In defense of trolls

The Ranking of Human Values

Let us rank what we value. In the end, we will conclude that we ought to be kind to trolls.

Thinking beats speaking because thoughtless speech is just noise.

Yet action speaks louder than words. This means acting is better than speaking.

Is acting better than thinking? Probably not because we also claim that the pen is stronger than the sword. He who lives by the sword dies by it. He who lives by the pen lives forever. Besides, when we’re thinking, we practice silence, and librarians will swear us all to that.

So there it is. Thinking is better than acting, which is then better than speaking.

What then is the point of protecting free speech if it is the lowest form of human interaction?

The answer lies in realizing that we also value compassion. We say that no man is an island, and that when the bell tolls, it tolls for all. We sense that the weakest have only speech. They can plead with the strong to spare them, but that’s about it. And the thinker, if he truly thinks, knows that there’s no point in thinking if he cannot protect the weak. The thinker understands the sense of justice that John Rawls imagined. He thinks that if he could choose his company or society, the thinker would choose to be born into a family of thinkers, and not warriors or orators.

When we see a troll earning his meager pay on canned ad hominem, we thank the Supreme Being that we weren’t born to be trolls. They’re there by an unfortunate act of God when He gave out talents. Trolls wish they could think or act, but all they have are meaningless words. And meager pay.

The pseudo-righteous proclaim that we shouldn’t feed the trolls. True enough. But the higher duty is to think and find ways to have a society where the undeserving rich wouldn’t be able to hire trolls.

In the end, we are all trolls. There are trolls, and there are trolls.

On Thought Leaders, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Sustainability

By Orlando Roncesvalles (January, 2020)

There’s an unfair amount of cheesy buzzwords out there.

It hit me one day when I came across something called “Thought Leaders.” My first reaction was to ask, “Are you kidding?” – addressed to no one in particular. When I think I’m thinking, I’m being me, moi. I’m doing the Cartesian thing (you know the drill: Cogito, ergo sum). Anyone without a working brain is just a rock, if not a pebble (but a glistening grain of sand can still capture the human imagination). This is a long-winded way of saying that if someone is “thought-leading” you or me, he’s not making sense. Never mind that Wikipedia defines “.. a thought leader [as] an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field .. whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”

One commentator once cynically described a thought leader as “.. a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts” (David Brooks of The New York Times, way back in 2013). In short, a thought leader is an intellectually bankrupt idea wanting to be paid big bucks. How can you be thinking if your puny brain is being led by its nostrils? That wait staff in Brooks’s satire was the smart one, if poorly paid.

Pretty much the same can be said of something called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). A somewhat extreme view, usually attributed to Milton Friedman, the economist, is that CSR is, like thought leadership, somewhat of an oxymoron. It’s neither social nor responsible. It isn’t needed at all and wouldn’t even exist without a budget. That budget comes from excess profits. Economists understand that Friedman saw the problem as a lack of competition. The textbook says that with easy exit and entry, the long-run profit is just enough to compensate shareholders, even as corporations use the most efficient technology to minimize costs and sell products at reasonable (affordable) prices.

The other (also somewhat extreme) view is that CSR is a worthwhile cause, like climate change. We need to restrain corporate “greed” through signaling devices (“My product is green or organic, not produced by slave or child labor, and I’m an NGO-certified good guy”), or by outright regulation. In this public relations ecosystem, CSR validates monopolistic pricing and ultra-high CEO compensation, or it runs on the fiction that regulators cannot be bought. Is there a middle ground? I admit to not knowing, though I believe that Friedman is right if corporations dealt only with private goods (those without negative externalities like pollution). In a world where corporations produce public goods or bads, governmental regulation must be brought in, although this leads to a problem of how to prevent something called regulatory capture. Perhaps that’s just too difficult a problem, especially in countries run like pineapple republics where cozy relations between corporations and their regulators are an open secret.

Finally, I come to that bane of all banes. The word is “sustainability.” If something is not sustainable, it must be sinister and will, sooner than later, destroy our souls. Think of single-use plastic clogging the planet’s oceans if not our stomachs. Ponder the futility of islanders heading to an upland that will anyway be washed away by climate change. We are doomed beyond recognition, never mind repair. Unless we see the light of sustainable. Yeah, right.

These words pretty much suffer in translation. Thought leader is tagasugod ng pag-iisip. CSR wimps out as katungkulan ng korporasyon para sa madla. Sustainability comes through as pananatili ng kinabukasan. Although I kind of like the last even if it suggests a Luddite itch for all things old.

To Thought Leaders, I say, “Talk is cheap. Let others speak too. You lose credibility otherwise.” To corporations practicing CSR, “We’re on to your tricks.” To those waving the banner of Sustainability, “You look like a kissing cousin of CSR.” Perhaps the antidote is to impose an excise tax on those selling CSR products, or to confront the sustainability activist with a question. “What exactly would you suggest we do?” If the answer won’t pass the Cartesian existential smell test, then we know it was just hot air, if not a sigh. The climate change folks will sorely disapprove.

A Winter’s Day

In a bleak and dreary November found me in the ‘burbs of Washington, DC. To the cognoscenti, that’s that famous place that is of course the center of the universe. I do not exaggerate.

Some days ago, the DC baseball team, the Nationals, won the World Series. That’s evidence number one. Two, it has been unseasonably cold, almost freezing, almost unheard of before Thanksgiving. That’s a portent of momentous events as well as palpable evidence of climate change. No self-respecting center of the universe would be left out of the climate change debate, and even if Greta Thunberg preferred to land by sailboat in Frank S’s New York, she sandwiched a protest visit to Washington, making the latter a competitor to the title of the Definite Place To Visit. Three, and most importantly, the Washington Post still shows up on my driveway, once a week at least, although slimmed down measurably with the advent of competing news and advertising sources online. It doesn’t matter, this competition thing, so long as we embrace the philosophy of no more driving to the shopping because of course Amazon.com not only reads your needs but also delivers in One Day Prime. Finally, for nostalgia more than anything else, there’s still The Old Ebbitt Grill; go there for the oysters and crab cakes.

There are certain perennials about the American capital. The Redskins have only the remembrances of things past (to evoke Marcel Proust, Doug Williams, and Joe Gibbs). The Washingtonian Magazine is still around, especially where you go for a haircut. Reagan National is still the airport of choice for Movers and Shakers. The traffic, yes the traffic, still competes with La-la land. The visitors still visit the White House and the great museums, of which the Smithsonian is still the best. The Kennedy Center still has free performances (at 6pm, Monday to Friday).

But there must be things that are new. As a creature of habit, I can report not much. This is due more to my inaction than anything else. But I checked around and came up with certain nuggets, if only to help guide out-of-town visitors. For the museum-hungry there’s a $1 bus called The Circulator. The Washington Monument has re-opened after closing for a renovation in 2016 (get your tickets in advance). The lure of Atlantic City has dimmed, replaced by nearby casinos in Baltimore and at the National Harbor, for the visitor who likes slots and tables. For Filipinos the restaurant scene has grown like mushrooms in a rain forest. In my neighborhood there’s a Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly (4.5 on 473 reviews at Yelp).

What do the French say? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme. Mao jud. I visit but not in the extremes of winter and summer; for then, there’s Dumaguete.

The Perfect Bet

What are financial markets?  Financial markets at first apprehension are simply places where borrowers meet lenders, or where risk-takers meet investors. But these markets do more than channel what economists call “savings” into claims on the (profitable) outcome of “investments.” Savers shift their consumption from the present to the future; borrowers often do the opposite when they shift future consumption to the present. Investors and lenders absorb the “foregone consumption” of savers into “capital accumulation,” which, if deployed intelligently, would yield future interest or profits. This process feeds the engine of economic growth, while giving meaning to the idea that market participants should be able to shift their consumption patterns over time according to their individual preferences. There is thus also embedded in this process that concept made popular by Adam Smith, the idea of the Invisible Hand.

The process is not always perfect. The plans of mice and men often go awry. The markets then adjust to these changes in fortunes. Debt papers get discounted to reflect the lessened ability of a borrower to repay, and stock prices drop on expectations of a cut in future profits.

Underlying the adjustments, or even the initial transactions, are acts that constitute betting. The lenders bet that the borrowers will repay, while the (stock market) investors bet on the actual or eventual profitability of the business of the corporations that issue stocks. At times the betting does not even relate to these economic “fundamentals.” There are also those who bet on the basis that there would be, at some point in the future, a “greater fool.” For such bettors, the wait can take forever, although successful practitioners are usually “gurus” who can inspire the “greater fool” following, and who get out soon enough. The gurus win at the expense of their followers. It seems unfair, but there is rough justice meted to the greater fools in this story. The motto should be “know your guru!”

Is there a perfect bet?  In such an imperfect world, can there be a perfect bet? This is like saying we’ve experienced hell or purgatory, and then asking if we will get to heaven. A religious bettor would bet his soul on it, but can expect the payoff only in the afterlife.

Despair not. Philosophers, mathematicians, and diehard gamblers have at various times achieved success. To do this, they’ve had to set the bar a bit low. A “perfect bet” is definable as one that beats any other in the circumstances. Often this ranking of bets is simply based on an arbitrarily chosen aiming for the highest return for a given level of risk, or for the smallest risk for a target rate of return. And typically, the perfect bet is revealed after the fact, but not before!

If risk avoidance is valued highly, insurance can be a perfect bet. Indeed it is one that can go on forever because insurer and insured do not play a zero-sum game. Both parties to the insurance contract “win.” The insured avoids an unbearable catastrophe, while the insurer, who pools the risks from individual contracts, gets a more or less steady income. This means that stock in good insurance companies, those who employ honest actuaries and whose managements are kind enough not to engage in Ponzi schemes, are great long-term (though somewhat risky) investments.

Religion is akin to insurance. The high priests play the role of insurer; the faithful are the insured. No one is being taken for a ride, except perhaps for those cult religions where the believers give up too much on Ponzi-like fraudulent claims of their leaders. By and large, mainstream churches are institutions that promote social good and order on earth. Whether religions should escape taxes is, however, another story. My own view is that if insurance companies, doctors, dentists, and fortune tellers like Warren Buffett pay taxes, then so should churches.
Are lotteries perfect bets? No, because innumerable studies of winners tend to conclude that the winners get a brief high from a temporary surge in income or wealth; but they soon go back to their pre-winning miseries. Humans are decidedly social beings who prove time and again that misery loves company, and company soothes misery. But lotteries are perfect bets for those who benefit from the house edge, typically governments and charities.
When the game is a simple one in the mind of an individual investor, it is pretty much a zero-sum game. Cash or short-term government paper becomes the perfect bet when the likely foreseeable event is a rise in interest rates or a fall in stock prices. The problem is that interest rates and stock prices are inherently unpredictable. If they could be predicted, the acts of capable individual investors acting on their “predictions” would cause interest rates and stock prices to move in directions that would eliminate the profitable trades that might be envisioned from such predictions. The next time somebody comes to you to tout his (past) great stock market performance, just ask if he thinks he can replicate that performance forever. His honest answer has to be in the negative. He could do better because of luck; or worse, if the future is one of “reversion to the mean.” The mean in this context is also not a fixed thing; it depends on how long a time frame you take to calculate the mean.

What about the risk of ruin? Or the risk of missing the “next great move”?Can an individual nonetheless learn to avoid the most egregious errors when investing his hard-earned savings? This is a difficult question requiring a definition of what an egregious error is. The answer to this question will be for another column.

Steak Intelligence

Orlando Roncesvalles

In a celebrated movie (When Harry Met Sally), we are treated to a reverential dig at the leisure habits of the first world. Restaurants in the ‘80s were, according to Nora Ephron’s writer-philosopher character, what the theater was in the ‘60s. That, after all the angst suffered by English departments in the ’60’s, was an inevitable consequence of the oft-repeated idea that the theater had died. If you believe pop music, even that (music) died when Buddy Holly took that damned plane. Why is life so tough? We don’t really know, but from today’s gadget-driven internet of things, we realize that whining is part of the human condition, amplified by social media but dulled by the haptic syndrome of touch screens, or even (by now anyway) accepted, without a nasty retort by the likes of Siri and Alexa. Machines can substitute for psychotherapists if you know how to tweak settings.

Tough is however that thing we do not accept in certain things. The night has to be tender. Terms of endearment also must be. Criticism directed at our significant others must be delivered sotto voce. And, of course, steak must with a capital T be Tender. Thus, Anthony Bourdain expressed his disdain for the despicable heathens who order their steak well done. Chefs welcome such arrogant ignorance because they can get rid of mis-delivered meat without offending a free-spending type (usually on a business account, if not using plundered funds as though that never went out of style).

What does it take to get steak tender? According to Guenther Sanin of Casablanca Boulevard fame, it must be aged and just so. Our tourism honchos don’t understand this. They ought to be bringing in technology so we would do our aging locally, but they seem fixated on media contracts and duty-free shopping. That’s what we get when we have the best and brightest officials. Tough steak. But who cares? Our lucky officials travel to exotic places, outside the country, to get their beef. Lucky them. But I exaggerate.

A steak ought to sing for itself without a backup band of exotic sauces. A-1 will hate me for saying this, but they sell something to hide the fact that we couldn’t afford the best cut, and have to do with a little ‘taste enhancement.’ A-1 is good at what it does, so give it credit. Still, I remember that a good steak-frite combo could be had in the ‘80s in a now-gone place called Le Steak in Georgetown (that place by the Potomac River), and it came de rigeur with Béarnaise. So I asked Guenther why Béarnaise sauce appears almost incognito hereabouts. The answer was that it was too special a sauce to make, and it would eat up too much expertise and good butter to be just right, though you can try some from a cheap substitute fix served up by Amazon. Basically, for authentic Béarnaise, you need expert whisking.

How often can one indulge in a steak? The answer is ‘not too often,’ because, as the cardio experts say, it can clog up those arteries. There are remedies. I had a German mission chief who lined up his statins soon after he ordered the best steak in the best restaurant in Tripoli, Libya. Then there’s also red wine. Why white wine pales is a mystery I have not explored; I look for a good Cabernet and keep my counsel. But if any white wine guys can point me to a cholesterol-cutting moscato, I’d gladly take their tips under advisement.

The end matters too. What dessert goes with steak? Le Steak had something called La Surprise de Monique (an ice cream confection with candied chestnuts in the unseen bottom, hence the surprise). In another dining room in Washington, DC, it was called Coupe aux Marrons. It may still be there; just go to 700 19th St., NW. If all else fails, there’s creme brûlée (leche flan). Deciding the best creme brûlée in Dumaguete is still on my bucket list.

Company and Time

The pleasure of company

“I want only the pleasure of your company.” How often have you heard that? And did you believe?

The idea that people socialize to ‘do business’ is accepted, even needed. But there are times when with no particular agenda,  time is definitely not money. Time would be more like a ghost of precious moments seeping through the interstices of events we demarcate.

Did prehistoric man with only stones for tools sit around wondering about time and where it went? Did he learn to write because somehow he wanted time to stop? “Carpe diem,” goes the saying, but the thinking  day resists. It passes, and gets rated good, bad, or so-so.  Most days are writer-block days.

And then came the Internet. We’ve now got mail but then it also got filled with spam that we now have to filter. We Google but then Google tracks us. We Facebook, and without us wanting it, advertisers stalk us.  Walt Kelly got it right: We found the enemy, and it is us.

What to do? Can we befriend our collective social selves? Can we carve out human conversations in private digital spaces?  There is something to going back to pen and paper, and the mailman; or to meeting up in cafés that feel like Paris. Better yet, we embrace the idea of organizing a bunch of friends who think of dining as more than just filling up a calorie tank; the venue would be, as Hemingway called it, a moveable feast. Don’t forget to bring manners.

Why write

Why do we have tombstones and obituaries?  Why do we not just talk? Of course, at a funeral, we have eulogies, i. e., we talk.

Still, talk is ephemeral, like time and our memories. The latter, as we age, get scrambled, and writing is a kind of preservative. It’s as though, with some kind of reification, we manage to live beyond the expiration dates on our memories. And certain transitions literally demand a handing over of memories. Institutional memory is ideally a perpetual motion machine.

But what happens when we write and no one reads? Is it the same as if we talk and no one listens?

Whatever did happen to E. F. Hutton? (The one with the slogan: ‘When Hutton talks, people listen.’) My guess is that slogans come and go, sales talk goes only so far, and stock market bubbles don’t last.  I would, for sure, be lucky predicting The Stock Market Crash of 2018. Unlucky speech or writing gets forgotten.

Victor Hugo wrote about revolutions at different levels of perception. In Les Miserables, one such revolution came down to asking, ‘Do you hear the people sing?’

Perhaps change is why songs are written, and the good ones last. When things haven’t really changed, the songs of that era become forgettable.

In sum, we have tombstones because we want to be remembered well. Your tombstone ought to say, ‘She had a style and wrote or sang a good song. You too can sing it, softly. People will hear it and sing it too.’