Thursday, June 17, 2010

Remembrances From A Neighbor

My heartfelt condolences to you and your family. I'm sure you're
having your share of heavy conversations so as I see you out and about
I'll try to stick to the small, everyday, shoot the breeze talk. We
really do ache for you and your family but feel kind of powerless to
express it.

From my neighborly vantage, I thought I could share some of my
remembrances and interactions with Thai. Foremost, aside from Thai's
all-around friendly disposition and usual wearing of a smile, a
defining impression he left with me was his immense intellectual
curiosity. I don't pretend to know the whole of Thai, but I had a
small window into his intellectual curiosity through some of my
interactions with him. Thai knew that I had some connection to the
finance industry, so on occasion he'd see me as a sparring partner for
some idea he was exploring or interested in through one of the
economic blogs, sites or books he was studying up on.

At least with me, Thai had this uncanny knack of taking me from
"Hello, how's it going?" to 30 seconds later my finding myself in the
deep end of some conversation with him on the housing and credit
bubble, health care reform, an impending financial crisis, an abstract
theory or simply a recommendation of some non-fiction book he was
reading. As you well know Thai was drawn to these iconoclastic
economic blogs and sites with views on the economy and a possible
financial meltdown that at the time were well outside of the
mainstream of the opinion of economists and financial actors.

Most of my conversations with him on these topics took place two and
even three years ago, mostly before the financial meltdown. He'd come
bounding out of the house looking for J.J. and then get distracted
with an idea that was in his head and see me as a willing participant.
He'd share some of the dialogue he was having or absorbing on many of
these economic blogs. There was a fair amount of gloom and doom, and
prospects for an impending meltdown and why x, y and z factor would
bring this about. While it was just idle chat, I worked in an
industry where actually acting on this would have been useful. I
wouldn't say I was dismissive of the arguments, but I had this false
comfort in what proved also to be a falsehood that somewhere there had
to be some Grown-Up in charge in the financial markets or in
Government who should know more and wasn't about to let any of this
happen. And after one of these conversations, Thai would jokingly
claim that he was stocking up on ammo and canned food in his basement
for Armageddon.

So to give you an idea of where our conversations went they ranged
from financial markets to more esoteric and abstract ideas like Black
Swans and fractals. We got into the topic because we had both read
and liked an author Nassim Taleb who wrote "Black Swans." A Black
Swan is a rare, unexpected yet highly impactful event (good or bad).
Rather than being shaped by the tides of everyday life, history and
our own lives could be dominated by these outlying, and highly
impactful Black Swans. Of this theory, Thai was well aware. He
recommended and lent to me an earlier book by the same author called
"Fooled by Randomness," a book about luck and skill (and the confusing
of the two) and probability and randomness. And both books dealt with
fractals. I liked the book so much it took me 12 months to return it
and I probably read it 4 or 5 times over that span. Some of the
concepts from this book that Thai introduced me to have had a profound
effect in how I now approach my business life.

But Thai was biggest into fractals and could see them everywhere. I
can't really do the explanation justice but a fractal is like a tree
to a branch (or maybe a parent to an offspring) where the subset is a
miniature replica of the whole, not identical but similar. Some
systems are fractal in nature where there is an interconnectedness and
property to them like the weather, financial markets, populations,
natural systems and even human relations whereby the system has a
propensity to be sensitive to the initial conditions and then become
unpredictable over time. And unlike a simple linear row of dominoes
where one precipitating event initiates a, more or less, equal event,
in a fractal system each event amplifies the condition with each
iteration to the point where the entire system becomes unstable and
unpredictable. This is also known as the "butterfly effect," whereby
a butterfly flapping its wings in India can give rise to a hurricane
in some remote area like Florida. Hence, the interconnectedness of
seemingly small random events.

My interactions with Thai centered on this intellectual side, but
here's the subtle transition to the more human side. The financial
meltdown of which he was forewarning actually happened. Thai also
later came to know that my company folded and I was out of work as a
result of these same forces. And then the conversations on this topic
which had been frequent pretty much ceased. Now the truth is I
wouldn't have minded had they continued. But Thai didn't know that.
I think his empathetic side took over and he figured, "Who wants to
hear I told you so?" so he just let it be unsaid.

(E-mail to Katherine from neighbor E.S.)

No comments:

Post a Comment