Monday, August 20, 2007

Six Existential Thinkers

I just finished reading one of the most arcane books ever - Six Existential Thinkers by H.J. Blackham. Wikipedia says it "became a popular university textbook" -- and I must say I pity those students who had to read it. Only 160 pages but it felt like it took me a lifetime because, for the life of me, I could not understand a thing that was being said in many places. It felt to me that he was constantly trying to be intelligent by repeating the same thing over and over. For example, the Preface:
    The purpose of this book is exposition, not criticism nor advocacy.

I hadn't even meant to use this part of the Preface, but look at the first sentence of the entire book!

    There have been enough popular accounts of the general ideas of existentialists. It is time to discriminate between these thinkers; they are not exponents of of a school, and yet not the least impressive thing ... is the interrelatedness of their thinking: they lead into each other; they form a natural family; each throws light on the others, and together they develop the content of certain common themes.
    Finally, the general reader who is interested enough to want to acquaint himself with existentialism should be told at the outset that there is nothing in this book which he cannot understand if he really wants to. There are difficulties, but they are not technical, and they are likely to oppress the philosopher even more than the general reader.

Does that make me a philosopher? I don't think so.

The second word of the book is "pertinaciously". I had to look it up.

To be fair, the Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and to some extent Jaspers sections are readable. The middle section, Marcel, is OK, but the last two sections on Heidegger and Sartre are likely the most opaque things I have ever read...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Speculative Bubbles

In a world where many academic (Chicago School) economists believe that markets are "perfectly efficient", (makes you wonder what high-level mathematics does to one's brain), there was at least one voice of "rationality" -- "an obscure economist"...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Crazy Love

Puppy Love Makes Teenagers Lose The Plot

"Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by the removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries and many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

What is the undergroundman?

Notes from Underground: A book about a man constantly battling himself -- and losing.

He falls into a small set of people who always know how they should act, but do not periodically act in that way. This distinction between knowledge and action is said to produce free will, and those people who know right but act wrong are thought to be morally responsible for their actions.

"If I know what is right, I can act right is" is apparently the syllogism with which which we judge people daily. In other words, all people who know what is right can act right. But doesn't that fly in the face of all empirics or logical sense? (By the way, I say only those who know -- what of sociopaths? Do they know the sin of murder any better than a cat knows the sin of murdering a mouse? What if a sociopath's brain is significantly different, as it likely is?)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Trouble With Rational Choice Economics

Again and again, people will choose short-term benefits in exchange for long-term pain. While strict rationalists will admit vaguely that people do not act rationally all the time, their theoristic "rationalism" underpins many of their other theories, leading them to believe that the freedom of the market is more effective in preventing crises and getting things done that it really is. Markets need to be regulated because people are stupid and greedy.

Piling On

This is some great advice for handling people from Jack Welch in Straight From The Gut, the former CEO of General Electric:
When people make mistakes, the last thing they need is discipline. It's time for encouragement and confidence-building. The job at this point is to restore self-confidence. I think "piling on" when someone is down is one of the worst things any of us can do. It's a standard joke during GE operating reviews that if one of the business CEOs is getting heat and someone in the room jumps on the bandwagon, the staff team will typically pull out the white handkerchief, toss it in the air, and flag the person for piling.

For people (at least those like me, who become embarrassed) the mistake is punishment enough, and people realize that if they continue to make mistakes, something has to happen -- needling people is unnecessary.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Close-Minded Fanatics Win Over Theorists

Throughout history the close-minded have always ruled over the open-minded -- in large part because the close-minded can easily act. They have their minds made up and they know what the right policy is. Their assurance is reassuring to the masses, and the masses themselves are foolishly confident in their close-minded opinions.

Today I was reading about the French Revolution, an event which ended in a pivotal disaster and set back human progress immeasurably. The Girondists, which included high-minded intellectual theorists such as Marqis de Condorcet, who came up with the lamentably unknown Condorcet Method, and a host of other intellectuals such as Thomas Paine. Condorcet, like many other Girondists, were driven to death by suspicious circumstances (as is the case of Condorcet, who was found dead in his cell) or by outright execution by the ruling Montagnards and their leader Robespierre.

If the Girondists had kept power throughout the French Revolution, Napoleon would never have come to power. Instead we might have seen a prefential voting system in France, and a meritocratic, well-ruled government.

In the US we were more lucky in our beginning, but intellectuals haven't had real power in Washington since the Founding Fathers, although we've had a very small handful of genuinely smart Presidents (Teddy Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The End of the Chinese Miracle?

Good article on the problems facing China as it continues to push for double-digit GDP growth. Environmental costs are not factored into the GDP, just like the external cost which businesses impose upon society is not factored into their costs of producing. While Jagdish Bhagwati would like you to believe that environmental damage is negligible and overblown, the exact opposite is likely more true.

The good news is that concern for the environment rises with GDP per capita - as people have more material wealth, they begin to value their health and environmental beauty, which is relatively scarce, more. Thus, you're seeing a lot more environmental concern in China right now. The Chinese government, paradoxically, seems perhaps more economically aware than the US government, and they are working to slow down environmental damage. With their power they can do a lot. One might think that with China's authoritarian regime, it could stop environmental damage faster than the US -- but that's probably not true. The best policy will always be subsidies for clean energy and energy conservation and taxes on pollution.

For those looking to cash in on the possible clean-energy boom, the solar stocks are definitely worth watching: JASO (a favorite of mine), FSLR, SPWR, STP, and even little DLSL, which does solar water heaters -- possibly the most cost-efficient solar if subsidies are eliminated. These stocks are down on speculation that Germany, the main purchaser of solar power, will cut subsidies. Right now it's risky to hold them, as any day Germany could cut subsidies and you'd see a severe drop in them...that could be buying time. I expect JASO and others to jump on earnings, although it's hard to say.

PUDC washes coking coal and FTEK provides a fuel additive which reduces nitrous oxide pollution (N2Ox) among other things.

Disclosure: Long JASO for a trade. author on accessing science

Here is an interesting little blurb by a scientist on the absurdity of scientific access -- he has an Athens account (/envy), but he can't access the latest research (funded by the Department of Health), which is being written about by journalists across the world, because it hasn't actually been published yet.

This means that the media – of all people - are a class privileged over academia, doctors and the public when it comes to access to the data; that for the whole of the media storm across Friday and Saturday, no interested academic, or member of the public, or blogger could participate, unless they were part of the chosen set, because they simply couldn’t see the paper.


Time and again we’ve covered the venality and incompetence of the media: and yet laughably the popular debate on this publicly funded academic work is conducted exclusively behind closed doors - by oldmedia employees - in a privileged world from which you, all doctors, and all academics are deliberately excluded.

The often scientifically confused journalists of the mainstream media are the people targeted in his blog -- and yet they have exclusive access to the latest research which is making headlines. Bit strange.

The paper in question, by the way, is on the correlation between marijuana and psychosis, specifically (I believe) schizophrenia. While the risk of schizophrenia may be increased by marijuana (I read it may cause an extra 600 cases in Britain, a country of 60 million), the prohibition of it has clearly been a failure.

It's important to note (as some journalists have, but as the Guardian article here does not) that correlation does not mean causation. The researchers noted that there is a distinct possibility that marijuana use and schizophrenia are driven by a third variable -- that is, people who use marijuana could be less mentally stable, use other drugs more, or could be driven by their psychoses to self-medicate. There's any number of things.

See Also:

Media Confuses Percentages Again and Again

"There is a large growth in shopping in December, followed by Christmas. Therefore growth in shopping causes Christmas."