Monday, October 29, 2007


Just finished Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness; great book. There is a bit about Stoicism:
"Started as an intellectual movement in antiquity by a Phoenician Cypriot, Zeno of Ktion, it developed by Roman time into a life based on a system of virtues--in the anccient sense when virtue meant virtu, the sort of belief in which virtue is its onw reward... The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life's gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life's dirty tricks."

He points out that it really has little to do with a "stiff upper lip," that there is nothing wrong or undignified about emotion or its display; rather, what is wrong is not following "the heroic or, at least, the dignified path." That is, do the right thing without regard to reward or thanks, without concern for others' reactions, thoughts, or opinions.

He goes on, in a section titled "Randomness and Personal Elegance" to urge that one "exhibit sapere vivere ("know how to live") in all circumstances," summing that advice via:
"Dress at your best on your execution day (shave carefully); try to leave a good impression on the death squad by standing erect and proud. Try not to play victim when diagnosed with cancer (hide it from others an donly share the information with the doctor--it will avert the platitudes and nobody will treat you like a victim worthy of their pity; in addition, the dignified attitude will make both victory and defeat feel equally heroic)... Try not to blame others for your fate, even if they deserve blame... The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behavior."

Act always in a manner that precludes oneself from being considered or treated like a victim.


I recently hired an assistant. I lured him from another firm, paid a higher salary and bonus (higher than this person ever dreamed of earning). I forewent several other candidates, many highly qualified--even more qualified in some ways (at least on paper). Why did I hire the person I did? And why do I relate the story? Because I knew and respected this person's work; indeed had worked with him in the past and wanted to do so again (for my own benefit and the benefit of the firm). He had the skills I needed and, more importantly, I remain confident that he can learn anything needed that he currently lacks. That, at least, is why I hired him.

But, more importantly, I knew him; he was known to me. There are many, many people unknown to me; many of whom actively, consciously choose to be unknown to me--and to others like me (i.e., hiring managers).

I admit that much of Life is luck ("Lady Fortuna," in Taleb's words)--perhaps even more than it should be (but not as much as some would have you believe). One would do well to maximize one's chances of being visited by Opportunty, of being prepared when she knocks to grab hold of her forelock as tightly as possible. Despite one's starting circumstances--which, I agree, might be quite dire for some--one would do well to "do the right thing," to prepare and optimize, just in case, to make the best of the situation. This effort, I believe, feeds on itself, a virtuous circle.

Or one can cry victim, refuse to prepare (indeed, lash out or even denigrate the behaviors that lead to opportunities--or jobs), and believe those that whisper "the world owes you." (Yah, good luck with that.)

I should not be where I am--or perhaps I should be much further along; I just do not, can not know. But I try to maximize what I have been given (within my own very human limitations), and be grateful (and I am). ("How nice for you.")

But really, what is the alternative? To be ever bitter and angry? Predetermined to fail?

True story: Years ago I interviewd a Harvard undergrad for a position. She had green hair. I did not hire her. I learned later that she had dyed her hair the day before in order to prove that those of my ilk were superficial, could not get beyond the surface. Yup; she was right. And unemployed. One of those hired instead (for an entry-level analyst position) is now a portfolio manager, likely on his way to partner. Good job, Green Hair!

Why do we feed and foster the proles (or even moreso the so-called "underprivileged")? Is anyone really over-privileged? I know I could use more privileges! Do I resent Bill Gates (a man whose wealth I do not consider directly tied to his innovation, merit, or worth)? Not only do I not resent him, I do not resent the way he has chosen to waste his fortune (it is, after all, his money). Do I resent the residents of Catalina Island? Nope: but I'd like to be one someday...

Getting off track: just wanted to point out the relative and cumulative benefit of maximizing potential, of "doing the right thing." If you were always maximizing your openness to opportunity, perhaps you too would be in someone's preferred hiring network, lured from your current job to one of (so my employee reports) relative flexibility, creativity, and compensation. Need not be my network--or even field--but one of your own choosing and desire. Or you could just play Nintendo or basketball or whatever. It's your life, and I cannot advise you (indeed, am precluded from doing so due to my "privileged" background and position) what "doing the right thing" is for you and your circumstances. Good luck!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More On (Moron?) Bell Curves

I was thinking about bell curves this morning--and maybe (MAYBE, just maybe) I should be more charitable, i.e., maybe I should try to see the world from more "liberal" eyes (at the very least to understand their world view).

So: let us posit for a moment a bell curve of opportunity, i.e., average choices, good choices (fewer), and bad choices (fewer). Maybe due to my "culture" and/or upbringing and/or community/environment, my bell curve of opportunity was shifted to the right, offering a target-rich environment for "pretty good" choices.

And maybe, if you grow up in some ghetto, your opportunity curve is shifted left, meaning that unless one is paying particular attention, then one might have a relatively higher propensity to make bad choices.

Let us assume that this is so; if so, then, how does one intervene to somehow show the under-opportuned how to make better choices (an especially difficult endeavor given that any attempted "intervention" would likely be seen as, at best, cultural imperialism and, more likely, as "racism"--although I maintain that "racism" is lately and often confused with the larger and simpler "classism" or "culturalism").

Somebody asked me why I have my children enrolled in a particular program targeted at a culture to which they do not belong (Russian math? Jewish after-school? Japanse class?); my response was two-fold: to set what they think of as "normal" (or mu, in bell-curve speak) and to give them a target-rich environment from which to pick appropriate friends. In other words, to increase their chances of success--or, rather, to shift their bell curve of opportunity.

So: are SOME people better able to be "adult" in their choices, i.e., to be allowed complete, Ayn-Randian autonomy? Should other, "differently-abled" over-21-year-olds have their choices restrictd or redirected?

I often argue for individual responsibility while others argue for the collective; perhaps some will benefit from greater independence but, if so, how and whom does one choose? Do Liberals (who, I contend, secretly--even unto themselves--look down on the needy as "less able to compete," i.e., stupid) really want that outcome (no, they just want, like Communists, for EVERYONE to suffer, but suffer EQUALLY).

But maybe there is some kernel there: maybe we need to find a way to shift the opportunity curve rightward. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Keep on Keepin' On

I graduated college in the midst of economic recession; I and my friends, at that time, BELIEVED (really KNEW) that we would never achieve the middle-class success of our parents; and yet, what else was there to do but plug away?

And, lo, the world changed. And now I am fortunate...enough.

My point (or, the lesson)? Given that the future is inherently unknowable, it serves one well to proceed as if good things will eventually come.

The application? I was recently berated with one of those "you have no idea the obstacles these kids face" diatribes. Yeah, yeah; I know: despite divorce, bankruptcy, family dissolution, and that whole Gulf War thing, I have no idea how "the other half" lives. Liberals say that "these kids" live lives marked by hopelessness, i.e., the BELIEVE (really KNOW) that nothing awaits them no matter how hard they try (better, then, to await boosts and handouts from the Liberals, who think they will get into Heaven that way).

I am more of the Clarence Thomas camp.

On a related thought: I was thinking about "the poor" and the empathy gap (where the rich and the poor are so far apart that mutual understanding is now impossible) and how "the rich get richer," blah blah blah; I was also thinking of the "how NICE for YOU" crowd. And I was also thinking about who really kills whom in this world (Liberals might argue that me and mine kill from the top down, i.e., set up conditions under which the down-trodden seek to kill one another as proxy for their inability to "fight the power"; yeesh).

But being "poor" in the U.S. really isn't a bad deal or, if it is, then why don't people change their circumstances--or at least their zip code? ("How NICE for YOU.") Okay, then why don't grown-ups act like, well, grown-ups, at least insofar as their children are concerned? (hNfY) Okay, then why have *I* been able to more or less follow through on that Life view which, for me, really has not changed since I was 12 (and, by the way, was in contravention--and is still--to much of my family's worldview)?

Those with ability (or luck) prefer meritocracy; those middling to mediocre (and below) prefer some level of [synonym for] socialism (and usually at the expense of the other group). Beyond self interest (i.e., insurance to keep the hordes from stealing one's stuff), does Group A have some responsibility for Group B? If so, what level of responsibility do members of Group B have for themselves?

Personally, insofar as I engage in charitable activities, I prefer those efforts that seek to sort out some likely members of Group A who, for whatever reason, have fallen among Group B. That is, I feel responsibility to help those of my tribe, if you will (because we need more members, THAT's for darn sure!).

By the way: I have been reading Fooled by Randomness, which does little to forward the Group B cause.

In any case: it is my belief that I would continue to live as I do under pretty much any condition. I admit that I have not been tested under all conditions, but I would argue that I certainly have kept on keepin' on under greater extremes than that experienced/endured by many, if not most. Plus, many examples exist of people clinging to principle even unto destruction (think of certain of Primo Levi's characters, or of Levi himself), although there may be self-reinforcing (random) luck involved as well. How NICE for YOU.

I recently read a criticism of Ayn Rand, stating that her adherents are most often young men at the height of their powers, unable or unwilling to empathize with the weak (even or until when they themselves, older, are diminished). Perhaps, though, Fortune really does play a greater hand than we would like.

Oh I am a lucky man
Favored by good Fortune's hand
Far more than I'm deserving.

I had no say in being born
Or where or when it happened to me
It was only Chance that turned the wheel
And made my living easy

Friday, October 19, 2007

Younger Days

This piece, while a bit over-earnest and self-conscious, still conveys some honest thoughts; I think I wrote this in 1995 [ed. note: upon re-typing this, I believe it was part of my graduate school application other thought is that Hemingway would disapprove of the overabundance of adjectives; I do, too.]:

Thoughts on the Occasion of Transitioning from Static-Line to Free-Fall Jumping

Now I have stepped from many an aircraft, and believed Fear to be conquered. But in each instance, I had been irrefutably connected to a parachute-pulling umbilical cord and, really, military operations do not engender such niceties as choice. This time, with nothing between me and the over-zealous embrace of Mother Earth but my own ability to locate an apparently shrinking toggle attached to an ever slenderer rip cord, with my toes over the edge of some shaking, shuddering whirligig with really no right to fly, with a man staring deep into my eyes and shouting "Go!" I was re-acquainted not only with Fear, but also with his bigger brother, Terror.

In that single moment, I foresaw the green-blue-green of my own mortality, understood Nature's primal exhortations pertaining to Fight-or-Fly, and ignored her logic. I jumped.

Many pursuits provide a sense of accomplishment: the quiet precision of the flute, the long reflection of the marathon, the simple pride involved in coin-collecting all suggest that my learning curve is not yet flat. The stage, too, remains exciting, although each word, each reaction is, by definition, scripted (how much more exciting to deliver, in one's best delivery voice, a briefing during which at any time anyone with metal on his lapels may feel free to spit a perhaps not very relevant question to which one had better be able, ex tempore, to formulate some intelligible response). In free fall, none of this matters.

Each time I go up, each time I fall down, I am struck with the utter foolishness of skydiving. To thumb one's nose at violent Death does not, somehow, seem very wise. In fact, it seems inevitable that such nose-thumbing will eventually attract attention.

A long-standing joke differentiates two types of skydivers: those who opened their 'chutes and those who did not. The day an incoherent mess materialized above my head, I found that composure and preparation can indeed prevail. I had, between the cutting of the main and deployment of the reserve, literally the rest of my life for self-assessment.

We allow ourselves so little influence over our lives that we often lose sight of the fragile distinction between being and nothingness, permitting the clutter of quotidian demands to dominate: bills, errands, perceived slights all conspire to cloud our vision. During the long, desert days of the Persian Gulf Conflict, I determined for myself the insignificance of many formerly consuming concerns. The remainder, what is meaningful, is a brief list, but encompasses themes from simple companionship to the tectonic interaction of divergent cultures. Returned to the business and busyness of modern America, I am not immune from misplacing my little list, but hurtling towards the hard ground serves to re-order my priorities and remind me tha certain principles--notably Honor, Duty, Tolerance--are more vital than comfort, or even food.

I am not, during free fall, aware of this narrowing; I am conscious merely, afterwards, of its having occurred.

Some Rules for Being Human

I am not usually partial to these kinds of things, but this one seemed worth considering. Busy period: some interesting events coming up; I'll try to remember to report them.

Rules for Being Human

You will receive one body. You may like it or hate it, but it will be yours for as long as you live. How you take care of it or fail to take care of it can make an enormous difference in the quality of your life.

You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full time school called "Life" Each day you will be presented with opportunities to learn what you need to know. The lessons presented are often completely different from those you think you need to know .

There are no mistakes -- only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error and experimentation. You can learn as much from failure as you can from success.

A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it (as evidence by change in your attitude and behavior), then you can go on to the next lesson.

Learning lessons does not end. There is no stage in life that does not contain some lessons. As long as you live, there will be something more to learn.

"There" is no better than "here". When your "there" has become a "here", you will obtain another "there" that will again look better than your "here". Dont be fooled by believing that the unattainable is better than what you have.

Others are mere mirrors of yourself. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects something you love or hate about yourself.

What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the resources you need. Remember that through desire, goal setting and unflagging effort you can have anything you want. Persistence is the key to success.

The answer lies within you. The solution to all of life's problems lie within your grasp. All you need to do is ask, look, listen and trust.

You will forget all of this. Unless you consistently stay focused on the goals you have set up for yourself, everything that you just read won't mean a thing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lighten Up

I may have posted this before, but it is worth revisiting; remember, folks, even if you are late: never, never, NEVER leave for your workout prior to completing ALL your morning duties.


Couple of thoughts (which will go out not fully formed, as I am in a rush):
Racism: article in the WSJ today about school re-districting in Milton, MA (affluent, whitish 'burb of Boston); some parents up in arms that their children were re-districted to a)the "black" school or b)the "low score" school; depends on whom you ask. Local blacks "deeply offended." My first reaction was "but it ISN'T racism--it's all about the test scores; if the school were good, ppl would be busting down the doors."

But then I remembered another article re: Berkeley? Where some white families were leaving schools because of competition from Asian students (schools were "too smart"). So... which is it?

I am reminded of my grandmother discussing one of my cousins and commenting "She's smart... but not TOO smart" (I am the black sheep of my family, mind you, for reasons alien to me...)

Second thought: a memory popped into my head this afternoon after reading a review of Kaye's documentary "Lake of Fire." My father, who was living with me at the time (after a stroke or two), and I signed up to protect abortion clinics. We went to the first day of training--learning all about what we would be doing, who our "opponents" were (some were well-known regulars), etc. At one point, we were asked to play the part of anti-abortionists and, apparently, we played our parts too well (I had just gotten off active military duty and believed that realism would help the training, so I put my heart into it). We were never asked back.

Today, as noted, I was reading the review of the documentary which, apparently, included b&w footage of a doctor sifting through the remnants of an aborted foetus to make sure he got everything; the camera lingers on a "perfectly formed hand and part of a face." I cried in my office; indeed, I am holding back tears just THINKING about a documentary that I have not seen.

Sure: I support a woman's right to choose (just as I support your right to kill yourself), but...less and less. California just passed a law disallowing smoking in a car with children in it. How different is that? Just because THOSE tykes escaped the womb they get special consideration vis-a-vis adults? I rather doubt I will get into the fray (it is really not my style), but I find myself sympathizing with the Pope (who recently came out against foetal research)--how strange is THAT?!

Having children--especially girl children--changes a man (logical fallacy: it changed ME--I cannot speak for the rest of you). My daughters' preciousness--at least to me--is uncapturable, ineffable. Juxtaposing their faces with the "part of a face" of an aborted daughter makes me quite literally a little bit sick. My whole raison d'etre, really, is to protect (and maybe to serve, cop-boy), and abortion speaks to failure at the very outset.

So, maybe the women who never asked me back to help protect clinics were onto something...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Signed up for a marathon in a couple of weeks; we'll see how the old bones hold up.

Traveling: will likely be silent for a while.

I really should post some drawings: Daughter B is playing with perspective (again, no guidance from me--or anyone, so far as I can tell). She does frameless, extreme-close-ups of torsos (usually ballerinas), with others in the background. Really amazing--and beyond what *I* come up with, even as an adult! Well, I'll just post some (someday) and you can see for yourself...

Friday, October 5, 2007

Still Here - And Glad of It

Running in along the river today (13.1 in 1:26), I was again nearly overwhelmed with gratitude: I am here, I am alive, I am healthy, and all in my family are as well.

Are we programmed to be grateful? And to whom (or what)?

In any case: thank you. We must remember our dead, and remember the living. What else can we do?

On my run, I was thinking about water. When I was a boy, fun comprised playing War, making forts, playing walkie-talkie-hide-n-seek in the graveyard, that sort of thing. For thrill and adventure, I and my mates sometimes "snuck" into the town hall for a drink of water from a thin, fold-out paper cup, always expecting to be shoo-ed from the building.

Innocence. After decades of static childhood (really, was my 1970s childhood that different from that of the 1950s? Or '40s?), we now push and rush and prod and cajole these little worker-bees into adult-like stress and frenzy. Sheesh.

Funny (and true) story about my own lil geek-girls (aged 7 & 4, respectively):

So, the other day I heard Daughter B in the living room shouting "My eye! My eye!" I rushed in, ready to be furious:
"What happened?! What’s the matter?!" Daughter A was standing with a foam "noodle" (from swim class) in her hand; B, apparently, was inside a large cardboard box.
A said, "We’re just playing.
B added (from inside the box), "Yeah, we’re just playing. We’re playing Cyclops!"
A said, "She’s Polyphemus, I’m Odysseus."
B added, "Yeah, she’s Odysseus, I’m Polyphemus! And she just poked my eye out!"

For those of you a bit rusty, Polyphemus was a one-eyed giant outwitted (and out-eyed) by Odysseus and his men: Odysseus got Polyphemus drunk, poked out his eye, and then he and his men escaped their prison (Polyphemus' cave) by holding fast to the undersides of the theretofore penned-in sheep...

One other story/brag: Daughter B was being "tested" for full-day classes; the testing included a bit of reading (to make sure that she was up to speed with the class, which was mostly a little bit older). The teacher reported: "We read a book about butterflies, and the only trouble she had was with the word 'chrysalis' ."

Grateful--amazed and grateful.

On! On!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Modern Death

I have read about this phenomenon: the living hover over artifacts of the deceased (and by "artifacts," I mean technological remnants--blogs, emails, avatars). Such communications remain fresh, almost (to our living, projecting minds) expectant, awaiting reply. The living have just so much, and remain hungry for more: there ought to be more; there must be more.

And so I re-read her emails, a brief flurry after 10+ years of silence. A rush of foregiveness and apologies and clarifications, of "getting things off the chest" while there was still time. And now, time is stilled, at least for her.

We will serenade our Louie,
Till health and voices fail,
And we'll pass and be forgotten with the rest.
We are poor little lambs
Who have lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Running and Being -- We Must Go On. On, On!

1952 Olympics
Mens 5,000m Final
1. Emil Zatopek 14:06

Mens 10,000m Final
1. Emil Zatopek 29:17

Mens Marathon
1. Emil Zatopek 2:23:04

Before the 1952 Olympics, Zatopek had never run a marathon, yet all his winning times at the 1952 Olympics were Olympic records.

At the start of the 1956 Olympic Marathon, Zatopek was heard to say: "Men, today we die a little."

Other quotes:

"When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn't matter. Am I tired? That doesn't matter, either. Then willpower will be no problem."

"If you want to win something, run 100 meters; if you want to experience something, run a marathon."

"After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics [London, 1948] was as if the sun had come out....I went into the Olympic Village and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had just lost five years of life were back again."

When asked about his tortured expression during races,
Emil Zatopek said, "It is not gymnastics or ice skating you know."

"It's at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys."

"Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the greater."

See Zatopek run:

Monday, October 1, 2007

Technology and Death

We all have read of the difficulties of post-death email accounts and whatnot; in the past, I read them with a jaundiced eye.

But my inbox contains recent missives, complete with dozing--and now never to awaken--smileys, from Ms. H., and the effect is eerie. On her blog page is an avatar, currently in pajamas, blinking at me, perhaps expectantly. And I find myself wishing for something...more. A coda, perhaps, or...something. You see, she is never to return--and I know not what, if anything, is on the other side, and she will never tell me. Now is not the time to air my opinions, but I have been anaesthetized upon occasion (e.g., surgery) and, upon waking, discovered in myself a increased fear of death, theretofore unexpected.

Her avatar, so blank yet, somehow, expectant, is a canvas onto which to project all my questions and inferences. Unnerving.

Un Ange Passe

In 1995 she was given two years, but being so young and strong, her doctors could apply the most aggressive techniques; she was spared, it seemed. Cancer, however, is eminently adaptable, and despite bouts of optimistic remissions, it resurfaced again and again.

This past August, she was given an awful diagnosis: "months." She did not last even one. The remaining available treatments had such profound side effects--and so little efficacy--that the cancer, i.e., Death, became preferable. Foregoing further treatment, she entered a home hospice program last week, passing on the evening of September 29, her husband at her side, her sister upstairs brushing her teeth.

She was just a few days shy of her 39th birthday.

Her blog is factual, not emotional, but the facts about the oxygen tanks and the difficulty breathing or focusing or reading or sleeping are deeply painful, deeply lonely (but not, as far as I can tell, afraid).

Today marks the first day of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; if you are here to read this, rejoice and be glad.

"And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."