Sunday, November 25, 2012

Eventually everyone gets shot: a review of "Coming Apart" by Charles Murray

Why I read this book:

Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960 - 2010" made quite a splash among the editorial pages of the major newspapers, magazines, and the like outfits upon its publication. Murray, a political scientist and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, demonstrates that a gargantuan class divide has formed and accelerated in the last several decades as compared to the interconnected lifestyles of the American classes in the sixties. Murray argues that the confluence of education, technology, and enhanced mobility has led to the isolation of the elite classes in their own geographic, cultural, and social bubble at the same time as the lower classes have experienced a shocking decline in social capital measured by factors such as marriage rates, industriousness, and religiousness. The author focuses on the whites of America to remove race as a variable in this alarming discussion of the disintegration of the American social fabric.
When my favorite columnist, David Brooks, raved about the book in his column, I decided to see for myself what the hype was about. Looks like "The Hunger Games" will have to wait.


1. Somali shillings
2. Uzbekistani som
3.Turkish lira
4. Mexican peso
5. US dollar, baby.


The book comprises three main parts: demonstration of trends and data that identifies the geographic isolation of the elites and the disintegration of social capital in the lower classes, root cause analysis of the problem, and lastly, the author's recommendation for addressing the problem of the downward trend among the lower classes and the issue of the growing divide between the elite classes and everyone else.

The first part of the book produces the evidence for the conclusions that made "Coming Apart" the talk of the nation: the affluent and the educated are congregating in a handful of pockets of zip codes around major cities, flourishing, sipping good coffee, and living their lives largely unaffected by the rest of society, while the working class whites have experienced a sharply pronounced increase in unemployment rates (both willful and forced) and births out of wedlock as well as a corresponding decline in marriage rate and religious and civic participation.
Murray spends a considerable amount of time explaining his methodology using sexy terms such as "multivariate analysis" and producing a wide array of graphs to support his findings. While such discussions focus on the technicals more than the average reader (me) would care about, the discovery of trends and revealing graphs grasp at the same pleasure circuits as the more prettily wrapped works of social and behavioral economics such as "Freakonomics" and everything Malcolm Gladwell ever wrote.

The second and third parts of the book focus on the underlying causes of the divide between classes and the decay of the lower class and contain the author's views on addressing these issues. These sections of the book are subjective and open to debate (perhaps this is why every mention of "Coming Apart" that I saw in the newspapers and magazines cherry-picked only the conclusions of the first part of the book and ignore these sections), but they made a tremendous impression on me and garnered the book the highest of the ratings.

For starters, Murray spends a considerable amount of time discussing why the stratification of various elements of the American society is bad for the health of the country. At a time when inequality, economic or social, is one of the most charged political topics, how often have you stopped to think about if and why that is an issue? How often do you hear pundits and policy makers provide that explanation? The answer is practically never. You cannot, however, escape the hysterical cries of "We are the 99%" on the extreme left, finding their scapegoat in the richest 1% and short-sightedly focusing on a symptom instead of a cure; nor can you miss the roars of "socialism" and "class warfare" of the far right when the topic of inequality comes up, as they turn a deaf ear to the tremors of the changing times and choose the tactics of a shouting chid over a reasonable conversation with the other side. Murray devotes a number of pages to explain what most of us inherently know: that social trust and cohesion between citizens constitute the basic material for the success of the American project, and this effort alone elevates the book past much of the traffic I encounter on the television and the editorial pages of newspapers. 

Murray is a libertarian, and many of his views are unconventional and stir controversy, as he readily acknowledges. They are also untenable for all practical purposes. For instance, he argues that the vast amount of resources that our government devotes to fighting social ills with self-evident lack of results are so mishandled, we may be better off by writing everyone a check for their portion of the aforementioned resources. Where Murray stands out, however, is in his ability to identify the domestic problems facing the country, and to do so in a deeply analytic, intelligent way, backed by data and framed within a historical context, leaning on writings of men who shaped American history, such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexis De Tocqueville.

What touched me the most was Murray's ruminations on the issue of executive compensation. Murray pierces right through the tired debate (of course, the rate of executive compensation growth is egregious) with a simple, yet poignant rebuke: Have you, as an executive and a leading figure in the nation, given any thought to how unseemly your astronomical compensation and your golden parachute are? This appeal to the higher principles in our business leaders resonated with me. We tend to portray the captains of industry as star individual performers, the Kobe Bryants of business, who should be compensated as such. That may be, and I cannot advocate putting artificial restrictions on someone else's earnings. I can and will, however, stand behind the notion that a leader should recognize that his position places him in the vanguard of maintaining and shaping the values that govern this nation. Humility and selflessness may seem to be relics of a bygone era, a time that is ill-suited for the pace of today's events. Murray himself exposes his fears that the foundation of values that made America great may today be crumbling. I think those fears are misplaced despite his astute diagnosis of the issues facing the country. Despite the political turbulence of today's age, American democracy is still vibrant, and its companies and universities are still the centers of global innovation. I think we will emerge from the Great Recession and its aftereffects with a renewed sense of industriousness and importance of civic participation.

Do not despair, Charles Murray: If we can successfully bring back the high five, we can bring back virtuousness and humility.

Coincidentally, I had been searching for the intellectual basis for the conservative reaction to the handling of the Great Recession by making acquaintance with Arthur Brooks' "The Battle" and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged". Those books left me disenchanted and in mourning for the hours that I spent laboring through the bleak, uninformative pages; hours that I could have put to use on something more productive such as watching "Game of Thrones" or working on my back squat. I stumbled upon Charles Murray's analysis by accident - the book was not advertised to me as a work of political philosophy. I am glad I did find this book - this work is by far the most robust, intelligent, and informative discussion of the foundational issues facing the nation that I have seen from an advocate of limited government. This book is not exactly an high-octane, action-packed thriller - this is not everyone's cup of tea. If you find this topic interesting, however, and you find yourself on the fence about whether to pick up this book, let me nudge over the edge. It will be worth your time; provided you are a fan of "multivariate analysis", of course.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

An open letter to James Bond villains

To whom it may concern: 

I saw "Skyfall" over the weekend. The movie impressed and has been a wild success at the box office, becoming the franchise's highest-grossing installment in its opening weekend. The movie owes its success in no small part to the tremendous performance by Javier Bardem (aka Raoul Silva). Bardem is equally terrifying, entertaining, and enthralling. There is an argument to be made that he may be the greatest Bond villain ever. Silva is as formidable an opponent as Bond has ever faced: a former star agent in MI6 with hacking skills comparable to Anonymous, hair more glorious than Donald Trump, and a small army of highly trained mercenaries at his disposal. Silva's star peaks at an opportune time as Bond faces a personal crisis that parallels an institutional crossroads at MI6 headquarters, and as whispers abound: Is Bond over the hill? Is he, like the institution he works for, a relic of a bygone era? 

Despite the favorable circumstances, victory eludes Silva. Undoubtedly, this is foremost a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of James Bond and the democratic-capitalistic-political-democratic-model-Western-Civilization-is-still-peaking-so-hard way of life that he represents. Yet Silva, despite his daring and meticulously planned schemes, commits tactical and strategic errors so grave and appalling that I feel compelled to rebel against such level of incompetence in this letter. 

Please do not misunderstand my intentions. I root for Bond, universal suffrage, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The observations that follow constitute no endorsement of your actions. They are simply lessons that must be self-evident to anyone with half a brain who is hoping to become a memorable villain.

1. You will lose in the long-term

It is like playing blackjack in a casino. The odds are stacked against you. Sure, you hit big once in a while and take over Cyprus, but eventually you end up broke, spending your last five dollars on a meal at IHOP and hitch hiking your way back home to the East Coast.

Since the beginning of time, many a philosopher has burned the midnight oil mulling over the fundamental question of whether Man is good or evil. I do not consider this to be a difficult question. I hold it to be self-evident that Man is good even as he is locked in a perpetual struggle against his sinful nature. That is why we want the best for our children even if we have strayed from the righteous path. The perceived balance between Good and Evil lies in the impact that a few super crappy people wreak on the world.

This is why I usually just borrow pictures from the Internet.

Even though Evil is a huge pain in the neck, Good inevitably triumphs. Your objective then, if you dream of leaving a memorable legacy as a villain, is to prolong your reign as long as possible. With that in mind, an enterprising villain will incorporate these lessons into his budding career:

2. Setup surrogates

Let me guess: your current evil genius plan is to announce your presence on the world stage by capturing the last of the rare Dalmatian pandas and holding them hostage until the world gives you a pension and full medical benefits. I have news for you: a) that is so cliché - BORING!, and b) the 1960s called - they want their utopian dreams back. Nobody has a pension anymore.

Once you are captured, the world will forget you and the Dalmatian pandas. Instead, send a henchman to do the job. You will gain notoriety whether your number 2 succeeds or not. 

3. Be charismatic

Once you show your face to the world, you must have an electrifying presence. Have recognizable and unique outwardly appearance - scars, crazy hair, extra limbs. Do not be afraid to "peacock". Wear a kimono. Accessorize. Consider a new pet, perhaps an iguana. Mutations are encouraged. A set of gills would be nice: modest and inconspicuous, yet highly functional. Remember: Evil is an art, not a science. Think the laugh is overdone? Carry a baton and pretend you are directing an orchestra any time you have to make a speech.   



4. Have offspring

At first you considered your child a hinderance to your ascending career and your cosmopolitan lifestyle. You never understood just how selfish and unappreciative children are until you had your own. In retrospect, you have come to terms with your own father's absence from your childhood. It tears you apart to think of all the moments that you should have expressed, but never did, your gratitude to your mother for her unwavering affection and her early recognition and encouragement of your potential for unspeakable evil. 

You watch your children grow. It is an arduous journey, filled with frustration and headaches - like the time your daughter accidentally killed the Dalmatian panda by feeding it "5-hour energy" shots. While you figure out how to tell your number 2 that he is probably going to be behind bars for a very long time, your son decides that he finds the family tradition of villainy too conventional and stifling and that he wants to become an artist instead.

Yet through it all you learn the deepest meaning of love and pride as your children develop into functional adults, more like their father and mother with every passing day, and you know that long after you are gone, they will carry on your legacy, immortalizing your name, and taking the Bond franchise to new heights.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who needs fiction when you have stories like this: a review of "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Why I read this book:

Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" hardly needs an introduction. The author who brought us the story of Seabiscuit came back to the New York Times Bestsellers List with a real-life tale of "a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption" about a son of Italian immigrants who ran track for the United States in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and suffered unimaginable horrors in the Pacific theater in the struggle against imperial Japan. "Unbroken" became a number one bestseller and was a smash success among the reading public. After a couple of friends raved about the book, I decided to hand Amazon some more of my money.

My rating for this book:

1. Like fouling a pitch off your foot into the catcher's mitt - painful, embarrassing, and detrimental to the team.
2. Like hitting into a double play with one out and a runner on third.
3. A solid single up the middle.
4. A triple to round out the cycle. 
5. A grand slam (against the Yankees).


There is really not much to analyze here. This book is a classic definition of a page-turner: it enthralls the reader with a gripping, powerful story, yet it is easy to read and difficult to put down. This book is clearly going to be made into a blockbuster movie. Thus, the pressing question of the day is: who is going to play the lead character, Louis Zamperini?

 In order to convey Zamperini's personality and to determine which actor is best suited to play him, I have to summarize the book. Warning: this is a total SPOILER ALERT! Skip the next paragraph if you are going to pick up "Unbroken", and you feel the summary may ruin your reading experience. Truth be told, however, the appeal of this book hardly depends on preserving the mystery of the story; my summary does littlle more than expand on the full title of the book.

Louis Zamperini was a troublesome youth, uninterested in school, and always brawling, stealing, and getting into trouble. After discovering a knack for running, Zamperini channeled his tenacity into the sport and eventually reached elite levels, representing USA in the Berlin Olympics, before the outbreak of World War II cut short a promising and still blossoming running career. Zamperini became a bombardier in the Air Force and joined the fight in the Pacific against the Japanese. The real drama of the story begins when Zamperini's plane crashes over the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini faces weeks of starvation, dehydration, and sharks on a life raft, miraculously surviving being stranded in the middle of the ocean, only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to unspeakably inhumane acts of cruelty in internment camps.

Louis Zamperini

In order to bring the drama of the story to the big screen, our actor needs to personify the following characteristics:

1. Sinewy toughness - I know, what in the world is that? I just made that up. This character trait calls for a man who can play the outsider, his outbursts of violence and bad behavior a glimpse of an adolescent who has trouble fitting in. Someone who can portray a "bad boy" as a troubled soul with a lack of direction rather than a tough bully who knows his strength. Sorry, Vin Diesel.

2.  A likable loser with the opposite sex - Zamperini was endlessly chasing girls, with about the same success ratio as someone who spends his time writing blogs. He does end up getting THE girl - not that it matters for the movie; the script would have a love story no matter what. After all, that is how they sold us "Titanic" and "Pearl Harbor", is it not? We have just lost Brad Pitt - the man is way too smooth for this job.

3. Emotionally resonant - seriously, what does that even mean!? It means that we have lost Josh Hartnett. We need someone to demonstrate the horror of war and the brutality of prisoner of war camps. We need someone who can bear the torch of the resilience of the human spirit in places where humanity ceases  to exist. We need someone who can withstand endless suffering, from without and from within, and who can somehow find his way to forgiveness and an inner peace. We need someone who can help this nation re-discover the founding principles in these turbulent times.

Candidate 1: Leonardo DiCaprio

Do not be fooled by the "Titanic" - Leo can be a total badass.

1. Toughness - I have to give it to Leo. He may look like a total wuss, but the guy is a terrific actor. His gutsy attitude gives his characters that "sinewy" aspect of the toughness that we are looking for.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - I know what you are thinking: "Leo could never not be a dreamboat. He has great hair, and he would be a great father to my children". That is true. Ladies love Leo, and he loves them back. However, if there is one thing that life taught me, it is that it does not take much for a man to ruin his chances with a woman. You may be pitching a perfect game all night, then you make one joke about "legitimate rape" or "transvaginal ultrasound", and all of the sudden you find yourself alone, the remains of her martini trickling down your face. I am sure we could tinker with the script a bit to make even Leo seem mortal.
3. Emotional resonance - Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the few actors who connects to both sexes on a deeper level. Both men and women would be captivated and react empathetically to, say, Leo's musings about his inattentive father.

Candidate 2: Jake Gyllenhaal

Is it me, or does Gyllenhaal look exactly like Zamperini in real life?

1. Toughness - Jake is excellent at portraying the regular guy, be he from rural Nebraska or from the Jersey suburbs. You can easily relate to him as one of your friends or someone you know. Eric Church, a country singer, has a line in the song "Guys like me" that I think captures the American philosophy on toughness: "I don't like to fight, but I ain't afraid to bleed". Jake is a natural to represent that philosophy.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - "Hey baby, you must be tired because you have been running through my mind all day long". Something like that. You get the point - it would not be difficult to bring a Mr. Hearthrob down to Earth if we had him throw out a couple of gems like that.

3. Emotional resonance - I always marvel at how the best actors such as Tom Hanks are able to convey the complexity of the human soul through meek, plain, and otherwise unnoticeable characters. I think Jake would surprise you and demonstrate his range here.

Candidate 3: Adrian Brody

Adrian Brody is so frail, I subconsciously hold my breath when I look at this picture for fear of breaking him.

1. Toughness - ok, I am taking a huge leap of faith here. The man is the opposite of tough - the mere mention of his name conjures images of organic soap, water with cucumbers in it (surprisingly delicious, by the way), and newborn infants wrapped in soft blankets. The dude has a chihuahua, for crying out loud! Have you seen those things? They are always shivering, and they pee in a litter box, like a cat. Proposing that Adrian be cast for a role that requires toughness is a preposterous venture, but hey - if we can make Leo DiCaprio seem unappealing to women, I am sure we can work another miracle. My gut does tell me that Brody is a talented actor who will pleasantly surprise the audiences in this role.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - "Do you have any Italian in you? Want some?" - then, just as you begin to feel disgust for the hound dog, Adrian can unleash his acting talents to demonstrate his ability to persevere and to eventually find true love.

3. Emotional resonance - Adrian is off the charts in this category. He invokes nurturing feelings in people - he seems to always be shivering (like a chihuahua), and that is before he gets into a role that truly demonstrates his capacity to exude frailty and sensitivity as he did in the "Pianist".

I would personally love to see the studios take a chance on Adrian Brody on this one although I am certain Leo and Jake would do an excellent job as well.

Note: This blog uses images that may be subject to copyright. I do not own these images. That is probably a good thing - it would be weird if I owned images of Adrian Brody holding chihuahuas. One week of that as my wallpaper is plenty. I use these images with full appreciation and respect for those who do own these images. Please do not sue me. If you do choose to pursue legal action, know this:
1. You are a d**k.
2. My closing argument will include me pounding on the docket and screaming: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!!" 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Definitely not doing that! A review of "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

Why I read this book:

While many people will know Jon Krakauer only by association - the movie "Into the Wild" was based on his book of the same title, Krakauer's account of an Everest expedition, "Into Thin Air", first earned him national recognition. While I had heard of Krakauer's work, I did not have a burning passion to read his books. It is a rather curious thing how our perceptions are shaped: armed with the knowledge that Krakauer wrote "Into the Wild", a book about a young man who discards his typical suburban life and heads into the wilderness of Alaska, and "Into Thin Air", a book about climbing Everest, and no other facts about the man to speak of, I quickly deduced that here was an author who came up with a simple winning formula: to write books titled "Into <insert extreme story/adventure/sport here>" and become fat and happy re-telling the glory tales of other men's heroics. An appealing concept, certainly, but not enough to entice me to read his works.

And so on we went with our lives, Krakauer and I, each one occupying our own little corner of the world. Now the story would typically end here, but, as it happens, fate had different ideas. One day, I was chatting with a friend (let's call him Dexter), and while the exact topic of our conversation escapes me now, it is only logical to conclude that our tete-a-tete was at least partially related to the theme of summiting Mount Everest. Whether we were discussing doing a brisk two mile hike that upcoming weekend or just walking up a steep hill, my thoughtful friend, aware of my positive disposition towards good books, exclaimed that I must read "Into Thin Air", and that he had a copy of it to give to me.

I am not one to turn down a book when one is offered to me, and that act in itself is cause enough for me to read the book. I, however, became much more intrigued by the book when Dexter informed me that Krakauer himself was on an expedition to the top of Mount Everest, and that the book is his recollection of that expedition and the tragic events that transpired during that trip. This revelation piqued my interest in the book tremendously and gave Jon Krakauer mad street cred in my eyes. I also felt guilty for having a completely erroneous and uninformed impression of him for years, but that feeling went away as soon as I realized that Krakauer very likely could care less of what I think about him.

My rating for this book:

1. Like flax-seed ice-cream - something that actively seeks to destroy happiness.
2. Like vegemite - pretty bad, but the reaction is more reserved because of cultural implications.
3. Like spam - just because something is eatable does not mean it should be consumed.
4. Like an apple - refreshing and comforting because there is probably more where that came from.
5. Like bacon-wrapped scallops - a markedly noticeable step towards peace and progress.


"Into Thin Air" is a fascinating book, and I recommend reading it. The book will give you an inside look at the world of mountaineering, and that portrait will do much to alter your perception of that world. Like most enterprises that carry high stakes and hold high reward, the world of mountaineering combines gripping tension with day-to-day tediousness and the promise of glorious accomplishment with nagging loneliness. A climber and a restless soul himself, Krakauer is a great writer and weaves the history of man's quest to conquer Mount Everest into the recollection of his own doomed expedition. I could not be farther off in my initial assumption of the book serving as a puff piece deifying a summit of Mount Everest - Krakauer writes this book as a way to recreate the expedition frame by frame in order to understand how it came to be that eleven lives were lost on that day. The book, as Krakauer admits in the foreword, is an attempt to overcome his own demons that have tormented him since that terrible tragedy. It is a controversial book, as Krakauer readily admits by including an angry letter from a family member of a deceased expedition member. As a "civilian" observer, I appreciated the author's honesty, and his effort seems sincere. Regardless of one's opinion about the sensitivity surrounding the topic of Krakauer's recollection of the tragic events and his own actions, the revealing glimpse into the domain of mountain climbing offers sufficient reward for the vast majority of the readers who are not privy to the inner workings of that small society.
While reading "Into Thin Air", I felt a sense of guarded admiration for those brave and crazy enough to risk their lives to climb the world's most daunting peak. On one hand, those who decide to summit Everest despite the gravest risks epitomize the very principles of drive and resolve that spearhead human progress and represent humanity's unyielding spirit. On the other hand, there is no way under any circumstances that I would be willing to subject myself to the experience of climbing Everest. I am not kidding - if you were to offer me my own island, like Madagascar or Tazmania if I attempted a summit just once, I would politely refuse. Then again, it is undeniable that each one has the call of the wild in us. Every child dreams of adventure, travel, and exotic lands. Over time, of course, the overwhelming majority of those boys and girls grow up, get an office job, and diligently settle into their daily routine as their dreams go by the wayside (the dissipation of dreams is remarkably gradual - see Figure 1). So it is with respect and admiration that we look at that small fraction of us who refuse to lose that sense of wanderlust and restlessness and instead become adventurers, field scientists, or elite soldiers.

Graph 1 - Hmm, strangely specific.
The trajectory plotted in Graph 1 can be avoided, of course, by asking what your Everest is and planning and executing your ascent. I will tell you one thing however - my "Everest" is not the actual Everest.

The end.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

First Milestone!

The blog has reached an important milestone today - it now contains five entries! My emotions oscillate between the joy and relief of receiving a prematurely-born infant into my arms after being discharged from the hospital, and the feeling that I am over-hyping a rather mediocre accomplishment, like a college freshman triumphantly waving his index finger during a basketball game and screaming "we are number one!" despite the fact that his team is not even ranked.

Regardless, this occasion feels like an appropriate point in time to articulate what it is exactly that I am hoping to accomplish with this blog.

1.   Produce and not just consume.

I like to read and learn new things, and the process of writing out thoughts and impressions helps to synthesize and to process information as well as to develop and to refine my own thoughts. 

2.   Keep focus on reading.

Ideally, I want to always be in the process of reading a new book. In reality, my reading habits go in spurts of intense bouts with books followed by prolonged periods of idleness. In a sense, this blog is my own way of keeping myself responsible for staying on course with my reading goals. I hope my manager-me is a total hard-ass.

3.   Improve my writing.

There is no better way to gain a new level of appreciation for beautiful writing than to attempt to write something yourself. I have forgotten, or perhaps I never truly knew, just how difficult writing is. What sounds like a Churchillian sonnet in my head inevitably comes out as barely discernible drivel on paper. Let's see if I can at least get to a level where I can publish a trashy romance novel. Not saying I would, but I want to at least have the capability to carry out the threat.

4.   Create a “safe place” for creativity.

When you are a child, the adults spend a great amount of time making sure you develop your critical thinking through creative endeavors and gain an appreciation for delayed gratification by ruthlessly rejecting your pleas for urgently needed toys. When you become an adult yourself, you immediately dispense with those lessons, and daily buy yourself the latest iteration of Apple toys while slowly sinking into the dullness of the daily grind. This blog is my attempt to reverse that pattern in my adult life. This is a momentum shift. The buck stops here. Right after I buy a retina-display everything. 

Your marketing psychology PhD thesis: I dread being an early adapter, but after two months, I  balk at making the purchase because I am now waiting for the next new thing. What to do?

5.   Capture memories and create a method for self-assessment.
Do you remember when, back in your younger days, you met your friend for brunch after a particularly heavy night out? Your friend would pull out her cellphone and play the voicemail that you left her the night before. As you listened to the message, your eyes widened in shock:  “I can’t believe what a moron I am!”. Or perhaps, after the initial tense moments, you thought in relief: “That was actually pretty funny even though I do not fully recall leaving that message”. In that vein, I started this blog because I want to find out what my future self will think of my past self. Of course, this is a two-way conversation, so listen up, future old me - please do not end up spending your retirement in front of your television in your under-garments, overweight, and with body hair entwining your back and arms like a shedding werewolf. Also, don't be that old guy at dance clubs. That's really weird. You are better than that.

6. Entertain my friends.

Although this blog is my own project for my own purposes (die rich or live trying), there is no greater pleasure than to hear a friend* send a note of a blog post well-received. One "I enjoyed that!" or "well said, I concur", or even a "please take me off this distribution" warms my heart to no end and validates the effort I pour into the blog.

*Friend - actual friends from all four tiers, acquaintances, Facebook "friends", Twitter followers, whoever has enough patience to maintain both a Facebook and a Google+ account, the one person who happens to Google search for "Ayn Rand" and "Karate Kid" in the same query, and all the Russian spam bots.

Daniel Craig gets an immediate Tier 1 friend status because he is so freaking cool. It takes a man to rock a Speedo. Like a boss. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, and the Karate Kid: Review of "Atlas Shrugged"

Why I read this book:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis (aka the Great Recession), Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", published in 1957, became a popular read among those concerned about the increasing role of government in the handling of the crisis. The book redoubled in prominence recently with the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice - rumor has it that Ryan makes all his staffers and interns read "Atlas Shrugged" which is said to be Ryan's favorite book.

My rating for this book:

1. "I hate you, you ruined my life"
2. "I can't believe we ever dated"
3. "It's not you, it's me"
4. "Can I call you again?"
5. "You had me at hello"

"Atlas shrugged" is not a book you will feel neutral about: you will love it, or you will hate it. As for me, it was simply completely, totally, unacceptably too long. This is one of those books that ruins your reading streak. You know the pattern: you slowly get yourself into a reading groove and feel like a productive, enriched person. Inevitably, you get overconfident and decide to tackle something deep and profound, like Tolstoy or Aristotle. Thirty pages in, you decide you have had enough and spend the next four months catching up on "Glee". "Atlas Shrugged" very nearly did that to me, and for that reason I give it a 2 rating.

The aftershocks:

"Atlas Shrugged" is both a novel and a expose for Rand's philosophy - Objectivism. Let's discuss the merits and the shortcomings of the book from both perspectives.

The novel:


The fiction form is certainly a better vehicle for conveying the moral case for individualism and free enterprise, which is ultimately Rand's goal, than Arthur Brooks' "The battle". At certain parts of the book, you will admire Dagny Taggart, the heroine, for her indomitable spirit and relentless drive. The story lends itself nicely for reminding us that earned success is to be admired and not to be ashamed of. You quickly recognize in the pages that you are reading the thoughts of a deeply intelligent, analytical mind. The central element of the plot: "What if the productive leaders of the country suddenly quit the parasitic world?" is a clever framing of the author's philosophical perspective.


The book is entirely too long. It is a total trap - the thin trappings of a "novel" such as plot, setting, and character development, are minimal and crude and serve only a fig leaf for the long, repetitive, abstract, philosophical rants. It reminds me of my Grandpa's favorite tactic - to pose a rhetorical question as an opening salvo for a 20 minute monologue on the most pressing issues of the day according to him.

Grandpa: "So, what do you think is going to happen to the Euro?"
Me: "Great question, Grandpa, I think..."
Grandpa: "Europe sucks. This country is going down the toilet as well. Everyone in DC is a terrible driver...(fast forward 20 minutes)...why aren't you married yet?"

Character development exists only so far as to create caricature representations of good and evil. Thus, Dagny Taggart is a driven and resolute executive, while her brother James Taggart is an indecisive hater of Truth and Reason, and Wesley Mouch is a slimy, corrupt politician. The dialogue between characters and description of events are equally awkward. At one point, an ex-employee of a closed-down factory describes to Dagny Taggart how the factory went out of business. At first, the exchange convincingly conveys the gradual decline that stemmed from the abandonment of capitalistic principles. Then, suddenly, the guy exclaims that a man " a knife fight with somebody in a saloon, a fight over nothing in particular - such fights were beginning to happen among us all the time". The book is riddled with such sudden jumps and unrealistic portrayals of human interaction and behavior.

In this sense, reading "Atlas Shrugged" feels like you are watching "300" or "Sin City", but without the gratuitous shots of bearded men with six packs in loincloth.

Leonidas was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism.
What I am saying is - lay off Paul Ryan, please. He is too intelligent to subjugate his minions to the torturous experience of reading this "novel" for no reason. Reading this book is a test, a right of passage - if you have the dedication and grit to complete this assignment, you can clearly be trusted with the rigors of serving the Congressman's constituency. Remember the Karate Kid? Did Ralph Macchio learn the "Crane" style in the first week of his training with Mr. Miyagi? No, first he had to learn the virtues of humbleness and patience. Then, once he established a strong moral base, he went on to defeat Kobra Kai, get the girl, and win the hearts of a generation. Wax on, wax off. Paul Ryan is simply applying the same lessons to the way he selects his staff.

(by the way, another great trick for you if you have to manage people: invite your employee into your office and ask them to close the door. Sit silently for one minute and thirty seconds, staring directly into the employee's eyes and saying nothing. After the aforementioned period of silence, slowly say: "Is there anything you want to tell me?" and watch the employee confess to taking donuts from the lounge without paying for them or admit that she's been selling documents that contain the location of our nuclear submarines to the Chinese. )

The philosophy:


It is easy to admire the idea of motive power, the resolute drive of the human mind and spirit that conquers, invents, and moves forward, and the values that result from honest competition - the purity that results from the pursuit of a goal, like an asymptote that shoots up towards Truth and Reason. You can see these qualities in masters of a craft, where even perfect adversaries have great respect and understanding for each other. Many values that Rand advocates - reason, thrift, taking no less as well as no more than you deserve - would deserve praise from people on all sides of the political spectrum.

The essence of dissecting "Atlas Shrugged" is understanding the motivations behind the ideology that deifies extreme individualism. It is difficult to digest Rand's proposition of naked self-interest when you grow up in a country that protects private property and guards against government interference in men's private affairs. In order to understand Rand's motivations, you have to consider her background and the context within which her writing took place. Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and fled to the United States at the age of 21 after the Communists came to power. A stranger in a new land, she worked for every bit of the success that she eventually found. An admirer of the United States' democratic and capitalistic principles, Rand was more familiar than most with the savagery of the Communists and the dangerous allure of the counterfeit promise of utopia. When you look at the provocative, excruciatingly simplistic view of human existence that Rand's philosophy offers as a daring declaration of rebellion against the onslaught of Communism, her convictions become much more palatable.
Basically, think of that wild-eyed, scruffy-beard dude on the metro sitting next to you who screams: "We are all going to die! Mark Levin and Sean Hannity are the only ones who get it.", and you are about to start debating the pros and cons of cable talk shows when it occurs to you that the dude's hot (lets give him the benefit of doubt) wife probably just left him. In other words, the source of his anger is not the loss of transparency in campaign contributions caused by Citizens United, but rather his shitty life and the slow accumulation of frustrations and arguments over taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and leaving the cupboard drawers open. Suddenly, you realize that the situation calls for empathy and understanding rather than an argument. Also, you do not feel like getting stabbed today.

In a perverse way, Rand's philosophy gains your respect precisely because the limits of its appeal to our natural instincts are so obvious. It is easy to see the shortcomings of a selfish, hyper-materialistic existence; it is much more difficult  to resist the siren song of a selfless, collectivist promise. This call to our moral sense of brotherhood and equality was used as a veil for atrocities throughout history, from the French Revolutionaries to the Soviet Communists to Mao's China. It is as a stark reminder of our propensity to let our sense of morality get ahead of practical realism that Rand's vision gains its shining moment. It is a reminder of the essential conservative principles - that private property is an inviolable right and that tyranny of government has been a rule in history rather than an exception, and thus must guarded against.


Rand's philosophy is an incorrect, or rather, an incomplete, assessment of human nature. Her version of idealized human being elevates reason at the cost of total suppression and elimination of passion as a driver for human behavior.

How extreme is her case? She picks on Robin Hood as the greatest moral criminal of the common lore! After reading that, I half expected to find a blistering critique of puppies as useless moochers. Talk about a losing definition of morality! For better or for worse, human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures. Observe a hawk swooping down on a bunny. Both are simply trying to survive, yet our instinct is to chase the hawk away. Why do we feel empathy for the weak and defenseless, even if they are solely responsible for their own condition? Perhaps that instinct is a necessary adaptation that allowed our unusually frail predecessors to survive as a species.

Wolf puppies have almost no impact on the nation's GDP, but the are SO freaking cute!

Either way, we can observe that we are both rational creatures as well as passionate ones. A robust philosophy cannot ignore that both of these drivers co-exist within each of us. Ayn Rand understood and despised the ugliness of the mysticism of the Czarist Russia and the threat to individual freedom posed by Communism under the veil of the collective good. What Ayn Rand failed to consider is that passion underlies even our most rational thoughts. Thus, at the zenith of the triumph of the school of rationality and the economic boom brought on by the Industrial advances, the unchecked growth of the school of rational thought led to attitudes of racial superiority and eugenics in advanced countries. While Rand's celebration of the human drive is admirable, it is incomplete without humility and temperance in the knowledge that we are prone to stray from the path of reason - even by an unyielding belief in reason (what!?).

Ayn Rand's downfall is evident by the adaptation of her ideals by unworthy proponents who are guilty of the same flaws against which she so passionately rails. Her philosophy, a one-dimensional view of human nature, is subjugated by those who bear the same negative traits as the villains in her novel instead of people who transcend above the petty elements of human nature.

If you are seeking literature to serve as the standard for the church of individualism, let me recommend "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a much shorter read, although the dude's writing is quite saturated. Let's just say that if it were a wine, it would be a port. If you are more into fiction, read anything by Jack London. His stories of exploration, competition, and survival first captured my imagination when I was a child. His writing offers a far more captivating case for the church of life than "Atlas Shrugged".

The end.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My introduction to David Foster Wallace: Thoughts on "The Pale King"

Why I read this book:

After a heavy dose of biographies and dry non-fiction books about boring stuff, I was ready for an injection of human creativity, drama, and passion; I was ready to re-discover the world of fiction. Then I read this article, and my decision was made for me. You see, if you browse through enough random news articles and magazines, you will hear the name of David Foster Wallace sprinkled with some implicit reverence here and there, and you will, without knowing anything about the man, subconsciously associate that name with an aura of mystical importance.

"The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace - a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. What a perfect way to re-introduce myself to fiction.

My rating for this book:
1. I lost my ability to love after reading this book
2. I cut off my pinkie after reading this book
3. I am exactly as I was before as a human being, but older and a little sadder
4. That was different. Like, I-just-saw-an-elephant-paint-and-I-somehow-feel-enriched different.
5. This book unlocked the secrets of the universe for me

The aftershocks:

There must be something to the fact that my friend told me that David Foster Wallace committed suicide one day before I finished reading this book on my Kindle - a brilliant writer, dead at 46, before he ever finished "The Pale King". The day after, I finished the book, or more precisely, the collection of thoughts, characters, and outlines of story lines that constitute this unfinished work.
Without that explanation, I might have tossed my Kindle into the trash, sat in the corner of my apartment, window shades drawn, a Snuggie covering my listless body, my face unshaven, and dishes piling up slowly in the sink, and declared a moratorium on reading for a year. Note to the publisher - please add a preface to explain that David Foster was a talent of rare proportions; that he took his own life at such a young age, and that he was in the middle of writing "The Pale King"; that this book, while giving us a glimpse into expressions of a brilliant mind and a remarkable writer, is an unfinished work. Don't just assume that everyone who reads "The Pale King" knows the background; and man, is the background ever important before you commit to these pages. This book is not exactly like flipping through the pages of "People" magazine.

David Foster Wallace never wrote for "People" magazine, but that does not diminish its relevance - how else would you learn about the Kirsten Stewart scandal?

 Had I not discovered that this is an unfinished book, my reaction might have been similar to what I witnessed at the premier of the first installment of "Lord of the Rings" where the audience was clearly not familiar with Tolkien's trilogy. When the movie abruptly ended, the audience, clearly unaware that there were two more glorious movies upcoming with dragons, the guy who played Rudy, and New Zealand scenery, went wild with pain, anger, and confusion. The scene was one of utter chaos: there was laughter, lots of profanity, and tears. Strangers were united in a feeling of indignation, confusion, and disbelief. It is the feeling that can only arise when you make an investment of emotion into a familiar setting, a safe investment, like depositing a paycheck into the bank account, knowing full well that the money will be there tomorrow, only to find out that the money is suddenly gone the next day. Such was the feeling in that theater - an investment of amusement, the expectation of safe entertainment you expect when you settle into the seat in a theater and let go of your daily concerns, was made upfront; now, people discovered that they had been robbed of the entertainment. More importantly, they were robbed of the investment of expectations they deposited by walking into the theater. The feeling that some basic societal contract was broken hung heavy in the air; people's glances darted from face to face of the other members audience seeking to find comfort and understanding over the events that had just wrecked havoc on their lives. Strangers held each other tight. Some men looked around and laughed uneasily with a slight shrug, a defensive gesture meant to reassert some control over the situation. No one was fooled. Surely, this must be some sort of a joke, people thought. There must be a reason, some sort of explanation; movies cannot just end like that. They just can't. Because if this happens - if we allow ourselves to sit in a theater for three long hours; if we let it stand - only to see a boat of little hobgoblin elves, or whatever the hell they are, float down a river to end the movie, then what happens next? Will Hugh Grant not get the girl in the next movie? Will we be forced to accept Tatum Channing as a serious actor?

This scene in the movie theater, of course, could have been avoided if only there had been an explanation in the credits about the fact that Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, and that Peter Jackson and company were not going to disappoint the masses, slay the next two release, and consequently win a whole bunch of Academy awards. Instead, people slowly filed out of the theater, filled with a dreadful, anxious feeling that things were never going to be the same. Ten years later, the financial crisis happened.

Tatum Channing - oh, so handsome. Nothing else matters.

Where were we? Oh right, The Pale King. While overall the book is kind of heavy - really, just a random assortment of thoughts and disjointed paragraphs with no plot to speak of, there are moments where David Foster Wallace shows how he earned his reputation. His ability to describe the innermost thoughts and put into words the intimate dynamics and the smallest details of everyday encounters is unparalleled. There are moments in The Pale King where you find yourself completely enthralled in the words in the page, in that precious moment of discovery and complete understanding that is the greatest reward that reading can offer: a chance to connect to the thoughts of a complete stranger through the written word, a connection that slices through time and space like a physics equation. The Pale King certainly makes you labor for those precious passages, but that effort makes the reward of discovery that much more special. This is the same feeling that, I imagine, the scout who first witnessed Lionel Messi play in a neighborhood game experienced - the instant knowledge that you have just witnessed greatness.

As far as I know, Messi does not read David Foster Wallace. 

David Foster Wallace is gone, but his work continues to have an impact on his readers. I am always amazed by how our most inconsequential actions can have a lasting effect on others. Just think how many people have played a positive role in your life without even knowing it, and you probably never had a chance to tell them. There is something comforting and powerful in the knowledge that, even if you are not a genius or a celebrity, you can make impact on other people's lives, and, in essence, be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Now, of course, that also works in the opposition direction: if you just generally suck, you are going to decrease the quality of life for others around you. Even indirectly - like, if you are siphoning off gas from a random vehicle or something crappy like that, and a child sees you, that child could become a recluse or a dictator instead of a promising anesthesiologist.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What's eating Arthur Brooks? Thoughts on The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future

Why I read this book:

The majority of my sources of news and opinions are major newspapers and publications such The New York Times or The Atlantic magazine. These newspapers and magazines are often accused of being liberal and biased. Given these accusations, and the popularity of Tea Party-style hardliners in our politics, I wanted to understand the intellectual basis of this populist conservatism. You do not have to be a Republican to understand that "Get your government hands off my Medicare" is not the underlying philosophy behind the rigid strain of Republican opposition to President Obama. 

I saw Arthur Brooks on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

He wore a nice suit with a salmon shirt and spoke eloquently about free enterprise, opinion polls, his book, and other sexy topics. "Perfect", I thought. This is just the man and the book that I was looking for: "I will read this book. I will understand. No one will accuse me of liberal bias; for I am just and even."

Now, understand that this is only a transcription of my thoughts onto paper. No coherent sentences formulated in my brain at the time that I was watching that interview. Rather, some fuzzy synapses fired some neurological seed that later sprouted into these thoughts. Looking at me sprawled out on the couch in the shape that a lifeless body assumes after a fall from ten stories high, you could not discern any sign of life other than the plate of beets, resting on my chest, rising and falling slowly in rhythm with my feeble breathing. A typical Wednesday night, really; not too different from yours, I imagine.

Beets are highly nutritious.

Russians eat a lot of beets. Russians are good at weightlifting. Do you want to lift heavy weights with ease? You know what you have to do.

My rating for this book:

1. I still have nightmares about this book
2. I would give this book to a 5-year old after promising him an Ipad
3. I am somewhat cold and a little hungry, but I do not regret my decision to read this book
4. Enlightenment
5. Transcendence

Thoughts, Reflections, and Take-aways:

The premise of the book is that the new culture war revolves around economic issues rather than social ones; specifically, the war centers on the role of government in the economy. Now, you have to remember that Arthur Brooks wrote this book in April of 2010. The U.S government had recently spent an unprecedented amount of money on bailouts for AIG, the banking industry, and the auto-industry; placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship; there was even talk of nationalizing the banks! It was pretty intense. On top of all that, Obama sailed into office making no secret of his vision for a lively, assertive government; and, if you recall, we were not yet 100% certain that he was not actually a Somali pirate. The timing was perfect for a conservative vision that outlined the opposing view.

Overall, however, the book was disappointing. Brooks leaves an impression of someone with deep convictions trying to construct a poorly-run experiment to objectively prove his beliefs.

The objective of Brooks' study is to make the moral case for free enterprise. In other words, he wants to change the perception that conservatives are cold-hearted materialists who hate feelings and laughter ("why laugh when I can be doing something that earns compound interest?")

"But I love free enterprise!", you are thinking: "It is one of my top three favorite things, directly behind the bald eagle and Anne Hathaway".

Well, apparently, not everyone shares your views. Using the results and surveys, Brooks determines that 30% of the country actually hates capitalism and wants us to become Belgium. Who are these awful people, you ask? The 30% coalition is a consortium of the usual suspects: college professors. Pasty urbanites. Residents of Portland, Oregon and Burlington, Vermont. Everyone who likes indie rock.

Even the 30% coalition loves Anne Hathaway.

Sarcasm aside, I understand what Brooks wants to accomplish. The majority of people's political preferences are directly related to their opinion on the hot-button issues: when you think of assistance to the poor, do you think of someone in great need who is grateful for the help and is trying to improve their life, or do you see institutionally lazy parasitic leeches? When you think of raising taxes on the rich, do you see it as a predatory practice by a hostile entity, or do you think of it as a fair move? Brooks wants to give you the ammunition necessary to change that core judgement that people make from the gut.

The problem with Brooks' narrative is that his premise is wrong, and his arguments are sloppy and unconvincing. At best, his definition of the "30% coalition" is grossly over-simplistic and a recipe for long-term electoral disaster. At worst, that definition is a bit dehumanizing and sinister. 

I think we can safely presume that Americans, as a people,  love free enterprise. We know that Adam Smith got it right: the market is one of the greatest economic and political advances of human civilization. We love the market, and it loves us back (sort of). But as Brooks engaged in his "defense" of the free market, I could not help but to feel disenchanted. I was hoping for for a technical dissection of data that demonstrated that government is growing too big or too powerful: How has the size of government changed under Obama as measured by the number of federal workers or the size and scope of regulations? How does the amount that we pay in taxes compare to other historical periods? What is the long-term outlook and plan for the entitlement programs and defense spending? Such framing of the discussion would not only have helped build a better argument, but it would also properly bound the continuous conversation about the role of government. Instead, I received a childish lecture (private property is good; man should keep the fruit of his labor; innovation is good; wealth redistribution is bad) and over-stretched rhetoric. 
Pink shirt, blue tie - daring, yet sensible. Great choice.

At the end of the day, the battle of ideas plays out directly at the ballot box. The GOP has been facing an identity crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 election. The shifting demographics, the lasting effects of the economic crisis, and the fiscal math facing our country require a new approach from both parties, and especially the GOP. Caught between uncompromising Tea Party populism and the stale party establishment, the GOP finds itself on the defensive and behind the times. In this year's Presidential election, the Republican party's greatest accomplishment has been to put out a nominee whose biggest strength is that he is not one of the other fringe candidates. The GOP will have much more exciting faces in the 2016 election. I hope they realize that the factors that play into electoral success, like the problems facing the country, are much more complex and much less black and white than Arthur Brooks makes them out to be.         

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Colin Powell - why are you such a beast!?

Thoughts on “My American Journey”
The auto-biography of Colin Powell
 (Joseph E. Persico and Colin L. Powell)

Why I read this book:

A friend recommended this book to me.

My rating for this book:

1. Not worth the paper on which it is written
2. Better than any sleeping pill
3. I guess it is better than watching Jersey Shore
4. I am a richer person because of this book
5. This book changed my life

Thoughts, Reflections, and Take-aways:

Colin’s Powell auto-biography is a quintessential “American dream” story: a child of Jamaican immigrant parents raised in a (relatively) poor Bronx neighborhood rises to the top of the American military and government power structure, at a time when blacks were largely treated as second-class citizens (insert your own thoughts about race relations in today’s age here).

I am not going to spend much time here analyzing Powell’s success in the face of racial discrimination – I am sure there is an army of writers, historians, and reporters who have that covered. Nor am I interested in discussing the odds of someone from Powell’s socio-economic background rising out of the type of neighborhood that seems to trap so many of its inhabitants. Serious people working for serious institutions spend their careers writing serious publications about the “macro” factors such as social and economic opportunities and race relations that shape our society.

No, what fascinates me about General Powell’s life and career is the “micro” story of the individual. What stands out in “My American Journey” is a man’s success despite the lack of scholarly accomplishments and the triumph of a noble character.
Clearly, Colin Powell is a gifted, intelligent man; he would not have gone as far as he has otherwise. At the same time, Powell is not ashamed to admit that he was a very mediocre student. He very plainly describes his lack of motivation for his studies and his lack of aptitude for math. Powell’s life story should be motivational for the vast majority of us who did not get straight A’s through school and will most likely not become Nobel laureates (I am still holding out hope). Success is clearly an outcome of multiple factors of which intelligence is but one.

I think, on some crude, basic level, most successful people can be divided into “thinkers” and “doers”. A stereotypical “thinker” can typically be spotted by her plethora of PhDs, lack of social acumen, and clothes from whatever era they attended high school. A “doer” gets things done. She loves checklists, organization, and results. Powell is very much a “doer”. For example, his ability to lead and execute a mission is what first landed him his NSC position; his boss, Frank Carlucci, was “…looking for someone who knows how to make things work…. someone who can impose order and procedure on the NSC.”

When I say Powell is a “doer” and not a “thinker”, my intention is not to diminish the man’s intelligence.  He is considered one of the most influential Sec. of Defense because he was able to push through forward-thinking ideas. Rather, the “doer” label is a tribute to his ability to carry out the execution of his ideas, a task more challenging in the vast bureaucracy of competing powerful interests than the formulation of those ideas. Some people have “theoretical” intelligence, backed by years of formal study, brilliance of mind, and thick books. Others have the intelligence that comes from experience. Best leaders combine both. Powell’s success stems from the intelligence of character, a trait that seems to be in short supply these days. Just listen to this Meet the Press interview:

How refreshing – a public figure can lay out criteria that is based on the biggest problems facing the country (the economic crisis) as well as on reason and fairness (No, Barack Obama is not a Muslim; but, while we are on the topic, what if he were?) and then make a decision that is sure to cost him some friends by endorsing someone from the other party.
 So why is it so rare nowadays to hear voices of reason among today’s political leaders? Certainly, to be fair, Powell is not running for office so he can express his opinion more freely, but that does not change the fact that some of things you hear from today’s “leaders” make you think you are taking crazy pills.

What then allows Colin Powell to have this “intelligence of character”? Here are the qualities that stand out to me from reading the book:
-        A strong moral foundation – a deep sense of right and wrong. Is this an innate quality? Is this something that one gets from the family, friends, or institutions like church or ROTC?
-        Sense of humility – knowing where you came from, understanding that the mission is bigger than individual, patriotism without excessive chest thumping. Ability to stay grounded during his rise to prominence and power.
-         Commitment to Reason and Truth – Identifying what the right thing to do is and driving towards accomplishing towards that goal, be it unit discipline or drastic reduction in the size of the Armed Forces. Granted, as a career professional, Powell can focus on a given mission. He does not have to pander to the base and worry about his political growth or re-election. Perhaps we should look at more non-career politicians as candidates for high office.
-        Reliance on experience and intuition – Powell often looks back on his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam and the disconnect between objectives and strategy coming out of Washington and realities on the ground and uses this memory to inform his decisions when he reaches the top. Powell spent a lot of time in the National Security establishment, picked up the pulse of it, and absorbed lessons from his peers and superiors. This allowed him to make intuitive decisions in uncertain situations.
-        Pragmatism – A pre-eminent “doer” quality, a commitment to getting things done even if his personal feelings get bruised. An ability to compromise for the sake of the mission.

      The end.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The “Self” Trap: Thoughts on The “Busy” Trap

The “Self” Trap: Thoughts on The “Busy” Trap

Over the last week, Tim Kreider’s essay, “The ‘busy’ trap”, has been all the rage. It was the most emailed article on the New York Times digital outlets, and I have seen multiple links to the essay on that most accurate gauge of what is important in the world, Facebook. The essence of Tim’s message is the age-old adage that no one says they wish they had worked more on their death bed. In other words, slow down, put down the Blackberry (not that it matters, RIM is probably going to go bankrupt with or without you anyway), go visit grandma, hang out with your friends, save otters, etc. Reactions to the essay have been mostly of the heartfelt “Amen!” variety, with, I imagine, vigorous head nods and promises to reassess our sleep-deprived lifestyles and to go visit the National Parks (we really have to get out to Yellowstone, I hear it is simply majestic! Although I have heard terrifying stories of bears chopping people’s heads off, and someone told me there are no showers at campsites?!) By now, you are probably familiar with this pattern in the news world: a story comes out about the work/life balance, diet, or exercise, and we vigorously discuss it and pay lip service to living in greater harmony before reverting back to our old routine.

 Just so you know, I do not care to discuss the work/life balance here; it is totally up to you what you do with your life. If you want to make a gazillion dollars and buy your own island, knock yourself out. Don’t buy the Maldives though – it is disappearing into the ocean. Actually, at this rate, most islands are probably going to disappear into the ocean. I would probably wait until California splits off and buy low in the resulting panic. On the other hand, if you want to quit your job and go live on a commune in Idaho, more power to you. All I care about is that you reflect on your existence once in a while and affirm that you are happy with the choices you are making.

Figure 1 - Russell Westbrook is happy with his fashion choices now, but he is going to regret them in a couple of years.

With that said, I do have a bone to pick with this article. I say this because Tim’s essay indirectly touches on a problem with our popular culture: it is individualistic to the point of being selfish. The common perception goes something like this: You turn eighteen. You leave your parents’ house. You start working the soil. You go to college. You go West. You teach English in Korea. You fall into the heart of the “busy” trap that is Manhattan. You sell all your possessions and move to Portland. Throughout it all, you go it alone, making and losing friends, and falling in and out of love. It is the American story; it is what separates us from those weak-spirited Europeans who live with their parents until marriage, then move out to tiny Fiats and socialized medicine.

Figure 2 - FALSE.   

So what is missing from this American story? Well, how about family – you know, the people who brought you into this world? The role of family in our lives according to the common narrative is like sex on TV: completely unreflective of reality. In this common narrative, you visit your folks once a year, maybe Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas. You call your Mother once in a while. Notice that I refer to “popular culture” and “the common narrative”, and not “us” because in reality, most people’s lives are tightly interwoven with their families. They get a “loan” from their parents for a down payment on a house; they drop the kids off at Grandma’s for a weekend; they care for their elderly parents.
With that family relationship comes a set of obligations and responsibilities. You must make your own way, but you also have to realize that you carry the weight and traditions of your past with you….

Tim Kreider: “Excuse me, but what does this have to do with my essay? I was just trying to point out that our over-committed lifestyle is largely self-imposed. Most of the things that most of us do are just not that important at the end of day, you know? Also, I kind of dig Russell Westbrook’s style, so lay off.”

You are right, Tim. Let’s get to the point.

First, few people I know have the luxury of living for themselves. Whether a factor of money, time, or having loved ones close by, most of us choose (or cannot avoid) to have our parents, children, and siblings be a big part of our lives, and that tends to really eat away at the idle time.

Figure 3 - It must have really sucked to live in the Middle Ages.

My second point deals more directly with Tim’s underlying theme - ultimately, he, like everyone else, is looking for meaning and trying to find his place in the universe. And he is spot on when he says that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness”. Too often, we put our heads down and take our turns at the hamster wheel without even considering that you may not have to be in the cage in the first place. But a reactionary move to live without responsibility and expectations may leave you floating in a nihilistic vacuum, with nothing to measure your life against. I would suggest that a healthy amount of family participation and tradition can serve as an anchor that will provide a safety line in your lifelong search for whatever it is that makes you tick.