Knowledge to do good enough

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes “nerdified” classroom learning from the kind done in the real world. So-called nerdified learning leans the learner toward perceiving the world as more stable than it really is, and seeking academic perfection versus success in the more complex real world.

In one or two paragraphs, he talks about how this relates to learning languages. Does he learn from a program or textbook, by learning the rules and then attempting to apply them? No, he learns by trial and error.

Thus it was that when I walked into a store this morning, I was thrilled to (mostly) understand what the clerks were saying in Spanish. I was disappointed in myself for not trying to interject, but reassured myself there’s only so much that can be learned from 32 half-hour Pimsleur lessons on disc.

Outside, an old lady sat in a wheelchair. She didn’t have a sign, so I walked right past her. A few feet past her, I paused and backtracked.

“Do you need money?” I asked.

“Habla espanol?” she asked in turn.

“Solo un poco,” I replied.

“Poquito!” she said with a smile.

“Si, un poquito.”

She said something really fast. I replayed it in my brain to see if I could make sense of it.

I couldn’t. “No entiendo.” I paused, trying to remember the right verb form, before continuing, “necessita dinero?”

“Poquito,” she replied.

I handed her a couple of dollars. She thanked me, to which I replied, “De nada! Buenos dias!”

As I got back in my car, I was fairly well beaming. I hadn’t said much, and I’d probably made mistakes anyway, but I’d had a conversation that couldn’t have happened in English. Did I need to use the right verb forms this conversation to get the point across? Not so much.

I’ll aim for getting it right, to be sure. I just won’t let fear of not getting it right stop me when I have enough knowledge to do good enough.

🙂

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Read I Will!

I haven’t had much focus for reading and writing analytically the last couple of weeks. I wasn’t sure what was going on until I went readwalking for a few minutes on Friday evening.

Much as I’ve loved reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb the last few weeks, I’m rationing his Antifragile. Instead of reading Taleb, then, I read a few pages in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I found via Taleb.

Between Taleb and Kahneman, I’m finding something like peace.

I began my flurry of book-reading about this time last year. At the time, I–then a lifelong U.S. Democrat–was motivated to deeper reading by my absolute horror with Democratic officials. I was certain that the badness I was witnessing in articles and soundbites was just the tip of a badness iceberg.

I confirmed my suspicions fairly quickly, and loathed myself for having unquestioningly, for decades, embraced Democrats as the good guys. But something else grew beyond that: a concern that truth didn’t seem to be what most folks online were after. In fact, over and over again, I witnessed people I love and admire actively rejecting the mere possibility something they didn’t want to be true could be true. That tendency troubled me much more deeply than wrongdoing by a relatively small number of elites.

Why? Because of the potential consequences to humankind’s future by large groups of people believing things that aren’t true. I’d seen self-protective denial exercised over and over in my childhood, thanks to growing up in poverty and predation. I just hadn’t realized that the strategy I saw wives of predators (and jurors) adopt was only one expression of something destructive that runs to the core of American life. Last year was when I began to understand that the denial of reality I saw in childhood was a fraction of damaging denial worldwide. Continue reading “Read I Will!”

Reading my way back to giggles

As my kids wrapped up their screen time yesterday evening, I read further in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. While I already listened to the book a few weeks back, I was so delighted by it that I bought the four-book Incerto series that it concludes.

With minutes left to read it last night, I burst out laughing. My husband, Anthony, called from the kitchen, “Laughing? You don’t usually laugh reading such [non-fiction] books!”

I replied, “I laugh a lot when I’m reading Taleb! I’ll have to read this passage to you in a few minutes.”

After I finished reading the chapter, I found  Anthony and read him the excerpt that inspired my laughter. Before you read it, you should know that (1) a “fragilista” is one who “defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist” and (2) Taleb loathes this quality in so-called experts, who harm the world by confidently fragilizing it.

I was in Milan trying to explain antifragility to Luca Formenton, my Italian publisher (with great aid from body language and hand gestures). I was there partly for the Moscato dessert wines, partly for a convention in which the other main speaker was a famous fragilista economist. So, suddenly remembering that I was an author, I presented Luca with the following thought experiment: if I beat up the economist publicly, what could happen to me (other than a publicized trial causing great interest in the new notions of fragilita and antifragilita)? You know, this economist has what is called a tĂŞte Ă  baffe, a face that invites you to slap it, just like a cannoli invites you to bite into it. Luca thought for a second … well, it’s not like he would like me to do it, but, you know, it wouldn’t hurt book sales. Nothing I can do as an author that makes it to the front page of Corriere Della Sera would be detrimental for my book. Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer.

By way of contrast, I read the beginning of the next paragraph to Anthony, too:

Now let’s say I were a midlevel executive employee of some corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange, the sort who never take chances by dressing down, always wearing a suit and tie (even on the beach). What would happen to me if I attack the fragilista? My firing and arrest record would plague me forever. I would be the total victim of informational antifragility.

So, yes, I laughed. The pages of my Taleb books are filled with scrawled “LOL”s, so that I can find them and read my way back to giggles whenever grumpiness is upon me.

Silver Star strikes again

In my July 2011 post “Dead Moms Can’t Care,” I wrote:

The costs of providing health care to those who can’t afford it themselves may not be miniscule. But the costs of not providing it? Those are even worse. Those costs include children left to literally live out their childhood in boxes. I tutored those children my final year of law school. They include the children left to foster care, which is sadly often more full of villains than heroes. They include two grown daughters holding their mom tight as she breathes her pained last breaths at 52–in part because she rightfully feared the consequences of the cost of health care–and the grandchildren who will never feel her love firsthand as a result.

My just-younger sister Rachael was one of the two grown daughters in the last sentence. She handled getting our mom onto low-income government insurance, taking Mom to appointments, and battling errant bills such as the one that inspired my 9/14/09 tweet here.

Two years ago, I wrote this about how Rache lifted Mom into the light: Continue reading “Silver Star strikes again”

Four Titanic Corporations

I recently wrote about one key reason I keep reading on politics: I do not wish to be susceptible to propaganda. As such, I laughed when I heard about Hillary Clinton’s What Happened. “Actually paying to be propagandized? No, thanks!”

From my perspective, that’s the sole purpose of this book: not to lay out anything new, but to (1) gain financial benefit while (2) setting out the Official Democrat Version of Facts. This might sound extreme to someone who reads lots of mainstream media and skips the fuller explorations afforded by (non-self-aggrandizing) books. For me, now, it seems funny that I ever didn’t understand how deeply propagandized Americans are.

(It’s been this way for decades to a century. Search for “Edward Bernays” if you’d like to understand how that really crystalized, and then search for “concentration of media ownership” to understand how it’s been worked the last several decades.)

Out of curiosity, I decided to check reviews of What Happened yesterday. Folks wrote some hilarious reviews of Clinton and Kaine’s book last year, and I thought I might find more of the same now. Instead, I found a 23% rating on Google, a 3.8-star rating on Goodreads and … a 5-star rating on Amazon?!

It was pretty quickly clear how Amazon’s 5-star rating was achieved. You don’t have to look far at all; the first eight reviews revealed without clicking Amazon’s read-more variant are one- and two-star ratings. The very first review is titled “Review Deleted–Again.” Of the top eight, another couple reviewers had their original review(s) deleted.

Sorting through the one-star ratings, I found dozens of people whose non-glowing reviews had been deleted. One called Amazon and found his review had been deleted because it was “spiteful.” Some reviewers had their reviews deleted multiple times.

This is a key part of how America is now propagandized: by the quiet censorship of too-powerful tech companies and the rule of their algorithms.

Much as I abhor Amazon and its outsized power to shape and reshape America’s political landscape (see also: Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post), I’ve occasionally purchased difficult-to-find items there. That’s done effective now.

So, yeah. No What Happened for me, thanks. As for what I’ll be reading instead? Why, last week’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, which I’ll be buying from anyone but the book’s “four titanic corporations” of doom.

Junk economics & debt bondage

One of my brothers-in-law is in town this weekend, which has been lovely for many reasons.

First, we’ve now been friends for more than half our lives. He’s been a rock to me and my siblings through many hard times, including during my mom’s escalating mental illness and her death to cancer. Having him near brings me such joy.

The day we tried to talk my mom into getting help

Second, his presence means much, much more relaxing mornings than usual. My family rises early and noisily seven days a week; with exhausted med school student Nick sleeping on our couch well past five a.m., we’ve eased the noisiness factor by allowing electronics early. We’ve gathered in the parental bedroom and lounged around for hours.

Yesterday morning, I used this time to catch up on Economic Update, Richard D. Wolff’s podcast. I’d subscribed to this about halfway through reading Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens

One of Wolff’s recent guests was University of Missouri professor Michael Hudson. My interest piqued by what I heard on Economic Update, I listened to another podcast featuring Hudson.

This morning, I began listening to yet another Hudson podcast. In this one, he talks about writing a 2006 article for Harper‘s predicting the 2008 housing market crash.
That article requires payment to access, but there’s a related June 2017 Harper’s interview with Hudson. While many things I’ve read have talked about banks lending more than people could pay, they’ve been convoluted in their coverage of why. Hudson, on the other hand, explains it in a few simple sentences, beginning:

It was very clear that more and more of everybody’s income had to go to buying a house. Housing prices were soaring, and the reason wasn’t because of population growth. And it wasn’t because people were getting richer. It’s because a house is worth whatever a bank is going to lend against it, and banks were lending more and more money against houses and pushing people further and further into debt so that basically they had to spend almost their entire working life to pay off the price of getting a home. People thought they were getting richer as house prices were going up, but while the sellers were getting richer, the people who had to buy the house had to pay a larger and larger proportion of their income.

Hudson recently published J is for Junk Economics, which I’ll be buying before long. First, though, I’d like to read his 2015 Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy

For now, though, elated by the joy of discovery, I’ll climb back into my bed and listen to more Hudson … all while savoring the closeness of my family, including the three boys on the bed and the one on the couch.

(What a weekend!)

Civil obedience

About midway through my time living in Japan, I bought Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells American history from the side of conquest’s victims instead of its victors.

When I’d finished reading it, I set it aside and classified it as representing interesting perspectives. That was the extent of my engagement with its material: “interesting perspectives.” I left my copy of the book in Japan, and thought little of it afterward.

I just checked out the audiobook from my library. I’m still very early in, but it’s discomfiting to approach the same text with such different understandings of the world. 

2005 me thought the book interesting, but failed to engage with it in any meaningful way. 2017 me looks back and wishes my 2005 self had tried just a little harder to look beyond the moments captured to instead explore the themes, patterns, and power dynamics they reflected.

None of this is “just history.” History is the foundation on which the present continues to be built; its cruelties and assumptions are perpetrated today, as long as people broadly assume that then was then, now is now, and there’s not much understanding then can do to improve now.

While I am still a small part of the American problem, I’m nevertheless heartened–in one regard–to compare these two points in time. Now, at least, I recognize that there is a problem.

With any luck, 2029 me will have gone yet another step beyond, having moved from seeing the problem to effectively working to change it.

So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.

Howard Zinn