Monday, June 10, 2019

A Letter to Scott

The high arches at Union Station remind me of your time. Those high sweeping cement pilasters a monument to a different era. A time when it seemed people weren't so uptight and bickering about everything there was to bicker about as we go about our daily lives. This was not a time in which I lived, but it's one which captivates me. I can hear the notes from the band echoing off of those heavy cement walls. The trumpet, the cello, the saxophone; the jazz. The women with their short bobbed hair and sequined dresses dancing to the bright sounds. The men, cigarettes in hand with a slick suit and tie, standing back. Taking all of it in.

You thrived in this time. Maybe you idealized it for me. You so ironically ennobled for me a time in which you seemed to despise so much. 'Boats against the current,' you said of these people, 'beating on, but borne back ceaselessly into the past.' Would that you had known today it is your time we wish we would be borne back towards? That it may have only gotten more dismal as the years have passed? That you exited this world right before we found our absolute worst?

We (I?) wish now that we could only be brought back to your time. This time that you were drowning in and so disillusioned by. This time that crushed even a dreamer like your Jay. If a time like this, after the boom of a roaring decade, could not bring hope to you, what should? You: The dreamer. The idealist. All this must have just been a facade to you. All this concluding with Jay's dreams brought silent by a gunshot in a swimming pool. But you should have seen that if you could have lived nine more decades, that the boat would have been borne back into your own time. 

Why was your present so hard for you? I wonder what you would think of me far further down the dark road that you saw yourself upon. What land might you have seen New York now? Originally the green and empty canvas to the generations before you, but in its heyday you saw already in shambles. I wonder what you would have thought of the smoke rising from lower Manhattan in the early years of the new century, but also what you would have thought of the bright pillars of light that rose only days after. Maybe there's tragedy and hope in every generation. Maybe I'll just sit in Union Station and dream about your jazz the same as you sat there dreaming about something else you found better; and while we were dreaming, other stuff was happening - not all good, not all bad.. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Casita

The road from Las Vegas through the Mojave Desert is long. It is straight, and it is peaceful; one can go over 110 miles per hour in their car through these roads without attracting the attention of so much as a ground squirrel.  Not that I would have done this on my trip out to Desert Hot Springs this particular weekend. But it is possible. The roads - I swear they are the ones out of that scene in Forrest Gump where he just runs into the horizon and eventually has to turn back because they appear to lead nowhere. I flew down these roads, but unlike Forrest my Google maps told me they did lead somewhere. So I pressed on.

By the time I had arrived at this place, the desert "casita" according to air b&b, it was darkening. It was getting dark and the heavy locks on the gate and the instructions which I could not pull up on my phone on account of the bad reception and my memory failing made it difficult. This place I finally arrived at after sundown on Friday night; it was totally silent. The thousands of cars pouring into Las Vegas on I-15 in the northbound lanes as I flew the other way were not looking for silence. But as a resident of Vegas, one begins to need this silence to stay sane. The ring of the slots, the music pouring from the clubs, the engines of the jets flying in and out of Mccarran... it makes for a constant drone, one that stays with you even as you lay in bed at night.

These sounds now became the crackle of gravel underneath tires; the chirping of crickets; the clank of metal on metal as the locked clicked and the big gate swung open. These were the new sounds that broke the silence of this Mojave Desert evening. As I arrived, for a moment my mind wondered to the recent prison break in Los Angeles a few days prior and my curious study of a map about where one might go if they where running from the law; they probably wanted silence, too. So I went into the house with a dog and a backpack and a Beretta in my hand and put that out of my mind - because silence and seclusion is good, but it's also good to have an insurance policy.

The house smelled of old wood and books and gave the sort of comfort that is unique when you know it is the only roof around you for miles. It was simple and small and had a clawfoot tub in the middle of the front yard which had a hose running to it in some attempt at a hot tub I suppose. There was a record player with a bunch of old records: Ella Fitzgerald, Gershwin, the soundtrack to My Fair Lady. Clearly the owner had class or was desperately trying to appear that way. So I put on the Ella and felt truly high class as I cracked open Michener and a bottle of wine; I lit a fire and Abby lay at my feet on the porch as the sun set.

By the time Greg and Veronica arrived that evening it was dark and I'd been through the Ella twice and a few chapters of Michener which were very long chapters and half the bottle of wine and stoked the fire three times. I also found out that you could flip the record to hear more songs. Marvelous. The headlights came down the road so bright and I squinted as they lit up the front of the casita like it were some criminal being interrogated. I hoped it was them because those escapees from Los Angeles still lingered in my mind.

This place was so far from Las Vegas. All those people I'd passed going the other way. The bright lights. The activity. But here: the stars. Millions of tiny bright pinpricks against the darkness. We dragged out the cheap telescope and a camera and tripod through the cactus far into the yard and I showed Greg how to take night time pictures which did not turn out correctly. But the stars put on a show. Just a few hundred miles away, Luxor pierced into the sky with its bright vertical spotlight. But here: God showed His light. Ella sang her songs. The fire burned. I escaped.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

An Obsession with Models

I have two loves: My family. And data. They occupy in my mind and heart spaces of an overlapping nature, so I cant say the two are totally separable. My microeconomics professor once related a story to me about driving down a lonely Ohio road on a family trip to someplace more interesting (read: not in Ohio) one weekend, babies and kids in tow in the back seat, with a distant yet pensive look on his face that led his wife to ask him, "What are you thinking about, honey?"

With a slight (mistakably creepy) grin, he said: "Models."

Given that this poor gal probably knew what she was getting into when she married an economist, this comment was not followed up by a crisp and sudden slap in the face, but rather an, "Oh, Chuck... you and your models. Don't your ever stop?"

Welcome to the life of a data-nerd/economist.

Any of us 'data nerds' will understand that Chuck was not talking about the underfed version of 'model' clad in a bikini walking down a well lit runway somewhere in Los Angeles, California, but rather the kind that you scribble out on a halfway dirty napkin that seeks to identify the rational choice of an individual to either walk or stand still up an moving escalator given the equilibrium point of the marginal utility of both reaching the top of this escalator in a timely way and the marginal dis-utility of expected energy expenditure from doing so. Simple scenario right? But says Chuck to any fellow microeconomist: this is a your classic Lagrangian. All you need is a proper model. OK.. Tyra - let's go.

Erp. Wrong model.

OK, I barely passed Chuck's class and the exams in which I was expected model out such scenarios in detail I typically had to leave 50% blank while I watched the minute hands of the clock tick away and my hopes at graduating get dimmer and dimmer. So... I will not claim that I mastered the technique of modeling out such scenarios in a Harvard (which Chuck obviously was) economist style way.

[SIDEBAR] Let me just say: thank God Chuck graded these exams on a curve. And also, screw you John Hollingsworth for ruining that curve for me... I mean really? Undergraduate guy opts to take grad school class... proceeds to make all us grad school kids look like fumbling idiots and ruin our curve? Go back to Geniusland John Hollingsworth. OK, John. Truth is I was just jealous. And I still am. [END SIDEBAR]

But back to models. Ever since then it has not been lost on me that there is a basis to similarly model out every decision in all of our lives. That the human brain is a complex computer that is absorbing information and optimizing marginal costs and benefits of decisions like this thousands of times every day. Ultimately, we do not spend time thinking about the decision itself or any of this 'optimizing,' as we similarly do not think about the fascinating complexity of an internal combustion engine every time we drive; we just know that when we press the gas, the car goes - but that does not mean that all that complexity and mathematics involved is not at work.

Why does it matter to us? It all intertwines. And it adds a framework to think about everyday things in a way you may never have imagined. For example (and to plug another post of mine) this data viz is all about the optimization involved in the decision of a potential travel destination (#firstworldproblems). I have actually used this as a framework for making this decision. I bought my Subaru Legacy 2.5i based on a weighted average of price, gas mileage, warranty, drivetrain type and several other factors which I framed out in an excel model. Many people may just look at a few cars and make a decision based on their gut... but if I can get that bad boy into an excel spreadsheet and model it out... you better believe I'm going to do it.

Welcome to the life of a data nerd.

I'm not saying there is never a situation where one may stray from this; if memory serves me correct, Jenn and I bought plane tickets to Spain shortly after splitting a pitcher of Sangria and several tapas at our favorite Spanish restaurant in Las Vegas... I am not sure the Lagrangian we were optimizing there... but that turned out to be an incredible trip and I am not sure any model other than Rioja and fabulously crafted croquettas would have led us to this point of optimization, but optimize we did.


Our world and our lives are surrounded by all these situations/decisions and we make them every day whether we know it or not. All of us are constantly optimizing our utility. What's your Lagrangian?