Sunday, August 22, 2010

The New Jackals

Big Picture Conclusions Linked to The New Jackals by Simon Reeve

The detail that got me to look at this book about Ramzi Yousef and Osama bin Laden was the misleading publication date of 1999. Once I started looking at it, I found the book interesting enough to read, and light enough to read quickly, but it was NOT published in 1999, and this casts a large shadow over the entire thing. There was only one concrete proof of the later publication date: The back cover talks about the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Most likely, that means this was a later reprint to capitalize upon or even exploit the new infamy of UBL after 9/11--but if so, why doesn't the book mention anything about the publication history? Are they just hoping to mislead potential purchasers? Or were there other changes they don't want to talk about? One source (via Wikipedia) claims that the last and rather sensationalist section was added to the reprinted edition, but I suspect that there may have been other changes, too. The book would have been much more valuable and interesting to me if it were the original and unmodified edition reflecting what was known BEFORE 9/11 changed the world's view of the significance of terrorists. It seems to me that almost half of the book may have been added in the reprinting, since there is a lot of redundancy there and less substantiated stuff there.

Having said that, I'll try to assess the book briefly before moving to my conclusions. There is a lot of good information in the book, and some solid investigative journalism. There are also a lot of rumors and unfiltered stuff thrown in, and I strongly suspect that the relative significance of UBL was bulked up in this printing. Much of the material is downright speculative and could be used to feed conspiracy buffs, though the author's citation comes down to 'Someone told me he thinks so' or even 'Someone agreed with me it could have happened that way.' The most obvious fantasy is his attempts to link UBL to Saddam Hussein, which remains fundamentally implausible--but which was a leading propaganda angle of the neocons and neo-GOP politicians at the time when the book was probably being revised for republication. For support of conspiracies, he suggests the Oklahoma City bombers may have had more help than has been acknowledged, and he even tries to link that bombing to the first WTC bombing. The variability in the solidity goes beyond troubling, but basically forces you to go back to the primary materials.

My conclusion is fundamentally economic: We just can't afford to continue playing this game on the terms that the religious terrorists are defining. Essentially, they can make very small investments that induce us to make vastly larger counter-investments. UBL has said that he wants to bankrupt America, and he has described his strategic approaches to doing it, and this book greatly increased my feeling that America under Dubya was playing the game exactly by UBL's rules--and losing. If we are going to win against the terrorists, we need to change the game in our favor, which means we need to realign the bulk of the Islamic world against the terrorists. As shown by the recent kerfuffle about proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, it is clear that the majority of Americans do NOT understand this necessity. They are blindly walking into UBL's trap, even though there is nothing hidden or secretive about UBL's evil strategy.

Going rather beyond the scope of this book to consider the large historical view, but the degree of religious militancy in the Islamic world has fluctuated over the centuries. The actual peak was probably during the early transitional period when the cult became an established church. To survive the threats of those years, Islam became a highly militant religion, and even after its survival was assured, it continued aggressively expanding for a long time. Then it settled down and for a long time was quite peaceful, though UBL would surely call it a decadent period. Now it is moving back towards militancy--and most Americans are eagerly pushing to make it more militant by mindlessly attacking all things associated in any way with Islam. The most mild mannered and rational pacifist in the world would be regarded as anathema by most Americans--if that person was in any way tainted by Islam. In economic terms, we cannot afford this. Even if we only manage to grow the terrorist groups by a few percent, their RoI advantage is going to suck us dry.

Amusingly enough, that lunatic Rumsfeld was not crazy when he talked about the dangers of asymmetric warfare. He couldn't understand the solutions or he never would have supported the insane lost investment of billions of dollars in Iraq, but at least he noticed that such low-tech adversaries were getting much more bang from their limited bucks.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Dignity of a Woman

A Clarifying Insight from The Dignity of a Woman (女性の品格) by Mariko Bando, translated by James Vardeman

The book itself is moderately interesting, though the original is clearly targeted at women and the translation is clearly targeted at Japanese people who are studying English at a high level. In spite of the targeting and a bit of redundancy, the book struck me as mostly quite reasonable, though not startling. It mostly confirmed my understanding of a lot of things about Japan, but I couldn't really get the full meaning from it, especially in the sections that were discussing the nuances of appropriate Japanese expressions. Not just the use of Romaji, but also that the translator mostly left the examples of undesirable usages untranslated, though the examples of good use were generally translated.

However, the thing that struck me about the book enough to motivate this comment was something I realized near the end of the book. Not quite sure what triggered the crystallization of the obvious insight, but this is a topic that has been bothering me and nagging at me for quite a while. As I've aged, I've become increasingly appreciative of the advantages of marriage, and even thought that a so-called 'good wife' might well have influenced my own career in a positive direction.

What I finally realized in a clear way is that "Two against one isn't fair." Not exactly a big insight, but it suddenly explained a lot of the conservatism of companies, especially established companies. Within such a company there is a constant competition for promotion, and other things being equal, the family teams are going to win out. Not just any family team, but especially the teams in which one partner is completely dedicated to the success of the other partner. So for which teams is this recipe for success most likely to work? Obviously in most cases it is a certain category of conservative team in which the wife essentially sacrifices her own life towards the success of her husband.

The obvious long-term result is that each company tends to be 'captured' by that kind of man who is helped upwards by his wife. With this very conservative mindset in place at the top, the entire company naturally becomes more and more conservative over time. The only thing that really upsets the apple cart is when the company is so calcified and stiff that it collapses and dies.

That is bad enough in itself and explains why change is so difficult within most companies. However, it also augers badly for the future, since the Supreme Court recently increased the 'personhood' status of corporations. No matter what SCOTUS says, corporations are NOT people, but now the actual people who actually control those corporations, people who are mostly very conservative, will have much more freedom in using the corporations' money to support their own highly conservative views. It seems inevitable that the entire American society will soon be calcified to death--though I've already long suspected it was too late to worry much about it...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seven Million Years

Obviously the rationale of this blog has effectively mutated to reflect the post-Dubya reality. Who cares what Dubya does or does not read these days? Not much, I'm sure. However, I suppose it's worth the observation that Dubya must reject such a book as this, which already starts by assuming the jury has come in on evolution, and evolution works, even for us. So now:

Reactions to and a Quickie Assessment of Seven Million Years: The Story of Human Evolution by Douglas Palmer

It was my reaction to page 119 that encouraged me to write about this book. That's where he rather crudely touched on the nature versus nurture debate. His presentation was muddled, but it seems he's mostly trying to come down on the side of nature without sufficient understanding of what it means to be a Turing Machine. Of course we are constrained by our physical reality, and that may even include certain predispositions in the genetically-driven neural wiring, but one of the essential things about Turing Machines is that they are in a sense 'universal'. We may not run certain programs as effectively as other programs, but I think we have almost complete freedom as to the 'mental programs' we choose to run. It's not that we are unconstrained, but even then we have the freedom to fight against every form of constraint.

In the concrete context of the book at that point, it got me to thinking about the crucial importance of clothing. He very much downplays the topic, with a single reference in the index and at least two overlooked and unindexed references in the text (since I had become sensitized to the word), but my realization at that point was that the simple act of adding or removing a garment would vastly increase the effective range of humans in comparison with any other animals--and do it at a speed that evolution can't possibly match. It takes some large number of generations to adjust the skin's coloration or the amount of hair, but a simple cape can achieve better effects at a speed that can match today's weather.

Ergo, I was already predisposed to regard the book as a rather superficial introduction to the topic. The bulk of the book was just a kind of trivial low-level biography of anthropologists--a list of who found what, when, and some mentions of who disagreed with which categorizations. Then the author seriously annoyed me during his superficial presentation of genetic analysis, which was treated as a rather minor topic late in the book--but polluted by the use of presidential politics in a distinctly inappropriate context.

Overall, a kind of trivial book. I don't like to say a nonfiction book was a waste of my time, but that's mostly how I wound up feeling about this book. I can't recommend it, even after struggling to think of an appropriate scenario...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Collossal Failure of Common Sense

Review of A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Incredible Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by Larry McDonald with Patrick Robinson

This is really just a collection of notes on an interesting example of a kind of secondary historical source closely linked to a potential primary source. My primary conclusion is that I hope his ghost writer kept the notes, because those may well have some real historical value, but this book itself is way too slanted and defensive to take at 'face value'. My current hypothesis is that a lot of the juiciest bits are actually the result of the ghost writer combing through his recorded interviews looking for eye-catching and memorable snippets.

Therefore I'm going to focus mostly on the evidence of the slants in this review. The particular slant that really started to grate on my nerves was the dislike of poor people, which is interesting since the author includes a couple of brief biographical episodes involving his own experiences of poverty, and in those places the themes were that it wasn't his fault and that his poverty didn't mean he was stupid or a bad person or anything like that. However, when he's talking about OTHER poor people he says things like "NINJA" (for No Income, No Job, no Assets) (frequently used throughout the book), "betting the farm on poor people making their mortgage payments" (p. 172), "guys who haven't got any bread" (p. 172), "bush telegraph of the poor" (p. 174), "out-of-work no-hopers" (p. 200), and the stuff about "firebrand official Roberta Achtenburg" (p. 243), who briefly worked in the Clinton administration advocating against racial considerations in housing loans. I think this last one was actually part of an intended slant to blame it on Clinton, since he went out of his way to introduce her in the the prologue. I'm sure there were lots of other examples, but it took a while for the anti-poor-people thing to become annoying enough to start tagging it.

Another slant that bothered me was the strong assumption that greed is basically natural and good. I think it underlies the book to the degree that a better title would have been The Most Colossal Failure of Selfish Greed--So Far. The evidence is actually confused on this point, since sometimes he's criticizing it, while in other places he's praising it, especially when he's on the receiving end. A sampling of the mixed evidence includes "rabid desire for some decent yield" (p. 141) and "grotesque personal greed that has slithered through Wall Street" (p. 141), showing that he (or his ghost?) can talk about the unfair aspects, but most of the examples were on the other side of the ledger in terms of huge profits and bonuses. I guess the part of this that annoyed me most was the long passage on page 209 where he projects his own flaws on other people. The specific target in this passage was the slimy salesmen who were using high-pressure tactics to sell the bad mortgages in the first place. He never bothers to consider the mitigating factors there, most importantly that any poor suckers who were smart enough to think ahead would have been told that they could get out from under by selling the house at a higher price or just walk away in the worst case. Of course, most of the poor suckers were just too trusting and not even thinking that much--but he doesn't consider that aspect of it. However, the real hook is that the author's OWN work was focused around distressed assets and short selling. He even describes himself as a vulture and proud of his super-bear father. Hey, fool. You can't fairly criticize other people for profiting from the suffering of innocent people when you have been making millions of dollars doing it. Big time projection there, but at least he (or his ghost) sort of knows it's wrong.

In many places in the book he's trying to show how clever he is about catching onto scams and swindlers. Examples include "in its wisdom" (p. 171) where he is sarcastically attacking Congress for the Commodities Futures Modernization Act that legalized many of the most dangerous practices (but without ever mentioning any Lehman-supported lobbying for the law), "a red flag to a bull" on his own acumen in spotting troubled companies, and the passage on page 235 where he's trying to link himself into an early warning discussion with the then Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. However, I think his claims of any cleverness collapse with statements like the page 43 claim that Bill Gates was deeply knowledgeable about computer programming (when actually Gates' main programing experience was just helping with an early BASIC interpreter for PCs), calling Time Magazine a "bastion of reality" (p. 157), and "beyond the pull of gravity" to demonstrate a total misunderstanding of how gravity works.

That gravity thing was actually in connection with one of his rather feeble attempts to provide conceptual scaling for large amounts of money, which also convinced me he isn't much of a mathematician. For that sort of thing you need to start by scaling the problem. I haven't run the numbers, but I suspect you could have made it work with a large office building gradually filling up with $100 bills, though you'd probably want to imagine the building as not tapering as you filled it up from the lower stories. Also contributing to this theme was his mention of large essentially imaginary debts of money that never existed, such as $26 trillion (p. 169) (for the CDS market in 2006) and $13.4 trillion (p. 201) (for mortgage-backed securities issued from 2001 to 2006). If scaling was his concern, I'd have expected some comparison to the relatively piddling national debt, but he didn't even consider the illusory nature of these valuations. You'd expect him to say it clearly, because he seems to understand there's a problem there, but he just doesn't get around to saying that the fundamental problem there is that you can always imagine an arbitrary price--but that doesn't mean anything if the actual value of the assets cannot possibly justify the speculative so-called prices. It really is amusing how they tried to insure themselves for the payment of impossible valuations, and then they acted so surprised when the entire bubble burst. Oh wait. He was so wise that he knew it all along, sort of...

Actually, as of this writing I've only read as far as page 246, but I'm quite confident the book isn't going to improve in the stretch run. This is mostly just a good example of why the participants in historical events can't really be trusted. One of the things the book establishes very clearly is that the author is a hustler, and this is the kind of book whose value falls off very rapidly over time, so the hustle in publishing it was justified (from his greedy perspective).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Goldilock Enigma

Targeted Review of The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? by Paul Davies

My original intention was to review this book as a comment appended to my earlier review of The God Delusion, where Professor Dawkins mentioned in passing that Professor Davies was a winner of the Templeton Prize. However, my intention for brevity got carried away, and the comment ran too long, resulting in this new post. (Comments are limited to 4,000-odd characters.)

In his book Professor Dawkins criticizes scientists who accept such prize money from the Templeton organization. He basically feels that such scientists are giving an aura of scientific credibility to religion, and that this is basically harmful. Based on this newer book I doubt that Professor Davies would receive the award at this late date, though they probably won't try to revoke it. He basically includes a fuzzy and weak god hypothesis as one of the possible 'ultimate explanations' for the universe, but merely as one of the options on a long list of possible ultimate explanations--and he explicitly states that he does not favor it.

However, my main reason for reacting to the book is that I feel I have to reject several points of the book rather strongly. Overall, the book is a good overview of modern astrophysics and the current theories of the early universe, but I think it mostly fails in its largest purposes for two major reasons.

The first reason is that there is some serious confusion about cause and effect. Or perhaps it should be dismissed as a form of circular reasoning? The central enigma of the book is that the universe is just right for life, and that seems amazing to Professor Davies. Actually, it works the other way around--life is adaptive and will attempt to adapt as well as possible to the universe as the universe is. He actually doesn't do a very good job of explaining all of the remarkable fits, but he does acknowledge the problem in a couple of places where he remembers to say "life as we know it" or something along those lines. That's exactly the point and the problem. If the universe were different, then life would also be different--but that life would still evolve to become extremely well adapted to that changed universe. It is not that the universe is trying to be perfect for life, but rather that evolutionary pressure drives life to be as perfect as possible for its environment in THIS universe.

The second major reason I think he fails in his search for the ultimate origins is even harder to describe succinctly... Should I call it projection? It is a fundamental human characteristic to seek explanations even where NO explanation exists, but he simply wants to assume that there is some deep explanation for the universe. Actually, the assumption of causation is just a useful heuristic that helps humans deal with the excessive complexity of the real world. We try to seek meanings in things because that helps us deal effectively with the world. This is a pragmatic justification, because much of the time the assumption of causation is useful. (In accord with the Dawkins book, it is precisely when such a search for causation fails that we wind up with such things as irrational and unprovable religious explanations.)

My constructed example begins with his own example of the birds. If we see a live bird fly by, we can reasonably assume that the bird is behaving in the way that birds do and for the reasons that the bird has. We might not fully understand the 'causation' of the bird's precise path, but we understand it well enough for our purposes, such as hunting the bird. However, when a dead bird 'flies' past us, we quickly realize there is something wrong, and there must be some other cause at work here. In the real world, the dead bird fails the test as the cause of its own flight, but we quickly understand we need to consider the situation more carefully. Much more important to our lives if, rather than a bird, the flying object is something dangerous like a stone. Did the stone fall off of a cliff? If so, we should move away from the cliff, because gravity might cause another stone to fall. Did the stone come from where another person is standing? Maybe the stone was actually thrown as an attack, and the real cause is that the thrower is planning to kill me and take over my cave and spouse? Though I deliberately picked a negative example, you can just as well argue that this is the ultimate source of Kant's Categorical Imperative and the deeper source of ethical behavior. It is actually quite reasonable to assume that other humans are similar to us and that they share our own motivations and will act in similar ways for similar reasons. However, though it makes sense to assume other humans might share our motives and that this causes them to behave in ways that we think we can explain, it is a very strong form of projection to assume that the universe as a whole has to have such a motivation.

Part of his attempt to justify his position on this issue involved observer effects, but this was one of the places where the book didn't do a very good job. In particular, his attempt to argue that the observer could force the photon to choose its displayed nature struck me as very unpersuasive. Perhaps my technical background is just too weak, but he didn't convince me that any choice was needed, and I'm still willing to believe that the photon can be both a particle and a wave at the same time.

Another area (but less important) where his presentation struck me as weak was his treatment of velocity in expanding space. I felt like he needed to at least acknowledge the effects of the expansion of space on the distance traveled... The space that the light wave passed through at some past time was much smaller, and that space has since expanded, but he seemed to be treating it as a linear constant relative to the present time.

However, as already noted, I felt the book was mostly a good overview of modern cosmological theories. It was mostly in the 'ultimate' speculations of the last few chapters that things seemed to break down for me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

365 Ways to Become a Millionaire

Another intrusion of a book that Dubya might actually read. This one's so simple he could probably even understand most of it. It reminded me quite a bit of the Rich Dad, Poor Dad book to the point that I considered reviewing it as a comment on that review...

A brief and critical review of 365 Ways to Become a Millionaire (Without Being Born One) (Revised Edition) by Brian Koslow

Consider it a kind of predictive review? Based on reading the book, I have a number of predictions about the author, though I'm unlikely to take the time to test them.

First, an observation about the title: The title is a lie. Doesn't bode very well for the rest of the book, eh? Actually, the book is a list of trivial tips and bits of advice. Many of the entries say that they will lead to more money, but there is nothing in the book that could, even with major stretching, be interpreted as an actual "way" to make a million dollars, and there are certainly not "365 Ways" here. Wear expensive shoes because some people will notice? Give us a break.

There are three main themes of the advice in the book. One theme can be summarized as "be a good person" for various reasons that will contribute to your ability to earn more money. The second theme is "watch for for opportunities and be prepared to seize them". The third theme is to be aware of spending money, which is usually in the form of tips about how to save small amounts of it. However this third theme is also confused by advice about when to spend more money, usually for the sake of making a favorable impression on someone. The author would probably argue for a fourth theme about managing people effectively, but his advice on that topic is so confusing and contradictory that I can't figure out which part to focus on as a possible theme.

The substance of the book could be effectively condensed into 5 or 10 pages--but that wouldn't have made much money for the author or his publisher, the Wall Street Journal (which was also plugged within the book (as an unnamed business newspaper)). Actually the best summary of the book is probably the author's own comment on page 148, in entry #304, where he reports that the book is essentially a collection of verbal notes he recorded as he was walking to work one summer. He loves his electronic gadgets, evidently--except for his advice against watching television, which is probably the best tip in the book.

In summary, I'm sure glad I only borrowed it for a few days from the library. I was a skeptic before I read it, but my current conclusion is that the author is basically a wheeler dealer and legal con man. He's smart enough to avoid overtly criminal enterprises, but mostly just a sharp dealer who wouldn't want to talk about how he made his first million (and he never mentions any related details in the book), but who decided the easy and safe path to making more millions was by teaching other people how to fake sincerity.

A parting editorial comment: I'm pretty sure that he didn't even read his own book all that closely because I'm almost sure that entry #270 on page 130 was almost identical to an earlier entry. I actually went to Google Books to check, but I wasn't at all surprised to discover that no preview was available. Even the snippets would have deflated the purchase value of this book to zero.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Short Comment on Interventions by Noam Chomsky

I just wanted to record a short reaction to the last part of his essay "The Social Security Non-Crisis" in this book. Though everything he says on the topic is sound, I myself feel that the most important argument for social security is one that he doesn't mention. Meaningful 'social security' frees people to enjoy their lives and spend their money while they are young enough to enjoy spending it, and spending that money and living more happily is also going to stimulate the economy by increasing the demands for goods and services that actually contribute to the demand for producing economic goods.

The REALLY free market alternative is that you should be trying to save lots of money while you are young, you should live like a total miser, because once you live one day beyond what you can pay for, you are free to start starving. I think the free market version works poorly because accumulating money is not a useful activity in itself, but more importantly because no one can see the future, so it is fundamentally impossible to guess how much money needs to be saved. I suppose the free market extremists could argue that everyone should try to save enough to live off the interest, but that fails the universality principle (as Chomsky usually refers to the Golden Rule). If everyone had a million dollars, the resulting devaluation of money is the same as if no one had a million dollars, so we're back to square one.

In general, and especially considering how upset his adversaries are, Chomsky's writing is remarkably boring and tedious. Not the consequences of his reasoning, which are often quite troubling, but in his presentation he simply focuses on very mundane facts and rarely resorts to anything resembling fancy analysis. Most of the time he just changes the actors to expose the hypocrisy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how clearly he separates words from the realities those words claim to describe--but perhaps that is only fitting for a linguist with such deep insight into the nature of language itself.