Friday, December 15, 2006

Lights, Affirmative Action

I wanted to write about affirmative action. I wanted to have a strong opinion, and to support it with clear and brilliant arguments. But I have had this conversation now with many people, open minded and of many races and backgrounds. And let me make the supreme understatement that people are not of one mind on this issue. How can so many smart and good people completely disagree over whether an idea is even good or evil, let alone effective? And in this confusion I finally found my opinion.

There is neither a perfect answer, nor a good one. Like many great questions, unbraiding its knots leads us back to the beginning of everything. Even if there was no baggage, no history of enslavement and subjugation, we would still form ourselves into groups. If we looked the same, dressed the same, and spoke with the same voice we would find a way to do this. In this make-believe world of identical people we would still find a way to disagree, follow, polarize, compete, and to judge. There would be winning and losing, and their children and grandchildren would be jealousy and hatred. Disagreeing about rules between racial and economic groups, and about where to draw the lines between these groups is just yet another example of dividing into groups. Why must we be this way?

I could say it is because we are human, but that is not the reason. Not at all. It is because we are here. If we were not this way, we could not have become at all. Since the first time a molecule copied itself before the beginning of observed time, improvement has created its own reward. Continuous improvement eventually produced organisms that had such powerful brains that they were able to engage in complex social organization. The same rules applied to their cultures and social structure. In evolutionary terms, the definition of improvement is a change that successfully continues to replicate.

Each that came along was the product of those that survived. We are the proof of the power and elegance of the simple original principle, and the complexity of our minds and bodies itself drives some who study biology to find religion. How could something so complex have been self-emergent? To me, this is a wonderful piece of humor – that simple rules can create a creature so complex that when studying itself, it goes insane. If I were such a creature, I would say that such a terrible joke must have been divinely inspired. But I am not, and when I stare into the infinite abyss I do not see a light. I think I wish that I did.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Economics, Sexy is Not

Yoda told me to work the word ‘sex’ into the title of every boring article I post. Marketing guru he is.

My experience studying Economics undergrad had me convinced that the whole discipline had drank the Kool Aid and was suffering en masse from the hallucinatory aftereffects. But as I have aged slightly out of rebellion and spent more time thinking about it, I have come to a realization. Although Econ is not and can never be a predictive science, it is a powerful strategic one.

Remember how 20 years ago everyone always made fun of the weather guy? It was because he was wrong so often that flipping a coin would produce relatively favorable results. Have you noticed that no one disses on the weatherman anymore? What happened?

The discipline of meteorology has had pretty good mathematical modeling capabilities for a while, but suffered from both a lack of sufficiently powerful computers and insufficient high quality real-time data to feed into the models. Over the past decades, computers have become much faster and we have built more observational capabilities (radar, ocean currents, etc.). So within a relatively short time, the discipline has begun producing more than respectable results.

So that begs the question – has the same thing happened with Economics? Get ready for a simple and clear answer, and enjoy it because this is the only time you will ever get one when talking about Econ. No. Hell no. Not only has it not, but it never, ever will happen. Why? It is partly that most of the weather guys are working together. But mostly it is because no one screws with the weather while someone is trying to predict it.

The most important (and annoying) phrase in Economics is “Ceteris Paribus”. It means ‘all other things equal.’ It is a way of making impossible real world problems into simplified theoretical ones by pretending everything that you don’t or can’t understand doesn’t exist. If you think that sounds farcical, then you get it. Ceteris Paribus strips out the immeasurable and the dynamic by locking all external things in place.

Think of the economy as a biosphere is the best way to get your mind around it. It is complex ecosystem consisting of many entities that compete, cooperate, and adapt. Information that is added into this system is quickly processed and used for decision making. The information is destroyed by its own discovery, because after it makes its way to participants, they add it into their decision making processes.

Say you are a caveman, and you discover a valley full of deliciously meaty defenseless creatures. This information has a very high value until you use it. When you show up at dinner with a bag full of barbecued tribbles, you are everyone’s best friend. But you are either going to tell someone else where you found them, or they will find them as well now that they know that Tribble Valley exists. The tribbles are eaten, and you are back to being the blingless 5th smallest caveman in your tribe. The key to exploiting information is to find a way to mine it while keeping it secret, and this is very difficult to do in an efficient, liquid, and open market. Ask a good fund manager what happens when they try to take a position in a small stock they like.

So Economics can’t predict anything useful in the real world, because all the decision makers have the same information as the predictor. But it is very good at illuminating the likely course of action from the point of view of players given a theoretical scenario. In other words, it is very good at what-ifs. This is not particularly useful for day-trading or even investing (although paradoxically it would be if no one else used it). But it is hugely useful if you can take the what-ifs and use them to manage risk and change law.

The end goal of the science of economics should be to inform public policy with the goal of creating a strategic space for all players that maximizes the public good. Economics is ultimately powerful as a tool of logic, showing us the optimal bridge to wherever we want to go. But choosing the location and agreeing on the starting point are non-trivial, and entirely up to us. Whoever ‘us’ is.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Intelligent Designers are all oxymorons, and God is an idea.

People that believe in intelligent design (let’s call it ID because I think that is funny) are the intellectual equivalent of the folks that are talking to their psychic right now. For those of you who believe that psychics are real, stop reading now and go look for something dumb, warm, and fluffy to expose yourself to. You believe because you want to, and there is no point pretending to read things that conflict. Construct broken but impassioned arguments for the delusional pleasure of yourself and your ilk elsewhere.

Time for the meat. The core of the ID argument is this: "Life is too complex/beautiful/specialized to have self-evolved without external influence."

While I was writing in bed just now, my little cat jumped on my chest, turned around, and sat down with here stinky little cat ass one inch from my face. If I believed in ID, I might reason something like this: "Wow, look at that wonder of nature, the anus. How perfectly it is suited to its function. It is impossible that something that melds form and function as exquisitely as an anus could be an accident of nature."

The primary fallacy of this argument (and don't get me wrong, there are many) is the opening assumption that something is 'too perfect', 'too amazing', or 'too complex' to have self-constructed because these descriptives are relative to the observer.

The fact that a structure is too complex for an idiot to understand does not mean that it was created by a super-intelligent all-powerful being. Hell, the fact that a structure is too complex for a GENIUS to understand doesn't mean that God made it either.
Seeing God in living things isn't just sloppy logic. It is egomaniacal to a fault. Remember Ockham's razor. Here are your choices:

1. We are too dumb to understand everything, even though we figure out some of the easy stuff.

2. We are so smart that since we don't understand everything, it must have all been made by God.

The best part is that the people that pick #2 are dumber or average than the folks that choose #1. Yeah, don't try to argue with that. You know it’s true. Go irony.

Now I'm not an atheist either. Atheism is as much of a religion as anything else. Anytime you are confident that something does or does not exist without reasonable data to support your position, you are moving into shallow water. I have a friend that is very smart, but is an atheist. I give him endless grief over being as intellectually dishonest as any other religious person. Sometimes he halfheartedly tries to defend himself, but he always rolls over and plays dead. He knows he is wrong. Yeah, Dallas, I'm talking to you.

There is only once answer to the question of faith. It is indeterminate. And since it will always be indeterminate, go find something else to do with your time.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

“Let’s all pull down our pants when I turn off the lights,” she said. I was 10 or so, and my family lived in the moment of nowhere. It might have been somewhere sometime, but at that moment it wasn’t. The closest nearby kid my age was a quarter mile down our dirt road. His name was Freddy. He had an older sister Lynn – I’m guessing she was 12. She was the advocate of the depanting. Their father didn’t live with them. I guess I agreed, because the light went off. My friend was standing near me and I remember him whispering, “Don’t do it – let’s trick her.” We tricked. When she turned the light back on, her pants were at her ankles and ours weren’t. She was pissed.

I had forgotten about this, but I remembered it when I was thinking about something I saw on television last week. There was a guest on some talk show, talking about the way that the relationship between the religious and the secular is so contentious. He said that both sides have to stop trying to find conflict, and instead recognize each other’s right to their beliefs. If we can shift the focus even a little, we will be able to accomplish much more. It was one of those things that is obviously true, but that you don’t think about often regardless of which side you are on. I probably spend 100x more time thinking about how silly I think religion is than about how to cooperate with believers to achieve common goals.

Then I started to think about the argument itself (you can’t really call it a debate). In the fight between one side and the other (let’s call it the loonies vs. the obviously correct) which side has their pants down when the lights come on? At first, I thought the pants on folks were the rational ones. We like to point and laugh. But then I wondered if exposed underwear might represent truth. So that would make pants down the non-loonies. Show us your truth! But we are not an embarrassed lot in general, so I went back to my original intuition. I’m a pants on guy and the downing of the pants in the dark is a mindless act of group-think. (Boy am I lucky the analogy police are off guzzling donuts somewhere). So walking back up-track to examine my mangled train of thought, why did this memory surface when I was thinking about the secular vs. religion thing? It hit me like a ton of molten hot Krispy Kreme glaze. We cannot get along with each other because we both do something that runs directly against the core requirements of the other’s group membership. The mythligious believe arbitrary things without proof, and the agnostheists reject group think.

That part is obvious, but this part isn’t. Religion is a really, really useful thing. Ask Jared Diamond – he’ll tell ya. Religious folks have created a social construct that allows them to climb their way into places in the human strategic space that require a degree of organization, coordinated action, and motivation far beyond the capabilities of those of us bound by logic and Nash reality. I mean sheesh, try to wage a centuries long global war of conquest without a puffed up sense of self-importance. Religion is deliciously useful.

So that is why we keep it around. We change it as needed too, but that takes longer because you have to wait for the folks that were taught the ‘old ways’ to stop whining and die. Interpretations of religions change hugely from generation to generation. The caste system slides away, God stops supporting slavery, women become equal…not small changes. Heck, Old to New Testament – are you KIDDING me? But here is the nut. The whole faith thing is all based on turning the light off, and on everyone pulling their pants down at the same time. It is hard to do that when you know someone is going to be pointing at your wonder woman underwear and laughing when they come back on. That is why we fight each other.
Old men with young girls...

Here is an open question for anyone that reads this. Why do old men become such fools for young girls? I have seen it time and again. Hell, pick almost ANY frosted and/or reverse mohawked retiree and watch him trip over himself when a mildly attractive young woman is present.

I’m not talking about a particularly lecherous dynamic either - just the intoxicated look so many get around female youth. The older they are the less they hide it. Perhaps it was omnipresent and just becomes more visible when people get to old to care what the rest of us think. Like maple leaves turning red in the fall. Analogy police: "Step away from the laptop, sir." Adam: "Drop that eraser or I'll smoke your partner like a salmon."

Concentrate Danielsan. So the question is why. Did evolution teach us that trick, rewarding the fogies that got in a few last pokes with additional progeny to carry on their affinity for intergenerational humpty-hump? I like that explanation, right or wrong. Reminds me of a kid trying to sneak cookies fresh out of the oven. Take that Sergeants Strunk and White.
Sneezing out chicken guts is a very strange experience. Luckily it wasn't real. I had a dream last week that I blew my nose and felt something solid came out. I opened the tissue and there were miniature chicken guts in it – a whole liver, intestines, and heart. I thought about it for days – what could it mean? After intense analysis, I finally figured it out. I have a chicken snorting fetish.

I wrote this as a joke, and I thought it was hilarious. But when I showed it to Ruobing yesterday her first reaction was to wonder what other fetished I've successfully hid from her these past 4 years. I read it again, and while I still think it is funny I got the uncomfortable feeling that it might be one of those things that is funny for the wrong reason...marginal insanity.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Rose petals in our belly buttons? This is Ruobing and I at Lynchburg, VA in 2006. By the way, why are they called buttons if they are actually an unfilled space? Maybe before modern medicine they all used to be outies. We should call them antibuttons now. Take care touching an button to an antibutton. Why is Ruobing so proud of her handiwork?
Cherry-popping blog post...

Hi all. This is my first actual post, but the folder in which I keep drivel that is unworthy of sharing is full of half-finished rambling. I've started trying to write so many times that I have finally given up. No more drafts or editing. No more mission statements, or worrying about themes.

I'm listening to music on headphones, and it is 5:07AM on Sunday morning, Oct. 29th. Ruobing is asleep. I played some poker, and I'm tired as hell. But I promised myself I'd put something down tonight.

I live in this cool little town in central Virginia called Charlottesville. I wasn't born here, but I've lived here for more than half of my life, since I was 15. I got out for a bit, but the more I traveled the more I realized that there is nothing anywhere else in the world that I can't find in Charlottesville (well, unless I wanted money or fame). But I don't. I just want to draw a line from here until I die and never cross the unhappy axis. I want to make Ruobing happy and have a happy family. That's it.

I have been on a quest to find more friends for the last year or so. As I've gotten older, my tolerance for crazy people and idiots has waned, from low to completely nonexistent. When I was young/single there was a biological drive to go out, and the need to search for a partner is such powerful stuff that it drove me to do many things I have found I don't actually enjoy. Like drinking a lot in smokey bars and talking to egomaniacs about superficial things. When I was lonely, it was like my perspective was backlit by the need to find someone. When I finally did and the backlight faded away, I saw a different picture.

Now my idea of a fun night of socializing is sitting around with brilliant people and talking about everything. My friends are amazing but over time many of them have left to go fight dragons, or at least iguanae, in larger cities. We're down to just a few now here in Charlottesville and badly in need of new blood. If anyone knows smart people here - send them my way.

I had this idea that I could record some of the conversations with my friends - Ruobing, Dallas, Julian, Jarl...then transcribe them to here after. I keep forgetting to bring my recorder. I will get around to it soon and you'll see some cool stuff.

Writing what amounts to a free-form diary for publication online is a strange thing. I find myself editing my thoughts a lot - cutting out snippets because I don't want to offend someone that might read this. I have heard writers discuss this before. I am not sure where I'll land on this issue eventually. For now I'm going to be kind of conservative. I will post some fiction here and I might use that as a vehicle for things that could/will insult and embarass me or people I know.

Well, enough for now. I am going to stop writing and publish this damned thing. Time to break the seal and open the passage to a daily stream of golden consciousness. -A