June 28, 2009

soda1Heard any good actuary jokes lately? Here’s one:  How do you keep an actuary in the shower all day? Give him a bottle of shampoo that says ‘lather, rinse, repeat’. Here’s another: An actuary and a farmer were traveling by train. When they passed a flock of sheep in a meadow, the actuary said, “There are 1,248 sheep out there.” The farmer replied, “Amazing. By chance, I know the owner, and the figure is absolutely correct. How did you count them so quickly?” The actuary answered, “Easy, I just counted the number of legs and divided by four.” This one, though, is my favorite: Actuary talking: “There are three kinds of actuaries. Those that can count. And those that can’t.”

I don’t know if this is a general truth or not, but it seems in proportion to the seriousness of the profession, and in proportion to its obscurity, the sillier and the more voluminous the jokes about it are. Actuarial science might serve as the poster boy for this idea. For one, it is a rather grim area of investigation, and two—well, admit it, you’re not too sure what it is an actuary practicing actuarial science actually does, are you? Turns out, insurance companies use it to figure the averages on things like how long we will live and how much money they will need to pay us our pensions. Actuarial science is the way they have of estimating when you and I are going to die and how they can make money off it. So, yes, a good actuary needs to be able to count, but he also needs to understand the statistics of mortality. If I live to 110 and the actuary has said it was okay to pay me x thousands dollars a year, it’s no big deal; but if we all live that long then the insurance companies will take a beating—and we don’t want that, do we? Actuaries do the math. They set the odds on old age. They estimate how many of us will die at age 20, for example, in a motorcycle crash and how many of us will die at 49 from leukemia, and how many of us will live into our 80’s and 90’s, burdening the health care system. It’s calculating the future, and it depends on a stable, predictable society. The goal of the actuary is to insure that most of us don’t beat the actuarial charts.

My father understood the science pretty well: When I was 16, 17 years old, he came home with a stack of photos from his office. These photos were not scenes from the Christmas party, or the annual company outing to Bear Mountain. They were pictures of mangled machines and mangled bodies, pictures taken by professional photographers to be used in court cases to settle insurance claims. They were pictures of motorcycle accidents. Machine and bodies smashed and pulped. The machines were replaceable; maybe some could even be rebuilt. The bodies were all dead bodies. And this is a general truth: You can’t rebuild a dead body. My father was telling his son: you have a shot of walking away from an accident if you’re in a car. Take a good look. This is a statistic you don’t want to be.

So, as a symbol of freedom or craftsmanship the motorcycle has never worked for me. While I liked Easy Rider and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance well enough, it was also clear that you weren’t really free on a motorcycle and that there were other ways to get into Buddhism. While it’s true that both freedom and Zen involve commitment and risk, stupid is still stupid. My father set up for his son a path through the middle class of post-war America. It was a path that did not include motorcycles; it was supposed to be the same sort of path he walked on, in the stable, predictable society he lived in. My father had no thoughts about a Heideggerian equation between thinking and following a path; he would have considered Flaubert’s self-description that he ‘lived like a bourgeois and thought like a demigod’ mere pretension; and he would have snubbed the use of such words as ‘teleology’ in thinking about the science and craft of the actuary. The idea that the motorcycle was a symbol of anything other than a too early death would have struck him as errant nonsense.

Let’s look up ‘teleology’ for a moment, just a dictionary definition: The study of design or purpose in natural phenomena; the use of ultimate purpose or design as a means of explaining phenomena; belief in or the perception of purposeful development toward an end, as in nature or history. Humm. Is it a stretch to say that actuarial science is anti-teleological, that it’s a study in the limits of human striving, a pitting of man’s wishes and desires against the hard statistical reality of sickness and death?

Now, no one denies that when I walk to the corner store to buy a loaf of bread, I am engaging in a purposeful activity, and it would be foolish to think of my walk only in terms of a step-by-step account of my neural-motor functions. It would miss the fact that I wanted a peanut and jelly sandwich for lunch. So, from that perspective, working in a little teleology seems reasonable: humans do have goals. We call these goals ideas. The issue is about a broader conception of end directed activities—does the universe have a purpose? does history? does evolution?—that kind of question. The issue may be about the humanizing the universe—are we extrapolating wildly from our petty human concerns and projecting human goals out on to what is an indifferent cosmos, or are we seeing what is really there? I have a good idea. Let’s have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Would it make any sense to attribute such a thought to the universe? Humankind, love one another and your life will be enriched.

In a way it’s strange that we are still batting this question around. Kierkegaard in the early part of the 19th century put it dramatically, thus:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?

Yet maybe this is why we still get on those motorcycles, and why those statistical projections do describe our lives so well. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health, everybody knows that being overweight will result in a shorter life, and everyone knows that jetting around on a motorcycle can kill you way before your (statistically) allotted time. An insatiable emptiness. What would life be but despair?

There’s a new book out on craft and how it can save us from the-soullessness-of-modern-life-in-the-big-corporations-where-all-we-do-is-manipulate-ideas. It’s called Shop Class as Soulcraft by one Mathew G. Crawford, and I haven’t read it and don’t plan to, but there is this excerpt, which I have read. It’s got a great title and it’s got a thesis I’m partial to. Francis Fukuyama, in his review in the Times called it a beautiful little book about human excellence and the way it is undervalued in contemporary America.

He goes on: Crawford argues that the ideologists of the knowledge economy have posited a false dichotomy between knowing and doing. The fact of the matter is that most forms of real knowledge, including self-knowledge, come from the effort to struggle with and master the brute reality of material objects — loosening a bolt without stripping its threads, or backing a semi rig into a loading dock. All these activities, if done well, require knowledge both about the world as it is and about yourself, and your own limitations. They can’t be learned simply by following rules, as a computer does; they require intuitive knowledge that comes from long experience and repeated encounters with difficulty and failure. In this world, self-­esteem cannot be faked: if you can’t get the valve cover off the engine, the customer won’t pay you.

In his piece in the Times, Dr. Crawford has this advice for us: those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?

And this observation: A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity.

Okay, fair enough: There is a decided difference between instructing, ‘remove the cap and loosen the screws before placing part A…’ and ‘If that fucking cap doesn’t come off I’m going to take a goddamn hammer and…’ and you’ve got grease all over your hands and you’ve cut your finger and it’s bleeding and where is the goddamn hydrogen peroxide and how did that cat get into the shop…

(My friends, I have been there.)

But take your car to your mechanic and have him tell you, ‘You know, I haven’t a clue what the problem is,’ and you won’t say ‘You know, Joe, that’s admirable. I appreciate your honesty.’ Truth is, mechanics and plumbers and electricians and roofers sling it with the best middle managers. And the truth is, they sometimes have to. Would you hire a contractor who tells you, ‘Well, I’ve never actually built anything like that before’?

(Been there on this one as well.)

And that middle manager, the one who wants to make his arguments in straightforward language, perhaps he takes a nuanced and qualified position because he has nuanced and qualified thoughts…

(Why am I suddenly reminded of George Bush here?)

Two underwriters boarded a flight out of Seattle. One sat in the window seat, the other sat in the middle seat. Just before takeoff, an actuary got on and took the aisle seat next to the two underwriters. The actuary kicked off his shoes, wiggled his toes and was settling in when the underwriter in the window seat said, “I think I’ll get up and get a soda.” “No problem,” said the actuary, “I’ll get it for you.” While he was gone, one of the underwriters picked up the actuary’s shoe and spat in it. When he returned with the soda, the other underwriter said, “That looks good, I think I’ll have one too.” Again, the actuary obligingly went to fetch it and while he was gone, the other underwriter picked up the other shoe and spat in it. The actuary returned and they all sat back and enjoyed the flight. As the plane was landing, the actuary slipped his feet into his shoes and knew immediately what had happened.

“How long must this go on?” he asked. “This fighting between our professions? This hatred? This animosity? This spitting in shoes and pissing in sodas?”

One might write a history of mankind based around the false oppositions created in this world. Crawford’s got one going here: a contest between the corporate world and the craft world. I wonder who’ll win that one? Supercilious intellectuals who don’t know how to straighten a nail with a hammer—or why you’d want to straighten a nail—I mean, just get a new nail, right?—doing battle with down-to-earth country folk who drive around all day in pick-up trucks and motorcycles, thinking about the beauty of the internal combustion engine, and who like their talk straight and think changing your mind has something to do with wearing flip-flops.  We’re talking about an idea that does not take account of the full complexity of the situation; we’re talking about clichéd people involved in a phony issue; we’re talking about a bad idea, one that advances the discussion not a jot. And we do need to stop this pissing in sodas.

My father liked his work in the insurance business, but I don’t know that I think of him as an ideas man. Like the rest of us, he had good ideas and bad ones, but I think he thought he was doing something worthwhile in his profession. He thought he could be fair and square, and make decisions that were equitable for his clients and the people above him in the ‘food chain’ (as Dr. Crawford would have it).   Sure, his son can take potshots at the insurance business and can find funny things to say about actuaries, but insurance as a whole is a good thing, isn’t it?

And as for motorcycles… yes, you can go on the internet and find sites and statistics and anecdotes and stories that ‘prove’ it’s not dangerous—or not any more dangerous than riding in a car, or walking to the corner, or taking a bath—and you can also find sites that ‘prove’ with statistics, stories, etc that it is extremely dangerous, that my father was right, you take your life in your hands every time you rev up that damn (muffler-less) engine. I’ll let you do your own research, but to me it remains problematic as a symbol of human excellence—let’s face it, its teleology is bad—so when it turns out that what Mathew Crawford is offering up as his alternative to the soulless corporate gasket my father was supposed to be is a soulful motorcycle mechanic…well, I’ll try not to blow a gasket here…but something has gone wrong with his analysis. Again. What about healthcare workers, Dr. Crawford? Teachers? Peace Corps volunteers?

Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker:

…he can’t feign much enthusiasm for, say, jobs in the health-care sector, no matter how satisfying or useful or plentiful those jobs might be. Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admiration for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is “useful” only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless.

That Mathew Crawford, who has an advanced degree in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago, has chosen to make the motorcycle mechanic his model for our salvation, must give us pause. He seems like a bright guy, but he also seems like a guy who’s trying to force generalities from his own likes and dislikes—like a guy placing his own little teleology as a goal for our society. Francis Fukuyama announces this is a book about human excellence; this idea is laughable and pitiable; talk to me about the development of the modern computer, our understanding of the genetic code, the spread of public education, the ongoing attempt to sustain liberal democracy, modern medicine—not motorcycle mechanics. He’s proposing a plot for a sit-com, not doing serious social analysis. The problem is that we need better ideas to think with, not motorcycles.

One of the things that make the idea of craft is interesting is the increasing involvement of human decisions and intentionality as the object is crafted. Teleology isn’t really about my walking to the store for bread, but when I sink my thoughts, intentions and goals into the things that I build, I am making an attempt at animating the world. Teleology gives that world a purpose. Start with that bottle of soda; designed and mass produced, its teleology is modest and fixed. Its reason for being is to hold soda (or whatever). Move away from the mass production line and stop at motorcycles. Why do we need a motorcycle? Its teleology is far more fluid. There are different models of motorcycles. You can have them custom made. There is individual involvement depending indeed on what you want to do with this machine. Take another step: If you’re like Francis Fukuyama and you build your own furniture, there is a lot of personal decision making in the process—even if you’re working from a set of plans—and if you’re like, George Nakashima and you design as well as build the object—and you love and honor the wood, think of it as giving it a second life—the resulting object is a focus of intentions and decisions. In this case its teleology takes that chair, table, cabinet and becomes a record of its intensity, it’s true worth. Yes, a motorcycle can be beautiful. Just take it slow.

A casualty actuary priced an automobile “Fire and Theft” policy with an extremely low premium. When asked why it was so cheap, he said, “Who would steal a burnt car?”

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