The Lonely Crowd

If you’re anything like me, loneliness is one of the worst feelings imaginable.

It’s not being alone that ‘s bad. I often love being alone. It’s the feeling that you have no choice, that you are isolated, alienated, unable to connect.

When I first moved back to New York City to be a summer associate at a big law firm I was incredibly lonely. I had a lot of friends from college and high school living in the city but they had been here for years so their lives were full, established. They had jobs, friends, lovers, hobbies. They were happy, set, and never lonely.

That’s how it felt, at least. It’s not really how it was, though. Most of them were far from “set.” They were often sad and lonely and sometimes they hated their jobs. A lot of them didn’t even like their friends all that much. These were people they’d fallen in with but we were all young enough that we hadn’t yet built up friendships of choice; mostly these were friends of chance or necessity.

But I didn’t know this at the time. So I not only felt lonely. I felt uniquely lonely. Lonely in my loneliness.

I walked a lot when I was lonely. It used up time. It also let me discover parts of the city that I didn’t know all that well. I learned how neighborhoods were connected in a way you don’t see when you’re on the subway or riding in cabs.

I went to every free thing I could. New York has lots of free events, especially during the summer. Free movies, free concerts, free lectures.

Mostly, though, these made me feel lonelier. Everyone else had a group. It seemed like I was the only one alone. I was sure I seemed weird, that I stood out, that I was a creepy loner in their eyes. Of course, in reality, that wasn’t true. Those strangers didn’t think I was a psycho; they didn’t really notice me at all.

For a little while it felt like my best friend was a girl who worked in beer tent at the Central Park summer stage. I’d flirt with her, try to make her laugh. Hope she didn’t notice I was always alone. I doubt she really paid much attention.

Sometimes I crashed parties. Just like the big events, parties were usually a disaster because I would feel like the only lonely person in a crowded room.

I’d make up fantastic lies about myself. I told people I was an artist with a revolutionary credo. We only painted on stolen materials with inappropriate paints that wouldn’t last. The quest for permanence and legacy had distorted art so we made art that could not be preserved.

I said We, because, of course, I was part of a movement. I wasn’t this lonely guy without any friends.

I’m still lonely sometimes. But not like I used to be. And now I know I’m not uniquely lonely. Everyone feels alone. We’re all in this together.

My friend James has some good advice on how not to be lonely. I’ve done a lot of these things, from inviting strangers for coffee or drinks to organizing dinner parties to calling old friends.

For me, ultimately, it was writing that helped. Blogging in particular. I read about other peoples lives and ideas; I wrote about mine; we’d shyly meet up for drinks to see if we were as cool as we sounded in our writing. I never was; very few of us were; only a couple of the girls were. But we liked each other, a lot.

Now it’s even easier. There’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. So many ways to introduce yourself to others and to meet new people. It still takes some courage, of course. But remember a lot of those smiling, happy people you see on the internet feel like their lives are still missing something. That something might be you.

UnBearable: The Unbelievable Awfulness of the Berenstain Bears

(Note: This originally ran in the Fall 2012 issue of Scooter, the now-defunct parents magazine published by the New York Observer. Scooter’s website no longer works, so I’m putting this up here.)

Late last October, I found myself looking for a children’s book about Thanksgiving, something to introduce my two-and-half year old daughter to the approaching holiday. Owing to a surprising dearth of children’s literature about this cherished autumn feast, I wound up with The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks.

Here’s what happens in the book: Papa Bear has been doing work for a local farmer, who pays with a live turkey. Sister Bear adopts the turkey as a pet and refuses to eat turkey at Thanksgiving. The family relents and eats fish for Thanksgiving instead.

Give Thanks is part of the Berenstain’s “Living Light” series, a subdivision of Berenstain country in which lessons about God are imparted. I have no idea why the Berenstain God approves the eating of fish but not turkey on Thanksgiving. But I do know that the last thing a parent of a toddler needs is literary and faith-based encouragement for picky eating.

After just a few doses of that finicky Sister Bear’s behavior, my daughter arrived at her grandparents’ home for Thanksgiving with a driving passion against eating turkey. To her, the main point of the holiday appeared to be about avoiding the consumption of turkey, as it was for Sister Bear. For all I know, her two-year-old theology thought God hated turkey eaters. Thanks, Berenstains!

Berenstains will infiltrate your life in a number of ways. A well-meaning friend brings a Berenstain Bears book to a birthday party. Your mother in-law visits with a well-worn copy from your spouse’s childhood library. Perhaps you pick up one of the Berenstain books because of the relevance of its theme. This is one of the Berenstain Book Industrial Complex’s tricks: there are hundreds of titles, one for almost any occasion: a Valentine’s Day book, a first-day-at-school book, a budget-cuts-shutting-down-a-school-play-ground book, even a neighborhood-racial-integration book.

Since you are not an imbecile, you are initially put off by the hideous cover. It is sure to feature four or five members of the Berenstain family—all absurdly and insultingly ugly. Mama Bear is wearing a hat or, more commonly, a bonnet—a bonnet!—and a dress that looks like it was smuggled off the grounds of a breakaway post-Mormon polygamist cult. Brother Bear and Sister Bear are identical except for their clothes—blue slacks for Brother, some hideous pink romper for Sister. Papa Bear somehow wears overalls all of the time. Honey Bear, the baby of the family introduced in 2000, seems to be thrown in as an afterthought—which, in fact, she was.

Open the book and the situation is no better. The illustrations would be dull if the colors were not so garish. The bears typically stand around in wooden poses with not a suggestion of dynamism or movement. Their faces bear no indication of thought or emotional presence, unless a grin or grimace counts towards such a thing. Not a hint of charm or whimsy or technique redeems any of the art. The bears are devoid of wit. It’s a wonder anyone would inflict these pictures on a story that someone had actually taken the time to write.

At this point, if you are lucky or particularly wise, you will have set aside the Berenstain Bears. Preferably far from home, somewhere it will never be discovered by your offspring. If you are unlucky or unwise, the book will find its way into the proximity of your child. You will be asked to read the book. This is your last chance. You must refuse to read it. Do anything but read it. Suggest a different book. G oout to the park. Resort to declaring it ice cream time, if you must. But do not read the Berenstain Bears to a child.

Reading the book will reveal that the story is—unbelievably—worse than the art. The art merely betrayed lack of thoughtfulness. But the story is to thought as a black hole is to starlight. Where the art lacked action, the plot is grindingly dull. Where the drawings lacked whimsy, the text reads as if it were written under rigid orders to avoid creativity. There are no jokes that are funny. No surprises that are unexpected. It’s all wooden grins and grimaces.

As a parent, you know what is likely to follow: you will be required to read the book over and over. Your child will demand it at naptime, at bedtime, whenever his or her day becomes just slow enough to remember that some-where in the house there is a book about bears. Time and time again, you will spend precious minutes with your child—time you should rightfully be cherishing—resentfully reading the worst children’s books ever written.

The drudgery stems from the generic characters. As the official Berenstain Bears website puts it, the bears’ names were chosen to “emphasize their archetypical roles in the family.” But that fancy word “archetype” is wishful thinking. They are more like half-conceived types. The bear children are neither childlike or child-ish—they are likeish. Mama and Papa and Honey are likeish too. They are approximations of abstractions. To call the Berenstains anthropomorphized bears insults both humans and bears.

The incessant moral hectoring makes the dull-ness ever more excruciating. Each plot is organized around the relentless pursuit of a life lesson: Don’t be mean to your brother, mind your parents, weary our helmet and kneepads while skateboarding, don’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Fine enough advice, except for the weird turkey thing, but it is rendered tedious by the lack of imagination with which the themes are introduced, explored and resolved. It’s like watching a train wreck that you see coming a mile away—except there is no wreck. Just a train reliably pulling into station after station after station. The Berenstain books are the train spotting of children’s literature.

Most insidious is the Berenstain empire’s cleverness in coopting the otherwise unassailable canon of bear books for children, at whose pinnacle sits A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. The Berenstains are clearly derivative of the three bears encountered by Goldilocks. (Brother Bear was originally called Little Bear—and Sister Bear wasn’t introduced until later.) Don Freeman’s Corduroy tells the sweet tale of a stuffed bear looking for a home. Paddington Bear stows aboard a ship from Peru to London.

But the Berenstain series repudiates this proud tradition’s central tenet: that a book can be wonderful for parents and children. The franchise seems founded upon the almost anti-literary idea that children must be taught early reading through books whose art and narrative make them unbearable to read. Sure, kids may like them—but kids will drink detergent if you leave it in a cup placed on a low table. They aren’t the best judges.

Despite the dreadfulness of these novellas, they have been selling for 50 years, originally blessed by none other than Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. A few of the earliest installments, especially those rewritten in rhyme like the series-launching Big Honey Hunt, are admittedly pleasant reads. Not great, but good enough if you don’t have a Milne or Freeman around. But in short order, the books went terribly wrong. My research into the Berenstain oeuvre confirms that they have been awful for decades.

Perhaps we get the literature we deserve. But surely the delivery of just desserts has constitutional limits, I hope. Because even the most annoying parents among us should be spared these Bears.

Back on March 4, I posted the top two charts.

 The use of all types of collateral in the inter-dealer GCF repo market has fallen dramatically. The average daily value of Treasury GCF repos in February was down 32.25% from a year ago. Repos financed with Fannie and Freddie’s debt were down 60.86%. Agency MBS GCF down 53.32%.

In part, this appears to be driven by quantitative easing. If you look at the chart, you’ll see a lot of correlation with QE events and the peaks in the Treasury and MBS GCF repos. For example, the last peak (on the right of the chart) came in September 2013, the taper head fake. 

Why would QE drive down GCF repos? I think the explanation is that QE and and GCF repo do something very similar: exchange Treasuries and MBS for cash deposits. If you’ve got a lot of cash from QE, you don’t need to borrow it on the GCF repo market. The fall in rates in the GCF market supports this, I guess.

One question: if there’s a lot of substitution of QE for GCF repo, does this mean QE is less effective? Seems to me that the “Q” part of QE has to do with quantity. If market participants are decreasing their access to cash on the GCF market because they’re getting it through QE, there’s not much net QE going on at all.

An alternative explanation (or perhaps complementary): MBS issuance is way down as well. Bond trading is down as well (as you can see in the bars on the chart; notice, however, that the trading and repo markets are on a different scale). So the decline in GCF funding could be driven by “demand” as well. With fewer issues and trades, the need for financing should decline.

The stacked version of the GCF chart really shows the contraction nicely.

A few days, on March 7 later I posted this and the third chart: 

Those of you following the great GCF Repo mystery will want to see this chart.

Looks like a big part of the absence of GCF can be explained by the Fed’s new reverse repo facility.

Feeling Froggy with Robin Williams

I never met Robin Williams but my daughter Rose did.

I think Mork & Mindy changed my life. I’m not sure I can explain how but my wife probably can. She often feels like she lives with a clueless alien and I usually agree. Mork, Robin Williams, taught me that was okay. Maybe even normal in a really not-normal way.

Rose was standing on a corner in Brooklyn. She was 3 1/2 years old. It was a rainy day so she was wearing her froggy rain boots.

"Are your boots made out of frogs?" asked a stranger.

"Yes. In a sense," Rose replied.

"I hope that sense isn’t smell. Because dead frogs smell like formaldehyde," the stranger said.

"How rude!" Rose told him. She wondered if her boots smelled and what formal-ideahide might be.

"Too true," he said.

The light changed. Robin Williams stood still. As Rose crossed the street, she heard a sound from behind her.

"Ribbit. Ribbit. Ribbit."

RIP Robin Williams. Thanks for all the laughs.

Godel’s Loophole: A Mystery Resolved

One of the great unsolved problems of American constitutional law goes by the name of “Godel’s Loophole.”  

I’ve solved the problem. But before I get to the solution, let’s go through the problem.

Kurt Godel, the famous Austrian mathematician and philosopher who emigrated to America, once claimed to have found a logical contradiction in the U.S. Constitution. Because of this fatal flaw, the U.S. was vulnerable to being transformed into a dictatorship, according to Godel.

The story of the loophole comes to us from Princeton University mathematician Oskar Morgenstern. He says that Godel claimed to have discovered the constitutional weakness while studying for his U.S. citizenship examination. 

Morgenstern and Albert Einstein both tried to dissuade Godel from spending too much time thinking about this point. Apparently they had a lot of conversations about this because Godel was obsessed with the point. You probably would be too if you had lived to see Austria transform from a Republic to a fascist state.

 Morgenstern and Einstein warned Godel that he really shouldn’t press this point during the citizenship interview. What happened next will blow your mind, as the internet likes to say.

When we came to Trenton, we were ushered into a big room, and while normally the witnesses are questioned separately from the candidate, because of Einstein’s appearance, an exception was made and all three of us were invited to sit down together, Gödel, in the center. The examiner first asked Einstein and then me whether we thought Gödel would make a good citizen. We assured him that this would certainly be the case, that he was a distinguished man, etc.

And then he turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?
Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.
The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?
Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.
The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.
Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.

So of all the possible questions, just that critical one was asked by the examiner. Einstein and I were horrified during this exchange; the examiner was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief.”

So what was Godel’s loophole? The answer doesn’t seem to have been recorded in any surviving document. Speculation is rampant on the internet. Most of it, of course, is deeply unsatisfactory.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a loophole and I think it’s what Godel had in mind. It meets the most important criteria: it is based on ‘inner contradictions’; it could lead to the end of the Republican form of government; it is not obvious or widely known.

The problem arises because of a flaw in Article II of the constitution. Section 1 of this article assigns the executive power to the president, sets the term for elected presidents and vice-presidents at 4 years, and establishes the electoral college procedures for presidential elections.

It also limits the presidency to natural born citizens, sets the minimum age, provides for the compensation of the president, and includes the oath of office of the president.

The problem arises from the 6th clause, which describes the succession to the presidency in certain cases. 

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

This leaves open the question of who shall be president when the vice president and the president are both removed, dead, or incapacitated. Congress gets to decide who shall act as President.

There is, however, no mention of a term of office for this type of president. The four year term mentioned in the first clause of Article II clearly refers to elected presidents and vice presidents. Neither is there an indication of when the next election must be held. And so long as there is no election, the Congressionally selected officer remains president. 

That is, Congress could remove an elected president and vice-president and set up a new, unelected president who could hold the office indefinitely. 

This section of the constitution was amended in 1967 but that amendment doesn’t resolve this problem. Godel’s Loophole is still there.

Venn Diagram of Venn Diagrams.
In honor John Venn’s 180th birthday.
(Note: I didn’t create this and don’t know the source. If you made it, let me know and I’ll gladly give you credit.)

Venn Diagram of Venn Diagrams.

In honor John Venn’s 180th birthday.

(Note: I didn’t create this and don’t know the source. If you made it, let me know and I’ll gladly give you credit.)