Sunday, May 27, 2018

Do most people struggle?

The segment of society I grew up in struggled to overcome barriers to basic steps. We struggled to get out of bed, to make that phone call, to leave the house on time. It's a lifestyle defined by loose ends, unfinished starts, or just unstarted starts. I saw it in my mom, her friends, my cousins, and myself until I cultivated better habits. I wonder what it is that puts us in this state and keeps us there on so many counts, for years, and too often for whole lives.

I have seen the alternative. I saw it in more functional classmates in school, in neighbors, in people at shops and offices who took care of their affairs in a more organized, proactive, and timely manner. These people often were members of a different socioeconomic category — more affluent, more stable, with more resources and options. Was it a cause or an effect of their mode? More likely than not the relationship wasn't unidirectional.

A troubling aspect of my observations is that I don't think I've seen the same predicament in other parts of the world. Living in Ukraine and China — and traveling extensively through other parts of the world not exactly known for affording wealth or opportunities to ordinary citizens — I find the constraint is not the initiative of locals but the opportunities they have. There's probably sampling bias coming into play here. In my years abroad I taught English, and that standing lent itself to putting me in contact with the more proactive sort, those who took the initiative to acquire a foreign language. Outside of the classroom I saw taxi drivers, proprietors, and consumers vying for improved standing or the accumulation of wealth. Perhaps that segment that struggles remains disproportionately and significantly invisible to the public eye. They're not in evening classes or working a gig or running their errands. They're languishing behind closed doors, in dark spaces, working to muster the energy to engage their worlds toward their own benefit.

Could there be something singularly American about the struggles I saw intimately growing up, and that I still occasionally brush up against? One differentiating aspect of America is that for all of our wealth, our income distribution is pretty warped, leaving big segments of society feeling inferior to others. Could that account for the paralysis? Pop science articles have told me that this sort of perception has an adverse effect on well-being. Even in a place like Ukraine, where a small elite has an incredible amount of wealth, the rest of society is clustered closely together in poverty, establishing a sense of camaraderie among most citizens even, with the rich — oligarchs — operating as a uniting opponent in some ways.

Looking into the past I think about the trials of simpler societies, of hunter-gatherers, subsistence farmers, and pioneers. Of serfs and slaves. Accounting for infant mortality, I'm told life expectancy wasn't so terrible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still I'm not convinced that a typical life in cities, on farms, or on manors was beyond daily struggle. Plague, turmoil, war, famine, and other misfortunes were far more significant factors then than for the American lifestyles I'm familiar with today. My friend imagines that if he were a fourteenth-century peasant reflecting on his life, he'd likely recall big holidays, weddings, festivals and the like as the highlights, before struggles to make ends meet or navigate the vagaries of society. I think he's right. The hard work of earlier or less affluent times and places is taken as a given and fades into the background of consciousness. It's a constant. The highlights are the deviations.

Would the people I think of as struggling today have a comparable experience? I'm not so sure. Again, I think of the heterogeneity of society, and the unavoidable dissemination of media and information that draws their attention to their relative standing. I think a lot of people today understand themselves as marginalized have-nots. The operative word there is marginalized. When you see yourself as part of a community overcoming poverty more or less together, even allowing for the occasional exception — the duke, the lord, the chief, the mandarin — you're more likely to take comfort in the notion of a solidarity or at least a relative fairness in working toward well-being or livelihood in parallel with peers. I'm suggesting that in turn that comfort can strengthen someone against the sort of rut that can take down initiative.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Interesting connections

Christine, Joseph, and MySpace

I met two of my best friends on MySpace. This was back in 2004 when it was just taking off. Before people were inundated with social media it was far more acceptable to reach out and forge bonds with strangers. Nowadays people tend to add as a contact on LinkedIn or Facebook only those people they've met in real life. So, even though I lived in a different city than them at the time, Christine and Joseph, who were roommates, stumbled upon me and reached out on account of my professed interests in electronic music, body modification, and the Soviet Union. We grew close over the next few years and we're still friends. I visited each of them in their respective domiciles as recently as this summer.

Ford Seven and Girl Talk

Christine and Joseph eventually connected me to a place called Ford Seven. Just a sprawling apartment in an old building in Cleveland—sprawling enough to roller skate! The place was known for its antics and events. This is where the mashup artist Girl Talk played some of his first shows, and he took off from there. Another character who was a part of that scene was Antonio. He's a gifted hairstylist by all accounts, so gifted he was even Courtney Love's personal stylist. Well, at least for a few weeks. I never got the full story on what happened there.

The Fund and Street Fight Radio

The Fund (aka the Fund for Public Interest Research) recruits young idealistic (and/or desperate) people to fundraise for nonprofits, either door-to-door or by accosting people on the street. I worked there each summer in college, and Zack was my boss two of those summers. He went on to become the potato salad guy. He also ended up spending time working on the same farm in France as my friend Natasha, who used to live at Ford Seven.

In college I made good friends with a certain Lauren. And while I was at the Fund, I worked with Ljubica, who now hosts Cold Pizza Party. Ljubica has collaborated with Street Fight Radio, and one of the hosts of that was Lauren's first boyfriend.

Reality TV

Katie, who I met through Lauren, worked at a dry cleaner's in high school. She used to let her friend Akashia sleep on the couch in the shop. Akashia went on to compete in the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race, but not before stealing from the cash register. I coincidentally gave Akashia a Tarot card reading once when I was in high school. A kid I was on the cross country team and in art class with went on to compete in Project Runway, and Katie's friend Irina ended up in the same writing program at Bard College as Christine.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Battles over fate

Some of history's greatest battles have been over the definition of the world and how best to interact with it. When people are particularly concerned with their fate as defined by an afterlife, they concern themselves with how best to attain a desirable position in it. This historically manifested in the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Thirty Years' War, and played a part in the earlier Crusades. Of course, there were agents who used religious conflict to negotiate and attain material wealth, power, and other assets outside the purview of a Christian afterlife. Still, the fact that religion served as such a notable vehicle to those ends speaks to the orientation of societies at those times.

As society came to focus more on outcomes in people's lives—in contrast to their afterlives—we see greater focus on questions of how best to organize and run society, such as in the Renaissance, Enlightenment and later movements. I believe this change in orientation came about as a result of improvements to productivity, increases in quality of life, accumulation of wealth (including such simple things as surplus food), disposable time and other factors that facilitate education, related investments, reflection, and innovation. Once typical people were freed (or relative freer on average) from the time and mental demands of a subsistence lifestyle and this development went noted by aristocrats, society came to focus more on ends and means in this life.

The trend has continued as we've redefined our locus of control from faith to the political system and beyond. We've redefined what it is to be human—this tying into the history of race in the US and other countries. We've redefined what it means to be a citizen, a decent person, a successful person, etc. Many of these redefinitions have resulted in the enfranchisement of more people. Think of the waves of feminism: the first priority was equal legal rights and the later priority became equal social and professional opportunities. These developments have broadly coincided with great global productivity, wealth, and leisure time. Today a lot of rhetoric is focused on the level of individual interactions. Is it acceptable to employ aggression to dominate and control interactions and their outcome? What about prejudice and other heuristics that reinforce problematic historical patterns? How much should one benefit from being born into a well-connected family or other windfalls? Our lot, or at least how we perceive it, is no longer so much a function of how devout we are. Nor are we entirely concerned with the influence of legal and political protocols. We're identifying levers of the world and our lives in more granular, less formal interactions and patterns.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Conquering the conquerors

I've noticed a pattern in history of the conquered becoming the conqueror. I can think of several manifestations. The first is Rome and the Germanic tribes that harried its frontier. In time these tribes would take Rome's place but carry its torch. This is what happened with the Franks in France, retaining the language and many of the institutions of Rome, as well as what would happen in the general area of modern day Germany, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire.

The two other outstanding cases that occur to me carry us across Eurasia. During the Islamic conquests, it was Arab power structures that subsumed and converted Persians. In time, however, Persians came to dominate the power structure, in the administration of the Abbasid Caliphate. In turn, those ethnicities then on the periphery - nomadic Turks and Mongols - would go from populations encroached on or pushed back to the new rulers of extensive, urbanized domains. This brings us to China, where the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty, ruling over their former suzerain for a hundred years.

Could there be something fundamental to these three examples? It only makes sense that in time the wealth accumulated in a society would become the prize of a new contingent of people. It might not be a meaningful abstraction that I've presented at all. For instance, wealth and power were changing hands among groups within Rome. Is that really any different from it passing into the hands of, say, the Lombards? At the same time, there are many distinct groups that have never "conquered their conquerors."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Some thoughts and language on thought and language

I don't think in English. Sometimes I think in Russian. Sometimes I think in images or something like a scene from a movie where many non-verbal aspects of a situation develop and play out. My thoughts used to be more closely coupled to their representation in spoken English, particularly early on in college, where my main mode of digesting information and expressing myself had become the word. This was in contrast to how I'd spent much of my free time in high school -- drawing for hours. And later in college I would focus more heavily on a different symbolic system - mathematical notation - as I undertook more coursework in statistics and econometrics. The cumulative effect of these experiences has left me with thoughts that aren't dominated by any particular medium. Sometimes I'm rehearsing a conversation in my head. At other times, I'm thinking in a sort of raw mode of concepts themselves, without their being tied to their corresponding word in English or Russian, or I might be visualizing shapes interacting with each other in a kind of space, such as when working with a matrix of data for work.

Now I don't overestimate how unique this is. It's often a matter of degree. That said, I have encountered multiple instances where others describe their cognition in contrast to mine. A parallel can be drawn in the different ways people read. Many people subvocalize when they read, registering minute movements of the physical pronunciation of words as their eyes pass over them, perhaps hearing the words in their heads. An alternative mode of reading doesn't involve subvocalization, and can become a largely visual experience. This likely typifies the reading experience for those who've learned only the written form of a language. Think scholars who've learned enough of a language only to use written sources in their work, or who are working with a dead language, the spoken form of which is no longer known.

A number of these concepts are explored in The Arrival, a movie that left a strong impression on me: the mapping of spoken to visually-represented language, how the mode of thinking dictates what is even possible to think. We benefit from a long history of packaging up concepts into a shorthand representation. There was a time when we didn't have the means to represent or conceive of numbers. Imagine how greatly extended our ability to manipulate our worlds - internal and external - has become. If I'm recalling a documentary I once saw accurately, and if it was accurate itself, Einstein expressed that one of the greatest challenges in his work as a physicist was finding the means to capture what he'd already conceptualized. This leads me to believe that for all its expressive capacity, dealing solely with language as we've inherited it can keep us from expanding the realms of personal - or more generally, human - insight. I wonder what future developments in language will afford us.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Role-playing games and the Republic of Georgia

I embarked on a mission today to find a t-shirt shop I'd heard rumor of recently. I couldn't find its exact location from the web so I figured I'd wander around until I stumbled onto it. A friend compared this approach to the gameplay in an RPG, where you can operate pretty aimlessly, prompting locals for information that can help you in your quest. It's an apt comparison, and it's become an increasingly rare mode of experiencing a place, but that's how I've typically travelled.

A trip that stands out along those lines was the one I took to the Caucasus with my friend Anjali. We were living in Ukraine at the time and were both well-traveled and opted for no preparation other than our roundtrip tickets to Tbilisi. We mostly memorized the Georgian alphabet on the flight, dozed off some, and arrived in the early morning. We had no map and nowhere to stay so we made our way downtown and to the train station, thinking we'd be able to find an affordable hotel or a babushka offering a room for rent. The hotels turned out to be too expensive - a couple hundred dollars a night if I recall correctly, or about as much money as I had to my name at the time. The clerk assured us the rooms were "very nice." The train station was notedly absent of nice old ladies offering shelter, in contrast to our experiences in other formerly Soviet republics. The city at this time was host to a disruptive anti-NATO protest, so that may have had something to do with it.

By this point it had started raining, and Anjali had placed a scarf over her head. Our search for shelter was taking on a certain Mary and Joseph quality, as we asked a woman sweeping her doorstep if she knew of a nearby internet cafe. She gave us directions as she placed a hand on Anjali and offered a sympathetic smile. Now, the internet proved to be an information desert for basic housing in Tbilisi, except for one forum post that contained the building number of a couple who offered rooms to travelers. We set out for it, though we didn't have an apartment number, so I resolved to just start knocking on doors. A woman answered the first door I tried. I apologized for bothering her and explained what we'd read, and it turned out it was her and her husband who were running this hostel of sorts. They invited us into their apartment, which I remember as open and bright, with Judaica, and explained they were already housing a group of Swedes who'd come to the area for mountain climbing. They were, however, able to ask their neighbors to house us. Fortunately those neighbors - a family of artists and musicians - were able to take us in.

It turned out to be a great experience. The walls were covered with paintings - many of family members. The mother worked restoring art at the local museum, and in our downtime we'd hear the father listening to opera or the daughter practicing violin. The grandmother told us about the city and where to find what. She also recounted to us that before Georgia's civil war in the 90s different ethnicities and faiths had gotten on harmoniously. It was a particularly poignant observation since at the time Russian forces were passing through parts of the country, as part of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's effort to break away from Georgia.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hank Paulson, the financial crisis, and remaining fault lines

I just finished watching the documentary Hank: 5 Years from the Brink and got motivated to flesh out my understanding of the 2008 financial crisis again. The film was largely focused on the response to the crisis, but I thought it interesting that the makers didn't highlight the increase in the interest rate undertaken by the Fed not long before the economy started crumbling. In keeping with typical operations of the Fed, that sort of rate hike would have been in response to a sense that the economy was overheating - in or entering a bubble - and needed to be reeled in before it got too carried away. At that point the rate had been low for years - an enduring response to the bursting of the Dotcom bubble - which fueled the housing boom.

In retrospect we can easily say that it would have been more appropriate had the Fed raised rates much sooner. That gets us into considerations of ego and other interests in Fed operations. Fed chairmen want to reign over a flourishing economy, as do other officials who have influence on them, not least the President. Even the desire to see one's own investments perform well constitutes a conflict of interest. I've actually never seen anyone speak to that, as though Washington decision-makers should be rich enough that their own financial livelihoods wouldn't enter into play in open market operations. It's this fallible discipline and at least potential conflict of interest that lends support to arguments for abolishing the Fed. At the same time, the cause of the crisis was multifactorial. A big issue in responding appropriately to any situation is information, and the way in which subprime mortgages were securitized made it difficult to divine the actual circumstances we faced.

The multifactorial nature of the crisis is covered well in Fault Lines, a book by Raghuram G. Rajan, a former IMF economist. He goes into the distortions in the financial industry, where banks are (still) too big to fail, and the incentives lopsided. Failure goes unpunished, not just at the level of the market, where institutions have been propped up, but within those institutions as well. However, success is, particularly at the higher levels, exorbitantly rewarded. At the same time, Rajan goes into other aspects of the financial system that predispose it to crisis. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, complicit in the crisis, are a response to a society with a weak social safety net where that's been compensated for in one of the only political viable ways: promotion of often unsustainable private home ownership. He also points to global aspects, notably the high savings right in China that translated to global capital looking for a place to nest with good returns, such as subprime mortgage-backed investments.

By the end of the documentary, former treasury secretary Hank Paulson asserts that eventually we'll have another financial crisis - this is the nature of markets - but that we now have better mechanisms in place to mitigate the effects. He points to higher capital requirements and Dodd-Frank. The former no doubt cushions the system from calamity but the latter has been described by The Economist as a convoluted piece of legislation -- over a thousand pages long. In keeping with that observation my impression is that it's introduced complexity and hasn't actually made the work of regulators easier or more empowered. That, the historically low interest rates we've had for approaching a decade, and the fact that the banks that were too big to fail are now only bigger fill me with concern. I wouldn't be surprised if the next turn of the market exhibits the same severity of effects as the last crisis. In examining the historical frequency and severity of financial crises, Elizabeth Warren has made a strong argument that the now expired Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking, played a critical role in staving off disaster. Reinstating that sort of legislation is one of the only options I see available for minimizing the risk of cataclysmic crises in the future.