Friday, July 29, 2011

The Logic of Life by Tim Harford

Tim Harford published The Logic of Life, his defense of human rationality, in 2008. This was after he made his name and his reputation with The Undercover Economist, but before he wrote his brilliant Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

I read it after the both of them, so it is perhaps unfair of me to be slightly disappointed that it doesn't show the same freshness of The Undercover Economist or the same unity of purpose as Adapt. If The Logic of Life has a common thread linking its anecdotes and explanations, it is that human beings apply rationality and logic in making decisions, even if they don't generally appear to be doing so.

Whether human beings are truly as rational as economists say has been a topic of debate, and it is a debate that I am not interested in pursuing, because I feel it hinges more on semantics than philosophy and psychology. Take the classic example of a person who buys a pair of brand-name jeans that are three times as expensive as generic jeans of comparable quality, because he feels there's something intangible about the brand-name jeans that makes them better. Is that rational? I don't know, but I bet any discussion will boil down to how, precisely, one defines 'rational', and I don't care enough to suffer through that discussion.

So what we've got is a collection of anecdotes and studies. Make no mistake, it's a well-written and interesting collection of anecdotes and studies. I was midway through when I decided it was the perfect book for the kind of person who likes to bond with you at cocktail parties by spouting fascinatingly unconventional and contrarian points of view that, upon a moment's reflection, make more sense than the conventional wisdom. In fact, reading Tim Harford's prose here is like finding yourself talking to an outgoing example of that sort of person. I wonder what he's like at cocktail parties.

I perked up at the latter chapters as Harford delves into politics, where he explains how it is that in many industrial countries, particularly the U.S. and Western Europe, rural areas are able to essentially siphon money and resources from urban areas using agricultural subsidies.

The basic reason is that because a subsidy benefits a small group of people in a big way, they have no trouble mobilizing their political resources to make sure they get what they think they deserve. And as for the vast majority who derive no benefit from the subsidy (or negative benefit - take sugar subsidies, which Harford feels are harming the overall U.S. economy), the cost is dispersed over too many people for anyone to really get up in arms over it.

The dynamic doesn't necessarily have to be rural vs. urban. It was the exact reverse in some developing countries in the '60s and '70s that had recently achieved independence, where most people lived in rural areas (and tended to be ill-informed) and the national government was a direct successor to the old colonial authorities who had milked the countryside for all they could get.

Anyway, can I recommend The Logic of Life, Harford's awkward middle child of a book? Sure, why not. At the very least, it'll supply you with food for thought, not to mention material for your next cocktail party.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Competitive Advantage

Dwarf Fortress is an insanely complex computer game that two brothers have spent the last couple of years designing and updating. The fan base is tiny and extremely loyal. The premise is to manage a fortress of heroic dwarves in a hostile environment. There is no way to win; the only questions are how long you can hold out before being obliterated by enemy forces, and how glorious and awesome your eventual demise will be. Says NYT Magazine:

Though its medieval milieu of besieged castles and mutant enemies may be familiar, Dwarf Fortress appeals mainly to a substratum of hard-core gamers. The game’s unofficial slogan, recited on message boards, is “Losing is fun!” Dwarf Fortress’s unique difficulty begins with its most striking feature: The way it looks. In an industry obsessed with pushing the frontiers of visual awe, Dwarf Fortress is a defiant throwback, its interface a dense tapestry of letters, numbers and crude glyphs you might have seen in a computer game around 1980. A normal person looks at ♠§dg and sees gibberish, but the Dwarf Fortress initiate sees a tense tableau: a dog leashed to a tree, about to be mauled by a goblin.
I've been through pretty strong game-playing phases in my life, but Dwarf Fortress is not really my cup of tea. Still, I respect the heck out of its creators. I could never bring myself to mock Dwarf Fortress or the people who play it, except good-naturedly.

There was a time when Tarn Adams, the programmer half of the Dwarf Fortress team, thought he might be headed for a career in academia. But he decided it just wasn't for him. I'm sure some people will decry this waste of talent. I disagree. Tarn and his brother have put a tremendous amount of work into a project that represents exactly what they want to do with their time. And if Dwarf Fortress - this detailed, intricate world engine that seems to work, to a surprising degree, and which counts among its fans many designers of much more commercially-oriented games - turns out down the road to spawn actual benefits to fields of computer science outside of gaming, I won't be even a little surprised.

To control your world, you toggle between multiple menus of text commands; seemingly simple acts like planting crops and forging weapons require involved choices about soil and season and smelting and ores. A micromanager’s dream, the game gleefully blurs the distinction between painstaking labor and creative thrill.
VR and holodeck worlds of the future may well be based on the pioneering work done on Dwarf Fortress.

If you think Tarn Adams is wasting his genius, then I can only say that you should make sure everyone has a chance to find what they're good at and do it. Including poor kids working in Third World sweatshops who would make brilliant programmers (or medical researchers) if only they had a chance. I want a world where people are allowed to specialize and realize their competitive advantage.

Also, I'm heartened that Tarn's able to make a living off of the Long Tail. Jaron Lanier and other pessimists have had me worried. That said, Tarn's not exactly rolling in money; it helps that he apparently never developed expensive tastes and doesn't live in Palo Alto. But he's managing to achieve some modicum of income doing what he loves, and I respect that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier, famed pioneer of virtual reality and virtuoso of exotic musical instruments, has become known in recent years as an skeptic - on deep philosophical grounds - of what many in Silicon Valley say is the future, particularly the open source movement, free culture, and 'Web 2.0'.

In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, the dreadlocked one lays out his philosophy and the reasons why he takes a dim view of what the Internet is becoming. He calls his book a 'manifesto', although I think you'd have to look at it sideways and squint a little to really see the resemblance. What it is, is a collection of ideas that made me stop and think. Even if you disagree, if you read his book with an open mind, you may stop and think too.

So what is his argument?

Basically, that the prevailing ideology driving much of contemporary online culture devalues human individuality in favor of a vast anonymous collective. Social networks encourage us to present simplified versions of ourselves, the better to fit ourselves to the existing options the sites give us. The free culture movement is devaluing individual creativity; despite the claims of free culture advocates, it is still difficult to find evidence of a diverse and solid middle class of musical artists using online tools to make a living directly from their fans. And although the open-source movement may have done some good, promoting incremental progress across a wide spectrum of disciplines, it has also probably hindered major innovation.

The Internet didn't have to develop this way, Lanier says. It still doesn't have to develop this way. Our future is still open, but because of the phenomenon of 'lock-in', in which design decisions that seem minor and temporary today become more and more difficult to change as technology progresses, the direction we're headed in is getting entrenched. But we can't let contemporary prevailing ideology blind us to the full range of choices that we have.

Specifics? Well, people often cite him as a Wikipedia skeptic. He doesn't hate Wikipedia, but he thinks it's has been given an exalted respect that it does not deserve, and indeed would not deserve even if its myriad trivial imperfections were all addressed and fixed.

The fact that it is such a common go-to for information, and is more often than not the first result a search engine gives you, means it has marginalized other, more idiosyncratic online sources of information -- ones which weren't 'just transferring material that already existed into a more regularized, anonymous form'.

Wikipedia regularizes and anonymizes individual effort on a massive scale and turns it into a product that millions of people find convenient to use. It's a triumph of the open-source movement. Lanier doesn't outright condemn the open-source movement (aside from flashes of rhetoric, he doesn't actually issue many blanket condemnations) but he finds it overrated and thinks its adoption as an ideology is stifling creativity.

The two great triumphs of open-source are Wikipedia and Linux, and neither is an entirely new thing -- he calls Linux a 'superbly polished copy of an antique' (UNIX). The open-source movement has not shown itself to be capable of true innovation.

Lanier is a musician, and he writes unhappily that the past decade has been the least innovative in the history of recorded pop music. Even the biggest music geek, he contends, upon hearing an unfamiliar song, is unable to discern whether it was recorded in 2008 or 1998. He's not denigrating the individual creativity of musical artists working today; they're being failed by their cultural environment.

It's not just music. If you look at artistic expression as posted on big cultural blogs such as BoingBoing, 'it's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump'.

I dearly love BoingBoing, and Lanier's criticism deeply hurt. It hurt because I can't deny he has a point. It just so happens, by luck, that the day I read that sentence for the first time, this work of art was at the very top of BoingBoing.

It's a gorgeous picture, as I think even Lanier would have to admit. And I can't think of any bit of modern artistic achievement that would help his argument more. Thank you, Mr. Lanier, for helping ruin BoingBoing for me a bit.

Lanier is not an ideologue. (One theme he keeps returning to is how he hates ideology.) Unfortunately, this isn't always obvious.

I suspect he's done himself a disservice with his propensity for saying things that make him sound like a fuddy-duddy conservative reactionary. Then, in the next few sentences, he either softens his tone considerably, or he explains that despite the way he makes it sound, he actually doesn't mind what these kids today are doing.

This is fine if his reader is receptive to his ideas, but given that there are people reading him looking for things to criticize, he hasn't done himself any favors.

Also, I really wish he hadn't invented the term 'Digital Maoism'. I understand the logic behind it, but I think it's tone-deaf and teases the edges of Godwin's Law. But then, I've got an interest in Chinese history, and the words Maoism and Maoist to me evoke the horrific realities of 20th century Chinese existence more than an abstract ideology being debated in a coffee shop in the West. So my sensibilities are not everybody's.

Lanier knows full well he is inviting criticism. I've already read a couple of commentaries on his opinions, many of them written by people who seemingly intended to cut him to ribbons even before they read a word he wrote. More reasonably, Michael Agger wrote a review for Slate that is not unfair, although he is unconvinced. He writes in the penultimate paragraph:

But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it's Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.
I know snobbery's supposed to be a bad thing and all, but I honestly can't figure out what's supposed to be so horrible about the attitude Agger's describing as snobbish.

I'm not qualified to comment critically on many aspects of Lanier's argument. Don't ask me what I really think of free culture or the open source movement; I tend to be most persuaded by whoever I read most recently.

So my frustratingly vague verdict is that one may certainly quibble with many of Lanier's statements, but his arguments have value and if we don't hear them from him, we're sure to hear something similar from someone else. Lanier may well be the best possible person to raise these points. He's not dissing Web 2.0 in order to advance some objectionable ideology, and although some of his rhetorical flourishes make it seem otherwise, he doesn't think in intolerant absolutes. He's friends with many of the Silicon Valley thinkers he criticizes.

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, who said things Lanier criticized in his book, gets thanked non-ironically in the acknowledgements, which I hope has confused the hell out of many single-minded online commenter types.

You don't have to agree with everything a person says to take their arguments seriously. Lanier is someone who we need to take seriously.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why do people marry?

A couple of weeks ago a friend (one who, likes me, strongly supports legalizing gay marriage) linked to a Tim Cannon column. Cannon makes an "I have nothing against gay people but I think marriage should be purely a heterosexual institution for X, Y, and Z reasons" argument that doesn't break any new ground. Only heterosexual couples can conceive and bear children, we should enshrine heterosexual marriage for that reason, etc, etc.

But there was one bit that really lodged in my head; one troubling bit that doesn't make me rethink gay marriage, but does make me go back and wonder about some arguments against gay marriage.

It's the funny feeling I get from the following:

Activists like Raj want to use marriage law to achieve the social and cultural objective of increasing respect and visibility for men and women who identify as homosexual.

As far as the objective goes, Raj is unlikely to court much opposition. He certainly won’t get any from me: I too believe that respect and visibility must be accorded to all members of society, without regard to gender, race, religion, sexual preference, etc.

What concerns me is the means that Raj and others are advocating for achieving this outcome, namely, the radical modification of the institution of marriage.

I get the feeling that Cannon is mixing up the struggle for legalization of gay marriage, with gay marriage itself. I feel like he is under the impression that if two people of the same sex want to get married, it is to increase respect and visibility for gay people. And not because, you know, they just want to marry each other.

But in an alternate universe in which I'm not already married, if I wanted to marry a woman and she was African-American, I'm reasonably certain the reason would not be to belatedly validate the civil rights struggle of 40 years ago. Rather, it would be because I loved her and wanted to marry her.

It certainly may be the case that there are gay couples marrying each other simply because they can, and they want the whole world to see that they can. I can see how that might demean the institution of marriage in some peoples' eyes. What I don't see is how that would apply in a world where same-sex marriage has been legal for decades and is largely accepted by society. That will be a society where homosexual marriage is no less (and no more) mundane than heterosexual marriage. I didn't marry my wife just to make the world show us straight people the proper respect.

So I wondered, is this a widespread belief? Do some straights really think gay people just want marriage rights for validation, a way of accruing respect and making their presence known?

And then I decided I was just being silly. Just because Tim Cannon puts something in a column doesn't mean he thinks it's true. I know how opinion columns work. You start out with the conclusion you want (i.e., it's a good idea to oppose gay marriage even if you're not bigoted against gay people), and then you assemble an argument to get you there. That's why op-ed writers can employ logic that directly contradicts the logic they employed last week, and there's no shame in it or sense that they're being slippery.

But then that thought got overtaken by other thoughts.

I can denigrate the art form of the op-ed column all I want, but nevertheless it's hard to deny that a column comes from the columnist's brain, and as such reflects some of the columnist's assumptions about reality, just as a novel that is fiction will nevertheless reflect the novelist's worldview. Maybe Tim Cannon really does believe he lives in a world where gay people want marriage equality primarily as a means of increasing respect and visibility for gay people. And if he believes it, maybe other gay marriage opponents do too.

This matters to me because I've long heard from marriage equality opponents that gay marriage somehow diminishes the institution of heterosexual marriage. People who say this generally act as if the logic behind it does not need explaining (though I need it explained to me), so I gave up and decided it was just meaningless talk of the sort you hear on both sides of every emotionally charged controversy.

But I'd like to better understand what makes these people tick. If they actually believe that gay people want marriage equality as a way of increasing respect and visibility, then suddenly the claim that it diminishes marriage makes a lot more sense. I believe that stereotyping gay marriage opponents as 'God Hates Fags' troglodytes is not just morally wrong, but strategically counter-productive. I'd genuinely like to know how they see the world.

I still don't have much respect for the typical op-ed columnist, though.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Empress by Shan Sa

Heavenlight, our protagonist, is the daughter of a relatively well-off merchant and government official who had personal ties to the Emperor of China. When the (now overthrown) emperor dies, Heavenlight's father collapses of grief and dies as well. When Heavenlight is thirteen, she is invited to become a concubine of the new Emperor, after impressing a senior official she'd met during her father's funeral ceremonies. In her career as a concubine, the Emperor never notices her. However, she and the Emperor's youngest legitimate son, Little Phoenix, become lovers.

When Heavenlight is twenty-five, the Emperor dies and Little Phoenix succeeds him, the imperial succession generally being decided by politics rather than birth order. Heavenlight is sent to a nunnery, as is usual for concubines of dead emperors. She is brought back, however, on orders of the Empress. The imperial marriage between Little Phoenix and the Empress is an unhappy and childless one, and Little Phoenix much prefers his chief concubine, the Resplendent Wife, Xiao. Heavenlight is meant to distract the sovereign away from Xiao. The scheme backfires, Little Phoenix prefers Heavenlight, and Xiao and the Empress are both deposed and eventually executed. At age thirty-one, Heavenlight becomes Empress Consort of China.

As Empress Consort, Heavenlight is an effective administrator, much more so than her husband. She produces four sons and one daughter that live to maturity. The first son, Splendor, dies before his father. The second son, Wisdom, plots to overthrow his parents, and so he is exiled.

When Heavenlight is fifty-nine, Little Phoenix dies and the third son, Future, succeeds to the throne. Heavenlight is dissatisfied with Future's conduct as Emperor. After just a few weeks she removes him and installs her youngest son, Miracle. The new Emperor has no desire to run a country, and everyone knows that Heavenlight is the real ruler. When Heavenlight is sixty-six, she does away with all pretense and, her son gracefully abdicating, she becomes the only reigning Empress in all of Chinese history.

Heavenlight reigns as sole ruler for fifteen years, managing both the Empire and quarrels within her own family, notably between her own direct descendants and her father's grandchildren over succession rights. At age eighty-one, when she is overthrown in a coup (and her young lovers slaughtered), she loses the will to live; she dies later that same year.

I've left out Western calendar dates in this account of the life of Empress Wu Zetian, not only because they would have been anachronistic in this context, but because they would cause eyes to glaze over in all but a few history buffs. During the period the novel Empress covers, Western Europe was a cultural and political backwater and the most powerful Christian state was the Byzantine Empire, itself much weaker than it had been a century earlier. Heavenlight's lifetime occurred as Western Civilization was at its most globally inconsequential, its absolute nadir. In contrast, Shan Sa has shown us the world of the political and cultural rulers of China, at that time indisputably the world's most powerful civilization.

Shan Sa and translator Adriana Hunter (Empress was written in French) have Anglicized most of the Chinese names, leading to some entertaining hunts as I compared the goings-on in the book with the historical record as interpreted by Wikipedia. The two matched quite closely; everybody in the novel is a major historical figure, and it is fun to identify Heavenlight, Little Phoenix, Splendor, Wisdom, Future, Miracle, and so on.

It was fascinating to see the very alien conceptions of morality in the imperial Chinese court, both sexual and otherwise. Starting with sex: Of course there was a double standard, and the Emperor could bed as many concubines as he pleased while the Empress couldn't fool around with men. But it wasn't perceived this way. Heavenlight did not have to stifle jealousy when Little Phoenix bedded other women. It wouldn't have occurred to her to feel jealous; there was never any expectation of male monogamy. It's worth noting that for Heavenlight to take female lovers was never frowned upon, and once she was no longer capable of conceiving a child, taking sturdy young men into her bedchamber was practically encouraged by the Court, the better to keep her strong and youthful.

As for other sorts of morality, let me just say that to succeed in the environment in which Heavenlight thrived, you have to be, to use highly anachronistic language, extremely badass. Several times in the book Heavenlight commits acts that, in another time, another context, would be considered evil. Was she an evil person? That's probably for others to decide. But you don't become the only Empress Regnant in all of Chinese history by being a nice old lady.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Of Languages and Expats

Based on conversations I've taken part in and seen online among expats, I predict this will be the most controversial thing I've ever written. So be it.

This is sparked mainly by Laowiseass's post:

When a Chinese person asks 10 or 20 how-could-it-be questions about a foreigner's Mandarin skills, one of two reasons lurks under the veneer or omigod-you're-so-amazing fawnery.
Incidentally, I've never met an established foreigner in Taiwan who didn't speak some degree of Mandarin. Most speak it well.
Reason No. 1 (insult): Foreigners are presumed to have severe brain problems. The poor fools study Chinese for years at universities in China or Taiwan. A lot of local people know that's going on. But somehow after the foreigners walk off with the language course completion certificate, nothing sticks in their heads.
Reason No. 2 (sense of superiority): The dumbfounded Chinese believe their language to be so complex that despite any amount of study or use over a long stay in a greater China, foreigners still can't grasp it well enough for real communication. Similarly, foreigners aren't supposed to get the social or cultural subtleties around them, meaning they're easy to cheat or at least get snickered at when they follow the posted rules while everyone else is going to the bank by breaking them.
For some people, a simple lack of exposure to foreigners explains the incredulity. But why assume can'trather than can, or simply reserve judgment with an open mind?

My wife, whose spoken Chinese is better than mine, has already written her response. Here's mine. It's not so much in response to Laowiseass, as it is a response to what I hear from the expat community in general.

The Language We Speak

I am entirely of Western European ethnic heritage. Taiwanese people generally do not automatically assume my Chinese-language skills are nonexistent. In fact, if anything they routinely overestimate my Chinese level. I find this surprising because my ability to understand Mandarin is much better than my ability to speak it. (When I lived in Korea, I spoke the language better than I understood it, so it seemed natural when locals thought my fluency was better than it was.)

My Chinese is not very good. In fact, it is shamefully bad for the amount of time I've lived in Taiwan. My wife, who if anything is even whiter than I am, is a much better conversationalist. From what I have seen, Taiwanese people do not generally react with shocked amazement that she is able to speak coherently. She does get an awful lot of 'Ooh, you speak Chinese really well!' She hears that constantly, in fact. But I don't think that's shocked amazement. I think, from a Taiwanese culture point of view, they're being polite.

I didn't say 'they think they're being polite', or worse, as I've actually seen on an expat online forum, 'they don't know they're being rude'. That's just demeaning. As if Asians aren't ready to be as cultured and urbane as us Westerners yet, but as long as they're making an effort, we should give them a big, patronizing Good Job! and a thumbs up!

The Language They Speak

You often hear Westerners complain about Taiwanese people speaking English to them for no apparent reason beyond their visible racial features. Many Westerners, even many Westerners who aren't bothered by it, believe Taiwanese people do this because they assume the Westerner doesn't know Chinese. The logic is clear. It is blindingly obvious.

Here's the contrary view.

You're a Taiwanese person in Taiwan and you speak decent English. You have reason to initiate verbal communication with a Westerner. You are perfectly aware that there are Western-looking people in your country who speak decent Chinese. You may even be aware that some Westerners act a bit insulted if a local initiates conversation in English.

But let's talk probabilities. What is the probability that the Westerner would rather be approached in English, versus the probability they'd rather be approached in Chinese? Based on a sampling of all Westerners in Taiwan (not just you and your friends), speaking English will almost certainly be the most rational choice. Assumptions like 'they couldn't possibly understand Chinese' don't have to enter into it.

You could counter that it's not right to let a person's visible ethnic features affect the way you treat them at all. I'm of two minds about this. The correct response in many people's minds is that willful race blindness is very much a Western innovation, one which we ourselves usually don't live up to. Imposing it onto expectations of what people in other cultures should do is silly. That said, I'm not such a cultural relativist that I'd necessarily think there is anything wrong with saying 'Wouldn't it be nicer if people in other cultures did XYZ?'

There's also the fact that some 'I shall speak English with this foreigner' conversations probably come out of a desire to grab this opportunity to practice English. I am not sure how often this happens in Taiwan. It happened all the time when I lived in Korea, and it was usually perfectly obvious what was going on. It doesn't happen to me much in Taiwan, although that might be partly due to my habit here of going about in public with headphones in my ears.

Humans Have a Right to Be Batty

Lurking within the psyches of Western expats in Asia is the dark figure of the local who has absolutely no clue how to deal with the fact that there are foreigners living in their country. Most often this takes the form of a local who is absolutely determined not to understand anything a foreigner says, even if the foreigner does an excellent job speaking the local's native language. Rather like the running gag in the movie Anchorman, where Will Ferrell's character can't understand Hispanic people speaking English, because he 'doesn't speak Spanish'.

I don't deny that such people exist, although I do suspect they are rather less common in real life than they are in expats' imaginations.

Here is my plea:

Let those people be batty, illogical individuals. Don't smear their individuality all over the culture they came from. Don't use some variation on 'Oh well. People in this country haven't had much contact with foreigners.' Everybody has a right to have foibles.

Thank you.

NOTE: I live in Taiwan and I have lived in Korea, but as far as I'm concerned the above also goes for China and Japan and probably all of East Asia, although areas that are very multilingual or have a colonial history of English will almost certainly have their own situations and contexts that I'm not familiar with. Even here in Taiwan, a foreigner speaking Chinese will be perceived very differently from a foreigner speaking Taiwanese, but that's a whole 'nother story.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

UFO In Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo

Silver Hill Village is an isolated backwater in Hunan where, on September 11, 2012, a flying saucer zips over the head of illiterate peasant woman Kwok Yun. Soon afterwards, she comes across an injured Westerner in the fields. She takes him home and treats his wound, but he disappears before the authorities arrive.

The UFO and the Westerner have vanished, but village chief Chang is not going to let this opportunity pass by. As an investigator from Beijing arrives to interview the townspeople, Chang lays out her extremely ambitious plans to use the incident to fulfill her dreams for Silver Hill. Meanwhile, Kwok Yun remains baffled by developments.

Xiaolu Guo's UFO In Her Eyes is an effective satire of China's reckless leaps into what certain people consider to be modernity. As I've mentioned before, I've barely been to the People's Republic, but what I've read about the manner of its development suggest that the events of UFO are barely exaggerated. The flying saucer and the near-future setting give the book a veneer of speculative fiction, but I suspect China's got plenty of real-life Silver Hills, towns that due to luck and happenstance have had the opportunity to plunge head-first into disconcertingly fast changes according to what local elites thought was desirable.

On a totally different note, I love buying used books; they often carry their histories with them. I bought UFO at a used bookstore in Taipei. Stuck between its pages was the movie ticket stub the previous owner had been using as a bookmark. The ticket stub was for Monga (a Taiwanese movie) and was from a cinema in Berlin, Germany. Something about that pleases me immensely.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Brave Pointer-Outer of the Ridiculous

Tim Harford’s thoughts on science funding (I strongly recommend his Slate article 'Positive Black Swans') reminded me of this blog post at Neurotribes by Steve Silberman, in which he shows how the office of U.S. Senator Tom Coburn blatantly misrepresented serious research as frivolous.

Coburn's public persona is of an opponent of wasteful government spending and pork-barrel projects, and the context was an attempt to expose $3 billion in mismanagement at the National Science Foundation.

Three of the most egregious sounding items in Coburn’s report are described as a study in which a “scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans,” an effort to design robots capable of folding laundry, and an outbreak of “jello (sic) wrestling in Antarctica at the NSF research station McMurdo station.” The Senator and his team of fiscal watchdogs helpfully included a grotesque snapshot of the Jell-O incident, which looks like it was cut and pasted from some other Congressional report on the menace of online pornography.

Silberman also blasts similar statements by John McCain and Sarah Palin during the 2008 election. He fears that this political show might greatly harm the careers of scientists who are doing worthwhile work that will benefit people of all political colors.

Highlights of the 2008 version of the same partisan show included John McCain and Sarah Palin — then running for the highest offices in the land — fulminating about earmarks for “fruit fly research in Paris, France,” with Palin throwing in a plucky “I kid you not!” to express her taxpayer’s righteous indignation.

Never mind that thousands of world-changing breakthroughs in health and basic science have resulted from studying Drosophila, and that the specific research Palin was ridiculing was focused on proteins in the brain called neurexins that may play a role in neural dysfunction in autism.

Although I fully approve of Silberman exposing the antics of politicians who stage this 'outrage' without regard to negative real-world consequences, I’m not convinced when he tries to set this farce within a larger ‘The Republican Party is hostile to science because they’re afraid of dissenting sources of information!’ narrative.

To be honest, I think it’s a lot simpler than that.

Coburn and other politicians who misrepresent legitimate science as a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars are taking advantage of a very human trait. We like to point and laugh at the ridiculous outsider.

When members of a group we don’t identify with, like scientists, use taxpayer dollars to put shrimp on treadmills, we laugh at them, agree with Senator Coburn that this is a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, and then pat ourselves on the back that we've found a little bit of spending we can cut. Maybe we have a firmer sense that Tom Coburn is a wise and just leader of men who deserves our support and votes.

We don’t bother to find out why they put shrimp on treadmills. Not because we’re Americans, and not because science is this weird thing we don’t understand, but because we’re humans and that’s just the way we roll. How many ridiculous things do you see or hear about on the Internet every day? How often do you bother to find out the real story? Probably not very often.

And as for Coburn, he’s found something that looks ridiculous that he can mock to serve his own political ends. What’s the downside from his perspective? A bunch of scientists he knows nothing about might have their funding cut? Hah.

I should point out that this basic human instinct - 'hey, look at the ridiculous person!' - is one that's shared by all groups of people, not just Americans and certainly not just Republicans. Politicians everywhere do this when they appeal directly to the people, because it's effective at getting people to rally around them. Commentators do it too, and so do bloggers, and I guess I'm doing it right now with respect to Senator Coburn. Except I'm pretty sure Coburn deserves it.

Anyway, back to the main point. Even if I disagree with Silberman about the dark scope and majesty of Coburn's motivations, I agree that this is a problem. In his article, Harford argues that we ideally ought to be funding both sane and promising avenues of research, and far riskier, more off-the-wall ideas that seem like long shots -- 'lottery tickets', he calls them. If a Senator Coburn can make even sane research look dumb so that he can get other people to point and laugh along with him, how are the lottery tickets ever going to stand a chance?

(Now, I could see someone reasonably arguing that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be funding lottery tickets in the first place. Letting private money fund them is not implausible: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is an example Harford uses as an organization that does fund the lottery tickets, to great effect.)

I see this as an example of why humanity shouldn’t have so many of its eggs in one basket when it comes to scientific research. The United States leads the world in scientific research, not because we are so much brighter than other nationalities but because we’ve got the infrastructure and the universities to attract smart people from around the world. It’s dangerous to put the work these smart people do in the path of narrow-minded politicians.

(That said, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a uniquely American anti-intellectualism at work here. Tom Coburns can appear in any country.)

I’d like to see scientific research internationalized to the point that a politician looking for a quick boost doesn't have the influence to do any real damage.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford

I’ve been a Tim Harford fan ever since I read The Undercover Economist several years ago. He’s quite good at that elusive, valuable art:

He has the ability to articulate insights into how the world works that you intuitively recognize as true immediately. You only needed someone to come along and put them into words.

A few weeks ago he did an interview for The Browser in which he recommended five books for people to better understand the practical side of economics. I’ve already pledged to read all five by the end of this year, and the fact that he includes a Cory Doctorow novel and a book written in cartoon format only makes me more confident in his choices.

His book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure is full of wisdom. Harford explores the lives and careers of several people, but the one figure he keeps coming back to, the chief protagonist of the book if it has one, is Russian economist Peter Palchinsky. Palchinsky was an advisor to many of the gigantic Soviet public works projects in the 1920s. If a project was not going well, or even worse, judged ill-conceived from the beginning and doomed to be an expensive failure, he told his superiors this in no uncertain terms. This turned out to be an unhealthy habit. In 1928, he was taken away by the secret police and executed.

Palchinsky’s three principles, distilled by Harford and referenced repeatedly throughout the book, are as follows: First, seek out new ideas and try new things. Second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable. Third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

The Soviet Union’s institutional inability to follow these three principles, Harford argues, was the main reason why it was never able to catch up to the Western economies. Yes, there were other flaws, moral flaws, but it was the country's inability to innovate effectively that led to its economic downfall.

Harford has made articles available for free online that offer a taste of what Adapt is about; book trailers, if you will. Slate offers “The Airplane that Saved the World”, all about the RAF’s Spitfire, an experimental aircraft design that nearly got killed in the early 1930s, long before it went on to help win the Battle of Britain. Moral: We should encourage environments where crazy new ideas are fostered and protected from capricious management.

Also see “Positive Black Swans”, about funding scientific research so as to produce maximum good. Moral: Allocating funding to “safe” lines of research that promise incremental advancement is all well and good and necessary for society. But we’ll be even better off if, in addition to safe, highly promising research, we also encourage and fund what Harford calls “lottery tickets”: far riskier avenues of research that may well lead nowhere, but also hold the promise of revolutionizing their fields if they succeed. Harford argues it’s most effective to fund both types.

Eventually, of course, he comes to the financial crisis.

We shouldn't bail out massive companies that are about to go under. Which is not to say we should heap all our blame on the Bush and Obama administrations for doing so; they felt they had no choice because, to use the infamous quote, they were ‘too big to fail’. Maybe they were, but that itself was the problem. No company should be too big to fail. The whole point of a limited liability corporation is that it can collapse without destroying human lives. Companies aren’t people. If a company is going to fail, let it fail. A single tree shouldn’t be so important that its collapse would bring down half the forest with it. (Note: My words, not Harford's.) Creative destruction is a good thing - high rates of failure can presage economic growth.

The second Palchinsky principle says that failure must be survivable; an organization (or a life?) ought to be structured so that a singe catastrophe can't bring down the entire structure. In 1995, an employee making unsupervised trades at Barings Bank managed to singlehandedly destroy his 300-year-old company. He had made wildly speculative trades with the bank's capital without supervision. He had broken the law (and did a stint in prison as a result), but he hadn't really acted maliciously. The whole time he probably thought, "I know what I'm doing." There will always be reckless people. There will always be setbacks and disasters. They should be anticipated and planned for.