Consummate dilettantism!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Anti-Obama Broadside

Don't blame me, I voted for McCain!

Count me among the cynics. ‘Tis always better to doubt than to believe, and there is no shortage of reasons to doubt. We seem to be stuck in a timeless universe, living in a moment that knows no past and no future. The boundless enthusiasm for Barack Obama is simply not proportionate to what he has done or plans to do, nor can the nation hope itself out of the mess it is in. Can the President bail the country out by resuscitating failed industries, by spending on projects that cannot possibly commence until the “crisis” has passed, by using our money better than we ourselves can? Can he outlaw partisanship and “unify” government, an idea that I hope sounds as scary to me as it does to you? We were promised “change,” an end to partisanship. (Not to say that partisanship is a bad thing; “unifying” government sounds awfully scary to me. "Working together" is often a recipe for disaster, especially when those working together have more collective power than any other body in the entire world.) But the stimulus bill was voted for along very partisan lines. We were told there would be an end to earmarks and special interest lobbying, a veritable political revolution! This is obviously impossible when only a few hundred people have a say in where billions of dollars are spent. Blinded by the magical brilliance of the inauguration, we seem to have forgotten that what goes on in Washington is very real and very serious. There is a reality here that few of us wish to confront – we should never expect salvation from lofty platitudes, nor that hopeful change is some unalloyed good.

“Theoretical nonsense!” you cry. But from the botched and throttled nominations to the pork-laden, gleefully partisan shopping spree (the long-suppressed aspirations of the Democrats thus revealed), there are plenty of real things to be upset about. Watching the administration mollycoddle the American people with such patronizingly clichéd phrases as “get people back to work” makes me wonder how many people actually believe that it is the government’s task to run the economy. How this “stimulus” is even supposed to work, I don’t know – how can you prime a pump when you’re destroying the pump for material with which to prime it? Frédéric Bastiat gives us a classic example of this fallacy; breaking the window of a house will give a job to a window maker, but it will take away a job from a worker whom the owner of that house would otherwise have paid to do some other task. Good, solid infrastructure spending is one thing, and there’s a cool $70 billion in the bill for exactly this purpose; but the rest of the money is mostly going towards projects that don’t pay back monetarily and can hardly be called “stimulating.” “Democrats as deficit hawks” is now ancient history, a fading curiosity of the Bush years.

And yet! You see, there’s an odd pleasure some get from watching the misery of others – some call it schadenfreude, others epicaricacy – that is precisely what I think is happening now. As conservatives watch pained liberals wincing at the failures of the new administration and at the realization that their lobbyist-hating hero is a man after all, they find solace in a sort of perverse bliss. Rush Limbaugh hopes Obama fails, and for what other reason than to say “I told you so”? This is disgusting and wrong; either call out Obama or cheer him on. Don’t relish in his mistakes.

But this is no license to give him a pass. Obama has been proclaiming for months now his absolute dedication to changing the “politics of fear” into the “politics of hope.” How can anyone take him seriously when he’s been practicing the politics of fear from the beginning of his term? If we don’t throw caution to the wind and spend nearly a trillion dollars (roughly equivalent to the entire federal budget in 1984) on programs whose value in stimulating the economy is extremely questionable, we’re all going to die, or something. That seems awfully similar to “pass the Patriot Act right away, or we’re all going to die” or “invade Iraq right away, or we’re all going to die”. Fear, not hope; expediency, not caution. But politicians are necessarily professional obfuscators. It is a requirement of their profession that they be so – it is simply impossible to get elected by listing all the caveats ad nauseam (what politics is). And so I think that more than a dose of economic “stimulus”, we need a dose of reality. Take two and call me in the morning.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crazy Animals

Skull of a rare, ancient, long-extinct species found today:
Pretty nuts, huh? Wouldn't it be great if you could see what this animal looked like in the flesh? Well, you can! I was lying; this is actually the skull of a hippopotamus, which is an extremely aggressive, vicious, and dangerous animal. Weird-looking, too:Then you have this thing:Funky. It looks like a dinosaur.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Job "Creation"

There's been an awful lot of talk about job creation lately. I think a lot of it is absurd; when the government pays a firm to renovate public buildings, it may be "creating" some construction jobs, but it's "creating" those jobs by spending taxpayer money. Ultimately, the government must take money from some other source to fund such job creation, and by taking that money it reduces investment and spending on other sources (which themselves "create" or create -- see below for more -- jobs). Frédéric Bastiat provides a classic example of this fallacy; breaking the window of a house will give a job to a window maker, but it will take away a job from a worker whom the owner of that house would otherwise have paid to do some other task. Alas, we see only the job created; we do not see the job lost. (You should not, however, take this to imply that government spending cannot produce jobs. Non-marginal investments on substandard infrastructure, for example, can increase efficiency, grow the economy, and yes, create jobs when private money is not being spent on that infrastructure. If you can't drive on the roads, you can't do things as quickly, can't get things to places as quickly -- you slow down the world. Also, if people are unwilling to spend, it's certainly possible that forcing them to spend -- by taking their money and spending it yourself -- can stimulate growth, despite the fact the money must be paid off eventually. I'm only saying that we should be very careful about how we think about job creation.)

In a similarly illogical vein are the gloomy proclamations that technology and outsourcing destroy jobs. As the reasoning goes, new technologies that don't have to be manned eliminate jobs. Here, too, the reasoning is wrong; we see positions for couriers vanish with more efficient communication tools, but we don't see the people hired by new companies whose expenditures have dropped because of increasing efficiency. So it's refreshing to read from one economist, who proclaims that spreading rural broadband will "eliminate 266,000 jobs", that "[t]echnology that helps fewer people get more work done may be good for the economy in the long run, but it makes extra workers redundant". This redundancy drives up cost and reduces efficiency; it results in job loss.

But there's something in the argument thus far that doesn't work. In other words, you can't believe everything I've written without the next step. Why? Well, how can I talk about "real", or net, job creation in the first place? If we're all just ceaselessly moving money around, there can be no actual job growth -- we're all players in a grand zero-sum game. But this is where it gets interesting: Economics is not a zero-sum game. The global economy is not a closed system in which wealth just shifts around. The real wealth is the mind, the output of which is potentially infinite and often productive -- some thoughts produce (in real-world terms) more than they cost (in time), the second law of thermodynamics be damned. When you think a thought, you are actually producing something! This is so profound a concept that it's astonishing that more people haven't heard of it (or at least don't talk as though they have). Read this. Yes, the whole thing -- I know it's long, but trust me on this one. It's one of those rare ideas that will change how you think about the world. A taste:
Hanging out at the beach one day with a distant family member, we got into a discussion about capitalism and socialism. In particular, we were arguing about whether brute labor, as socialism teaches, is the source of all wealth (which, socialism further argues, is in turn stolen by the capitalist masters). The young woman, as were most people her age, was taught mainly by the socialists who dominate college academia nowadays. I was trying to find a way to connect with her, to get her to question her assumptions, but was struggling because she really had not been taught many of the fundamental building blocks of either philosophy or economics, but rather a mish-mash of politically correct points of view that seem to substitute nowadays for both.

I picked up a handful of sand, and said "this is almost pure silicon, virtually identical to what powers a computer. Take as much labor as you want, and build me a computer with it — the only limitation is you can only have true manual laborers - no engineers or managers or other capitalist lackeys".

She replied that my request was BS, that it took a lot of money to build an electronics plant, and her group of laborers didn’t have any and bankers would never lend them any.

I told her - assume for our discussion that I have tons of money, and I will give you and your laborers as much as you need. The only restriction I put on it is that you may only buy raw materials - steel, land, silicon - in their crudest forms. It is up to you to assemble these raw materials, with your laborers, to build the factory and make me my computer.

She thought for a few seconds, and responded "but I can’t - I don’t know how. I need someone to tell me how to do it"
The only real difference between beach sand, worth $0, and a microchip, worth thousands of dollars a gram, is what the human mind has added.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chinese Is Stupidly Hard

There's a really sharp essay here. It's mandatory reading for anyone considering the study of Chinese or undertaking it currently. Read the whole thing. For your consideration, a few choice paragraphs:
Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like "Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper". Poppycock. I couldn't comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by "read" in this context is "read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters"; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)


The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task -- never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.


Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.
I really could not agree more. The Chinese writing system (and consequently, as Moser points out, the entire language) is by far the most difficult in the entire world. Studying Chinese takes an extreme amount of effort. I am taking four classes this quarter, one of which is Chinese. The work I have to do for that class exceeds the work I have to do for all of the other three combined.

There was an Economist article a while back (you can read the full text here) that generated a lot of controversy. It calls learning Chinese a fad (which it is) that it is not worth the effort. Indeed, Chinese is the Japanese of the 2000s; the language has been tremendously hyped. There's a Chinese bubble going on right now that will pop in ten years or so when people realize that Chinese businessmen are much better at learning English than American businessmen are at learning Chinese. See, as soon as China's economic boom subsides (and it will -- the only question is when), people will start learning some other language that's completely overlooked now (my bet's on Portuguese, Hindustani, or Indonesian). Chinese will never overtake English as the world's new global language -- it is simply too difficult. If your goal is just to get a job, don't waste your time on Chinese. Seriously. Study economics, math, or computer science; those are far more profitable fields. Simply put, the costs of studying the language are just not worth the monetary benefits.

But Chinese is valuable for other reasons. The language opens up an entire world of literature and culture to its students -- if your goal is to enter this world, then by all means, study Chinese.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Scat Humor Or Fine Art?

If I didn't know better, I'd say this was some pretty brilliant satire:
The contributors to this volume are all aware of and seek to understand the mental and physical distance that separates us from the experience of Early Modern excrement.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is It "Ethnocentrism" If They're Barbarians?

I say no. Via CNN:
A city official in the remote Brazilian Amazon village of Envira told CNN that five members of the Kulina tribe are on the run after being accused of murdering, butchering and eating a farmer in a ritual act of cannibalism.

The village's chief of staff, Maronilton da Silva Clementino, said Kulina tribesmen took the life of Ocelio Alves de Carvalho, 19, last week on the outskirts of Envira, which is in the far western part of Brazil that bumps up against Peru.

Portal Amazonia newspaper reported that the Indians escaped after being held for a few hours in the city's police station.

No arrest warrants were issued. Brazilian law does not allow the military or civil police to enter Indian lands, Portal Amazonia reported.

It is still unknown how many people took part in the alleged cannibalistic ritual, although several Indians have fled into the jungle fearing prosecution, the newspaper Diario do Amazonas reported.

Clementino said the victim was herding cattle when he met with a group of Indians who invited him back to their village.

"They knew each other and they sometimes helped one another. They invited him to their reservation three days ago and he was never seen again," Clementino said.

"The family decided to go into the reservation and that's when they saw his body quartered and his skull hanging on a tree. It was very tragic for the family," he said.

The news of the incident came from the Indians themselves, who apparently bragged about eating the man's organs, Clementino said.

Members of the tribe told residents of Envira -- where 190 Kulina families brush shoulders with non-tribal Brazilians -- that they held a cannibalistic ritual in which they cooked the victim's organs, Clementino said.

He said Kulina Indians began surrounding the police station where the suspects were briefly interrogated.

Villagers told authorities they are incensed by the lack of response from FUNAI, Brazil's National Indian Foundation.

"The family is very frustrated with the law here, which protects the Indians and doesn't help protect us," he said. "They start drinking and local farmers here are afraid who could be next."

Clementino said groups Indians -- often outnumbering police -- pose a security threat to locals.
In other news, please don't go on and on about the superiority of your culture because of its alleged antiquity. There is a number of problems with this line of reasoning:

1. Most obviously, the antiquity of a culture does not imply its superiority. Most of us would deem liberalism superior to despotism, but the fact remains that liberal "cultures" are much younger than despotic ones. (Whence the scare quotes? See my next points.)

2. It is often hard to define what a culture is and what continuity is. Can we call 3,000 years of Judaism, for example, a unified culture? In some respects, perhaps, but not in others; the original Semitic Hebrews would have little in common with the reformed Caucasian German Jews of today. The two are bound by a book and some language (classical Hebrew can usually be understood by speakers of resurrected modern Hebrew), but the former would strike us as closer to the Muslim Bedouin than the Germans in dress, culture, philosophy, and even religion. In fact, the vast majority of cultures barely share language with their predecessor cultures; in what respects can modern Indians be said to share culture with their ancestors when Hindi is as related to Sanskrit as Italian is to Latin? In what respects the Chinese when spoken classical/old "Chinese" (for it shares mostly the script, and even that becomes less true before the 5th century) cannot be understood by most speakers of modern Mandarin? The modern Indians are indeed far more culturally similar to the ancient Indians than the modern Chinese are to them, but it is important to realize that a continuum is present; it is exceedingly difficult to call 2,000 or 3,000 years of various religions, philosophies, dresses, languages, and ideologies one culture.

3. There is no such thing as a culture that does not borrow from others. Chinese culture was profoundly influenced by Buddhism for thousands of years, and it is now almost inseparable from it. Buddhism, however, originated in India; its earliest, post-pre-sectarian form is Theravada Buddhism. But what is most common in East Asia is Mahayana Buddhism, a somewhat different religion from what the Indians established. The mark of Persian and Arab culture on India runs deep; to use an example other than the obvious Arab/Muslim conquests of India, the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled northern India for centuries, was very much a Persian institution. There is no progenitor civilization (important for our purposes, that is): Nearly all advanced "cultures" are extraordinarily impure.

My point is not that there is no such thing as superiority and inferiority in cultures, nor is it that some cultures can be called superior or inferior to others. What I mean to say is that some aspects of cultures can rightly be called barbaric, just as we call criminals barbaric. I would not be called ethnocentric for calling Jeffrey Dahmer an anthropophagic pig; why, then, might I be called ethnocentric for calling the cannibalism of the Kulina tribe disgusting, or the appallingly common female genital mutilation of Somalia disgusting?

N.B.: I am not calling the Kulina barbaric; I am calling these cannibals barbaric. Cannibalism is probably more common in this tribe than in others, but surely not every Kulina is a cannibal.

Monday, February 9, 2009


I tried Salvia a few months ago (in New York -- legally!) for the first time. 10x. Went into the woods with a good friend, placed a big pinch of extract on the pipe, and took two hits. I later realized that I had consumed the whole thing. I estimate that I smoked about a milligram of salvinorin A.

I wasn't sure it hit me at first. I was sitting upright, but found my body moving backwards. It acted on its own -- I had no control over my movements. As I stared up into the white sky, I marveled at the beauty of the silhouetted trees and the contrast between light and dark.

Then I started laughing hysterically and sweating. I remember wondering why I was laughing -- what was so funny? What I was laughing about, I realized, was the hilarity of the experience -- this is incredible, I thought! That it was working was somehow tremendously funny.

But what was I feeling, exactly? I don't quite remember, but I will say that I remember seeing the world as clips, as a big painting, a dream. The sky was an image, not a motion. Everything in the world was connected. What I was looking at wasn't something else, it was something self. Time became episodic, not linear, and everything became profoundly magnified. (The word "magnified" may seem strange here. I used to experience some odd auditory hallucinations before falling asleep -- breathing sounded overwhelmingly loud. What I felt on Salvia was similar but visual.) The world was fundamentally close. I was in a body, but there was a distinct, dualistic separation between flesh and mind. Only mine eyes were mine -- my body was somehow not. There were frames around my eyes, like glasses, that separated the mind's eye (and "I") and body's eyes from the body.

I can't recall much of the first few minutes -- I was completely gone. My friend says that I kept commenting on the brilliance of the white light. My friend responded, "It's a strange light." I didn't know what to make of that at the time, but I vaguely remember it being said. Throughout the trip, I kept insisting that it was over, only to "relapse" immediately thereafter. (I remember my friend saying that he thought it came in waves.) I remember watching my friend build a fire. I kept questioning my friend's actions. "Why?" suddenly became very important, as did the question of reality. I asked my friend whether the fire was real. I wasn't sure whether it was or not -- it was so strange. A fire? Here? Was anything real? I simply did not know.

Consciousness became almost animalistic. The simplest things suddenly became perplexing. My friend was building the fire from sticks; I thought they were the matches we had brought. I was disappointed that my friend had wasted all the matches. I questioned my friend, only to come to the disappointing conclusion that he was just a dreamlike blur.

The intense experience lasted for about 5 minutes. Strong residual effects lasted for about 10 minutes afterward. During the comedown period, I was completely and utterly stoned; I was supremely relaxed. I was leaning against a tree and could hardly move. Indeed, I was a stone. I noted the beauty of the smoke coming from the fire. At one point, I proclaimed that I was not hallucinating, that what I was seeing was real, as though this were some astonishing realization.

I loved the trip and would unhesitatingly experience it again. It was fun, enjoyable, pleasant, mind-bending, and an utter joy to live through. I can't believe that some people experience dysphoria from this drug -- it has only the most beneficent of intentions. I felt utterly no fear or dread throughout the trip. My friend says that I, when I was able to talk, spoke of the brilliance of Salvia and urged him to try it. Indeed, I am still of the same mindset. The trip was pure bliss. Not a physical bliss, but a mental one. I recommend that you prepare extensively; I think that my trip was so good both because of the environment and because I had read an insane amount of literature on the drug before using it. (During the trip, I knew what to expect, and was continually assessing the experience during and after.)

I am, needless to say, very impressed.

Who's Provincial Now?

Via Mankiw comes a list of senators who voted to remove the "Buy American" provision from the "stimulus" bill. Every single one, with the exception of Lieberman, is a Republican. The Democrats are the cosmopolitans indeed!

Alexander (R-TN)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Bennett (R-UT)
Bond (R-MO)
Bunning (R-KY)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)
Ensign (R-NV)
Enzi (R-WY)
Hatch (R-UT)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johanns (R-NE)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Lieberman (ID-CT)
Lugar (R-IN)
Martinez (R-FL)
McCain (R-AZ)
McConnell (R-KY)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Thune (R-SD)
Wicker (R-MS)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Red Bull Doesn't Taste Good?

Wait, what?

I have seen the flavor of Red Bull panned all over the internet and in person. This makes no sense to me. I think that Red Bull is extremely delicious; in fact, I'd go so far as to call it more delicious than any other carbonated beverage. I can say less for its effects; I don't really feel much after drinking a Red Bull, and I usually drink things much more quickly than most people (I finish a large can -- 16 oz., I think -- in about a minute). Red Bull is almost identical in taste to other energy drinks (Monster, Rockstar, &c), probably because the ingredients are just about the same; they all taste like guarana.

In other news, a few days ago, I downed a Red Bull and a 5-Hour Energy together and was surprised at their synergy; I experienced a remarkable lift that lacked excessive edginess. Everything came together in sharp clarity -- the borders of objects were sharper and contrasted more with their backgrounds. Reading became easier, and my mood was elevated too -- this was a feeling that was sustained for several hours. Those 5-Hour Energy shots are awfully expensive*, but they sure do work.

*$4.00 for a tiny bottle filled with caffeine and B vitamins? Come on. What's the profit margin on that like? Niacin and caffeine are stupidly cheap in bulk.