The Utility of the Shallow

When Useless Platitudes Are Not Useless

Photo by David Edwards

In the 2nd Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, Clint Eastwood opines, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

They say that in martial arts, you should ask yourself if you are Bruce Lee before attempting to kick over your head. When investing, you should ask yourself if you are Benjamin Graham before attempting to pick individual stocks.

Am I Warren Buffet? No? Then I’ll invest in a Vanguard index mutual fund instead of some rocking castle in the sky hot-shot stock play.

But Steve, you own some Bitcoin and some Ethereum. What about that? True. My reply is that:

  • I am a former cryptologic mathematician and understand the technology more than most.
  • I am gambling, not investing.

The polite term amongst finance people for gambling is “speculating.” Benjamin Graham makes this distinction in his book, The Intelligent Investor though he’s not as adamant as I about it.

You must understand enough to do due-diligence about X before you can intelligently invest money in X.

  • Do I know the underlying technology of an enterprise?
  • Do I know the likelihood of economic growth in a particular business-space?
  • Do I know the barriers to competition an enterprise can erect around itself?
  • Do I know the character and competence of the people running the enterprise?

Each “no” response moves me away from investing and toward speculating.

I don’t invest like Warren Buffer, because I’m not Warren Buffet. A man’s got to know his limitations.

I think Dave Ramsey would call me an idiot because of the way I invest. I drank John Bogle’s kool-aid as described in his book, The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, and confine my investments to no-load index mutual funds and rental real estate. You should understand both of these guys’ thought before you put money at risk in financial markets.

You may think I’m smarter than I really am because I moved a lot of retirement money into VTSAX last year. Equities are volatile and I will be looking equally stupid after the next 1929, 2001, or 2008 stock crash.

When that happens I will feel sad. I will be reduced to picking up pop cans on the side of the road, dining on catfood, and maybe–horrors–going back to work. (Note that I said, “when” and not “if.”)

And when you find me sitting in an ash heap scraping my sores with a shard of broken pottery with my wife advising me to curse God and die you may feel moved to try to comfort me in my day of affliction as did Job’s friends.

First, know your limitations.

Consider this heartfelt reflection on an unhappy life-experience that I recently read.

I can relate to her pain because I’ve had cancer. Cancer killed both of my parents. I saw them suffer and I suffered when they had it. Then I suffered when I had it and saw my family suffer from my affliction. Happily, that is long enough ago that I can be dispassionate about it. Thus my clinical analysis that may seem insensitive.

When I read Ms. Laurent’s lament, it rang true. When I was sick I coped with the affliction in my typically flippant way. Flippancy in a sufferer is a bad idea when expressed toward worried friends and family. If you joke about your long dirt nap or start giving your books away, that is guaranteed to make hurting loved-ones hurt more. Even if they share your confidence that you’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.

Long ago I stole Dave Ramsey’s catch-phrase, “I’m doing better than I deserve,” and I was sincere about saying it while working up a mouthful of phlegm to spit in the death-angel’s eye. I had everyone fooled so much that a friend in my writers group marvelled that I was acting as if I were a lotto winner while I looked like death warmed-over.

This wasn’t just bravado on my part.

When you’ve got cancer you cannot control what the docs will cut out of you. You cannot control the poisons they’ll pump into you. You cannot control how those closest to you will hurt. You cannot control the ultimate outcome of the disease. But you can control your attitude. Early on I’d read that a positive mental attitude was the thing more closely correlated with survival outcomes.

My smiling affect was coldly rational calculation to give myself one more edge.

Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I respond to it. (I stole that line, too.)

Because I was so relentlessly optimistic and cheerful, it did not hurt me when earnest friends and family applied rhetorical band-aids to broken bones. I replied with something equally shallow.

“How are you, Steve?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

Nobody expects more than social pulp in this exchange.

Frankly, a treatise on the problem of evil and why there is suffering in a world with a just and loving omnipotent diety would be TL;DR.

SEALS Hell Week

Let me say this much, Navy SEALS don’t suffer through Hell Week because they are bad, but because they are the best. Someone should put this on a Greeting Card. And share the royalties with me when I’m impoverished and dining on catfood.

Truth is fractal. You must teach Romans 8:28 to the toddlers in Sunday School. And adults can derive comfort from it during happy times. This is a time when being shallow is worthwhile. The Apostle’s words are a first-order approximation. And life will offer lots of exceptions where it will be impossible to sincerely recognize this. First-order approximations aren’t wrong, per se, but they overlook nuance.

On the night my mother died, I darkly said to my brothers, “If God is not good, there is no good.” I believe this to be true.

After one concludes that if there is a diety s/he/it is not merely indifferent, but cruel, you learn there’s an exception to the exception. Ferinstance, the beauty of a poppy growing in Flanders fields plowed by WW1 artillery & fertilized by the blood of brave men. And that exception has an ugly sub-exception when we realize it is an opium poppy. But the poppy-seeds’ have analgesic properties. It’s exceptions to exceptions all the way down. Truth is fractal.

The things you tell toddlers aren’t exhaustively true, but they’re partially true. And when they’re a bit older, you teach distinctions that help discern how to subdivide an amorphous reality into true parts and not-true parts. I’m not being relativistic: 2+2 is 4 unless you’re identifying digits as the rotations of the face of a Rubick’s cube, where 2+2 is 0 and 2+1 is -1. Group Theory is fun mathematics for grad students, but keep it out of the hands of grade schoolers until they can balance a checkbook.

The technical writer must know when to oversimplify a concept to carry the reader over a difficult idea and then to circle back later to backfill the nettlesome details. A man’s got to know his audience’s limitations.

Discussing this over breakfast with a friend, I pointed to the menu decorated with lighter and darker squares of gray. I asked how much gray ink went into printing that menu. He’s a smart cookie. None. Laser printers don’t use gray ink. Black dots at different densities create perceptions of gray. But if we look at the dots at an atomic level, they’d be a lot fuzzier.

Remember it’s not useful to look at things at pixelated or quantum scales.

It’s a menu! We’re ordering breakfast! Deal with simple situations with simple utterances. Add just enough complexity and nuance to effectively engage who we’re talking to. Mind the context and know your limitations of how nuance is needed.

Know when to shut up:

C. S. Lewis once wrote a book, The Problem with Pain, wherein he gave a tidy exposition of the Christian doctrine of suffering. Then confirmed bachelor Lewis fell in love with and married Joy Davidman. Then she got cancer and she died. Lewis took a lesson on suffering he had not possessed when he wrote the aforementioned book. Then he wrote a 2nd book, A Grief Observed,. He published this under a false name for fear he’d be accused of contradicting himself.

There’s things in this world I won’t understand. A man’s got to know his limitations.

Steve Poling

Masters degrees in math and computer science. Poet in several computer languages. I write stories about Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, steampunk, and SF.

Grand Rapids, Michigan