November 01, 2008

Weekend poetry fix: get your Wordsworth right here

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

We are pretty out of synch with nature these days, but William Wordsworth (1770-1850) saw it coming way back when. The neo-classical ancient Greek pagan wannabe in me likes this one:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

El Cabrero does not get too many glimpses of Proteus or Triton in landlocked West Virginia, but the sentiment works.


October 31, 2008

Maps and territories

Medieval map of the world. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

One way that people can get in big trouble is by falling in love with their theories (or believing their own propaganda). In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this as Platonizing or Platonicity.

For the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, Ideas or Forms were more real than the world of the senses. Most people wouldn't go that far these days, but there is a persistent tendency for people to take their model of the world for the world itself.

It's an all too human thing to construct working models of how the world works. In fact, most of the time, these models may work pretty well. But the tricky thing about our world is that it is under no obligation to act in a way that meets our expectations.

As the Polish-American scientist Alfred Korzybski famously put it, "the map is not the territory." The Gentle Reader may have discovered this for him- or herself while attempting to drive to a new destination with a map downloaded from the internet.

As Taleb puts it, Platonicity

is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined "forms," whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias (societies built according to some blueprint of what "makes sense"), even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures...

Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do...Models and constructions, these intellectual maps of reality, are not always wrong; they are wrong only in some specific applications. The difficult is that a) you do not know before hand (only after the fact) where the map will be wrong, and b) the mistakes can lead to severe consequences. These models are like potentially helpful medicines that carry random but very severe side effects.

Some healthy skepticism is called for, even about our most cherished ideas.

OH GOOD. Wall Street securities firms still have plenty on hand for executive bonuses.

SHOP TILL WE DROP? That may have just happened, according to the latest reports on consumer spending.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, here's economist Dean Baker's take on the data.

THE BIOLOGY OF HATE. Scientists may have identified the brain's "hate circuit." Meanwhile, lots of people seem to have already found it.

URGENT ANCIENT PHOENICIAN UPDATE here. Short version: they got around.


October 30, 2008

The turkey fallacy

One way that people can get in big trouble is by assuming that the future will be exactly like the past. In philosophical terms, this is called the problem of induction.

It's easy to fall into this trap. The human mind evolved in a fairly simple environment compared to the one we're living in today and it's pretty natural to just assume that things will be like they've always been...except they won't.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race "looking out for its best interests," as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.

The hypothetical turkey's sense of safety would have been at its highest right before its greatest danger. But turkeys aren't the only ones to have this problem. Humans have it too. As Taleb points out, it is a problem inherent in empirical knowledge:

Something has worked in the past, until--well, it unexpectedly no longer does, and what we have learned from the past turns out to be at best irrelevant or false, at worst viciously misleading.

Take home message: things change, sometimes really quickly. We should be prepared to do the same.

SPEAKING OF TURKEYS, here's a good item on the Wall Street bailout mess.

THE NEXT BIG THING. Expect the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier and safer for workers to join unions, to be a major issue in the coming year. Winning that would probably be the most socially significant piece of legislation in recent years in terms of rebuilding the middle class.


YOU ALREADY KNEW THIS, but driving while drowsy is dangerous.

HOW DOES YOUR DINOSAUR SMELL? T. Rex did it pretty good.


October 29, 2008

Black swans

Cygnus atratus, courtesy of wikipedia.

Every so often, a reader may have the good luck to stumble on a book that articulates things he or she has been musing about.

That happened to me a while back when I listened to a recorded version of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb's background is part philosopher, part trader. While I don't know if I'd be on the same page with him on every economic policy issue, I'm totally down with his general view of how the world works--to wit, randomly and unpredictably.

The title in itself is significant. For centuries, it was an article of faith in the western world that all swans were white--until a species of black ones was discovered in Australia. Actually, though, it would only taken one mutant black swan to falsify that whole dogma.

Taleb goes from there to talk about Black Swan events, i.e. unexpected happenings that have big consequences. Such an event has the following attributes:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to the elements of our own personal lives...

Think about it. What were the odds that a giant meteor 65 million years ago would have ended the dinosaur's winning streak? Life and history are full of low probability/high impact events. These can be either good or bad but they can't be perfectly anticipated

I guess you could say that's what makes things interesting. It also means that we need to recognize that there are a lot of vitally important things we just don't know.

NOT A BLACK SWAN EVENT. Who could have known about the Wall Street bubble? Lots of people, argues economist Dean Baker. While we're at it, here's another item by Baker that takes a broader perspective on the crisis.

IT'S ONLY MONEY. The Bank of England estimates the cost of the August financial meltdown to be $2.8 trillion. So far.

THE NEXT WAVE of the economic crisis is likely to hit credit cards.

THE FIRST DIXIE CHICKS. Here's an item from the Smithsonian about the Salem Witch Trials.


October 28, 2008

Planning to be spontaneous

Wu (right) did not plan on getting chased by Diego the turkey.

El Cabrero is kind of a policy wonk by day, with a special interest in how laws and such impact people with low and moderate incomes. Every so often, I have to take part in attempting to do strategic planning.

(Actually, my main plan is to try to have a strategy.)

I don't have anything against real or pretend planning as long as people understand that in real life one has to adapt and adjust on a moment by moment basis.

There are two military sayings that are worth keeping in mind even for peaceful folks. One is "No plan survives contact with the enemy." The other is "The enemy gets a vote." You can substitute the word enemy with any number of other words: future, unforeseen random events, reality, life, etc.

In planning to deal with something as intricate and complicated as public life and policy, it's important to keep two basic things in mind. If the Gentle Reader will forgive me for stating the obvious, here they are:

1. We can't predict the future with any degree of certainty; and

2. We don't control other people.

It's actually even worse than that. Not only can we not predict the future, but we also have an incomplete understanding of the past, even though we often use it to anticipate events.

History is in large measure story--and humans secrete stories the way the liver secretes bile. If you ask just about anybody why just about anything happened, he or she will probably come up with some kind of explanation which may or may not have any basis in fact.

There's an awful lot we don't know about the present, come to think of it. And not only do we not control other people (which is probably a good thing), but we are all imperfect in self control.

The take-home message is that no matter how well we plan, there's no getting away from randomness, unpredicted events, luck, chance or fortune. It's how we respond to such things that often makes the difference between success and failure.

WHAT ABOUT A BAILOUT for the rest of us?

ATLAS MESSED UP. Here's another take on the fallen idol of Ayn Rand. (By the way, anyone really into Greek mythology would have known that Atlas wasn't the brightest crayon in the box.)

WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD. The coming winter means more hard times for people in economic difficulties. In nearby Ohio, the equivalent of one in ten households has received a gas or electricity termination notice in the last year.

IN OTHER CHEERY NEWS, the financial meltdown is also making the global food crisis worse.


October 27, 2008

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

I'm not sure what this picture has to do with the topic at hand.

El Cabrero is not a big fan of the policies of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but I must say I dig his poetry. And sometimes he really nailed it, as long as you don't apply what he said to the particular topic he was talking about at the time.

Here is my all time favorite Rumsfeldism:

there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.

Without the slightest trace of irony or sarcasm, let it be said that I'm totally with him on this one. That's pretty much exactly the way history works although we usually aren't honest or aware enough to admit it unless we are shocked out of our complacency.

Many of the events that have had a great impact on history were not the kinds of things most people would have expected to happen.

I doubt that any educated Romans living in the early first century would have expected a world religion to arise in Judea. If you fast forward a few centuries, the same could be said of the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest of much of the known world.

The Civil War battle of Antietam (aka Sharpsburg), which provided President Lincoln with the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, was shaped by a truly random incident. Someone found Robert E. Lee's orders for a Confederate invasion of the North wrapped around some cigars and passed them on to the high command.

I could go on and on. As Blaise Pascal noted in his Pensees, much of the history of the ancient world might have been different had Cleopatra's nose been an inch longer.

Real life and history are full of surprises and we should never forget that.

POETRY IN MOTION. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when an economist analyses the current situation by referring to Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" things are bad.

BEYOND THE CRISIS, here's what the American economy could look like.

SOLID GONE. Here's an obituary for Ayn Rand's fictional hero. Long may he stay dead.

OH GOOD. The Wall Street bailout may actually increase compensation and bonuses for CEOs and such.