So what’s the big deal about 3-sigma? Is it just 6-Sigma for under-achievers? Is it only for statistical geeks? Why should anyone give a hoot?
So what’s the big deal about 3-sigma? Is it just 6-Sigma for under-achievers? Is it only for statistical geeks? Why should anyone give a hoot?
Heres an interesting but not surprising article in NYT today on healthcare pricing.
“There’s very little transparency out there about what doctors and hospitals are charging for services,” Mr. Zirkelbach said. “Much of the public policy focus has been on health insurance premiums and has largely ignored what hospitals and doctors are charging.”
A lie is not the opposite of the truth, there being no clear standard for truth. To lie is simply to report information that is intended to deceive.
In the health care business everyone knows that prices do not reflect actual costs. They are merely a starting point for negotiations with high-stakes players like insurance companies, governments and large groups who pool their costs. Pity the individual not included among such bloc negotiators, who must pay directly and through ever-increasing levies based upon deceptive pricing.
What’s interesting about this is that our entire socio-economic system is based on lying, not just health care.
Consider the Mafioso accountant who keeps two sets of books. One set of books is a pack of lies and the other the “true” accounting. But since the “true” accounting relies on numbers produced by others who also keep two sets of books, the hidden set of books is just another pack of lies as well.
Since everyone involved in transactions seeks to gain an edge over others the information we report to one another is always skewed in deceptive ways. Since EVERYONE is playing the same game, the net effect is that NOBODY KNOWS. Nobody can possibly know what it really costs to achieve any desired end and we are hopelessly lost and off to the Milky Way.
Deming’s idea about win-win–everybody wins–is the only way to exit the kingdom of lies. Once we adopt a moral stance that our interests are always mutual in a very PRACTICAL sense, then we strive to share information in a manner that is, to the best of our ability, mutually advantageous. In other words, we seek to construct and participate in a shared information space rather than in multiple individuated universes.
In her New York Review of Books article, “Obama and the Myth of Arm-Twisting,” Elizabeth Drew correctly explains that those who have been criticizing President Obama’s lack of political persuasive skills fail to understand that we are at a point in America’s history in which the arts and sciences of persuasion don’t work.
This is not the first time!
Have you seen the movie “Lincoln” yet? If not, you should! It’s very good!
It portrays Lincoln as a skillful convincer and sometimes coniving and ruthless master of political maneuver. Interestingly, I think Lincoln was fighting battles in the political arena in a war that persists today. But here’s the rub. For Lincoln, those with whom he most disagreed were excluded from the voting, having succeeded from the United States. So Lincoln only had to convince those who were–more or less and close enough–already on his side. Obama has no such luxury. The enemy who so vehemently eschews human rights in favor of property rights is on the inside.
In conflicts involving matters of fundamental belief, moral vision, a theory of nationhood, and deeply entrenched economic “ways of doing,” there’s little room for compromise. Who will prevail in such situations must be determined on the battle fields of WAR–call it what you will–and the fact is that wheeling, dealing and arm twisting will never do the trick. It always comes down to stronger measures, as the former events of this war we are still fighting, called the American “Civil War”, so amply demonstrated.
Regrettably, with the DOW near 15000, it looks today as if Capitalism is going strong. My sense is that, for now at least, the side that favors property rights (wealth) over human rights is winning the struggle for American hearts and minds,
The other evening at dinner a friend asked me if my prognosis for our economic system meant that I was actually hoping for bad news. He wondered how anyone could actually think bad news could be good.
The title of my recent post, “See You at the Barricades“, was my way of saying, only partially in jest, that my confidence is waning in our ability as a people to use reasonableness and persuasion as a means to turn the tide away from the unbridled profiteering that is fast despoiling our planet and polarizing our nation socially, economically and politically.
It seems to me that the big winners in the game of Capitalism, few though they are, have acquired so much power and influence that they are able to call all the shots. Nothing’s exempted: government, schools, scientific research, work and play. Every aspect of our daily lives is tainted with their propaganda that says we live in world in which it’s every man for himself and the best, namely themselves, naturally win.
The obvious fact, as history demonstrates, is that the winners of games like this will do all in their power–literally anything it takes–to stay the course that preserves and enhances their situation. They will never take actions in the interest of the planet or others, if they see those actions as threatening their wealth, power and influence. Indeed, human history itself throughout the ages is the story of small groups of winners doing anything it takes to preserve their privilege and losers who have had enough, trying to rectify injustices foisted upon them by the winners.
A nation is only a Nation when everyone experiences themselves as part of a whole that is pulling together to make a better word. For everyone! If what I am saying about history–specifically, American history–is correct, then there should be some actual numbers to that give credence to my story.
Here’s a chart that seems to do just that.
The Gini Index is designed to express the relative economic wellbeing of the members of a society. The higher the Gini index the greater the disparity between a wealthy few and a less wealthy many. In peaceful, non-militaristic Nordic “socialist” nations like Norway (25) and Sweden (.25), the Gini index runs very low, while in the proverbial “banana republics of Central America, in which rebellions and brutal repression have abounded, the Gini indexes have been very high (.50+). A similar story applies to the nations currently embroiled in the so-called “Arab Spring.”
We could say, that nations with a low Gini index are nations of people pulling together. And nations with a high Gini index are nations that are in constant internal conflict–nations of people who are pulling apart.
Looking at the Gini Index for America before 1929, our index (.49) was as high and even higher than many Banana Republics. In other words, self-interested greed ruled the day and we were a nation that was pulling apart. When the pyramid of shame collapsed in 1929, our Gini Index declined (.39). We became more like a Nation with common purpose pulling together to put people to work building infrastructure, creating a social security system for the elderly, unionizing workers and regulating greedy financiers and oligarchs. We strived together to create a better world for everyone. And when WWII broke out there was a little blip-up as war profiteers gained ground, but still far and away, we as a Nation, pulled together.
On the heels of WWII, we were convinced, sometimes wrongly, that we were still at war, this time with the “Commies”. Also the legacy of our pulling together in the Depression and real war, kept us pulling together, though less and less. But gradually the pyramid of shame began reasserting itself itself –unions were busted, regulations eased, roads and bridges fell into disrepair and the ethos of every-man-for-himself greed was foisted upon us with redoubled effort–back to stage center.
Today our Gini Index number (.47) is returning to Banana Republic status and if my explanation is correct, we are pulling apart again. Since it is unlikely that the winners in the game of greed will give up their positions of privilege willingly, the best hope we have for coming together again to confront the inevitable challenges that the future will bring, is bad news.
I just finished reading Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom. It’s a very quick read and quite entertaining, but the statistics component doesn’t run all that deep. You’ll find a few bits to entertain your brain’s math centers (ha ha), but not enough to make it a big winner in that regard. Most of it is about debunking probability estimates–what are the chances of this or that happening? But the abuses of stats used to pursue prosecutorial agendas is disturbing, and the conclusions drawn by the authors about the use of “math” in the courtroom is surprising. The efficacy of forensic science, made so popular by all the CIS spin-off TV, might not be as pat we like to think, even in the case of the much touted DNA matching game.
When it comes to using probabilities to commit people to years of imprisonment, and in some cases, death, it all comes down to the thorny question of the lesser of two evils: Are a few wrongful convictions an acceptable price to pay for exacting revenge and deterring future wrong-doing or is even one innocent life destroyed too high a price to pay?
Although absolute certainty is unachievable, it seems that our prosecutorial and punishment system has tended to favor of the former. Ambiguity and doubt are an anathema when it comes to fear, loathing and social control.
In his blog today, Paul Krugman dredges up a wonderful historical stinker about London’s 1848 “Great Stink” . The Economist magazine, an influential magazine spouting the “natural” benefits of Capitalism then and now, deposited an amazing pile of redolent conservative crap to argue against tax and spend proposals to build a London sewer system to abate both the smell and a cholera epidemic.
“Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient efforts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.”
In a capitalist society a few people have obtained by means of hard work, good luck and connections, or through inheritance from family, the ownership and control of the means for producing wealth, called “capital”. These Capitalists describe themselves as ”job creators.” But most people, by far, are workers. They are the people employed by the job creators, and presumably paid a living wage for their time and labor.
So far so good.
Now suppose after many years of experience, study and careful consideration you, a worker, decide that a socialist society, one in which its one for all and all for one, would be an real improvement over a capitalist society in which it’s every man for himself?
In a free and democratic society, you are entitled to your opinion. More importantly, in a democracy you are expected to participate in the political process by which your government is constituted and run. You are expected to act in the role of a citizen. But if you give voice to your belief and lobby your fellows to adopt your carefully considered views, you will find yourself afoul of the capitalists and excluded from gainful employment.
Unless you are an academic, protected by the wisely conceived rules of tenure, that assure you the right to give voice to your views, or you are independently wealthy and have no need of employment as a means to earn a living wage, you don’t dare express your political ideas, much less exercise your democratic right to act in public ways, lest you alert those who hire and fire to your desire to undo their monopoly on wealth, power and influence.
This is the Catch 22 built into capitalist society. Although Capitalists say they believe in freedom and democracy, it is only they who are free to deny you the means to make a living. You, in turn, are free to hold whatever political belief you feel right but if you express your views publicly or act politically, you will make yourself unemployable by those who do the hiring and firing.
Freedom and democracy are impossible in a capitalist society because Capitalists are free to hire and fire whomever they like while wage earning workers are free to toe the Capitalist’s line or live their lives in destitution.
Here’s a film worth watching: Park Avenue: money, power and the American dream – Why Poverty?
This film is quite good, though maybe a bit disjointed. The difficulty with stories like this is that the story tellers try to explain how Capitalism has gone wrong, but the real problem I have come to think, is that Capitalism is not a system that can ever be made right. It is, simply put, WRONG–wrong in its assertions about the nature of human relationships, interactions and motivations, as well as plain wrong in a moral sense. Capitalism is for Capitalists and not for the billions of commoditized human beings who are forced on pain of destitution to sell their labor for whatever they can get and are employed at the whim of the Capitalists who control the means for producing wealth and have the wealth to make the rules.
The weakest part of the film is the discussion of education. The idea that educating more people can fix Capitalism is pernicious nonsense. Educating every American, by whatever measures you want to apply, will not change the underlying dynamics of Capitalism. Left to their own devices, Capitalists’ pyramid of shame is self-reinforcing.
Unless you mean that by more educating more people that more will be able to see and understand that they are being gamed, and that the game is being rigged, in which case we might hope for sufficient numbers with the will to overthrow the Capitalist’s corrupt regime. Should that become the case, I’ll see you at the barricades with torch and pitchfork in hands.
Today’s headline in the NYT reads “Dow Average Surpasses Record High as Market Opens.”
The DOW is today, higher than it was before the Great Recession began in 2008, which is to say, that stocks are trading at prices higher today than they were when the U.S. economy was bubbled-up and ready to burst–KAPOW!
Isn’t it great to know that Capitalism works! It continues to make fewer and fewer people richer and more and more folks poor. It’s a surefire scorched-earth method for increasing wealth inequality at an ever increasing rate.
Imagine if you will, a huge casino to which millions of Americans who earn their keep by producing somethings of value, come to risk their hard earned money in a game of chance. They have been told again and again that earning a wage for labor is a game for saps and that the real winners in the game are those who are willing to take risks. The doors of opportunity open only to those willing to take a chance.
“Hurry up, hurry up, before the wheel is spun, place your bets. You can’t be a winner if you don’t play the game.”
But as is the case in all casinos, the odds always favor the house. Who is the house you ask? The house is the people with tons of money, the game-makers who are in a position to cover all bets.
When the wheel is spun–KAPOW!. There are always a few winners, but as with all games of chance, there are more losers. This must be so or there would be no game, and the difference between the many losers and few winners–the vig–gets pocketed by the house.
The players who are all played out–broke, indebted and out of work–are told to leave the keys to their cars and houses at the front desk on their way out door, never to be seen nor heard from again. The winners, now flush with their gains, are encouraged to stay in the game. To the risk takers go the spoils, that’s the entrepreneurial spirit. Ante up folks!
Says one of the money managers it the NYT report, “I just don’t understand why people don’t want to play,” He means of course, those who still have their car, house, a job and credit, should belly up to the table for the next spin of the wheel. KAPOW!
Meanwhile the house pockets the vig–basically a sure thing–no risk required.
This is how Capitalism “works”. It just keeps on doing what it does until the well runs dry. KABLOOEY! When and what happens then is anyone guess, but rest assured that the house will have hedged their bets, probably with pre-paid accommodations in gated communities with well armed guards.
According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics for 2009 there are 254,212,610 registered passenger vehicles in the United States. It is generally agreed that the United States is a car culture in which virtually everyone owns or has access to a car, and uses at least one almost every day. Each of these vehicles is registered with the government and most oowner-operators are government licensed to operate their cars. In addition, most states require that operators of cars carry liability insurance.
The FBI estimates that there are over 200 million privately owned guns in the United States in the US, and if you add guns owned by the military, law enforcement and others, the total comes to about 350 million. That’s about 1 gun for every man, woman and child in our great nation. Although it is rarely acknowledged, by the numbers of guns and gun related deaths and injuries, the United States is in fact, becoming as much a gun culture as a car culture.
The ongoing debate over gun ownership in the United States has turned to the idea that if we can’t limit gun ownership because of the SCOTUS interpretation of the Second Amendment, and we are therefore destined to be a gun-centric culture like it or not, then we should at least apply the same safeguards we use as a car-centric culture by requiring that guns and gun operators be government licensed and carry liability insurance. This, it is argued, will preserve citizen rights to self defense and help to prevent the situation in which only criminals have guns.
To many this solution, admittedly partial, seems reasonable, but let’s give it a bit more thought before we go off half-cocked.
Our car culture comes from our enthusiastic embrace of personal devices whose basic purpose, we agree, is transportation. Certainly other values intrude into our culture of cars, like status symbols, the pleasure of driving and possession of transportable personal space. We generally agree that it is wise to license and insure cars and drivers today because, with so many cars out and about, accidents happen.
But is a gun culture the same as a car culture?
Guns are not designed for transportation. They are designed to kill. And unless you rely on subsistence hunting, their principal application is killing people. Once the days of the anarchistic Wild West, where guns, the great “equalizers”, were instruments for meting out instant justice, fell well behind us, owning and carrying guns became an anachronism. Seeing another citizen driving a car does not give us cause to cower, but seeing a gun toting person approaching us, who is not a duly authorized agent of law enforcement, will give (and should give) most reasonable people, reason to fear.
In their recent history, Americans have no basis for appreciating what a gun-culture really is. In Afghanistan, where I lived for almost a year in 1972, most men carry a rifle. Afghans love their guns. The implicit message each gun toting man is sending is, If I think you have done me wrong, I will kill you, never mind what you thought your true intentions. In Afghanistan I learned that in a gun toting culture, you’d better be careful about what you do or say, or into whose eyes you look.
I also spent some time in El Salvador in 1999–another a gun culture. I was told by my host, Senor Juan Wright, that I should never go anywhere without one of his shotgun-armed bodyguards at my side. Unlike Afghans, who carry their rifles boldly displayed, in El Salvador men carry their weapons in holsters, hidden from sight. Salvadorans are forced to assume that anyone they encounter is armed and dangerous. What might occasion gun play in El Salvador?–politics, bandits, drug smugglers, errants look or a bad hair day, will do. Salvadoran’s solution is simple. They make themselves armed and dangerous as well.
So do we really want to model an American gun culture after America’s car culture? Wouldn’t this simply have the effect of making gun play a regular feature of daily life as in Afghanistan and El Salvador? If this is the route we chose to take, it’s exactly what we’ll get. Wherever we go among other people, we will live in fear that for some reason or other, we may be confronted by others with guns. We will live in daily fear, tempered only be the knowledge that we are as armed and dangerous as the next guy.
Is that the America we want to create?
Big news today! U.S. spooks recently declassified reports containing almost proof-positive that China has unleashed a cadre of elite cyber-warriors, known as Unit 61398, who are raiding our cyberspace and stealing our secrets. They work their evil deeds in a big, decrepit, white tenement building off Datong Road in Shanghai, China.
As you can see in the sample report page below, 3Sigma.com, the very blog-site you are now reading, has been under attack by Unit 61398 for several months.
Nineteen of the visits documented on this single page–one of 128 similar pages–are flagged, China.
When I first discovered this deluge of Chinese visitors to my blog, I wondered what could be going on? Upon further investigation I saw that virtually all of the hits were on a single entry, “Leadership and the Principles of War“. I wasn’t getting spammed by the visitors so I could only conclude that this entry was viewed as particularly interesting by lots of web-surfing Chinese people. Their single minded-interest in this particular post troubled me enough that I took it offline, just to see what would happen. During the following days I could see that numerous attempts were being made by my Chinese visitors to access the entry by hacking my login password. After about a week of such attempts, my China trade dropped off precipitously.
It wasn’t until I started reading news of Unit 61398, that it dawned on me that my site was attracting Sino-cyber spies! In the light of this new information, I can see that a web search on terms used in this particular article and the attached document, (for example “United States”, “War”, “Strategy”, “Tactics”, “Combat”, etc.), would catch the attention of any self-repsecting spy.
Now that I know what’s going on, I have restored the article to online status, confident that the information it contains posses no threat to our national security, unless that is you consider the fact that our own leadership is largely ignorant of the lessons contained therein. (See Iraq War and Afghanistan War as cases in point.)
Marshall McLuhan famously asserted that “the medium is the message”. His idea is one that is very much in play today as the “new media” have immersively engulfed the whole of the human enterprise. So is the digital revolution actually causing us to evolve? Is “the new media” transforming the mind of man?
We are collaboratively messaging creatures by nature and the instruments by which we strive to create shared meaning are incidental to our singular obsession. This is not to say that the meanings we strive to convey are not deeply entwined with the tools we use, for example the immersion of peoples besotted by digitailia who see the world as a simulacrum in which literally everything imaginable is possible and nothing can actually be done.
But let’s not commit the error of thinking that the tail–the method we employ–wags the dog of our compulsively messaging selves. Our messages, however we judge their quality, are our messages.
Malcolm Gladwell, a clever fellow, is one of the very few pundits who sees that the medium is not the message. Start HERE to explore his thoughts on the subject.
I think McLuhan’s idea was no more than a clever misdirection. The real question before us today, is simply this…
Will the global democratization of access to digital messaging result in the construction of globally shared meanings about aims that we can agree are good and useful going forward, or will it simply increase entropy, creating a Library of Babel?
American enterprise has a problem with quality. Pretty much everything we produce is shoddy stuff of questionable value–clever glittering baubles principally designed to come between bedazzled consumers and their wallets. Some say our problem with quality has to do with a lack of leadership, which is sometimes certainly the case, though lately I think the problem is that we have lost leaders who are taking us down the wrong road.
W. E. Deming never said it so well as when he said…
To understand the idea of quality in the deepest sense, it is necessary to understand what we value as human beings. It is our sense of value, based in our shared values, that provides us with an ability to discern quality that is good from quality that is bad.
In our enterprises today we value above all else, profit collectively and wealth as individuals, measured in terms of benchmarks and other quantitative differentials. We grade on the curve. Despite lip service given to the contrary, these are the measures of quality to which our leaders aspire and we collectively follow. As producers, consumers and judges of quality, we are busily pitted against one another, measuring stick in hand, in a single minded pursuit of more-ness, day in and day out in our schools, business, politics and play. We’ve become good soldiers warring amongst ourselves, each one trying to gain the upper hand.
If our sense of quality were defined by our leaders and ourselves, in terms of value created that makes a better world for everyone going forward together in an indifferent world–sometimes a little more this and little less of that–we would surely improve continuously in our ability to optimize the outcomes of our enterprising. We could all benefit from our collaborative effort toward making a better world for ourselves.
Adam Frank, a real scientist and one of NPR’s Cosmos and Culture bloggers, commented on the power outage during last week’s Super Bowl.
“It was a reminder that everything we have built with it is its own kind of miracle. And, finally, it was a reminder that, for all its power, this power-drenched reality we have created is very delicate.”
His intention is to remind us that our technologically besotted civilization hangs by a thin thread–that we should not take our miraculous achievements too much for granted. Indeed this is so. But…
I wouldn’t call the technology of global electrification “a strange miracle.” I see it more as a clever parlor trick run amok. The strangeness comes from the fact that we’ve convinced ourselves that our technological tricks are miraculous achievements–proof positive of our godlike dominion–masters of the universe.
With the advent of cameras in space–another miracle?–the effects of our electrification parlor trick that began only 130 years ago, circa 1880, are easy to see:
The trick was grand–sort of like Disneyland–when seen from the ground up. But from space it resembles, I think, the fruit on a blighted tree, probably too far gone to save–now a fait accompli.
The aims and methods of science are inexorably entwined with our purposeful practice in the form of technology. It can be argued that the first glimmer of awareness among the practitioners of science came in 1945, when J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project lamented…
“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”
In 1945 we created the nuclear genie–”the destroyer of worlds”, said Oppenheimer–now a fait acompli that will forever cast its shadow over our lives. Our awareness of the consequences of our tricks in the form of global warming is arguably our second wake-up call, if only because there is a near consensus among those who practice science that we are suffering from the blowback of our successful tricks.
What are the costs we incur for our electrified Disneyland pleasures upon which we have become so utterly dependent? Not only should they be measured in terms of hydrocarbons burned, habitats polluted and nuclear weapons and wastes proliferated, but also in terms of their effect on how we conduct our lives and the human spirit.
Our technical accomplishments are such that in today’s world we need to start arguing about what to do about our tricks BEFORE they become faits accompli.
The only miracle I can see is that we have not already succumb to our hubristic machinations–or maybe we have and just don’t know it yet.
David Brooks is one of the most frustrating columnists I now and then read. He takes what is often a brilliant insight, launches a train of thought and then he’s off to the Milky Way.
In his NYT column today, “The Philosophy of Data“, his idea of data-ISM is very astute. Like all ISMs, it’s just another mind trap that we humans tend to fall into in our quest for the Holy Grail of perfect knowledge.
Data-ism is a subset of Scientism, something I’ve discussed often on this blog. It’s a trap within a trap that gives rise to a whole industry of shamans and apprentices who lay claim to a method–the method–for truth-saying. All of the mystical hullabaloo is built upon the silly idea that the world is litered with bits of information just waiting to be harvested and then sorted into useful knowledge that we can use to perfectly predict the future and act accordingly.
Here’s the rub. There is no data in the world out there waiting to be harvested. The universe is not made of data. It’s not made up of bits and bytes to be gathered and computed. We can only gather data AFTER we’ve decided what we value, what we want to do, and then come up with our questions about how to proceed.
We must FIRST decide where we want to go and come up with some theories–some ideas–about how to get there. Only then can we begin carving the world up into data bits to help us see if our ideas about how to go about making a better world can actually work.
There’s only one ISM worth believing in and that is Human-ISM. If we can’t believe in our ability to do right by ourselves then we may as well give up.
I learned about the “island way” in Bequia, one of the islands making up the Grenadines group in the Caribbean. I’d sailed into Admiralty Bay to drop off a couple of pick-up crew intent on taking the ferry over to St. Vincent Island.
When it comes to Caribbean Islands, Bequia seems to me to be about as perfect as it gets. The island has yet to be overwhelmed by development. Admiralty Bay’s waterfront is lined with colorful shacks properly scaled to match the island’s sandy beaches and swaying palms. Once you set anchor in the bay, there’s little motivation to do much of anything. It’s the island way.
As is my habit when arriving in a new port, I took a few days to get a feeling for my new digs. Having crossed the Atlantic, I’d arrived in the Caribbean only a month earlier, so I was still feeling my way along. I’ve learned from many years of traveling that you want to move cautiously when in a new place, so as not to offend your hosts. Preconceptions, expectations, and preoccupation with personal needs are poison when you drop in on a small community. If you go about your business with a respectful circumspection, doors open.
Handy Andy was one of the first to open his door. Andy, I learned, is the quintessential incarnation of the island’s recently acquired entrepreneurial spirit. He is quick to greet outsiders. He immediately invited me into his internet café, hoping of course to make a sale, but as things eventuated he steered me out onto his deck, handed me a glass of rum, and began a leisurely interrogation. He was picking my brain for ideas and opportunities that might bring more commerce to his little island. He brimmed with schemes–yacht repair, island regattas, new restaurants, and Web commerce. Like other Caribbean island hopefuls, he’s convinced that the prosperity that has eluded his little bit of paradise is just around the corner. One right idea and the top of the hill will be crested. He pressed on, introducing me to local characters who paraded on and off the deck, each with a smile, hearty handshake, and story worthy of telling at some length over another cup of rum. Andy’s enthusiasm was as boundless as his rum. It’s the island way.
Some days passed before I met Andy’s brother, Mitch. Mitch’s countenance was more staid than Andy’s. He’s older than Andy, but by no means “old.” We sat in his open restaurant-café next door and drank Bequia rum. The tone of his conversation was a world-wise counterpoint to Andy’s hustle. The island way, he explained, is about how youthful dreams are quickly subdued by the rhythms of island life. “Today”, he said, “is like yesterday. And tomorrow will be like to today”. In the islands life is hand-to-mouth, day after day. The only insurance policy is the balmy trades that bathe Bequians year in and year out. One day at time. That’s the island way.
I learned that Mitch had been just like his brother some years ago, but now his ambition had waned. He drove me up to the house he was building atop a hill overlooking the white-capped Atlantic to the east. He and his wife lived in the finished rooms as–slowly, slowly–they worked on the rest. He took me for a walk in his garden and proudly explained his drip irrigation system. Bequian soil, he told me, is as impoverished as the island economy. What remained of Mitch’s ambition was devoted to creating a sustainable vegetable garden–a higher calling, he explained.
The next day Mitch invited me to a community gathering at a remote beach on the island’s weather shore. The event was to commemorate the birthday of an expatriate American developer who had brought some jobs to the island. The party would feature local music and the final allotment of whale meat gleaned from the last of the island’s yearly quota. Whaling has long been a principal enterprise of Bequia’s people, along with shipbuilding, and it is said that their strong and upright character reflects the fact that they are descended from whalers and pirates rather than slaves. They are allowed by international law to harvest a few whales each year, using traditional methods–open boats propelled by sails and oars and handheld harpoons. I was thrilled at being invited to the party and agreed to meet Mitch at his café at 6 pm the next evening for the ride to the other side.
On the following afternoon, as I was making my way to Mitch’s, I got waylaid by some locals with stories they needed to tell and arrived at the café about five minutes too late. I scanned the dining area. Mitch was nowhere to be found. I sat down at a table and waited hopefully but soon I began to worry that because I was late, he might have gone on without me.
I slouched in my chair, brooding over the thought of having missed the opportunity to smooze with locals over whale meat and rum when an old woman sitting with a small group of locals called over to me, “Hey you! How com’ you so sad?”
I explained to her and her dinner companions that I’d missed my chance to dine on whale meat because I was late for my meeting with Mitch. Feeling sorry for myself, I moaned, “Sometimes I think that being just a little too late is the story of my life”.
The old woman shouted out a reply to my lament, “My, my, you are one lucky boy!”
That was not the response I had expected. “Lucky?” I called back, “How do you suppose I’m lucky?”
The old woman laughed and went on, “Mon, you are lucky because you are going to live a very long time!”
With sublime logic, she explained, “You are lucky because, as you say, you are always a little bit late, so when the Angel of Death comes for you, you will most certainly miss that appointment too!”
In unison all at the table held their glasses of rum up high, toasted my being late and drank them dry. That’s the island way.