Artist or Accountant?

Do the Scales Balance?

Portrait of Luca PacioliA guy driving back from a fishing trip is killed when a rock thrown from an overpass crashes through his windshield. Shit happens.

An otherwise-healthy 32-year-old mother of 5 small children contracts breast cancer and dies within 4 months of the diagnosis. Shit happens.

A cab driver steps between a man and the girlfriend he is hitting. The man turns on the cabbie and beats him into a coma. He dies within weeks without regaining consciousness. Shit happens.

Or at least, that’s what some people say.

Other people say that what goes around comes around. Karma’s a bitch. You reap what you sow. The scales must be balanced.

I wonder: Is the universe fundamentally just or not?

If the universe is just…

…then there is an accountant in charge who balances out every debit with an offsetting credit and every extra credit with a debit.

The universe is a zero-sum game. Everything must eventually balance.

But if it is not…

…then there is room in this universe for the unexpected and unbalanced to occur. Not just shit but grace as well. Not just bad luck but gratuitous fortune.

As it happens, we almost never see stuff get balanced. We almost never see a debit offset with a credit. Bad things tend to happen to good people, for no rhyme or reason. Good things happen to bad people, and they get away with it.

If the universe is just, and we don’t see every debit offset with a credit, then we tell ourselves stories to explain why.

Either we project the credit off into the distant future beyond death, (heavenly reward), or we place the debit into the distant past, beyond birth, (karma’s a bitch).

Both explanations require faith because neither is subject to proof.

If the bad stuff  is balancing undeserved fortune, then perhaps the good stuff is balancing undeserved misfortune, right? And vice versa?

Is shit happening to you because something from the distant past is finally catching up with you, (the sins of the fathers are visited on their children), or is the shit something you’ll get a reward for after you’re dead?

How can we know? It’s more than enough to drive you crazy.

Artistry, Not Accountancy

Of course, if the universe is not just, then perhaps it’s because there’s an artist in charge.

We’ve all known artists. They are messy. They are disorganized. They are extreme in their actions and reactions. Often they don’t make sense. They tend to over-indulge their senses and neglect the necessities of life. All for the sake of art.

“Shit happens,” yes – but to me it is just part of the great messy canvas the universal artist paints upon.

Oh, and grace happens on that canvas, too.

So breathe. In and out. In and out.

“Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson

Pattern RecognitionNeuromancer is apparently the William Gibson book I should have read 20 years ago. I didn’t. And still haven’t. But I did just finish his Pattern Recognition.

Quick impressions: It is – on the one hand – unlike anything I have ever read. On the other, it is a fairly typical but engaging mystery story.

His protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is a “coolhunter” with a bizarro allergic response to American advertising. She inhabits a world at once far cooler, far techier and far more strange than the humdrum one most of us experience. (It’s also a wee bit contrived. But hey, it’s a novel.)

Cayce is part of an online community focused on an underground film which is being released into the world one clip at a time. The mystery to be solved is the identity and motives of the filmmakers. There’s a Russian mafioso, an Italian high-fashionista, an Oklahoma-born Asian-American hacker, a couple of eastern European entrepreneurs, a Belgian advertising genius and lots of jet-setting around the world on unlimited expense accounts.

You know, pretty much like a normal day for any of us.

Things I loved: Gibson does an absolutely masterful job of creating a mystery that kept me completely engaged from beginning to end. He gets the technology world we inhabit now, (or at least the world we inhabited when this was published in 2003.)  The plot clips along at a nice pace throughout and the writing style is quirky but refined.

Things I didn’t love: Super strong plot, super undeveloped characters. I guess I’d describe this book as an internet-age version of a John Grisham novel. Also, the denouement felt, frankly, a bit contrived and a bit rushed. Almost like he looked up at the calendar and realized, “oh crap, this book is due at 5:00 this afternoon”.

I’d give it 3 stars out of 5.

“Made to Stick” makes it sticky

I get a kick out of it when academics spend a zillion years studying something obvious, quantifying it, categorizing it, slicing and dicing it, deconstructing it and then putting it all back together to prove that in fact everything we already knew is demonstrably true.

Book Review: Made to Stick

Made to Stick

The stolen kidney story.

If you’re still converting oxygen to CO2, you’ve probably heard about the guy who meets an attractive woman in a hotel bar and wakes up in a bathtub of ice. (If you haven’t, well… I dunno – start breathing.)

Made to Stick, by The Brothers Heath explains exactly precisely and intricately why such “stories” are more memorable than “jargon”.

Ok, maybe I’m being a tad harsh.

I actually enjoyed the book. It is well-written. The manner is engaging. The examples are plentiful and helpful. And frankly, the rubric they offer as a way to gauge the “stickiness” of any piece of writing is actually quite useful.

“What is that rubric”, you ask? ( I am so in tune with my readers…)

Duct Tape It To Your Brain

In short, if you want people to understand your message and remember your message, it needs to hit as many of these six hot buttons as possible:

  1. Simpleduct tape
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

That’s pretty much it.

Good, But Not Great

If you’re a writer who wants to make sure people remember your message, it wouldn’t hurt to absorb the lessons of this book.

I’d call it good but not great.

I’m glad I read it.  I’ll keep it close for reference as I write.


What’s on Your Shelf

I own too many books, but these are some of those that I keep very close to me, on the shelf just above my monitor. What’s on your shelf? What books do you keep close?

Power CopywritingPower Copywriting – Lewis
I keep this one in memory of my good friend Ken Jessup who passed several years ago. It’s been a while since I read it; I’ll get back to it. (I have a feeling it is not nearly as good as most of the other copywriting books I own, but I will keep it as a memento.)

How to Write a Good Advertisement – Schwab

This is one of the classics in the field of copywriting. The examples are dated, but the lessons are timeless. Recommended

The Back of the Napkin – Roam

How to make presentations that don’t suck. Highly RecommendedThe Back of the Napkin

Learned Optimism – Seligman

Turns out that you can train your mind into optimism and out of pessimism. Some fascinating and intensely useful stuff here, especially if you have a melancholy bent. Highest Recommendation

Mike Caro’s Book of Tells, the Body Language of Poker – Caro

When I decided to get serious about poker, I started reading. This book came up constantly. It’s… Well, I’m ambiguous about it now. I think this is probably Poker PhD stuff and I’m still working on my Bachelor’s. The jury is still out

The Theory of PokerThe Theory of Poker – Sklansky

Any new skill requires both practice and theory. The best way to learn is to just do it, but after doing it for a while, a study of the theory will put your experience into context as well as show you where there are holes in your understanding. That’s the purpose of this book. Don’t read it until you’ve played a lot of poker. Recommended

Phil Gordon’s Little Blue Book – Gordon

This is the book that changed my poker experience. It is intensely practical, no fluff, no filler, and a terrific read. Highly recommended

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style – Strunk & White

There’s something indescribably appealing about this little book. I think perhaps the fact that it embodies the very qualities it promotes: brevity, clarity, potency. I don’t refer to it often, but when I do, it is always a pleasure. Highest Recommendation

Advanced Mathematics – Saxon

I was not the student I wish I would have been when I had the leisure to actually concentrate on learning. This book is helping me fill those gaps in my advanced math. For those who don’t know the Saxon method, it is by far the best way both to teach and learn math.  Highest Recommendation

Essential Readings for MLK Day

Martin Luther King

Every year on MLK Day, I like to read MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  It reminds me of where we’ve been and where we thought we were going.  Where we are is much better than where we were and not nearly as good as where we are going.

In his I Have a Dream speech, he verbalized his hope that one day his children would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. Who today has the moral courage to stand up and demand that we judge them by the content of their character rather than by their membership in some group or another?

Yeah. No one.

Non-violent civil disobedience was King’s weapon of choice for effecting change in his country. He believed that by provoking moral outrage in average Americans, he could direct their anger and their power towards creating a moral revolution in society.

His recipe for positive, non-violent change as described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom included these 6 observations:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence
  6. Faith that justice will prevail

The core of King’s message was libertarianism wrapped in a strong faith in the essential goodness of his fellow American citizens. That’s still a potent formula for change.

It is good that we remind ourselves of his words, his deeds and his results.

The Horrific Arrogance of Democracy

(Note: this essay originally appeared in 2011 on this web site with a different title.)

Most people really have no desire to be free — they only want to be taken care of, and will give up almost any freedom in exchange for the promise of security.

I’m one of those people who would rather be hungry and free than a full-bellied slave. There are fewer of us than there are those with the opposite preference.

“Democratic government” means a majority of people imposing their will on the minority. (Or, as someone famously commented, two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.) Since those who prefer freedom to security are in the minority, democratic government inevitably becomes tyrannical.

Those who profess to believe that “democracy” and “freedom” mean the same thing are either ignorant, (most people fall into this category ), or else they are disingenuous.

Those who seek power fall into the latter category. You can recognize these people quickly: they’re the ones who are always telling someone else what to do.

Etiene de La Boitie famously observed in the 16th century that a tyrant is able to maintain his power because the people he enslaves allow it. I don’t think people have changed much in five centuries, do you?

Here in the united states, (lower case intentional), our government:

  • robs from the poor and middle class so that rich bankers don’t have to suffer any losses
  • sexually assaults us at airports
  • dictates to us what we they will or will not permit us to put in our own bodies
  • reads our mail
  • taps our phones
  • imprisons us on a whim
  • takes our money because they can

…and on and on ad nauseum.

Why, I ask you, do we have that sort of government? Isn’t ours a democratic government?


The prosecution rests.

Help for the Compulsive Multi-Tasker

Are you a compulsive multi-tasker?

Do you watch TV with your smart phone in one hand and a laptop nearby? Do you have a dozen different tabs open in your browser and flip between them all? Do you read something while riding an exercise bike? Watch TV while walking on the treadmill? Listen to music on your headphones while lifting weights?

Zen Habits has a lovely, focused post about how to tame your silly brain’s “fast mode”. Pro-Tip: TV appeals to the “Fast Brain”, exercise to the “slow brain”.

Actually, I think Zen Habits may be a site I spend some time on in the coming days. I’ve found a lot there that is helpful.

Another article that stuck out to me was The Four Hidden Habit Skills. Because I found it so personally useful, I am going to summarize the 4 habits here for my own edification. (I encourage you though, gentle reader, to read the original yourself.)

The gist of the article was the that there are meta-habits that aid in developing new habits.

  1. Commitment to Actually Starting
    We talk about developing a new habit, but we don’t emotionally and mentally go all in. Develop the habit of committing to starting.
  2. Focus on Starting
    Once we’ve committed – really committed – to starting this new habit, whatever it is, then start. I am reminded of the saying that “anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly.” In this context, that means if a new habit is worth acquiring, then it is better to start and be less disciplined in the habit than to not start. It’s better to – say – exercise poorly than to not exercise at all.
  3. Notice your own rationalizations
    We come with a myriad of reason to not take action. One habit that helps to fight those rationalizations is the habit of noticing that they are in fact nothing but rationalizations. This is very gentle treatment of our lazy selves, (my thoughts, not the authors), but I can see how this just brick-by-brick tears down the walls of resistance to forming new habits. Whenever I am rationalizing, I need to simply notice that I am in fact rationalizing and then develop a strategy for dealing with it.
  4. Constant Re-adjustment
    When our actual practice of the new habit fails to align with our previous imagination of the what the new habit will be like the an adjustment is called for.  Rather than feeling guilt or feeling like a failure, simply notice and adjust. This is in line with my previous statement that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly, but I’d never thought of “constant readjustment” as a habit. In fact, I never thought of any of these four as habits that could help build other habits.

One more thought on Zen Habits: I really like their sight design.

The Ferguson Decision & The Liberty Principle

"Hands up, Don't Shoot."

Liberty is a moral issue. This is why we speak in moral terms about issues that touch on the Liberty principle. In the afterglow, (or burning embers – take your pick),  of  The Ferguson Decision, let’s review the situation from the standpoint of the Liberty principle.

The Story: Cop shoots unarmed black teenager. Community riots. Grand jury refuses to indict. Community riots some more.

The Facts (as far as we know them): Teen had just robbed a store, cop confronted teen, teen attacked cop, cop “feared for his life”, Ferguson has an about-average crime rate but averages $321 in fines and fees, 3 warrants and 1.5 court cases per household.

The Liberty Framework: Since Liberty is a moral argument, we make no apology for casting human action in moral terms. Our moral standard is the principle of self-ownership.

  • When an individual’s self-ownership is violated, a moral wrong has occurred.
  • It is impossible to redress the consequences of a moral wrong with another moral wrong.


The Liberty Issues:

  1. The Ferguson city government committed aggression against its citizens.
    • It appears to me that “law-enforcement” in Ferguson is a racket designed to generate revenue.
  2. Michael Brown committed aggression against the cop.
    • We assume the testimonies of the Grand Jury witnesses were accurate
  3. The cop may or may not have committed aggression against Michael Brown.
    • The Grand Jury decided he was acting in self-defence; self-defence is valid and moral under the Liberty principle.
    • But maybe the witnesses lied
  4. The citizens who rioted committed aggression against their neighbors.


Virtually everyone involved in the Ferguson Decision is guilty of violating the Liberty principle. These are moral wrongs that cannot be resolved by yet more aggression against self-ownership. These wrongs can only be fixed by:

  1. Recompense for those victimized by aggression and/or
  2. Forgiveness by the victims towards the aggressors and
  3. Immediate cessation of aggression by all parties


The Liberty principle is inclusive, not exclusive: Anyone who’s paying attention will recognize the religious overtones to these solutions – recompense, forgiveness, cessation of aggression – and yet they are solutions grounded in a simple human principle – I own myself – rather than in any religious creed.  Any person – with or without religious convictions – can govern himself and expect others to govern themselves by this principle.

The Liberty principle is simple and unambiguous: Either I own myself, or I do not. There is no middle ground.

  • If I own myself, then I have the intrinsic right to use what is mine in whatever way I see fit, as long as it doesn’t violate the self-ownership of others.
  • If I do not own myself, then someone else owns me. My owner(s) have the right to use me in whatever way they see fit.

The only possibility for middle ground between these two positions is that I partially own myself and am partially owned by someone else. While this is not logically impossible, it is in practice impossible to define, let alone enforce.

Liberty News Online for 20 November 2014

From Lew Rockwell’s blog today:

In his City of God, St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. Alexander demands of him, “How dare you molest the seas?” The pirate replied, “How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a thief. You, with a great fleet, molest the whole world and are called an emperor.” St. Augustine called this answer “elegant and excellent.”

The Mises Institute website has been completely redesigned and is live today.

Guess who said this:

Sanctions are already undermining the foundations of world trade, the WTO rules and the principle of inviolability of private property. They are dealing a blow to liberal model of globalisation based on markets, freedom and competition, which is a model that has primarily benefited precisely the Western countries.

You probably didn’t guess Vlad Putin, did you?

I’ve long claimed that I am against hetero-sexual marriage. This was a partly tongue-in-cheek response to the homosexual marriage argument, and partly irritation with the fact that the state is involved in people’s intimate lives to such a ridiculous extent. I’m glad to see some Christian pastors refuse to conduct state marriages, gay, straight or otherwise. Good for them.

Prosecutor sent a guy to jail for 25 years by withholding evidence. He gets a 10 day prison sentence. That seems fair.

Another mid-level banker at one of the TBTF banks turned up dead this morning. Apparently, he committed suicide by cutting his own throat. I wonder why the C-level dudes aren’t turning up dead…

The Legatum Institute in London publishes an annual report about personal freedom around the world. The good news is that the US leads most of the rest of the world in personal freedom. The bad news is that we are number 21, behind such paragons of freedom as France, Austria, Malta and Portugal.




Faith and Rationality: Can they Co-exist?

Can faith and rationality co-exist? For most of my life, I believed – passionately – that they could. But life being what it is, I have come to view faith in God as not terribly rational. And yet, I just realized I was wrong. In the words of Ricky Ricardo, “give me a chance to ‘splain.

Hey, I’m a Believer

The Monkees All my life, I have been surrounded by people of faith, and all my life, I have struggled to believe the way they believe.

My mother is a woman of great faith. From my earliest years, her words and her actions demonstrated that she trusted God. I spent 17 years watching up close as she worked out her faith, and the 31 years since I left home seeing it from a distance. Her faith has been tested in life’s arena by failures, pain, loss and disappointment. Yet still she believes.

After I left home, I spent the early years of my adulthood being mentored by a man of great faith. Again I saw up close what it looked like when someone trusted God not with mere words but with their actions. His faith has been tested by financial failure, relational rejection, disappointment, loss and pain. Yet his faith in God is steadfast.

My partner is a woman of great faith. Her trust in God is intensely practical. She is not much one for showy religion, but her trust in God is unwavering.  Her faith has been tested by loss, disappointment, failure, homelessness, rejection and pain. Yet still she believes.

I have always wanted to have that sort of faith, yet it has always been a tremendous struggle for me. Where some people see “the Hand of God”, I see perfectly rational explanations that don’t require supernatural intervention. Where other people see Divine Providence, I see simple coincidence – coincidences that don’t involve God.

What a Fool Believes

As you will see from my other writing on this site and elsewhere, I am a passionate believer in God’s Grace; I am unable to avoid the fact that I seem bent toward self-delusion and self-destruction, as is every other human being I have ever known or learned about. Any system of redemption that depends on the work of man is – in my experience – doomed to failure. I am convinced that if man is to be reconciled to God, then God is going to have to do the work. Man simply isn’t up to the task.

But beyond that – beyond this work of “pure redemption” – I just do not see God involved in day-to-day life.  I see Him as the necessary component of the Big Picture, and yet I have struggled to find Him in the details. I believe I trust myself to Him beyond the point of death, but until then – not so much.

Does God really care so much about me that he knows how many hairs are on my head? Does He really care about each individual creature in His creation so much that not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge? Jesus said He does. Yet I would say that the facts argue against it.

Don’t Stop  Believin’

Don't Stop Believin'Face it: if God really is All-Loving, All-Powerful and Personal, then the world as it presents itself to us would look different, wouldn’t it?

My attempts at faith keep getting stuck on this issue. I cannot reconcile the pain, suffering, loss, failure and sheer evil I observe in this world with the doctrine of God the All-Powerful, All-Loving and Personal. It’s not that I don’t want to believe – I do. But believing that way seems – in a word – irrational.

Stuck. Grounded. Trapped. Caught on the horns of a dilemma.

And then one day recently, I had a little mini-epiphany, or as my dear departed friend Ken Jessup would say, an “epiphanette”. All my life I had been drawing a distinction between faith and reason, as if Faith stood on one side and Reason stood on the other and from my place in the middle I had to choose one or the other. I thought that I had not been choosing Reason and rejecting Faith; I described myself as someone to whom faith was difficult. But I was wrong. I was not choosing Reason over Faith, as I thought. Rather, I was just choosing to place my faith in reason. My mother, my mentor and my partner choose to place their faith in God, I have been choosing to place it in Reason. It is not that I had no faith, it is instead that I chose a different target for my faith.

Suddenly, that put the struggle into a different arena. I used to view my mom, mentor and partner as people who had something I didn’t have – namely, faith in God. If they had something I did not, then that means that there was little I could do about it. But when I realized that I had faith too -it’s just that my faith was in Reason rather than God – then I realized that I could simply choose to trust God rather than Reason.

Now that may seem — unreasonable. But I don’t see it that way at all.

I know enough science and have experienced enough of the vicissitudes of life to know that rationality is not rational. As Hamlet told Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”