My actual post will not be about the economic theories of Henry George, just to get that out of the way. but I have been reading David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie, and it is interesting to see limited parallels between his life and times and our own. One of the best aphorisms I ever heard was from my high school history teacher: “Times change, people don’t.” And through that very reductionist lens, a lot of human events of the past and present make exceptionally more sense than they would otherwise. There are several different ways to approach that saying, from the ideas of evolutionary psychology, the deterministic ideas of various religious world views, and the unreliable but cumulative perspectives of personal anecdote. Overall, though, I think that the concept holds true. It allows for cultural differences, politics, war, etc. without ever requiring a compromise of philosophical ideas. From the arguments against Socrates from the sophists to the semantic soaring of Wittgenstein, there is still a continuity of human thought and counter-thought. Even in Chinese philosophy and the vagaries of Mesoamerican societies, there is still the fact that genetically we are at heart running on the same general genetic templates for thought processes.
In writing this, I guess, I am somewhat emulating the opinions of Andrew Carnegie, who latched onto the idea of evolution as more than a biochemical process, but also something that occurs on a cultural level. For example, prions like “deconstruction” are able to infect healthy cultures with a corrosive effect on their reproductive fitness and societal well-being, just as productive, enlightening ideas like personal responsibility and self-awareness can arise from contexts far outside of any Western school of thought. There is a humanism that can be found in places as disparate as hunter-gatherer folklore and twenty-first century guides to business practice. I suppose that it would be a better blog post to go more into these larger ideas, but I will leave those aside for now.
The other, more ground-level meaning of the title is simply that I want to read more about Henry George and his ideas, but I am faced with a large shelf of books both physical and digital that I want to read through beforehand. I am currently reading the works of Bastiat and Gramsci, which contrast immensely, as well as science fiction from the socialist Charles Stross and the traditionalist John Ringo. At least intellectually I don’t feel bored, eh?
I have always thought that it was somewhat lazy to rely on Wikipedia as a source for almost any discussion, but seeing as I do not have the right sort of subscriptions to view the primary research, I figured that I would share this Wikipedia article about a new potential class of antibiotics. The implications of this research are enormous. At a time when overuse (especially in India) is generating resistance in bacteria that could spread across both gram negative and gram positive strains, having a whole new subclass of antibiotics that use novel mechanisms for infection inhibition is a huge victory for humanity.
Musings on the world at thirty-two in 2018.
Today I am turning thirty-two (or thirty-three by East Asian counting.) I have done and seen an incredible array of things and places in my life, and, fortunately, my memory remains robust and rich in detail. Growing up we did not have a lot of money, and I did not learn many of the social and networking skills that define the upper middle class skill sets that dominate a lot of “successful” people’s outcomes. I have nonetheless managed to get to the point where I am 100% free of debt (as of this paycheque), I have a good start on retirement savings in an index fund, reliable transportation, and a good network of personal and professional contacts that I think will allow me to manage any personal or small-scale crises that come my way in the future. I still write in overlong sentences, though.
One thing that I have observed over the years is the interconnectedness of human lives and events. It seems to be a natural, especially Western, mentality to compartmentalize and label things and to lock them into hierarchies and “stovepipes” of different disciplines and different schema of organization. By itself, this is not a bad impulse or civilizational habit to have – but I have noticed that the most successful ventures in business, charity, government, or military fields come from interconnectedness. Some people, especially academics, seem to take that life lesson and want to impose hierarchy, bureaucracy, and synthetic order onto complex issues. I have observed this approach and found it to be oftentimes the opposite of a successful strategy for accomplishing anything from providing social services to managing major military operations. Centralization may offer short-term gains, but it also plants the seeds of sclerosis, stagnation, future failure, and defeat.
Many writers far more erudite and perceptive than I have pointed out that the global order is in an inflection point. Assumptions about the track of human events are daily set on end and shaken about like a chew toy in the mouth of an energetic puppy. The forces of sclerotic decline are in control of most of the West’s institutions, if not, at present, the actual position as “leader of the free world” for what that means anymore. Their more violent, repressive fellow travelers control China and other significant civilizations in Asia and South America. Overall, however, I think it reasonable to be optimistic about the future.
So, from the strange and potentially dynamic and fruitful Middle East post-monopoly on global energy markets, I sign off on my thirty-second birthday.
I was able to get a few drinks of whiskey tonight, and that, combined with some “best of Chicane” and a general bent towards nostalgia, stirred up a whirlwind of memories for me. One thing that strikes me is how I experience the past – a lot of times even fragmentary experiences are multi-sensory. By far my strongest sense is my vision and, by extension, my imagination. But it surprises me sometimes how I can also recall disparate events that are joined together by a similar emotional “flavor.” Even something like a particular temperature or barometric pressure can act on my mind like a sort function in a spreadsheet, laying out memories strung together and blurred end to end like a montage. A truly good blog post would be more poetic and florid, giving a snippet of what that experience was like and describing situations that would share some of those memories and sensory impressions. Unfortunately, tonight, I do not have the luxury of enough time to share. Something to consider for another, longer, more worthy entry.
I read Slate Star Codex pretty regularly, and one of the commenters on that site posted a link to a fun little web game that you can play to get a better understanding of the implications of game theory. The link is here. What struck me about the instructional web game was its elegance. Without tagging everything, or making things deliberately obscure, it gives you clues to certain features of the illustrated, interactive explanation before it actually verbalises the fine points of “always cheat” or “repeated patterns.”
I would like to say that I have learned a great deal about game theory and economics from extensive reading, but even after studying histories of strategy, I still sometimes struggle to grasp the essential utility of applying game theory to real life. In many ways I feel like I take a lot of economics thought and philosophical implications on a faith basis – having never formally studied it, it seems important without my being able to verify that intuition of its importance. I think this is a common situation that people find themselves in, even when they are of above average intelligence. Sure, we would all like to be knowledgeable about as many aspects of the world as possible, but much of the time we are reliant on other people’s knowledge and experience, and ultimately have to take many things on faith, or at least with a sceptical sort of trust that what others are saying is not total nonsense.
The difficult issue is that so much of what people actually say is total nonsense, be they “experts” or “credentialed” or be they “folksy” and “wise.” I am going to work on being more consistent with updating this blog as the year continues – my time here in Qatar, with its long hours and strange circumstances, is coming near its end. I plan on producing at least one to two entries each week, and I will look to have more substance to my posts than even this one with its singular link. Certainly I want to go over some of the books I have been reading in the past couple of months, at the very least.
Apologies to anyone who has continued to follow my blog and noticed a prolonged absence of posts! It has been a busy few months for me both at work and in my personal life. To return to form, -ish, I will write some brief comments on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs. Unlike a conventional history of one of the great powers of Europe, Montefiore writes almost like a gossip columnist. Interspersed with bureaucratic missives and detailed accounts of political debates are recountings of interior design choices of tsars’ mistresses or a note on the color of a soldier’s eyes. It takes what could be a dry-as-dust chronicle of some six hundred-odd years of history and enlivens it as though watching a very long, meticulously researched miniseries on a finer cable network.
The actual history is very intriguing, as prior to this book most of my knowledge of Russia has been either its Soviet and present incarnations, or very limited exposure through literature, music, visual arts, and some notional popular accounts of individual Romanov rulers. Montefiore’s real gift is his use of personal letters, diaries, and other records to humanize these otherwise inscrutable autocrats and their complex and hidebound Empire. It is like learning all of the details of the helm of the ship and its officers in the aftermath of a mutiny of passengers and staff. The Romanovs, it could be said, were ordinary people, too.
As an exercise in learning about multifarious schools of thought, I have paused the study of Stoicism to read letters and essays by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was an incredibly influential member of the European Marxist movement, his works full of effusive praise for the Soviets and plans for overthrowing, undercutting, and remaking the society of his native Italy through institutional insurgency and cultural hegemony. As a writer, he comes across in translation as very succinct and clear in his ideas. It is easy to see the appeal he would have both among dogmatic Communists and among those already inclined towards his ideology. And, like most Marxists, he is often adroit at identifying a problem in the society around him, but instead of looking at it as a moral failure to correct, he seems to take many of them as an avenue for dismantling his existing civilization and substituting it with an Internationale/COMINTERN sort of anti-culture.
One thing that particularly stands out in his writing is that the class divisions and groups of people he takes for granted as extant in Italy and most of the West at the time are far diminished in number in today’s service economies. Marxism as a system is predictive and idealistic to its detriment, and seems, in hindsight, incredibly stagnant and conservative of a particular understanding of how economies and societies functioned in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Even he also acknowledges, albeit with a completely different suggested impact, the fact that at no time has Communism or Marxian Socialism taken hold of a capitalist economy of the sort that Marx envisioned being necessary to achieve even the baseline centrally-managed economy of Socialism that would, with the hand-waved, anti-human nature magic of “revolution” lead to pure Communism.
Also of interest is his praise for the Futurists. As an artistic and intellectual movement, the Italian Futurists were in some ways anti-humanist and enamoured of a world built around industry and the machine, with the needs of he human scale much reduced to maintenance and engineering of ever-larger technological complexes and structures. I find it interesting especially because Gramsci defends much of his theory/theology of Marxism on the grounds of it being the most humanist and most caring of worldviews for the greatest portion of Italian society.