Monday, November 24, 2008

Whale Wars Must Go!

I've been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately. It's been pretty difficult. It's not clear to me if the subject matter is uninteresting; if the content is so esoteric that you have to be McLuhan himself in order to understand it -- which includes the fact that every other day I'm not sure I understand it; Or if I'm simply wasting my precious time. But recently, events from another source have reminded me that, as McLuhan has said, " It is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message." So what in the cheap seats did he mean? We can go around and around with this and at the end of the day, even if you believe the medium is the message, what do you do with this practical knowledge.

So here simply, as a practical example, is what I want to blog about today – should the TV production of "Whale Wars" be taken off the air? We are, in fact, witnessing, perhaps for the very first time, a prime time terrorist reality show sanctioned by American television. What happened to the GWOT? The message, quite apart from saving the whales, is that this type of behavior and sensationalism is normal--even though it is far from normal. This is not a Hollywood production of a terrorist event, movies for the most part, just like we learn in cartoons, are fiction. They are a different medium with a different message altogether. They are visual novels meant for pure entertainment and emotional stimulus – they are not intended to solve world hunger. Which, as an aside, is why we get so indignant when a foolish director/writer/producer thinks they can insert a message into our emotional fun park. They should knock that crap off and concentrate on their medium -- that's what makes a good movie.

Also, I'm not a big believer in the desensitization of people because of TV violence for instance. But this whale wars reality show is a bit different. An author of the blog I read, on whale wars, believes or hopes that ultimately the show will hurt the Sea Sheppard cause. It will convince us rational folk, that the better group to save the whales is not the crack pot, "borderline" terrorist organization; it is other kinder and gentler outfits like Greenpeace. I think the blogger is wrong on this one – not because I disagree with what the public in general will ultimately believe, but because what world wide fringe elements of society will take away as a more general case of acceptable forms of violent protest, and the idea that we would let dangerous ideas play out in our free market economy, is much worse.

As we move from the specific to the general the message begins to emerge. What is Japan to think -- this is a legitimized (by TV) group from the US now terrorising their whaling industry. Is this not akin to Somalia having a reality show highlighting daily pirating activity? Suddenly I feel like I'm living in Somalia, or worse. Now, what I am advocating here is absolutely contrary to my ideas on free speech and the associated liberties of a free society. However, I believe we've all been in agreement previously on censorship for certain things that cross the line. I firmly believe that a terrorist reality show crosses that line. I bring up the GWOT one more time just for effect.

We've just been witness to the first Internet suicide. Clearly, we all know that crosses the line. Again, how can the United States allow a show, crazies included or not, on terrorism make network television? It has to end or we are all hypocrites of the 1st order. So Animal Planet needs to take whale wars off the air – regardless of what plays out in the market. No reason to let this one go a full season. I firmly believe Animal Planet will come to their senses, lest the backlash that my blogger friend is willing to wait for takes down the entire network. Greenpeace backed away from the issue -- they fought hard for their legitimacy in the world -- they are not going to screw that up due to some crack pot with a video camera. Same with Animal Planet - they have a medium with a stronger message that they need to preserve. What happens on American television legitimizes our way of life, world wide. We are currently in the mist building a global society -- terrorism and the accompanying lawlessness it portents is a threat to us all. The medium of American television is the message -- and in this case we can do something practical about it. Whale wars must go!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mooch is a Mooch

I just finished reading the book "Mooch", by Dan Fante. I consider reading this book highly appropriate since my nickname, and the name of this blog for that matter, is Mooch. I enjoyed the book. Here is the overinflated, 5-star review, I posted on How could I help but give it rave reviews?

" Brilliant! What Orwell would have written had he tried telemarketing instead of dish washing. What Fitzgerald would have written had he known about the "Big Book". What Kerouac did write except for his audience in the late 40's required PG-13 only. Fante get's it right. You are down and out, on the road, and in love with a muse that is every bit as crazy as Fitzgerald's own Zelda. It's all there. The insanity, the recovery, the obsession and the biggest mooch of them all, Fante himself. Since a mooch can be a free loader, a drug addict, a wanderer, or a sucker, you have to read the book to decide which definition Fante is using. I'm off to find the rest of his books."

Well perhaps I'm not actually off to find the rest of Fante's books -- but I was definitely taken by his writing and I may, one day, venture into some of his father's novels as well. Apparently John Fante, was quite the novelist, however never really being recognized during his actual life, he was reduced to scraping out a meager living writing for TV and Hollywood. Just like Fitzgerald. But for today, I am interested in a subject much closer to home. I am interested in my very own nickname, "Mooch". Why do I have it? What does it mean? It has been a natural name in some instances, it has been the source of interesting reactions from some people, perhaps a bit to polite to call me "a" mooch. Which, perhaps, if you use all of Fante's definitions might not be too far from the truth. But let's explore this word "Mooch" , just for a little, before we decide.

As I have mentioned, Fante has, I am sure, been playing with all four definitions of Mooch. He wouldn't have used the word for his title if he didn't have some affinity with the word itself and perhaps it's multiple meanings. The first definition, and the one with the most universal negative connotation has to be that of a free loader. A mooch is someone who, well, mooches. You can mooch cigarettes, mooch money, mooch places to stay. If there is anything to be had for free, a mooch is probably close by trying to ply their moochy trade. We all mooch off our parents for at least the first 16 years of our life -- some of us much (or mooch) longer. A mooch can be a sponge or a parasite. I'm personally glad the kid's cartoon, however, is named after the sponge. I'm not sure there is room in our world for me and a yellow mooch with square pants.

Now whereas I could be guilty of mooching from my parents, from time to time, I could never be guilty of being the mooch known as the drug addict. The sorry sort who is so addicted to their chosen drug that all other pursuits in life become irrelevant. This sorry mooch is in a never ending quest for their next fix. Most of us, fortunately, never become the addicts of such destructive behaviour that we commit crimes in search of our chosen high. However, don't be so sure that a seemingly innocent obsession, doesn't necessarily qualify you as a mooch. Most of us do know the addition of Love, for instance, either for a spouse or a child. The obsession, or the tie, to such another type of addicting drug that happens to comes with our emotions. Fools rush in. Perhaps a fool is a mooch -- a fool certainly fits the definition of mooch yet to come. But do we have to look so far to find coffee or caffeine junkies. Certainly, these addictions too, could or should qualify for the mooch moniker. Do the Dew, Mooch! The voice of the entire Generation X. So high adrenaline, highly addictive sports are probably in. But what about other activities we simply pursue with passion. Soccer, for instance, in my case.

Aside from my own personal morning fix of Mountain Dew, soccer could be my greatest addiction. And, as it turns out, the fundamental reason I am called Mooch. Calling Mooch, on the soccer field, it seems, is the quickest way to receive a pass from, well, Mooch. But what of this Mooch. Where did it come from? My name is Muccio. Americanized by my grandfather in New York City in the early part of the 19th Century. He was an immigrant from Italy it seems the family he brought with him was Mucia -- pronounced "Mew-Cee-Ah". In Italian the single "c" is pronounced as a soft "cee". My grandfather was not the only Mucia in New York City and he kept receiving the other guy's mail. So one day he went down to the court house and changed the final "a" in his name to an "o" and added the second "c" to the middle of his name. Muccio was the result. He pronounced it "Mew-Cee-Oh", instead of, it seems, the more appropriate actual Italian pronunciation of the double "cc" as a "ch" as in "church", or "Mew-Chee-Oh". However, since no one can be bothered to make the effort to pronounce the "Mew" and the "Chee" together, it's too difficult. You can either make the effort to say "Mew" or make the effort to say "Chee", never both. So the result is that, the family pronounces our name "Mew-cee-oh". But Italian's who come across the name, instinctively want to say "Chee" and a soft "Moo" slips out ahead of it. The end result is a pronunciation of the form "Mooch-ee-oh". Verse the more Americanized "Moose-ee-oh", which resulted, of course, in my father being called "Moose" for most of his life. For some reason, "Moose" never caught on with me -- perhaps because I ran track with an upperclassman named "Moose" -- and he already laid claim. My father, has admitted however, that some of his friends in New York, did in fact, call him "Mooch". But for him, it was "Moose" that caught on. Conveniently leaving Mooch for me to use and ponder.

Back to the book. Dan Fante's main character, Bruno Dante, however is not addicted to Mountain Dew or soccer. He is an alcoholic. For most of the book, though, he is struggling to stay on the wagon. It is the characters around him that fall, and, eventually drag him back into the hell that is drug abuse. His friend's, his business associates, just about everyone he comes in contact with is either an addict or a recovering addict. And everyone in this story is looking for a hand out. Everyone is looking to survive as best they can, taking what is given to them, trying to take what is not given to them, and attending to their given addiction. They are all mooches of the first and second sort. In the process, they move about from place to place. They drift. A third definition for a mooch is a wanderer. The route of this definition is not clear, at all, but the use of the phrase, "too mooch around", literally means to wander around, from place to place. Bruno Dante wanders too. He mooches from place to place and he is a mooch, taking what he can from who he can. And finally, he is an addict. Not just for his chosen drug but for the love he has for for the girl in this great American Novel. The crazy muse that gives his life meaning and drives him to the brink of despair and almost death. She is also a mooch -- wandering from job to job and from addiction to addiction, taking what she can from who she can. When she runs into Bruno, she has met her moochly match.

Oddly, of all these meanings, definitions, and human behaviour Fante uses to illustrate his story, he only explicitly defines Mooch once, and it's none of these definitions. Fante define's mooch in it's forth state. A mooch is the target of a telemarketer's sale. It is used in a derogatory manner to refer to a client who has just been hooked and closed into a sale. This is the definition given to the word by grifters, or two-bit con-artists to discuss their mark, or the sucker to be taken advantage of during the con. A mooch is to a con-artist as a John is to a prostitute would be the appropriate and necessary seedy analogy. But to make the definition more general, just about anybody who is suckered into doing something they would rather not, or once in possession of all the facts, would not do. A sucker by any other definition, and of course, as we all know, a sucker is born every minute. "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Indeed, by this definition, couldn't we all be considered, "Mooch"? Is not being a mooch a part of the universal human condition. Fante hit's the nail on the head with this definition. So the struggle, the actual human drama that the hero must overcome in order to move forward in this story comes from this definition of mooch. It is the mooches that can lift his life out of poverty -- if he can sell enough unwanted product too them. But it is the mooches around him that can drag him just as quickly down. Put another way, we all have something to sell in this world, we are just looking for a Mooch to buy it. Conversely, everybody has something to sell us, we just hope we don't play the Mooch every-time. Fante has, infact, touched us all. Isn't that the essence of the Great American Novel?

So, in the end, and we find Bruno, discovering his mooch-hood, and it takes his obsession and love for the biggest mooch of them all to lead him to the promised land. It is in the very last line of the book that he chooses to stop the madness. And as his mooch, begs him for one more sale, as he plays her mooch, he decides to no longer stay in the game, and ironically hangs up the phone, no longer willing to be the mooch. I will need to read the sequel to "Mooch" to discover if the main character, has truly shed his Moochliness.

As for me, call me Mooch. I'm sure I have been a Mooch at somepoint in my life, maybe more than once.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Their Mistress the Dragon Lady

In ten minutes I met seven of "them". William Burrows in "Deep Black" discussed the history of airborne reconnaissance and the role the Dragon Lady has played over the years. He doesn't talk about "them". Ben Rich in "Skunk Works" discussed how the Dragon Lady came into service. Again the book is silent on "them". Ernest Gann in "Black Watch" paid them great tribute but simply calls these pilots "The Men who Fly America's Spy Planes". To me they are a group of this Country's solitary heroes. Front line defender's yet a group of aviators we know very little about. One thing is clear, they are in love with their mistress. This morning I spent three hours with these seven heroes and their mistress gaining a perspective on their lives and their mission I will always remember. I hope my reflections will do them justice.

I know a lot about the U-2R, a.k.a The Dragon Lady. Developed in secret by Lockheed in the 1950's and since that time has been the work horse of the airborne reconnaissance community. From my desk at work I have studied her systems and performance, working from what knowledge I could glean from manuals, reports, previous studies, and fleeting conversations with an occasional "them" who would unwittingly stray into my cubicle. No paper trail can tell you about the people and their relationship with their amazing machine. Until someone opens the jar you may never know you are living in a vacuum.

She looks awkward, their mistress the Dragon Lady. But they don't call her that preferring to use shorter and an even more intimate moniker referring to her simply as "The Deuce". She is not as large as I envision, small in fact. Her wings are long in perspective but narrow and placed too far back on her body. Her dorsal fin emerges almost as an after thought. An ad hoc triangular stabilizer cut too large from a sheet of cardboard and quickly attached to the rear of a skinny paper airplane with some tape. Lifeless, she lays in the hanger, leaning to one side as if long discarded by a child no longer interested in their older toys.

My intimate time with this broken toy was cut short. Time was of the essence. Air Force 1 was taking off at 11:30 so the Deuce and pilot would have to be airborne by 10:30. We moved to a make-shift operations center within the base of the operations facility. Here all the equipment the U-2 team was using was stored. When the U-2 deploys, a lot of support is necessary. For this trip there were seven pilots, two life support technicians, and four maintenance personnel. The six pilots arrive in three T-38s while the seventh pilot flys the U-2. The maintenance personnel flew in via commercial airlines. During any operation there always has to be a U-2 pilot, or Deuce driver, on duty in the control tower, a back-up pilot, and one on the ground driving the chase vehicle acting as the supervisor of flight or SOF. When traveling between airfields, this means a minimum of five are required, plus the deuce driver. In the operations center I met the team. I wish I could remember their names but I will never forget what they do.

The heroes as they emerged from the hanger into base operations were all different. Some tall, some short, some clean shaven, and others with a cropped military regulation mustache. The Deuce is apparently not picky. All wear their rank, four majors, two captains, and one Lieutenant Colonel. Each has a squadron patch on their left shoulder and their Dragon Lady patch on their right one. All wear the operations squadron patch except for the Colonel. The Air Combat Command or ACC shield is on the front of their flight suits along with their name tag. Some display their call sign, some the name their parents gave them. With the knowledge that they have to beat Air Force 1 onto the runway and into the air they get right to business.

I stood close as they reviewed their mission plans. Not unlike countless missions flown before them, but always thrilling to hear them talk. The two T-38 drivers had to get out early to head to the next location to prepare to catch the U-2 when she lands. A captain was scrambling to improvise a chart with a road map of the local area firmly attached to a piece of cardboard. Today's driver would use this to gain his bearing during the mission. As it turns out today's mission is an easy one. Get airborne, climb to 12,0000 feet, circle for an hour, then preform a fly-over at Ft. McNair at 12:06 pm at an altitude of 1,000 ft. Then begin to climb and turn left over the Pentagon proceeding to the next destination where the first two crews in the T-38s will be preparing.

Outside base operations the flight-line is busy. Helicopters buzz back and forth in an extremely annoying fashion, a flight of 10 approach from the south and land. Three F-16s takeoff with afterburners blazing. Air Force 1 is towed from her hanger to pre-flight and await the arrival of the President. The two T-38 crews move to their aircraft and begin pre-flight for an immediate departure. Before me the crew of a PACAF 707 from Hickam AFB smoke cigarette's as they await their passengers. To my right, the Dragon Lady is pushed from her hanger from behind. She still looks pathetic. A broken and discarded toy being moved out of the garage. One florescent orange training wheel props up her left wing. They call this a pogo stick, another discarded toy, but this one has a purpose and it will drop from her wing on takeoff. In the mean time, three maintenance crew members ride on the wing and physically use their weight to put pressure on the wing to hold down the pogo stick to keep the U-2 balanced. A second pogo stick for the right wing is missing. This stick will fly with the T-38s so it has already been loaded and will be available at the next location.

Lt Col Trout is in charge of the operation today. He is annoyed that they must rush to get airborne before Air Force 1. Also, flight line maintenance was late pushing the Dragon from her lair so they are behind schedule. With any military operation there are always periods of intense activity followed by long periods of wait. As we await the arrival of an escort to take the Deuce to the end of the runway where she will prepare for take off there is time to talk with the three pilots who did not fly out already. The first is a Captain. He will take position in the control tower. He explains to me quite clearly that until there is a computer that can take responsibility in the air and make decisions that take the Deuce outside flight parameters to keep her in the air, he will not be replaced by an unmanned vehicle. I tried to explain to him that although I have studied the differences between UAVs and the U-2, which makes me a pencil pusher with some unknown agenda, in my opinion the U-2 wins. I don't think he believes I'm telling the truth.

Next I talk with Maj Eainello. He is the pilot for today's mission. From our conversation I get the feeling he has been flying the Deuce for a long time. Later I find out he has been flying her since flight school, over thirteen years. There is talk of children and of a pilot's dad, who, like me, is an observer of today's operations. The Maj Eainello tells him that his son is a "Good Stick" and a pleasure to have in his squadron. Maj Eainello has kids as well that are now teenagers and he congratulates me when he discovers I have a new born daughter at home.

Next I talk with Lt Col Trout. He will be our tour guide for the remainder of today. He knows some of the military where I work and we quickly identify "Gumby" as someone we both know and have worked with before. If there was more time we could have identified more, like Jabba and Jungman. As the U-2 is pushed out to the runway we get inside the chase vehicle, a small flight line pickup truck. As we wait for Maj Eainello, who we will be transported to the Dragon Lady, two T-38s, in tight formation, streak into the sky.

Now we are driving across the flight line seeking clearance and testing the radios as we go. We talk with the U-2 Captain in the tower and with the maintenance crew preparing the Deuce. Moments later we pull up to her nose. She is hooked to several life support devices, a power generator and an air cart, and some of her panels are open. Not the classified ones. The maintainers move around her in a deliberate fashion. Lt Col Trout begins a walk around the aircraft as if he were the pilot today. In the U-2 community, two pilots must prepare for flight. Since normally one will be wearing a space suit, the second, performs many of the functions for the pilot who will fly on this day. This includes the pre-flight checks. I have no doubt it is this teamwork and trust that makes the U-2 community a unique fraternity. As Lt Col Trout prepares the Dragon, Maj Eainello prepares by donning his life support equipment with the help of a life support technician.

When everything seems ready we shake Maj Eainello's hand and wish him luck. As he shakes my hand he once again congratulates me on the birth of my little girl. He then climbs the steps to his cockpit. He takes the steps two at a time. He is the director of operations for all U-2 missions flown in the world and he loves his job. Even though today's mission is short, today he gets to be closer to his mistress, wearing only a flight suit instead of the restrictive space suit which normally separates him from the controls and his great love. This child has not discarded this toy. There is excitement on his face as he works through his checklist and prepares his instruments for flight. The life support technicians hook him into the cockpit as he becomes "Dragon 1". Lt Col Trout finishes the walk around and joins "Dragon 1" by the side of his cockpit. When all is ready, Lt Col Trout shakes Eainello's hand and closes the canopy locking him inside the Dragon Lady. Lt Col Trout is by the book. He has to be. He is the director of operations for the U-2 training squadron. He selects every U-2 pilot and supervises their training. Quickly we all move into the chase vehicle continuing to observe all the activity.

As the air cart spins up heat emerges from the dragon's tail, the first sign of life. The heat distorts the grass infield behind her. She slowly begins to breathe and the sound of her turbine overtakes the noise of the air cart which brought her to life. Yet she remains awkward. She is still stationary. She leans on her pogo stick with her left wing on the ground and the crew support her on the right. There is still plenty of activity however. The crew chief conducts the last of his checks still plugged into the intercom. Other maintainers disconnect and remove the air and power from beneath her long wings. One maintainer is yelling for the special tool to close the power line cover but cannot be heard above her whine. Another member of the team senses the problem and quickly brings the tool. The cover is sealed. Two of the maintenance crew assume their positions on her left wing holding it tight against the pogo stick. We are with the SOF in the chase vehicle. He is concentrating on his checks. And communicates with "Dragon 1" through hand signals. As Lt Col Trout advances through his SOF check list he makes mental notes and says them out loud. "Stream still in". From the tower comes the approval for take-off. "Dragon 1" signals with a knock on his helmet. Lt Col Trout responds by blinking the headlights confirming that he also heard the clearance for take off.

Dragon 1 eases forward as awkward as ever. Heat now streaming in a solid column from her tail. The maintainers, now laying prone on her left wing, begin nudging outward on her wing to bring her into balance. We are rolling behind and to the right of the column of heat which is now ripping by the window of our flight-line truck to our left. Lt Col Trout says he thinks the right wing is too low. The pogo stick should have been placed on the the right. Within seconds we are on the runway and turn in formation behind the awkward beast as she brakes to a halt on the center line. Lt Col Trout crosses the dragons breath and pulls past the left wing and onto the runway in front of her. The maintenance crew begins removing the last safety pins and performing their last checks. As the right wing begins to drop again, since one of the crew had to come down off the left wing, this young airman grabs the right wing tip and begins to hold it off the ground. It was hard to believe what I was seeing -- the crew was about to launch the Dragon with their hands, could it be possible for all the billions of dollars and four decades of experience, flight line operations of the U-2R come down to such an unsophisticated technique?

Lt Col Trout now spins the truck away from the Dragon and accelerates quickly away as if we were beginning a take off roll of our own. He travels about one hundred yards and stops. It is here that I look out the back window and for the first time catch a glimpse of what I came here to see. Dragon 1 is ready. Her thin profile and long wings are ready to grab the air, now seemingly only seconds away. Lt Col Trout turns the truck and races back to her nose. Not ready yet. The young airman struggling to keep her right wing off the ground is loosing the battle. He is putting his whole body into it, using his legs as an artificial pogo stick. The two other airmen are now clutching the left wing, at the very tip trying to re-balance her but are now dangling off the end of a swinging wing. Lt Col Trout races to each wing tip and commands that they remove the pogo stick and they launch her by hand. I had my answer. As soon as the pogo stick comes free the young airmen on the right wing looses his battle with gravity and her majesty's right wing touches the runway. For the first time in my life and hours of studying the U-2R I understand that the bulges on the tips of her wings are for, they are skid pads. Lt Col Trout confirms that it is not optimal but very much OK for the Dragon's wings to touch the ground. Lt Col Trout then issues another command to try to put the pogo stick onto the right wing. Three airmen now jump up on the left wing and as she rocks slowly back to the left the forth airman has enough time to get the pogo stick into the right wing to keep it off the ground. The riders on the wing come down and all but one jump into the truck.

The final airman remains, still clutching the left wing. Lt Col Trout circles behind the heat breathing aircraft and resumes his station behind and to the right of the column of heat. It's time to go. Maj Eainello pushes the throttle and she's alive and breathing fire. The pogo stick drops immediately as the airmen releases her left wing. Within two seconds of the start of her takeoff roll she is full of life and responding to flight controls. She knows instinctively she was meant to fly. Withing 400 feet she is airborne, two more seconds and she is out of the view through the windshield. Her nose is pointed skyward and she is rocketing out of sight. The Dragon was meant to fly, not too fast, but high. Higher than most aircraft can even dream. As she sprung to life and grabbed the air she was no longer awkward. She had strength, balance, and coordination as she climbed into the sky. What seemed awkward on the ground was now a vision of majesty in the air. As quickly as I can roll down my window to stick my head out for a further look she begins to disappear into the clouds -- and it is over. Somewhere up in the clouds Maj Eainello begins his solitary climb to 12,000 feet. He is to circle and await the time to fly today's mission. I sense he is not alone. He is with this majestic Lady, his mistress, who he has been in love with for 13 years.

As we drive across the flight-line and back to base operations Lt Col Trout receives a call on his cell phone. The two T-38s are both down and green indicating they have safely arrived at their destination and are preparing to catch the Dragon when she flys to them.

About an hour later, as I stand on the sixth floor of an ivory colored office building gazing out the picture window over looking the Potomac River in Arlington, Maj Eainello and his Mistress emerge from an overcast sky above Ft McNair just across the river. Below him the prayers and ceremony for the heroic Dragon masters that came before him. To the right, the decision makers and analysts in the Pentagon who must decide on the future of this magnificent aircraft. And above him, the great ocean of high air which all but a few solitary heroes, with the help of the Dragon Lady, can explore.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Black Swan is a Red Herring

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has seemingly spent his entire life chasing what he refers to as the black swan. A series of highly improbable events that have continuously shaped the course of human history. He presents his description of this phenomenon in what might be termed an autobiographical manifesto of sorts, the exhaustive and seemingly endlessly referenced book, "The Black Swan -- The Impact of the Highly Improbable". It's not that Taleb isn't onto something, or hasn't written a thought provoking book, he has. But it has taken him 300 pages and most of his life to tell us something as uninteresting and commonplace as smashing a bug with your shoe. To the rest of us, something as regular as taking a a simple step during a walk in the park. To the bug a seemingly random yet catastrophic event that comes out of nowhere, a third dimension, smashes quickly and lethally into it's two dimensional world and then retreats just as fast. When perhaps an asteroid crashes into our planet we will have the opportunity to experience what a bug might be thinking in the closing seconds as the foot shadows overhead. Until then we have earthquakes and tornadoes and tsunamis to occupy our time. Yes it might be a fools occupation to try to predict the next catastrophic occurrence of the black swan event, or not, according to Taleb our minds are simply not set up to think about the unknown unknowns --- just like the bug could never conceive of a shoe. But might it is also prudent to simply understand that you are living in Kansas, just as certainly as if you are living in Texas you should check your shoes for scorpions. The list of rules goes on and on. Look both ways before you cross the street. Look before you leap, etc. Taleb claims there is something called silent knowledge or entire cemeteries of knowledge that we will never know exist because the dead man tells no tale and history is written by the victorious not the defeated. And trying to study history for cause and effect will never work because it is impossible to discern causation, in a highly complex world, sufficiently to know for sure. Well it seems to me that there have been enough dead people with their dying breath utter the words "scorpion" for us to know their exact cause of death. Therefore we check our shoes, each and every time. Occasionally, a scorpion will fall out, but sometimes a spider, and we learn and we spread the word. So there are definite problems with Taleb's theory that he seems to ignore for the sake of his argument.

But what is more important is to determine if there really is such a thing as a black swan. Is the black swan a 9/11 event? Or is it how we reacted to the 9/11 event? Had we all collectively ignored the event would it have had the global economic effect? If a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? Perhaps to the beavers who used it to dam up a river heard the tree fall, but until it blocked the cooling water to the nuclear power plant further down stream, no one else cared, until it was too late to care. But look, as early as 1998, much had been written about the coming terrorist threat, so was it a surprise? Taleb himself admits that, at most, with the right type of open minded thinking, we can turn black swans into gray swans. Well, in the end, I think he has defeated his own argument with his admission that there are gray swans -- essentially black swans that we can predict and therefore mitigate some of their impact. Maybe it was a surprise to turkey number one that after 1000 days of nice treatment and good food a surprise would occur, but after turkey number two disappears unexpectedly from the gaggle rumors will start, it's not hard to begin postulating theories on their disappearance. As with 9/11, we knew -- there was enough knowledge to know and enough time to put security doors on the cockpits ahead of time. This black swan was not a black swan at all, it was a failure not of imagination but of a huge bureaucracy struggling to protect 300 million people at the same time -- and not to be crass but the numbers of US causalities not just on 9/11 but during the subsequent wars is still a low number, tragedies each and everyone, but not statistics as Stalin would have put it. And what of Katrina -- having spent some time drinking Hurricanes in New Orleans, it has been a known fact for many decades that to be drinking a Hurricane in the French Quarter, was to be drinking a Hurricane underwater if and when the levies break. Black swan you say? Gray swan at a minimum and in my book just dumb planning.

Additionally, we already have a category for black swan's in our lexicon. It's called an act of God. Ironically Taleb concedes that religion is the only way to mitigate of black swans that he can think of -- but not for metaphysical reasons. It's not philosophical or theological. It's not random or uncertain or risky. It is what it is. Do we worry about crossing the street? Do we worry about dying in a car accident? Collectively if someone dies on our nations highways, it's not a big deal. Despite over 40,000 deaths annually on these same highways - it's not a big deal to the nation or country as a whole, because these are statistics. Wear your seat belt, don't drink and drive, speed kills. Everything is completely random and unpredictable and the math is impossible because it it far too complex -- this is Taleb's point which he makes again and again. So much so that now when I get out of bed in the morning, I suspect it will represent my last moments on earth, so I say my prayers. But wait, I did this anyway -- so have I gained any perspective from Taleb. I don't think so. But perhaps I am special in my thinking -- an advanced open-minded thinker. So will the multiple pin heads who seemingly surround us, who couldn't think outside the box if their life depended on it or do the math, alter their way of thinking as a result of reading Taleb's book? Will they gain from his life long pursuit? Only if they wake up to the fact that they are living in Kansas, or living in a flood plain, or living on the San Andreas fault, and then only when the Black Swan event occurs they don't whine to the government that someone should have told them, and then expect relief at our expense. That, I think, is the point of his book. He could have said this in 10 pages.

Yet there are still many more counter arguments to Taleb's notion's. For instance, he completely ignores an attribute called quality and does not believe there are differences in human performance that account for the injustices he sees all around him. It is true that the differences in human performance are not so great as to separate us on the scale he uses to differentiate black swans, the net worth of Bill Gates for instance. But he fails to recognize that there is a difference. It is not luck. Some of it was skill -- without a functional operating systems Gates had nothing to sell. And some of it was business sense -- writing a exclusive contract. Yes there was luck in the timing of the venture but there was still quality. Yes there were other operating systems out there -- and MS DOS can be judged against those, not the operating system that I was working on, since I wasn't. And later came the arguable thug tactics and anti-trust violations used to steal the industry. Crimes perhaps, but not the luck of the draw. Crediting the next 20 years of growth for Micro Soft as a black swan event is misleading because it is not the triggering event. It might be an artifact of something attributable, not in this case, to an act of God, but it is more about the way things grow when they become epidemics -- this math is well understood. Nothing new here.

So Taleb has not given us a black swan. He has given us a Red Herring. He has taken a small piece of stinky fish and dragged it in the dirt perpendicular to the path we are on. There is a small benefit, if we leave our path momentarily to gain a new perspective, new insights will emerge, but that is all our feeble brains can comprehend, and nothing more. But to think there are no thinker's among us who do not understand the need to search for the extraordinary and to try to link them to potential causes, that although we might not understand completely, are contributory and can indeed be rectified, is not to be an observer of the human race at all. Ultimately he is wrong.

So read this book. Then go diversify your investments. Be amused as a highly intelligent, well read, and apparently wealthy man, rails against the system -- I also hate journalists but would like to add lawyers and tow truck operators to my list as well. But remember who he is, he is the modern day "Chicken Little" or "Fiver" if you like rabbit's instead of chickens. Understand that we are special and the fragile world we live in is extremely random and the catastrophic is both commonplace and everyday -- it's not just the end of the world events to fear. So pay attention every now and then to the world around you. Pick your head up when you are at work, but more importantly, do it when you cross the street -- remember it's left, right, then left again. If you are in England, it's right, left, then right again. If we humans couldn't turn crossing the street into a non-lethal act, ahead of time, we would never cross the street.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Orangemen -- 01/03/2008

It was dark, really really dark. Coming through the gates of Lake Fairfax Park it was hard to believe the game was still on. As I drove several miles through the pitch black, twisty hills of the woodland it did not seem like I was heading towards a game. The road wrapped ever deeper into nowhere. It was too different, the feel, the look, I was too far away from anything familiar. But then the woods parted and an empty parking lot appeared in the head lights. When the teams began arriving the field lights were not on, nothing looked normal. Soon, as the new lights began to brighten an elevated soccer field, a brand new synthetic playing surface was revealed. The new field reflected brightly under the powerful lights against the complete darkness of the night. The brightness I will always remember. It cast a futuristic feel to this temple of ours. A sort of post apocalyptic oasis to play our long lost game among the ancient trees worshiped by Druid priests. An eerie glowing portal in the middle of nowhere on which to play our beautiful game.

It was also cold, very very cold. One of the first to arrive was Jim Landoll, the team had grown to four. It was only minutes before kickoff, so things did not look like we would start on-time if at all, as only a few players on either side had arrived. It was a lonely feeling and pulling off our hats, gloves, and coats did not seem advisable when you are in the middle of nowhere on a cold, dark night. Les Stroud himself would caution against such foolishness. Jim Landoll announced that he didn't think he was going to play. Better judgement had emerged. But just as Jim has done for decades, his instincts knew no better, so he ran onto the pitch, still bundled against the cold, with a ball at his feet and a game in his heart. He began to warm up. I joined him. I said, "Jim, not only are you going to play tonight, by the looks of it you are going to play the whole game". Slowly we could see headlights through the trees, indicating that more players were slowly winding their way through the woods trying to find the field. The field lights, shining at full brightness now, would no doubt serve as a better beacon for those arriving late.

So at 7:40 pm the game was on, we were still short handed, but we had enough to begin. The headlights in the trees still indicated that a full squad approached. Early on, it was easy to see that our opponent had numbers, speed, youth and energy. It seemed we were unable to move the ball past mid-field, let alone challenge their goal. We would clear, but they would mount an attack almost immediately. They attacked relentlessly. They got under our defense and shot on goal. They shot from range. We brought back numbers and tried a bunker defense against the onslaught. I crept up to play midfield, attempting to move the ball further into their end to ease the continuous attacks, or at least give the defense some time to rest. But they attacked on the left and then the right, continuing to shoot on goal. Our keeper made some of the best clutch saves I have seen. Left to fend off several one v one strikes he stepped up to the task and defeated everyone.

But our luck would not hold out. Their first break through came when Teddy "I've got a good right foot too" Ogren tried to clear the ball from just inside our penalty box with, unfortunately, his right foot. The cross was a perfect centering pass to a charging central mid-fielder who had had enough of our resistance. He punished us. Then later in the half, after a series of more attacks somehow averted by our keeper, I moved quickly across midfield to intercept an errant pass. I, or Jim "I've got a good left foot too" Muccio miss-connected with the ball with that good left foot of mine only serving to glance it on its trajectory thereby lifting it deftly over the head of Karl "I'm from the Bundesliga" Mueller our right back. It dropped onto the run of their charging left winger. This one he would not miss. They had scored and broken our defense, twice. The associated doom of a game gone bad lodged in my mind. How would we stop the bleeding?

Somehow we did. As more of our team arrived we shifted our defense, and settled on Jose, Doug, and John "I'm too fast to know I'm short" Hamner taking turns in the back. When half-time arrived we had stopped the bleeding, but we were no closer to posting a point. Due to the temperature both captains agreed to a short half-time and we were back on the pitch, staring down the barrel of a seemingly stronger side.

Then a miracle occurred, Tedd "Daniel Day-Lewis" Ogren, found his left foot. It happen on a corner kick we won early in the second half. Tedd played the perfect ball launching it straight into the goal box before it began a curl away from the keepers outstretched mitts. Doug "I hear the train a coming" on a rampage from his position as sweeper came charging up the field and met the out swinging ball with his head in full stride. The ball had no choice put to stretch the back of the net. We had scored our first goal against a very strong side -- could we continue forward?

Then a second miracle occurred. But perhaps it wasn't a miracle at all. Tedd brought the ball down about 23 yard out. He brought it down on his much favored left side. Some might have anticipated a Tedd rocket special, but instead he curled the ball up and softly down around the out stretched hands of their keeper to hit the upper left corner of the goal. A line drive would not have worked -- there were perhaps 10 players between him and the goal -- he carried the ball over everyone to score our second goal.

But Tedd was not through. He made a run down the left side of the pitch -- all legs and elbows flying as he negotiated around not one or two but three challengers. He found himself in position to once again strike a cross into the box with his left foot. As he laid defenders in his wake more approached to fill in the holes drawing the center of the field clear. He then struck the cross. I was standing alone near the top of the goal box on the far side. I would easily be able to play this approaching ball with my foot. I had time to think about it. Then, moving smartly to meet the arching ball came a vision in a bright orange wool cap. It was Jim "I've been addicted to this game since before you were born" Landoll. He charged onto the crossing ball, and as Doug had done just moments before -- finished into the top of the net -- well away from the keeper that he had been beat by yards. We were now on top.

The game raged on -- with rapid runs moving end to end. Our defense was strong with either Jose or John sprinting to break up attack after attack. And then quickly moving back up the field to join the counter attack. We also had the younger John "I'm the keeper's son" all curls and speed displaying clinic after clinic for our now pressured adversaries. John dumped the ball to Jose who started a run similar to Tedd's just minutes before, this time up the right side of the field. We have seen Jose make this run countless times. He holds the ball until challenged and then dumps it into space, then using his speed alone he beats defender after defender. I made a run up the left side of the field knowing in my heart the outcome of Jose's attack. He would beat the last defender and place a shot on goal. Still I made the run possibly just so I would have something to complain about, knowing I would not get the ball. Against all odds I signalled my presence to Jose with a long yell of his name, "HOOOOOOOOOOOZZZAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" I yelled out into the night with all I could muster. Then a miracle occurred. Jose split the last two defenders with a pass -- it was a perfect diagonal between the defenders directly into my run. It was perfectly weighted ball, enough to tempt the keeper to charge a little, but then rethink and retreat. But then, when he realized that I would get to the ball first he charged. But too late. He tried to make himself large, as they teach in the keeper schools but I kept my head down to concentrate on my strike, not intimidated by this peacock feathers. When I struck the ball I knew I had scored. I hit it just about as hard as I could. The ball stayed down, glued to the pitch and went as straight as an arrow. The keeper tried in vain to close his legs and drop his hands low enough to stop the strike. The ball went straight throw the 5 hole and into the back of the net. We had scored four points against very uncertain odds.

As we lined up for the kick-off we felt as if we had just played a life time. Someone asked the ref how many minutes were left in the game. It had felt like we had just played three games. The ref's reply was relayed as three minutes -- relief that we had won the game sunk over those of us who heard the three minute warning. But then there was some confusion. The ref didn't say three minutes he said 20 minutes. What? We scored all four goals in under 25 minutes in a single half -- how was that possible? And worse, how would it be possible to hold off 20 more minutes of an attacking, and now very motivated opponent. Well, we did. Thanks to the continued defense and lengthy counter attacks. We held out and won a game of games. This one would go down in history -- if there was only a scribe present to capture the highlights. Those highlights being that Tedd Ogren was the MPV with two assists and one goal and Jim Landoll takes the game winner to mount in his living room for all time.

So as we broke apart for the night -- to leave this cold pitch, this dark and lonely place, nothing will remain. We were victorious, but the memories would soon fade, and the memories, as the great bard would say, of only we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, we few souls gathered of all humanity for battle on this solitary night. But this was a memorable night, and there was a scribe present, and I will remember it as vividly as I remember the brightness of the field.