Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two Poems about Father: a comparison

I am reading Helen Vendler's introductory text "Poems, Poets, Poetry". It is my belief that every poet needs an anthology, and this one has the added benefit of having Helen's clear instruction woven throughout. The opening chapter includes several poems exploring the relationship between child and father and I was struck by the difference between two of them.

The first is by Robert Hayden entitled "Those Winter Sundays":

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? 

Notice the incredible economy of language. The "too" in the line "Sundays too my father got up early" implies that his father gets up early *every* day, not just on Sunday. That one word changes the description of his father's early rising significantly, from something exceptional to something routine. It's the end of the first line, and I already have a rich portrait of his father's character. 

The emotional tension in the poem comes from the poet's two contrasting perspectives on his father. At the time he is writing about, the poet had a cold relationship with his father, "speaking indifferently to him" and "fearing the chronic angers of that house". But looking back in retrospective, the poet realizes the strength of the love shown by his father's labors for the family's comfort, waking up early to heat the house. "No one ever thanked" his father at the time, and now that the poet recognizes his father's love he regrets not having the opportunity to give thanks.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I don't like this poem near as much. The opening stanza is one of the best *sounding* stanzas in all poetry, and the poem is rightfully remembered as a classic due to the incredible consonance, assonance, and rhyme. 

But in comparison to the intimacy of the first poem, this one is very abstract. It ends with the author's reaction to his father's dying days, but in the middle it detours to discuss "men" in general facing death (wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men). The resulting poem feels a lot less genuine, more contrived. And the imagery is hard to parse - "Because their words had forked no lightning"  is opaque, and lazy. There is no thematic unity to the images chosen, each stanza is disjoint: lightning, a green bay, catching the sun and singing(?!) it, meteors, a sad height. It is as if Thomas came up with two brilliant lines for the refrain and then phoned it in. 

This illustrates how poems can be great in different ways. Robert Hayden paints a vivid intimate, personal narrative that portrays the change in his emotional relationship to his father over time. Dylan Thomas makes some of the most musical lines in all poetry. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

At Horse-Shoe Lake (Sonnet 1)

I left the cities far behind, up road
of twisting tight parameters. 'round hills
until I found at Horse-Shoe Lake, a still
and quiet place - a lookout, high and oaked.
There, cradled soft in warming wind, with gold
bespeckled fingers sunlight soothed my aches,
unknotted worried thoughts. Now I awake
to nature's sights - and blinking eyes behold:
The ant forages through valley and mountain,
A Spider raises lofty scaffold heights,
and bumble bee each flower makes accounting.
A mallard convoy sails from harbor sites,
The thrushes keep their relay stations sounding,
and water waves glimmer like Hong Kong lights.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Time Value of Experience

I owe credit to New Zealand entrepreneur Michael Moore-Jones for creating and introducing me to the concept of the time value of experience. It's a riff off the economic concept of the time value of money, which asserts that a dollar that I receive today is more valuable than a dollar that I receive at some day in the future. This is true because I could put the dollar to work in the meantime - at the very least I can earn interest on it! That's why people have to pay for the privilege of borrowing your dollars even if they promise to give back the same amount of dollars in the future. Future dollars are less valuable than present dollars.

The time value of experience says that wisdom gained today is more valuable than wisdom gained at some point in the future. I can use that wisdom in the meantime to make better decisions; in a sense it pays me interest. This suggests a heuristic method for making life decisions that is very risk-seeking - gain as many experiences as you can right now. Start that business, write that book, join that cause. Don't wait until it's safer or your life circumstances are better. If you hesitate, you'll miss out on the compounding wisdom that you could have been earning in the meantime.

Read the whole thing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On Practice

A life philosophy is useless if it doesn't have a training regimen. Habits and desires are powerful. They nearly always win in a battle with will-power. That is why New Year Resolutions are notorious for petering out after a month or so. Inertia is the default condition of the human race.

Professional athletes need to put themselves through a brutal training regimen. None of them could do it on their own in their rookie season. So they have coaches and camaraderie to push them through it. But over the years, the hard training becomes habit. Veterans like Kevin Garnett practice in the off-season automatically, without questioning it or thinking about it. It's part of who they are.

If you want to successfully adopt new principles and behaviors into your life, you need to get them into you deeper than the brain level - down into your guts, your instincts. You need practice to train your  habits and your emotions. The first step towards being 100 pounds thinner or a marathon runner or an elite hacker is to change your self-beliefs. You surround yourself with people you want to be like and you take the first small steps along the path until you see yourself as one of them.

Religions know the importance of practice and use it. Christians are taught that they should be in control over their physical desires. But instruction doesn't stop at the end of church services. To help them practice restraint, they have the tradition of Lent. For 40 days in the Spring they give up some pleasurable activity that they normally enjoy. Rather than being a burden, Lent is popular - even in Christian sects where it is not required and among secular people!

The will is weak. It needs every help it can get. When you become convinced that a change in your life is necessary, don't stop at the stage of mental belief. Ask yourself, how am I going to practice this? How am I going to convince my subconscious, my heart? How can I form a support community? How can I get this change into my self-conception?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Book List - 2012

What I've read so far this year. I rated each book according to the standards of its own genre. 5/5 means that everyone who enjoys the genre should read this. 3/5 has flaws, balanced by virtues. 1s and 2s aren't worth your time, but 2s have some redeeming qualities.

  1. Confidence Men - Ron Suskind (4/5). A behind the scenes look at the first two years of the Obama White House. Caused major revision of my idea of the working of a presidential administration. 
  2. A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin (5/5). The best fantasy novel I can remember. Martin creates a dense, dark, compelling world drawing heavy inspiration from historical sources. 
  3. A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin (4/5)
  4. A Storm of Swords - George R.R. Martin (4/5)
  5. The Great Divorce - C.S. Lewis (4/5). A man travels to the after life, and C.S. Lewis uses the story to highlight some of the more beautiful concepts of Christian theology. 
  6. The Abolition of Man - C.S. Lewis (3/5). Some good points and nice phrases, but ultimately the essay is limited by its structure as a critique and rebuttal of an absent textbook. 
  7. Paradise Lost - John Milton. Only a fool would rate one of the great classics of English literature on a 5 point scale. A dense, epic narration of the story of the fall of man characterized by unforgettable imagery and immortal lines. A tough read for a modern with limited attention span. 
  8. Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely (3/5). A gentle introduction to Behavioral Economics. The book could use a bit more of a backbone. Most of it is recitation of experimental results in a pleasing informal style. It is at its most interesting in the rare moments when Ariely dares to wax philosophical about the implications of BE.  
  9. How the Irish saved civilization - Thomas Cahill (5/5). A surprising delight. My favorite book of the year so far. Anyone interested in Roman, Medieval, Irish, or church history should pick this up
  10. The Peace War - Vernor Vinge (3/5)
  11. Marooned in Real Time - Vernor Vinge (4/5). These two Vinge books form a series. The second is a murder mystery set 50 million years in the future that grapples with Vinge's theories surrounding the exponential increase of prosperity and the resultant singularity. The first is a decent setup for the second. 
  12. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (4/5). Twilight meets Enders Game. The most brutal Young Adult novel I know of. 
  13. Girl on Fire - Suzanne Collins (2/5). Book 2 in the Hunger Games trilogy. The quality falls off, but  you can keep on reading if you loved the first one.  
  14. Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins (2/5). Book 3 of the Hunger Games trilogy.

Actively in process:
  1. The Bible - New International Version. I've never read it all the way through. It's fascinating to read it and realize how different the ancient values and worldview of the Israelites are from our own.  
  2. The Four Hour Work Week - Tim Ferris.
  3. Songs of Innocence and of Experience - William Blake
  4. Confessions - St. Augustine 
  5. Ecce Homo - Friedrich Nietzsche
  6. The Innovator's Dilema -  Clayton Christensen

Monday, April 9, 2012

Linguistic Interlude

"Confession" is a strange word. It has two distinct meanings:

1) An admission of personal guilt for some evil act.

2) A humble, even self-effacing, but resolute and implacable declaration of belief. Often used in a religious setting, i.e. "to confess one's faith in God".

The second definition borrows the feeling from the first one - the deflated spirit of the guilty admitting his guilt, his shamefulness in the eyes of the world. But the two definitions have very different substance. In the second meaning, personal humility cloaks immense pride in some other thing. It is an irony contained in a single word.

English is a tricky language.

Don't be a Warrior

Do not think of yourself as a warrior or imagine that the world is filled with enemies. It is too easy for the young soldier to declare war on the wrong target - it is surprisingly difficult to choose the right ones. Many intelligent and honest people find themselves on opposite sides of pitched battles. Frequently they even switch sides as they grow older, fighting ferociously for the position which their younger selves abhored.  

Even if you win your war, you may find that the evils caused by the excess of some thing give way to new problems caused by its deficit. 

Furthermore, the warrior is not an effective agent of change. The very nature of war is to divide people into allies and foes. An attack generates its own enemies, polarizing neutral bystanders into opposing camps. 

Rather than be a warrior, be a builder. Tell a story that appeals to the universal values cherished by human hearts. Synthesize opposing viewpoints into a new worldview that unites former enemies. A fresh story has no enemies and it spreads without resistance, like a fire through dry grass.

In all the teachings of Jesus, he spared hardly a word for the pagan religion of Rome that his religion would replace. He was not on a mission to tear down the old world, but to build a new one. His story of hope, love, and deliverance appealed to Romans surrounded by a brutal and capricious reality. As a builder, he was far more effective than any warrior. The humane, egalitarian ethic introduced by Jesus is still a potent force in the world 2,000 years later. 

That is why my I no longer think of my political activity in martial terms like a "warrior for liberty" or a "patriot". I grow tired of the eternal war between libertarian, socialist, progressive, and conservative. As I mature, I recognized the good motives and valid points of my former enemies. Instead of fighting old wars I'm focusing on building new viewpoints which can help people from all political ideologies create a better world. 

My current attempt is Structuralism. I used to call it "Structural Libertarianism", but I realized that the structuralist ideas are useful for everyone, not just libertarians. By using the term "libertarian" I imported the old conflicts as if I'm so used to fighting that I forgot how to live in peacetime. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Charter Cities and Government Innovation

The government industry is stagnant. There are few new service providers. When a new provider of government services comes into existence, it is almost always carefully constructed by existing government entities such as the United States government or the United Nations (see Iraq and Afghanistan). 

In other industries, technological progress is made when entrepreneurs with ideas for beneficial innovation try them out. They either succeed and see their ideas have a large impact on their industry or they fail and their failed ideas dissapear. In government, there is no chance for this Darwinian process to play out. That is why structuralists support more entry into the government industry through vehicles like Seasteading and Charter cities. 

Paul Romer is pioneering the effort to make charter cities a reality. A descriptive motto for this movement would be "Let a thousand Hong Kongs bloom". Honduras has already amended their constitution to allow for land grants for the establishment of charter cities administered by outside government agencies. 

In the short term, charter cities face the barier of legitimacy. It is vital that one of the early experiments in Honduras succeed and demonstrate the value of good, agile governance. Only then can charter cities spread across the world, bringing good governance to those who badly need it. 

Charter cities can bring ideas from the best systems of government today to citizens of the third world who are by and large stuck with ineffective, counter-productive governments. City-states like Hong Kong and Singapore that combine a high standard of living with some of the lowest taxes in the world provide obvious inspiration. 

But charter cities can do more than spread the best systems of government we have today. They allow for entrepreneurs to push the envelope and push forward the state of the art in government technology. 

For example, one of the flaws in the American system of government is that the government judges whether or not its own actions are legal as defined by the Constitution, a clear conflict of interest! Nominally, the courts are separated from the other branches of government. But the other branches have pressured the courts from time to time. And due to the doctrine of stare decisis, bad court decisions can hold the power of law for centuries. Over time, this has led to court decisions which give the government more and more power while gradually narrowing the scope of the Constitutional limits which  are supposed to protect citizens from overreaching government.

What does this have to do with charter cities? A yet to be released paper by Tom Bell convinced me that charter cities could be the first sovreign entities with truly independent judiciaries. Right now, all states provide their own courts. But a charter city can contract out the court system to one or several independent arbitration corporations. The city could publish a list of arbitrators they are willing to use, and citizens could sue the city in any of those courts. The city might still have more power to influence  judges than the average citizen, but with a layer of organizational distance between the state and the courts and a system of competition, citizens might expect more fair trials on average. 

So charter cities can help solve one problem that leads to long term instability in tradional states: the difficulty of precommitting to limit state power and abide by a charter. All states drift towards absolute power over time, punctuated by sudden, violent resets. Charter cities will be better at credibly binding their own hands. This will attract business investment by executives who will appreciate the stability and save the state the administrative burden of building their own court system.