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Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "James R." journal:
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Who was hurt?|
Is everyone alright?
Taleb on Democracy|
I heard Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, talk at our local independent bookstore. Well, less talk than kibitz-- for example, to a question on his writing method, he praised the virtues of walking. Taleb seemed like the kind of smart guy it's easy to take issue with, and so I will, more for the opportunity than as an attack on him.
In response to an unrelated comment, Taleb elaborated on his disdain for democracy-- it's a vast ploy, he said, perpetuated by the wealthy and powerful to persuade the many to pay taxes and maintain government for the benefit of the few.
All of which is certainly at least partly true. But democracy is more than a set of existing institutions. When we talk about a range of potential institutions-- deep democracy, social democracy, government for the people-- it's also democracy we're talking about.
Moreover, its the democracy that we're all fighting for. I don't know if Taleb's disdain was for democracy as given, or our hoped-for future democracy, or that we could ever obtain that dream.
I suspect it was the latter. But by analogy, is it possible to transition to an economy without fossil fuels? Many people think it isn't, unless we find a fantastic technological solution that makes clean energy cheaper than dirty.
The thing is, with democracy, we've gotten the technological solution. The internet is that solution. And we're learning to use it, only slightly less quickly than we'd all like. Future democracy might not look exactly like we imagine, but we have the tools to win the battles.
Thinking Slow in the Fast Lane|
I have been reading Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow with something between fascination and indignation. I was taught, during and after college, to worship my "System 1": it is more intelligent, eloquent, and aware than me, and better at everything from math to social cues. It surprises me daily, and at every step seems to already be ahead of me. I don't deny Kahneman's science, but he constantly takes implications that I would not.
If one day you met someone who, you learned, had been setting the course of your whole life; who crafted your perceptions, and not only controlled your desires, but designed them for your betterment; who knew what you were going to say before you knew it, and who fed you those things to say, so that if you were not their puppet, you were certainly an actor playing a part they wrote, wouldn't you worship them?
I don't doubt that I (my "System 2") has a greater role to play in my life, and I think that Kahneman's book can help me learn that, but it is not, as Kahneman presumes, by faults or ill-suitedness of "System 1". I will never walk on equal footing with the being that constructs my world, but perhaps I can be a more keen observer of it.
New Years Resolution|
Greetings from California! I'm visiting family here in the longest domestic vacation I've had in years.
I love opportunities to make declarations, so I always propose new years resolutions. My commitment to them varies, but my success tends to be low. In the end, I usually decide that I didn't really want to follow my resolution anyhow. I was thinking about this problem, and I think one hopeful formula is to treat oneself more like a country.
If crime is a problem, you don't say, "We will eliminate crime this year." You define measurable criteria, and set a mid-way goal, like cutting violent incidents by 25%. The Millennium Development Goals are prime examples of this.
While I believe that people can change quickly and completely, the reason it doesn't happen is often because you realize that you don't really want to upend every aspect of your lifestyle. I want to exercise more, but the sporadicness of my current exercise isn't just that I don't like it much. It's because my lifestyle involves working intensely on other things, and when I try to resolve to impose improvements, they turn out to be unexpectedly disruptive to things I don't want to change.
So, I want to try mid-way, measurable goals, so that by next year I can decide, if I fail, if the goal was too ambitious, and if I succeed, if further improvements are desirable (or even easier from the new standpoint).
This is all to preface my modest new years resolutions:
- To post twice a month:
- Mostly aimed at LJ or my professional page, but any substantive public writing will do.
- To read 50 non-required pages a week:
- Easily done when requirements are light, but reading is often the first thing to be dropped when stress is high, and I think it's a poor choice.
- Two hours of physical practice a week:
- Exercise, dance, and music are all acceptable.
- Twenty minutes of sacred rest per weekend:
- A meditative state, with no work allowed.
- Get my driver's license:
- This summer!
- Publish one paper:
- Or at least get it accepted for publication.
I need to figure out a place to record my progress. What are your new years resolutions?
Health of the Oceans|
*pokes head out of semester*
So much to tell! I just finished a week of presentations (or preps for presentations), and the world feels much lighter. So, here's one fun piece.
There's a curious mix of opinion on the future of the oceans. Quite a few ecologist are convinced that they're doomed-- imminent collapse of core species will turn them into pools of algae and jellyfish. But estimates vary, and the they're really tough to do: we don't have much ocean data, and all our information starts long after we impacted fish populations. The best efforts usually settle for a "under-exploited", "fully-exploited", "over-exploited" distinction (like Oceana's Too Few Fish report-- 77% of stocks "cannot withstand increased fishing activity."). I recently learned about the Ocean Health Index, which takes a much more comprehensive view, but in all the situation doesn't look so bad.
These evaluations are subject to a scientific "shifting baselines" problem, since we don't expect as much of an already degraded ocean. But we have data back to 1950, before most region's peaks of global fishing. Where are we relative to that historical level?
A simple average suggests that we're on a dangerous downhill trend. We're currently at 25-50% of the observed level-- which means that we're only bringing in 25-50% of the fish we could be. We don't know if that peak was ever really sustainable-- it could have been a one-time collection dozens of years of building up. But taking a 7-year average around each fish stock should account for both most of the observed variability in fish populations and drop the artificially high peaks to more sustainable levels.
With demand increasing, ocean acidification and warming, and more human impact everywhere, the situation looks like it can only get worse. How do we convince ourselves to lay off the ocean, if for no other reason than for our own benefit of more fish for later?
Flame is interviewing bright young girls applying to Wesleyan, and being swept up by the naive purity of these women, who try so hard to be authentic and come off sounding truly weird. When I was applying to grad school, I wrote my own sappy tune, praising myself more highly than I deserve, but I can't say I still know any better.
I was going through old projects to decide which to document, and I found my draft of a generic personal statement to be modified for whatever program I might find to apply to. Here it is, in all its self-centeredness, more for my future access than to subject any of you.
( Motivation Letter to an Unknown Academic ProgramCollapse )
|The new semester was ripe from the beginning. Flame just entered a stressful Masters program (Columbia's Climate and Society-- so she can be "Master of the Climate"), and is trying to hold down her book writing job on Fridays. Between us, we flirted with about 10 classes.|
I settled on Andrew Gelman's "Bayesian Data Analysis" and a "History of International Development" taught in the history department. The Bayes homeworks can take days, and their assigned every week. The history class has about two books assigned per meeting. But between them, and polishing up my Himalayan Flooding paper, I ought to be done with my MA requirements this term and can really focus on research.
Next week I spend in Ohio at the Ecosummit 2012, with talks from E. O. Wilson and Jared Diamond. Previous Ecosummits have been in Beijing, Halifax, and Copenhagen, but at least my program has money to send me. I have a poster to present my Open World modeling framework, so I'm hoping for good feedback.
I was recently wondering if twitter has a role in my life, and I think the answer is "no". Even if the brevity had no disadvantages, I rarely want to engage in much conversation online. And if the goal of twitter is to consume tidbits, then I have even less interest. For someone like me, is the only use of twitter for when we want to engage in some old-fashioned online social engineering?
Speaking of which, I have some new projects coming up. I'll say more when these classes calm down!
Scientists bow down to the 'concretism' of a mode of understanding
that finds the works of a clock more interesting than the time the
clock measures. They have all become mechanics, as it were. In their
theories, they invest all their love in those things that they can
deal with free of doubt. They think they can find security in things
that seem absolute to them and that protect them from all
contradiction. They are infatuated with neat means, methods, and
techniques and pathologically underestimate, or forget, what they
think themselves no longer capable of and what all of us at one time
or another have hoped to achieve in the way of insight.
Max Horkheimer, qtd. in Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure.
Principle the Overly Refined
Rather on your toes, up high,
Than crawling on all fours!
Rather through a keyhole spy
Than through open doors!
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Inequality in NYC|
My Friday book is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, and I'm currently reading about the start of the republic. It was also the start of laissez-faire capitalism (craftsmen and bakers had it particularly hard), and the recognition of the inequality that comes with it.
The book gave a few numbers (below) for inequality in the first 12 years of the republic. This represent portions of wealth in NYC, not income (the poor proxy normally given). I looked up a report of recent net worth, and the inequality is now far worse.
|Bottom Half||Top 20%||Top 2%|
How did half the people come to own so little?
Shame and Necessity|
We have to acknowledge the hideous costs of many human achievements that we value, including this reflective sense itself, and recognise that there is no redemptive Hegelian history or universal Leibnizian cost-benefit analysis to show that it will come out well enough in the end.
Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity
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