Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the zero-sum game

" In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant...Cutting a cake is a zero-or constant-sum because taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others. Zero sum games are also called strictly competitive." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the zero-sum game theory.

In contrast, the non-zero sum theory holds that, "assuming the parties are acting rationally, any commercial exchange is a non-zero sum activity, because each party must consider the goods he is receiving as being at least fractionally more valuable to him/her than the goods he is delivering." Wikipedia, supra.

On December 23,2008 Ali Gharib reporting in IPC quoted senior counsel on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead on his concept of how the Palestinian Israeli conflict should be addressed: "The Obama administration needs to accomplish a kind of Copernican shift in perception: looking at the same sun, moon, planets and stars that others have seen , it must reconceptualize the relations among them". Mead went on to say that the U.S. must "understand conceptually that there are a lot of non-zero sum issues on the table in Israeli-Palestinian issues".

We are now staring at an ever escalating conflict regarding the Gaza strip. With Israel declaring an all out war against Hamas in this region, there is clear evidence of a mindset to eradicate. In this scenario, there appears no option but winning or losing.

David Brooks, writing in the NY Times on September 21, 2006, viewed the ongoing battles involving terrorist groups as "chaos theory in human form- an ever shifting array of state and non-state actors who cooperate, coagulate, divide feud and feed on one another without end." The resulting conflict was always to be zero- sum victory for one side or the other.

The fallacy of that logic is discussed by Robert Wright in his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Therein, he quotes former President Bill Clinton,from a Wired interview in December 2000, as follows:
" The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero sum solutions... we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accomodate each other".

President elect Obama faces a world in which non-zero sum theory must prevail. We have just witnessed 8 years of the devastating results of the alternative through the misguided actions of President Bush.

It often feels like our universe is incapable of realigning its fundamental approach to conflict. I know that the new President will undertake a task that makes the trials of Sisyphus seem gentle by comparison. But, unless and until the folly of the theory of destroying and and conquering is embraced , and the benefit in sharing our toys becomes paramount, we are doomed merely to repeat past failures. That would be a zero sum game in which there are no winners.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Crash landing

The moment I took flight, I knew that trouble lay ahead. Man was not intended to leave earth in this fashion. As I hurtled through the air out of control, I had but one thought."This is going to be bad".

I had ignored the warning signs. My body had been telling me for almost 2 weeks to shut it down. I have seemed to swallow an entire bag of stupid pills lately, and soldiered on notwithstanding the pain and the knowledge that disaster almost assuredly lay ahead. If that was not enough, my surroundings spoke to me in volumes of the dangers I was facing. I had received years of training and knew what to look for. Nevertheless, I was not to be deterred in my quest.

The morning began cold and overcast. Christmas day had brought a day long downpour, shutting off any possibility of subjecting myself to the problems I should have been avoiding. The following day I had been cautious in my efforts, and had circumnavigated the worst in front of me. I had an old friend as a companion for these few days and knew he would be disappointed if we didn't take part in this adventure. It had been more than a quarter of a century together of risking limb, and possibly life. Today was one more to add to the collection.

As we approached our destination, I began to search out the obstacles that we were to face. Guns were going off in almost every direction. As evidence of their power lay strewn for as far as the eye could see, all was not clear ahead. If sanity prevailed, I would not venture anywhere near these massive warriors.

We put on the last part of our armor, our boots. As my friend struggled mightily to secure himself properly, I could see the beads of sweat begin pouring down his face. I knew it was not fear but just the physical strains of protecting himself fully, that caused my ally so much consternation. Finally, he was ready and off we went.

We were cautious at first, staying far away from the worst of the trouble. We would ease ourselves into the water, testing slowly, toe by toe, until we were fully immersed.

Then we came upon another of our brethren. He was taller, stronger and younger. He knew nothing of fear or moderation. He could brave the best the guns had to offer and plow ahead, undeterred and unmarked. My first big mistake was following in his tracks.

He sped off and was soon out of sight. I was next to go. As I went past the first of the guns I felt somewhat unsteady. I was being tossed about. My environment was dictating my path. I steadied myself and traveled on, cautious but intact. Ahead lay another gun. I continued on, directly towards my enemy.

And then it happened. As I came into the gully, it felt like my forward motion was stopped for a split second, as if I had just hit a brick wall. In the next instant I was catapulted as if shot out of a cannon.. It would only take a second or two before I would crash and burn. I had to protect the shoulder that I had injured some 2 weeks before while in the midst of this unholy pursuit. My face was the first part of me to feel the impact. Like a body surfer trying to avoid eating some sand, I raised my head slightly.

I had to do something quickly to stop the descent. Instinctively, my arms went out in front of me. That was mistake number 2. The pain was intense. I knew that there was to be no happy ending to this story. As quickly as it began, it ended. I lay there stunned. If my appendages were still attached, my extended appendages were now back up the hill, alone and forlorn.

My friend could see I was in trouble. Soon others would happen upon us, and suffer similar fates. We were in treacherous terrain. As we all lay there, we must have collectively wondered what could have caused us to venture into the eye of the storm.

Slowly, I gathered myself up and put myself back together. Like Humpty Dumpty, I did not leave these grounds the same as when I arrived.

I was able to find my way to safety. While the danger of the moment had passed, the stupidity of my hubris was still evident. The shoulder was to be a constant reminder to me of the folly of my actions.

For now, I know but 2 things for certain. First, I will not venture out skiing again today, or for some days to come. Second, snow guns and the sticky, wet substance they spew forth will remain a safe distance from me in the future.

Friday, December 26, 2008

the look

It emerges slowly.One day it is nothing, then, a hint of something. In relatively short order it is there enough for people to begin asking questions .Soon, the comments and inquisitive glances start. I am at early stage in its evolution. I am, for the moment, growing a beard.

Like many of my contemporaries, this is not my first foray into this territory. I have.over the last 40 years, redefined my look on numerous occasions. I have grown everything from a Lincolnesque beard to a Selleck-like mustache..

While my wife has been my constant ally, I know that I face the disapproval of my mother, my sister and my children. In earlier incarnations of my beard or mustache, I was subjected to varying degrees of criticism from many of my loved ones. It ranged from the laudatory for my clean cut self (' you are so handsome without it') to the highly critical ( 'why are you doing THAT'). On one occasion, while I was in the process of growing a beard, I met my mother at her beauty parlor. She introduced me to some of the women there. "This is my son, he doesn't always look like this".

I also must deal with my own doubts about the look I will achieve. Being bald, I have this image of my face seeming to be on upside down.. I also fear that I will stare into the mirror and see an old religious man staring back at me.

Yet, I carry on in my experiment. I want to be seen as the professor, learned, venerable. I have recently abandoned contact lenses, after an affair of nearly half a century. What better time to reinvent my image then at the moment that the glasses have already made me look smarter. There is definitely a lot of gray in my beard. In the right setting that can help cultivate my intellectual image.

Maybe it is nothing more than that I am on vacation. Maybe it is that it has been a difficult year and I want to begin next year with a fresh start. Maybe it is just vanity. Maybe it is boredom.

My daughter is coming home from vacation today, and will soon get a look at me. I know that my son and my sister will be reading this piece shortly.My razor stands ready, on a moment's notice, to spring into action.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

So you think that was stupid

I left you after my maniacal dash to Kennedy Airport. After completing my wholly inappropriate, unnecessarily dangerous escapade, you would think that I would come to my senses. I would be thankful that I escaped with my driving record, my car, and my health intact. If that is what you thought, you would be sadly mistaken.

I woke up the following morning to predictions of the first significant snowstorm of the winter. "Lock the doors, put the logs on the fireplace, and hunker down". I guess the message got lost in translation to me.

I finished work around noon. Most people had not even bothered to come to the office. The snow was now falling at a significant clip. I got into my car and headed home. But that was not my ultimate destination. Some 120 miles away, was the beginning of my vacation.

It had been a tough year in the office, with clients and phones exploding in front of my eyes.That would be forgotten as soon as I got out of the area. But I had to get out of the area.

The drive to the apartment in Fort Lee was bad, but not impassable or impossible. I could do this, and do this today. The lunacy of that decision would become self evident in short order.

Joanne, Richie and I packed up the car and headed to the Berkshires. We had taken this trip hundreds of times over the last few years. It was a 2 hour walk in the park on most occasions. 2 hours into this trip, I would wonder what I had been thinking.

The roads were bad, the storm was locked in, and the visibility was diminishing rapidly. That was the best part of the journey. Early on, it was clear that crawling was the speed for the day. As the snow piled up even on the highways, third gear became the goal. Then, the highway closed in front of us. Detour led to another detour. Zigzag, and road maps were our companions on this trip.

Then the fun began. The windshield wipers seemed to trap the snow and turn it into ice on a moment's notice. The drill started. Pull to the side of the road, or the highway. Joanne and Richie began the jackhammering of the wipers in a futile attempt to create a world I could actually see. It was of no use. Every few minutes the road basically disappeared in front of me. I was left trying to chase the lights of the cars ahead. If they went off the road, I was next in line.

The muscles in my neck tightened. My back stiffened. My eyes hurt from the strain. And yet, in my continuing lunacy, I carried on.

Minutes became much more than just 60 seconds. Hours went by, and still the end was nowhere in sight. We had turned this into something it didn't have to be, and there was no rational explanation for my behavior.

Six and one half hours after we began, we pulled into the driveway of our Berkshire home. Richie and I had now spent two consecutive days trapped in a car for hours while I battled the traffic and my own idiocy. Somehow, at the end of it all, we stood there, hunched over, but intact. Stupidity had triumphed again.

I would like to say I learned from my misadventures, but I would only be fooling myself. I think I am doomed to being an idiot forever. Does anyone want to drive with me on my next journey? I think my son's seat is available.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The trip

I think I may have been a little over the top. I admit that driving on the shoulder of the road on the highway for about a mile, so as to speed past the line of traffic which was at a standstill, might not have been the brightest thing I ever did. Even as the lane seemed to narrow and just about disappear, I squeezed past trucks, avoided the remains of a tire, watched out for signs of the police, and headed for my destination at warp speed. I was not going to be denied.

I had left my office at about 4:30 PM to begin my journey. I had been in the middle of what seemed like a week long series of disasters relating to my work. As I conversed by way of conference call with at least 4 other participants, I kept repeating that I had to go, I had to go. I did.

The traffic to the George Washington Bridge was moving at a crawl. I weaved in and out, got into the lane that would dump me off in Fort Lee. I called my son to be ready. I rocketed through the sidestreets and arrived in front of our apartment building. It was 5PM.

My son hurtled into the front seat, and off we went. The trip across the bridge was slow and torturous. The minutes kept ticking away. My foot was paused on the accelerator, waiting for the slightest opening. Over the bridge, we crawled down the East Side Drive. The merge on 125th Street began on 140th Street. The slowdown on 71st Street started on 96th street. The clock and I stared at one another intently, anger in our eyes. Stop moving I silently yelled. Nothing slows down time it haughtily responded.

We called our daughter that we were closing in on her apartment. It was 6 PM. We were still in pretty good shape.

We arrived and I hustled with Alexandra to get everything together and in the car. It was 6:15 before the engine started up again and we were off.

I had never in my life been in the Queens Midtown Tunnel,which led into the LIE ( that is the Long Island Expressway, not the big LIE). I will never go on it again. It took us 20 minutes to get through the tunnel, as people rubbernecked in their cars to look at something of no interest that was happening in the other lane. It was now 6:40.

The LIE was a PARKING LOT. Crawling was really an exaggeration to describe the pace at which we moved. My sighing and running my hand over the top of my head increased exponentially. This was not good. It was almost 7:00 and the first exit off of this road had not been reached, and was no where in sight. It looked hopeless.

Then, a shoulder on the road appeared, beckoning me. I am going for it, I said. If I don't, we have no chance at all. I moved right, into the non-lane, with no cars in it, and hit the accelerator.While hundreds of angry people must have looked out their car windows, called me every name imaginable, given me the finger and wished I would run directly into a cop, I sped forward. It was 7:10 PM.

My daughter, in the back seat, made certain inaudible noises. While I think she might have been saying, please slow down, watch out, I am sweating profusely and I may be having an aneurysm, I was a man possessed and was listening to no one. It was 7:15 PM and an exit loomed just around the bend.

Thank God for the navigator. My son pulled out a map which none of us knew we had. Get off here. Go about 5 miles and turn there. Then you go 2 miles and you are just about there. Turn here. Get in the left lane now. We are just about there. There it is.

It was 7:30. The predictions for the weather in the upcoming days had led the airlines to tell people to forget about flying tomorrow. It was today, or forget it. This was the last flight out of JFK to Park City for the evening. If Alex wasn't on the 8:20 PM flight, she would not be meeting up with her boyfriend and starting a well deserved vacation until the cows came home.

We pulled up in front of the terminal. My son and daughter rushed out of the car and headed to the baggage check area.It was 50 minutes before the flight and we were not sure if we were too late. I peered out of the window intently. Suddenly, I saw a big smile on my daughter's face, and both my children gave me the thumbs up sign. Our odyssey had come to a successful conclusion. It had been over 3 hours since I left Hackensack, but it felt like 3 days.

As my son and I son began our return trip home, I slowly pulled out of my double parked spot, and into the line of traffic. A car sped by me, going way too fast. What a jerk, I thought.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Can you hear me now, Cablevision?

The phone receiver and cord lay lifeless in my hand. They had been ripped from their usual place in the course of the struggle. When one says that a phone is dead, it does not usually bring up images of it being killed. I had killed my phone.

My odyssey began some 3 months ago. My existing phone carrier's charges were being substantially undercut by another carrier. Why not save a few bucks? The switchover would be painless. It turned out to be anything but.

The initial quick installation took 4 days before phone service was 'fully operational'. During that time, despite my pleading, cajoling, begging and screaming at anyone and everyone who would listen, I had intermittent, inconsistent service. The company blamed the problems on everything from the old carrier to me. You get caught in this vacuum of issues, allegations and false solutions and in the end you are swallowed whole.

It was like being in a 15 round prizefight. At the end of the 4 days, when both my lines would ring when people called, and when I could in turn make outgoing calls without fear, I felt like I had created a bond through adversity with my new phone. We were now family, and we would protect one another in the future.

I was wrong. The phone continued to be my enemy. It often gave little warnings that it was about to erupt, like in the days before a volcano blows. The lights on my phone would blink like lights on a Christmas tree. Calls would not go through. But the disasters were small, and they came and went.

Late last week, and through most of this week, the battle began in earnest. Incoming calls were not happening. Then, outgoing calls became a distant memory. The carrier was contacted, and another round of useless action ensued. It is definitely this, it is assuredly that, it must be , it has to be, it should be, it could be, it isn't. I wasn't happy.

When I thought, 2 days ago, that we had found THE ANSWER, I was disgusted but hopeful. Then the blinking began anew, the outgoing was not going, the incoming was not coming, and I snapped. With a rapid series of movements, I raised the phone from its cradle, and BANGED IT back down repeatedly. If I was going down, I was taking the phone with me.

$60 later, a new phone arrived. Later that day, the service people appeared to resolve THE PROBLEM. By the end of the day yesterday, I was assured all was well in my phone world. So far , so good. But I am telling my new phone that it is on a very short leash. One wrong move, and it will join its brother. BE WARNED.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On buying treasury bills ( with no return)

It must be that my eyes deceive
This must be some bad make believe
It can't be that when I retrieve
What I gave is what I receive

Can the return be 0 per cent
How will that help pay the rent
This cannot be what you meant
To give me zip on money lent

Where is it we go from here
We live in a state of fear
We worry where we'll be next year
Just give us bucks to buy a beer

The government has spoken
The system's officially broken
For our dollars you give no token
And we ask if you're joking

So to the drawing board let's go
To find a way to make some dough
To help make our economy grow
So for our work there's green to show

You must give more than you receive
For us to have faith and believe
Give us hope so we perceive
There's nothing hidden up your sleeve

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I have been, and continue to be, a lifelong NY Yankee fan. I am one of those people who bleed pinstripes. From April to October, most of my evenings are spent watching and wondering where my Boys of Summer are headed. Today, I learned that the Yankees had signed a free agent pitcher,CC Sabathia, to a 7 year contract worth $161 million. I am disgusted.

We have just paraded the heads of the Big 3 before the cameras in an attempt to humiliate them, and humble an industry too long full of hubris. Corporate jets, and all signs of excess were to be abandoned. We are in a time of crisis, the automakers helped drive us there, and they were to act contrite. One of the lessons being learned was now was not a good time for a show of wealth.

I understand that the Yankees are not the engine for our doom In fact, we can all use a little escape from reality. We are told things are bad and will get worse before they get better. In these times, let the sports world entertain us, but do your business in quiet.

There is talk of the team offering AJ Burnett, another sometime wonder on the mound, $85 million over 5 years. Andy Pettite, a pitcher on the tail end of a glorious career, is seeking $16 million to play one more year. The Record (my local newspaper) reports today that "the Yankees will zoom past the $200 million (payroll) threshold in the coming weeks without guilt or shame".

When I see hundreds of billions dollars being pumped into our economy to try to save it from collapse; when millions are unemployed; when mortgage foreclosures are epidemic; when we all live in fear that we are headed into the possibility of a depression, don't tell us that 25 baseball players are going to make probably close to $10 million per person this season.

Ticket prices already reflect the Steinbrenner muscle flexing. The closest an average family of 4 will get to a good seat to watch a Yankee game this season is from their living room. When I am sitting with my son or daughter watching the game on televsion, I would rather be discussing the math involving the pitches thrown by CC Sabathia then trying to figure out how much he is being paid every time he steps foot on the mound.

Now is the time for quiet to be the new loud. Tone it down boys and do your business behind closed doors. I want to be able to look forward to April with a pure heart. I want to yell at the players for their misdeeds on the field, not the money in their pockets. Let us have that, in a time when we have little else.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holiday greetings to our incoming President

Dear President elect:

We wish you peace, serenity and success in the new year in dealing with:

1. Afghanistan
2. Pakistan
3. India
4. Iran
5. Iraq
6. Israel
7. North Korea
8. Russia
9. Georgia
12.Radical fundamentalists
13.Nuclear proliferation
15.World wide poverty and hunger
17.Wall Street
18.Main Street
20.Climate change
21.The greening of America
22.Health care reform
23.Social security reform
24.Education reform
25.Immigration reform
26.The Supreme Court

Welcome to 1600. Just recognize that this may not be the best time for you to try to quit smoking.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Starbury , the fall from grace

Parabolic wizard. Airball.
A onetime sometime shooting star, burnt out.
Forced out, found out, left out, forgot
Yesterday pried from your hands

Graceful in game, ugly in flight
Hard to watch this unfold
Defiant, denying, disputing The Man
Unwilling to let it go

In a prison, in a fishbowl, alone in a crowd
Standing up, standing out, looking in
Make a point, but never score
Nowhere to head, no home.

Overstayed your welcome
No reason, and no one cares
Goodbye, good luck, good times and bad
Starbury is no more.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Locked and loaded

Plaxico Burress is all of the following: a self-inflicted wound, a walking (limping) disaster and a poster child for stupidity . He has hurt himself, has damaged the image of his league, and faces serious questions concerning his continued employment and freedom. He has made a series of bad judgments throughout the years that have negatively affected his family, his teammates and his employers. He has shown himself to be a meltdown waiting to happen.

Having said all that, and in no way meaning to excuse the act of which he now stands accused (or in the eyes of Mayor Bloomberg, convicted and sentenced), I found it a striking coincidence that I had read, within the past week a series of essays in ESPN (the 12/1/08 issue) entitled "Living Scared". The cover piece, written by David Fleming, was followed up by a number of short pieces written by NFL players, and even one by a former policeman,now a security guard for the Denver Broncos.The articles focused on the perception by the league and the players that they are inviting targets for attack and discusses how they handle their concern.

Everything seems to center around the death of Sean Taylor, a former player for the Washington Redskins, who was killed when intruders entered his bedroom in his apartment in Miami on November 26, 2007. While his girlfriend and 18 month old daughter lay under the covers in the room, Taylor was shot and killed. Fleming reports that many players "can't shake the feeling that someone is out here, beyond the blinds, lurking". Other recent incidents include a New Year's 2007 shooting and killing of a player outside a Denver nightclub, while riding in his limousine; the June 2008 robbery of a player by the Vegas strip, in which he was beaten unconscious; the September, 2008 shooting (14 times) of a player (Richard Collier) leading to the amputation of one leg above the knee and his being paralyzed; and the robbery at gunpoint last week of a teammate of Burress.

The response of the players has been as one might expect. Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers spoke of having someone brandish a weapon in his face. His reaction was to have a bodyguard with him at all times. He said there was something about this that was so sad, but he does what he has to as he feels he is trying to save (his) life. In September 2007, Dunte Robinson while living in a gated community, was the victim of a robbery in his apartment. A gun was pushed in his face, and his arms and legs were duct taped. Until that point, he never owned a gun or thought he needed one. Now he does.

Another player guessed that gun ownership in the NFL was about 50% of all players.

The stories go on and on. Many, like Fred Taylor, who was a teammate of Richard Collier, talk of guns making them feel safe. Derrick Brooks, a Tampa Bay Buccaneer echoes what he believes every player thought after the death of Taylor, that if it happened to him, it could happen to me. He said that players had to remember " not everyone is crazy about us being blessed".

The other evening,Plaxico Burress placed himself and those around him in unnecessary jeopardy. By pure 'good luck', his carrying and discharge of a concealed weapon, illegally possessed by him, did limited physical damage. I understand that the message to come from this incident is not to excuse the act merely because the result was not horrifying. Punishment will come, and should. I do not attempt to justify why Burress was cocked and ready for action when he entered the nightclub. However, I do have some idea why this was so.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The much smaller 3


We see that:
1. you each came here today by foot
2. you have agreed to forego any salary until we decide you appear responsible with your personal spending habits.
3. you will require our written approval before you manufacture even a door handle on a car
4. you have sold the corporate jets and donated all the money to a save the economy foundation.
5. you will reduce your workforce to 100 people by next Wednesday

So, why are we not convinced that you are deserving or our attention or our money?


1. Why is there this level of oversight (and begging) regarding the auto industry and their request for up to $34 billion, but a free flow of hundreds of billions to banks, other financial institutions and insurance companies with no questions asked?

2. Why do we not get a dog and pony show regarding matters like the estimated $20 billion in year end bonuses that may be handed out from the $125 billion given to keep the financial institutions afloat?

3. Why are you not concentrating your time and efforts on getting money into each of our pockets, making us able to breathe and to walk into a car dealership with funds and a low cost loan?

4. Where is the flow of credit from the lending institutions with the monies you gave them?

5. How can any business plan for the auto industry work until you force the money out of the tightly clenched fists of the lenders and into the economy?

I heard a new estimated figure of government money and guarantees necessary to resuscitate the economy of 7.5 trillion. Let's deal with the bigger picture and let the auto makers go home with tails between their legs and money to survive in a smaller, more efficient, 21st century form until better days come.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What did they say?

I read with much interest the series of articles in the Sunday Opinion page of November 30,2008. We as a nation are facing unprecedented economic difficulties. As many of us try to analyze these problems , I believe we share a common dilemma. None of us have any idea what the experts are saying to us and what it all means.

I have been advised at various moments in recent weeks that we face the possibility of inflation, stagflation or deflation. Depending on the time of day and whether Jupiter is aligned with Mars, it appears that a particular solution is the answer de jour. We seem to have given away billions of dollars with no understanding and no oversight. We are putting so many fingers in the dike at the same time that we are now using our toes to stop the flow. We are twisting ourselves into knots, and we have no concrete knowledge as to whether this is doing any real good.

Mr. Boskin, Mr. Leuchtenburg, Mr. Stiglitz, Mr. Hornats, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Lindsey are all undoubtedly brilliant economists with keen insight. However, they must understand that we are all dumber than fifth graders. While they may be talking, all we are hearing is the sound of a sinking economy. Until we feel that we are given the ABC's of where we stand, what we are doing, and the reality of what it truly means, we will all continue to feel that what we are being told is just sound and fury signifying nothing.