May 20, 2010

A fractal look at American society

As I mentioned before, I'm in the process of reading, and trying to comprehend, Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan. Taleb takes issue with the Gaussian bell curve as a means of probability assessment, specifically its incompleteness in accounting for events in what he calls "Extremistan" (as opposed to the everyday variations in "Mediocristan"). All very cute. Taleb's dissatisfaction with bell curve analysis led him to adapt the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, the fractal mathematician, as a means of new insights.

One fundamental insight of fractal theory is the so-called principle of "self-similarity" found in nature. A common example is the structure of a tree. Each constituent part in some way replicates the structure of the whole: the leaf has veins that look like twigs; the twigs supporting the leaves are similar to branches; the branches are miniature representations of the whole tree itself. The human lung is put together along fractal lines, and the observation of a coastline will reveal similarities between the appearance of the shore at the microscopic level and a satellite photo of the entire coast seen at one go. Larger structures in nature are built up, in other words, by simply replicating the tiniest components. People have always been confused about what to do with Mandelbrot's work. Does it belong to aesthetics, to computer art, or to the world of biological mathematics? Well, I had my own idea.

I was thinking that fractal analysis might be applied in an attempt to understand the whole of American society, which is part of the mission statement here at the Pond. I've written before (maybe coined the phrase?) about the "parallax of nostalgia," or the tendency of one of later years (on the cusp of senescence/obsolescence such as myself) to see the society around him through a distorted lens, since his sensory apparatus is connected to an interpretive consciousness formed in another, outmoded era. In my case, and for most of the Baby Boom, the 1950's and 1960's. For example, I wrote once that I thought universal military service might be a good alternative to the professional standing army, since we could train, in effect, a Home Guard without the problems of (a) huge expense and (b) militarization of our foreign policy. This innocent observation was, I realize, an artifact of the Parallax phenomenon, for a recent report in the Washington Post details the insurmountable difficulties of such an approach. To wit, about 75% of America's prime military-age population (between the ages of 17 and 24) are unfit to serve:

One of the main reason recruits don't qualify for the service is inadequate education. One in four between the ages of 17 and 24 does not have a high school diploma, according to the report. And many who do still fail the military's version of the SAT, known as the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Asthma, eyesight and hearing problems are also factors. But about a third of all potential recruits can't join because they're too fat and out of shape.

"When you get kids who can't do push-ups, pull-ups or run, this is a fundamental problem not just for the military but for the country," said Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accessions policy. Many kids are not "taking physical education in school; they're more interested in sedentary activities such as the computer or television. And we have a fast-food mentality in this country."

Sobering observations. I think that the overwhelming majority of my own contemporaries, those who would have reached the age of 17 in the mid to late 1960's, would not have had any problem qualifying for the military. The Army's weight limit, for example, is 259 lbs. for men and 241 lbs. for women, both rather liberal standards, if you ask me. (How does someone between the ages of 17 and 24 even have the time to eat enough to weigh more than 259 pounds? is one question that occurs to me.)

My older brother informed me that one of his contemporaries, a teacher in inner city schools, intends to leave the United States as soon as he retires, because he sees all hell breaking loose as soon as his former students are in charge of things. There's both a wacky humor in his reaction and a very scary portent of things to come. Anyway, using the law of self-similarity, as applied to the American population as a whole, we might extrapolate outward to conclude that if this is the sort of progeny the society is producing (and is there some motivation for the military to denigrate its own recruiting cohort unfairly?), then things must be generally very bad indeed, and it would be miraculous if many more older Americans didn't have retirement plans similar to my brother's friend. It would not be possible to be mass-producing so many dysfunctional younger Americans (the fractally smaller component) unless the larger structure of which they are a part (the whole American society) were not also sick to its very core: uneducated, obese, degenerate.

Not to bum anyone out or anything. So one way to apply such a fractal insight is to consider the future of Social Security in this country. As we know from oft-quoted government statistics, the actual members of the workforce on which a given retiree must rely is dwindling; in the heyday of the Social Security system, as many as 15 or 16 workers might support a single retired senior; whereas as we move forward, this number will shrink to two or three. And two or three youthful Americans of the kind Mr. Gilroy of the Pentagon's Accessions Office is describing.

Hey, good luck, old friends. I'm beginning to miss the illusions of the Parallax.

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