Wednesday, November 25, 2009

books

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold - The best authors subtly evoke experiential minutia, saying just enough for us to insert our own memories and sensations into their words, and then nudge those naked facts from mere observations into whole interpretations, building ever larger structures and hierarchies and theories and philosophies. That's Leopold's greatest strength, and the result is phenomenal.

(2 tiny caveats to my adoring recommendation: 1) It starts a bit dry, so push past the first chapter. 2) This is actually a personal failing, not anything whatsoever wrong with the book; in fact it will give me a good excuse to reread it in my future less-dumb years. But I should mention it since hardly anyone doesn't have this particular personal failing anymore. I'm just too ecologically illiterate to understand the difference between "There is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern" and "There is an affinity between trees and plants, between trees and plants, between trees and plants." Call me Ginger.)

Superfreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - It's been years since I read Freakonomics and can no longer recall enough to compare the two, but standing on its own merits, this was certainly an enjoyable read. Sure they like to match their incendiary claims with incendiary language, which I think sometimes is a tiny bit counterproductive, but who cares (in particular, the controversy surrounding the geoengineering chapter is baffling). And the particular style of this edition, in which they interweave several different studies into a common theme per chapter, makes it read like a casual conversation with a very smart and interesting person.

Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko - Warning: this is going to be a rant. I got roped into reading it by a friend and skimmed the 2nd half in impatience.

First the good points. There were two things that rang true and important: 1) You are ultimately the only authority on how to live your life. 2) Aspiration and expectation are different things.

Other than that it was mostly infuriatingly nonsensical to me. Life is NOT defined by suffering and learning to accept it and detaching yourself from your emotions is NOT the path to happiness and the things in my head ARE real. The "four noble truths" are self-evidently insane. You know the serenity prayer? "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." This rings true to me. It acknowledges a balance that exists in life. Zen is focused solely on the first third.

Now, it's also true that Zen rhetoric also is obsessed with gleefully saying "no, you're wrong, you just don't understand what I'm saying" and refusing to clarify further. So to preempt that response, let me say that a lot of the specific themes I can just barely make peace with by seeing them as very horribly convoluted and misguided presentations of something that actually contains truth and value. Except for one thing. I can not reconcile or ignore the denial of my mental reality.

Just because I can't point to my unhappiness does not make it real. I really wonder what kind of desperate state these followers must be in to want so badly to buy into the argument "yes your grandfather's body died but this is not a real loss because your relationship with your grandfather is in your head." that they don't immediately strangle whoever is telling them that. Sure I have some degree of control and choice in the matter of my unhappiness that I don't have about physical reality but it is still very very REAL and relevant. Honestly, just this one theme of denying non-physical reality made reading this stuff more infuriating than reading Catholic theology for me. With Thomas Merton and company, I can ignore the belief in the supernatural and the threat of hellfire and still appreciate its practical recommendations. In fact I know of no better succinct recipe for a good life than the Desiderata, which is not at all secular (although easily read as such, as I do.) But this, which contains no objectionable irrationality and invented motivations as its base, leads to much more objectionable conclusions.

Ok I'm done ranting. How's that for dismissing two millennia of philosophy in five minutes?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

environmentalism

Back on the subject of seemingly irreconcilable beliefs derived from instinct and logic, and on the best way to promote an ethic of respect for the environment.

I recently reread A Sand County Almanac (arguably a top 3 most beautiful book I'm aware of*) and it reminded me that my economic rhetoric in favor of environmentalism is only a tool I hope to manipulate the rest of humankind with in order that my beloved wilderness is preserved for my own enjoyment.

The thing is, I don't think the rhetoric is disingenuously manipulative. I believe every word of it. Sustainable practices pay off after an initial investment. Externalities need to be internalized. The benefit in recreation and peace of mind and natural history appreciation to humankind that comes from restricting use in certain natural areas is often greater than any more-easily-quantifiable profit from industrial activities that might be undertaken there. And even if you don't believe all that, the potential unknown impact of our actions is so high and are actions so irreversible that extreme conservationist caution is still worthwhile from a human-expected-utility perspective.

But really, I don't care about all that. It's true, but it's not why I favor conservation. I favor conservation because I love wildness. Mostly I love being in the wilderness, feeling connected to all 4.5 billion years of natural earth history, and feeling wholly human by returning to basics as much as is possible in today's world. But even if I were rarely allowed to participate in wilderness personally, I know that it is valuable. There is no logic in the world to destroy my unconditional love of nature and the belief that we as humans should protect its integrity.

Unfortunately this powerful instinct is not shared by even a majority of the population anymore, and there are many other valid and powerful reasons to respect the environment. Thus rhetoric is exclusively dominated by those cost-benefit analyses mentioned above.

Of course when motivations differ the outcomes are never quite the same. The mainstream environmentalist debate currently centers on climate change that may doom our existence. It doesn't really care about minimizing our interference in nature so as to ensure the survival of naturally occurring biodiversity and pristine wild lands untouched even by access roads and visitors centers. If we could destroy all of what nature really is and still ensure species survival, that would be fine, they indirectly say. To some extent the catch-all "we don't know what we're getting into so be careful" argument takes care of whatever else you want it to, but is limitedly convincing, and in any case all of this still misses the point.

Motivations ultimately drive the outcome even if you can manipulate them in the interim. The only way we will protect our natural heritage along with ensuring our own survival on the planet is by instilling a true ethic of conservation in the culture at large. This is what Aldo Leopold was advocating half a century ago and instead of making progress in that direction, we have scared some of the population into similar effort for very different reasons. While that may help slow global warming in the short run, it only damages the cause in the long run when we figure out how to destroy even more without destroying ourselves. The economic motivations that promote environmentalism in this century will point in a completely different direction in the next.

And so I am at a loss. I know that nature should be respected, and the best deductive train of logic I have to back that up is one that will ultimately provide license for destruction, even if I believe in its validity right now. Human behavior is hard enough to change with bulletproof logic; instincts and values are downright impossible.

*Along with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Gödel Escher Bach

Thursday, November 19, 2009

four way stops

Another chapter in the "Berkeley City Planning Is Stunningly Misguided" series: Four way stops.

Everyone knows the costs and benefits of a single isolated four way stop. In very dangerous intersections, it can reduce accidents. In an intersection where one direction is very busy and the other busy enough to have backlogs that can't get through, or in a busy intersection where pedestrians rarely have a chance to cross, it can improve traffic flow. On the downside, both of those things are better accomplished with intelligent stoplights, which don't cause backlogs of traffic waiting for each individual car to stop and then proceed. And they cause delays and waste fuel. And they are essentially impossible to remove once built, since drivers become accustomed to cross-traffic having to stop.

But there's an ignored cost of having a large percentage of four way stops in an area in general, and I'm surprised I can't find any studies that quantifies. In the few normal two-way stops in low traffic areas, the car that has to stop expects cross-traffic to stop as well and often cuts them off, resulting in many near-accidents. This is the issue in Berkeley, where almost all residential intersections are four-way stops. (I've almost been hit twice this way and now habitually slow down if there's anyone waiting at stop sign even when I don't have one.)

Of course, now that they've implemented such an insane system, it's basically impossible to undo. But since all of these four-way stops are in low-traffic residential neighborhoods where they are entirely unnecessary, and they increase danger in two-way intersections, I'm guessing they make the city more dangerous on net, on top of the time and fuel wasting. Good job, city planners.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

hurricane season

If you love geography, maps, weather patterns, interesting visual data displays, or just cool animations, you will love this:

It’s always impressive to see one person excel in two widely disparate activities: a first-rate mathematician who’s also a world class mountaineer, or a titan of industry who conducts symphony orchestras on the side. But sometimes I think Paul Krugman is out to top them all, by excelling in two activities that are not just disparate but diametrically opposed: economics (for which he was awarded a well-deserved Nobel Prize) and obliviousness to the lessons of economics (for which he’s been awarded a column at the New York Times).
(You should click the link to read the excellent support for the hilarious hot air.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

self-evident truths

Some of the questions that bother me most arise when self-evident truths conflict with logical deductions. These truths are such core values and beliefs that I can't imagine invalidating them, but on the other hand, I revere logic to the point of fetishism.

But logic when applied to the real world is a whole lot more slippery than gut knowledge. The universe is extremely complex and any time we restrict ourselves to a small set of axioms to work from, we will miss real truths or prove nonsense. Disagreement among educated interlocutors is not usually semantics, it is a result of incompatible foundations. (But often the converse is true: disagreements often aren't actual disagreements once two parties agree on a word-representation for their priors.)

Of course, in science, we pin ourselves to actual observations to sort through the infinitude of possible deductive paths. But many interesting questions are not easy to test empirically. The universe, in its mindboggling complexity, makes a poor wind-tunnel, and wind-tunnels are hard to construct to address every subtlety of interest. Hence the human race has spent the last few millennia debating the same basic philosophical questions ad nauseam with hardly any conclusive headway.

The average person is very suspicious of those who invent convoluted arguments to support views held so deeply that debate is futile. And scientists are very suspicious of those who hold beliefs so deeply they can't digest any contrary evidence. But, it is vastly easier to invent spurious logic in favor of whatever you want than to stubbornly insist on self-delusion in the face of evidence that is truly convincing (and those who do are never key players in the conversation anyway.) I think the wisdom of crowds holds here. Those who abdicate their intuition in deference to deduction are easily misguided, while those who let their gut instincts, observations, and logic interplay in a complicated and messy way to guide them towards truth, often find it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a remarkable (peaceful!) triumph of freedom over oppressive government (and specifically free markets over communism; communism requires oppression) and one that has particular meaning to me, having been born in West Germany while that qualifier was still needed and lived in Berlin a decade after reunification.

I'd rather quote my dad than comment further, since he's an actual expert on the subject, as a professor of Germanic Linguistics at Oklahoma State University:

As a scholar, Te Velde was a frequent visitor to East and West Germany. While the wall was up, the differences between the two countries were considerable. “At first, the wall was built with cinder blocks and mortar. Then it was concrete blocks. There was a no man’s land with dogs and mine fields between the countries,” Te Velde said.

Russia controlled East Berlin, and West Berlin was the British, French and American zone after World War II. “East Berliners wouldn’t talk to tourists,” Te Velde said. “You felt the presence very much of the firm grip of the government.” Its higher profile citizens were the frequent target of surveillance by the East German Ministry for State Security or Stasi, he said. A good filmed representation of life under surveillance in East Germany can be seen in “The Lives of Others,” he said.

“West Berliners were a special breed. It was a place of escape for youth to be exempt from military service,” Te Velde said. It offered a western-style shopping zone, nightlife, bars and clubs, he said, adding, “West Berlin was always a great theater city.”

With the first signs across Europe that the Berlin Wall might fall, Te Velde said, “I was flabbergasted ... Within a week it was obvious the wall was coming down. There would be no jail, no reprisals.”

To Te Velde, the wall represents the unchecked strength of a government with a powerful military. After World War II, Germany was on its knees and couldn’t resist the Soviet takeover. That weakness manifested a dangerous power balance, said Te Velde. If there is collusion of political and military power ... and there is no response from the people to stand against solidification,” he said, there is a situation rife for military divide. “There are some tendencies in this country that we could develop into the same as then but the conditions are not the same. We are not helpless and on our knees. There is power of the people. The only danger is if people don’t recognize their power to stand up to restrictions of power or the military.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More non-sniping at Ayn Rand

2005 was before I paid attention to the internet so I was happy Alex Tabarrok reposted his thoughts on Ayn Rand originally from her 100th birthday. They very eloquently and logically state exactly what I most like about Atlas Shrugged. For example:
It used to be commonly said that “Until Robinson Crusoe is joined by Friday there is no need for ethics on a desert island.” Rand replied that it was on a desert island that ethics was most needed because on a desert island you cannot free ride on the virtues of others; if you are to survive you must yourself exercise the virtues of rationality, independence, and productiveness.
(Except I don't really buy that she was such a strong feminist. But I also don't buy that she was anti-feminist, as is often said, due to some isolated statements of what constitutes femininity. I completely disregarded those, along with all of her other nonsense about ethics of aesthetics, primarily in Fountainhead. I think she was a realist and an individualist who probably couldn't have cared less about feminism in itself.)

And his last paragraph restates much better what I recently said in objection to MYglesias's (and others') whining.

As is true of most people who are extremely forceful and black and white about their beliefs, Rand attracted a worshipful following and loatheful antifollowing. Most supporters are extreme moralistic (rather than pragmatic) libertarians, and most dissenters are the liberals who hate her advocation of capitalism or conservatives who hate her adamant atheism. Her supporters tend to adopt the same aggressive and black and white style, and her dissenters mostly object not to the content of her work but to this style of presenting her case and some distorted interpretations that arise when a black and white style is used instead of a thorough discussion of the nuance. When something like Alex's notes comes along, I have renewed hope that the middle ground may worm it's way into the mainstream debate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wikipedia it if you don't know, now please

"Economists" on Jeopardy. I'm not sure if this makes me laugh or cry harder. Is the Laffer curve really not common knowledge among educated adults? Let alone Adam Smith?

I take it back. It makes me laugh harder. Look at her expression during double jeopardy =)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

academic library software

Any suggestions..? I'm using Mendeley, which after the most recent beta upgrade thankfully doesn't crash every five minutes and drastically improved in other ways, but which has two critical failings: I can't tell it to "automatically import new files from this particular folder into this particular collection", and it doesn't save notes and citation data to metadata or highlighting/other edits to the pdf itself. And it doesn't support .doc or other paper formats, which I suppose is a good default but occasionally annoying not to exist.

My boyfriend uses Bookends, which he says is ok as far as the auto-importing goes, and does some kind of auto-downloading-from-bibtex-data that sounds awesome, but which also appears not to save data to the files themselves, and which I would have to go to the trouble to crack since it's trialware (and which will eventually kill it in the face of competition so stop being stingy please...) So I haven't tried it yet.

Is there other software does both of those things? I'm envisioning something like Picasa for pdf files plus bibtex exporting and citation data extraction and Mendeley/gmail style collections (same file in multiple places). I want to be able to uninstall it and move my files around however I want on my harddrive and make changes in any other software and when I start it up again it'll all be there as usual...

I still have hope for Mendeley though. The things I complain about are on their "to-do" list, it's just in the early stages of development.