The Black Swans of Butler

My forthcoming memoir of my first season in a March Madness pool will be called Bracket Virgin: How I Bet and Lost a Bundle on a Bunch of Schools I Never Even Heard Of, And Just Where the Hell is Murray State, Anyway?

Anyway, I never fully understood the scoring in my pool, but I’m told I  finished fourth, just out of the money, thanks to the inexplicable collapse of Kentucky, whom my friend the FabSage, a man who has devoted literally years of his life to the pseudo-scientific study of such things, told me to pick. But we’ll get ’em next year.

As  Butler  prepares for their first-ever Final Four this weekend, it strikes me that they’re a great example of what the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. As Taleb explains,

What we call here a Black Swan is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. . . .  A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.

Isn’t that Butler to a T?

Outlier? You betcha. They’re about the outlyingest outliers you can find, given that a scant 1.3% of bracketologists picked them in the big CBS pool.

Extreme impact? Didn’t you hear all those brackets being ripped up all over the country?

And how about the ex post facto concoction of reasons why it all makes sense that Butler is in? Check these 9 Reasons why those Bulldogs will take it all.

And Go Swans!

Picture This: A Clutter Cure?

Not the author, but close


A NY Times piece here returns me to the perennial matter of getting organized, staying organized, and why it matters.

Key quote:

“For most people, the more you have, the more the meaning of any one piece is degraded.”

Man, is that ever true.

In my office I have perhaps a dozen pieces of art and mementos that always give me a positive charge when I look at them–a great charcoal sketch of Mark Twain, a couple of award plaques, a beautiful photo of our then-six year old daughter as a flower girl, a framed ticket from last year’s World Series, a haunting black-and-white photo of Lower Manhattan with the Twin Towers looming up behind the Brooklyn Bridge.

Unfortunately, these delights fight  for attention with dozens of other visual distractions–jars containing pens that may or may not write, stacks of CDs I rarely listen to, an unopened  package of floppy disks, for God’s sake, a menu from a restaurant that closed ten years ago,  the last five Father’s Day cards I received,  a corner filled with electronic flotsam from my days as a tech writer–what was Slot Radio, anyway?–and of course hundreds and hundreds of books, mostly cheap paperbacks I collected 20 or 30 years ago, many of them unopened since.

Now I’d put my library up against any private collection, he boasted. I’ve got the foundational books from a dozen fields, most of the 20th Century’s great American fiction, and scores of books that  carry great sentimental value for me. A couple of times a week I look up at a shelf containing the first “grownup” books I ever read:  a brightly illustrated copy of Huckleberry Finn with one of those plasticky-laquered covers and a now-browning  volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (my parents subscribed) containing Douglas Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.

I still remember reading both these books  around the age of nine or ten, bewildered by Twain’s backwoods and “Negro” dialect (“So I crep’ to de doh pooty late one night. . .”). I was so young I  simply couldn’t understand why Joe Hardy, after Applegate makes him the greatest baseball player in the world, wanted to waste time sitting around with this Lola girl instead of being with the team where he belonged. What was wrong with him?

Looking at those books keeps those memories green, I suppose. So do my tattered copies  of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, which I read obsessively my eighth-grade year, concealing them behind my English grammar text while the rest of the class learned how to diagram sentences. I still don’t know where to put the participles and prepositions, but I think I got the best of the deal.

But the Mature Voice of Reason breaks in.

MVR: That’s all very nice, but these remnants of childhood are now choking your office. You need to leave the past in the past.

Me: But I like the past. Like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever, it sleeps well.

MVR:  OK, where’d you get that line? Another old book?

Me:  Yes.  Bertrand Russell’s great essay, “A Free Man’s Worship.” It’s in that college lit anthology, third shelf, far right.

MVR: And when’s the last time you read the whole thing?

Me: Uh, probably 1990 or so.

MVR: And it’s been taking up space every day since then.

Me: Yes, but I just plucked it down, and check this gorgeous graph:

This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.

MVR: Pretty stuff, but this is 2010. You could have found that online in ten seconds. Why do you need to have the object?

Me: Much as I hate it, I’ve got to grant that point. And that brings me back to the NY Times piece that started this whole meander. One of the experts consulted says that if you are overwhelmed with stuff, even if it’s good stuff, it’s got to go. And she suggests taking photos of the sacred objects before letting them out of your life.

That’s one to ponder. I could take pictures of my bookshelves, close enough to read the titles, and put the photos on the wall. I could then truck  about 500 books to Half Price Books, which would free up space for the couple hundred books sitting in the closet.  And if  I ever really needed a paper copy of one of the Departed, I’d be pretty shocked if Amazon couldn’t deliver it in three days.

Of course I’d keep the really meaningful books–but this could be a start.

The Annual Posting of “Loveliest of Trees”

After the weekend’s freakishly late,  slushy snowfall–four to six inches of windswept snow in our backyard–I feel that the world, or at least this small corner of it, has turned the page to spring. The garden has been tilled and composted, and it’s time to plant  tomatoes, collard greens, and peppers. In April I’ll probably add okra, eggplant and a few other things.  I noticed the giant fig tree broke its first buds the other day, and the cardinals I always think of as “our” cardinals are back from wherever cardinals go in the winter. (Maybe they play winter ball in Honduras.)

In North Texas, one of the real glories of the landscape is the Bradford pear, which erupts into impossibly white, delicate blossoms in mid-March.  As I’m out walking, the sight of the pears always makes me start reciting A. E. Housman’s fine poem, “Loveliest of Trees,” which I post below as I do each spring.  If you do the math the way the speaker does, you may find yourself paying more attention to the season’s beauty.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Schizoid Sunday Edition: Health Care Showdown

It’s a Schizoid Sunday for me as we await the House vote on the health care bill (prediction: passes by four). As noted in yesterday’s post, I think it’s right and compassionate to extend coverage to millions of the working poor. Good for us on that, and about time.

But the financial picture. . . oy! It’s nice that the Congressional Budget Office gives its blessing to the current bill, but the experts are far from unanimous as to the impact of the new spending on our already obscene and threatening deficits. (One more plug for Scott Burns’ cogent and scary book, The Coming Generational Storm, which reminds us that every time you see an “official” tally of what we owe, that total doesn’t even include the massive unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare.)

And now, like a skunk at the House picnic, comes a former CBO director to play Cassandra. After analyzing the bill (to the extent it can be analyzed),  Douglas Holtz-Eakin has this reaction:

How can the budget office  give a green light to a bill that commits the federal government to spending nearly $1 trillion more over the next ten years?

The answer, unfortunately, is that the CBO is required to take written legislation at face value and not second-guess the plausibility of what it is handed. So fantasy in, fantasy out.

In reality, if you strip out all the gimmicks and budgetary games and rework the calculus, a wholly different picture emerges. The health care reform legislation would raise, not lower, federal deficits by $562 billion.

Eakin’s full and depressing piece is here.

I can easily imagine a full-bodied supporter of health care reform (which is really health insurance reform) saying, “Well, what about it? If we’re going to drown in debt, let’s do it while providing decent health care for children, not dropping thousands of American troops into distant hellholes where they can’t tell friend from enemy.”

I see that point of view, while I don’t entirely embrace it. But who knows? If the health-care Cassandras are right, things may get so  bad financially that we are forced to give up our billions-bleeding foreign policy adventures in imposing democracy on people who rarely seem to understand, want, or deserve it.  Maybe then  we could then bring home the troops and spend a few budget cycles trying to bind up our own wounds.

Health Care: Who, If Anyone, Pays?

The still-being-shaped  health care bill is now  presented as the best of both worlds–compassionately covering 31 million more people, which is good and right, and also somehow reducing these ruinous  deficits (see Scott Burns’ The Coming Generational Storm), which is possible, except that Part 2 may violate one of those laws of human nature which needs a name. It’s something like Beware of Reforms Premised on  the Expectation that  People Will  be Better Than They’ve Ever Been Before.

I refer, of course, to how much of the deficit reduction depends on the steely nerve and guts  of future Congresses, including many members not even in office right now, who five and six and eight years down the road will be tasked with turning to the voters and saying,

“Uh, okay, folks, remember all those great changes we made in health care a few years back? Yeah? Wasn’t that great? Yeah! Well, uh, it’s time to (whisper) pay for them now.”

One big worry, as Atlantic columnist Megan McArdle notes below, is the tax on those so-called “Cadillac” health plans, many of them clutched tightly by well-connected union members who will raise holy hell when the time comes to pay the piper. Quoth she:

The proposed changes increase spending dramatically, most heavily concentrated in the out-years. The gross cost of the bill has risen from $875 billion to $940 billion over ten years–but almost $40 billion of that comes in 2019. The net cost has increased even more dramatically, from $624 billion to $794 billion. That’s because the excise tax has been so badly weakened. This is of dual concern: it’s a financing risk, but it also means that the one provision which had a genuine shot at “bending the cost curve” in the broader health care market has at this point, basically been gutted. Moreover, it’s hard not to believe that the reason it has been moved to 2018 is that no one really thinks it’s ever going to take effect. It’s one thing to have a period of adjustment. But a tax that takes effect in eight years is a tax so unpopular that it has little realistic chance of being allowed to stand.

I think the bill passes the House tomorrow by, uh……….4 votes. I’m  glad we’re changing the system to cover more people, and I hope we put an end to those horror stories about people being denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions and fine-print sleight-of-hand. But I’ve been a deficit worrier since the days of Ross Perot, and the Burns book cited above is downright terrifying on the subject.

So here’s hoping that future Congresses will be Better Than They’ve Ever Been Before.

Don’t Egg Them On

Rhetorical questions from an Outraged Spluttering Blogger, found this morning:

Are the elderly ready to throw off the yolk of socialized medicine (Medicare)?

Are veterans ready to throw off the yolk of socialized medicine (the VA system)?

Guess you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelette.