Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You can do it! (maybe)

“You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” ~ Homer Simpson

Americans are in love with our “entrepreneurial spirit”. We admire winners and love stories about people who have achieved success by overcoming great odds. But there is one myth we hold dear in this culture that I find most troubling: The idea that you can be anything you want to be if you want it bad enough.

It’s a warm fuzzy “feel good” politically-correct statement, but really, it’s patently not true. I don’t
believe, for example, that a legally blind person can become an airline pilot, no matter how hard they try. I don’t believe that all the kids who want to become president someday will become president. I don’t believe that anything you believe you can achieve is achievable no matter how badly you want it. I’ve seen the video of the paraplegic who climbed Mt. Everest on his specially crafted ski chair. Yay! But he didn’t accomplish that goal by himself and he didn’t do a “happy dance” there on the summit.

I think the phrase “within reason” sometimes needs to be inserted into these lofty motivational statements. I heard a comment from a young man who was dying of cancer talking about his hope for the future… which, in his case, wasn’t to be very long. His goal was to make the remaining days of his life as meaningful and as happy as he could. This was not only a lofty goal; it was an “achievable” goal. His hope was tempered with a strong dose of reality. He pointed out wisely that: “You don’t have a choice in the cards you are dealt, but you do have a choice in how you play them”. This is a truly profound concept.

My wife was impressed with a drama she once saw on TV about a middle-aged man who trained for a Mar
athon. He was intensely focused on the goal of winning this race; he worked as hard as one can train for the competition. On the race day he finished the race in the middle of the pack. His friends and family supported his efforts and cheered him on. Yet at the celebration his family threw for him at the end of the race, he walked past them all, went into his bedroom, closed the door threw himself on the bed and cried. They were all perplexed – You see they didn’t understand that his expectation was that he would WIN the Marathon. Perhaps the goal he had set for himself was not a reasonable goal.

The truth is that we cannot measure the scope of our triumphs against the standards set by the rest of the world. Fame is fickle and short-lived; wealth and financial success are largely the result of luck and opportunity. Only in the eyes of the Law are all men created equal: in reality, there is often little equality within the context of where, and how, we come into this world. What we determine is “success” is relevant to what is achievable within the conditions we find ourselves. The only place where there may be no limits to our abilities is within our imagination.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Gotta Have

I have absolutely no clue what the hell this thing is... but my birthday is coming up in a couple of months and I have to have one!!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Check all that apply.

I get a lot of junk that seems to find a way through my spam filter, many of them are surveys. They come in the mail also; surveys from people I have usually done business with, but not always. What I find irritating about most surveys is that they expect you to fill them out for free.

Think about this concept for a moment – somebody wants something from you: Information. They apparently find this information useful and, most importantly, valuable… but they want it for free. Yet were I to ask to use or consume one of their products and services for free, they would naturally be quite indignant. People expect payment for an exchange of goods or services. Yet, here they are, asking me to take my valuable time and knowledge and give it to them for nothing. My question is: What’s in it for me?

Now some companies (rarely) will offer you some compensation for completing their survey. Ok, now we have a mutually beneficial relationship; I give you something, you give me something else in return. I received a coupon for a free meal from a restaurant for completing their online survey. Nice! Occasionally we have even been paid cash for completing surveys.

I conclude that marketing people in most companies are clearly greatly estranged from the people they are marketing to. Why else would they think that their product is so compelling that their customers are just dying to fill out paperwork to reinforce that belief?

Here’s my hard and fast rule to all you marketing types out there: You want me to fill out your survey -- Fine; make it worth my while. Otherwise, expect it to suffer the [delete] key or get dropped into the recycling bin directly from the mailbox. You don’t work for free; well neither do I.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Libertarian Utopia - Idealsm versus reality.

I am a big fan of Skeptic Magazine founder, Dr. Michael Shermer. A brilliant scholar and adroit debater, he is also a strong supporter of the Libertarian Party. Recently Shermer posted on his blog a response to the question I am sure he has been asked countless times, why did he become a Libertarian. It has been a position that has troubled me for some time and I was glad he addressed this personal issue publically - and that I had the opportunity to respond. Shermer's original post can be found here: How I became a Libertarian. My response follows below:

Thank you for publishing this; it is something that I have been curious about you for some time now. I have not read “Atlas Shrugged” or “Mind of the Market” (they are on my reading list). But I have been curios about Libertarianism for some time now. A while back I took the “test” on the Libertarian web site, I believe it queried: “Are you a Libertarian”. I am very much a supporter of individual personal liberties; however the test results consistently returned that I was a “Liberal”. But that was not always so.

My political affiliation evolved over time; I was once a staunch Reagan Republican during the first half of my career as a banker. I truly believed in less government and “trickle-down Economics”. I voted for Reagan; then observed with some incredulity that the “trickle” didn’t quite drip all the way down to my level – my first layoff experience soon followed.

My second career (introduced to me by my second wife) was on the other end of the spectrum. I became a Welfare Case Worker; my wife was a case worker investigating child neglect and abuse. During my previous banking career, I had held strong opinions about the importance of self-determination, hard work, and success – people just needed to pull themselves up by their own boot-straps. Now, in government, I was confronted with a population who didn’t have boots.

I will admit that my view is based primarily on my own personal anecdotal experience of dealing with people for whom “the market” does not exist in their world. Michael Shermer is a healthy, bright, active and educated success story, some of which could be attributed mainly to luck – however, that could all change should, one day, he is struck by a car while riding his bicycle and left severely disabled and unable to continue to do the things that provide a secure and comfortable income. These are the people I worked with; there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who every day experience their own personal “Katrina” disaster.

Some of these people have disability income, but more commonly it is woefully inadequate to sustain people in the lifestyle and comfort to which they were accustomed. For most, the only remaining social safety net is government. It seems to me that I have not yet met a “poor” Libertarian.

My point is that “The Market” is important to the extent that citizens have the ability to participate in it. The fact is, not all can. Privatizing child abuse investigation, casework and long-term therapy is no more practical than privatizing the criminal justice system. Even the “Faith Based Initiatives” put forth by the previous administration cannot deal with the huge scope of human service needs in this country anywhere close to the level that government must. In fact, many private social service organizations reject working with the most extremely difficult populations – government programs and support are their only remaining option.

I believe that the Market can only exist within a larger “Community” and that some level of government is necessary to support those for whom the Market, through their fault or just plain fate, doesn’t work. To this end I am with Yogi Berra in my opinion. I love the theory, but I haven’t seen how it could truly work in practice.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Life lived by the numbers

My calculations reveal that 10 out of 9 people don’t understand statistics.

After 9/11 I saw a TV interview of a guy who became so terrified of flying he moved his family from New York to Florida and no longer flies – they visit their out-of-state relatives by car, driving everywhere, avoiding flying. I would ask this guy, which is the most likely chance of your family dying: In an aircraft hijacking or among the 40,000 people who die each year in traffic accidents? People really have little sense of probability and risk; they rely almost completely on emotion.

Parents are terrified at the thought of some stranger abducting and abusing (or worse) their precious child. Yet a hugely vast majority of children suffer abuse from someone who is already known to the victim, a friend or relative. The "stranger" abduction makes news headlines because it is so rare an occurrence.

I am reminded (almost daily) that the average intelligence quotient (IQ) of Americans is 100. A good practical measure of this can be gleaned by watching some of our American TV game shows where people reveal “magical thinking” regarding risk and probability.

Deal or No Deal” is great fun to watch as well as providing a good insight into magical thinking. Here people select 25 brief cases containing dollar amounts between once cent and one million dollars. The contestant selects a case then chooses additional cases to be opened revealing their contents. The “Banker” then makes them an offer which they can decline or accept. The offer is actually the statistical mean of the remaining amounts.

Invariably the contestants decline the "deal" offers believing that some sort divine providence will result in a favorable outcome. People have long held that certain numbers, such as 3, 7, and 13 have mystical properties and so gravitate to, or try to avoid, these special numbers. Of course, the numbers don’t possess any intrinsic mystical properties, these superstitions exist solely within our minds.

Here is where risk aversion can be suppressed by being caught up in the excitement of the moment and the (mistaken) belief, that some special and unknown force will drive the outcome in their favor. It is interesting to watch people continue to risk the “deal” for the statistically low chance of winning the grand prize. A cooler, calculating head prevailing will know when the odds favor taking the “deal”.

I recently read about risk aversion in Decision Theory in the book, The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. Schwartz demonstrates that people will view risk differently under identical, but perceived differently, situations. For example: When offered to double their money if they answer a question correctly, but lose it all if answered incorrectly, most people will avoid the risk and choose the “sure thing”. However, completely reverse the situation where they are now OWING money, and given the choice of either owing double or nothing, their perception of risk changes and they are more willing to take the chance of not owing.

An interesting example of risk aversion can be seen on another TV game show, Cash Cab. Here the contestants are quizzed on a game show inside a New York taxi; they win money for each correct answer. At the end, they are given a chance to “double or nothing” - answer a final question which will double their winnings if they answer correctly or lose it all if their answer is wrong. Sometimes when I watch this show I find myself yelling at the TV; there will be four people in the cab yet they choose to take the money rather than risk doubling it by answering the bonus question. Dummies... There are four brains in the car – the chances of answering the question correctly has quadrupled! But their fear of losing is stronger than the statistical likelihood of of their winning. They forget that they would actually “lose” nothing – they had NO prize money at all before they stepped into the game in the taxi.

The reality of life is that the Law of Large Numbers is what determines what, if anything happens to us throughout our lifetime - not luck, superstition or unseen hand of God(s). A predictable percentage of us will be impacted by accident, disease; good and bad random events. We can tilt probability in our favor by doing things like wearing seatbelts or helmets, taking care of our nutrition, and taking “calculated” risks.

The disclosure from the Oregon State Lottery couldn't spell it out more clearly: "Lottery games are based on chance, should be played for entertainment only and should not be played for investment purposes".

Friday, May 8, 2009

Come fly with me

When I was younger (and newly married) I thought I wanted to be an airline pilot. Knowing that they don’t hire airline pilots out of Community College, I decided I should join the Air Force to gain a little experience first

The Air Force put me through a practical examination to determine if I would make a good pilot – I passed the Navigator part but failed the Pilot part. I was told to try again in six months. By six months I was working for a bank repossessing cars and having the time of my life!

Over the years it has come to my awareness that flunking that Air Force test was probably a good thing. I would have made a lousy airline pilot. For one thing, I don’t have the ass for it. I can’t sit for more than two hours without my butt aching down to my knee caps.

Another thing that pilots do, that I am clearly not good at, is following directions. I want to know if there is a different (and possibly, better) alternative. The first thing that pops into my head when people say to do something this way is: “why”? After stealing cars for the bank, I became an Operations Analyst (Efficiency Expert). That job was damn near as cool.

Still, I always maintained an interest in aviation. I am fascinated by flight and always take the window seat when flying commercially. I really got into flying virtually on an on-line version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Online computer jockeys fly in controlled airspace, with lots of other pilots and ATC (Air Traffic Controllers). We use real-world charts, real-world flight plans, and follow real-world procedures. I have a really comfy computer chair… still, after about two hours, my ass begins to hurt.

But another aspect of virtual online flying revealed a third reason why my pursuing a flying career would have been a bad idea – it’s boring. Really! Apart from take-off and landings, the flying part (done mostly on autopilot) is mind-numbingly boring.

My wife and I just returned from two weeks in Florida, one week of which we were on a Carnival Cruise ship. This was one of my best vacations ever. The worst part of the whole trip was flying between home and Florida. Feeling my ass go numb in those uncomfortable seats is bad enough; the TSA has made air travel into a nightmare. Thanks a lot, Al-Qaeda, for f#*king that up for us. And now this last trip cost me $90 just to check my bags! It used to be free.

I probably won’t live long enough to see Star Trek style “transporters” replace the unfriendly skies. Too bad, I’d pay big bucks to be “beamed” to my next vacation spot. -- Scotty: “Energize”!

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Hotel of Babel

We just returned from two weeks vacation in Florida. We arrived at Miami International early evening and caught the shuttle to our hotel. The guy driving the hotel shuttle from the airport didn’t speak English very well, but then he didn’t really need to – he got us to the hotel, no problem. I tipped him $2.

English didn’t seem to be the native language of the desk clerk either, nor the bellman who showed us to our room… but I tipped him $2 also. There was a blinking “message” light on the phone on the night stand next to the bed. I figured I might have forgotten something downstairs at check-in or maybe it was some canned welcome message from the hotel. As there were no instructions on how to retrieve voice messages, I rang the operator – she answered the phone in Spanish.

Now normally when my wife and I travel to Mexico (or any foreign country, for that matter) I like to try and use a little bit of their language. I make a point of saying “Gracias” or “Merci” or “Arigato”. After all, it’s their country; I’m just a guest.

But I was aware that I didn’t feel particularly compelled to say Gracias to the limo driver, nor to the desk clerk, the bellman or the hotel operator. And it wasn't until after I listened to my hotel voicemail message that I realized why - you see, the last time I checked, Miami was still located in the USA. The message left on my hotel voicemail was in Spanish; completely unintelligible to me.

I feel a bit like Ricky Gervais when I say this, but “It’s not racist”. Different nationalities have their native languages; I think that’s cool. I love that the French speak French and the Japanese speak Japanese… I don’t know what the f*#k is going on up in Canada? But I don’t think it is an unreasonable expectation that, when I am within the borders of the United States of America, that when I speak English to someone, we can understand each other.

I heard a statistic that the number of English speakers in China now outnumbers the entire population of the United States. Damn are those Chinese folks going to have one hell of a surprise when they try to check into a hotel over here!!