mistakes – not until Gordon Ramsey stuffs it down their throats. Only then do they realize that they ultimately own their failure. But I digress.

How did this happen?

Now armed with the external excuse and the reason for the failure, the search is on for details to support the hypothesis – a validation exercise if you will. Another bias comes into play here – confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to confirm a hypothesis regardless of whether it is true. In this case, given that the bad economy was the reason behind the failure of the restaurant, the restaurateur looks for data to support his contention. And by golly, he finds data to support it.

He finds an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that states that on average, due to the poor economy, people are dining out less. The restaurateur believes that this supports his assertion as to why his restaurant failed. But he fails to scrutinize the information – what are the data to support the analysis by the WSJ? Are people dining out less on average? Is the restaurateur’s area experiencing more people dining out rather than fewer? If the economy is so bad, why are his competitors running profitable businesses?

What can I do to avoid future failures?

With this evidence, the restaurateur is now certain that the poor economy was the cause of his restaurant's demise. This raises the question, to avoid future failure: How can a person know whether the economy will be good or bad? This leads to the next bias – hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is the inclination of seeing past events as being more predictable than they actually are (i.e., illusion of predictability or the “I should’ve seen it coming” illusion). In the case of the failed restaurateur, he will open restaurants only during boom economic cycles. He will determine when the boom cycles will occur by reading economic predictors in the WSJ which notoriously does not predict well.

So how did the restaurateur do the next time he opened his restaurant? It turns out that he was wildly successful (during a bad economy no less). He attributed his success to his “front of the house” charm and the handsome menus he designed.

In fact, the restaurateur's success can be attributed to other things. During the bankruptcy proceedings, his judge had just eaten lunch resulting in a more favorable outcome. This allowed the restaurateur to open his next restaurant three months earlier than expected. By opening in advance, a soon-to-be-retired restaurant reviewer at the local paper was able to rate his restaurant. And since it was going to be his last review, he wanted it to be positive so ... I think you seeing where I am going with all of this.

It is a difficult undertaking to determine causality in general, even more so when analyzing past events of something as uncontrolled as real life. Success and failure are often the result of fortune (aka unpredictable events). There are just so many reasons why things happen – how do you determine which reasons are salient? Further complicating matters are our own cognitive biases that further distort the retrospective analysis.

But there are things that you can do to improve the likelihood of success – avoid failure whenever possible. By protecting your downside risks (negative thinking) coupled with tinkering (small iterative controlled steps of trial and error) avoiding failure is possible – but of course, nothing is guaranteed.

P.S. The restaurant failed because the "closed" sign was inadvertently, but prominently, displayed in the window for weeks.

Thursday
May312012

Failure as a Prerequisite to Success?

I recently read an article on a self-improvement blog about failure and its relationship to success. The article stated that "... everyone that has ever succeeded did it by failing first.” And that “You have to have the guts to pick yourself up after you fall and try again, and again, until you find the right fit.”

Obviously we all fail in life at some point or another so the statement was logically true. The dumbest clout would also agree that one needs to learn from one’s mistakes. But I am sure this is not what the author meant. The author’s meaning is that to be successful in a particular area (probably some business venture) one needs to have failed first. But why fail at all and why make that an attribute for success?

My guess is that the writer is trying to sell a book on positive thinking. If the author wanted to be honest and accurate about success, which unfortunately does not sell a lot of books, he would have provided a practical and better reason for success, or more importantly, for failure avoidance.

A better reason would be that one should prevent failure whenever possible. So to be able to recognize when something is going to fail rather than let the thing fail is an important attribute. By being preemptive, you can take action before the failure actually occurs. This is called being agile, adaptable – some may call the process tinkering.

Now back to success – let’s first identify the attributes that are not critical for one to be successful.

  • Good ideas – Many bad ideas are or were successful (think pet rock)
  • High GPA – People with average GPAs are successful
  • Failure – People can be successful without experiencing failure in the area they are trying to succeed at. They know that failure is an option but choose otherwise when possible (see Tinkering)

So what are the practical attributes of success?

  • Luck – Many successes come by serendipity. Plain and simple.
  • Preparation – This is also called “doing one’s homework.” This can be as simple as talking with people who have done it before or performing some market research. A restaurant in Manhattan is likely to fail – so one should avoid opening up a restaurant in Manhattan.
  • Tinkering – If things seem not to be working, make adjustments. Recognizing and adapting to change is called evolving. Those that fail to evolve are extinct.
  • There you have it. So please, don’t go around trying to mess up so you can be successful.
Thursday
May312012

Raise Your Hand

There is a great Sam Adams beer commercial from a few years back. It goes something like this: A bunch of businessmen are sitting around a lunch table. The waitress comes over to take their drink order. The first bloke orders a glass of water, and the rest follow suit. The last bloke to order switches it up. He orders a Sam Adams and then the rest change their orders to a Sam Adams.

Aside from being funny, there is some truth to this phenomenon. It’s called the "Asch Paradigm" or the conformist of groups. Tim Hartford covers this in his excellent 2011 TED presentation Management Lessons from the War in Iraq. At about 5:50 into the clip, he speaks about the suppression of dissent and its dangers. It’s basically the Sam Adams commercial if no one ever dissented from the group and ordered a Sam Adams.

It got me thinking. How many times, when a bad idea was introduced, did people who thought the idea was bad just sit on the sidelines and never voice their opinion? My sense is that the leadership at Blockbuster fell into this trap when they decided not to purchase Netflix in 2000 for $50 million and chose instead to invest in Enron. I am certain they continued to fall into this trap in the decade of debacle that followed.

PwC is another example. Back in 2002, PwC Consulting was spun off from the Audit and Tax service lines and was shockingly named “Monday.” Before this was published, someone must have thought, “Geez, Monday doesn’t remind me of a fresh start. Monday is depressing because the weekend is over.” Only after it was published and the public ridicule that followed did PwC reconsider the name. The comedy of errors continued in the subsequent months. The new company was offered $18 billion by Hewlett Packard which was rejected as too low. A few months later and given the change in market conditions, PwC consulting sold to IBM for a mere $3 billion. Do I know for certain that no dissenting opinion was voiced in the above cases? Of course not, but because of the domino effect of failures – I suspect that it wasn’t.

But we all know that you just can’t go about voicing your opinion indiscriminately. Those blokes don’t last too long in a company because they are seen as bigmouths and know-it-alls. So what can you do, given the obvious side effects to dissensions? Here are some tips:

1. Advice from the advisor is neither good nor bad. This maxim from Machiavelli's The Prince is a good summation: “Good advice, whatever be its immediate source, has its true origin in the wisdom of the prince.” In other words, raise your hand and voice your opinion. Let others decide its efficacy.

2. Be careful where you voice your advice: Not all advice can be perceived as good – particularly when someone may take offense to it. For example, you may have the best intentions with the dissenting advice you want to provide your boss. But this advice may make him look bad in a meeting. So unless your true intention is to challenge him in public, be discreet when providing advice.

3. Try to provide preemptive advice: Some advice is best given BEFORE a meeting or event rather than during the event or after it – particularly if this advice will help keep your boss from looking like a fool. So again, if your intention is to humiliate your boss – the omission is a good tactic. But if you want him to save face, give it to him beforehand.

4. I told you so: When your advice is not heeded and hindsight proves you correct, don’t rub it in. This is not to say it shouldn’t be raised – but again discretion is the better part of valor. Gently point out the mistake but, moreover, provide advice on how to fix the problem. You will be positioned to look like both a prophet and a savior.

5. The above tips can be useful but only if your boss or company culture values openness. If you work in an environment that actively suppresses opinion through intimidation or general ignorance – you may want to find another company to work for or you may end up in a Blockbuster. 

Thursday
May312012

A Job Well Done

As an ardent procrastinator, time management has always eluded me. I much prefer to work hard than to work long. I am amazed at how people seem to tread the work water for eight hours every day. I seem to have fits of excited activity (working) with long moments of recovery (not working). It has been told to me more than once that there is something wrong with me.

It wasn’t until a few years back, when reading Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week, that I realized that I was not utterly crazy (nor was my method of habitual procrastination). I was comforted by the reintroduction of a theory on time management – particularly something referred to as “Parkinson’s Law.” In short it states that work effort will expand to fill the time available for its completion. Tim suggests that we shorten the time allowed for a task, and by doing so, the time pressure forces us to focus on only the bare essentials required to complete the task. He purports that the quality of the work will be equal to, if not better than, the quality of work had you afforded yourself the additional time.

There is some truth to this. Heaven knows that if you give yourself too much time, things seems to just drag on – from pruning and questioning, to reordering and overanalyzing. I think for me, unconsciously, my procrastination was the application of Tim’s method.

Needless to say, Tim’s method shouldn’t be taken to an extreme. That is, if you shorten the time allowed to perform a job by too much, you will certainly sacrifice quality. David Hume, the famous philosopher, partially blamed the lack of acclaim for his book A Treatise on Human Nature on this exact problem – “I had been guilty of a very usual indiscretion, in going to press too early.”

The art, then, is finding the threshold where quality is maximized and time wasted minimized – or otherwise put, finding the right balance of quality and time. I am rather good at finding the right balance when doing the work myself (albeit, it’s never quite level). But this balance becomes ever more difficult to find as the complexity of the work effort increases – even more so when the people dimension is added.

I think that most sellers of people services and managers of people/projects believe that there is a science to finding this balance. They tend to apply overly quantitative approaches in search of getting it right. This approach inevitably assumes people are machines and the result of the work is an output. The end product is delivered “on time” and “on budget” (the quantitative measures) but quality and human dignity are sacrificed (the qualitative measures).

So choose your poison. Some choose to offer unrealistic stretch goals by compressing time and changing nothing else. I’d rather give everyone a bit more time and let people work as they choose. The procrastinators may be stealing time, but I don’t measure output – I measure outcomes.