Sunday, March 16, 2014

Instinct and Tâtonnement

For my non-economist readers who are likely unfamiliar with the term Tâtonnement, I learned it in the second quarter of graduate school while studying microeconomics.  Léon Walras, the father of General Equilibrium theory, used it to explain the process by which his fictitious auctioneer would arrive at equilibrium prices.  I was taught that it meant "groping."  Google Translate says it means "grope."  I prefer the gerund to the noun in this case as the latter refers to a single instance while the former conveys the sense of an ongoing process.

I am using it in my title to give a nod to my economics training while referring to what I go through in writing my blog posts.  To make this explicit for the reader here, though I don't actually do this in a conscious way while writing, there are three fundamental questions I'm asking, each borrowed from the modeling in economics:  What are the axioms?  What is the model?  What theorems result?  (What conclusions can be drawn?)  These are posed simultaneously, not sequentially.  The art is in finding something that works or at least seems to upon initial inspection.  The writing itself then becomes a more detailed inspection and elaboration of the argument.  It is what I was trained to do and what I continue to do all these years later, in spite of having stopped doing formal economic modeling long ago.  There is, of course, a second reason for using the French term rather than the English gerund.  Try substituting the the latter for the former in my title and see what mental picture that creates.  It is not what I have in mind, at least not in the crass way that such a title would suggest.

On Friday David Brooks had a column, The Deepest Self, that challenged me.  I no longer read Brooks' column on a regular basis.  I don't like the way he argues - too preachy - and some of his maintained assumptions seem wrong to me.  But sometimes he hits on themes that I think are important.  This column was one of those times.  It is about the tension between our primitive nature, with its evolutionary basis, and our capacity to rise above the mire via our creativity.  This paragraph was my favorite from the piece.  It is where I agree with Brooks.

In fact, while we are animals, we have much higher opportunities. While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms. 

The rest of his treatment of the subject I found less satisfactory.  Rather than take him on, point by point, I will simply use this as a launch point for my own inquiry.  I want to do this at the individual level, where I will take a personal perspective to address the issues.  Perhaps this should be done at the social level too.  I may do that in a subsequent post.

On Friday morning I was getting geared up to watch (on TV) the Illini play Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten basketball tournament.  While in the past I've been a rabid fan, making it to Rupp Arena to see the Illini play Kentucky in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 1984, going to all three sites the Illini played in during their run to the Final Four in 1989, more recently some of that has cooled.  Part of that is simply that sitting in the seats at the Assembly Hall (I know it is now called the Scott Trade Center, but until the renovation is complete I will call it the Assembly Hall) is physically uncomfortable for me now.  My joints much prefer sitting on the couch in front of the TV.  The other part is that I became a fly-by-night fan the past few years in response to the team's mid season swoons.  As the team headed into its tailspin during the Big Ten season, I would start watching games but then turn them off after I got disgusted with the performance.  After several losses in a row I stopped watching altogether, though I would keep track of the score on the ESPN scoreboard.

However, as the team seemed to be on an uptick I started to watch again.  The game at Iowa, the season finale, was great viewing.  The game with Indiana on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament was not quite as climactic as the Iowas game, but it was quite intense through much of it and very enjoyable to watch.  I was therefore looking forward to the game with Michigan, in spite of the thrashing they had given us ten days earlier.  There is the added bit that my brother works at Michigan and he had been a bit obnoxious about the first game in email.  The sibling rivalry is not close to what it was when we shared a room growing up, but it isn't entirely absent either.

Being a sports fan has a libidinous aspect.  It conjures up an image of Romans at the Coliseum, watching the gladiators fight to the death.  I first heard it put this way by Mort Kamien, who had been my professor in the first quarter of microeconomics in graduate school (partial equilibrium, not general equilibrium) and then again in the third quarter in a course on dynamic optimization co-taught with Nancy Schwartz.  But I didn't hear it from him until ten or fifteen years later when he came to Champaign to give a talk.  He mentioned it beforehand while we were schmoozing and reminiscing.  And he put it in quite a disparaging way.  Real academics may tolerate big time sports at their universities, understanding that it part of the way these institutions remain viable, but they don't become fans themselves.  That would detract from their research, which should command their total focus.  It is that attitude, implicit in the Brooks piece, which I want to take on here.

The game with Michigan was as good as it gets.  During the first half Michigan seemed the better team, but Illinois kept it close.  At the start of the second half Michigan went on a run and threatened to break the game open.  Our coach decide to on defense play a two-three zone and it eventually put Michigan into a funk.  On offense, he told the team to take the ball to the rim and avoid the outside shot.  We started to click that way, got their starting center into foul trouble, and the momentum had clearly swung our way.  We closed the gap and eventually took a small lead.  They were more skilled.  We were tougher.  It seemed as if toughness would have its day.  I'm sure everybody in the arena felt that same thing. Michigan did make a bit of a comeback and with under four seconds left they had a one-point lead.  But we were able to drive the ball to the rim with our toughest player, Tracy Abrams, getting the last shot off.  It was his favorite shot, a little floater.  It missed.  That was the ballgame.

I had intended to write this piece on Friday, after the game concluded.  But I was down in the dumps then and needed a whole day to recover, then a good part of another day to reconcile that immediate experience with what I want to say on the subject raised in Brooks' column.  Earlier this morning I did a Google search on sports fans and the libido.  In the middle of the page I found a link to this page, which seems to confirm the hypothesis on the biological front.  Being an intense fan, even one who watches at home like I do, but who claps and yells encouragement to the team as if at the arena, has an arousing effect.  It tends to raise testosterone levels. (Presumably the studies referred to focused on male fans.)  The piece then argues that can be either good or bad, making the point that a little bit of that might be beneficial, but there can be too much of a good thing.  In other words, being a sports fan is something of a roller coaster.  Sometimes the ride is great.  Other times it can be overwhelming.

My experience writing, particularly writing this blog, has changed over the years.  When I started, in 2005, I had such a backlog of issues that were weighing on my mind that most of the posts simply flowed out.   After a year or so, there was the occasional struggle, such as this post on The Virtual University Dilemma, but that was because at the time I held a position of responsibility for the Campus and I was writing on a then politically sensitive topic.  My University was then contemplating a venture with a online Global Campus, something that eventually failed.  Later as I moved to the College of Business and then retired, this particular reason to pull my punches lessened substantially.  But I strive to not be overly repetitive, to produce some value add for my readers, and for myself to feel I've gotten something of substance out of the effort.  Sometimes meeting those goals is quite a challenge.  Then I struggle for that reason.  And when I struggle the emotional aspect that accompanies the writing is very similar to what it's like being a sports fan.  Being stuck on a writing issue is very much like watching the team when it falls behind.  There is disappointment, maybe anger.  When after quite a while, a possible way out emerges, there is an emotional boost.  If it pans out, whether that comes in a quick AHA or a more deliberate checking of the possibilities, there is elation.  Though the activity is intellectual at its core, the libido is present, big time.

So the message I want to give here is that trying to repress the libido so as to spend more time thinking deep thoughts is folly.  It is part and parcel of the activity.  It will be present any time the participant cares deeply about the outcome, regardless of what the activity is.  There is a related question, of the role recreational diversion plays in creative activity, such as writing, if one sees the libido expressed in both.

To this I would respond that the goal is some semblance of balance.  It is impossible to stop the roller coaster entirely, but one doesn't want to go off the deep end with any frequency, if at all. The derivative benefit, then, from the recreational diversion in that it gives more experience with expression of the libido and therefore a better understanding of oneself over time.  With that there is the knowledge gained about when self-discipline is called for, as Brooks argues and when self-comfort is more appropriate, something Brooks implicitly frowns on.   There is the further benefit that if one attempts writing on a regular basis then one needs fallow periods as well, sometimes during the writing activity as a way for ideas to percolate, other times in between efforts so as to come to the next project fresh and eager.  Recreational diversion serve those functions well.

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