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Nomics  - Uncle Rules

February 7, 2017



I’m outside with my teenage nephew. It’s cross country season in the Pacific Northwest – cold, drizzling and dreary. He has just finished practice and his mood matches the weather. He’s explaining to me how badly he “sucks.” He wants encouragement, support, or even advice. He’d like a magic bullet from his uncle, who was also a long distance runner. I know I likely don’t have one. It’s clear to him and to me that he is far from being a star athlete. But what’s clear to me, and not him, is that his interests and talents in many other areas are just starting to show. 


Still, though, he loves sport, he loves his teammates. So I relay my experience to him. I was on an extraordinarily successful cross country and track team in high school. I was by no means the star. Down even below me, near the bottom of the speed chart, was this other guy. This guy was always slow, always injured, always icing his knees, never able to keep up. In short, if you measured endurance, fast twitch muscle fiber, and V02 lung capacity, he also, using my nephew’s criteria that day, “sucked.” 


This teammate became the captain in our senior year. No one had more vigor, commitment and passion for the sport, speed be damned.  What my teammate understood before the rest of us was that the rules everyone else used to judge success or failure were not the rules he was going to play by. He decided, instead, to set his own conditions for victory, his own goals, and he ran to meet those.  His quiet and cerebral enthusiasm wasn’t just for his accomplishments, but for others too. He knew what everyone’s running times were across the board: splits, upcoming competition, strategy, struggles, and victories. In short, he loved the sport. He loved his teammates. He changed the rules to meet his needs and we were all better for it. 


As uncles, we don’t have the same rules and guidelines that govern parents. If uncles are naturally cast into this role with these less-than-defined structures and lines, what rules can rule them? What have the rules been, what should they be? Are there rules that govern uncles, and if so what model could even begin to define this role within our families and society as a whole. When we say, Unclenomics, what do we mean?


Linguistically, Unclenomcis is a portmanteau; a blend of two or more words or their sounds are combined to make a new word. Like Reaganomics, Freakanomics, Genomics, Cybernomics…“Nomics,” simply put, are the “rules of a discipline.” Derived from the Greek nomos, meaning "law,” words fields ending with -nomics, mean "law of" whatever the prefix is. So Unclenomics is, the rules of an Uncle, our Uncle Rules. But there’s the rub. Far from how Thomas Carlyle defined its most popular iteration, Economics, as “the dismal science,” Unclenomics is exactly the opposite, or perhaps, not science at all!


From Hamlet’s evil Uncle Claudius, to Dicken’s transformed Uncle Scrooge, all the way down to John Candy’s Uncle Buck and uncle-like characters such as Tony Stark (he is Percy Jackson’s uncle as well) in Iron Man, uncles seem to have no rules, or at the very least play by a set of rules less distinguished and hard-set as those of parents. Uncles inherit this role largely by simply not being the parent. They are, in many ways an Unparent. They may be shy and cerebral, or outgoing and gregarious, but for many kids they are the first adult male they meet that is both trusted, but firmly outside the bounds of their traditional and well-structured male influences, namely fathers and grandfathers. 


In 1982, philosopher Peter Suber invented a game called Nomic.  Nomic is a game that actually has built in rules within the game for changing the rules of the game throughout gameplay. By making the rules malleable, no two games are the same and the outcomes completely unpredictable. 


“Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move. In that respect it differs from almost every other game. The primary activity of Nomic is proposing changes in the rules, debating the wisdom of changing them in that way, voting on the changes, deciding what can and cannot be done afterwards, and doing it. Even this core of the game, of course, can be changed,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment.


The ramifications are clear and far-reaching. Far more than just a game, Nomic shows that in any system where rules can change there is an underlying probability of unexpected consequences, outcomes, and discoveries. The game modeled and exposed philosophical issues around the building of laws, rules, and regulations, and thus named for the Greek word for the law, nomos.  If you were recruiting for an All-Star Nomic team, you would look immediately to uncles because they operate in world where rules are less defined and more flexible. 


Enter Calvinball

Taking the Nomic self-modifying game theory a step further, cartoonist Bill Watterson introduced Calvinball in 1990 through his syndicated comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball was played by the two protagonists as a rebellion against organized sports, a contest of creativity and improvisation, versus any specific athletic skill or aptitude. Calvinball's single most important rule being that the game never be played by the same rules twice. In Watterson own words, “It's pretty simple: you make up the rules as you go."

Other kids' games are all such a bore!

They've gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!

Calvinball is better by far!

It's never the same! It's always bizarre!

You don't need a team or a referee!

You know that it's great, 'cause it's named after me!

— Excerpt from the Calvinball theme song


The outcomes of Calvinball are prototypically Unclesque! Scores of "Q to 12" and "oogy to boogy”, songs, poetry, buckets of ice water, water balloons, masks…improvisation at every turn prevail.  There are victors in Calvinball, as there are in all models of Nomic, but clear emphasis of the game is its ever-changing landscape, the process, and the moment. 


Uncle rules, Unclenomics, are sometimes hard to define.  There is no hard-and-fast rule book. Unclenomics are a work in progress. To a results-oriented outsider, Unclenomics probably don’t make much sense.


But we’re not without expectations and responsibility. On the contrary, on that cold day after cross country practice in the Pacific Northwest I was doing my work as an uncle. At the very least I was there, listening. Hopefully my nephew heard that the real value of sport, or anything in life, isn’t necessarily about crossing the line first, or striving for all the things we’re told we have to have – money, power, prestige, and the like. It turns out there are another set of rules, Uncle rules, by which we can play the game, evaluate our victories, and measure our successes. 



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February 9, 2017

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