Blur Circle

Steve Yost's weblog

November 26, 2002
Wright, Pinker, Seligman

To read: Slate email debate with Wright hosting dialog with Steven Pinker and Martin Seligman.

Found at Metaphysical Library after doing search at Waypath for keywords "Robert Wright". Found Waypath here.

Also. Wright NYT Op-Ed (Sept.) also via Waypath.

November 24, 2002
Fightin' that decay

I was watching the Head of the Charles a few years ago, standing next to the boathouse where the seasoned announcer spoke over the loudspeaker as the crews rowed through a particularly tricky bend and under the adjacent bridge. The master's single scullers' race was in progress, and the announcer, recognizing one competitor as a long-time familiar contender now in his late forties, quipped "Fightin' that decay".

At the time it struck me as a pejorative thing to say, there within earshot of a guy who's going all out and doing pretty well. But it was clearly also the voice of experience, and I've never forgotten it. Now that I'm not too far from that age, it comes back to me when I'm struggling for the will to exercise.

For the last few weeks I've only managed to exercise about once a week, and I'm definitely feelin' that decay. It's a downward spiral as the lack of exercise reduces my overall awareness and I'm sucked dronelike into the whirl of daily tasks. This is when the nonunity of mind and body becomes most apparent. The body has its own voice that the frenetically buzzing head can shut out when it's overloaded with the daily rush.

I've got to do something about this! I'm going to go for the third annual Concept 2 Holiday Challenge again. I did it the first year, but last year I let other priorities get in the way.

I'm a desultory exerciser when I'm not driven by an external commitment, so for me this means lots of planning and physical will. Does anyone else feel this way, wanting a challenge and maybe some peer pressure to keep it up? I was thinking of setting up some kind of exercise blog or wiki or something we could all share. We'd log our workouts and encourage each other.

Anybody interested ?

November 21, 2002
Big move for QuickTopic

The change in blog technology was necessitated by my move of QuickTopic to a new dedicated server (running FreeBSD instead of Linux). Doing this move, I was reminded why I love doing web work: sometimes it has the tense thrill of doing a live performance. I had a sustained-near-panic sensation when I put up the 'back soon' page at the busy site and went through a series of planned but unrehearsed moves to transfer a large intricate structure. As always, there were glitches that were unplanned for that required immediate decisions and quick makeshift scripting.

So now it's amazingly quiet. No "what happened to my 500 messages?" emails, thankfully. Whew.

November 20, 2002

I've upgraded to Movable Type 2.51 and have it running on MySQL. Whoo! Very powerful, hrum hoom.

November 16, 2002
Where were our senators?

Neither Kennedy nor Kerry voted on the cloture of the Homeland Security Act yesterday. What's up, guys?

The six abstaining votes wouldn't have made the difference, but I'm still pissed.

November 13, 2002
Bowling for Columbine

Saw Bowling for Columbine last night. It's worth seeing just for its discussion-provocativeness. It's loosely centered around the Columbine shootings, but it's a larger look at gun violence in the U.S., peppered as expected with Moore's shamblingly confrontational interviews done with hand-held cameras. His personal style and presence obviously have a way of getting people to drop their guard. Over and over, he catches them saying jaw-dropping things, and he deftly accentuates the absurdity (when he wants to) using cinematic and environmental context. Worth the price of admission alone is the interview with the Lockheed-Martin PR guy in their missile factory near Columbine, backed by hangar-sized missiles under construction, where Moore pursues the possible relationship between the manufacture of these looming massive objects of mass destruction and violence in the community. There are many more like this, devastatingly hilarious, hilariously devastating. But it's not all done with an off-camera smirk.

This obviously isn't a straight documentary, and his stats and examples are blatantly chosen to add to the confrontainment/edutainment value. For example, he compares the U.S. poverty rate with Canadian unemployment rate (twice), two quite different things. Even the core statistic -- gun deaths -- is given in absolute numbers, rather than per-capita. Here are the still-appalling gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in the world's 36 richest countries in 1994:

United States 14.24; Brazil 12.95; Mexico 12.69; Estonia 12.26; Argentina 8.93; Northern Ireland 6.63; Finland 6.46; Switzerland 5.31; France 5.15; Canada 4.31; Norway 3.82; Austria 3.70; Portugal 3.20; Israel 2.91; Belgium 2.90; Australia 2.65; Slovenia 2.60; Italy 2.44; New Zealand 2.38; Denmark 2.09; Sweden 1.92; Kuwait 1.84; Greece 1.29; Germany 1.24; Hungary 1.11; Republic of Ireland 0.97; Spain 0.78; Netherlands 0.70; Scotland 0.54; England and Wales 0.41; Taiwan 0.37; Singapore 0.21; Mauritius 0.19; Hong Kong 0.14; South Korea 0.12; Japan 0.05.
(For comparison, the death rate from auto accidents in the U.S. was 16.5 per 100,000 in 1996.) Nevertheless, one message comes through very well through Moore's anecdotal selections: the U.S. media creates and perpetuates a culture of fear (because it sells news), and this, amid all the other complex factors, may be what causes people in the U.S. to buy guns and shoot each other more.

See it and discuss.

November 11, 2002
Thinking prez

Searching Google News to see if author Robert Wright had written any articles lately, I came upon coverage of a Clinton breakfast speech near Toronto to a group of drugstore vendors (hey, the pay is decent). "two books he recommends to the audience are Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright".

Wright's most recent writing seems to be this series of articles at Slate. I'm reading and liking it already. Wright's plain style and unflinching scope show up immediately:

My argument will come in readily attackable form. It will be organized around a series of propositions—conveniently printed in boldface—that, I claim, describe the mess we're in. Interspersed with these descriptive propositions will be policy prescriptions in italics. To refute me, all you have to do is either show that the bold-faced sentences are wrong or show that the italicized sentences don't follow from them.

Warning: Some of the propositions will be a bit cosmic, dealing with large-scale social, technological, and historical trends. I believe we're standing at a genuine threshold in history, rivaled in significance by only a few past thresholds, and that any diagnosis of our plight that doesn't include some ambitious observations about, say, the future of information technology or the history of the nation-state isn't up to the challenge.

Gosh, if we can only get our current president some better reading material...

Mind in the gutter

After last Wednesday's post about the two economies, I was left wondering how I'd exercise more of that second economy. I've done some volunteer work in the past: was a VISTA volunteer for a year after college, helped some less-advantaged kids in Brighton study for the SAT years later, but I haven't done much dedicated labor for the larger community very recently. Thursday I got a call asking if I wanted to help on Saturday building a Habitat for Humanity house in Roxbury, so naturally I jumped at the chance.

Habitat for Humanity seems to be a very succesful program, from what I learned from my co-workers on the way there. There are more churches, synagogues, and other groups volunteering than there are available weekends for this Roxbury site.

I found my niche working on gutters: measuring, cutting, capping the ends and putting them up with a team of other folks from the church I attend. There were at least three other groups working there as well as some of the people who'd be living in the houses we were building. The atmosphere was a great balance of serious work (with the full attention necessary for swinging heavy stuff around in close quarters and high places) and friendliness.

Thankfully, I'd read this sermon by Judy Brain, and noticed there was a complete lack of any of this kind patronizing feeling there.

I'd like to do more of this kind of thing. Even though it might be more monetarily efficient if I worked the same hours doing software contract work and donated the money (and believe me, I'd starve if I tried to make a living putting up gutters), I benefit from this, and I have a vague sense that there's more of a community benefit when I'm involved directly -- a knowledge that's passed around between us. And I learned a lot about gutters.

November 08, 2002
Poetry and Science

Back in July I noted how Laura Riding Jackson's poem The Quids prefigured Wolfram's (and his predecessors') theories. Now here's a NYT article that describes how Poe intuited the Big Bang and the notion of an expanding universe. [via A&L Daily]

Nice example

Kevin Marks provides a nice example of Quick Doc Review in action.

November 06, 2002
Schick and Occam

Following the election that will certainly have a major effect on the direction our country takes over the next few years, I want to write about... my razor. Bear with me. I got a free-sample Schick triple-bladed razor in the mail about six months ago. It’s ugly as sin but I'm still shaving with the same blade six months later, with no noticeable change in the quality of the shave. This has to be a big mistake on the part of Schick company, unless they were crafty enough to seed a few near-infinite-life razor blades into the population in hopes that hordes would buy the regular two-weeks-to-the-trash models after hearing the raves. The main point is there's a sizeable economy based on the continuous production and disposal of razor blades. This is where I start thinking out loud with some deep thoughts, going beyond Occam’s Razor into oversimplification:

There are two kinds of economy in the world.

The first is the consumer economy. People make things and provide services for other people to buy. The continuous exchange provides great wealth for those with the largest resources and greatest ability to provide specialized services. When everything runs well it benefits even those with few resources or specialized abilities at least enough for them to survive and show up for work the next day. The difference in wealth between these two extremes is monumental, and the range follows a known distribution. We point out that this is what motivates the creators; without it, we wouldn't be creating all these great things and services and the organizations that provide them, and then the less resource-full people would really be hurting. Some things that may bother us about this economy are: (1) It drives us to buy things we don't really need. We start to feel responsible for working very hard so we can buy and consume more. It’s based on a kind of greed. Our lives become empty. (2) Every producer/consumer exchange, down to the eventual disposal of the goods, involves some waste -- there's entropy all along the way in the form of pollution and spent energy resources. (3) It will grow until it’s not sustainable, and along the way lots of people will die badly.
This is the "unthinking economy". It works on its own with little conscious control (excepting that of Mr. Greenspan). Population and the manufacture and exchange of goods and services will expand until the growing population uses all the available resources at a rate that is just barely sustainable and life is just bearable for some threshold number of people. (Well, we can hope that people tend to have fewer children if they're crowded and miserable, but is there evidence of this?) There doesn't seem to be much we can do about all this. It's too big for us. This election is one small but significant example: we're too dumb en masse to rein it in, or those who benefit most are able to influence those who benefit least, through highly researched, extremely effective mass media-based influence. (This influence is perpetuated when television lets overworked, disconnected people feel connected to other humans, however paltry that connection may be.) If resources actually run out too fast, population will change drastically to accommodate the fact. If the disparity between the comfortable and the miserable becomes too great, there'll be social upheaval. We can say that this humans-on-earth organism really is an organism, but we can't say that it's a conscious one, and certainly not an intelligent one (Can the Internet begin to change that by bringing geographically scattered minds together?)

The other economy is the economy of the individual and the direct community, where we can operate consciously in our daily lives with the people we come in contact with. We can even choose what we buy or don't buy with a measure of care. A lot of what’s important to us in the community where we actively choose to work (apart from our jobs, or even there if we’re fortunate) is in direct opposition to the dumb economy. It’s where our exchanges with each other are not material – in fact there’s often an uncomfortable feeling if commerce intrudes. We work to help each other. Sometimes it’s simple tit-for-tat neighborliness. Sometimes it’s working as a group on something that has no commercial potential (music or sports for example). Sometimes it’s helping disadvantaged strangers as part of an organized effort – a real attempt to compensate for the disadvantages of the unthinking economy.

Some of the major differences in our beliefs about the role of government – classically the difference between democrats and republicans – seem to hinge on how well we think the consumer economy (what I’ve called the unthinking economy) works to make for a good society. Once, on a short airplane trip, I got into general political discussion with the fellow next to me. He thought government should be involved in assisting people as little as possible. I wanted to get to the bottom of our differences. I asked him if he thought everyone, no matter what the circumstances of their birth and upbringing, had a decent chance for a good life in this country – a chance to make a big improvement for themselves if necessary. He said yes. He thought that everyone has the ultimate capacity to overcome any disadvantages on their own, if they really want to. So in five minutes I’d found our fundamental difference. I believe it’s valuable to help people in tough circumstances, and that sometimes some people really need help. (I don't have the whole free will thing sorted out well enough to believe otherwise.) I do think it’s best when done for individuals and small groups by individuals and small groups rather than big organizations. Individual care is the coin of this second economy. But the unthinking economy is huge and the Pareto distribution is a blind fact. So I think government has a role in helping too.

Several of the blogs on my blogroll had some role, recent or otherwise, in influencing me to write this rambling post, but particularly Steve, David, and Kurt. They deserve credit, but no blame.


November 04, 2002
More heaven and hell

Reading Pamela Etter Mack via OnePotMeal leads me to 'God is in the details', as opposed to 'the Devil is in the details'. This takes me to Podhaka via Google. Her last comment there is interesting:

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations says

""God is in the details': A popular aphorism with the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the art historian Aby Warburg; attributed [Le bon Dieu est dan le detail] to Gustave Flaubert but without verification."

William Safire mentioned it in a New York Times article on July 30, 1989. He spoke with the editor of Bartlett's, who said:

"We've had little success with 'God (or 'the Devil') is in the details,'" says Mr. Kaplan. "We know that Mies van der Rohe used it in discussing architecture; Flaubert has been suggested, but nobody can find it in his writings. I think it may come from John Ruskin, because it sounds like him on the subject of workmanship, but we need the specific citation."


The past weekend was a recent high-water mark in terms of small moments that made me thankful. Let me just tap this stake in right here and tie some rope to it, so I can pull myself back up some other time when I might need it.

I thought of writing about the details of encounters with my family and friends that put me in that state, then reconsidered that it might come across as pollyannish. That waffling process made me consider how often we don't communicate this kind of grateful feeling. Witty cynicism is more acceptable (and admittedly funnier).

Lori Patel writes well about a similar thing today in Media Unspun:

Have you noticed how often good news is portrayed as no news at all? Yet tales of dread and disaster announce themselves in bold type. When the docks were closed, reporters filled screens and newspapers with anguished accounts of all the people getting hurt, from every type of retailer and consumer to truckers and kids at Christmas. Now that there's solid reason to believe that further shutdowns can be avoided, the news is scantly covered. When was it decided that anxiety deserves feeding more than hope?

Is belief in a concrete diety necessary to have this state of thankfulness? I don't know. Is "happy turkey day" just a cutesyism that stuck, or an attempt at political correctness?

November 01, 2002
Snowball's chance?

David's son asks why you can sell your soul to the Devil but not to God. Similarly, all Heaven should break loose. As in:

She burst through the front door, still sweaty from her morning run, rushed up the stairs and disrobed for her shower, but then found the children still asleep and him still lounging in bed. All Heaven broke loose.