Jan 30, 2013

Yet another try: daily blogging and humor

The last time that I restarted was here. And now I'm doing it again. Restarting. Trying to teach this old dog a new trick: writing regularly. Again. So here's my latest exercise in self-manipulation.

This is another one of those back-dated fill-it-in posts, a renewed attempt to rewrite history and post every day. But for the record, it's Friday May 17th.

Daniel Dennett, at the Second World Conference...
Daniel Dennett, at the Second World Conference on the Future of Science, in Venice, 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I finished reading Dan Dennet's book, "Inside Jokes" (web site here, Amazon reference here) a week ago.

Dennet has popularized ideas in cognitive science and evolutionary theory and philosopy. Most of his work is readable by people with a moderate science background. This one is a bit more challenging: it's both very academic, and very funny.

The book explains  a theory of humor developed initially by his co-author and former student Matthew Hurley as part of his doctoral thesis, for which Dennett was advisor. The third co-author is Reginald Adams, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has cultivated a major interest in humor.

To help illustrate some of the features of the theory the authors retell (and then analyzes) some pretty good jokes.

My make-up project (let's see how long it lasts) is going to be a joke a day.

I'll start with this one from "Inside Jokes": (p.15)
"He who laughs last...thinks slowest."

Jan 28, 2013

My love affair with software: Part 1

Happy to Use Computer Software
Software using software.
(Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman)
I believe in the power of software.

Not just software the way most people think about it--software programs for computers. There are many other kinds of software and I believe in their power as well.

Software is invisible, weightless, and timeless. We can't perceive it directly; we can only perceive its representations and its effects.

Software is all around us. Software is in us. What I call software is what makes us unique as humans.

I define software as everything in this universe that isn't hardware. When people think of hardware they think of hammers, nails, and sometimes of computers, but there are lots of other things that qualify as hardware, and many of them have software inside them. A book is a kind of hardware and what's in the book is a representation of a kind of software. Your brain is a kind of hardware and what's in your brain is a kind of software. Computers are a kind of hardware and computers are full of different kinds of software.

Software is the force that has made, is making, and will continue to make our world what it is. This isn't something new. Software has been at its job for billions of years. Software started slow, started to accelerate, and now is boosting its own acceleration.

In the beginning, all software was created by accident. Then living things began to use both intentional  and experimental processes to create software. Eventually humans appeared, thanks to some of those experiments, and humans started getting very good at creating new kinds of software--ideas, poetry, music, literature, culture. All invisible except for their effects and its representations. All software.

Then humans developed computers and computer software, and that blew the doors off. One way or another software amplifies human ability, including the ability to create software. Computers and computer software help people create old kinds of software, faster and with less effort. Now computers and software are helping people create even better computers that run even better software, including software that could help create even better software and even better computers. The process feeds on itself and accelerates.

Creating software is one of the coolest things that anyone can do. I've spent most of my life creating lots of different kinds of software, including this post and this blog. I've created a lot of software for computers, too. But the kind of software I like best is software that helps me and other people create more and better software. That's one purpose of this blog.

Software that helps you understand software helps you create better software. That's what I'm doing in this post, for myself at least, and maybe for others.

I'm writing it to help me, as part of Project 70, modify some of my own software.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 27, 2013


An earworm is a piece of music that sticks in your head. You hear it over and over, even though no one is playing anything. Researchers say that nearly everyone experiences them at one time or another. I've certainly had my share. Maybe it's an attribute of aging, or a quirk of my construction, but I seem to be more worm-infested than before.

Or at least I was. For some time any music I listened to became an earworm. Rock. Classical. It didn't matter. Hear it once  and it replays endlessly.

Earworms are usually music, but not always. Two days ago a new earworm appeared. "Tenser said the tensor," it said. "Tenser said the tensor." What on earth was that?

Google to the rescue. It's one segment of a larger, and deliberately engineered earworm, from a story called The Demolished Man, written by Albert Bester. Wikipedia tells me that it won the first Hugo Award in 1953. For those who don't know, and because my head is full of stupid little facts, The Hugo is an award that is to science fiction what the Oscar is to movie making. If memory serves (and Google will tell me in a minute if it does) The Hugo was named after Hugo Gernsbach, an early publisher of sci-fi.

And speaking of random associations in the aging brain, the Oscar, if memory serves me, got its name because it reminded someone of his or her Uncle Oscar.

Let's Google! And the answer is: Hugo Gernsbach is spelled Hugo Gernsback. So two points off for spelling.

And the name Oscar, officially the Academy Award of Merit has an origin that conforms to my memory (though the story is disputed), as described in the 'Naming' section here.
Another claimed origin is that the Academy's Executive Secretary, Margaret Herrick, first saw the award in 1931 and made reference to the statuette's reminding her of her "Uncle Oscar" (a nickname for her cousin Oscar Pierce).
Ten points off for not knowing whose Uncle Oscar it was.

But enough Googling. Back to my latest earworm.
In The Demolished Man, the story's hero, Ben Reich has a songwriter named Duffy Wyg& write him an earworm that keeps telepaths (espers) from reading Ben's mind and finding out what he's up to. The part that I remember was:

Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor

Then I found this, when I googled for that phrase:
, said the Tensor.Tenser, said the TensorTension, apprehension,And dissension have begun
And finally I got the whole story from Wikipedia:

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

My descent into earwormery seems to have been halted, for which I am grateful to the earworm gods. I listened to PSY while writing this post, and the song, which has been stuck in my head every time I've heard it, isn't there now.

But, sadly, I have a new one. Sting. Walking on the Moon. In my head.


Project70 identity crisis: going social

There's so much interesting stuff on the web that hardly a day passes without me finding something so cool that I want share with someone else. Sadly, generally, I don't. Rarely, I find something so compelling that I'm driven to send a "Hey look at this" email to a few folks. But just a few. And I don't do it too much; no one likes their inbox stuffed with crap that they didn't ask for because some friend thought they might find it interesting. They might even find it interesting. But Jesus Christ, now is not the time! Delete! Delete!

So I don't sent out those kinds of emails, much. Other people who did it have stopped doing it because social networks are a better tool. Social networks let people see what someone they like or find interesting thought was cool when they are in the mood to see what someone they like or find interesting thinks is cool. Sadly, generally, I don't use social networks much, either.

Not that I'm not plugged in. I'm a connected guy. I have accounts with Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. YouTube has also become a social network, and I have two accounts there. I read G+ daily, seeing what people who I like and find interesting thought was so cool that they decided to share it; and I also use G+ to read what the wise individuals in my family who post there have to say.  Occasionally I share something or comment on G+, but not much. I'm a Facebook lurker, meaning that I read Facebook to keep up on a subset of my friends and on the people in my family who have not discovered the joys of G+. But I just about never comment. And I never post. I check LinkedIn when I have a reason to, which is rare these days. I have a Twitter account (probably a few) but don't follow anyone, and I'm a tweeting virgin. I've used my YouTube account to upload and to share a few videos. That's my social networking life.

I blog, which is a way to share ideas, and that's what's leading to my social renaissance. As part of my Project 70 I've decided to become socially active. I plan to start posting regularly on G+. And then I'll decide what to do next.

After I see if I do what I plan to do.

But first I have to handle my identity crisis. On the Internet we prove that we are who we say we are by being able to click on a link sent to an email address that we say is ours. As far as the Internet is concerned, I am my email address. I click, therefore I am.

Many people have work and home emails, which gives them two Internet identities--a work identity and a home identity. That's that's just an extension of reality: who we are at work is often not who we are at home. Certainly that was true for me. At work I was an extrovert and at home I was an introvert. I was an extrovert at home because it was my job to be extroverted. I got paid for having that personality. At home I was an introvert because--well, that's what I do when no one is paying me.

Right now I have no fewer than eight email identities. Perhaps I have ten or twelve. Who's counting. One is an old, retired yahoo account, my first personal Internet identity. Three accounts are special purpose business identities, easy to keep separate from the rest. I use another account (goooglefanboy at gmail.com) when raving about something Googley. A couple of them are artifacts of early messing around with email. Once you have one, you keep it. One is the main account I use in my own domain. (Everyone should have his/her own domain). And one was the gmail account I started to use after giving up my yahoo account and before setting up my domain.

My identity crisis is the result of Google's account authentication policy. Facebook and LinkedIn let you associate several email addresses with an account. I can be two email identities with a single social account. But Google 's social network associates all its services with a single email address. Which means that if you have two addresses you are two people.

This isn't a problem for most of my email addresses, or for my work address. I'm not social when I'm not being personal. But right now I have two identities for my two personal email accounts and that means I've got two social identities.

And now I discover that I don't have a crisis, just a long post explaining the crisis that I don't have and the lead-up to the crisis. Well good! Google has done something about the problem. Here's the story I found that led to this support page, which led to Google Takeout (http://www.google.com/takeout will ask you to authenticate yourself if you're running a Google account) and Google's Data Liberation Front.

That problem solved, I'm going to go social. Really soon now. Look for me on G+.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 26, 2013

Clear the backlog? Or write new stuff, Gangnam style?

So I'm back writing. And I have two choices: I can clear the backlog, the drafts that I started, some already pre-dated, or I can write new stuff--stuff about what I'm interested in right now, and about things I'm going to work on in the near future--rather than what I thought was interesting two weeks ago.

Put that way, the decision is easy. Write what's interesting now. Look forward. Then, I believe, the writing's going to flow.

And it's flowing. My first draft of my first post today was just few paragraphs long. Each time I edited it ideas flowed into it. It became more of a story, more interesting to me, and I hope more interesting to others.

But the truth is: I don't care if you like it. My writing is for me.

So, you might ask, if you're still here: "How does one 'write new stuff Gangnam style?'"

Easy, I answer. You go to YouTube. You stick earphones in your ears. You go to this page, the official version of PSY's Gangnam Style video. And you play it. Over and over as you write. Every once in a while you look up and wish your knees weren't so fucked up and you could dance that way. It looks like fun.

Or you make it easy for readers and embed the video here:

But those days are gone, probably forever.

Then you remember the great mashup of Gangnam Style by a team at MIT, your alma mata. So you Google it, find it and play it. The video is here on YouTube, and allegedly you can play on your mobile device if you go to this link. And to make it easy, embedded below.

MIT's version starts with PSY's performance with MIT students lip syncing, and doing the posturing and the dancing. The second part has a cover by the MIT singing group the Logarhythms with more MIT video including a guest appearance by Noam Chomsky. (Oppan Chomsky Style)

 The audio for the Logarhythms entire, very col, a capela cover is here, in soundcloud format. Or in the widget below.

And no post about music is complete without a link to the lyrics . This page has both an English translation and a romanized version of the Korean to that you--or I--can sing along.

Oppan gang-namseutayil
Naje-neun ttasaroun inkanjeo-gin yeoja
Keopi hanjanye yeoyureuraneun pumkyeok i-nneun yeoja
Bami omyeon shimjangi tteugeowojineun yeoja
Keureon banjeon i-nneun yeoja
Naneun sana-i
Naje-neun neomankeum ttasaroun geureon sana-i
Keopi shikgido jeone wonsyas ttaerineun sana-i
Bami omyeon shimjangi teojyeobeorineun sana-i
Keureon sana-i
Areumdawo sarangseureowo
Keurae neo hey keurae baro neo hey
Areumdawo sarangseureowo
Keurae neo hey keurae baro neo hey
Chigeumbu-teo kal dekkaji kabol-kka
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Eh- sexy lady
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Eh- sexy lady
Jeongsu-khae boijiman nol ttaen noneun yeoja
Ittaeda shipeumyeon mukkeot-deon meori puneun yeoja
Karyeot-jiman wen-manhan nochulboda yahan yeoja
Keureon gamkakjeo-gin yeoja
Naneun sana-i
Jeomjanha boijiman nol ttaen noneun sana-i
Ttae-ga dwehmyeon wahnjeon michyeobeorineun sana-i
Keunyukboda sasangi ul-tungbul-tung-han sana-i
Keureon sana-i
Areumdawo sarangseureowo
Keurae neo hey keurae baro neo hey
Areumdawo sarangseureowo
Keurae neo hey keurae baro neo hey
Chigeumbu-teo kal dekkaji kabol-kka
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Eh- sexy lady
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Eh- sexy lady
Ttwiineun nom keu wiie naneun nom
Baby baby
Naneun mwol jom aneun nom
Ttwiineun nom keu wiie naneun nom
Baby baby
Naneun mwol jom aneun nom
You know what i’m saying
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Eh- sexy lady
Oppan gang-namseutayil
Eh- sexy lady
Oppan gang-namseutayil

Translation Credits: pop!gasa
Romanizations by: kpoplyrics.net

 And that is how you get your posting back in the groove.
Enhanced by Zemanta

I give up! Now I can start.

It's January 26th, and my last post was dated January 11th. My plan for 70 Years Old WTF had been to write one post a day. But here I am two weeks behind. So I've decided to give up. Completely. Which means I can let go of my losses, and make a new start.

When I was a kid, whenever things got too hard, I'd tell myself I didn't care, press the "I give up" button in my brain, and walk away. It was easy. It came naturally. Then, some time in my 30s, I decided to be stubborn and I got stubborn about being stubborn. I stubbornly refused to change.

It was a life-changing decision.  When my business got in trouble I stubbornly refused to give up, kept the business going, and eventually sold it. When the relationship between Bobbi and me got in trouble, as it did from time to time, and as I think is almost inevitable in a relationship between strong-willed people, I stubbornly refused to give up, and I stubbornly refused to compromise on a less-than-ideal relationship. I fought to make it her and me against the problem rather than her against me because of a problem. And once we'd done that we fought against the problem together until we'd defeated it. When she proposed giving up, I used my stubbornness skills. I refused.

I'm still married to my first wife and still in love with her because I'm stubborn. I've consistently refused to settle for less

Back to the blog.

When I first started falling behind I preserved my post-a-day fiction by predating my posts. Blogger lets you do that. I tolerated being a day behind, then two, then three. I preserved the fiction that I was still writing a post a day weeks after I wasn't.

Then everything went completely to hell. We drove down to Boston, spent a few days there, got on a train to California. The chaos of Boston and the family, the newness of the cross-country train trip, the change in my 'routine' as we arrived in California and settled into our digs, energy fluctuations as I got into my new coding project and started getting serious about work, a head full of details from doing the same, and my ever-present lack of discipline all ganged up on me. Day after day I found ways to avoid writing. And then, today, I found myself two weeks behind.

I could have refused to give up, and could have tried to catch up. I might even have done it. If I had  written three posts a day I would have been caught up in about a week. Or I could have given up, which (the title of this post is a clue) is what I decided to do.

Stubbornness is a skill I developed after being a natural giver-upper. I practiced that skill for decades.

But giving up can be a skill. There are times when skilled giving up is better than skilled stubbornness. There's a subtle, but important difference between stubbornly refusing to give up and skillfully giving up, then starting anew. From the outside it looks the same. And for some people there's no detectable difference. For me, there is a difference. And the difference matters.

So I've given up.

And I've started anew.

My goal isn't to catch up. It's to do a shitload of writing. I'll publish my posts on the date and at the time that I finish them.

Then,  as a treat, when I've written enough, I might decide to undo my giving up, and go back and change the dates.

Or I might not.

Either way, right now's not the time to decide that.

Right now's the time to read this draft, edit it, publish it, and start the next one.

Jan 11, 2013

Plumbing Failures, Part II

In my last post on this topic, I started whining about the annoyances the accompany the deterioration of my 70-year old plumbing. I described the most common, and least embarrassing of my attendant problems, the ones caused by my aging prostate and by a plumbing system so badly designed, that if some smart law firm could figure out who was responsible, they could file a class action suit on behalf of all the country's old men and win with the largest settlement in history.

The problem I'll next whine about appears when my deteriorating mental abilities meet my deteriorating urethral sphincter, which is probably a contributing cause for the urinary hesitancy and increased frequency I complained about in my last post, in which I now believe that I may have unfairly placed the entire blame on my poor, aging prostate.

What can you do when you wonder whether a belief that you hold is well-founded? In the old days I would have had to suck it up and live with ignorance and ambiguity. But now, cogito ergu google, I have discovered that peeing is a a complicated process with many moving parts. The fact that anyone can pee now seems a minor (though necessary) miracle.

We all know that it's our kidneys' job to fill our bladders with pee and our bladder's job to hold the pee until it's time to shoot the pee out of whichever pee hole we happen to have. (By the way, Wikipedia links the term "pee hole" directly to this page.Some of us know that there's a muscle called a sphincter that normally keeps our pee from leaking out. From personal experience we know that our brains tell us when it's time to pee and that  once we've listened to our brain and removed ourselves to an appropriate venue and placed ourselves in an appropriate position, lo, the pee pours forth. Unless you're old, in which case, sometimes, lo, the pee dribbles forth. 

But most of us don't know how that happens. Or care. But I did and here's what's I've learned goes on behind the scenes. 

Your bladder is a small bag surrounded by several layers of muscle. So is mine, of course. When our bladders get about half full, they send a warning signal to our respective brains. If the higher centers are occupied with more important things, like finishing this blog post, they'll try to ignore the signal. But ultimately the executive functions of the brains listen and must decide. 

To pee, or not to pee. That becomes the question.

If we we decide to pee later, our kidneys will continue to fill our bladders. Our bladders will send increasingly urgent signals to our brains. My bladder has been telling my brain to take a break from blogging and do a little peeing for a while, and it's now telling my brain that if my brain doesn't listen it will escalate. It says it will resort to pain, if necessary, to get my brain to do its bidding. That's not an idle threat. It's done it before. So excuse me for a minute.


Finally, like just then, the brain gives in and makes a conscious decision to start to pee. Then stuff gets interesting. Part of the brain, the pontine micturation center, responds to that conscious decision. The pontine micturation center fires, and that excites of the sacral preganglionic neurons which then cause the wall of the bladder to contract, and that raises the intravesical pressure. At the same time, the pontine micturation center inhibits Onuf's nucleus. That results in the external urinary sphincter relaxing. See, there are two urinary sphincters, not one like I thought. The outer one is under volitional control. The inner works on automatic. Once the outer one relaxes urine will be released from the urinary bladder when the pressure there is great enough to force urine to flow out of the urethra. (Partly translated into English from the Wikipedia Article, "Urination."

So prostate! I'm sorry. It's not your fault. Or not our fault entirely. If I had to point a finger it would be at the pontine micturation center, which I've never liked, or Onuf's nucleus, which I swear has been plotting against me for years.

Back in the day, before my body started going rogue on me, once my bladder was nearly empty I'd contract my abdominal muscles, pressing them on my bladder, to squeeze out the last bit of pee that I could. Then my pontinue micturation center would stop inhibiting Onuf's nucleus which would then clamp down my external sphincter and that would be that. But the some of the neurons in the pontine micturation center, or perhaps the ones in Onuf's nucleus, have reached retirement age, or died, and the new ones that have enrolled haven't been properly trained. In practical terms this means that periodically, after I've finished peeing, and after I've put away my equipment, I drip.

That's my second problem. And once it happens it's solved only by training some new neurons by consciously, deliberately and intensely closing off the lower sphincter, and focusing my attention on keeping it closed until I'm sure that some up-and-coming neurons have taken over the job.

Focus was never a great skill of mine, and it's worse now. So periodically, about once a year for several years, I have to suffer minor indignities until the new crew takes over.

So I dribble from time to time.

But I've never peed on the floor. Before.

See my next post in this series for the full, embarrassing story.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 10, 2013

Plumbing failures, Part I

At seventy, my plumbing doesn't work like it did at thirty. Or sixty. But then nothing does. Still, plumbing failures are one of the special special joys of aging. And there are so many failure modes!

The most common plumbing problem of aging men is called Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia, or BPH to its friends, which don't include me. Break it down: benign means it's not gonna kill you. Prostatic means it's about your prostate. Hyperplasia means too many cells. In other words, the older you get the bigger your prostate. That's a problem because of faulty plumbing design.
English: Prostate and bladder, sagittal sectio...
English: Prostate and bladder, sagittal section. 中文: 前列腺與膀胱,矢狀切面。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Check out the picture in the sidebar (courtesy Wikipedia, of course), you can see that the channel from bladder to penis--called the urethra--leads through the prostate. Whoever came up with that design should be fired, because as men age BPH constricts the channel which then results in two problems: we pee more often and it takes longer to start a stream, technically, "increased frequency" and "hesitancy." Frequency goes up because it seems that you can't fully empty your bladder, especially at night. Coupled with hesitancy it's a lot of fun.

During the day frequency's not a problem, but at night it means I'll wake up several times, and stand sleepily over the toilet waiting for my bladder, prostate, and urethra to negotiate a flow agreement. Then I'll dribble out what seems like a quarter of my normal bladder capacity, leaving it nearly full full and ready for my hard-working kidneys to top it off, which they start on as soon as I get back to bed. At that point the whole process will repeat.

Hesitancy means I can no longer zip it down, whip it out, and pee. I've got to wait, and if I'm tense, it's worse, sometimes to the point of dysfunction. As a practical matter this means the probability of successfully completing a mission in a public men's room drops to near zero if someone walks in (creating a kind of performance anxiety) before I've got a good stream going. The longer it takes to get started, the more probable an interruption.

Taking a piss in a public men's room becomes a series of game-theoretic exercises. Is there anyone already in the men's room? If so, proceed directly to an empty stall, close the door and wait for hesitancy to pass. If there's no one there, calculate the probability of pre-stream interruption based on the dynamics of locale and my subjective assessment of stream-latency.

If you're interrupted before you get a good stream going (and by you, I mean me) it's decision time. Depending on the interloper's proximity and strength of stream there's a good chance the Mr. Sphincter will turn the nozzle to off . As a practical matter this means that if someone walks in and chooses the next-door urinal despite there being seventeen other perfectly good places to piss, say good-bye to the stream. Then you've got another problem: to decide whether to wait out the interloper and attempt to restart despite reduced urgency, or to pretend to finish, wash your hands, and leave, only to circle back later; or to publicly admit defeat and head for a no-pressure stall.

Why don't I simplify the algorithm and avoid embarrassment by always heading for a stall? It's a guy thing, I suppose. Sometimes I'll walk into an empty men's room, think "I can do this!" head for a urinal, take my chances and hope for victory. Other times I know it's a lost cause from the start. All the urinals are occupied, I'm third in line, and guys are already lining up behind me. Then I gracefully acknowledge my condition and slink off to wait for a stall with the other gray-haired and balding men who share my problem.

If I've committed myself to a urinal I can speed things up and avoid stress-shutoff by focusing my attention on something besides my equipment--say my smart-phone. So I've gotten into the habit of pulling it out and checking my email or G+ whenever I go to pee. I've carried the habit to the stalls with me, where it keeps me from worrying about the other old guys waiting to get in.

For the next failure mode, read Plumbing failures, Part II.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 9, 2013

Fighting gravity, one smile at a time

Looking at my aging face in the mirror I see that my mouth is fighting a losing battle with gravity. Every year the corners turn down a bit more. I don't like looking at that face and it's not because it's an old face. It just isn't appealing.

Bobbi's the same age as I am (actually six months older) but she doesn't show the effects the way that I do. But when I look at her face she's usually smiling, and when I look at myself I'm usually self-referentially frowning at the way that I look.

"You look handsome when you smile," she says to me when I tell her how beautiful she is, and how displeased I am with my own appearance. So I look in the mirror and try smiling. It makes a big difference. The marionette lines around my mouth take on a different meaning when the corners of my mouth aren't turned down. The wrinkles around my eyes give the appearance of the genuine, Duchenne smile, even when my smile is a bit studied.

Now all I've got to do is remember to smile.

Related articles
Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 8, 2013


For Christmas, my favorite daughter (don't let her sisters know I said that) gave me a Zumba Gold DVD. Not that my two other favorite daughters (don't let their sisters know I said that) don't give me wonderful gifts. And not that I don't use double negatives in sentences. They do. And I do. But this is about my dancing rebirth at 70.

I've been an enthusiastic but poorly coordinated dancer when I've danced, but I've been dancing less and less due to advancing age and diminished dancing opportunities. As a result I've gotten out of shape, and discovered:

     Advanced Age + Enthusiastic Dancing - Recent Practice = Sprains + Tendinitis

Which only tends to encourage non-dancing. Zumba (maybe) will change that.

For those who don't know (I didn't) Zumba is a Columbian dance fitness program created by Alberto "Beto" Perez. Or that's what Wikipedia says. Zumba Gold is Zumba for seniors. Or  a mature individuals. Or the older set. Or whatever the hell you want to call old people like me. 

Zumba gold starts out easy, with Beto teaching a fit-looking woman he calls Yoy*  merengue, salsa, and other latin dance. I won't hazard guessing Yoy's age, since guessing incorrectly is grounds for assault in some states, but Yoy's probably not going to be asked for her ID whether buying liquor or trying to get a senior discount.

Anyway, there I am with Beto and Yoy, practicing my moves for ten or twenty minutes every couple of days, gradually moving from spastic, through incompetent, to awkward. Each time I do a lesson I can see more clearly how Beto's body moves. I can't quite do what he does, but I feel like I'm starting to get the idea.

After I had read The Brain That Changes Itself, which I wrote about in this post, I'd made double-damn sure to avoid walking down the road to physical and cognitive decline with the old man's shuffle. But there's more to the shuffle than talking small steps with feet apart. But I forgot about the rest of the old-man's walk. Like the old-man's stiff back. And the old man's tight hips. The old man's feet may be together, but there's not much bounce in the walk.

All that changes when you practice dancing with Beto and Yoy. The dance steps didn't seem challenging apart from the coordination required, but I found that I was straining muscles that I'd forgotten that I'd had, and even a muscles that I never knew existed. In the dances Beto taught, every part of your body is supposed to move in different directions than adjacent parts, and sometimes at different tempos. 

Then last night I got it. Or my body did. I had the same feeling years ago when I studied Tae Kwan Do and suddenly understood how to SNAP a punch instead of just throwing one. When you snap a punch, or block or kick, every part of your body works together. Your fist is the point of impact, and your arm is what connects your first to your body, but the punch comes from your gut, from your legs, from your hips, your back, your neck, even your other arm gets involved. WHAM!

Dancing Beto's way, instead of of all my body parts uniting for one moment of contact, they move independently, but in harmony.

I got better throwing punches, eventually good enough to injure myself by snapping a punch after I hadn't practiced for about a year. 

That lesson learned, I'm taking my dancing slow and easy, getting better, and looking forward to going dancing with my three favorite daughters.

*And yes, dammit, I do know her name is Joy.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 7, 2013

Too Goddamned Many Ideas (Part I)

No idea exists in isolation. Every idea is part of a network of ideas that refer to each other, and sometimes to themselves (as this one is doing, right now). Expressing one idea is hard to do without having expressed the others on which it depends. And those depend on still others, and so on. Given a narrow context, I can write something. But given the broad landscape that my ideas on economics and politics cover, I have trouble finding where to start.

I've tried mind mapping--writing down ideas and connecting them with lines--but my ideas about economics and politics are so interconnected that my mind map becomes a tangle. Everything is connected to nearly everything else. Mind mapping has not helped.

Expressing myself is harder because most words in economics and politics are overloaded. When I write about wealth I've got to make sure people understand what I mean by "wealth," because there are many overlapping definitions, and my arguments are based on a particular definition. And because "wealth" is connected to many other concepts I quickly get caught in the tangle.

But that way leads to madness and non-production and frustration. So in this post, I'll try to map out some of the territory that I hope to discover by listing the titles and key ideas for a bunch of posts and link to them as and if I write them.

It's Wealth, Not GDP That Matters: Continuing the argument that what's important is finding ways to increase wealth, not to create jobs or manage the debt, I'll argue that focusing on GDP and not wealth-creation is a mistake. GDP doesn't grow when wealth is produced if the labor that produces the wealth is unpaid; it grows when labor produces nothing of value (think needless bureaucracy), and it grows when the result is destruction (think the building of bombs.)

What Is Wealth*? If growing wealth is what's important in economics, we damned well have to have a good idea of what we mean by that word.

Annotating Key Terms: You won't understand my arguments about wealth*, for example, if you don't know what I mean by wealth*, for instance. To make it clear the word that I'm using is so overloaded that many people will define it differently than I am defining it, I'll annotate the word so that it's clear that there's something special about its use. And I'll summarize the definitions for the main terms in this post--or link to their own if that's important.

Don't Believe Anyone's Economic (Fore or After)cast: Economic and political arguments often appeal to a forecast: if we do X, then Y will result. Or an aftercast: P has happened because we did, or failed to do Q. Extensive accountability research, comparing forecasters' forecasts with the non-optional reality that results, shows that almost all of them are confident in the accuracy of their forecasts, despite the fact that they are usually wrong.  Most do no better than chance and some worse. Given that dismal record,  arguments based on their predictions don't count for much.

Science And Economics: Economic forecasts are imprecise in part because the full power of the scientific method can't be used to test some of the most important economic hypotheses. We can collect data and form hypotheses, but rigorous experiments are generally impossible. The result is that many economic theories are based on posthoc reasoning or imputing that correlation implies causation. Indeed, recent experiments in psychology have overturned many long-held economic principles.

Why Is America's Economy The World's Richest: Marketarians argue that the United States has the world's richest economy and with very few exceptions, the world's highest GDP per capita because it has the world's freest markets. That's untestable, and therefore wholly unscientific hypothesis. Experiments on a smaller scale than an entire national economy show that many of the supporting principles of the free market system are untrue.

Wealth Produces Wealth: Growing national wealth is important because, notwithstanding the fact that individuals can go from rags to riches or riches to rags in a generation,  the current level of existing national, regional, family, and personal wealth* (as defined in What Is Wealth*) predicts future wealth.

You Can Only Optimize One Thing: People don't realize that if they have more than one thing that they find of value--say family and country--that there must inevitably be areas where the two must be in conflict. There will always be situations where what's best for one is not what's best for the other.  We sent our kids to private schools, yet we don't complain about paying taxes for public schools or the fact that the government extracts taxes at the point of a gun. I think that even poor quality public education for every child is better for the country than no education for many. But if the government didn't collect taxes for education, I doubt that I would donate to educate other people's children. Nor would most people.
There's more in my head, but this is enough for this post.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 6, 2013

American Nations

Bobbi gave me the book American Nations by Colin Woodard for Christmas. It's helped me fill in some of the huge gaps in my understanding of American history, and has given me some new insight into the current political landscape by telling an illuminating story of how things got to be the way they are.

Woodard's premise is that we are not and never have been one nation. We've instead been at least eleven different ones, each with its own values, cultures, and tendencies. Each of those nations, he argues, is based on the philosophy of the people who originally settled those parts.

Culture is powerful, we know. A management book, somewhere in my past, had this remembered aphorism, explaining why change is so difficult in an organization: "When you put cucumbers in brine, the cucumbers get pickled more than the brine gets cucumbered."

From folk wisdom to science: we know from experiments in psychology that not only are peoples' expressed options manifestly changed by the stated views of the people around them, their perceptions are changed as well.

A first, foundational study in the area was conducted in 1951 by Solomon Asch at Swarthmore college. Participants in a group were asked to compare the length of a set of lines. In a typical group of eight, one was a test subject, the others were confederates of the experimenter. In some cases, the confederates gave wrong answers to test what a test subject would do in a social conflict situation.

The perception test was sufficiently unambiguous that the unbiased error rate was less than 1%. By comparing that baseline with the accuracy of subjects in groups where as many as seven people gave manifestly wrong answers, Asch was able to quantify their degree of conformance. In high conflict situations, only 25% of the subjects never conformed. 75% of the subjects conformed at least once, and on the average, the conformity rate was 33%.

After this part of the experiment the subjects were interviewed, told the real purpose of the study, and questioned about their feelings in the experimental setting. Among those who conformed Asch described three tendencies: "distortion in perception" in which subjects actually saw the lines the way they reported; "distortion of action" in which subjects maintained accurate perceptions, but behaved in a way that was inconsistent with what they perceived. The balance experienced what the experimenters described as "distortion of judgment." After a few conflicted trials, they concluded that they must be wrong and the majority must be right and sided with the majority.

Similar experiments have shown that the tendency is robust. In political terms it implies, for example, that if someone with liberal views moves to a region where the majority hold conservative views, that the liberal will become less liberal; similarly a conservative who moves to a liberal region will become more liberal. The reverse is also true and backed by research: people have their original views (or biases) deepened and confirmed when surrounded by people who share them.

The result, Woodard points out, explains why despite the mobility of our population, many regions of the country continue to bear the strong cultural stamp of the people who first settled there.

Because I know my own biases, and I am sure that I share the experimentally confirmed tendency of nearly all subjects to try and have their biases confirmed, I'm wary of anything that supports beliefs I already have. Woodard's book is a mixed bag. It clarifies some of my already formed ideas and gives me some new perspectives. But it does very little to contradict anything I already believe. Because of that spent a little time surfing for criticism. I've not found a great deal.

This review, by Steve Kettmann in the Daily Beast, likewise praises the book and offers this succinct summary.
The Daily Show has evolved toward more open-minded consideration of the issues of the day and less outright comedy because Stewart still thinks honest people of good faith can cut through the nonsense and figure out problems in a way any reasonable person can admit makes sense. Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America  pulls off the unlikely feat of both offering the tools for just such a broader, deeper understanding—and demonstrates why, in a larger sense, that effort is doomed.
I think I was more hopeful about political reconciliation before I read the book than after. Woodard takes a strong position, which Barone contradicts, that the country is in decline. I'm not more optimistic than Woodard, but perhaps more hopeful.

In this post, the second of a two-part review titled Tossed Salad, not Melting Pot, in The Evangelical Outpost--not usual reading for me--the author, Nathaniel Bennett, interprets the book through a Christian lens, an interesting perspective. And he points out:
...the culture wars that we hear about in church involving abortion, gay marriage, gun control, religious liberty, and other social and political issues may well be part of a true culture war, but which culture? Consider the controversy surrounding Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments monument that he put outside a courthouse in Alabama: according to the multiple nation idea put forth in American Nations, the controversy could be as much about the North (in the ACLU) saying, “You can’t just put up whatever you want outside of a courthouse!” and the South saying, “Stop messing with the South! Enough!” Some causes upheld in the name of Christianity might be nationalistic rather than Christian.

This review in the Wall Street Journal comes the closest to challenging it. It contradicts some of his scholarship and the reviewer, Michael Barone, states that these lapses make him wary of the analysis. Nonetheless, he does praise it.

If you're interested in understanding the fault-lines of this country's politics this book is a worthwhile read.

I'll probably post some more after I've had a chance to think some more. It's certainly thought-provoking material.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 5, 2013

Lowering the bar: a technique for following tough acts

I was pretty pleased with (logical) yesterday's post, "Reality Isn't Optional," apart from the time that it took to get it out. I started on the day after my blog says I posted it, but didn't post it until I was happy. That took a few days of editing and rewriting, making my thinking clearer and the prose better, and correcting my many spelling and grammar errors (some of which may still be there).

But it took more time than those few days to write it. I originally created the Reality Isn't Optional blog a couple of years ago, and it's taken until now to get my thoughts in good enough order and my moxie up enough to post something. And I did a lot of thinking and researching before I created the blog. But I finally got my first post done! (Technically, as I write this, I didn't. I only posted it here, but by the time you read this, I will have posted it there. Honest.)

The door is open. And now that I've opened that door I've got a few more posts in mind, each of which may end up taking similar amounts of time to meet my quality standard. On the other hand, I might surprise myself.

My problem is that post set my bar high, and because it was high, and because I like to mix metaphors, that made it a tough act to follow. So I did what comes naturally to me: I didn't follow it the tough act.

Silly me.

That's not what I want at all.

My "Lapse Management" policy designed to prevent non-posting didn't work, so I'm going to refine it, or replace it with another: if I don't have something to write I'll write about not having something to write. Going meta. That's a big thing with me.

I'll just lower the bar. That's how I'll follow my own tough acts.

The underlying theory is a) that it will be easier for me to improve the quality of my words when they are flowing than to get them flowing in the first place and b) as I've told myself many times, and as other, better writers have told me: the hard part isn't writing; it's sitting down.

 So I'm sitting.

And writing.

And now I'm posting.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Jan 4, 2013

Reality Isn't Optional

A while ago I created a blog called Reality Isn't Optional. The name comes from a friend of mine, who uses that phrase as a touchstone when he (a libertarian of the Republican variety) is criticizing the ideas of the Left. I think it's an apt phrase when criticizing the ideas of Left, Right, North, South, and so on.

And I shall do so. I've decided to get serious about posting to that blog, starting with this essay, cross posted to Reality Isn't Optional. Nothing like a little ambition.

[[Update: and nothing like redundancy. Editing this post I managed to delete all its content. Google Cache didn't have the original. archive.org didn't either. But because of my cross-post I was able to get the other version, hopefully the same as the original. Or close. And quickly, I backed up this blog, entire. That's not gonna happen again. Much.]]

The Seed
The seed that's grown into this post was planted long ago. It took time to germinate and started sprouting during the 2011 "Debt Ceiling Crisis," when it struck me that the debt arguments were framed incorrectly by both sides. As I'll explain below, debt isn't a problem; nor is per-capita debt; nor debt to GDP ratio.

That sprout continued to grow as I continued to research and to think about politics and economics. During the 2012 election when the rhetorical focus shifted to jobs, it again struck me the issue was being framed badly:  more jobs would solve nothing.

The Arguments
I'm not ideologically attached to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but it's a fine book that this project inspired me to study. I admire the way that Smith made his arguments and how he took care to accompany his every principle with empirical evidence supporting it. Reality isn't optional. I believe that in his title Smith focused on the right fundamental issue. Not jobs. Not debt. Wealth.

During the 2012 contest, the Left argued that the government should create jobs by spending money to "stimulate the economy." This would produce more jobs and thus more revenue, which would drive down the debt after it had been driven up by the stimulus. And the Left argued for keeping deficits lower by raising taxes on some people they called "The 1%."

The Right argued that government should create jobs by getting out of the way. It should reduce taxes so that the people they called the "Job Creators" (likely the same ones the Left called "The 1%") could use that money to--well, create jobs. They argued that these new jobs would create additional revenue that would drive down the debt after it had been driven up by the tax cuts; and the Right argued for keeping deficits lower by cutting something they called "entitlements."

My research and thinking led me to conclude that these are both bad arguments, By themselves, jobs solve nothing. And taken in isolation, debt is not a problem.

First, think about jobs. We can reduce the jobless rate to zero by putting the unemployed to work doing unproductive things. Or we can lower it by outlawing devices and practices that make people productive. For example, we could have a full-employment economy simply by passing a law that outlawed bulldozers. People would be put to work with shovels, and there would be no increase in taxes or debt. China does something much like that: it deliberately withholds productive machinery from some of its infrastructure projects to keep unemployment down. The jobs get done, and the people have jobs and the debt does not rise. But is the country better off economically than if fewer people worked, more efficiently, and those otherwise employed were paid to--who cares?

Alternatively, consider a world in which productivity has become so great that it takes only 10% of the population to provide everything that the rest of the population gets today. In this world, everyone has just as much food, clothing, housing, heat, and iPads as today, but the number of people who are unemployment is massively increased. Would the world be worse off economically with so many fewer jobs and so much more unemployment if everyone got what they had today? Well those people who no longer had jobs--and thus income--would be worse off. But suppose the government gave them money. Just gave it to them. How would be worse off than we are today?

Of course that's not reality. It's a thought experiment. But reality's evidence supports the experiment. In 1776 90% of the US workforce was employed in agriculture; now it takes just a few percent and we eat better than we did back then. In nearly every economic domain more and more gets done with fewer and fewer people--with fewer jobs.

In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith explained that wealth was created by the productivity of land and labor. But Smith pointed out that just working wasn't enough, because much labor was unproductive. He gave examples of productive and unproductive work. His might classify things differently today, when so much wealth is in the form of work on ideas rather than on material objects. But his distinctions are still valid: if the people who are engaged in today's unproductive labor found themselves unemployed (but still paid) our material well-being would be largely unchanged.

Now let's look at debt.

Debt is important for households, for companies, and for nations. The Right and the Left want to reduce the debt. They disagree about how to do it, and in what time frame, but they miss several important points when they analyze the debt. The first is that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with debt. In some cases debt is good. The second is that the effects of debt on households, companies, and small nations are different than the effect of debt on economies the size of the United States. I'll detail this second argument in another planned post (The False Debt Analogy--which I never quite wrote. But I did write this, and this, and this, on the same topic) Here I'll explain why there's nothing wrong with debt per-se.

Growing debt is not necessarily bad in a household with growing income or when the household is taking on debt to invest in the future; it's likewise not bad in a company or an economy if the debt is used to buy assets or the means for future production. It's not necessarily bad if debt per householder, or unit of revenue grows. A company might take on debt to acquire capital equipment that will lower the labor content of products (and thus raises debt per unit of revenue or per employee) but which will make its products more profitable. In a household debt for an education that increases earnings might be good.

When is debt a problem?

We can decide if debt is a problem for a household only by comparing it to the household's assets and to current and expected household income--effectively it's net present value. We can decide if it's a problem for a company only by comparing it to the company's assets and expected net income--likewise it's value. Indeed when a company does not have enough debt, financial analysts often consider it to be under leveraged.

Debt is a problem for an entity only when it's large compared with the value of that entity.

So a better question about our national debt is this: how does our national debt compare to our "national value."

Again back to Adam Smith: what's important is wealth.

National Value
We know the size of the national debt. What's our national value? What is this country worth? How do we even answer that question?

In a market economy, we gauge the value of an asset (in this case the asset called the United States of America) by considering these questions: "At what price would its owners want to sell it?" "At what price might a buyer want to purchase it?" To determine our "National Net Worth" let's consider selling parts of the United States. Let's consider selling the entire country.

There's a precedent for buying and selling parts of our country. In 1803 the United States bought the Louisiana territory for $15 million dollars, or about $233 million in 2012 dollars. That sale put everything in the territory, formerly governed by France, under the control of the United States Federal Government. Residents got to keep what they owned, and the United States got the right to extract taxes, to govern it so that it might grow, and to benefit from its growth. In 1809 we purchased Florida from Spain in return for settling claims amounting to up to $5 million, or about $70 million in 2012 dollars. We bought Alaska from the Russian Empire for $120 million 2012 dollars. We bought part of what is now Arizona and New Mexico as part of the Gadsen Purchase for $279 million 2012 dollars.

At what price might the United States Federal Government--which bought the Louisiana territory, Florida, Alaska and the Gadsen territory--sell its property off to pay the National Debt? At what price might the United States Federal Government sell other parts of the country that it acquired not for cash, but through armed conflict? I claim that the price, which imprecisely measures the "National Value," dwarfs the national debt.

But the Federal Government does not "own the country," you might argue. It's owned by the people. Really? The Federal Government bought parts of the country, and has never sold them. Nor has it relinquished any of its rights. So if you subscribe to the notion of property rights, it's hard to argue that the Federal Government does not continue to own what it bought. But let's not quibble about the word "ownership," if that's the problem. As far as I can determine, the Federal Government could outsource its power over the land that it bough, giving that entity rights that are equivalent to ownership. If enough citizens elected federal legislators who passed the necessary legislation and elected a President willing to sign the legislation, then it could be done.

So we transfer the rights of ownership of the entire country if enough of our citizens choose to. Would people want to do that?

The per-capita debt this country is about $50,000. For most people that's a lot of money. If some entity offered to forgive each citizen's debt obligation in return for their agreement to be governed by that entity some people might take the offer? But I think that most would not. 

If you believe everything has a price, at what price would a majority of the people in this country be willing to sell their share of the country? To keep things simple, let's assume that sellers could choose to leave the country or take their chances with the country's new owners? Does anyone believe that the premium, above debt-forgiveness would be small?

This thought experiment tells me that our "National Value" is much greater than our National Debt.  And if our value is so much larger than our debt, is the debt really such a big issue? It might be, if our debt was growing fast enough to swamp our value soon, but I don't see that it is even close to doing so.

Increasing Wealth, Assets, and Value
I claim that what's important is what we do to increase the wealth, the assets, and the value of the nation. The best way to do it may be through the market or it may be through the government, or through some combination. But what seems clear to me is that the goal should be national wealth expansion not debt reduction or job creation.

We don't need job creators, we need wealth creators.

When we shift our focus to national wealth creation and expansion a consequent issue arises: how do we distribute the increase? Not all ways of distributing wealth will lead to equivalent outcomes, so there must be ways to distribute wealth that will lead to greater or lesser future increases in wealth. The Right takes it as a matter of faith that the market machinery that they believe creates wealth also distributes that wealth optimally for further wealth creation. This might be true, but I don't believe that it's a necessary consequence. The Left argues for "fairness and justice."

It's Wealth That Matters
Adam Smith was focused on the right issues. His book was called Wealth of Nations and not Jobs of Nations or Debts to GDP Ratios of Nations. Smith correctly realized that in economics (and politics) it is wealth, and the things that contribute to, and proceed from wealth that make the greatest difference in the human condition.

Freedom matters, but below a certain wealth threshold people spend almost all their time and available energy trying to feed themselves. They may have certain freedoms in theory, but they might as not have them, for all the difference it makes in non-optional practical reality. Many freedoms can only be enjoyed by people with wealth to exercise those freedoms.

Productivity matters, but without access to the fruits of wealth, including tools, knowledge and social order, individuals can produce almost nothing. Truly impoverished people cannot produce enough to survive. With no wealth at all (no clothing, no tools, no knowledge) they are hunters and gatherers at best, and can only live by consuming what nature, or more fortunate others have produced. Within an organized society people who are insufficiently wealthy (insufficient knowledge to be productive) can only forage, or steal, or live on charity.

The wealth that has been accumulated by individuals, families, groups and nations over the course of millenia is the reason that we don't live like our cave dwelling ancestors. Wealth is created only by productive labor. Wealth can be owned through productive labor, or by theft.

Regardless of how it came to be owned, in the end the result is the same.

It's wealth that matters.

Enhanced by Zemanta