Many of my friends and acquaintances have asked me lately how I was so sure as long as a year ago, and especially two months ago, that there would be a financial meltdown. To be fair, they’ve only asked me because I’ve been bragging about my prowess on this and other topics including why the I-35W Bridge collapsed and what the RNC would bring our town. Yes, I shoved my success in their face, so a few responded. I would like to have a steady gig in this field, so please excuse my arrogance. Besides, I know I wasn’t 100% right (at least so far).
The truth is that I’m not all that smart about these things. I do think that I have developed an ability to keep my eyes open and watch for things that other people are missing. I am a voracious reader, a lectovore, and I enjoy imagining what perspective created the text I see in front of me. We’re all poor players on this stage, so when one actor takes his or her time the part they chose to play is almost as interesting as the way they play it.
What this comes down to for me is a technique that I call “Free Reading”, or “Liber Lectoris”, since everything sounds more important in Latin – even bad Latin. I happen to think that this is a skill that is absolutely essential if we are ever going to make sense the world we live in.
The idea behind Free Reading is that nothing can be taken completely at face value. Everyone has their perspective and everyone has an axe to grind when they put out a piece. Very often people are trying to do little more than advance their career, which means that they have a strong vested interest in being accurate (and enhancing their reputation) or by spewing out the latest kewlspeak to impress the “in crowd”. A piece that clearly doesn’t impress the cool kids always gets my attention because I know which way it’s probably going. Too much jargon and I stop reading because it’s probably all about barking, not talking.
But with all of the biases we put into our work, does that mean you can’t really trust anything? Not at all. There’s no reason that a particular text can’t be filed away under “maybe” rather than a stark “yes” or “no”. A report from “the other side” such as Fox or NPR probably will have a kernel of truth in the center of it no matter how biased it is. If nothing else a strong reaction to a topic may be a raw display of fear; few pieces of information are as valuable as knowing what the enemy is scared of.
Most things I read are filed under “maybe”, often with a veracity index mentally attached to them. I like to read posts and works by people from the far outside because they are the ones who can tell you what is missing. Often, their works don’t get a high rating at first, but when something comes over the newswire you can pull that information back out. “Aha! The guy who went on about Lehman’s balance sheet may have been right because they sound mighty scared!”
Some things can be checked. The beauty of Wall Street is that any story put out by a crank can be looked up by checking the quarterly filings if you can read a balance sheet. I don’t check out every strange story I hear, but if one starts to sound interesting I may pull a balance sheet and see. Suddenly, something that looked 10% probable or less looks like a dead ringer. Bingo!
Where it gets interesting is when you can put yourself into the place of the writer and ask yourself what the world should look life from where they are. That can help you find out what they are talking around or simply missing entirely, which is the biggest problem in today’s reporting. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! My sources said it’s not important!
We are bombarded with a tremendous amount of information every day. We hear gossip, read blogs, and we can all check out newspapers from around the world. How do you make sense of it all? The first thing to do is to take everything, from the New York Times on down, under a form of advisement.
Free Reading means that you forget your own value judgments file what you read alongside by the writer’s perceived bias and goals are. Ditch the archaic ideas of “Correct” and “Wrong”, or the more stupid “Right” and “Left”. Everyone has a reason why they write what they do. Often, you’ll find a kernal of truth in anything, even if you weren’t supposed to, if you keep your eyes open and learn Liber Lectoris.