Half-way risk

When control operators and their managers in large critical infrastructures know that some events must never happen—the nuclear reactor shouldn’t blow up, the urban supply shouldn’t get cryptosporidium, the electricity grid shouldn’t island—and we know that they know because they behave accordingly, then better practices emerge for ensuring so. Mandates to reliably preclude certain events put enormous pressure to focus on and adapt practices that are working to meet the mandates.

If so, then conventional risk analysis gets its questions only half right by stopping short of the other questions to be asked beforehand. The conventional questions, “What could go wrong?” “How likely is that?” and “What are the consequences if that were to happen?” should be preceded by: “What’s working?” “What’s even better?” “How can we get there?” and only then do we ask: “What could go wrong in trying to get there?” “How likely is that?” and “What are the consequences if that were to happen?

Red in tooth and claw

My bête noire has been the dentist’s assistant, now-dental hygienist, and what they euphemize as teeth-cleaning. “Ah, our gums still don’t look good, do they, Mr. Roe?”

I’ve been doing this leeching for over 50 years and the only thing to change in that time is my having to do more and more of the work. What, they say, surely you brush your teeth at least twice a day now? You mean you don’t also floss? You are shoving wood and plastic splinters between every one of your teeth, correct? Why ever aren’t you using a water pick?

Where—I ask them when able—is that amazing tooth paste with a quantum jump in plaque/tartar reduction? That truly restorative mouthwash and its dramatic improvements? Those temporary teeth caps or permanent enamelization or something to stop the need for further blood-letting?

One—Half—Century of zero, nada, zilch. “The only option would be to sterilize mouths, Mr. Roe, and we can’t do, can we?” I suppose I’ve not helped matters by calling them Butcher Bob or such.

Laying there, I had an epiphany. Of course, the doctor-patient interaction is the sharp-end of healthcare, but what about healthcare’s strong-end?

The strong-end of healthcare is where reliability and safety reign. We know the manufacture of vaccines, compounds and medicines can be made reliable and safe, at least up to the point of injection or ingestion. In this way, failure in those processes is exceptionally notable (think: fungal meningitis contamination of pain management injections in the US)—precisely because failure is so preventable.

Now compare the pharmacist/prescriptionist responsible for ensuring the reliable and safe pharmacy with the dental hygienists and their free samples. We might as well be clawing away on two different planets.


“If people acted at the level of rationality presumed in standard economics textbooks, the world’s standard of living would be measurably higher,” assures Alan Greenspan, former chair of the US Federal Reserve. So what if really-existing markets are one of the most hybridized of social institutions? So what’s wrong with believing that the answer to always-incomplete regulation must be always-incomplete markets?

Let there be no doubt that the cretinization fostered by economism follows from its lethal attraction to a timelessness that voids context and difference.

Open The Twentieth Century Fund’s 1945 publication, Financing American Prosperity: A Symposium of Economists and turn to the summary recommendations culled from its contributors. There you find: “Create budget surplus for debt repayment,” “Create budget surplus to reduce inflation,” “Avoid [public works] projects that compete with private investment,” “Abolish double taxation of distributed earnings,” “Raise interest rates when inflation threatens,” “Avoid wage increases beyond increases in productivity,” “Eliminate restrictive trade practices,” and such. These same nostrums are the ones we have been talking about for over the last seven decades, and doubtless will be so in the decades ahead, if economism has anything to say about it.

Though, the most blisteringly obvious fact is that WE ARE NOT LIVING IN THE 1940s. We are, to put it mildly, in a different mess today.

The earlier nostrums remain salient not because of timeless economic theory, but because the really-existing systemwide patterns we recognize today and the really-existing contingency scenarios we face now render the notion of “economic practice” still intelligible to us in real time.

And, what, you don’t think the practice of economics has changed? Why then , for example, has economics altered so much since the advent of large datasets?


What is being avoided by those who hanker for Nature Pure—or what today would have to be a repristinated nature? What is being denied, I speculate, is that human-dominated landscapes provide the only experience we have had of anything like a presettlement template. The antimony (settlement v presettlement) is no antimony at all: The human world provides some of the most enduring examples of “repristinated nature” we have ever had.

How so? Take these two examples: 

1. “In Ise, Mie prefecture, west of Tokyo, a Shinto shrine said to date from the third century is razed to the ground and rebuilt to the same specifications every 20 years. The question of whether it is two decades or two millennia old is thus open to interpretation.”  Financial Times correspondent, David Pilling.

2.  “Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure – though one we stand some times outside of, at other times within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds us there is something unknowable is always present in life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended  – yet as real as any other rock amid the raked gravel.” Poet, Jane Hirschfield.

Both describe the inability of the observer to hold a stable focus on what is being seen. Yes, you’re seeing a shrine, but the rest is undecideable and that matters; yes, you are seeing a garden, but the rest is out of sight and that matters too in the same moment. So too it was said of Nature Pure and the Sublime.

John Berger, art critic (and so much more), writes of one landscape: “The scale is. . .of a kind which offers no possibility of any focal centre. This means that it does not lend itself to being looked at. That is, there is no place to look at from. It surrounds you but never faces you.” Imagine here herders moving onto an empty, horizon-less plain; or night watchers looking up into the open, depthless annihilation beyond.

That very same experience, I argue, can be felt in different contexts of the human world (my two examples are from Japan, but I could have just easily described the lack of focus I felt in the Holocaust Tower of the Jewish Museum Berlin).

To assume or act otherwise is, I believe, to deny the obvious fact that something like the sublime can be and is experienced in “everyday life,” and has always been.

Poverty and war

–My methodological point is this. If social complexity is defined in terms of the number of components in a system, the different functions each component has, and the interconnections between and among components and functions, then the more components, functions and interconnections, the more complex the system. The more complex the system, the more understandable it is that I’m missing something about an issue that is, literally, right in front of me. To make visible what I’ve not been seeing is to make visible new opportunities for seeing other things I’ve also been missing. My own answer to, “What am I missing that is right in front of me”, is to create, arbitrarily and contingently, a set of new interconnections (new to me), whose unforeseen but now visible resonances mimic the complexity of interest.

Examples for poverty and war follow.

–To answer, “What am I missing when I look at poverty the way I do?,” is for me much like reading a mystery novel twice: The first time I read to find out what happened by way of what is described and evoked. The second time I read to figure out and evaluate what I missed by way of how the mystery was constructed. As English Literature professor, Leona Toker, put it, the first reading is the reading of a mystery as it unfolds; the second is about the convention(s) at work in making the mystery I read. In like fashion, reading power is also about two readings: What you now know (how power worked itself out in the case at hand) enables you to reread what you have already read as “a case of this kind.”

This implies a complex policy issue (poverty) should be read at least twice, first as a policy issue and second as any such policy issue involving these rather than those conventions of issue construction: What does policy say? And what did we miss by way of saying it this, rather than that, way?

Here’s an example. Consider the following reports by Zimbabwe villagers:

March, 1992
“We are not yet getting food for drought relief”
“there is no body who bring us food”

“He has got a problem of starvation he is not working and he has got seven children.”

“The problem of water here is sirious so that they need borehole and their cattle are very thin because there is no grass”
“Trees die when they plant them”
“This man is a criple that he needs help, but he is very intelligent that he tries to help himself”
“She is old and she is blind and she is a widow and she does not have anyone to help her with food. No clothes no blankets. They do no have cattle to plough with this year”

“At present two girls have left school they are just sitted at home. They can’t get money to pay schoolfees”
“They have no food. She has a family of six children”
“They are starving”
“The cattle are dying”

What was to be done? That depends on my—your?—two readings. The first is the unfolding immediacy of dire times in the village; the second is identifying the conventional responses to what is described, running the gamut typically from food-for-work schemes to regime change.

But, and here is the point, the minute you respond this way is the minute that logically and empirically prior question moves to the fore: What am I missing? What am I missing by way of appealing to these kinds of conventional answers to those individual cases of, what, poverty?

My answer—the resonances, ad hoc and adventitious, for today and now as I write—starts with the book I’m currently reading, Guy Davenport’s 1998 Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature. How does this book, arbitrarily chosen and most certainly arbitrarily used, help me find out something about “poverty” that I didn’t think about before?

On one page, I read: “Pausanias described Greece without a single view of meadow or wood, riverbank or mountain.” This reminds me that somewhere in The Country and the City, Raymond Williams remarks that what was missing from rural landscape paintings were the all the farm laborers in the fields. The point being, as I remember it, that it is all too easy by way of convention to stylize the working poor out of the picture.

Where so, the issue becomes in my mind: In what picture—to be clear, in what second reading of the above quotes—are the Zimbabwean villagers NOT stylized out in favor of programs and political responses that end up having a life of their own, above and beyond these villagers?

The consequence of thinking this way can be profound, and not just for Zimbabwean villagers. “The frisson afforded by rereading is the discovery not only of things one missed the first time round but of the changes in oneself,” concludes critic, Joseph Epstein.

–What missing when it comes to understanding war? Since that too depends on what I’ve been reading and thinking about recently, here is my answer for today and now.

I just finished reading the Collected Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill, which discussed a World War I poet I don’t remember reading before, Ivor Gurney. Which in turn sends me to his poems, which leads me to his “War Books” and the following lines:

“What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger – the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?
Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,
Who promised no reading, nor praise, nor publication?
Out of the heart’s sickness the spirit wrote
For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war’s worst anger,
When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense
Somehow together, and find this was life indeed….”

The lines, “What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?”, reminds me of a anecdote John Ashbery, the poet, told in one of his essays:

“Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.”

It’s as if Chuang-tzu’s desiring—hungering—after a dream also produced the perfect drawing. In contrast, Gurney’s next two lines, “Did they look for a book off wrought art’s perfection,/Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?” reminds me of very different story, seemingly making the opposite point (I quote from Peter Jones’ Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II):

“Cicero said that, if anyone asked him what god is or what he is like, he would take the Greek poet Simonides as his authority. Simonides was asked by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, the same question, and requested a day to think about it. Next day Hiero demanded the answer, and Simonides begged two more days. Still no answer. Continuing to double up the days, Simonides was eventually asked by Hiero what the matter was. He replied, ‘The longer I think about the question, the more obscure than answer seems to be.’”

I think Hiero’s question was perfect in its own right by virtue of being unquestionably unanswerable. In the case of Chuang-tzu, What can be more perfect than the infallible image that emerges, unstoppably, from a single stroke? In the case of Simonides, what can be more insurmountable than the perfect question without answer?

Yet here is Gurney providing the same answer to each question: War ensures the unstoppable and insurmountable are never perfect opposites—war, rather, patches them together as living: “Somehow together, and find this was life indeed”. It’s not only that, since war is life, perfection doesn’t exist; it is also because war reduces everything to every thing, together. “Everything here is a substitute for everything else,” Janet Flanner the journalist reported of the French in 1945.

–Once, however, you take time to question just what is “unstoppable and insurmountable,” then what is everything and every thing is up for grabs. It’s worth noting that some people rework and recast the unstoppable and insurmountable all the time, and not just for war-as-life.

Ashbery records poet, David Schubert, saying of the great Robert Frost: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”

So too “a good deal of the world” is up for grabs, as in: Our arms go out—like this—or in towards ourselves; in either case we cover a good deal of the world for recasting. And how could the possibilities for recasting not be limitless, when our starting point is an already complex human system and complex issues, i.e., they are complex by virtue of having many components, functions and interconnections, manifest as well as latent?


The future is the mess we’re in now

–Humans are a forward-looking species, it’s been said, if only because of our use of the future tense. In fact, if we are to believe Kant, the three most important questions in our lives are entirely future-oriented: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?

That, though, is the pull side of the transaction of the future tense: The ends to be achieved through more knowledge and hope are what pull us into the future. There is the push side as well: To live in the present with our questions and answers is to push us closer to a future where the originating questions and current answers have to matter still. We use to refer to the latter as that Augustinian threefold present—past as present remembrance, present as direct experience, and future as present expectation.

–With that in mind, once we get rid of the notion that the future is “what lies ahead” as if it were a land yet visited, the easier it is to understand why predictions about that future are never proven false or true. Rather: If the future is the mess now—that is, our inability to predict it always preoccupies us—then the future is far more now than later. Or as novelists have long known, it’s already difficult enough to predict the present.

–What’s a policy example and, anyway: So what?

First itemize a few of the apocalyptic predictions that have failed to materialize over the past five decades: global nuclear war, communist world hegemony, global starvation, global oil depletion, global epidemics, a prolonged night/new ice age triggered by burning oil wells during the Gulf War, and the international meltdown because of the millennium computer bug.

Now itemize—again an arbitrary few—crises we have actually lived through in just the last three decades or so: the 1987 market meltdown, the banking crisis of the early 1990s, the Mexican near-default in early 1996, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Long Term Capital Management collapse in 1998; the bursting of the dot.com/stock market bubble in 2000, the terrorist attacks in September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the breakdown in the Doha round of multilateral trade talks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, the default of Greece and the increased fissures in EU; the resurgence in Western populism and nativism. . .(and don’t forgot the Argentine default of 2001 and the world fisheries collapse and. . .)

“How many times do you need to hear the world is ending before you realize it isn’t ending,” asks author, Michael Lewis.

When, we must all ask, does unremitting apocalypticism become apocrapha?

And yet, still, this habituated response: “But, but it could get worse, very worse!” Well, yes, it could. But just as well couldn’t the crux of the matter be that such lists demonstrate a resilience in the admittedly crisis-prone that many underestimate, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, globally?

Or to put the issue in terms of the opening points, what are we now getting from this habituation with the messes of it-could-get-very-very-very-much-worse, these being ones we (want/have to) live in and with now? One answer: By definition, doing so saves us all the trouble and worry of having to figure out the details of the disasters we find unpredictable, now.

Another way to put this is that the good messes are to be found in working out the lived details (i.e., where context and contingency are most variable), and many predictions avoid or obscure such details, deliberately. In the mid-1970s a group of physicists and political scientists met at MIT and “arrived at the conclusion that if a World Government was not implemented soon, the probability of a nuclear war before the year 2000 would be close to 100 percent”. But since when did academics become experts on the details of implementation, operations and management?

What to do, then? I confess a preference here. Where better to start than with those geoengineering proposals for climate change. Think about it: Except for nuclear war, what better way to bring the governments of the world to their collective knees than ‘‘solutions’’ like those that would engorge the skies with mirrors and the seas with iron, all because climate change leaves humanity no choice—no alternative—but to be unreliable on unprecedented scales? Personally, I hope—my nod to Kant—that we spend wads of money on these guys, keeping them at their computers so they never see the light of day.

Loose ends

–First it was rich families—later, the ruling classes—who governed the country; then the capitalists came into clearer view; and afterwards came the New Class, that better-off techno-managerial elite with the answers. Now they’re all bunched up into “you lot,” as in “that conga line of sick-fucks and numb-nuts running the place.” And yet we’re to believe that the only genuine political project today must begin with, what, setting tax rates on that lot?

–Ours is the radical work that comes with understanding that betterment requires capitalizing on the messy socio-technical systems (some are called infrastructures) without which most of us would not have chances for betterment. Radical can’t be dumbed down and still be radical.

–What feels like the turbo-speed of societal change seems less a function of the knowledge we have or are obtaining than the existence of the complexity which we do not (yet?) know—in parallel to dark energy “accounting” for why the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down.

–Policy narratives have beginning, middles and ends, and those narratives capitalize on the functionality of having means and ends in view; the function of policy messes is to frustrate that storyline. At times that is a very good mess to be in.

–The story is told that Beau Brummell, when asked by a companion which of the lakes he preferred, asked his valet, “Which one of the northern lakes do I prefer?” “I believe it is Windermere, sir,” replied the valet. Whereupon Brummell turned to his questioner, “Apparently it is Windermere.” Quite droll—until you realize his “apparently” is indifferent even to drollness. Indifference—not caring one way or another—is a killer in public policy and management.

–According to Bertrand Russell via sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, economics is about how people make choices and sociology is about why they don’t have any choice to make. If so, then neuroscience is about why both views are true only as far as they go—and they most certainly do not go far enough.

–When the doctor tells me that I have 1 out of 5 chances of having a heart attack or stroke within the next ten years, he’s giving me a perspective on what might be ahead. But for the life of me I can’t explain why the “probably” perspective in the lines of poet, A.R. Ammons, is far more certain and truthful:

though I
have not been here long, I can
look up at the sky at night and tell
how things are likely to go for
the next hundred million years:
the universe will probably not find
a way to vanish nor I
in all that time reappear

–As for the last financial crisis, the only difference between the advocates of alchemical economism and Professor Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and KGB agent seeking to undermine capitalism from within, is that Blunt didn’t have as good a roadmap to subversion as the Efficient Market Hypothesis, Value at Risk Model, and other such weaponry.

Soup de jour:           

  • Major premise: All politics are local.
  • Minor premise: A trillion-dollar war, a 100-dollar barrel of oil, $3.50 for a gallon of gas—and still there is no screaming in the streets?!
  • Conclusion: The minor premise is not about politics as we know them; or politics are premises in search of conclusions other than the one you are reading right now.

What would such a conclusion look like? Here soup concedes to stew. You might conclude the political world is much more cluttered than we even imagine, akin to those notoriously messy studios of artists, Edgar Degas and Francis Bacon.