Friday, June 30, 2006

Sweet vengeance makes the world bitter

The perrenial grade-school struggle between twerps and bullies is actually a struggle between two different styles of bullying. In contrast to nerds (who leave others alone and are generally left alone), the twerp derives his phenomenological pleasure from the disgust and irritation of others (eating his boogers, making people wait) while the bully derives phenomenological pleasure from the twerp's pain (while often self-righteously defending his actions as restoring a homeostatic equilibrium to the world).

So twerps are psychological rather than a physical bullies, with their aggression generally diffused in the environment rather than focussed on individuals. It is initially surprising that many "twerps" become "cool" in college, but "cool" is an incubational phase as the twerps prepare to become yet more obvious bullies in adulthood. Thus it is not hard to find a grade-school twerp growing up to become platitudinous moralist who wants to impose a vapid system of values on others, a comfortably middle class citizen who is untroubled by social injustice, an engineer who designs highly effective weapons systems, or even a merciless CEO who imposes thoroughly defective software on his customers.

One of the key problems in IT management is to spot the difference between a nerd and a twerp. The two are almost indistinguishable during the interview, but once in place, the twerp leverages his control over information systems to attract attention and exert power over other people. The nerd will often seem less "nerdy" in the interview, but once they are brought on board, they quietly and efficiently make everyone's life better. The deepest hope about the Buffett-Gates merger is that, under Buffett's tutelage, Gates how to become less of a twerp and more of a nerd.

{Side note: I'm using "phenomenological pleasure" very loosely, working with Sartre's discussion of Sadism in Being & Nothingness, with the central idea being that a murky consciousness can ground itself in relationship to its control over the consciousnesses of others, and create the pleasureable illusion of its own solidity. Needless to say, I am rather more attracted to opposite pleasures, namely allowing the mind to be as transparent as possible.}

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Savonarola rides again!

Canada's Supreme Court recently recognized infidelity as a form of spousal abuse. And this makes sense, as victims of spousal betrayal often feel deeper pain and take longer to heal than people who've been physically abused.

So, here's my proposal for Congress: You want to defend marriage? Let's first make it meaningful. Marriage presently confers many too many benefits with too few risks: redress the balance by imposing strict criminal penalties for adultery! With well-structured laws, just as people in a bilaterial abusive relationship can both be arrested for domestic abuse, both halves of an open marriage could be sent to jail for a long time. A side benefit is that middle-class adulterers are easier to manage and economically exploit, so prisons would stop being a cost center and become a source of government revenue (as they already are in China).

Selling this to the "moral majority" opinion-makers should be easy, and as the number of people seeking to be married starts to shrink, those Evangelical leaders might even start welcoming any gays foolish enough to risk matrimony. Blue-staters might find my proposal slightly draconian, but they could console themselves with the happy anticipation that regional differences in adultery rates would ultimately lead to an electoral rebalancing that would once again favor the North.

Everybody should want this, so why isn't it happening?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Two wrongs don't make it right

Implications from the recent research showing a shifting probability skew for male homosexuality based the number of preceding male children carried to term by the child's mother (as covered in the LA Times):

(a) No wonder that Catholics are more tolerant than Evangelicals!

(b) It makes sense that, from an evolutionary perspective, homosessuality is a luxury (i.e., its likelihood increases as population expands faster than the replacement rate).

(c) "42% of Americans consider homosexuality to be a lifestyle choice" and these people are less supportive of homosessual marriage than people who think homosexuality is biologically determined. Who would guess that bisexuals are opposed to gay rights? What a marvelously confused political landscape.

(d) Liberals and evangelicals are both on the wrong side of the issue: By opposing birth control, liberals could increase the consensus for gay rights. By expanding abortions and limiting family size, evangelicals could decrease the percentage of gays in the population.

Good News! The Plutocracy is a Republic!

The best part about Warren Buffett's pledge to give thirty billion and seven hundred million dollars to Bill Gates' foundation is that the news coverage has focussed on the close friendship bewtween the two richest people in America. It is nice to see human relations on display, and the chance to watch Buffett and Gates taking manifest pleasure in one another's company should remind Americans that, rich or poor, we can all have the sort of mutually respectful relationship that Buffett and Gates share. I found it particularly beautiful that, at this crowning moment in Warren Buffett's marvelous career, he was clearly relishing the aspects of his life that money can't buy.

The New York Times, of course, did not want to cover the story from that angle. Rather than dwelling on the fact that, in this moment of titanic generosity, we are observing two thoroughly human individuals, they decided to focus on the extraordinary nature of those figures. The tone of unchecked adulation is set at the close of the opening paragraph, as they offer the tidbit that both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett delight in "solving complex math problems".

For people who take this sort of thing seriously -- probably including Buffett and Gates themselves -- the idea of "solving complex math problems" in one's spare time is ridiculous: there are currently only about a hundred "complex math problems" currently known, and it is a major event whenever one of them is solved. It is much more accurate to say that Gates and Buffett delight in solving "difficult math puzzles", a human activity that situates them in a continuum alongside afficianados of sudoko and crosswords, rather than the Olympian realm of Complex Mathematics. The phrasing of the New York Times is like describing a weekend softballer as a Major League Hall of Famer.

But the purpose of the Times' article is to show that Buffett and Gates are more demi-god than human, and that we are fortunate to walk in a world with such paragons. Exploring the foundations of their friendship, the intrepid Times journalist queried Don Graham, who explained it thusly: "When you are as smart as Warren or Bill, I think it's hard to find people to talk to." In other words, the two smartest people in America are the two richest people in America.

As it turns out, less smart people have long been aware that, beyond a certain level, money does not lead to happiness. Less smart people are occupied with things an order of magnitude more complicated than selling cigarettes to children or stealing intellectual property. Less smart people foresaw that Schwarzenheger would be a disaster, and would consider misrepresentation to be a reprehensible business tactic. The Times implies that Gates and Buffett would not be able to relate to people from the intellectually inferior strata of society, but, before discarding it in favor of Don Graham's assertion that our Plutocracy is a disguised Meritocracy, consider the possibility that smart, compassionate and socially aware people might find it hard to talk to folks like "Warren or Bill", and, equally, Warren and Bill would not be interested in the things that many smart people would say to them.

But all's well that ends well, and it's nice to see a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic and a high-functioning dissociative schizophrenic making their peace with the world, considering that Gates made his fortune through the grinding suffering of his customers, and that much of the alpha that Buffett extracted from markets would otherwise have gone to pension funds. In fact, one could suggest that essential aggression towards the middle class underlay both of their careers and continues in their charitable work: it is noble to help the health infrastructure of the developing nations, but the structural consequence of building up those countries is to degrade the quality of life for the American middle class. Buffett and Gates are doing a "good" thing with their money, and it is probably the best that we could expect from them, but it is nonetheless a continuation of the aggression that underlay their success.

Monday, June 26, 2006

numerical models of emotional states (part 2)

The character traits of bossiness, stubborness and persistence have the common goal of aligning reality with consciousness. Persistence has the highest success ratio of the three, and is also the most pleasant in everyday interactions. Persistence approaches the situation freshly on every iteration, while stubbornness or bossiness increase with in direct proportion to resistance.

In real life, you want to avoid stubborn or bossy people, but traders in financial markets seek them out and exploit them. Stubborn market participants should be faded over the next two hours, and bossy market participants should be front-run over the next day and then faded two days after that. There are ways to take advantage of persistent market participants, but it is rather more difficult, emotionally less satisfying, and ethically more dubious.

The Greeks tell us that success leads to pride, and pride leads to failure. Consequently, many persistent market participants ultimately succumb to bossiness and stubborness after decades of patient capital accumulation: it is easier to take their money towards the end of their life-cycle rather than at the beginning.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Marxists have no class

Psychologists say accepting a worldview that assigns blame is a characteristic of an abusive temperament and the difference between an abuser and a victim in an adult abusive relationship is often more a matter of opportunity than temperament. In this framework, an algebraicized representation of the Oprah-style epiphanies where abusers accept guilt and the victims stop feeling "responsible" would start off like this:

x - y = 0

and end up like this:

-x + y = 0

No wonder the shows are so boring: nothing has really changed.

To proceed, the psychological continuum is something like this:

blames self -> sees reality -> blames others
(submissive)-> (healthy) -> (dominant)

Since people or groups oscillate between the extremes of dominance and submission, bypassing the healthy middle, it might be better to make the continuum

|blame | -> 0 (reality)

and then to quantify the absolute distorting degree to which people assign blame for their unhappiness (either to themselves or others). This amount of blame would be inversely correlated with actual happiness, and would not have the potential to increase aggregate happiness (since a vengeance-cycle would presumeably decrease another person's happiness, and self-hated, while a complicated and bitter-sweet concoction, will, for the purposes of this post, be considered as a negative).

Though blame is a miserly zero-sum game, generosity is inifitely expansive, and the balance point (origin) of "sees reality" is familiar to people with a truly religious mindset. It might have been labelled "accepts God's will", except that it is a state of consciousness that does not necessarily depend on a theistic outlook.

There is an relevant though apocryphal anecdote about life in the deathcamps, sometimes attributed to Elie Wiesel. The story is that the Hasidim were singing and praising God every day after their work in the quarries. A bitter socialist walked over to their corner of the barracks and asked them, "how can you be singing songs, with those idiot grins on your faces, when all this is going on around you?" One of the Hasidim replied, "What? The Nazis are so powerful that the sunlight is no longer beautiful?"

{ The title is, of course, a playful ytmnd reference, united with the Adornic implication that when unsophisticated Marxism is tied to the set of conditions that relate to one specific class, it is caught in a dialectic of blame and revenge that inhibits positive political action, while a truly "classless" Marxism would be politically unachieveable. Needless to say, I advocate neither exteme pacifism nor absolute equanimity. Some people are easier to work with than others. Different political systems optimize for different degrees of global happiness. Blame, anger and hatred will cloud judgment and prevent people from navigating towards more positive situations and finding constructive solutions. The economy of blame is like "psychological body odor" -- most people have a bit of it, the cleaner you are you, the more you notice it in others, but you shouldn't let it spoil your day.}

Friday, June 23, 2006

Fight Rapid Global Climate Change through Technology and Overpopulation

The Field Museum's crack fundraising team called me yesterday. I said, sure, I'd be delighted to help out, particularly because I loved supporting an institution whose employes worked for such low wages. I elaborated that I could just sense the dedication, love, and scientific commitment radiating from the lower-level staff. The fundraiser agreed with me. I continued, however, that I'd heard some disturbing rumors, and wondered if he could tell me the CEO's salary before I wrote my check (a half million a year, much of it raised from families who make less than $80,000 a year). The guy said he had no idea what the CEO was making, that he had absolutely no way to find out, and was off the phone within ten seconds, despite my efforts to prolong the conversation.

Of course, the Field Museum -- with an annual budget that is probably higher than the eBay liquidation price of their exhibited collection -- is a outdated institution committed to an outdated scientific paradigm. Their pride in their holotypes has an eerily fascistic resonance, and is out of step not only with 4th century B.C. Platonism, but also with contemporary genetics and science. Their collection, dating from the twenties, of fingernails and hair clippings from the three hundred most beautiful people on earth crosses over from eerie to creepy, and is so bizarre that few employees are willing to discuss it. Speaking of creepy and eerie, the executive decision to remove the shrunken heads from display fifteen years ago, on grounds of "cultural sensitivity" ranks as one of the worst curatorial decisions in the history of public exhibitions (where's their sensitivity to the culture of European-American adolescents?). And, of course, if we go behind the public exhibitions to their private justification, the internet will ultimately make large duplicative collections of the world's species completely unnecessary.

Even so, the Field Museum's confused mission has comic effects. Their latest permanent exhibit, "the Evolving Planet", makes a compelling case for the fact that Earth has gone through a series of mass extinctions, and ends on the chilling note that we are going through one, right now. However, this man-made mass extinction is different: unlike the ones that cleared the slate and allowed interesting ecosystems to evolve on modified paradigms, this mass extinction provides a growth opportunity for institutions like the Field Museum, which closes the exhibit by asking patrons for money to help them fight the tide of terrestrial devestation.

There are many compelling arguments for fighting rapid global climate change. Almost all people experience a deep, existential wholeness when they survey a complex ecosystem, and, during a period of mass extinctions, nature is much less pretty. With that said, however, people who grow up in Arizona experience a similar aesthetic response when looking at desserts, and it may be arbitrary to prioritize forests over wastelands. So the "let's save nature" argument might be flawed; the most compelling reason to fight rapid global climate change is that our economy is built on top of the ecosystem, and an economic collapse would almost inevitably follow an environmental collapse.

But if the energies that could be used to reduce rapid global climate change are diverted into conservation efforts -- airlifting frogs to air conditioned zoos, that release even more carbon dioxide, to necessitate even more frog rescues -- there is less political will for producing lasting and real solutions. There is an almost spiritual symmetry in that fact that, at the very moment when we are destroying species at an accelerated rate, we are simultaneously developing the technologies that will be able to create species at an even faster rate. So, dedicating resources to preserving living members of species in inhospitable environments is like storing ice cubes all Summer and Autumn, when Winter is a month away.

At present, the only real way to fight rapid global climate change is to reduce the causes of rapid global climate changes: buy carbon credits, take fewer airplanes, bicycle, recycle, and purchase fewer, durable items rather than plentiful and poorly made products destined for the land-fill. However, given earth's projected human population growth, all the models show that will be insufficient. So the only real hope for humanity lies in slowing global climate change while working on a set of technological breakthroughs that would allow us to regulate the earth's weather system. Current science has a long way to go, but if we keep continue research, and we keep breeding, we might just be able to produce the people who have the tools to solve it.

{side note: I give money to the Field Museum every year, I enjoy their events, I am delighted by their collections, and am amused by their complete absence of social utility. Because they are a well-run example of a "for-profit-not-for-profit", their memberships trade for below theoretical value, and only a moralistic blue-stocking would refuse to join. Further, every species on the planet makes me feel a little bit richer, while making the world a slightly more interesting place, so, while I am philosophically irritated by the absurdity of a frog rescue operation, I am personally happy that it happened. And, besides, the Field Museum was not even involved in that particular airlift, anyway.}

Thursday, June 22, 2006

numerical models of emotional states (part 1)

REAL . 10 | -10
FAKE ... 2 | 1

Everybody has a pyschological payout grid, but everybody's grid is different. Payout grids are a helpful tool in understanding both the broader cyclical rhythms of financial markets and the specific characteristics of individual traders.

To review, the psychological payout grid has four squares. The first line in the above example deals with the real world and real risks. For the person described by the above grid, if the trade succeeds, there is a positive psychological payout (10). Similary, if it fails, there is a psychological cost (-10). The second line shows the risks and rewards of thinking about doing something rather than actually doing it. If the trade would have succeeded, the above person can feel smart for having thought about it (2). If the trade would have failed, that person can feel smart for not doing it (1). This particular payout grid shows that a fantasy life can sometimes have more edge than a practical one.

If we assume that psychological payout grids vary genetically and psychologically, then we should be able to figure out what types of people would succeed in different types of markets. Needless to say, a person with an active fantasy life will probably shun trading as a career, so it makes sense that even moderately imaginative people can carve out a nice living on the fringes of the financial community, because creativity is both necessary and selected against in the field itself. The universe abounds with exceptions, and one of the most brilliant traders I know experiences a negative psychological payout from fantasy success, which drives him to action.

As a rule, however, people initially attracted to the trading profession derive higher psychological payouts from winning, with lower psychological costs from losing, and no psychological benefits from their fantasy life. Indeed, if you have had the pleasure of being on a trading floor during a bull market, that sort of imbalance would describe most of the floor traders (unimaginative optimists). Given that reinforcement encourages behavior, one can model the different pyschological profiles of different market participants during different types of markets, and while these composite psychological profiles will not forecast market direction, they can be used to predict market tone.

So, as the market shakes out, it favors people with opposite psychological architecture. Those who experience extreme costs for losing, but maintain an even psychological equilibrium when they win, have a higher incentive to avoid losses. They learn by obsessing about their losers, and find ways to avoid them or even make them profitable (i.e., going short). In general, the market participants who survive in the medium term are hypercritical -- with their bearish instincts often honed on their earlier optimism.

At the top of the financial community, however, people leave their emotions behind, and observe market tone rather than create it. The famous line about Stephen Cohen, that "if you watch him in his trading room, you can't tell if he's having the best day or his life or the worst day of life" is pretty much true about all the great traders. Such people have often gone through the entire cycle: they start as unimaginative optimists (bulls), become hypercritical pessimists (bears), and then spend their peak years as cheerful automatons, living in a flow state of pure activity.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why not every child should go to college

In his NYT review of Donald Antrim's memoir, A. O. Scott has an astonishing sentence, which opens up to an entire universe of misunderstanding, confusion, and pain. Scott writes: "The cultural imperative to confess, to share, to work through our troubles in public — in print, on television, in a blog — has had the effect of eroding the Tolstoyan entitlement to unique suffering, an ideal that it is the prerogative of literature to defend."

As most people read him, of course, Tolstoy was closely examining the self-indulgent aristocracy to show the superiority of simple and happy peasants. An intellectual historian would immediately spot Tolstoy as a Christian Platonist: The famous sentence about happy and unhappy families posits one basic way to do things right, but an infinite number of ways to mess things up. On the surface, it's not an extremely complicated thought, like most moderately healthy people, Tolstoy thought suffering was bad and certainly not an "ideal" or an "entitlement" to be defended. Along with Wittgenstein and Gene Siskel, Tolstoy's position is that art should guide people towards happiness rather than pull them into pain.

Tolstoy's insight goes a little bit deeper, though. Trauma freezes details in the mind and isolates a person psychologically, while happy experiences naturally flow to their succeeding experiences, and open people up. One of the keys to happiness is a universalism that does not prioritize its uniqueness, but rather appreciates the uniqueness (and commonality) of all others. The "cultural imperative to confess" is one of several mechanisms by which a self-indulgent narcissist can sometimes be transformed into a happy and open individual -- it can move a person from an arrested fixation on a specific moment in time to the realization that their life is comprised of a series of succeeding moments in time.

In other words, the "imperative to confess, to share, to work through" is, existentially, people's desire to purge themselves of toxic intellectual habits. As belief in God and Science is replaced by faith in the market, confession ceases to be a matter between themselves and their priest or psychoanalyst, and is freely offerred to the world (sometimes even as a product). But the whole point of confession is to "get over it" and to "get it off your chest", to remove constrictions in breathing that arise when biography is not fully integrated (moments of frozen trauma), to remove barriers to Heidegerrian authenticity, to situate events in the continuum of one's own life, and situate one's own life in the continuum of human suffering.

In its ideal form, confessional culture could be a tremendous tool to improve the quality of our planet. Sadly, in its current form, mass market confession is more than just a threat to the literature that valorizes precious and unique suffering: it can subvert the possibility of real personal growth. When people use cliches and tropes rather than real experiences to understand their own development, they can entirely avoid integrating biographical details into their sense of self, because their "confession" is wholley comprised of intellectual material that post-dates their trauma, with the result that their development remains arrested at their moment of pain, despite the fact that they have been given a wonderful vocabulary for discussing and sharing that pain (this sentence sounded better in the original German).

{As a side note: Donald Antrim is one of the most interesting writers working today: His "Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World" is a suburban post-apocalyptic satire that had me laughing until my cheeks were soaked with tears. Scott is generally a conscientious and fair reviewer, his review of Antrim's latest book is uniformly positive, but that sentence was just much too tempting to target to resist. Part of the purpose of this entry is to remind us all that the New York Times is a bizarrely biased institution defending shaky existential ground: For example, they were so threatened by this book that they hired a professional sniper to take the author out. }

Friday, June 16, 2006 wins the race

Am I the only person who has recently noticed that Google has a surprising number of links to pay-per-view scholarship? That more and more pages have links to shopping baskets, selling me scholarly articles whose authors would have been flattered to distribute them for free? Google has a semi-effective option for avoiding pornography -- why not add an option to filter out teasing links that offer tidbits of information only to try to extract money for the whole story?

In 1983, I heard Stanley Cavell offer a quip about the ontological differences between television and movie screens, and it came to mind as I was hoping to reap the metaphysical benefits of reflected light by connecting my computer display to a projector. I ran a google search for further information about Cavell's position, and both articles that came up were ten years old, from secondary sources from second tier publications, and both of them wanted money. No thanks.

So who would be willing to pay four bucks for an outdated article from a mid-tier journal, written a graduate student who has long since abandonned the academic profession for a job selling insurance in Topeka, Kansas? My guess is that most of their customers are students pulling all-nighters, trying to piece together papers on moderately arcane subjects. Now, this exposes yet another flaw in our current educational system: doesn't it subvert the purpose of a grades-based system when wealthier students have fundamental advantages, even as they are half-heartedly blowing off their classes?

Bill Gates, with his alternate system of skill-based certification, is looking more and more like the white hat in the picture. Most of my lefty friends support Google and hate Microsoft. What will they say when they learn that large chunks of Google's income derive from pimping out semi-legal pornography tailored to people's fetishes, while Bill Gates is quietly using his Microsoft profits to cure AIDS? Probably many of the same things they are currently saying about Nuclear power: "Sorry that I spent ten years and thousands of hours fighting what I thought was an extreme evil, but I guess I was wasting everyone's time and I wish I could take it all back. Oops."

better than expected...

When I was younger, I thought that the advantage of growing older was that people would respect me more. Now that I'm older, I see that the best part about aging is that every day beings new opportunities to increase my humility.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Legal Arbitrage & Global Macro

"Legal arbitrage" is a trading strategy which exploits regulatory differences between two economies and front-runs capital flow based on anticipated behavioral consequences of arbitrarily differing laws. An easy example of "legal arbitrage" would be purchasing property in Reno, expecting an increased tax burden on neighboring California real estate. A more sophisticated example of legal arbitrage would be to invest in an industry that is likely to provide tax havens for people in a neighboring country, or an industry on the cusp of legally creating barriers to entry. Insofar as different governments regulate economies in different ways, there will be opportunities for legal arbitrage.

Classical market theory says that trade over frictionless borders will efficiently allocate resources, but once there are regulatory differences between different economies, legal arbitrage is often a better way to model capital flow, particularly in cases where there are regulatory and social disparities between two countries. In other words, trade will naturally flow from countries that lack the political consensus to allow unions and that do not enforce environmental regulations to countries that accept worker's rights and care about the the environment. Structurally, wage differentials are just spice: trade would still flow from China if with wages the same, though probably not at the same rate.

A country willing to pollute their environment and keep their population in slavery will naturally attract capital flow, and this is a form of "legal arbitage". The punch line, of course, is that much pollution floats back across international borders to the very places that are trying to protect themselves from that pollution. And, of course, jealously guarding worker's rights in one country while benefiting from their ruthless exploitation in another, is like salving one's conscience by watching documentaries on Theresienstadt.

Smart people on both the right and left want to remove the structural differences between the US and China. People on the right want their models to be both prescriptive and descriptive -- growth is maximized when reality is aligned with their models. Thinking people on the left know that structural differences create arbitrary groups that benefit from unjust situations, and as people benefit from things, it becomes progressively easier to find excuses for them. In the long run, both groups expect the Chinese economy and the United States economy to ultimately converge.

The Chinese elites are clearly not planning for the long term. They are keeping people in near-slavery, preventing the socially disrupting consequences of repatriating wealth by keeping it in the United States (see, for example, this post), poisoning the landscape and population with pollution, and, most tellingly, discouraging population replacement, to the point where their population's productive versus retired ratio will be wildly imbalanced in less than twenty years. The Kelp-eating crowd hopes that if Chinese could just sit down and study the most recent science, they might be motivated to change their environmental policies. The problem, of course, is that the Chinese elites are destroying their environment in ways that were clearly understood half a century ago, so it is hard to imagine that their behavior would change once they assimilate the latest research. It is much more likely that they are creating international stockpiles of capital with the plan to abandon a polluted and angry country once it becomes ungovernable. They are accelerating global warming, but they are also setting aside enough money to buy an awful lot of air conditioners.

So my hedge fund buddies, with their ears to the ground, poised to front-run the giant sucking sound when the Chinese repatriate their capital, may be waiting for a long time. The Chinese elites will probably come to the United States long before their capital goes back to China. If this is true, then the net economic effect of the trade deficit is less dire than commonly supposed: shifting production to china reduces industrial employment in the United States and increases world pollution, but it supports our economy in ways that create higher paying jobs, and lower Chinese wages mean that more money stays in the United States. Further, the very structural differences that create the incentives to shift industry to China also make America an attractive haven for Chinese capitalists.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Dr. Graper hates Whiners!

Every time you complain about your life, you are committing a miniature act of suicide.

Traditional Flag Day Celebration

In contrast to anti-semitic myths circulating the internet, George Washington was a friend to many Jews and had no animosity toward Jews as a people. During the Holocaust, to stress this fact, Chicagoans erected a statue of Washington towering over his diminutive Jewish financier (originally on Wacker Drive, but this link shows where Daley moved it after September 11th).

Yesterday's Washington Post gives us a new opportunity to highlight our first President's appreciation of Jews: the Post says that he lobbied to have the United States flag feature six-pointed stars, until Betsy Ross convinced him that the traditional symbol of Satanism was would take less time to make than the sign of the house of David.

Are we too cowardly to restore George Washington's original vision, now that both stars are equally easy to produce?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Your Ticket is no longer valid"

I understand that many healthy younger women can be attracted to older successful men. That is the traditional perogative of alpha male status and has deep evolutionary roots. Though younger women are usually relegated to the role of "mistress" rather than "wife", I can see how an older, successful person would succumb to the attentions of an easy younger admirer as an accoutrement to their success. Who am I to criticize Heidegger and Arendt?

However, it cracks me up when aging, unsuccessful and emotionally immature men -- men who've devoted their entire lives to studying twenty year old women -- think it is impressive when they maintain tortured and monogamous relationships with slightly damaged younger women. People settle into relationships with their emotional peers, and it is a simple fact that being emotionally stultified makes it easier for them to find common ground with people who lack life experience. In many cases, a younger girlfriend is a red-flag about a lack of psychological development -- something to be embarrassed about, and nothing you would want to flaunt.

Isn't Fantasia a porn-star?

Boingboing has an interesting discussion of Walt Disney's "letter to the future". They point out that Disney missed narrowcasting, favoring a vision of the future with truly mass media, with millions in massive amphitheatres watching mind-boggling spectacles. Disneyblog ironically highlights Disney's utopianism, and his hope that "the world will have outlawed war".

But these two failed predictions are linked. If we accept the Platonic good, then there are some things that all clear-headed people will accept as transcendentally wonderful (think Mozart, Bach, Shakespeare, or, regrettably, Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). In our civilization, clear-headed people form a minority niche market along with the organic progressive left and the BDSM community. Transcendent experiences that open up and liberate you are just one consuming option; experiences that shut you down and reinforce your basic understanding the world are another.

In a healthy society, people strive for increasing growth and freedom, rather than wanting to stay forever young and bind themselves with newer and more effective chains. Hearkening back etymologically, I would say pornography panders, while art challenges. Whatever helps a person grow by expanding their universe and their appreciation of truth and beauty is art, but whatever shrinks them down by limiting their world and dulling their senses is pornography. So, most narrow-cast media is definitionally a form of pornography, while most broad-cast media just happens to be pornography. A news-source ceases to be "art" and becomes "pornography" at the moment when it limits editorial diversity. At its moment of inception, a creative product may bind people to their current conditions (pornography), but, at a later date, it might liberate people from the conditionality of their current circumstances (art). Disney certainly theoretically understood the appeal of pornography, but he expected mankind to rise above it. He hoped for a world in which everyone would truly enjoy hearing Andras Schiff play Bach while watching cosmic phenomena in near-perfect resolution, what we have was a place where people trawl the internet for intellectual, soft-core, and hard-core pornography. He is wrong, but it is our failure, and not his.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Selling national lands, String theory, biological mutation, and cell phones

I'm hardly an anarchist, but I don't "get" the intellectual grounding for the idea of "property" as a "natural right". If anything has a "natural right" to property, wouldn't it be "nature" itself? I understand the medieval notion that property is a reversible right from the king and the king has a contingent appointment from God, and I can see the historical context of the enlightenment response that imagines a civil society where property rights inhere in individuals, but if your deepest belief is that the world belongs to God, then isn't it a demonic act of theft to say that it belongs to anyone else? And how exactly do you "own" this area of the planet that has been around for four billion years? Why prioritize humans? If the most basic source of human happiness comes from connecting to nature, doesn't "ownership" undercut that connection? And what's up with all this talk about the "sanctity of property-rights"? Don't saints give everything away?

Some of the smartest people ever think that "property" is a source of misery and woe, so how did it become an eternal right that transcends national borders and geographical changes? How can property rights be reconciled with the natural cycles of ownership that allow a society to be Pareto-stable? Most people see Pareto as a pessimist, saying that 80% of the resources are controlled by 20% of the people, but what happens when property distribution is so lopsided that it almost seems utopian to postulate that 80% of the people should control at least 20% of the resources?

The legitimational systems for our society prefer to talk about property as a "natural right" rather than a revocable social contract, for the simple reason that the valuation models for equities and property would yield different numbers if they factored in what is euphemistically called "political risk". How bizzarre is it for people to expect to gain from a social contract that they are not part of when they buy "property" across national boundaries? Foreign investors tend to pay a twenty percent premium when they buy internationally, but shouldn't they recieve a twenty percent discount, since their property rights are contingent on a specific social juncture? And, in fact, much of the volatility from international equities comes occasional flashing awareness of the tentativity of property rights in emerging economies, and the "global macro" niche in the hedge fund industry exploits the seame between "social contract" theory and "natural rights" theory.

Of course, "property rights" are hardly absolute, even to the most committed member of the Federalist Club. The insect and animal kingdom do not respect it. Building codes and social mores need to be followed. Taxes need to be paid. Neighbors can fill your property with sound waves and smells. Airplanes can fly overhead with impunity. And low-level radiation can pass through your property without even bothering to thank you.

Is it pure crankery to be troubled when the government allows my "property" to be saturated by low-level radiation? It is almost a tautology that low level radiation changes the path of a subatomic particles and it is completely established that high level radiation massively increases the biological likelihood of mutation and cancer. Is it a conflation to suggest that the process of DNA mutation relates to the unpredictability of subatomic particles exposed to radiation?

With current computational techniques, this sort of question can only be answered in multi-century longitudinal study. We know that cancer rates are up. We know that genetic mutations are increasing. People are probably crazier than ever. Is it simplistic to find a unitary cause for all these maladies when there is probably a gang of thugs working together, and the process of isolating controls in order to study them scientifically prevents one from finding the synergies when multiple factors influence one another? How can one use science to protect oneself against dangers that are yet to be scientifically proven?

When a person distrusts the current social order, conservative internet bloggers are quick to accuse them of belonging to the "tin foil hat club". I'm reminded of the climactic scene in Bedlam, where a sane person insisting on her sanity becomes an example of a lunatic in an insane asylum. I keep my cool, I have faith in science, and my faith in science tells me that many things that are currently deemed safe will ultimately be scientifically proven to be quite dangerous. But, sure, I agreee: tin foil hats do not make much sense. Perhaps tin foil body armor? Tin foil lined houses?

How can we escape low-level radiation, if we unwilling to court the social ostracism that follows aluminum clothes? The national lands are not only a place to feel a connection with nature unmediated by a "natural right" to property, but, by avoiding economic development, they remain some of few places in the country that are not flooded by low-level radiation. As such, they are an important baseline for any studies of the effects of low-level radiation on living matter, and are a sanctuary for the rest of us. And we're talking about selling national lands to pay for income tax breaks and imperial adventures?



Monday, June 05, 2006

Current Events

Life is a feedback system, and failure helps consciousness align itself with the universe. If failure is disappointment arising when the world does not meet our expectations, and if wisdom accepts the world on its own terms, then failure can be the first step in the road to wisdom. "Greatness", of course, involves bending the world to suit your will, but we'll save that for a different blog.

If it weren't boring, repetitive, addictive and toxic, the narcissistic response to failure would be very funny. An experienced narcissist puts failure in the service of their exceptionalism: it is an indisputable premise that their talent is greater, so the only explanation for failure is that the subversions were greater, the obstacles were greater, or their enemies were more powerful (the Dolchstosslegende, the final word in next year's National Spelling Bee). Because the sense of entitlement is outsized, the sense of betrayal is deeper, and everything is grotesquely magnified to comic proportions. And if there is no-one to blame, a narcissist preserves the image of their own uniqueness by believing that their own pain is unique and exceptional in its extremity.

Is there a cure?

My favorite jataka features the woman desparate to cure to her grief over the death of her son. A wise man tells her to grind a paste from a hundred mustard seeds, each one individually gathered from a different house that has not known death. She starts on her way, knocking on a neighbor's door, but it turns out that they have just lost their mother-in-law. At the next house, a happy place brimming with children, her request brings the tearful memory of a stillborn baby. A few more houses, and not a single mustard seed, and she realizes that her own grief, while it seemed unbearable when it was hers alone, was only part of the way of the world.

In short, community and honest communication are the cure for narcissism. If you open your eyes to the sadness and disappointment all around you, your own pain becomes less overwhelming. And that points to the deeper problem with the loss of community in our world: when people lack multi-generational contacts, it is easier for narcissism to convince itself that every aspect of experience is special. A person's child becomes the savior of the universe. Their suffering is the cross of the ages. Their in-laws or ex-spouses are world-class Sadeans or unimagineably irresponsible. Because they believe in the uniqueness of their problems, disappointments are doubly heartbreaking, and they are unwilling to stop, listen and observe. It is all very pathetic and all very predictable.

But what happens if the situation is real, rather than a fantasy? Would outsized responses be justified in the face of outsized tragedy? I would never dispute a person's right to grief, but when a wise person confronts an objectively horrifying situation, they eventually learn to treat it as runofthemill *.

My favorite proverb in the western tradition is probably: "To err is human; to forgive, divine". When we encounter this clichee, it is easy to forget that we partake of divine nature at the moment when we transcend the tit-for-tat economy of shame and blame. I mention "shame" because sometimes it is necessary to forgive oneself, as many people wear their sins as narcissistic badges of honor, and exult in the self-indulgent myth of their unique depravity, when, in fact, to err is human, and there is nothing terribly special about most mistakes.

It is, of course, usually easier to forgive yourself than it is to forgive others, particularly when forgiveness entails forsaking a potential revenue stream, and the adversarial system in a litigous entitlement society promotes psychologically infantilizing absolutist narcissistic thinking. People are encouraged to think of themselves as "having a case" and "being in the right", just as the legal system tempts them with potential rewards for their self-perceived victimization. In contrast to our civilization, the promise of Buddhism and Christianity is that the world becomes a wonderful place when it stops being the story of your entitlement and betrayal. Jesus' rhetorical question is a bit misleading: at the moment you gain your soul, you get the world, too.