Girl Power

The other day a senior White House official, Kelly Sadler, made a comment about ailing Sen. McCain: “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Sadler was referring to McCain’s advanced cancer in the context of his opposition and thus a possible ‘no’ vote on a confirmation of another woman of questionable morals, Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director. One wonders: how can a public official or just any human being display such a lack of basic decency? What is it that has the capacity to make us into such assholes?

A moment of self-reflection brought back the memories of my early days on Wall Street. Back in a heyday, long before the shit hit the fan, there was a feature in the mortgage bonds called ‘prepayment penalty.’ Prepayment risk was one of the several risks of holding a mortgage bond. Still innocent about the ways of Wall Street, I couldn’t initially grasp what exactly was the problem when the borrower pays off the mortgage early. I was quickly disabused of my naivete by a shrewd and seasoned co-worker: that risk meant that a bondholder would have to reinvest that money at a different, probably lower rate. So naturally, the bondholders wanted to get compensated for carrying that risk. Thus Wall Street, he enlightened me, came up with a brilliant solution: prepayment penalty paid by the borrower. With this observation he accomplished two things: he revealed how the real world works, and how still unprepared I was for being a player in that world. As this new piece of info sinked in, I gazed upon the buzzing trading floor in embarrassment at my own inadequacy: these were all killers and I didn’t think like a killer.  This is how you were supposed to think: if a borrower is late on his mortgage – he pays a penalty; if he’s early – he still pays a penalty. You get to write these rules, you get a chicken for dinner every time. It’s almost like these masters of the universe WANTED the unwitting borrower to make a mistake; no, worse – in a cruel twist they also wanted to punish him for a prudent individual conduct. Why? Because this way they collect more fees. Of course, this industry would soon forget how it sought to punish a borrower for his attempt at paying off his debts and would blame the whole thing on him being a shiftless deadbeat. But that reckoning was still years away. At that moment, I was determined to become a killer like them.

Where am I going with this? Once I learned about this clever mechanism I didn’t feel outraged. It didn’t cause any internal conflict. What it produced instead was a self-satisfied chuckle, a realization that I was on the other, winning, side of this trade. It felt like an initiation into a special club. That it was I who, directly or indirectly, stood to benefit from all those poor schmucks who played by the rules written by ‘us’. Yes, at that point I have considered myself to belong to ‘Us’, the winners. I mean I was smart and worked 14-hour days and took plenty of abuse to get there, so, surely, I deserved it. In a set up like this it was just a matter of time before a disparaging word or a caustic comment towards the losers would slip off the tip of my tongue. I became a good cog.

Women like Kelly Sadler – also a good, loyal cog, blond and pretty and useful to the regime in many capacities, are often predisposed to not understand a toxic dynamic happening before her eyes, because her current status and a future lobbying career depend on not understanding it. She can smell that power the way I could smell that money.

The moment of initiation into a special exclusive club is the moment you lose your internal moral compass. Grateful of the rare privilege you want to prove being worthy of the membership. In the company of powerful men the misfortunes of the distant others is an odd topic to bring up. At best it will create suspicion about you having the right qualifications, about you having an understanding of the mission at hand. At worse, you’ll risk expulsion. Smart club administrators seek to invite new members from humble origins, minorities, women. They know those will be the best, most ruthless and most dedicated defenders of the club’s mission. The sense of belonging, of a need to belong, will trump the sense of right and wrong in most people most of the time. And indeed, throughout the history, women, especially white, privileged women, have been the loyal foot soldiers and defenders of the worst atrocities.

Kelly Sadler’s comment, put in that context, is a logical and totally predictable occurrence. She wasn’t thinking about McCain, or his family or even about how this will sound, should it ever come out, to an outside public. All she did was channel what everyone in that room was thinking. Judging by those standards she’s proved worthy of the membership.

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Cross-Country Move

Sooner or later a time comes in a life of an East Coast dweller when she contemplates a move West. After nearly twenty years in New York that time has come for me. I will avoid writing an almost obligatory ‘Goodbye to All That’ NYC-to-LA type essay, as everything has been said before me and I will not add anything new to the topic.

A road trip was not our first choice, but we couldn’t find an RV company that rents one-way and I didn’t want to fly with the cat (and other items that could not be brought on the plane or flushed down the toilet). A trip like this is something that people do in their 20s. But since I’ve never done it then, perhaps, now was the chance. After solving multiple logistical puzzles, we sent our two sedans West on a trailer and rented an SUV so we could fit a few things and a Kitty’s litter box in the back. Crossed this off my bucket list.

The whole trip took 4 days and 3 nights. Day 1: PA, OH, IN. Day 2: IL, MO, OK. Day 3: TX, NM, AZ. Day 4: CA.

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A Deconstruction of a Typical WSJ Article

“The bullshit piled up so high in Vietnam you needed wings to stay above it.” Apocalypse Now

I’m travelling, so at breakfast at the hotel I picked up a recent copy of Wall Street Journal.

The beauty of not reading WSJ regularly is that your bullshit radar, weaned off of daily exposure to it,  regains its sensitivity. You open a ‘Markets’ section and bullshit jumps at you, offending all your senses.

I see a headline: “Another Danger of Rising Wages” by Justin Lahart. (The online version says “The Other Risk from Rising Wages.”)

If you don’t have access, no worries: I’ll be dissecting almost every sentence in the article.

The author’s major lament is that in current tight labor market the wages might rise, although he’s not sure whether or not this will lead to inflation. Today, he’s more worried about tight labor market leading to lower stock prices. Notice how right out of the gate, in a typical WSJ fashion, more concern is given to investors and markets than the wage schmucks. “A Danger” of rising wages. God forbid.

But there are ways to deal with this danger.

“One way wages could rise without inflation running hotter is if productivity picks up. This would be a good thing.” Good thing for who? He explains: “the more productive the economy is, the better off everybody can be.” Translation: If before you worked 10 hours a day for $11/hour, then if you now work 12 hours a day for the same $11/hour – you’re better off. See, it’s good for you to work more hours.

“And there is some hope that productivity growth, which has been woefully weak, kicks in as companies step up capital spending to combat rising labor costs.” Think about this for a moment: the productivity will grow, this guy argues, if companies spend money NOT on labor costs, but on COMBATING labor costs. Spend cash on devising remedies that make workers work harder for less and you won’t have to spend cash on wages!! Watch and learn, MBAs.

But there’s a problem with this approach though. You see, he then points out, “The problem is that investment in productivity won’t translate into productivity gains for a while.” Aawww! 😦 There’s a time-lapse between implementing those remedies and workers working harder.

“The other way wages can rise without inflation picking up is if companies eat their rising labor costs (wait, is there a remote possibility of redemption here? KG) – a scenario investors probably wouldn’t like.” (Oh, nevermind. Let’s not forget about the investors. KG). “Profit margins are near historic highs and are expected to go higher as a result of the tax cut, but more of that money than investors expect could be going to paychecks instead of earnings.” (OMG! The Horror! The Horror!)

“That wouldn’t be surprising. Inflation has been so low for so long, (btw, does this casual confession mean that WSJ will now rescind a decade of hysterical articles about the lurking inflation? KG) consumers have become conditioned to it, making it harder for companies to raise prices without losing customers.” Being a company is hard. Fucking workers demand a higher salary, fucking consumers are a bunch of flaky brats. Hey, maybe you should close up shop then? Oh, I forgot: Your fucking profit margins are near historic highs and are expected to go higher.

He concludes: “This might work out fine for everyone if low inflation kept the Fed from tightening aggressively. But with wages rising, the Fed will at least keep to its current path of rate increases. The result would be lower profit margins and higher rates – not exactly the stuff of investor dreams.” Yes, the investors dreams – that sacred ideal on which a civic society is built.

This mindset is so emblematic of our skewed priorities: We are asked to serve the market. We are the cogs and ‘the Market’ and ‘the Investor’ are supreme beings whose interests are more important that a working stiff’s to the point where companies are willing to spend money to PREVENT the working stiff from getting a decent wage.

 

 

Eagles Win

It was heart, not brains that fueled massive celebrations last night in Philly after Eagles win. It was the same kind of heart that makes people go to Times Square on NYE at freezing temperatures.  Perhaps it was the same kind of irrationality that made people pull the lever for Trump. It defies rational analysis. People climbed poles that have been greased and turned over cars. Why? If you asked them they would holler ecstatically and incoherently in your face but would not give you an answer. Any verbal means of expression would feel awfully inadequate under that unique circumstance.

Eric Hoffer in his book ‘The True Believer’ dissects the above sentiment to its basic elements. Human irrationality and passions are a phenomenon with a much bigger political and social implications than we, especially on the left, are willing to assign to it. He points out many culprits, but central of them all is the desire to belong to a cause, often combined with the lack of other channels of expression for one’s personal passions.

To express oneself with words, the kind of words that will telegraph one’s personal sentiments with 100% precision is a skill that takes time to learn and practice. It would be a big ask of a rough-and-tumble, starved for victory blue collar Philly crowd. It is this inability to express oneself that manifests itself in physical form during significant political or social events.

I saw the amount of pent up energy being released yesterday that would put to shame any other march or celebration that I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen a lot. Obama victory in 2008 comes close, and I still remember and relish that magic and camaraderie in the air, but it does not come nowhere near to a high-octane, visceral, shambolic riot (“a Russian riot – senseless and ruthless”) of a first ever Super Bowl win.

If I had to pick one defining characteristic to describe a sports fan whose drought has been broken? A lack of irony. A lack of irony expressed in the irrational. I like that. It’s pure art. A good piece of art lacks irony. To be ironic is to be unsure about the resulting effect on the audience, thus deploying irony as a shield against a possible misunderstanding. Why should I then take such an artist or an author or a person at his word?

Those riff-raff on the streets last night, climbing greased poles, turning cars and eating horse manure? Oh, there was zero irony there. It was beautiful. It was like winning WWII. It was beautiful because it was driven by heart and defied any classification and any explanation. I watched the spectacle from my apartment trying to find appropriate words. It was a tall order, even though I spent years perfecting my writing skills – a pastime that teaches you descriptive rigor, which in turn teaches you things about yourself. (One of the side effects of this process was the realization that I dislike Russian rock music. Because, you guessed it, it’s ironic.) But I digress. To ask that euphoric mob ‘how do you feel’ would be to insult them. That would be asking them to use a medium of expression that lacks adequate conducive qualities.

Mining that irrationality of the crowd is a skill currently perfected by hucksters. It is used to sell us stuff and make us vote for conmen. Can Democrats relearn to harness those forces for the common good next November?

#Screenwriting #Offtopic

As a beginning writer you write ‘by the book’, with an ‘exciting accident’ happening in the first 10 pages, with midpoint ‘elevation’ and ‘all is lost’, etc. Because of that structure demand is why we get endless films where we know what happens next, while Hollywood is still wrecking their brains trying to figure out why people stop going to the movies.

But then look at a few movies/series that have broken the mold and became iconic in their own way: The Room – the worst movie ever made; The Big Lebowsky – unconventional; Twin Peaks – incomprehensible, self-indulgent. I almost want to read a hypothetical review of The Big Lebowsky’s script if the writer wasn’t Coen Brothers but some no-name: “The main protagonist is missing a goal and thus lacks a development arc. It’s a meandering script in need of a more a solid structure and conflict elevation. What propels him to act?” Fuck! Can people be propelled to act by lesser stakes than the world coming to an end or having an incurable cancer? But as soon as you, keeping with the industry demands, come up with a fantastical, contrived set-up they are ready to throw another complaint: the character is not relatable enough. So, if the first 10 pages have to grip you, a generic industry gatekeeper says, someone has to be assassinated on page 2 or a nuclear warhead has to be stolen; AND it has to introduce an average guy, preferably an accountant, but who nonetheless possesses special skills and can stop the coming mayhem. That’s what the prevailing structure, the modern script conventions are asking us to write. That’s how we get crap scripts and crap movies.

But back to unconventional scripts: Imagine that all of those films were written and/or directed by a woman. Imagine bringing a script that features a backward-talking character that is neither dead or alive (Twin Peaks) to a studio reader. You’d be accused of inhaling too much cat urine to be writing something so incoherent and self-indulgent. The use of allusions and obscure references is like an inside joke – only select few are allowed to use it. Maybe I’m missing something but please name a movie or a script by a woman where she employs a passing reference to some obscure cultural phenomenon. I can’t think of any, but I don’t think that’s because she wouldn’t think of one. It’s because she doesn’t want to risk it. So we see women directors avoiding the designation of ‘crazy cat lady’ by making movies about ‘relationships’, or ‘you go girl’-types – straightforward, unambiguous topics that gatekeepers and critics can delight in and eventually greenlight. Kathryn Bigelow found another foolproof way to make it as a director – make movies about war. Another topic lacking ambiguity (war is bad) and thus a reliable vehicle to build a career as a female director.

But hey, if that’s what it takes to break through… If that’s what will pave the way for my mushroom-induced stream of consciousness to be brought to a screen near you, then, hell, I’ll take it. Maybe at some point there will even be a movie about a movie with James Franco in it.

A Trader Learns About the Universe

If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.

Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.

Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.

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Beauty after the rain on a random drive.

Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.

Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.

That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.

Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.

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Atlantic City, inviting to contemplation.

So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?

The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.

In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)

But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.

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Abandoned Railway in Philly

If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.

But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?

I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.

Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.

So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.

I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?