March 31, 2008

Taleb on f*** you money

Nassim Taleb has a lot of money, while I don't, but I have enough, and no debt. He also has his one idea, which is a good one, enough for me to buy the first two iterations of the one book he has to write and ready to get the third when it comes out. This is how I feel about money.

I certainly do not buy the notion that money does not make you happy, counter to the literature on the hedonic treadmill. This idea stipulates that additional wealth leads to no long term gains owing to a reversion to a baseline. I agree with the reversion to a hedonic baseline. But if spending money does not make me happy, most certainly, having money stashed away, particularly f*** you money, makes me extremely happy, particularly compared to the dark years between the age of 20 and 25 when I was impoverished after having had an opulent childhood. There is something severely missing in the literature, the awareness of the idea best expressed in the old trader adage: the worst thing you could possibly do with money is spend it. Having no argumentative customers increases my life satisfaction. Not depending on other people’s subjective assessment increases my life satisfaction. Not being an inmate in some corporate structure increases my life satisfaction. Not doing some things increases my life satisfaction. Having the option to give everything away to go live as a hermit in the desert or as a social worker in Africa, increases my life satisfaction. Either nobody in these papers and papers tested for that, or he can’t get it published.

Ideally in an ideal situation you would live simply with a hidden stash somewhere that nobody knows about. Nobody hangs around with you because of your money; nobody laughs at your jokes because you are rich.

Best left unsaid

Eating lunch in a place full of English speakers and overhead some conversations. It reminded me why I only speak English for $$$ these days. Conversation bores me. I've nothing to say and there's almost nothing interesting to hear. People talk too much.

The great thing about Chinese is that half the time I don't know what I'm saying or hearing, and we can move on much faster to the silence.

March 28, 2008

Life after youth

Timothy Leary's dead
Since I dissed John Gray earlier I went back to my notes and decided to pull this from page 3 of Straw Dogs:
If Darwin's discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies.
It's a good idea, but is it true? I should ask my Taoist students, although it should be noted that Taoism, practiced as a religion, has very little do with the great and godless philosphy of Lao-Zi and Zhuang-zi.

March 25, 2008

Somewhat of a concern

Brad De Long is someone worth adding to your RSS feed. Here's the end part of a post title Free vs Fair Trade:

Think of it this way: Consider a world that contains one country that is a true superpower. It is preeminent--economically, technologically, politically, culturally, and militarily. But it lies at the east edge of a vast ocean. And across the ocean is another country--a country with more resources in the long-run, a country that looks likely to in the end supplant the current superpower. What should the superpower's long-run national security strategy be?

I think the answer is clear: if possible, the current superpower should embrace its possible successor. It should bind it as closely as possible with ties of blood, commerce, and culture--so that should the emerging superpower come to its full strength, it will to as great an extent possible share the world view of and regard itself as part of the same civilization as its predecessor: Romans to their Greeks.

In 1877, the rising superpower to the west across the ocean was the United States. The preeminent superpower was Britain. Today the preeminent superpower is the United States. The rising superpower to the west across the ocean is China. that was the rising superpower across the ocean to the west of the world's industrial and military leader. Today it is China.

Throughout the twentieth century it has been greatly to Britain's economic benefit that America has regarded it as a trading partner--a source of opportunities--rather than a politico-military-industrial competitor to be isolated and squashed. And in 1917 and again in 1941 it was to Britain's immeasurable benefit--its very soul was on the line--that America regarded it as a friend and an ally rather than as a competitor and an enemy. A world run by those whom de Gaulle called les Anglo-Saxons is a much more comfortable world for Britain than the other possibility--the world in which Europe were run by Adolf Hitler's Saxon-Saxons.

There is a good chance that China is now on the same path to world preeminence that America walked 130 years ago. Come 2047 and again in 2071 and in the years after 2075, America is going to need China. There is nothing more dangerous for America's future national security, nothing more destructive to America's future prosperity, than for Chinese schoolchildren to be taught in 2047 and 2071 and in the years after 2075 that America tried to keep the Chinese as poor as possible for as long as possible.

Living in Taiwan, China is somewhat of a concern. I've been here for 10 years in May, but before here I was in China for nine months. I decided to come out here because I wanted to spend time where things looked like they were going to be happening for the rest of my life, and I may have made a bad bet in not going to India or Shanghai. But Taiwan is free country, and it's been far better than staying in England.

Still, some problems with the post above. First up, the UK and the USA had a lot more in common than the US and China - not least a shared language, cultural / religious traditions, and dominant race. A natural affinity was not that hard to foster, and America could thus be seen as a natural successor and partner to Britain rather than as a challenger. To think that any of this applies to China is to assume that people are far more willing to ignore the obvious differences than seems likely. And this is not a bash America post - does anyone in China really feel the same way about the US as Americans could about the UK as the 19th century turned into the 20th?

But the basic idea of De Long's post hold true - if China is going to keep on rising, do we really want their history to show that we opposed them at every turn, or that we were an active partner?

Still, a second problem [at least] remains. However expedient it might be to embrace China, to do so without being critical of its policies with regard to human rights and so on would surely cheapen the effort - the school kids will eventually learn that the West did all it could to turn a blind eye to such abuses while propping up a corrupt oligarchy. That is, if the children of the future even bother with history. Britain's closeness to America didn't stop it from taking a lead in ending the slave trade - but is that widely known in the US, is it relevant? The powerful on each side made their deals while everyone else got on with their lives.

There are no easy approaches to China.

March 24, 2008

A man in the sky

I like John Gray, not the Venus / Mars guy, but the LSE /Straw Dogs guy. That book meant a lot to me a few years ago, mainly because I read it on a long bus ride coming down from Taipei after reading the Atomized [aka The Elementary Particles], my first Houellebecq, on the way up. Both considered the inability to overcome our animal nature, and reading them together left me intoxicated for several months.

I reread Straw Dogs [SD] last year and took notes. I reread the notes two months ago when I started this blog and found little worth repeating. I don't think that reflects too badly on either the book or myself. You climb the ladder and then it's unnecessary, or, as Alan Watts said of why he gave up acid: "When you've got the message, you hang up the phone".

One of the things that annoyed me in SD, and in the other works of Gray's I've read [all the popular one's apart from the most recent, Black Mass, which I'm waiting for fate to lay in front of me - things aren't just on the shelf in southern Taiwan], is the clinging to religion as a Good Thing. Nassim Taleb also has this, but in his Long Now talk he practically came out and said the function of religion is to keep the proles in line, since they can't take their philosophy any other way. I may have misinterpreted him on this.

Gray's set out another religious defense in the Guardian recently. Many annoying things, like the tiresome claim that atheism is another kind of religious belief, rather than an assertion of what is known against what's demonstrably unknown and / or unknowable. The odd thing is that Gray's theme across all his later works is to show up the illusions we have about ourselves, but he's unwilling to accept that religious belief is another one of these.

Still, he's a writer, the idea being to strike ideas together and create some light and noise, and in this he succeeds and is often fun, but never forget that what he and other public intellectual apologists of religion are defending so energetically is the belief that there is an invisible being who made everything, sees everything and can choose to intervene any time he wants, but chooses not to.

March 23, 2008

When hurting someone is OK

Interesting Carnegie Foundation talk / Q&A with Darius Rejali on the history of torture in democracies. He has a pleasant voice, and uses no graphic language. At the end someone, thinking they're being very smart, brings up the ticking time bomb scenario, and Rejali makes a calm and clear reply: we have jury nullification, and courts would always consider mitigating circumstances, so legalizing and regulating torture is not only unnecessary, but would also have unfortunate consequences (the elaboration of which was the bulk of his talk).

If your life is in danger you're allowed to act in self defense, and we don't need to legislate all the permutations of how that might happen. In open democracies the legal system can / should be trusted to understand when hurting someone is OK.

March 21, 2008

Hard, and then harder

When I first came here I was the typical English teacher, only interested in $ and fun. Well, interested in $, but not that interested in working for it, so I made some and mainly went for the fun, all of which was unhealthy.

I was not out hiking or learning tai-chi. There are reasons why I look like I do.

Anyway, a few years ago I started working hard, and then harder. I saved a lot. It felt good. I have tendency to get stuck in loops of behavior, and they can be either good or bad, but the one sure thing is that I'll ramp up the loading and rotations until I've got the mania of falling down stairs with my pants on fire while spinning plates and playing with a yo-yo. None of which, I should add, I do with grace or even base ability, but I get by and kid myself with raw enthusiasm.

So...I have the tendency to push myself too far and to like it right up until the point when it's no fun anymore, and then to keep hovering just on the wrong side of that line too long, until my face begins to numb.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that although my PC's back and running well I've got myself too busy with teaching and proofreading for this at the moment, but that could and should change if only I can master time.

The next post - which has been sitting half written for days - should be a semi-attack on John Gray, whose Straw Dogs is very good and is supposed to keep appearing here, but rarely does. Here's the last paragraph:
Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

March 17, 2008

PC in repair

PC in repair, and so the various posts that are almost ready will be delayed. In the meantime, here's a photograph my wife took in Anping yesterday.

March 13, 2008

The Book of Disquiet, text 166

Busy with work, so more Pessoa, and a picture from the Hubble telescope.

Why shouldn't the truth turn out to be something utterly different from anything we imagine, with no gods or men or reasons why? Why shouldn't it be something we can't even conceive of not conceiving, a mystery from another world entirely?
Text 166

March 12, 2008

The Book of Disquiet, text 135

More from The Book of Disquiet:

Having seen with what lucidity and logical coherence certain madmen (with method in their madness) justify their crazed ideas to themselves and to others, I have lost forever any real confidence in the lucidity of my own lucidity.
Text 135
So many well-argued, articulate pages of nonsense to be found online. You come across it and think what kind of intelligence is producing this, what could be achieved if it was all channeled to more appropriate ends?

March 09, 2008

The planet will save itself

The planet will save itself. This is the underlying message of Lovelock's Gaia, that the biosphere itself will force us to adapt or die, but that it's under no great threat, no greater than any it's faced in the past. The rallying cry of environmentalism is something along the lines of 'humans vs nature', but that miscasts the thing. Humans can never win against nature. We're part of it, and can only adapt to its changing terms.

Listening to Craig Venter from my last post, and it's clear that the bulk of the genetic diversity on the planet- and I guess the bulk of living material - is invisible to the naked eye. The plants and the animals are nice, but they're not the thing itself. No matter what we do or don't, life will continue to thrive. So the notion of us protecting the planet is rather misguided, as it's going to do just fine, with or without us, the whales, the spotted owl, whatever. DNA is tough, it's one instinct is to thrive.

Our concern is a little like an ant colony worrying it's going to kill the householders it's stealing from. The colony will get rooted out way before it goes that far.

When it comes to protecting the environment, the species it matters most to is us.

The myth of 1,000 true fans

A post that came out a few days ago and has been commented on in many places was Kevin Kelley's 1,000 True Fans, which makes the case that 1,000 such fans, each spending $100 a year on your product, can provide a viable income for an artist. I can only access a cached copy of it from here.

It doesn't seem to work as advertised. The 1,000 fans paying $100 spring out of nowhere, and there's almost certainly a power law to be applied that makes the plan look more realistic and less achievable. Looking at it it very conservatively, with simple numbers, and using a solo musician as the example:

For a 1,000 'true fans' to spend $100 a year [e.g. gigs at the kind of low ticket prices / cut that such a niche performer can command, plus CDs], you'd also need 10,000 to spend $10 [the CD], 100,000 to spend $1 [one or two iTunes downloads], and 1 million to be 'true friends', people who appreciate what you do but don't pay a cent. Then you get your income of $100,000 a year. For a band with four-members and no manager, multiply the above by four to get the same pay. Very soon this moves from being an exciting new idea to exactly how all slightly successful indie musicians have always got by. It's another book being written on the back of a snappy title and a not very profound idea, but one couched in enough terms of personal success, both artistic and financial, that it should appeal to the liberal arts students who have never picked up $$$ self-help book before.

Aside: I've loved The Smiths since they first came out and would consider myself a true fan, even though I've probably only spent a total of US $15 on them in over twenty years. People borrow LPs and CDs. Ownership is not a big deal. Possessions aren't great things to accrue.

In Kelley's defense, he does note:
My formula may be off by an order of magnitude, but even so, its far less than a million.
So...maybe not 1,000 true fans, but 10,000 or a 100,000, with commensurate increases in all the figures outlined above, kind of skewing his thesis from flawed to useless.

Here's something else. Most creative endeavours fail finacially. Again, it probably follows a power law distribution. For example:
JK Rowling has earned $1 billion over the last 10 years - keeping numbers simple enough for me to follow, so we'd expect 10 authors to have earned $100 million, 100 to have $10 million, 1,000 to have $1 million, and 10,000 to have earned S100,000, and so on, right down to all those who've made nothing from their work. A simplification, but the basic idea is clear.

Two things to add. First is the obvious survivorship bias of all the 'winners'. They'll talk about their struggles and the benefits of hard work, of never giving up, and the 'losers' will wrongly take away from this that with hard work and perseverance success is assured. Listening to the winners is nice, but the stories of the losers is far more important.

Second, find a job that you enjoy or learn how to enjoy your job. Interacting on a daily basis with people who hate their place in the world is tiring and makes each transaction sordid, like a crime, and of all the people it hurts it hurts yourself most of all.

March 08, 2008

Venter at the Long Now

It's almost redundant to express amazement at another talk from the Long Now Foundation. Hardly any of them, amassing here, are duds.

This is the first time I've heard Craig Venter speak, and he's great, perhaps the best talk I've heard since...well, probably only since Vernor Vinge, but then he set a high standard. Venter will make your head glow, there's so much cool stuff. Listened to it while cycling out to the country, with the picture of the fractal / broken wall, above, and the network of roots, below, two of the sights, but some notes on the talk from a 7/11 stop:

- Using genes as software for cell's hardware - software that can produce its own hardware.
- The huge variety of undiscovered (microscopic) lifeforms in the oceans and deep (1km +) underground.
- Life in the Sargasso Sea feeding on sunlight, but not by photosynthesis.
- Lifeforms that can be dried out, cut up, hit with high radiation for tens of thousands / millions of years and then recombine and live again when put in water - your basic panspermia seed.

March 07, 2008

The Roman Empire at Berkeley

How I ever did the housework without an MP3 player is beyond me. Isabelle Pafford, who I know nothing about, is giving a great series of lectures on the Roman Empire from Augustus to Constantine at UC Berkeley, and they're all being put online. A clear, fluent and entertaining speaker with well organized material - highly recommended. She references Seutonius a lot, and if you've never read him you're in for a wild ride and treat, available for free here.

March 06, 2008

What's so wonderful about flowers

I saw Adaptation when it came out and I liked it a lot, but that was before I got into my plant crazy phase, and when I saw it again the other week it meant even more. This time around I also liked Donald more than Charlie, in part because Donald made people happy while Charlie upset them at every opportunity. His intelligence brought little direct joy into the world, bar - and it's a big bar - the screenplays that he wrote. And while his had more resonance, the greatest happiness of the greatest number was obviously going to served by Don's movie. But I'm more interested in my happiness than that of the greatest number.

Some context. Meryl Streep is a NY journalist who sees Chris Cooper as a colorful character for an article on orchids. So far in the movie she's looking down on him as a misguided hick, and then out of nowhere he springs this little speech, which is the only time I've seen the key role of plants in life on earth expressed and illustrated in a movie.

Michael Pollan makes the observation that in agriculture / gardening the relationship between plants and humans is little different from that between plants and bees. Of course, hardcore paleoconservatives think that agriculture was when things started going wrong for us, health wise.

March 05, 2008

The Book of Disquiet, texts 183 & 204

More from Pessoa's Book of Disquiet.

I believe that the present is very ancient simply because everything, when it did exist, existed in the present.
Text 183
Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are only free if you can withdraw from men and feel no need to seek them out for money, or society, or love, or glory, or even curiosity, for none of these things flourish in silence and solitude. If you cannot live alone, then you were born a slave.
Text 204

March 04, 2008

Mapping the Frontier of Knowledge

Another great talk here from the Long Now Foundation. This one is from Juan Enriquez, and he starts out bringing the audience up to speed on developments in the life sciences - mapping the genome, cracking the code and then using it as software for the cells' hardware. Cool stuff all in the first 30 minutes. It'll make your head wobble. Then he moves on to more on the rise of Asia and the decline of the West, the evolution of religions, our place in the universe [slight], why pharmaceutical companies are too conservative, and hacking life forms. Your kids will breed spam made flesh.

“All life is imperfectly transmitted code,” Enriquez begins, “and it is promiscuous.”

March 03, 2008

Memories of Bukowski & Burroughs

Bukowski, smoking

In the interests of authenticity I got drunk before this post.

Bacon and Burroughs - what a vicious afternoon.

Like a lot men I fell for Bukowski when I was young and I fell hard. As much as the words it was the idea that one could create something in a small space, keep on a long adolescence, and, of course, be richly rewarded in women and $ at the end. The suffering and poverty were always only a prelude, not the main theme, but for 99.99999% or more that's all that happens. A one in ten million shot - to have talent, to write, to be discovered, to succeed. Failure is what happens in this field.

I was faithful to this dream until my early 30s, when I started to suffer, mentally and physically, from the kind of overdrafts that one can never really pay off. It'd be nice to say that I had a lot of fun, and while I'm sure I did - I did about everything I wanted to that could be achieved with minimal funds - the fun burned off fast and what was left was just the thing itself, mechanical, hitting the pleasure sites again and again, like a retard bashing ants. I let myself change, I learned to drink and romanticize less. Now I'm a sober looking type, more like William Burroughs, albeit without a suit and tie. Suits I can understand, but ties seem like fancy dress.

Somewhere in on Bukowski he writes about doing a reading at a college and seeing Burroughs alone in a room, doing nothing. I've always felt closer to Burroughs than Bukowski, and what I liked was his essential half-assedness. Much like Beckett he makes no attempt to be user-friendly, and is thus a far, far worse writer than those who are truly great (e.g. Dostoevsky) or very good (e.g. post-American Tabloid James Ellroy), or even competent (e.g. ... insert whoever). To be honest he is bad - try reading the cut-ups rather than appreciating them from afar - but with a sincerity and a force of character that win the day, even as you don't pick up the volumes much for kicks. Although the last trilogy, heavily edited by his assistant / lover, is a good fun western / sci-fi pulp summation of his lifetime concerns with outlaws, guns and young men.

The idea of Burroughs is far better than the reality, and it's ideas that I've generally taken from books, far more than the actual strings of words, the ideas that helped me or got me in trouble. Still, whatever their role in how I got to be here now, the ideas of men like Bukowski and Burroughs don't mean that much to me anymore. At some point I want to revisit all my teenage / 20-something books and movies and work out what was there then and what remains now. But that's a task that would take a long time, and I get bored fast when I look back. Too many things are happening now.

March 02, 2008

06, 07 Niall Ferguson on MP3

Nassim Taleb says that Niall Ferguson is 'a good lunch', which I take to mean they get piss drunk and talk shit, but I'm probably wrong. What I do know is that he talks well, and is worth listening to.

Side note. I don't have much tolerance for listening to or reading things that I agree with. It's nice to be stroked, but it gets boring fast. I don't need someone else to go on at length about my ideas or confirm my prejudices - I do a good enough job of that myself. So take this endorsement of Ferguson as something that I'm not entirely comfortable with, and hence all the more delighted with. I first heard about him when he came out as pro-British Empire and knee-jerk ignored him, being a good Chomskyite and all. So, yes, he's broadly in favor of 'liberal empires' and tends to ignore the wishes of the colonized, but he has lots of challenging ideas, and challenges are good. Plenty of contra-Ferguson articles are available at Wikipedia. So, here are four recent [2006-07] MP3s that all deal with the lessons of the past for the future we are facing.

Interview on NPR about The War of the World, or why the 20th century was so bloody. The same topic in a good talk and Q&A at Vanderbilt University.

Trialogue on reassessing neoconservatism, with Francis Fukuyama, who goes by the name of Frank here.

Another interview about America and empire.

Similar topic, After Hyperpower - The United States and the Next War of the World, November 28, 2007

March 01, 2008

Being moss

I like to quantify things, so I bought a bicycle computer to tell me combinations of time, speed and distance. I rode out into the country, just where the hills begin to rise up to the central mountain range, and ended up in a not so good botanical park, but which had a nice forest inside and paths that I could ride along. The plants I liked best were the mosses. It'd be cool to be a moss, cling to the side of something and be devoted to contemplating sunlight and moisture more deeply. Bacteria, plants, fungi, animals - we're all related and have been evolving for the same amount of time from our common ancestors, just along different paths.

We have consciousness...plants have biochemistry.
Have been entertaining the ideas of proto-consciousness and panpsychism - that consciousness pervades all things. I hardly believe it, but it's fun to let the idea run and think of moss being able to feel, if not reason. But then reason is only choices, and moss makes these to grow this way or that, taking actions that are entirely logical, given the available facts. Perhaps reason is an emergent property of cellular automatons [an example below], which is no great statement.

Maybe the ability to be stupid - to act irrationally on knowledge - is a hallmark of higher consciousness.