Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How we ended up here

We used to be awed by our accomplishments. The pyramids, the colossus, the metropolis, the moon landing. The sheer scale of these shared works inspired awe and pride. A feeling that we, or our rulers, must be doing something right if this is what we can build. Sparked with human toil the feeling one gets staring into a naked night sky or down a canyon.

Today we are awed by our problems. The sheer scale of runaway warming, racial animus, hunger, sadness, death. The fact that all of our great acts have not changed a basic truth about our lives and our race - that we all die and suffer along the way not in spite of but because of one another.

We are cowed into a listless silence. Standing at the base of the pyramid of skulls we don't speak. We don't act. We look away. And yet there are so many simple steps to take.

Eva Brann here identifies two concepts of the will that are unhelpful to live with:

1. A super-human or sub-human will, a will with no human agent, that will deliver an inevitable future that we need to accommodate ourselves with.
2. And the idea that if any of us is to be successful, we need to act swiftly and that decisive action is the manifestation of the will.

The second midwives the first. We are hasty, "intuitive", unreasoning in our desire for action. The document requires quick "iterating" (tl;dr). The pace of our give and take in our working days has left no time to weigh options and make a reasoned choice. Instead we let intuition guide our moves, hoping that quick action will stop disaster. But in quick action lies all the enemies of reason - our biases, our blindness, our unspoken fears, our basest wants that our reasoning, moral mind would check.

And so in quick action we give life to the invisible hand. Capital loves the swift action of unthinking masses. It is the key to "revealed preference". Rational markets are a lie but the mass market capitalist just needs us to make our will manifest, even if through a billion thoughtless clicks. We create that super-human will that brings us our future - all our unthinking has a mind of its own. And this will builds pyramids of skulls and we gawp.

Self-help is creeping towards solutions. Marshall Goldsmith's Triggers is a modern day take on Socrates' call to build yourself a character and a life that cannot help but do good. Habit-forming apps encourage us to make small commitments first, and work our way up to big changes.

We can't stare at the pyramid of skulls and say, "I can't do anything to fix the world without destroying this pyramid of skulls first." It takes simple, personal steps. Take your eyes off the massive problem and cast them on the ground in front of you. Your complaint that what you do doesn't matter is an arrogant, bullshit cop out. What you do is all that matters because if enough of you do it, we won't have these yawning pits of hopelessness all around us.

I will slow down, reflect, and act deliberately. That is my reasoning mind made manifest. And if that action only serves to grow my knowledge or deepen my relationships with those I love, then that is meaningful to me, and it hasn't burned another drop of oil or sent another child to a sweatshop for my pleasure.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Taking reality down a peg

When you have an adversarial relationship with reality, as leaders of the Republican party so often do, it becomes paramount to cast aspersions on anyone offering a glimpse of the truth. The latest target appears to be the CBO -- the non-partisan referee who makes all of the budget estimates for Congress:

House Republicans are in a pickle: One of their new rules says that new legislation must be paid for. But the health-care bill reduces the federal deficit by more than $100 billion over the next 10 years. Luckily, they've figured out an answer to their problem: They've decided to simplyexempt the repeal bill from the rules. That means they're beginning the 112th Congress by lifting their own rules in order to take a vote that will increase the deficit. Change we can believe in, and all that.

Republicans are aware that this looks, well, horrible. So they're trying to explain why their decision to lift the rule requiring fiscal responsibility is actually fiscally responsible. Majority Leader Eric Cantor got askedabout this, and he returned the reporter's serve with a volley of nonsense. "About the budget implications, I think most people understand that the CBO did the job it was asked to do by the then-Democrat majority, and it was really comparing apples to oranges,” Cantor said. “It talked about 10 years' worth of tax hikes and six years' worth of benefits. Everyone knows beyond the 10-year window, this bill has the potential to bankrupt this federal government as well as the states."

Aside from being factually incorrect about the accounting for health care reform, or more accurately "a lie", Cantor's argument also implies that the CBO can't be trusted -- that it simply follows the whims of the party who controls Congress. But now his party controls the House, and has this rule that nothing can go unpaid for, a rule that the CBO, presumably, has the responsibility to check. I assume he'll want us to trust the CBO's projections from now on.

When you subvert those who are trying to understand and describe reality, it makes it easier to win an argument by shouting louder than your opponent -- a specialty of the Tea Party movement. 

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Obama Liquidates Himself

A spending freeze? That’s the brilliant response of the Obama team to their first serious political setback?

It’s appalling on every level.

It’s bad economics, depressing demand when the economy is still suffering from mass unemployment. Jonathan Zasloff writes that Obama seems to have decided to fire Tim Geithner and replace him with “the rotting corpse of Andrew Mellon” (Mellon was Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, who according to Hoover told him to “liquidate the workers, liquidate the farmers, purge the rottenness”.)

It’s bad long-run fiscal policy, shifting attention away from the essential need to reform health care and focusing on small change instead.

And it’s a betrayal of everything Obama’s supporters thought they were working for. Just like that, Obama has embraced and validated the Republican world-view — and more specifically, he has embraced the policy ideas of the man he defeated in 2008. A correspondent writes, “I feel like an idiot for supporting this guy.”

Now, I still cling to a fantasy: maybe, just possibly, Obama is going to tie his spending freeze to something that would actually help the economy, like an employment tax credit. (No, trivial tax breaks don’t count). There has, however, been no hint of anything like that in the reports so far. Right now, this looks like pure disaster.

Krugman, amping up the shrill. And I feel like I'm right there with him ... A "freeze" feels like nothing but a gimmick. It doesn't do much to change the deficit, and it sends all sorts of terrible political messages. You know what does cut the deficit? The health care plan! If voters don't know about key provisions of reform, like the ban on denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions, they sure as hell won't know about the benefits for the deficit (especially given the false information that some have spread). But the White House has done an absolutely abysmal job in educating the public, and now he has to resort to Republican gimmicks to make it seem like he cares about a deficit that, just a month ago, his signature health care reform was poised to cut by over $100 billion over the next 20 years.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

The domestic political landscape boiled down to three short paragraphs

Heuristic-Driven Public Opinion

My view of the public is that it doesn’t have strong views on policy matters. But most voters do have strong views about famous politicians. A large minority of voters really like Barack Obama, for example, and if he tells them something is good they’ll assume he’s right. Another large minority of voters has strongly negative feelings toward Obama, and toward the Democratic Party writ large, but has positive views about the Republican Party and its leadership.

Then there’s another, smaller faction that takes a dim view of both parties and of politicians generally. But even though this group is small, it’s centrally located on the opinion spectrum. And it tends to assume that if elite leaders from both parties get together and say something’s a good idea—like George Bush and Dick Cheney but also Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle and John Kerry and Dick Gephardt say we should invade Iraq—that it’s probably a good idea. On the contrary, if only one party will support something then it’s probably partisan and bad and probably the party pushing the idea didn’t try hard enough to reach a sensible compromise.

Therefore, almost anything that an opposition party succeeds in mounting unanimous opposition to—Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget, George W Bush’s 2005 Social Security privatization push, Barack Obama’s 2009 health reform push—will wind up polling poorly.

This is exactly right. And it's why the problems that face policy-making are much deeper than the super-majority requirement in the Senate.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Past Decade Warmest Ever, NASA Data Shows -

The agency also found that 2009 was the second warmest year since 1880, when modern temperature measurement began. The warmest year was 2005. The other hottest recorded years have all occurred since 1998, NASA said.

Wait, but it snowed in October in Boulder, and was really, really chilly. Like seriously cold. A lot of the time. Therefore, my experience of local conditions trumps worldwide temperature observations, and global warming's a hoax!

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yes, we are essentially parasites

"We’ve known for some time that men need marriage more than women from the standpoint of physical and mental well-being,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and research director for the Council on Contemporary Families, a research and advocacy group. “Now it is becoming increasingly important to their economic well-being as well.

Aggressive, loutish, self-satisfied parasites. It was a good run, guys.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Que? (En Espanol)

Plastic Logic Creates the ‘Paperless Briefcase’

Plastic Logic
International Consumer Electronics Show

After a year of slowly dribbling out news about its plans, Plastic Logic has finally unveiled the Que proReader, another rival to the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook in the growing market for electronic reading devices.

The Que proReader, a slender, lightweight touch-screen device the size of an 8 1/2-by-11 piece of paper, is designed primarily for mobile business professionals as a replacement for bulky printouts. The device was created with the celebrated Silicon Valley design firm IDEO.

“We are not creating a paperless office, or like the e-book world, trying to create a paperless bookshelf. What we are driving on is the paperless briefcase,” said Richard Archuleta, chief executive of Plastic Logic.

A decade-old spin-out from Cambridge University, Plastic Logic has raised more than $200 million in venture capital to build a factory in Dresden, Germany. The company wants to enable a new generation of electronics with flexible, robust plastic displays instead of glass and other heavier materials. The Que is its first product, but the company wants to license its technology to other companies and types of devices.

“We are going beyond an e-reader, creating a whole new category,” Mr. Archuleta said.

The Que will connect to user’s e-mail accounts and calendars and, with Wi-Fi and AT&T 3G connectivity, wirelessly reach books from the Barnes & Noble online store and a variety of newspapers and periodicals. That development gives the publications the same look and feel as the print version. Barnes & Noble will also sell the device in its stores.

But it’s awfully expensive. There will be two models of the Que. The first, with 4 gigabytes of memory, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, will sell for $649. A premium model, with 8GB of memory and AT&T’s 3G connectivity, will cost $799. The devices will go on sale in April. The similarly sized Kindle DX today costs $479.

The Que will also suffer some of the same drawbacks as other e-reading devices (no video, no color), particularly with a new generation of versatile color tablets hitting the market soon.

But Plastic Logic believes black-and-white e-ink on a plastic device is better suited to professionals weighed down by documents. “At Plastic Logic, we really celebrate black and white,” Mr. Archuleta said. “Ink on paper – e-ink on plastic. It’s the key to readability.”

Not really sure I get the utility of this product ... You can view Office docs so you can annotate them? If you really need to produce on the go, wouldn't you just want a a laptop? I guess it's best for a manager who can annotate a bunch of documents and send them to her minions to make changes ... Guess that justifies the price point -- definitely not minion-sized.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Making Yemen-aid out of Yemenis

A headline looking for a story about increased US aid spending in Yemen. Make it happen.

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