Book: Helmet for My Pillow – Veteran’s Day 2019

Hell of book to finish right before Veteran’s Day. So many good quotes:

– Nor was my squad troubled by racial or religious bigotry. We had no “inner conflict,” as the phrase goes. These things happen most often in the imagination of men who never fought. Only rear echelons with plenty of fat on them can afford such rich diseases, like an epicure with his gout.

– The man who has had it roughest is the man to be most admired. Conversely, he who has had it the easiest is the least praiseworthy.

– It is an American weakness. The success becomes the sage. Scientists counsel on civil liberty; comedians and actresses lead political rallies; athletes tell us what brand of cigarette to smoke.

– A soldier’s pack is like a woman’s purse: it is filled with his personality. I have saddened to see the mementos in the packs of dead Japanese. They had strong family ties, these smooth-faced men, and their packs were full of their families.

– Smell, the sense which somehow seems a joke, is the one most susceptible to outrage. It will give you no rest. One can close one’s eyes to ugliness or shield the ears from sound; but from a powerful smell there is no recourse but flight.

– Charlie did not kill many people, but, like Macbeth, he murdered sleep.

– This was no feeling of dedication because it was absolutely involuntary. I do not doubt that if the Marines had asked for volunteers for an impossible campaign such as Guadalcanal, almost everyone now fighting would have stepped forward. But that is sacrifice; that is voluntary. Being expended robs you of the exultation, the self-abnegation, the absolute freedom of self-sacrifice. Being expended puts one in the role of victim rather than sacrificer, and there is always something begrudging in this.

– upon that change he passes over to the ranks of the Old Salts and ceases to be a Boot forever. Youth rebels and age conserves; between them, they advance. The Marines will cease to win battles the moment either camp achieves clear-cut ascendancy.

– when a map and a compass come into contact with a second lieutenant, prepare yourself for confusion.

– My eyes having adjusted to the gloom, I found myself in a room about twenty feet by fifteen, into which a murky light sneaked through a rectangle of thick glass high in one wall.

– We devoured the food. What a banquet! Here was the lowly hot dog, but it was spiced with risk, flavored with prohibition and washed down with the nectar of a watering mouth.

– Keep it up, America, keep telling your youth that mud and danger are fit only for intellectual pigs.

– Naval shells hissed shoreward in the air above us. Those of us who had been on Guadalcanal, remembering our own ordeal with naval bombardment, could spare a pang of pity for the foe—

– I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone’s hand. “Excuse me,” I began to say, but then I saw that it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one. It lay there alone— open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary. I could not tear my eyes from it. The hand is the artisan of the soul. It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart. A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive. To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer a part of a man, no longer his help, was to see war in all its wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal fury of the pride- possessed. The hand saddened me and I offered it a respectful inclination of the head while recovering my balance and making a careful circle around it.

– Racehorse drew his pistol and laid it against the driver’s head and said, “Get youah ass moving,” and the driver quickly shifted gears and drove frontward with a roar. Racehorse had won a Navy Cross for his bravery on Guadalcanal. He won another on Peleliu, but it was awarded posthumously. He perished attacking a pillbox, may he rest in peace.

– Rutherford had said, “See you in the old home town.” But now I would go home alone. May he rest in peace.

– Heroes turn traitor, warriors age and grow soft— but a victim is changeless, sacrifice is eternal.

– now pray in the name of Chuckler and Hoosier and Runner, in the name of Smoothface, Gentleman, Amish and Oakstump, Ivy- League and Big- Picture, in the name of all those who suffered in the jungles and on the beaches, from Anzio to Normandy— and in the name of the immolated: of Texan, Rutherford, Chicken, Loudmouth, of the Artist and White- Man, Souvenirs and Racehorse, Dreadnought and Commando— of all these and the others, dear Father, forgive us for that awful cloud.

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Cookie: Sammy Had a Plan

The year was 1984, and I went to 4th grade at McEbright Elementary School in Akron Ohio, the failed Rubber Capital of the world. It was a lovely old, inner city school around the corner from the Summit county jail. This was the third inner city grade school I had attended, so I felt fine there. I had a lot of good friends. We used to hang out in the front yard doing ninja flips, wrestling around, and playing with Transformers. We loved playing with Transformers, we would even trade them. My best friend was this stocky little black kid named Sammy, and we also had this other skinny black kid in our group that hung out all the time (sadly, I can’t remember his name anymore). It was us two skinny dudes, and Sammy hanging out all the time. Sammy was kind of the leader of our little crew. We were lal kind of weirdos and used love to sprint as fast as we could, I mean full out sprints. It was a blast when you’re a kid. I used to love hanging out with them and things were going pretty good. That is, until I had a run in with Chris Calise.

Chris Calise was kinda like the bully from the movie Christmas Story. He was brown haired white kid d always had his idea kick Marc with him. And, needless to say Chris and his side kick didn’t like me. In inner city schools like this, often it’s just a social hierarchy game. Everyone is looking to climb the social ladder with the only capital they have access to, social status. You might call it Lord of the Flies in an inner city school. Apparently, he thought I should show deference to him as king of the white kids. Well, I wasn’t really into deferring to people or submitting to them, so Chris didn’t like me.

One day, Sammy and I were running around the playground at school during lunch, playing our usual game of sprinting and running. Kids were everywhere, and we used to love running in between them, jumping up on the railroad ties, and jumping off. We were basically doing little kid missions. While running around with Sammy, I noticed Chris Calise glaring at us, especially me. Whenever I was with Sammy, I was never too worried about Chris starting a fight with me, because I knew Sammy would back me up. But, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. We were sprinting in between a bunch of kids, and lo and behold, I felt someone trip me. I mean, we were sprinting full speed, and they tripped me good. I was airboard, face first, flying through the air like Superman. I put my arms out, but still landed on my nose, at a 45 degree angle with my legs above my head. It felt like I slid a couple of feet. There was blood everywhere, and all in my eyes. I could barely see. I had never felt a pain that bad in my life. I didn’t see it coming at all, and I had no idea who did it.

They rushed me to the school nurse, and tried to put bandages on it to stop the bleeding. It stung bad, I mean really bad. There were ven It’s of asphalt in the wound. They didn’t take me to the hospital, but by the time it stopped bleeding, I had this giant, black scab on my nose that looked like one of those Roman helmets with the piece of metal that comes down over your nose. I had that scab on my nose for a weeks. Parts would come off, and then it would bleed again, and the scab would form again. It was bad and I had scars for years. While I healed, I tried to figure out if it was Chris Calise or one of his buddies. I was pretty sure it was, but nobody admitted to doing it. They obviously would have gotten in trouble. Every single kid in the school knew who I was after that incident. Chris Calise and his friends would laugh and point at the crazy scab on my nose.

Well a few months later, I was healed up and pretty much back to normal. I was back to playing with Transformers, doing flips in the front yard, running and sprinting with Sammy and the gang. It wasn’t long until things flared up with Chris and Marc again. This time, they wanted to fight me and they had a group of three or four kids. Everyday at school it escalated, but weren’t brave enough to do it at school. They threatened to get me after school. Since they had three or four kids even Sammy was a bit worried.

Sammy offered to have me walk part of the way home with him and his brother. His brother and his brother’s friends offered impenetrable protection because they were in 6th grade and way bigger than us. Sammy and his brother’s house wasn’t exactly by me so they would only be able get me about half way home. His brother and friends didn’t feel like walking out of their way and all the way back to save a little brother’s friend’s hide.

It was better than nothing because it got us away from the school a good bit, but I still had to part with Sammy’s crew and walk down this one street alone. Sammy and I brain stormed this logistics problem up and down. Sammy thought about escorting me solo, but then they would have ganged up on Sammy on his way back. So, Sammy came up with another plan.

The next day, he shows up at school with this round metal pipe plug. He hands it to me and says “put this in your backpack, and if they corner you, just swing your bag and hit one of them in the head.” This piece of metal must have weighed 5lbs, and the idea was that it would split one of their heads open and end the fight by scaring the other three kids. Of course, I don’t want to look weak, so I took it, said “OK” and put it in my bag.

The whole day, I had that metal thing in my backpack. It was old, and looked like it had been painted red and buried at some point. I visualized hitting Chris in the head with it and realized that if I actually succeed, he might die. I hated him, but I didn’t want to murder him. But, it was the best plan that two 9 year olds in the ghetto could come up with, so we executed. After school that day, I walked about half way home with Sammy, his brother and friends. When it was time for me to leave them, Sammy and I solemnly said goodbye. I headed off by myself. I was scared as hell. I was worried I might kill the kid, I was worried they might take it away from me and kill me with it. I started my journey like a deer in the wild, knowing I could be under observation by a pack of predators. I looked around like crazy, and ran most of the way home. Luckily, Chris and his crew are nowhere to be found. Day one was a success.

Days and weeks passed. I carried that piece of metal in my backpack and I never told my mom, any teachers or anyone else really. It was Sammy and my secret weapon. I visualized hitting Chris in the head with that piece of metal hundreds of times. A few times after school and on weekends, Chris and his crew got close to catching me on the way home, but I always outsmarted them, or out ran them. During those weeks Sammy and I didn’t really ride around the neighborhood or play in my front yard. It sucked living in fear like that.

Finally, the heat died down and it returned to Chris and Marc just talking trash. We never ended up hitting anybody with that piece of metal but I was ready to. I kept it for years and years. Every time we would move, I would find it tucked away in some drawer, or some box.

I miss Sammy. He was a good dude. I think back and who the hell knows what happened to him. Could be in jail, or he could be a doctor, I have no idea. I have another great story with Sammy which I’ll share in a future cookie.

That crazy scab, and our preparedness with that piece of metal are another cookie in my cookie jar.

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My Theory on the Electoral College

People think the electoral college failed in the 2016, so now they want to get rid of it. Correlation, is not the same thing as causation. What if it was something else that failed? If we saw a car crash, and the airbag failed to save someone’s life, would we argue to get rid of airbags? Just because a failsafe fails in one particular situation does not mean that the fail safe is not doing it’s job. Instead, I would argue that the problem is we need more than just the Electoral College as a fail safe. Here’s why…

In Jim Whitehurst gave a Ted Talk, Economics of The Information Revolution, he outlines three major epochs in the modern economy and which people were able to extract the most value. I will quickly summarize:

1. History of Humanity – 1800s – Land. Land mapped directly to power. The more land, the more food you had, the money you had, the more power you had, the more people you controlled. It was a direct mapping between land and power. The electoral college worked well because coincidentally, it also mapped to land. This meant that land holders balanced each other’s power out.

2. 1800s – 1980s – Manufacturing usrups land. Things changed with manufacturing because land became less important than machines. The machines that extracted food from the land became the most valuable assets. The more manufacturing you had, the more power you had. Selling tractors and cars, Henry Ford and friends indirectly extracted more value from the land in that short period of time than had ever been done before. The electoral college didn’t keep up nor help balance this shift in power. Instead, the unions eventually formed and things balanced out after a painful journey.

3. 1980s – Now – Information usurps manufacturing. With the age of information, the machines that extract food are now mostly a commodity, but the information on where food will grow, which food will grow best, how to prevent disease, and how to genetically modify the food is the most valuable asset. This information is wildly more valuable than the tractors. Owners of the information are the ones who extract the most value from the economy. The electoral college and unions can mitigate this power imbalance. Facebook, Twitter, Monsanto and others leading the information economy are extracting the most value, and essentially have nothing to balance that power.

The irony of this whole debate with is that the people with the “information” are the ones setting up this straw man against the Electoral College. We dont’ need to get rid of the Electoral College, we need the new thing that helps prevent HUGE imbalances of information. Some people are rambling on about it, including me, but none of us seem to have the answers. Hence, Zuckerburg (Facebook) is going to propose is “own” business friendly regulation to mitigate the threat of an Information College. He feels no guilt about this because he figures he’s as good/bad of a person as anyone and he might not be all that wrong.

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The Will to Survive

The Will to Survive

We recently saw a black, mangy bird with one leg at a gas station on our way back to Savannah Georgia. It had that wild, crazy look. One of it’s eyes was hazy and it’s feathers were missing in places. It was hard to look at, but it was alive and it wasn’t giving up.

It came up to the car begging for food and my girlfriend told me there’s a bird withbonenleg as she fed it. I strained my neck to look out past her through the passenger window. As soon as I saw how bad of shape it was in, I told her to give it french fries because they are more calorie dense, and it definitely needed as many as it could get.

She had a hard time throwing the food only to that bird, because other healthy birds kept flying in. I think she got it some food, but it flew away and we lost track of it. We waited a few minutes, but had to leave and get to then airport. I felt a twinge of guilt for not waiting a bit longer.

It made me think a lot about life. I felt sad for the bird, but also kind of proud. It was crafty hanging out at a gas station, relying on primates to give it food. I loved it’s fighting spirit, literally a life and death struggle, barely hanging on. It’s strange how we all know when another animal is distressed, not quite achieving homeostasis.

We are all barely hanging on…

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How Do You Define Rich & Poor?

How Do You Define Rich & Poor?

Like any symbol, rich and poor is very hard to define because it has a lot to do with our own perceptions. To me, it appears that we have two delineated groups of people who have shared understandings of what it means to be rich:

  • The Bottom 80% consider the top 20% rich
  • The top 20% consider the top .1% rich (or smaller)

We could break this definition down into an infinite set of categories, but for the purpose of political and philosophical debates, it appears that these shared understandings are good enough to get further into the debate. In reflection to my time living in each of these groups, I will now add my own definitions:

When I lived in the bottom 80%, including the bottom 10%, I considered rich to be:

  • Able to afford all necessities (food, utilities, etc)
  • Can handle an unexpected bill
  • Live in a nice house
  • Have a nice car or cars
  • Can afford travel
  • Can afford buying things which are symbolic of power (jewelry, watches, etc)

As my income increased and it put me in the top 20% I started to create a set of necessary but insufficient conditions. When all of these conditions are met, I consider you rich:

  • Do not receive more than 10% of your income from W2 earnings
  • Have total net worth capable of sustaining an income of more than $500K US per year
  • Have made enough transaction decisions, measured in the the tens of thousands, to be very comfortable and logical when making them
  • Have made enough transaction decisions, measured in the millions of dollars, to be very comfortable and logical when making them
  • Have become completely comfortable making $5000+ decisions (in 2020 dollars)
  • Do not have a significant emotional reaction to transactions (either positive or negative)

While not all encompassing, I think this definition captures a shared understanding that people display when debating in social media, at parties, etc. While poor people receive an almost ecstasy-like sensation when making large financial transactions, rich people do not. It’s as if they have made so many that it just doesn’t matter to them as much. I consider this a critical distinction. Gaining expertise in making financial decisions, like practicing a sport, prepares you for the game. When, you are poor, it is a game of life and death. When you are middle class, you don’t even know that it’s a game. When you are rich, you are playing the game with full knowledge.

I decided to share my definition of rich and poor because I think having navigated so much financial territory, I have a unique perspective. I have definitely lived in poverty, but now the bottom 80%  would probably consider me rich. Even the richest of the rich would understand and concur that I have seen how they live and understand it. I can comfortably sit in a room with a person with $100M in wealth and have an interesting conversation.

The top 1% worldwide has assets worth above $770,000 USD (per Investopedia – May 2019). While the average earner in the top 1% of the United States earns 1.32M a year (per CNBC – July 2018). Another definition that helps is High Earners, Not Yet Rich (Henrys) coined in 2003. Sadly, none of these have ever given me satisfaction when discussing the concepts of rich and poor in the context of economics, philosophy or politics because they lack any provision for “why” they people earn what they do.

Feel free to use any of these definitions when you are debating the meaning of rich and poor, but remember to consider that economics is a model, an approximation, used to describe human interactions in a financial context, mostly in the last 500 or so years. It cannot and does not describe why people find things important. In my humble opinion, Anthropology (coincidentally an offshoot of in the London School of Economics) does the best job of describing the fullest range of values that humans on our interactions and culture.  Even then, only an approximation. Only you can determine the value you place on anything 🙂

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Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data

Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data

Primates and most other animals have a special relation to computers, and in a lot of ways, we’re not as different as we think (Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior). One such thing, is how we analyze and use symbols to make discrete judgement.

In the early days of 2D video games, a concept of a Sprite was commonly used to differentiate rendered objects from other elements of the game, like the background. Sprites are nothing more than a group of data displayed on a screen together, but humans perceive them as characters that think and act together as a single object. This concept of Sprites came so natural to those of us who grew up playing these games. Humans easily associate meaning with these sprites, one might even say, predisposed to this sort of logic. For example, a famous sprite was Princess Zelda. She was a character, a “good guy”, a symbol to go down in video game history. Notice, how easily that humans identify the Sprite with the character outside the game.

But video games isn’t the only place we find this grouping logic. Natural language processing (NLP), often grouped with Artificial Intelligence, is a computing technique that displays a similar logic of grouping data. NLP is a computing process by which we attach sentiment (feelings) to entities (things). This association process is often refereed to as “training the model.” We later use the “trained” model to quickly identify entities, and re-associate that same sentiment. A similar process is amazing to watch with my 21 month old girl pointing at everything around her. She is identifying entities. As she gets hurt by one of them (often), or discovers that one is delicious to eat, she develops sentiment towards them. Biological intelligence in action.

Pivoting to the more direct application of symbols to the human psyche, the theory of Symbolic Anthropology was developed in the 1960s. This theory states that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning”.[1] A little understood or talked about byproduct of this theory implies that humans don’t interact with the underlying data, and instead make logical decisions based off of these symbols.

We can see Symbolic Anthropology in action in both Cultural analysis and biological analysis of human survival. For example, humans interact with each other as a Symbol, another person. Thus, most if not all of our logic is based on thousands of generations of selective pressures based on these symbolic views of each other (with sentiment attached). For example, young males do not feel compelled to donate their sperm to a sperm bank to increase their survival advantage, because “sperm bank” and “survival advantage” are not a symbols acted upon by thousands of years of selective pressures.  On the other hand, “cute girl” is a symbol and clearly young men are compelled by their hormones to spend time with and talk to young females.

Stated another way, young men do not sit around and dream about successfully raising primate offspring (defined as reproductive age). Instead, they hang out with young women, have sex and eventually feel the compulsion (or are told) that they need to help successfully raise the offspring. As an aside, there is a temporal component to the acts we take on these symbols, we do not understand the whole game at once.

Think about this the next time you make the flippant comment that “people are acting irrationally” – often, they are acting quite rationally on the symbols which would have played a survival advantage for most of human history. Think even further about how our mammalian ancestors operated on these symbols and survived (or didn’t)…

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Let Me Explain Poverty

Let Me Explain Poverty

Growing up:

  • Your dad goes to jail on your birthday
  • Vietnam veterans smoke pot and party with your dad
  • Your dad hits your mom
  • You hit your dad with a bag of diapers
  • Your mom points a gun at your dad’s face
  • Your parents divorce
  • You move in with your grandmother and uncle
  • You remember the sound of your drunk, angry uncle throwing your grandmother’s cat down the stairs and breaking it’s tooth. He’s mad for who knows what, and you avoid him as much as possible
  • You are hungry toward the end of every month because the food stamps run out
  • You change schools every year, sometimes you go back to schools you have already went to
  • You have barely any friends because you change schools every year
  • Kids steal your stuff because you live in a poor neighborhood
  • During a summer program at the local school, you and your friend get handcuffed to the jungle gym for hours and chased around by older kids. Nobody helps
  • Your electric, gas and phone are off randomly. Friends call, and get the disconnected message – the next day at school, everybody knows your phone is disconnected
  • A kid that hates you, trips you at recess, while you are running full speed, and you have a scab along the ridge of your nose for months. Nothing happens to him
  • One of the kids from school sees you buying milk with food stamps and tells everyone at school. They make fun of you, even though most of them are probably getting food stamps as well.
  • You know and understand all of your parent’s financial struggles
  • You watch your cousin’s cat fly up in the air, land in the street, and die in convulsions after two kids in an old sedan speed up on purpose to hit it. They are in a gang, so there is no recourse
  • Your mom tries to enter you into a better school where all the kids have more money than you
  • You are too poor to get braces and have huge, bucked teeth
  • At the beginning of each year, the teachers are mad at you because you don’t have the “folder” they told you to buy. You’re too embarrassed to tell them that you are begging your mom every day, but she just doesn’t have the money until…
  • You wear used clothes on the first day of school, everyone knows and laughs
  • You wait for your mom’s income tax return so that you can actually get something that is brand new – you wait and plan for it, scheming, seething with desire. It’s almost sensuous planning for that one moment of pleasure
  • No girls want to date you
  • All the kids make fun of you because you “are ghetto”
  • They make fun of you because you “talk like you are black”
  • You sit alone at lunch because you barely have any friends
  • You get “jumped in” to a dumb local gang by having four kids “fight” you for five minutes (probably because you are lonely)
  • You get taken hostage by two of the toughest kids at school. They punch you in the face, pour soda on you, and hold you for hours. Eventually, you escape on your bike while they chase you. Your heart pounds…
  • Because you hate school so bad, you miss so much that you fail a semester, then another semester…rinse, repeat
  • You tell the principal about how bad it is and he doesn’t care
  • You tell your guidance counselor and he says you should drop out and join the military because you will never amount to anything
  • You barely graduate high school with a 1.66 grade point average – mostly because you failed so many classes because of absence
  • You know you have no future

Then you:

  • Constantly struggle to keep a car running, so you can get to your job at a grocery store
  • Rebuild the motor in your car to keep it running
  • Have a suspended license because you can’t afford insurance
  • Learn to “act white” as demanded by society
  • Figure out how to get into college anyway
  • Beg your single mom who is depressed and alone to fill out the financial aid forms, always late, and barely ever receive any money
  • Struggle to work in a warehouse loading and unloading trucks while going to college on loans
  • Eventually get a job in computers, as a lab assistant for minimum wage
  • Survive on $20 a week after bills, eating macaroni and cheese, and 99 cent whopper juniors
  • Eventually, you start to know more about computers than some other people
  • You stop dying your hair dumb colors, take off the combat boots, chain wallet, and start interviewing for jobs
  • Eventually, you weasel your way into a real computer job supporting developers, and servers
  • People think you work really hard at work
  • But, you are rough around the edges, and everyone knows it
  • You are not calm and patient, and you speak your mind too much
  • You eventually have an offer at another company to make more money, but your dad and you get into a screaming match because he doesn’t think you should “give up a good thing”
  • 10 years later, you are still going to school
  • People still look at you a little weird because you can’t quite hide it all….

Eventually you:

  • Graduate college with 3.9s and 4.0s every semester
  • Get a job with a major technology company and make more money than you ever believed was possible
  • Learn to speak well, write well, and influence
  • Travel the world
  • Learn to speak three languages
  • Become just another white dude in tech
  • Gain expertise in several different disciplines including engineering, sales, marketing, and product management
  • Work too much and struggle to balance it with life
  • Bring others along for the ride
  • Try to be a good ally
  • Google offers you a job, finally. You turn it down.
  • Gain weight from working too much
  • Are attracted to adventure sports because of baggage in childhood – but it helps you hide it all
  • Freak out and loose all the weight
  • You put on a great show
  • You finally get over the fear of bringing children into this world
  • Even though you have significant expertise, you struggle to figure out whether you have enough life left to start a business and try your hand
  • Try to explain to others that choosing to “take risk” is a luxury


  • You fail at any step of the way and go back to the beginning…
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