Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Trade is to culture as sex is to biology."

This sparkling wit flows from the keyboard of Matt Ridley, a libertarian zoologist who once was on the staff of the Economist. He calls himself "the rational optimist" (the title of his new book), and offers a neat summary of his evolutionary thinking in the Wall Street Journal ("Humans: Why They Triumphed"). In his view, the way sex is essential to biological evolution, trade is at the heart of cultural and technological progress. It was the invention of trade that unleashed a process of increasing specialization and exchange of ideas. The Neanderthals, on the other hand, never adopted trading practices and ended up in the dustbin of history, despite their larger brains. From the very beginning of urban-based civilization, though, the spread of trade was marked by an enormous injustice: "Tax and even slavery began to rear their ugly heads. Thus was set the pattern that would endure for the next 6,000 years — merchants make wealth; chiefs nationalize it." This should probably apply to bankers, too - as Ridley was able to observe first-hand in his capacity as "non-executive chairman" of Northern Rock. He was pocketing GBP 300,000 a year there - until he was forced to resign when the bank cried uncle in September 2007. Luckily, there is light at the end of the tunnel: "Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century — despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters."

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I am looking at the site of a Bulgaria cram school called Magnet ( One of the subjects they teach is Bulgarian language and literature. On its welcoming page, in Bulgarian, there are four brief paragraphs of text. In those four paragraphs, there are at least 10 commas that have been left out. There is only one word that can capture such a breath-taking degree of careless sloppiness, and it happens to be Russian. Or - the people who wrote and proofread Magnet's sales pitch are scrupulously meticulous, but this is the educational level they were able to reach after maybe a combined 138 years of education. Frankly, I am not sure which is worse.

The market knows best

William Keegan writing in the Guardian/Observer: "Although there is no getting away from the fact that Greece woefully mishandled its financial affairs, the financial markets seem to have put many eurozone countries in a classic Catch-22 position: they 'short' whole countries whose fiscal position is considered unsound. And then when the fiscal masochism they advocate is put into practice (or promised) they 'short' them again, because of the inevitable effect this will have on prospects for economic growth."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Childhood dreams

Jordan Romero, a beaming American boy, holds the American flag in his stretched hands. The picture was taken at some peak in Indonesia, and now he is climbing Mount Everest accompanied by his father and three sherpas. At 13, he hopes to become the youngest person to climb the highest peak in the world. Someone could say: what better icon for the American dream of making it - with guts and determination - to the very top? Except that now kids from around the world are rushing to tackle superhuman challenges, with solo navigation around the world being the most common choice. The young climber, of course, blogs about his exilarating experiences. He recently wrote: "Every step I take is finally toward the biggest goal of my life, to stand on top of the world." You must admire this unchildish focus and dedication. And yet, what happens to you when you reach the highest goal of your whole life at 13? It must be all downhill from there. Peaking too early in life is not always the best strategy, but I do hope it will work for Jordan.

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Do Nice Gals Finish Last?"

This NYT blog post by economist Nancy Folbre says one of the reasons women get lower pay is that they are less pushy or Machiavellian when negotiating their salaries - and will often shrink from bringing the whole embarrassing issue up. The author asks: "Shouldn't we try to reward nice behavior?" This is the funniest question I have seen or heard in about 18 months. The first step Folbre suggests sound a bit more realistic: "We could start by making stronger efforts to penalize bullies and cheats." If only that "we" still existed...

Simply the pursuit of wealth

Harvard economic historian David S. Landes explains vividly ("The Enterprise of Nations," Wilson Quarterly) how in the past China clung stubbornly to silly traditions and missed out on 400 years of technological and social progress. Now the Chinese have learned their lesson, unlike some even more thick-headed holdouts. In other regions, all the recent success stories are countries which, like China, have jumped bravely into the global maelstrom of ideas, money, stuff, etc. In Latin America, for example, Brazil, Chile, and - er - Columbia have "done well" (curiously, no mention of Mexico). Now some naysayers are grumbling about the loss of jobs as companies move production to more efficient locations. Take the governor of Massachussetts who had the following comment on the decision of the new owners of Polaroid to shut down the company's main factory in his state: "I think it has been fairly sinister the company has been cut apart like a stolen car at a chop shop while the employees are left holding the spare tire." To Prof. Landes, such populist rhetoric is quite misplaced. As he patently explains, "the process of job transfer ('outsourcing') is a central aspect of contemporary entrepreneurship and globalization." Well, entrepreneurs do "prefer profits to sentiments," but how can you expect them not to? Landes could have quoted here Milton Friedman who once famously stated that "the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits." The Harvard professor, though, does make clear that, with the inevitable collateral damage wrought by the whirlwind of creative destrruction, outsourcing is a natural next step in a natural process which goes back thousands of years. This process is "simply the pursuit of wealth" - case rested. Of course, we don't even need to be reminded that any attempt to somehow constrain this process (maybe using as an excuse the excesses of unregulated entrepreneurship which allegedly created the current economic mess) leads inexorably down that slippery slope, onto the road to serfdom, directly into the gulag. As it happened in that former quasi-satellite of the Soviet Union, Finland.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Exploring the Complexities of Nerdiness, for Laughs"

This is a NYT review of the sitcom Big Bang Theory which features, unbelievably, a couple of young physicists. The article offers the following quote by one of the actors: "A lot of people thought it would be a show that poked fun at smart people, but it has become a show that defends smart people much more often than that. These guys, as socially inept as they might be, are the type of people that are molding our future as a society." I knew there was something wrong with this sitcom. Indeed, the producers have picked the wrong genre. They should have concocted a dystopian miniseries about the coming merger of humans with machines. This hot topic was already discussed at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference held at Oxford two years ago. It's now time for the science popularizers to step in and prepare us for the coming "singularity."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why worry now?

This is the headline of a post on one of the NYT multiple blogs: "Ash Falls on Reykjavik, and Icelanders Shrug." Apparently, they did the same when their banks and a few buccaneers embarked on that financial binge which sunk Iceland's economy. But maybe this is mere coincidence.

Death to Facebook?

"A few months back, four geeky college students, living on pizza in a computer lab downtown on Mercer Street, decided to build a social network that wouldn’t force people to surrender their privacy to a big business." As the NYT article makes clear, they have already raised on the internet more than twice the money they would need to design the open-source software intended to decentralize social networking. In their nerdy naïveté, they wanted to do this without promising big returns to venture capitalists. They should learn from the people who launched that web site last November allowing kids to make anonymously disparaging comments and ask embarrassing questions of each other. They knew their ECO 101 and had amassed 2.5 million dollars in venture capital before starting work on their similarly creative project.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Babies do need to grow up

Dr. Paul Bloom writes in the New York Times about his work aimed at pinning down "The Moral Life of Babies." It turns out, they are pretty uncooperative subjects - "because, even compared to rats or birds, they are behaviorally limited: they can’t run mazes or peck at levers." But he and his colleagues at Yale's Infant Cognition Center used some very clever experiments to elicit reliable data on the babies' ethical preferences. They found something quite disturbing - babies are, to put it mildly, intolerant. Gordon Brown might have even called them "bigoted." In other words, from a very early age, they exhibit clear-cut in-group preferences. How could I have been so naive? All that scholarly literature on nationalism I have devoured maintains that it is quite natural for millions of people of various colors, ethnicities, religions, etc. to live in perfect harmony in complex multicultural societies; and the bigotry of Serb nationalists or Hutu thugs is a cultural aberration which can be explained only by sophisticated conspiracy theories. It turns out this was all wrong: "in fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind." Happily, this primitive morality can be transcended in modern societies with market economies, where rational individuals are able to negotiate the impartial morality needed to oil the wheels of commerce. According to Dr. Bloom, our morality must have such impartiality at its core in order to be truly mature. This reminds me of another NYT article, "When the Ties That Bind Unravel." It describes an increasingly common phenomenon in American society - "parents who have become estranged from their own children." At some points a son or a daughter decides that maintaining a strained relationship with his or her parents is too burdensome, and cuts them off. What could be more impartial than that, really - treating one's parents as chance acquaintances whom you can easily leave behind and move on with your life?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The joy of motherhood

A 62-year old Bulgarian woman gave birth to twins. This, in itself, would not bee news - geriatric parenthood has long become a perfectly acceptable stab at happiness. The fact that she appeared before cameras made up as a clown cannot be held against her either - who can say what forms of self-expression are spooky these days? The twin girls were born from donated eggs and are severely underweight (one is a kilo, or a little over two pounds, the other half that weight), but this also turns out to be very much the norm in such cases. In fact, what seems most unusual about the elderly mother is her occupation. She is a certified psychiatrist. Now, this is precisely the kind of medical expert who can get you out of the doldrums if you have serious mental health issues.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The algorithm of creativity

This is from a NYT piece the booming scientific study of creativity: "'Creativity is a complex concept; it’s not a single thing,” [Dr. Kounious] said, adding that brain researchers needed to break it down into its component parts." He studies the neural basis of creativity, and defines it as "the ability to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in a nonobvious way." I wish the scientists doing such research could show some creativity in their own work - in addition their natural impulse to take things apart to see how they work.

Brave new Britain

Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on David Cameron: "Ex-Conservative MP Quentin Davies, who defected to Labour on 26 June 2007, branded him 'superficial, unreliable and [with] an apparent lack of any clear convictions' and stated that David Cameron had turned the Conservative Party's mission into a 'PR agenda'." These, of course, are gripes coming from an avowed personal enemy. And PR strategizing has already become a job requirement for political leaders anyway. Just think of the powerful Obama brand. One comment about Cameron's performance on the third prime-ministerial debate said that, as the BBC-hosted show progressed, "he began to look increasingly like a made up mannequin," but we shouldn't be so judgmental in our tastes. Another comment suggested that Cameron's thick hair in fact saved him from looking like a plastic mannequin.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rule of law

There are reports that the parking lot adjacent to the Bulgarian parliament, used for the cars servicing the MPs, was set up illegally. It turns out the Sofia municipality never issued a permit for part of the public square to be fenced off.
Two boys, 13 and 14 years old, sneaked out of their homes to take a midnight walk in Sofia. Chased by a pack of stray dogs, they climbed on the side of an overpass. The younger boy slipped and fell on the boulevard below. A van immediately hit and killed him, and the driver sped away. This avoidable tragedy seems to capture in a teardrop the unrelenting unraveling of Bulgarian society.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An examined life

In the NYT, Gary Wolf describes a new trend among computer geeks (“The Data-Driven Life”). Using various sensors and gadgets, they are now trying to collect as much data about their personal lives as possible. One has even compiled a searchable database of all ideas he has discussed with others or considered himself since the early 1980s. The idea behind this “self-tracking” is apparently not only to achieve greater efficiency in specific areas, but also to make sense of their lives – in the only way that can make sense to a geek. To some, it has obviously become a compulsion they see no reason to resist. In his sympathetic account, Wolf asks: “We use numbers when we want to tune up a car, analyze a chemical reaction, predict the outcome of an election. We use numbers to optimize an assembly line. Why not use numbers on ourselves?” Why not, really – it does sound quite logical. The early adopters are keenly aware that they are abnormal geeks, but are confident that what seems socially awkward now will soon be the new normal. That, I guess, is logical, too.