Politics

Information fanaticism

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

On finding alternative sources of news in the pre-web era (this quote comes from ~1992):

The information is there, but it’s there to a fanatic, you know, somebody wants to spend a substantial part of their time and energy exploring it and comparing today’s lies with yesterday’s leaks and so on. That’s a research job and it just simply doesn’t make sense to ask the general population to dedicate themselves to this task on every issue.

[...]

Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that’s required to get outside of MacNeil/Lehrer or Dan Rather or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know — you come home from work, you’re tired, you’ve had a busy day, you’re not going to spend the evening carrying on a research project, so you turn on the tube and say, “it’s probably right”, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you watch the sports or something.

That’s basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure, the other stuff is there, but you’re going to have to work to find it.

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The Sullivan Ouster at University of Virginia: a retrospective

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

The NYTimes features UVA on its Sunday Magazine cover today, reflecting back on the Sullivan ouster and what it means for higher education.

Three months ago, I put together a summary of the best links discussing the ouster as it happened. Today, combined with the NYTimes piece, it’s easy to get a full context and perspective on this story.

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Idleness

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

NYTimes has a good article today about work and idleness, “The Busy Trap”.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

[...]

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

One of the commenters on this story pointed me toward a much older essay by Bertrand Russel, “In Praise of Idleness”.

If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

[...]

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

[...]

The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

[...]

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

Each essay is very much worth reading.

Wall Street (the movie), 25 years later

Friday, December 16th, 2011

I recently watched Oliver Stone’s Wall Street again. It really is amazing how relevant this movie is in 2011, ~25 years after its original release in 1987.

This speech, in particular, is a knockout, given the recent Occupy Wall Street movement:

Bud: How much is enough, Gordon? When does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough, huh?
Gekko: It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a Zero Sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred – from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here? I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars. I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real, and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest.
Bud: How much is enough, Gordon?
Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons – and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.

Watch the full speech on YouTube here.

Engineers don’t become engineers

Monday, September 5th, 2011

And, sadly, our top engineering graduates don’t always become engineers. They move into finance or management consulting — both of which pay far higher salaries than engineering. I have seen the dilemma that my engineering students at at Duke University have faced. Do they take a job in civil engineering that pays $70,000, or join big Wall Street financial firm and make $120,000? With the hefty student loans that hang over their heads, most have made the financially sensible decision. In some years, half of our graduates have ended up taking jobs outside of engineering. Instead of developing new types of medical devices, renewable energy sources and ways to sustain the environment, my most brilliant students are designing new ways to help our investment banks engineer the financial system.

[...] We also need to make the engineering profession “cool” again, with the same sense of excitement and urgency in engineering and science that we saw during the Sputnik days. Back then, engineering was considered essential to the nation’s survival. Engineers and scientists were national heroes. It’s not that we don’t have problems to solve. The economy is in dire straits. Natural resources such as food, water, and crude oil are becoming scarce. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten us with doomsday plagues. But we’re not offering our best minds incentive to solve them.

From Mr. President, there is no engineer shortage.

Luckily this is happening already in high tech in NYC, thanks to awesome programs like HackNY and collabraCode (both of which my startup Parse.ly formally supported). As much as it pains me to say it, I also think The Social Network may be seen as a cultural catalyst for software engineers becoming “cool”.

But high tech is only a small piece of the puzzle — we need the same active marketing for students’ minds in biotech, education, medical research, civil engineering, etc.

Understanding Wisconsin protests with big language data

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

I made an interesting discovery today.

“Free Market” vs. “Labor Union” in Google Ngram Book Viewer

Explains why no one has heard of labor unions and everyone is raving about the free market :)

(by the way, you can download the entire dataset behind this neat little Google Labs project)

Switching from Chase

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Andrew Leonard of Salon.com has written an article about switching from Chase to a local community bank, in response to HuffPo’s MoveYourMoney campaign.

I’ve written on this blog multiple times about my frustration with Chase bank, but it’s interesting to see someone with as big a readership as Andrew Leonard writing about it. Are commercial big banks’ days numbered?

JPMorgan Chase, “valid” $39 overlimit fees, and humanity

Friday, October 30th, 2009

In addition to running Parse.ly, I also run a small consulting business, Aleph Point, Inc. In the course of working on client jobs, I sometimes have to make business purchases, which I always pay in full at the end of every month. I have never carried a balance on my credit card and I never intend to.

When I signed up for a business checking account at Chase, the branch manager who I worked with (and who now no longer works there) encouraged me to sign up for a business credit card, as well. I thought, hey, why not — I’m just going to use it for small purchases like monthly hosting fees and the like.

Recently, I made a relatively large purchase at Best Buy for a client, which I was going to be reimbursed for. It was about $200. I already had a balance of $350 on my account, and a few days later my account was closing for the month.

When I looked over my account information a few days later, I found a strange charge. $39 OVERLIMIT FEE. What’s that, I thought?

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Atul Gawande (MD/author) on the cost of health care in this excellent New Yorker piece

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
Click to read “The Cost Conundrum” @ The New Yorker

Will a new, national insurance plan solve the essential problem of the rising cost of health care?  According to Atul Gawande, it won't.  What is needed is nothing short of a complete cultural shift in the community of practicing medical doctors and the organizations/institutions that provide care.  From the article:

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.

Check it out. 

The End of Philosophy?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

David Brooks has written a column for the NYTimes entitled, “The End of Philosophy”. The basic thrust of the article is that moral reasoning is less about reasoning and more about intuition. In other words, morality is more like aesthetics than logic.

A representative section:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

The major hole I see in Brooks’ article — and argument — is what he himself recognizes here:

Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

It’s true that moral intuitions may have evolutionary (or other) roots distinct from reason, but that’s why they’re called “intuitions.” Brooks recognizes that at the “most important moments in our lives”, we cast those intuitions aside. Well, doesn’t that suggest that there exists a moral “right answer” outside our intuitions? Perhaps people should use reason to override impulse at more mundane moments of their lives, too. For example, when deciding whether one deserves those alligator skin shoes, or whether the dying children in Africa might be better candidates for that money.

There have been many attempts in recent years to justify the less rational sloppy moral thinking of individuals by pointing to evolution and saying that an individuals’ beliefs are just derived from their primordial roots. I simply disagree with this line of reasoning. The fact that you can override your moral impulses means that at times you must! I much prefer to frame my decisions in terms of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “radical” or “unlimited” freedom. And with that freedom comes responsibility.

Brooks quotes Haidt,

The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.

My analogy is that moral intuitions are more like the inmates in a psychotic ward. In people who don’t think their moral choices through, “the inmates are running the asylum.”