Sunday, January 18, 2015

Passing Fair

Change can be beautiful
What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all ;
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought :
For whatsoever from one place doth fall
Is with the tyde unto another brought :
For there is nothing lost, that may be found if sought.

― Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

Municipal bond market maven, government official, and longtime Twitter fixture Kristi Culpepper penned an interesting riposte yesterday to Leon Wieseltier’s recent jeremiad against the disruptive cultural effects of technology in The New York Times. Leon, you may recall, laid about rather vigorously with his rhetorical cudgel in defense of humanism against the allied evils he sees arrayed against it today, including technologism, scientism, data fetishism, and commerce. He declared—correctly if rather dramatically—that “A culture is an internecine contest between alternative conceptions of the human.” And he, if I may be so blunt, came down on the side of writing, art, and Western cultural patrimony and against the forces who wish to strip, devalue, and denature same in the name of technological progress and efficiency.

Now, being as I have consistently declared myself an amateur and aficionado of such arty, literary, cultural-y things, I am sympathetic to Mr. Wieseltier’s arguments, although I do think he lays it on a bit thick in the straw man department. I also have reservations that his full-throated defense of writers and thinkers against the commoditization, devaluation, and impoverishment of a certain sort of careful, deeply informed thinking and writing by the forces triumphant of digital and social media is a bit overblown. For one thing, I would observe Mr. Wieseltier himself seems to have had no problem securing a soapbox at the paper of record for the liberal intelligentsia to spout his opinions, mere weeks after the implosion of his prior perch at The New Republic due to the machinations of the sort of technologist philistines he decries. Second, I utterly fail to see a shortage of intelligent, hardworking writers pontificating on important matters and sundry throughout the English speaking opinionsphere. It seems that everybody and his brother and his brother’s three-legged cat are scribbling as journalists, bloggers, opinion editors, MFA students, novelists, and nonfiction writers nowadays. When I walk into the ground floor of my local 50,000 square foot Barnes & Noble bookstore, I am not struck by any dearth of written material for my perusal, and the ground floor of my store is not filled with the works of dead white men (those are in the basement). Speaking as an acolyte of microeconomics (and a minor unpaid contributor to the general oversupply of published dreck), it strikes me that writers face a supply problem in the market for their wares, not a lack of demand. Maybe if writing weren’t so popular as a lifestyle choice, rather than an actual calling for a dedicated few (as it has been for most of recorded time), fewer professional writers would be bemoaning the parlous state of their bank accounts.

Be that as it may, Ms Culpepper takes issue with our Cultural Cassandra from another direction:
First, innovation presents new opportunities to define oneself for those that are willing to invest the time and effort. The same is true for society as a whole. That Wieseltier doesn’t want the character of society to be determined by engineers overlooks history. Feats of engineering have been a conduit for conversations about the public good and the ambitions of civilization from ancient Rome to NASA. I don’t understand the temptation to hold art or poetry above these endeavors. I would trade all the Jeff Koons in the world for a better understanding of what lies outside our solar system.

(Personally, I would be content to pack all of Jeff Koons’ art and the artist himself on a spaceship launched into the Sun for no counterbalancing intellectual recompense whatsoever. I’d even be willing to erase some string theory and most of Jacques Lacan’s drivel from the cultural patrimony for the privilege. Mais à chacun son goût.)

Second, most criticisms of technology are highly selective. Why is it that garbage media is the first thing people think of when they lament the invention of the smartphone? This is the same device that allows a trauma surgeon to know a patient’s statistics as he sprints to the operating room. Where’s the angst in that?
This is an excellent point. Technology is by definition a tool. And while tools are by definition teleological in nature, they are usually far more value neutral than we reflexively consider. A hammer can be used to build a prison, a library, or a church; a hammer can be used to repair a child’s dollhouse or murder an enemy. The same thing is true of digital media. While Ms Culpepper is no fan of modern journalism, she draws attention to the fact that current technology has enabled an enormous explosion in democratic access to ideas and information, a point Mr. Wieseltier concedes himself. And yet the same tools which enable on-demand, real time access to almost all of humanity’s accumulated knowledge to anyone are the same tools that let almost anyone produce and contribute to them at will, regardless of quality or credentials.

The sword of innovation almost always has (at least) two edges. It is up to the user to use the tool properly and deliberately, and to minimize the harm of unintended effects or negative outcomes.

* * *

More broadly speaking, I get the sense Mr. Wieseltier is fighting a rearguard action against change itself. He does not like the current technology, science, and economic triumphalism sweeping through Western society because it does not value—and it may actively harm—those things he holds most dear, the things he has spent his life learning, loving, and fighting to preserve. This is understandable, if only as human psychology, but it is not an argument. Change is natural. Change is ineluctable. Life is change.

I am not afraid of change, even if not all of it is for the better. Frankly, there are very few human societies—ours included—that couldn’t benefit from a little disruption. The opposite of technological change and disruption is stagnation and the ossification of socioeconomic power structures. Human beings are lazy. (Or, if you prefer a less pejorative characterization: humans naturally and quite sensibly conserve their own energy.) If something does not force us to change, we will not do so. It is too… disruptive. Internally and externally imposed disruption is what forces us, both as individuals and societies, to adapt and change to new circumstances and environments. And let us not kid ourselves: not all change is good, and very little good change is unalloyed with bad. Change, even when positive overall, is painful and annoying, and it often destroys things we hold most dear.

We must strike a balance here. We must neither champion change mindlessly nor suppress it willfully. Neither extreme is healthy, for change will come whether we want it or no, and change is dangerous, for we cannot see all ends. I have cited the maxim of Chesterton’s Fence before, which encourages reformers to educate themselves about the history and intent of social institutions before they decide to destroy them, as a bar to change for change’s sake. But conservatively minded people should heed its message, too: if you discover the purposes for which an institution were created no longer apply, or its effect has evolved into a positive impediment or harm to current objectives, it is incumbent upon you to destroy it also. Chesterton’s Fence is no bar to change or reform. It is a warning to manage change mindfully.

* * *

So far we have talked about intentional change, at the level of culture and society. But we must not forget that our intentions are guided in part by our predictions of the effects our changes will have. And, in this respect, our track record as a species is abysmal. It is a truism by now—or should be—that forecasts of the future are reliable only as a guide to what is most certain not to happen. Railways to the Moon, flying cars, sentient artificial intelligence, post-apocalyptic dystopia: none of these predictions, serious or semi-serious, over the past 100 years has come remotely true. Part of this must be due to our intellectual energy-conserving tendency (q.v. supra) to extrapolate the future from the confines of our current environment. A railway to the Moon was obvious. Nobody predicted Facebook.

But another part is due to our ignorance and blindness. We are ignorant of how major changes are incorporated into, adapted to, and create second and third order feedback effects within something as complex and changeable as a culture or society. We underestimate our own social and cultural inertia. We cannot foresee how human actions will affect our physical and natural environment, or how extra-human feedback effects will dampen or amplify our behavior to our benefit or detriment. We see but little of this even now, and that through a glass darkly. Finally, we forget just how small and insignificant we are in the scheme of things. I love wilderness and Nature as much as anyone, but I can’t help but laugh when I hear activists freak out about preserving spotted owl habitat, when neither human beings nor spotted owls existed for 99.9% of this planet’s physical existence. As if it matters in the context of the Cambrian Explosion, or the Permian Extinction, or the inevitable future subduction of virtually all evidence of human habitation on this planet into the Earth’s mantle.

Yes, Children: flowers wilt. Beauty fades. Human beings are born, grow up, age, and die. Societies and cultures do too. The Earth keeps spinning in her orbit, and the icy vacuum of space marches inexorably on toward… something. Change is inevitable. Not all of it is pleasant, but it has its beauty, too. Change gives an edge of poignancy to the things and people we love, because we know, if we are honest with ourselves, that these too shall pass. We can try to hold onto them, cling to them tightly and never let them go, but go they do. It is up to us to enjoy them, love them, appreciate them while they and we are here.

So with all due respect to Dylan Thomas and Leon Wieseltier, I would rather not rage, rage against the dying of the light. Instead, I’d like to sit down with a drink and a cigar and enjoy the sunset.

Related reading:
Kristi Culpepper, A Defense of Disruption as a Cultural Phenomenon: Responding to Leon Wieseltier (Medium, January 17, 2015)
Leon Wieseltier, Among the Disrupted (The New York Times, January 7, 2015)
Chesterton’s Fence (March 5, 2012)

© 2015 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Nerd Intersectionality

Are we having fun yet?
Infancy is not what it is cracked up to be. The child seems happy all the time to the adult, because the adult knows that the child is untouched by the real problems of life; if the adult were similarly untouched he is sure that he would be happy. But children, not knowing that they are having an easy time, have a good many hard times. Growing and learning and obeying the rules of their elders, of fighting against them, are not easy things to do. Adolescence is certainly far from a uniformly pleasant period. Early manhood might be the most glorious time of all were it not that the sheer excess of life and vigor gets a fellow into continual scrapes. Of middle age the best that can be said is that a middle aged person has likely learned how to have a little fun in spite of his troubles.

It is to old age that we look for reimbursement, the most of us. And most of us look in vain. For the most of us have been wrenched and racked, in one way or another, until old age is the most trying time of all.

— Don Marquis, “The Almost Perfect State

I was browsing the online portal for the My Emotional Wounds Are Bigger Than Your Emotional Wounds Victims’ Society1 this morning, O Dearly Beloved, when I encountered an essay by feminist firebrand Laurie Penny in which she took MIT Professor Scott Aaronson to task for justifying nerds’ insensitivity to male privilege in the technology industry. Notwithstanding some hyperbolic posturing about what Penny calls the “disaster of heterosexuality” [sic], it reads as a sensitive and revealing first person demolition of the notion that white male nerds faced some sort of unique hell growing up that can possibly justify their current behavior. I’ll let you go ahead and read it, if that’s your sort of thing.

If it is not, or you are back already, I would prefer to direct you to an earlier essay by computer nerd Pete Warden, cited approvingly by Penny and unfamiliar to me until now. In his essay, Warden, a die-hard, early adopter hacker type übernerd, correctly points out (in inimitable nerd fashion) that technology nerds, far from being the underdogs they so painfully remember being in their adolescence, are now Kings of the Hill:
We’re still behaving like the rebel alliance, but now we’re the Empire.
This is spot on. But then Warden goes and ruins the ride when he corrects Marc Andreessen’s assertion that nerds and bros are natural enemies with this:
Sure, we used to be picked on or ignored by the bro’s, but that was when we had no money or power. Now we have status, bro’s are happy to treat us as buddies instead of victims, to the point that we’re unlikely to think of them as bro’s. I’ve pitched most VC firms in the Valley at one time or another, and a lot of the partners come from business or finance backgrounds. There are nerds in there too of course, and they do control the culture, but they also get along perfectly well with the preppy MBAs. The same holds true across the whole tech industry – they might have tried to steal our lunch money twenty years ago, but now they’re quite happy running biz-dev while we do the engineering.
This is very muddled thinking as well as remarkably tone deaf observation as to what and who constitutes a “nerd” and a “bro” and the differences between them. But what should one expect from a nerd?2

* * *

Mr. Warden seems to identify the venture capitalists (“VCs”) and business development (“biz-dev”) colleagues he interacts with as bros because they have business or finance backgrounds, MBA degrees, and/or wear “preppy” clothes. This is just dumb. I have met a number of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and BD personnel over the years, and I can tell you from personal experience most of them would only come across as bros to someone who lives in a basement cave and thinks real women look and dress like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. These people are as nerdy as they come. Sure, they prefer to geek out over cash flow statements and Definitive Purchase Agreements rather than hexadecimal code and API protocols, but geek out they do. They are just as scary smart, obsessive compulsive, and single minded as any computer hacker/programmer, and they tend to have the same awkward social skills as everyone else on the Asperger Syndrome spectrum they share with Mr. Warden and his peers. To the casual observer they may look and dress the same as a B– average fraternity brother from a state school, but they didn’t earn summa cum laude economics degrees from Stanford or the Ivy League, get Baker Scholarships at Harvard Business School, and claw their way into a partnership on Sand Hill Road from Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs because they liked to drink beer and flick bottle tops at computer science majors from the porch of their frat house.

Successful venture capitalists, private equity professionals, hedge fund managers, and investment bankers are as nerdy as they come. I mean, please: look at John Doerr, David Bonderman, Bill Ackman, and Lloyd Blankfein, for chrissakes. Those were the kids the football team beat up for lunch money in high school. Apart from shorter haircuts, plaid shirts, and an unfortunate predilection for chinos as casual wear, financial professionals share remarkably few of the features of true bro culture. In fact, you’re much more likely to find them running an ultramarathon or climbing Machu Picchu in their spare time than eating nachos on the couch in front of a football game. They are weird, they are driven, and they are the same awkward misfits who spent Saturday nights in high school doing extra credit calculus problem sets while the popular kids went out to drink beer and try to get laid. That is what I did, and I guarantee you it is what most of my colleagues and counterparts did too.

Now as is the case for all such qualities (and inconveniently for our current cultural obsession with identity politics), nerd-ness and bro-ness do not fall neatly within clearly identified boundaries of specified human communities. There are individual variations, there are community sub-groupings, and there are temporarily adopted behaviors that blur the picture. Within investment banking, for example, the tendency toward bro-ness tends to be larger in the capital markets division and, within that grouping, most strong among salesmen and traders. These are often the closest you will find to the backslapping, hail-fellow-well-met stereotype of good looking, easygoing bros who would be happy to watch football on TV instead of running another ultramarathon with that nut job client Ted from Citadel. But these folks have good degrees and sharp intelligence and nontraditional pastimes, too. The days of the high school graduate or C student on the trading floor are long gone. You’ll also find derivatives structurers within large bank capital markets divisions who I wager even Messrs. Warden and Andreessen would have a hard time differentiating from hardcore hackers and computer geeks. That is because that is exactly what they are, or were, before they donned the button-down and chinos uniform of their chosen career.

There is also, at junior levels, a lot of bro-ish posturing done by male investment bankers early in their careers when they are young, single, and so overworked they couldn’t spend all the money they make if they tried. In the boom years before the Crash, this often manifested itself in the desire to live the “models and bottles” lifestyle, where 23- and 24-year-old men went hunting for pretty women and expensive booze and mostly made obnoxious fools of themselves instead. (Of course that lifestyle—or, rather, the aspiration to that lifestyle which mostly generated exaggerated stories and outright lies—is long gone.) It still takes the form of the aggressive one-upmanship and macho dick measuring3 junior bankers haze each other with when they feel insecure, which is almost always. You only have to overhear this once, however, to realize it is nothing more than a bunch of awkward, self-conscious nerds who didn’t get laid enough in high school desperately trying to convince each other they did.

Of course, for some of us, this never changes.

* * *

Stepping back a little, I think I can assert without meaningful contradiction that, far from being limited to nerds or geeks or some other subculture, having a traumatic adolescence is almost universal. Everybody who makes their way through high school is, in some more or less meaningful way, faking it. Everybody wants to belong, be liked, fit in, and be popular. Everybody. It is human nature at that age, when we are still trying to define who we are. Why shouldn’t we look to our peers and popular culture for affirmation? But very few of us get it, to our satisfaction, so we channel our energy and ambition and hurt into schoolwork, or programming, or geeky hobbies instead. And many of us turn that sublimated effort into meaningful careers in geeky, nerdy fields like technology or finance, and find ourselves many years later, grown up, to be the socioeconomic successes we never dreamed we could be when we looked longingly at the cheerleaders and football players we could never have or be.

There is no cure for adolescence but to grow up. There is, however, a cure for adolescent trauma: get over it. And don’t use it as an excuse to oppress or traumatize others.

Unless, of course, you are Carl Icahn.

Related reading:
Laurie Penny, On Nerd Entitlement (New Statesman, December 29, 2014)
Pete Warden, Why nerd culture must die (Pete Warden’s Blog, October 5, 2014)
Taxonomy (January 14, 2007)

1 Also known as the internet.
2 Please, before you embarrass yourself, let me stop you before you argue there are very specific definitions for terms such as “nerd,” “geek,” “bro,” and the like. Really? You want to go there? Trust me: you don’t. Go back to arguing about lightsaber construction methods on the Star Wars wiki instead.
3 About pivot tables in Excel and PowerPoint formatting, no less. I ask you.

© 2015 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Morning After

Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey
Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624
There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle.

The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there’s good cheer among the guests,
He cocks an ear at all the jests
and laughs until he chokes.

They also keep a horned cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale,
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green.

And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons!
For Sunday there’s a special pair,
And these they polish up with care
on Saturday afternoons.

The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
and the cat began to wail;
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced,
and the little dog chased his tail.

The Man in the Moon took another mug,
and then rolled beneath his chair;
And there he dozed and dreamed of ale,
Till in the sky the stars were pale,
and dawn was in the air.

Then the ostler said to his tipsy cat:
“The white horses of the Moon,
They neigh and champ their silver bits;
But their master’s been and drowned his wits,
and the Sun’ll be rising soon!”

So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,
a jig that would wake the dead:
He squeaked and sawed and quickened the tune,
While the landlord shook the Man in the Moon:
“It’s after three!” he said.

They rolled the Man slowly up the hill
and bundled him into the Moon,
While his horses galloped up in rear,
And the cow came capering like a deer,
and a dish ran up with the spoon.

Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-diddle;
the dog began to roar,
The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
The guests all bounded from their beds
and danced upon the floor.

With a ping and a pong the fiddle-strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon.

The round Moon rolled behind the hill
as the Sun raised up her head.
She hardly believed her fiery eyes;
For though it was day, to her surprise
they all went back to bed!

— J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

Happy 2015. May your new year be a pleasant, safe, and prosperous one.

© 2015 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.