Sunday, April 29, 2007

Things That Stand Out

At age 4,
In the basement as a child I thought a robot would assemble itself from parts, and it wouldn’t be friendly.

At age 6,
Four boys in my class beat the tar out of a new kid in the bathroom. He vomited pink. For the rest of elementary school those 4 boys were the popular ones. I realized that mobs have power, and that they are bad. I also realized that I don’t like most people very much.

At age 11,
I had a crush on a little girl and rode 5 miles twice a week to watch her practice little league. I would follow her home on my bike afterwards. One day she hid under a car, and I knew she was there but I didn’t look because I knew it would be awkward. I rode home and never followed her again. They didn’t have the world stalking yet.

At age 12,
I made an obscene phone call to the operator and she called me back to tell me boys can go to jail for that. I waited for the police to come.

At age 12,
I started a chemical fire when I was alone at home. It flamed 3' high in a glass cup while I ran to take it outside. It burned my hand and sooted the ceiling. I thought the house would burn.

At age 13,
One of the only kids that was friendly to me found a nice crystal in the playground. I was jealous and I stole it. I never gave it back but I felt great guilt and I knew it was a mistake.

At age 14,
A redneck gang leader beat my friend while I watched. It happened fast and I was afraid to help. I swore I would always protect my friends after that even if it meant taking a beating.

At age 14,
In 9th grade I stole potassium ferrocyanide from the chemistry lab. I thought it was toxic and I accidentally spilled it outside. Panic.

At age 15,
I took a shower with one of the dumbest girls I have ever met. I was afraid I got her pregnant even though the sperm would have needed space suits.

At age 16,
I accidentally boiled mercury. Don’t ask. I wondered if and when it would catch up to me.

At age 17,
My girlfriend got Chlamydia and before I learned it was curable or what it was she told me I might have it too. When the doctor was testing for it he inserted the biggest q-tip I have ever seen into my penis. Do not enter. I didn’t have it, but they gave me the treatment anyway in case of false negatives. I still wonder why the fuck they q-tiped me if I was going to get the antibiotics anyway. Satan doctor.

At age 17,
I accidentally electrocuted myself alone at home, and my heart stopped for 15 seconds

At age 19,
I found out that my girlfriend had just been raped by her boss. I felt the deepest rage and humiliation.

At age 20,
I barely had the will to prevent myself from killing a man. I was consumed by a hatred so strong that I forgot who I was.

At age 21,
I saw my father in a hospital bed, weakened and suffering and on morphine.

At age 22,
I wrecked a scooter in the middle of nowhere in Taiwan and my shoulder was torn apart. The police thought it was funny. They didn’t help. I had to hitchhike to a hospital but my friend and a local couple helped me.

At age 22,
I hid in the bathtub when the lover of my date came to visit. He was armed police and she said he was her brother. I stood in the tub while he urinated, watching him through the curtain and thinking what a good story this was.

At age 22,
I was trapped in the streets of Taipei during a Typhoon. There were live power lines in the street, and big pieces of signs flying through the air at 60 miles an hour. Clay tiles were falling off of roofs everywhere, and all I could do was run to find shelter. That was the most alive I have ever felt.

At age 27,
My cat Buttkiss ripped my eyelid in half, bit into my scalp, and pierced my cheek. When blood gets in your eye it isn’t red – it is like Vaseline. I drove myself to the hospital. A little girl in the emergency room cried when she looked at me. The police came to interview me at the hospital and told me they knew I was protecting my friend. They wanted me to tell who really did that to me. "If someone beat me up," I said, "don't you think I could come up with a less embarassing cover story than that my housecat did this to me?" Buttkiss was declawed several days later. I wonder how many people have had the experience of cleaning their own blood off of the ceiling.

At age 27,
Venture capitalists funded my startup. I was proud and excited.

At age 29,
I had sex with a woman I didn’t know and she stayed the night at my hotel. In the morning she told me she was HIV positive. Then she asked me if I wanted to go to breakfast. I had worn a condom but it shook me and made me think about my life. I stopped having sex for 6 months until I passed my test. I was strong and I am proud of that.

At age 29,
After 13 years of searching I still hadn't found the woman I would marry. I was doubting.

At age 30,
I am older than I could ever imagine myself being when I was a child. I wasn't sure I would make it this far. I didn't know what I would become as I aged but now that I am here I understand. It takes a lot of experience to look forward but looking backwards is always easy.

At age 31,
Two guys were beating an unconscious man on Mao Ming Lu in Shanghai. I rushed in screaming and I was ready to fight. My friend and I chased them away. You shouldn’t stomp on unconscious people’s heads.

At age 34,
I am married to a wonderful woman. We love each other, and I am happy. This surprises me every day.

A few people close to me have passed away – I didn’t mention these because they seem both too personal and universal. My parents were the biggest positive force in my life and they gave unselfishly to their children. I didn’t talk about this because it is too big and too blankety.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Art of Life

You are painting. Your images are everywhere in the room - on the walls, floor, and canvas. You are working slowly now, but you remember making some of them in a feverish burst. The room has your smell. You feel like there is someone watching you work. You don't know how you got here or why but you feel the need to create. You want to make something beautiful right now, and sometimes you want to make other things. You remember watching others paint, in a room with familiar smells. They are gone now and you don't know where they were or where they are. Maybe you painted over their work. You can remember looking at it and making a stroke. You remember a sense of loss and of excitement. That feeling comes out in the expression on the face of the child as your fingers dance on the canvas. As you draw her eyes you feel that she is watching you. You remember opening your eyes and looking up. There was color everywhere. You are in the moment of your work.

For all of the rules that we make and for all of our ego and self-importance, we will never know anything. When we are bored, this makes us feel particularly lonely and we make up stories to keep ourselves company. Time changes the meaning of stories, and like children we are easily distracted.

The very simple truth is that we are inspired by the things we see around us, and we in turn re-form what is around us by our reactions to this inspiration. Our reformations in turn inspire those that come next. In a cosmic sense life is art. In our human gallery there are dark periods and light ones, and some bright threads that connect them all. From the the first spark of life until the end of the universe, it is one great mosaic of continuous performances. Perhaps it is not meaningful, but it is our exhibition and you are part of it. Part of why we long for God is the great desire for someone to appreciate this, our collective masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ars Gratia Partis?

Someone asked me today if I was aware that China was trying to open up an international market for tiger parts. Not being a crunchy lunatic, my answer was no. Being a top 100 man myself, I asked him why he was so obsessed with the 12,834th scariest thing that China is doing. As long as people are being abused and there are flagrant human rights problems, I have a hard time breaking out the "stop farming tigers now" placard.

Know why you've heard of tree-huggers but not tiger-huggers? Trees don't eat or kill people. Now if you are a hippie-type I know what you are going to say - tigers to don't kill or eat people. That is what Roy (of Siegfried and Roy) says too.

Caring about things like this must happen in the same part of the brain that handles art appreciation. Speaking of art - have you been to a big metropolitan museum recently? They are wasting a LOT of prime office space on displaying art and stuff. SAVE THE TIGERS!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Is the Market Value of a Sympathy F***?

I need to know for tax purposes. Just kidding of course - I do love my hooks. I do want to talk about charitable giving though. See look where your mind is now. Gives new meaning to "I gave at the office", doesn't it?

Anyway, my family is thinking about setting up a charitable trust. Until now we have all given independently, and we are trying to reach agreement on a theme. . We have spent a great deal of time thinking about what we want to accomplish and how to most optimally reach our goals.
There were many different opinions, but the overall consensus mission statement is "Do the most good for the most people".

Most of us believe that healthcare is not the best way to accomplish this. Helping sick people survive or preventing illness only increases the number of poor sick people. It feels and sounds good, but the long term effects are probably negative in many cases. I think people often give to charity because it makes them feel good.

For me, charity is not about feeling good, but about making the world a better place. Every dollar that I donate or help raise goes to helping to educate bright poor students who have no access to financial aid. My wife and I focus on China because we have family there so it is easy to find candidates. There are parents working 80 hours a week at dangerous and terrible jobs to pay for their kids to go to public elemenary school! Tuition is not free at any level in China.

We search for and sponsor children directly. We make sure they know that the help is not free. We expect them to use their education to help improve living conditions in their hometowns. Some want to be doctors, businesspeople, engineers - all want to give back. What do you think?
Waste of Space?

Someone asked me if I thought Simonyi was extravagantly wasteful or a visionary pioneer for spending $25M to visit space. This gave me the chance to do one of my favorite things: reject the premise of the question.

It is a little understood fact that while you can waste money from your own point of view (meaning you could have used it in a way that made you happier), you can't actually waste money. It is not a resource - it is a store of value. You can waste energy by using it unproductively, and you can destroy order unproductively. But when you spend money you are simply transferring it to someone else. Then it is theirs to spend as they see fit.

I think you can only look at it as wasteful if you transfer it to someone that will use it to destry more resources unproductively with it than you would have. NASA does not fit into this category. At any rate, by my quick estimate at most 10% of the fee went to fuel and single use hardware. Not much waste there.

Of course you also cannot call someone a pioneer for buying a ticket. No matter how long the ride or how expensive the seat, many people went before him and the technology is robust at this point. It was probably less dangerous than visiting Baghdad and certainly less dangerous than living there.

In conclusion, I think the categories into which the fellow could be fairly placed include space-geek and rich tourist, but not wasteful or pioneer. Rock(et) on!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

God Said, "Let There Be WHAT?"

I have often wondered why someone from China would choose to be Christian, or why a Californian would become a Buddhist. I have strong and well established views on religion, so I'll sidestep that part of this discussion. I want to discuss how we choose religions, and how we choose to practice the ones that we choose.

I have spent several years living in Asia, in Taiwan and China. I have known people of many faiths there, and in other countries as well including the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. Something that strikes me over and over is that practicing the same religion in a different place inevitably changes the culture of the religion itself. Or perhaps more accurately, the way a religion is followed will be different when it is followed in different cultures, even though the source texts may be near identical.

For example, Chinese Buddhists often feel that the religion is part of their history, their family, their traditions. But an American who is intellectually drawn to Buddhism (or drawn for other reasons) is intentionally seeking a religion that is foreign to her own culture. Inevitably, part of the appeal is the exotic nature. Futhermore, in the vast majority of cases, the collective character of people who choose to follow a religion is different from those who are taught as children to follow it.

Most practitioners of religion would object to what I am about to say, but in almost every way organized religion operates as a business. It requires money to create its infrastructure - a place to worship, operation capabilities, etc. Member donors by definition have great power of the way in which the religion is taught and practiced locally.

Practicing a religion (as opposed to a philosophy) essentially involves a leap of faith. Faith is the act of accepting a body of formal teachings that cannot be proven. But to practice a religion publicly, you will learn/practice in the context of the way that the religion manifests in your local culture. The practice of Daoism in a group in Manhattan may be similar to a group in San Diego, but they will likely have substantial differences.

Seventy years ago it was common for white southern preachers of Christianity to publicly claim that people with dark skin were not the equals of their white counterparts. This seems ridiculous in hindsight and would be scandalous today - but it illustrates the point. Because religious texts offer contradictory teachings that are open to arbitrary interpretation, the way in which any religion is practiced takes on the character of the practitioners.

I strongly believe that even without making any assumption as to the existence of a higher power, it can be clearly argued that the way we choose to map the teachings in historical religious texts to our society is largely a reflection of that society at a given place and time. The way in which we practice is fluid and is simply an instrument of our subconscious. "We" use it to promote whatever behavior we believe will best suit us, and "we" is a wealth/power weighted average of the self-identifying group in question. I

f you don't believe me ask someone in the American Anglican church about homosexuality. Or the Mormons that practice polygamy about the ones that don't. Or a baptist in Dallas about a gay baptist in San Francisco. Just as a species diverges when it is divided into geographically separted groups, so does a religion diverge when a cultural barrier separates its practitioners.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shouldn't ', liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' include the right to keep my deodorant?

So when you check-in at an airport now, you have to put your "liquids and gels" in a baggy. The bag isn't to contain your deodorant specifically, but to define the maximum volume of allowable liquid/gel carryons. But the whole process is grotesquely stupid. I can think of a dozen ways to get around it, and so can anyone that isn't stupid. For God's sake, you can buy a bottle of 100 proof vodka...alcohol is kind of flammable. But constantly creating and revising arbitrary rules serves several purposes: it keeps people afriad, it helps people feel that someone is doing something (even if it won't help at all), and it provides jobs for government employees.

The way the DHS has handled travel rules is a good example of something that is deeply wrong with our country. We are willing to spend billions of dollars and cause significant inconvenience to millions of people for the illusion of protection. A bad person hellbent on doing a bad thing will always find a way to do it. No silly bureacratic rules will stop it - they will only pile up until they make a mess of everyone's lives.

Can we stop living in fear and just deal with the fact that every time we travel there is one chance in 500,000 that something bad will happen? Wait a week and watch what the repercussions from the Virginia Tech shootings. There will be ten thousand school administrators and psychologists creating new screening protocols, and it will not help anything. The same thing happened after Columbine and that didn't prevent this. Bad people that want to do bad things will succeed. The good news is that it is not likely that will affect you. STOP BEING AFRAID.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A guy walks into a bar...

and he says, "There is much talk about reinventing the education model to cater more for creativity in the arts, etc. But can this really ever work in modern society?" I reply "Heck no. Art is what people do when they are too dumb to understand math and science. Focusing on art to improve education is like raising the limbo stick to 6' high because some people can't limbo. Now focusing on creativity in general makes a great deal of sense. You can be creative with regard to ideas and reasoning I hope you know I am half kidding. Or maybe 33%."

He replies, "I like your sense of humour. So how do we teach creativity within the current education model?"

I take a quick look around to make sure I didn't accidentally sit down at a gay bar. Looks okay so I guess he isn't hitting on me. So this is how I respond:

I think that Socrates had the optimal approach to teaching creativity - teach by asking students problems that they have almost enough knowledge to answer, thus encouraging thought and discussion. The focus of education should be on learning to solve problems and learning not to fear research and collaboration.

The problem is that this approach requires more intelligent and highly skilled teachers, and the current educational system in the U.S. is almost completely incapable of attracting these people. I did the coursework for a M.A. in Teaching and by my last semester and practicuum it has become obvious to me that I could not survive and flourish in the repressive intellectual and political environment that is the U.S. public school system. I was in a top 10 graduate education program and literally every intelligent student had dropped out by the 5th year - leaving the dregs.

I have discussed this problem at length with many teachers and academics, and there is a consensus that if salaries for teachers and administrators were doubled and then kept current with professional salaries (engineering, nursing, accounting, etc) that the educational system would attract better people and would over time become quite professional. It would take 20 years though.

No one seems to have the stomach to do this. Until the 60s, teaching was the only real job a smart woman could have, and this "captive audience" meant that the profession could pay poorly and still attract good people. Now that women have the same options as men, no one smart and creative stays in teaching. Paying teachers poorly was sexist to begin with, and now it is a relic.
Funny Headlines

Macabre, goofy, ironic, or preposterous - I kept a list of funny headlines, mostly from CNN. Check these out - they are all real. I think my favorite is the "League of Human Dignity" one, but there are some other diamonds too.

2/7/2002 Unruly Passenger Subdued with Axe
2/12/2002 Woman declared dead Saturday dies Monday
2/14/2002 Alert issued for potential teddy bear bombs
2/15/2002 From a CNN article about the first cloned cat: "The kitten joins a growing list of animals that have been cloned from adult cells, starting with Dolly the sheep and now including pigs, goats, cattle, mice and an oxlike creature called a gaur."
3/15/2002 Dachshund survives after eagle carries it off
3/19/2002 Whew! Stealth asteroid nearly blindsides Earth
3/19/2002 Sony robot sings, dances and isn't cheap
3/21/2002 Scientists test first human cyborg also in this article: "Warwick also hopes to wire himself up to a ultrasonic sensor, used by robots to navigate around objects, to give himself a bat-like sixth sense."
3/25/2002 Hubble spies galactic 'blue light special'
3/28/2002 Country singer Lyle Lovett trampled by bull
3/28/2002 Giant octopus caught off New Zealand
3/29/2002 From article, "Doughnut trail leads cops to thief" "They abandoned the truck when they were spotted by police responding to reports of a dangerous driver who was losing his doughnuts."
4/03/2002 Asteroid on possible collision course with earth
4/11/2002 Ed McMahon sues, says toxic mold killed dog
4/11/2002 Traveler's self-heating shoes cause airport scare
4/16/2002 Weed killer giving frogs multiple sex organs
4/24/2002 From article, "Mr. Elmo goes to Washington" WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In what may be the first appearance of a Muppet before a congressional committee, "Sesame Street" favorite Elmo donned his best suit and tie and took his cause to Capitol Hill.
5/03/2001 Judge orders defendant to pose nude
6/14/2002 Video: CNN's Natalie Pawelski travels to Iceland to view and taste one of nature's cutest birds
6/28/2002 Freezing mountaineer saved by telemarketer
7/10/2003 Pirate assaults sausage with bat
7/12/2002 Sesame Street to introduce HIV-positive Muppet
7/12/2002 Shocked: 99 alien fish snagged in pond
7/16/2002 Quadriplegic sues strip club over wheelchair access for lap dances
7/19/2002 New TV show aimed at cats
7/24/2002 Alien fish no match for poison
7/26/2002 AOL: You've got fear
8/09/2002 Pornographer: I hacked al Qaeda
8/21/2002 Mom charged with letting kids get sunburned
8/23/2002 Report: Third child for Michael Jackson
10/18/2002 Is 'The Ketchup Song' the next 'Macarena'?
10/19/2002 There may another World Series quake, cats permitting10/22/2002 Airline pays woman squashed by obese passenger
10/31/2002 Canada issues U.S. travel warning
10/31/2002 Not enough fish in the sea, study finds
11/20/2002 New campaign: Would Jesus drive an SUV?
11/22/2002 Scientist burns penis with hot laptop
11/23/2002 Bush not 'a moron'
11/23/2002 Rain in Spain causes shuttle liftoff pain
11/25/2002 Hidden island off Sicily may reappear
12/09/2002 Marvel Comics to unveil gay gunslinger
12/11/2002 FAYETTE, Mississippi (AP) -- Two former Jefferson County, Mississippi, jurors have filed a $6 billion lawsuit against CBS' "60 Minutes" and a newspaper owner over comments about the size of jury awards in the county.
12/11/2002 Florida third-graders face pot charges
12/16/2002 Kentucky frees felons to balance budget
12/19/2002 Judge: Sell Bonds' homer ball, split proceeds
12/19/2002 Man sentenced for monkeys in pants
01/09/2003 Rare English moss ends 130 years of celibacy
01/10/2003 Researchers might find stroke treatment in bat saliva
05/08/2003 (MSNBC) Passengers sucked out of plane
06/09/2003 4 get monkeypox from prairie dogs
06/17/2003 Iraqi man hid 22 years in a wall
07/10/2003 Pirate assaults sausage with bat
08/26/2003 'Bug Bowl' addition: Cricket-spitting
09/04/2003 FBI: Pizza man had another weapon
09/05/2003 Turtles lured to disco death in Greece
09/20/2003 Robot ship racing to death crash on Jupiter
10/09/2003 Black leaders outraged over 'Ghettopoly' board game
10/12/2003 Iraqi boy who lost arms in war angry at U.S. pilot
10/28/2003 Millionaire says he doesn't recall cutting up friend
1/16/2004 Disney worker deported to Haiti for role in massacre
2/7/2004 Doctors remove baby's second head
2/9/2004 Inmate escapes using toilet-paper gun
2/10/2004 Opportunity peeks out over rim
2/12/2004 Disney worker killed by parade float
2/19/2004 Teen surfing Web learns he has been abducted
2/19/2004 Conan O'Brien apologizes to Canadians
3/29/2004 Patient wins right to fly with pot
07/21/2004 Reverse air rage: Drunken flight attendants attack flier
07/22/2004 Plant fires 11 workers for chicken abuse
08/03/2004 Fat activists protest diet industry
08/11/2004 from article, "Man trying to lose 800 pounds" A group known as the League of Human Dignity helped arrange for Deuel to be driven to a local livestock scale, where he could be weighed.
8/12/2004 Gene blocking turns monkeys into workaholics
8/17/2004 Bear guzzles 36 beers, passes out at campground
8/29/2004 'Friendly' killer whale damages three boats "Now Canadian officials and an Indian group that believes the animal is the reincarnation of its late chief are working on a plan to protect both Luna and humans. "
9/10/2004 "Man arrested for 1974 Spam-related homicide"
10/24/2004 Britain's Royal Navy to allow devil worship
11/05/2004 Fighter jet strafes New Jersey school
11/14/2004 Vice President Dick Cheney is undergoing tests at George Washington University Hospital after experiencing shortness of breath, the White House said today. It is unknown whether Cheney, who has a history of heart problems, will be admitted.
11/15/2004 Pill may help prevent drug abuse, researchers say
1/21/2005 'Giant' 17-pound baby born in Brazil...A woman in Brazil gave birth Wednesday to a boy that doctors have nicknamed "giant baby."
1/22/2005 Review: 'Are We There Yet?' tiresome
2/14/2005 Court documents: Kazaa workers hate own software

Yahoo Quotes
2/24/2005 Top Stories - AP: Ga. close to naming official state amphibian
2/24/2005 Kenya urged to ban flimsy shopping bags
9/10/2005 He said a suicide note was found in her e-mails. The court heard that two suicide notes were found close to her body. A coroner said Carina appeared to have enjoyed her experience filming "The Colony."
9/14/2005 Inventor fuels car with dead cats
10/31/2005 Pastor electrocuted while performing baptism
1/10/2006 Mummified body found in front of TV
2/7/2006 U.N. staff flee cartoon riots

CNN Headlines
12/10/2006 "Gunman felt cheated over toilet invention"
12/13/2006 World's tallest man saves plastic eating dolphins
12/15/2006 "People are eager to adopt a pit bull who chewed off a baby's toes."
12/18/2006 Runner Fails Gender Test
2/15/2007 Boy, 3, on fire runs into tree crying for mom
It's Hairy Krishna.

Following the ESLly thread from yesterday, Krishna Gopal on LinkedIn asks, "How Inner peace can bring world peace.[?]" An innocent and pure question.

I think you have it backwards though. It is well established that one of the things that the human brain does under stress is to manufacture large amounts of the hormone cortisol. There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that during cerebral development high levels of cortisol impede development of parts of the human brain that are active when people are feeling empathy. This seems to be an psychobiological basis for the long-observed phenomenon that people that grow up in particularly stressful environments are less caring and tougher.

I think inner peace comes from world peace, and not so much vice-versa. World peace comes from economic interdependence and the rule of law. In the end, it is technology that has provided the infrastructure and knowledge that has increased productivity, which has in turn increased trade and therefore our dependence on each other. This has reduced the amount of conflict in the world and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. It is easier for people that grow up in times of peace to be peaceful internally.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Women in Trousers? Whatever Will the Young Set Do Next!!?

John Kwag askes, in an ESL-ly kind of way, "Why does every generation seek to denigrate with wildly negative characterizations or predict social horror for every generation after them?" Sounds like got its grubby paws on that one. As Borat would say, "Naaaisssss." Here is what I think.

Evolution teaches living things to be scared of anything new by killing the ones that don't run away on a regular basis. Over billions of generations, this has resulted in animals that have an instinctive false positive response to "Is something new dangerous?". Also, neural networks (of which brains are an example) often have problems unlearning once they have modeled an input stream.

So the older we get, the more uncomfortable we are with change for reasons of the network architecture of our brain. Add to this an instinctive fear of new things and *poof*, you observe the not-so-youong panicking at new ways.
Sell the Grand Canyon.

So Mike Murray asked, "Is the US economy in jeopardy?" Standard worries about the debt, deficit, etc. He sees trouble ahead but is baffled that some folks don't, and he wants someone to make a cogent explanation of the other side of the argument. Here goes.

Hi Mike. Ah, one of my favorite topics! Get ready to check the "Best Answer" box! Defecits most certainly DO matter, and anyone that says otherwise is a hack. However the degree to which they matter is affected hugely by other factors. It often helps to create a simplified example.

Let's say that you and your friends represent all the countries in the world. Let's say you have a rich friend Sam, and he represents America.

If someone told you that Sam had 8.9 million dollars of debt and asked you if he was financially solvent and/or headed for bankruptcy, what would you say? You would have to know more information first! If his net worth is 100 million dollars, and he has 8.9 million in debt, and he is going to borrow an additional 1 million next year, then he is in fine shape. You might want to know why he is borrowing money if he is worth so much though.

The answer is that he has cash flow problems. Much of his wealth is tied up in large assets, like land and construction projects. It makes sense for him to borrow to finance these projects because R&D, infrastructure, and a happy family make his home more productive, which has effects on the rate of economic growth that mitigate the interest on the money he borrows.
Many Economists think that rather than measuring national debt as a % of GDP, it should be measured against a composite that includes national wealth (the country-equivalent of net worth). Using this as a benchmark, the Debt/Book ratio of the U.S is about .1, even including all the "off budget" debt to social security.

That is why the sky isn't falling. But note that this is an explanation of why it could make sense to incur a debt, NOT a justification for why it is growing out of control. Just as each individual and each company should carefully examine the option of borrowing money to finance project, so should each country. Deficit spending that does not have a positive expected ROI will result in future inflation and/or currency devaluation, both of which reduce consumer purchasing power.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Ultimate Power Ball

I originally made this post on It is a complex concept, so please bear with me.

I heard a news story around 15 years ago (probably on NPR) about two retired NASA scientists who had an idea for electrical power generation. The idea involved creating a huge gyroscope, mounted on the earth so that its plane of rotation bisects the circle formed by the Earth's equator. A huge gear is mounted on the same plane as the equator, inscribing the axis on which the gyroscope rotates. A generator is attached to this gear, and the entire enclosure is put inside a vacuum. The diameter of the gyroscope was described as having to be quite large, > 100 meters. The theory was that as the gyroscope was spun up, the rotation of the earth would force the structure to rotate, spinning the gear and generating electrical power. This would trivially slow the earth, and would convert the earth's kinetic energy to electrical power. I have been unable to find any reference to this, but it seems like it would work as long as friction could be lowered sufficiently. Over a two year period, I received two responses, reposted below.

Answer 1: "I am an aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in astronomy. I can't tell you what ever happened to this interesting idea, because I have never heard about it in the course of a 16 year career in astronomy and aerospace; but I can at least attest that it is theoretically sound, even if not technologically practical. Moreover, it appears to be an inexhaustible clean energy source! A quick back of the envelope calculation (hope I didn't make a mistake) suggests that the stored rotational energy of the earth is of the order of 10 to the 10th power Gigawatt-millenia. (I chose these units, because they are easily compared to historical time and human power use rates)."
-Answer provided by Walter F. Kailey, Ph.D.

Answer 2: "I agree. The forces driving the generator are not applied against the direction of rotation of the gyroscope so it would not slow down even while the generator siphoned off energy from the rotation of the earth. Only bearing friction would slow it down. The more important question is: would it be practical? To a ground-based observer the gyroscope would appear to rotate one revolution per 24 hours, so if the generator had to rotate at, say about 100 revolutions per minute (a low but not unreasonable speed), the gear-up ratio would need to be 1 : (100 x 60 x 24) or 1 : 144,000. High gear-up ratios tend to be inefficient (high friction losses) so finding a generator that produces enough power at a slow speed i.e. lower gear-up ratio would be important. For Example: If a single-step reduction were used and the driven gear were 30 cm diameter, at 1 : 144,000 the driving gear would need to be 4.32 km diameter - rather large!"
-Answer provided by Keith Labrecque

Of course many people find the idea of slowing down the Earth to provide power somewhat horrifying. I think it is appropriate. Like Sting said, "When the world is running downYou make the best of what's still around".
Peak Oil Can Oil My Peak.

My opinion is that although the concept of Peak Oil rings true in the most literally way (the cost of extracting petroleum will increase over time as the cheapest and easiest to extract reserves are depleted), the often touted economic and social repercussions are fear mongering and a result of very shallow analysis.

There are massive reserves trapped in harder to extract contexts, such as oil sands, and there are massive unexplored areas where there are thought to be large amounts of oil. Add to this the fact that there are hundreds of years worth of coal and nuclear energy. If oil gets too expensive, we use more coal and nuclear in the mid term while alternative energies catch up.

Keep in mind that the Earth is exposed to enough radiant energy from the sun provides energy to 75 billion tons of biomass, and only about 1/3rd of 1% is humans. Living organisms are very good at turning energy from the sun into oils. There are plants that are more than 20% oil by weight. From a physics point of view there is no energy problem.

If oil was going to run out suddenly in 5 years and there were no such thing as coal, natural gas, or nuclear power then yes, there might be a pretty big social disaster. But there is coal, natural gas, and nuclear, and there is at least 50 years of oil too. As is almosts always the case, the alarmists are either idiots or opportunists.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Nature and Nurture

I had a thought some time ago that I just remembered about the whole Nature vs. Nurture argument. What if our genetics more or less fix our propensity towards basic animal instincts (fight/flight, feeding, mating, play, etc.) but our experience maps those instincts to real world behaviors?

For example, a child with a propensity to fight in almost every possible scenario could eventually learn to fight his own urge to fight, turning the instinct inwards. As a peaceful adult, he has not changed his instincts at all but has instead mapped the instinct to a suppressive behavior.

This way of thinking about the nature/nurture balance works well for me. I would be very interested in getting feedback from anyone in the Psychobiology / Biopsychology fields.

It took me a long time to get off my butt and actually start consistently blogging. Now that I have it has been a great disappointment that people rarely reply. What good are thoughts in a vacuum?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

How can something so broken work so well?

Again, sorry for the teaser. No one is going to read this stuff without an intriguing title. In my defense, the U.S. primary and secondary education does smell pretty bad.

So Vaso Bovan on Linkedin asked the question, "Despite Inferior Elementary/Secondary Public Education, USA Dominates. Why?" Why indeed. To consider this question properly, I think you have to relax some of your assumptions and reexamine a definition or two.

First, what is education? U.S. schools definitely lag behind internationally in teaching math, science, languages, and probably literature and history as well. But they are excellent at encouraging students to develop good social skills, and to learn to question authority and ask questions. This may be a very large offsetting factor in how American students perform after high school graduation. A big part of actual achievement in life is related to abilities that cannot be memorized.

Another major factor is the lack of early tracking in the U.S. In most countries against which America is compared, there are entrance exams to enter middle school and/or high school and to stay on an academic track. Many more students begin preparation for a trade between ages 13-15 and these students (in most European countries and in China for example) are no longer counted as being in "high school" when it comes time to take tests for puposes of preparation.

Another significant item is that the U.S. Economy is less socialist that most (if not all) major European countries. The efficiencies from lower tax rates and the business friendly legal environment make it easier to establish businesses. Because of this there is a critical mass of entrepreneurs, and many people see entrepreneurship as a path to success very early on.

No one doubts the signifcance of brain drain. The U.S. gets the best and brightest from many places, and they stay and raise their children. That is a powerful force. Think about how adventurous an immigrant has to be to leave everything behind and come to a new country to build a life for their children. U.S. Immigration policy, for all of its faults, is exceptional at getting high quality hard working people, and for the most part they end up feeling tremendous loyalty to their new country.

The U.S. is also more religious than China and Europe. For all the sects, something approaching 90pct of Americans self-identify as Christian. Largely homogenous religious values, particularly in a religion that aggressively teaches charity and giving might help.

And the final major factor is access to capital. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world where it is as easy for someone with a good idea to find money to "make it so".

So the long and the short of it is that although learning more facts in school is probably a good thing, it isn't the only thing. And the benefits from a more business friendly environment, a more efficient economy, high quality immigration, better access to capital more than make up for the defecits. Strong national pride and strong and largely homogenous religious values along with an education system that fosters cooperation and the development of good social skills all seem to more than counteract the lag in learning facts and academic skills at an early age.