Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Music, Music, and ... More Music

I had very little chance to listen to music during November and the 1st 1/2 of December, so the music has really piled up. Finally had a chance to do some listening, so let's clear the stack.
  • "Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action", by Franz Ferdinand. No, it's not a buddhist album. Catchy energetic rock, which I mostly put in the genre "Punk". A little too energetic for me, I'm afraid -- I'm getting old. 3 stars.
  • "The Third Eye Centre", by Belle & Sebastian. Like their last album, more adventurous, more quirky, better than their earlier stuff. 4 stars.
  • "Love In The Future", by John Legend. This would be great music to play if you were in your 20s and looking for a romantic evening with a beautiful woman -- so it's useless to me in my current state! Nice tunes, very romantic music. 3 stars.
  • "The Electric Lady", by Janelle Monáe. A sci-fi theme album, in which Janelle plays a liberated android who is a symbol of android rights. Interspersed with comments from a supportive DJ on a call-in show. Some good tunes, a very interesting effort. 4 stars.
  • "From Here To Now To You", by Jack Johnson. Easy listening, what my wife would call "dinner music". In fact, we were lunching at Captain's Quarters in Louisville and a Jack Johnson song that I recognized came on. Then a few songs later, another song I couldn't identify, that shazaam'ed as Jack Johnson as well. 3 stars.
  • "Wise Up Ghost", by Elvis Costello And The Roots. Wow, nasty, tight grooves, dripping the trademark Elvis cynicism. A great album. 4 stars.
  • Eponymous, by MGMT. Kind of electronica/dance but not quite. Some strong tracks. 3 stars.
  • "Babel", by Mumford & Sons. I've got kind of tired of this power folk -- not enough variation in the songs maybe. 3 stars.
  • "lousy with sylvianbriar", by Of Montreal. When I first started listening to The Flaming Lips, I thought that the lead singer's voice would eventually become annoying -- but it never did. I did not particularly think that the lead singer of Of Montreal's voice would become annoying -- but it kind of has. There is good variety on this album though. 3 stars.
  • "Plantation Lullabies", by Me'Shell Ndegeocello. On the recommendation of the excellent drummer Keith Halladay. Definitely fine "angry black woman" music. She's the bass player as well as the vocalist. This was her 1st album, I will probably try out more of her several others. 3 stars.
  • "Let's Be Still", by The Head And The Heart. Very lyrical tunes, but I don't like it quite as well as their prior album. 3 stars.
  • "Reflektor", by Arcade Fire. All disco, all techno, all the time. Their usual interesting instrumentation, but no standout tunes. 3 stars.
  • Eponymous, by San Fermin. Probably the best find of this lot -- from economist Paul Krugman, who posts music in his blog every Friday. Another Brooklyn band. It comes across as a symphonic work, which is confirmed by this article. The 24 YO composer has also done scores for ballet. What an outstanding 1st effort. They have a male baritone lead singer like The National, but also a female lead singer, and some backup vocals by the women from Lucius. I think this is my favorite song -- I'm going for 5 stars for it: "Oh Darling".
  • "Shields: B-Sides", by Grizzly Bear. I really liked "Shields" -- the song "Sun In Your Eyes" was my 1st new 5 star song in years. I'm guessing that that album was successful enough that they went back to the tracks that didn't make it and said, "Well, let's see what else we got". 8 tracks, with some really different stuff -- long-form disco for instance. This really reminded me of Department of Eagles 1st album vs their 2nd. The 1st album had all kinds of different, and maybe incompatible(?), stuff, like they were trying to figure out their sound. Then the 2nd album was much more cohesive. So this album was the all-over-the-place one, and "Shields" was the "we figured out what we want to sound like" one. 4 stars.
  • "Nilsson Schmilsson", by Harry Nilsson (1971). Recommended by my younger brother. It had the hits "With You", "(You Put De Lime In De)Coconut" and "Let The Good Times Roll" on it. But I really didn't like it much. I'm surprised, I loved the tunes he wrote for the movie "Popeye". 2 stars.
  • "Five Spanish Songs", by Destroyer. The album of course contains 6 tracks. I think that is a point of honor that the number of tracks in an album title cannot agree with the actual number for tracks on the album. A bit more variety in the songs that his prior album, which I liked a lot regardless. Hunh, he's out of Vancouver, not Syracuse. Worked with New Pornographers. Daniel Bejar has been performing as Destroyer since 1996 and now has a total of 11 albums out?!?!? Well, we got that going for us now! 4 stars.

Merry Christmas!

For the prior few years, I had been a soldier in the War on Christmas. I have not considered myself a christian since my early teens. I did love all of the Christmas stuff as a kid: going to midnight mass and belting out carols ("Joy To The World", "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", and "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" were favorites) in particular. But, as the Religious Right has kept pushing and pushing -- "the US is a christian nation", etc -- I've felt the need to push back.

So the last few years, I've been celebrating Winter Solstice explicitly. Not that I'm particularly a pagan, but I was an astronomer, and the solstices and equinoxes are astronomical events. I do think that the pagan myths, particularly the Norse ones, are a lot more fun and interesting than the christian and hebrew myths.

But this year, I have figured, screw it. If I know someone's a christian, I tell them "Merry Christmas". So funny tho, the Indians around the neighborhood or working various places, I stick with "Happy Holidays" -- because they probably aren't christians. They are some of the new, multi-cultural americans whose existence conservatives are trying so desperately to deny. I think my newfound tolerance is a result of my generally more relaxed attitude to life since retirement.

One thing though that is Not Right. Christmas, by name, is a religious holiday, and it is the only religious holiday that is s federal holiday. Seems like a 1st amendment violation to me. Hmmm, asking The Google about "christmas federal holiday constitutional" points to this lawyer's blog post. Apparently there was a court case in 1999 that said it was OK -- because there is no requirement to actually do anything or accept anything religious or christian on Christmas. Ha ha, it also mentioned that Thanksgiving being the 4th Thursday in Novemember, is not an endorsement of the Norse god Thor, whom Thursday is named for. Yay, I guess???

Last week, on impulse I got a couple of history books out of the library. BTW, our local public library branch is really nice. Lots of meeting and study rooms, and a bank of 32 public PCs in the back. I skimmed both the books and only read in depth in a few places. The first book was "The Atlas of Past Worlds", by John Manley (1993). This tried to give a sense of what development was going on around the world, rather than just in the famous places. They took 5 locations for the years 2000 and 1000 BC, 1, 1000, and 1500 AD for a total of 25 chapters. I didn't get that much from this. The author is an archaeologist, so a lot of the emphasis was on the physical layout and the types of artifacts found. I think Jared Diamond spoils you for this kind of stuff by providing so much of the "why" of the time and how it integrates into the sweep of history.

The 2nd book I skimmed was "The Encyclopedia of North American Indians", edited by D. L. Birchfield (1997).I don't feel like I learned much new here, except for maybe more of an appreciation for how many different tribes there were. Generally a tribe consisted of up to 10s of villages with 10s of 1000s of individuals living in areas of a few 1000s of square miles. This book and more googling seemed to confirm that in the 18th century at the time of 1st contact with the white invaders, Kentucky was the permanent home of no tribes. It was used as hunting grounds for Shawnee from north of the Ohio River and Cherokee from the southeast. I wonder why that was?

This book, in the entry for "Alcoholism, Indian", also denies that there are genetic differences that limit the ability to metabolize alcohol that are more prevalent among Native Americans. A friend of mine who claims Indian blood would disagree with that, claiming that his Indian blood makes him a lightweight when it comes to alcohol consumption -- 1 or 2 beers and he's done, and the more so as he ages. Hmmm, googling "alcohol metabolism genetic variation" gives among others this article, which says that there are definitely different genetic alleles that give some individuals more ability to metabolize alcohol. So the question I guess is, how are these alleles distributed across ethnic groups? This article addresses this explictly, and says:

Additionally, despite the fact that more Native American people die of alcohol-related causes than do any other ethnic group in the United States, research shows that there is no difference in the rates of alcohol metabolism and enzyme patterns between Native Americans and Whites.
So my friend probably has the slow alcohol metabolizing genes, Indian blood or no Indian blood.

Now on the magazine stack, then on to "The Wealth of Nations". Oh, also signed up for an online course at Columbia University that starts Jan 21: "The Age of Sustainable Development". Interested to see how that goes.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

10 Albums

Now on FaceBook we're doing 10 albums. As I wound up doing with the books, I'll just go with 1 per artist. In no particular order:
  1. Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix
  2. Waka/Jawaka, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
  3. Workingman's Dead, The Grateful Dead
  4. Talking Book, Stevie Wonder
  5. Last Train To Hicksville, Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks
  6. Blue, Joni Mitchell
  7. After Bathing At Baxter's, Jefferson Airplane
  8. Healing, Todd Rundgren
  9. Minute By Minute, The Doobie Brothers
  10. Petrushka, Igor Stravinsky
Hah, you can tell when I was in college, can't you?

Friday, December 20, 2013

An Exciting Conclusion

I finished the 3rd book of The Expanse Trilogy by James S. A. Corey, "Abaddon's Gate". As with the 2nd book, we have one narrative thread that continues (Jim Holden), and his crew are still characters. We pick up 3 new narrative threads. I think that's a decent plotting technique for a trilogy. 1 of the threads is a minister -- but not too bad, not very much "religion in the face of the unknown" thrown in. Another is the daughter of the villain of the previous book on a mission of revenge.

This seemed a little weak to me. Thinking about stories of revenge, (I tweeted about IMO the 2 greatest stories of revenge: "The Count of Monte Cristo", by Dumas, and "The Stars My Destination", by Bester) I couldn't really think of any where the person seeking revenge was not seeking it for harm done to themselves. Dedicating one's life to avenge a wrong to one's parent seemed far fetched to me. But, if you go to Japanese or Chinese stories, you could probably find a fair number of instances. So I guess that the authors had Japanese or Chinese influences.

The exciting conclusion is maybe a little unexpected from the previous thrust of the books, and way over the top, but still, there's a lot of that that goes around in science fiction. I think the conclusion worked, and was somewhat inspirational.

So if you like space opera, I would recommend this trilogy. It definitely sucks you in and keeps you turning pages.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

10 Books

Hmmm, a friend on Facebook did a post of "10 books that have stayed with me" and tagged 10 people, of which I was 1, and asked us to do likewise. Man, hard to do. But seems like a fun mental exercise, to actually go back over my whole life and list books. I'll do these in rough chronological order by when I read them. Well, here goes:
  1. D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, Ingri d'Aulaire
  2. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  3. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
  4. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
  5. 1984, George Orwell
  6. The Viking, Edison Marshall
  7. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  8. Dune, Frank Herbert
  9. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes
  10. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
Huhn, kind of an odd list, but given the "don't overthink it" directions, I'll stick with it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Definitely a Page Turner

I finished the 2nd book of The Expanse trilogy by James S. A. Corey, "Caliban's War". It was definitely a page turner, probably the most so of any novel I have read in the last year or so. One of our main characters from the 1st book is back, with his crew, all of whom are interesting characters, but this time there are 3 narrative threads in addition to his. The 3 new ones are a kick-ass Martian marine, a grieving father botanist, and the power-behind-the-throne of the government of Earth. That last thread adds a lot of political intrigue to go with the space action. And, a satisfactory ending, although the cliffhanger of cliffhangers is brought up on the last page! So definitely ready to forge ahead to the 3rd book. Onwards!

Re economics, I have decided that rather than read Keynes' "General Theory", I would go back to the fountainhead and read Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations". Published in 1790, it is now of course free and available in several eBook formats. Nice!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Space Opera

First a quick music note: the Wednesday Night Blues Jam has moved back to Lynagh's at Woodland and Euclid. We were there for around 9 months in 2007 I think. Slightly larger stage than Cheapside, and no homeless people -- which is the major downside of downtown Lexington.

I finished reading "Leviathan Wakes", by James S. A. Corey, which is apparently 2 guys, one of whom has worked for George R. R. Martin. This is book 1 of "The Expanse" trilogy. I picked this one up because the 2nd book of the trilogy, "Caliban's War" got nominated for the Hugo award. The 3rd book, "Abaddon's Gate" is already out. The books are all about 600 pages each and were released in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively -- so these guys are really cranking them out.

This was a very enjoyable read. 200 or so years in the future, humanity is on Earth, Mars, the Asteroid Belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn when an unlikely alien first contact appears -- complete with vomit zombies! There are two narrative threads. One follows a burned-out police detective following the standard cheap detective, film noir story arc: the crime whose roots keep reaching further and further out and higher up the food chain. The other thread follows a dishonorably discharged Earth Navy officer who we first see as the XO on a water hauling tug. Kind of a different character, too honest for his own good by a long shot. Very good plot and pacing, and an unexpected but satisfying conclusion that creates a decent sense of closure while it also sets up the rest of the series. Not too much emphasis on the hardware or the military aspects of the story.

Here's a fragment I liked, nice sense of history here.

On Ceres, Eros, Tycho, the bore of the standard corridor had been determined by mining tools built to accommodate the trucks and lifts of Earth, which had in turn been designed to go down tracks wide enough for a mule cart's axle.
Hmmm, time to clear the magazine stack, then I think I'll read the other two of these before starting Keynes's "General Theory". It's the holiday season after all!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Damn Plutocrats!

I finished reading "Plutocrats", subtitled "The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else", by Chrystia Freeland, 352 pages. This wound up being somewhat not what I expected. There is a short intro and a short conclusion and 6 main chapters. 3 of these -- chapters 2-4 -- seem to be a bit of an apologia for the plutocrats -- not what I expected. But, I guess it is a good idea to really try to understand these guys and where they came from.

Chapter 1, "History And Why It Matters", after a quick review of the feeds and speeds of our current plutocrats, talks about The (First) Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century of the great robber barons: Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, etc. (plutocrats v1.0). One of the conclusions of the book that is pretty much the topic of Chapter 4, "Responding To Revolutions", is that times of social upheaval -- revolutions -- offer enormous opportunity for the quick and the cunning to amass vast fortunes in a relatively short time. For The First Gilded Age, the upheaval was the Industrial Revolution.

Some interesting FFTKAT (Fun Facts To Know And Tell) of the history leading up to The First Gilded Age: From 1 AD to 1000 AD, the GDP of western Europe fell by around 0.01%/year. From 1000 AD to 1820 AD, it rose by 0.34%/year. "Then the world changed utterly": between 1820 and 1998, it rose by 2.13%/year, while in the US, Canada, Oz, and NZ, it rose by 3.68%/year.

I had seen this quote from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1814 before:

we have no paupers, the old and crippled among us, who possess nothing and have no families to take care of them, being too few to merit notice as a separate section of society, or to affect a general estimate. The great mass of our population is of laborers ; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. They are not driven to the ultimate resources of dexterity and skill, because their wares will sell although not quite so nice as those of England. The wealthy, on the other hand, and those at their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury. They have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life than those who furnish them. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this ?
"Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?" This was the USA at the time of its founding, the USA of the Founding Fathers. Sigh :-(

That completely changed with The First Gilded Age. Carnegie and his ilk thought that the vast wealth they had earned/stolen was right, reasonable, and appropriate. But the inequalities became so great that they gave rise to the progressive movement, which lead to trust-busting, government regulation, and income taxes.

In Europe, with its hereditary aristocracy, the inequality was even greater, leading to "the first coherent political ideology of class warfare -- Marxism". And although the Communist regimes of Russia and China were economic failures, and brutally murderous (see my blog post on Pinker's latest book), they did stir things up enough that FDR's New Deal and the social welfare systems of western Europe were created to stop their spreading to the West.

The current situation is being driven by the technology revolution and globalization. This has given rise to twin new Gilded Ages: one mostly of the technocrats of the developed world; the other of the robber barons in the developing world, particularly BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China). So a 2nd Gilded Age in the west, a 1st Gilded Age in the developing world.

Chapter 1 concludes with a review of data in the Credit Suisse annual wealth report. I spent some time with the latest version of this when it came out a month or so ago. Really interesting numbers. Total wealth of the world? $241T (trillion). Amount held by the 1% (actually the 0.7% worth more than $1M)? $99T, 41% of the total. By the next 7.7% (worth > $100K)? $103T, 42%. Everyone else, $40T, 16%. The top is absolutely booming, the bottom of people with crap jobs is also growing, but the middle is being hollowed out. Au revoir, middle class. :-(

Chapter 2, "Culture of the Plutocrats", is all about how the .1% live. British public schools, US Ivy League colleges. The billionaire set is largely becoming stateless. They own homes all over the world, but particularly like the "world capitals": New York, London, Hong Kong, Dubai. They attend the same events: Davos (economic forum in Switzerland), Wimbledon, TED in California, the Oscars, the Cannes Film Festival. The worst thing about this, commented on in chapter 6, is that from within this bubble of privilege, they very quickly lose sight of what life is like for the rest of the world.

Most of the latest crop of billionaires are "working rich" -- per Forbes, ~2/3 of the world's current billionaires are self-made. 2/3 of them work, as opposed to 1/5 100 years ago. Their kids will get to be the idle rich, we'll see how that goes, I guess. Funny to me that she defines alpha geek / technologist as being the most common background for the new billionaires -- technocrats, my tribe. But, I was never a candidate. Not driven enough by a huge factor, and way too many side interests.

The current billionaires have a new take on charity as well: "philanthro-capitalism". They'd rather found their own charitable foundation and show that it can solve some world problem better than the other plutocrats' foundation can. And in chapter 6, the plutocrats are quoted as saying, we can do this better than the government, don't tax us, let us figure out now to spend our money for the public good ourselves. The problem I have with that is that religious groups have been saying the same thing for years relative to addressing problems like hunger -- but, there are still too many children hungry, so, sorry, == epic fail. IMO taxation and government is the only sure kill, at least until we get to a post-scarcity, anarcho-utopian type state.

There is some discussion of conflict between the 0.1% and the rest of the 1%. Worldwide there has been some conflict between these groups, but in the US, millionaires normally see themselves as billionaires in waiting.

Also worth noting: being a billionaire is a boys club. Of 1,226 billionaires in 2012, 104 were women. "Subtract the wives, daughters, and widows and you are left with a fraction". "The plutocracy ... still lives in the Mad Men era". Per Larry Summers: "They don't have the killer instinct, they don't want to fight, they won't go for the jugular." Another reason to get more women in positions of power.

Chapter 3, "Superstars", talks about the "superstar" effect: "the tendency of both technological change and globalization to create winner-take-all economic tournaments in many sectors and companies". This occurs in music, art, sports, cooking, lawyers. I think everyone is coming to realize that the "long tail" the Internet creates is not particularly helping with this -- Lady Gaga probably outsells the lowest 1,000,000 musicians out on the long tail. The first recognition of the superstar effect is attributed to Alfred Marshall in 1875. In the 20th century, Sherwin Rosen recognized that technological advances, particularly in distribution, intensify the effect. And most recently, Roger Martin has posited that superstars power has increased to where they can extract more wealth from their employers -- talent beats capital. So in the late 20th century, capital defeated labor, but so far in the 21st century, talent is defeating capital. Good, I guess? But the ones who are really "making out like bandits" are:

  • bankers, with salaries 2x the average for modern knowledge workers;
  • CEOs, who are almost never "company men" anymore, but rather superstars who move from company to company.
Chapter 4, "Responding to Revolution" I have already mentioned. Revolutions can be technological or political. Being able to respond to revolution may have a genetic component (high dopamine levels) that is probably higher in immigrants. Hence the Americas, being composed mostly of immigrants, as hotbeds of intellectual revolutions. But the US in particular has had it so good for so long that it is becoming more conservative -- such that the big profits are now in the developing world.

There are lots of samples of plutocrats across the world making their fortunes by responding to various revolutions.

Chapter 5 is "Rent-Seeking". OK, finally we're getting to it. "Rent-seeking" refers to making money without doing work. This is where you distinguish between someone who works hard, builds a company, and makes a fortune (yay) and someone who figures an angle to extract wealth without adding value or particularly working (boo): "we need to be constantly alert ot efforts by the elite to get rich by using their political muscle to increase their share of the preexisting pie, rather then by adding value to the economy and thus increasing the size of the pie overall." Paul Ryan says we should:

lower the amount of government spending the wealthy now receive. ... true sources of inequity in our country ... corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless ... a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.
Really??? Paul Ryan??? Boy, I doubt that's what he says behind closed doors.

The various sources of plutocrats vary from country to country:

  • In the US, new plutocrats are largely technologists.
  • In Russia, they are men who gambled and aggressively bought up state resources when the communist system was broken up. (Ms. Freeland's earlier book, "Sale of the Century", documented this historic event.) Unfortunately for Russia tho, most of their GDP now comes from natural resources, which tends to lead to corruption and stagnation.
  • In China, the plutocrats are mostly members of the government. But if they go too far, they can be stripped of wealth, jailed, and even executed.
  • In India, the "License Raj" controlled industry. In 1991, it was done away with, and the Indian economy took off. But the government is still heavily involved, and very corrupt, with bribery as a fact of doing business.
  • In Mexico, Carlos Slim jumped in when the Mexican phone company Telmex was privatized.
You know, I have posted several times, "privatization" === "let some fat cat buddy of mine make $100Ms". These stories I think bear that out. But in a lot of these cases, liberals actually drove the sell-offs, trying to bring life to stagnant, inefficent, state-owned companies -- and wound up with plutocrats and oligarchs for their efforts. In some cases, the companies did become more vital and competitive, in others not. I think we just need to harvest some of the wealth back from the plutocrats.

Chapter 5 ends with the run-up to the 2008 financial meltdown, which was preceded by years of the financial industry bitching about how too much government regulation was stifling them. Wall Street claimed the business would all move to London. Meanwhile, Canada, with well-regulated, stodgy, risk-avoiding banks completely dodged the financial crisis.

Annual bribes worldwide: $1T. "But orders of magnitude more money was being made thanks to that he dubbed 'legal bribery'" -- the army of incredibly funded lobbyists, many of whom are in a revolving door relationship with the government and its bureaus, the pervasive influence peddling.

Chapter 6, "Plutocrats and the Rest of Us", starts out really depressing. After a tour of Zappos (?!?!?), plutocrat after plutocrat is quoted:

I think we ought to honor and uplift the 1 percent, the ones who have created value.
Do we feel bad for the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.? Of course not; we celebrate it, for we were poor once and we are reasonably wealthy now. We did it on our own, by the sheer dint of will, tenacity, street smarts and the like.
If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him. Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.
Which is of course not correct. I don't think that we'll ever lack for alpha types able to build companies and amass fortunes, but, luckily, the vast majority of the population do not have the possibly psychopathic or sociopathic genetics that is apparently often part of being a successful CEO.

There are many anecdotes of how the plutocrats wind up living in a bubble, expecting deference to all their whims. There's funny (but sad) stories of Wall Street types refusing to take any responsibility for the meltdown, blaming instead anyone who got caught up in the frenzy of the housing bubble.

Of course, finally, John Galt comes up -- you knew he was going to eventually. I've said several times, any plutocrats wanting to Go Galt, go for it! There's plenty more where they came from. The Seasteading Institute is studying man-made islands which will become floating Libertarian paradises, yes!

But finally, we do talk to some plutocrats who sympathize with Occupy Wall Street, and who see the incredible inequity as bad and unsustainable.

I liked the discussion of Willem Buiter's "cognitive state capture": that the mindset and worldview of so much of Wall Street, the Fed, the SEC, the Department of the Treasury, and all financial institutions is so similar that it goes without saying that "what is good for Wall Street is good for everyone". Before the 2008 meltdown, they all thought it would be best if the financial industry policed itself -- yeah, right.

Canadian Mark Carney, current governor of the Bank of England and chairman of the G20's Financial Stability Board, is apparently emerging as a voice of reason re regulation of financial markets. Funny, like the rest of the rulers of the financial world, he is a Goldman Sachs alum (13 years) (the blood sucking vampire squid ;->). He had some good head-to-heads with Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan/Chase -- and I will say came out the winner. He totally calls Dimon out re, a financial crisis is something we have every 5-7 years, as Dimon says he told his daughter. Plus the London Whale lost JPMorgan/Chase (investors?) $6B on Dimon's watch.

An interesting discussion of my BFF Barack Obama in this chapter. The contention is, he's not an idealist, a socialist, a liberal, a centrist; what he is is a pragmatist. What will work? That's all he cares about. Sounds highly possible, how disappointed am I to have to let go of "hope and change"? I will advise.

More depressing news, that the ultra-rich have subverted the intellectual class and created their own alternate reality and infrastructure of conservative think tanks (oxymoron?), etc. Clearly a done deal, man I sure hope we can fight against $B of attack ads, lies, etc. My god, the boilerplate press releases of my Tea Party congressman Andy Barr ("we made 14 attempts to keep the government from shutting down, and Obama ignored them all!") are coming from a universe other than the one I live in.

Meanwhile, our legislators become more aligned with the plutocrats because they are getting richer and richer all the time. Wow, "between 2000 and 2007 the Clintons earned $111M, nearly half of it in Bill's speaking fees, many of them paid by global plutocrats ..." :-(

The chapter closes with the unbelievable Paulson story. The Secretary of the Treasury happens to mention in a lunch with a bunch of his Goldman Sachs buddies that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are going to be taken over by the government -- insider trading info of the highest order. And, anybody called to task for this? In a word, no. Planned, or cognitive capture as earlier mentioned?

Maybe the most revealing quote of the entire book:

When you have a financial incentive to see reality in a certain way, you will see it that way, not because you're bad, but because you are human. -- Professor Dan Ariely
Finally, in the conclusion, we get to what I thought would have been the main push of the book. First, a very nice story about 14th century Venice. It grew to be a financial superpower by inclusive, upwardly mobile business policies. Then, those in power decided to lock themselves in, fuck future upward mobility, 100 years later, they were done.

This brings us to what I somehow thought the whole crux of this book would be: Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson and their thesis that states succeed or fail based on whether they are inclusive or extractive. As I mentioned earlier, inclusive == meritocracy, work hard and succeed (or fail), reap the rewards of your hard work; extractive == rent-seeking, make your money without working, rig the rules to work in your favor, play king-on-the-hill, kick the people trying to come up the hill in the face.

Re Eric Schmidt of Google:

So I think it's very important to distinguish between rich people who get there by taking the economic rents of the country for their own benefit versus the people who, in fact, create a new corporation or a new source of wealth.
But Ms. Freeland, says, dividing plutocrats per the above principle is hard. And maybe she's right. At some level profit is profit. But I say, still we have to try to incent and reward the real job-creators, and to penalize (via taxing the hell out of) the rent extractors.

The final cautionary tale: the Great Gatsby Curve: "as societies grow more unequal, social mobility is choked off." Haha, Ms. Freeland interviews the president of Brown U, who says, no getting rid of legacy admissions soon, because "I have a granddaughter. It's not time yet." I am proud that my alma mater, M.I.T., which used to give alumni children one extra application review for admission, now gives the children of alumni absolutely zero of a leg up.

OK, we're done. And I've noticed that "creative destruction" in the economy, particularly the job market, which is mentioned several times, had not heretofore been mentioned. So check that off the list.

The official review: chock full of stuff you didn't know, particularly re Russia, India and China, the book is a quick read at 350 pages. I read it in 3 days, a few hours each day max. It is definitely worth a read. It has much hard data on the political issue -- wealth inequality -- that several politicians are trying to frame as the central debate of our current zeitgeist.

On a final hopeful note, Ms. Freeland has apparently retired from journalism and is now the Liberal Party candidate to become a Canadian MP! Best of luck to her in politics!

Monday, November 11, 2013

1 Novella, 2 Novels

So, into the Sci-Fi/Fantasy to-read stack. Finally (duh) figured out that I could manually create a "Unread" self in the Kobo eBook reader and put my unread books there. Oops, 14 there. It's way to easy to impulse buy eBooks. The Kobo eBook reader seems to crash less but still, unbelievable that it does not have a "search text" function.

First off, read "Equoid", by Charles Stross. It's a novella set in his The Laundry series of books, I think like $1.99 for the eBook. Stross has so much fun taking the base mix of Dilbert, H.P. Lovecraft, and James Bond and then finding some much beloved fantasy meme to throw in, normally with horrible consequences. In this case it's unicorns -- and I'll never be able to watch My Little Pony again :-(

Then I read the 2nd and 3rd books of The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin: "The Broken Kingdoms", and "The Kingdom of Gods". The first book, "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" was blogged ... or apparently not, hmmm. I enjoyed it enough to try these two.

This woman writes very well, and I really like the way this trilogy is structured. The protagonist changes in each of the novels, with other protagonists and supporting characters threading through all 3 novels. She has created what I think is a nice workable mythology. Chaos spawns 3 gods (she seems to like trinities of 2 males and 1 female, not sure what that means): male gods of light/day and darkness/night, and a female god of grey/twilight. The gods are capable of manipulating reality on pretty much any level they want. The gods' children are demigods, who can live in the physical world or in the god realms. They typically have to have a theme, like a Greek/Roman god -- the protagonist of the 3rd novel is Sieh, trickster demigod of children/childhood. They can manipulate reality like the gods only in limited fashion. Demigods breeding amongst themselves or with the gods produce more demigods. Demigods breading with humans create demons (not sure why she chose that term) who may have various magical powers.

The writing is good, the pacing and plotting decent. All 3 novels have male (demi)gods having sex with human women, with no sex going the other way -- is this a standard feature of the paranormal romance genre, which I guess this falls into to some degree? There is also male homosexual action in the 3rd novel, mercifully with very little detail (I guess that goes with the 2 male god / 1 female god trinity thing).

So overall, well written, nice mythology building, nice structure. 3 stars.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Unemotional Life of My Brain

I just finished reading "The Emotional Life of Your Brain", by Richard J. Davidson, with Sharon Begley. He got his PhD from Harvard (he's 6 months younger than me). He has been at University of Wisconsin at Madison since 1984. "He is currently Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, the final where he serves as Founder and Chair." I read it on the recommendation of my daughter Erica. We may be working on a fun /art project with tagging emotions in various content.

This book is the story of how he lead the development of the science of Affective Neuroscience -- how emotions are created and processed in our brains.

In Chapter 1 he defines Emotional Styles. These are each of our settings for the 6 tuning knobs that he says define our basic affective structure. The 6 dimensions of emotional style are:

  1. Resilience: the speed at which you recover from adversity. Range is from "Fast to Recover" to "Slow to Recover". Oddly, this scale is inverted from the others, low is "good", on the other 5, low is "bad". Brain: prefrontal cortex and amygdala. Prefrontal cortex, conscious control, amygdala, negative emotion.
  2. Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion. Range is "Negative" to "Positive". Brain: prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens (I believe aka the pleasure center). Left prefrontal cortex for Positive, right for Negative.
  3. Social Intuition: how well you pick up social signals from others. Range is "Puzzled" to "Socially Intuitive". Brain: amygdala and fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus is where we do facial recognition (and recognition of individuals from classes we are expert in). Autistics seem to get this circuit totally overloaded, to where looking in others' eyes spikes terror in their amygdala.
  4. Self-Awareness: how well you detect bodily feelings that reflect emotions. Range is "Self-Opaque" to "Self-Aware". Brain: insula. The main method for testing this was, how well you can detect your own heartbeat???
  5. Sensitivity to Context: regulating your emotions based on appropriateness to current context. Range is "Tuned Out" to "Tuned In". Brain: hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. I had not heard this about the hippocampus before.
  6. Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is. Range is "Unfocused" to "Focused". Brain: phase locking (synchronous firing) in the prefrontal cortex. Tested by looking for "attentional blink" for numbers inserted in series of letters.
He kind of draws a line in the sand that, based on the brain, these are the correct 6 dimensions. I'll pick a bone with that later.

Chapter 2 gives a history of his career and how his theories accreted over the years. There's discussion of how emotion was being largely ignored in neuroscience, with the only real writing on it Darwin's 1872 "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal", blogged here. Initial research mapping brain activity was with EEGs, which of course later moved to fMRI. He also worked with Paul Ekman on using facial muscles to recognize emotional states. That's the real-life guy that the TV show "Lie To Me" was based on. I like that show, check out Ekman's website, it's like the damm show! Yay! In addition to noting that emotional states are tied to various parts of the brain, they also saw large variation between individuals -- hence Emotional Style.

Chapter 3 talks about each dimension, and then for each dimension gives you a 10 question test. We'll discuss my scores later.

Chapter 4 talks about the brain anatomy associated with each dimension, noted in the list above. Surprising to him was that the cortex was so involved, rather than just the limbic system -- the older, central brain parts -- which is traditionally held to be the seat of emotions.

Chapter 5 traces how our Emotional Style develops. Typical mix of nature and nurture. There were earlier studies that said "Born shy, always shy" that his findings overturned -- Emotional Style can change as a child develops. Some discussion of MAOA, "the violence gene", discounted by the same data as Pinker used. Gene methylation to turn off gene activation discussed.

Chapter 6 is "The Mind-Body-Brain Connection, or How Emotional Style Influences Health". Positive Outlook, etc, boost the immune system and otherwise make you healthier. Lower cortisol maybe one of the main mechanisms. Botox in women's brows stops frowning, and they then take longer to read unhappy sentences than happy ones. I think we've seen before, smiling actually does make you happier.

Chapter 7 talks about what happens when you go off of the deep end in Emotional Style dimensions, and maps mental illnesses into these dimensions. Depression, autism, bipolar, and ADHD seem to fit in pretty well, schizophrenia (mind just broken) not so much so?

Chapter 8 is "The Plastic Brain". Over the last few decades, the degree to which the brain is believed to be plastic, regardless of age, keeps being revised ever upwards.

This chapter is where I have a bone to pick. He discusses OCD: overactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and striatum form "the worry circuit". So here's 2 new brain regions we haven't heard of before. And there is a range of behavior associated with them, from "laid back slob" on one end to "obsessive compulsive disorder" on the other end. So why is this not another Emotional Style dimension? Call it "Attention to Detail", or "German-ness" or "Neatness" or whatever?

With Chapter 9 the tone of the book changes. He reveals himself to be a closet Buddhist meditator, going back to his very early days as a psychologist. Plus he's a bud of the Dalai Lama. So they do various tests with various level of experienced and novice meditators, and find out that meditation can indeed change your brain states. So you can use it to adjust the knobs on your Emotional Style, and these will actually change your brain, thanks to the brain's plasticity. This continues into chapter 10.

Finally, chapter 11 presents a cookbook of what type of meditation(s) and other mental exercise can be used to twist the 6 different Emotional Style dimension knobs. A lot of them make sense. In other places it struggles:

"There has been little research on how to strengthen or weaken these connections." (between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex which are the basis of Sensitivity to Context)
Which brings me to my test scores. They were 0,7,6,7,8,9. In contrast, the author's scores were 2,7,7,8,8,9. So my profile is not to dissimilar from his. Most notable is the 0 in Resilience. With reference to our snappy title, "Dad's Blunted Affect" has been a family topic of discussion a time or 3. But the proposed exercise to turn that knob up:
... focus intently on whatever negative emotion or pain you are feeling as a result of a setback. This can help sustain the emotion, at least for a time, and increase activation of your amygdala.
I kind of think I'm going to take a pass on that.

My other high score was 9 in Attention. I'll buy that, I've always felt that excellent powers of concentration were one of my super-powers.

But, following up on the picking of bones. "German-ness" I've already said could be a new ES dimension. What about a dominance to passivity dimension, which I think has strong sociobiological consequences? I would surely think that the brain patterns of someone being an alpha and dominating another person would be quite different from those of the other person. What about an anger to calmness / self-control dimension? What about love and hate?

The blog post that mentioned Darwin above also discussed another book on emotions that I read: "The Cognitive Structure of Emotion" by Ortony, Clore and Collins (1990). That book did not attempt at all to map emotions to the brain. It just attempted to catalog emotions into a logical structure. Here the structure is:

This seems more logical to me, but, at some level, we're talking apples and oranges here.

There was also overlap between this book and the Pinker I recently reviewed. Seems like the ideas need to merge -- need to get the memes breeding!

He did say in the introduction that he stands by his 6 because they all came from experimentation on the brain. But for him to claim that this is the complete list of dimensions of ES, I think he needs to list every region of the brain and show that they are all accounted for. What would he have called the "worry circuit", my "German-ness" dimension, if he'd done that?

But, I do think Davidson's emphasis (shared with his bud the DL) on building healthy compassionate minds is extremely laudable and is based on sound science. I hope his center continues to make progress.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Recent Reading

I'm going to be good and do this now, as I'm moving back to clean the magazine stack (several weeks behind) before moving on to some non-fiction.

In what is an annual ritual, I read "The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection", edited by Gardner Dozois. I think my favorite story was one by a new (Louisville) author, Brit Mandelo, titled "The Finite Canvas". I also liked the two Robert Reed stories. A fun read as always. Note I am still buying these in hardcopy. I think I've got about 2/3 of them, the kids occasionally give me the ones I'm missing as gifts.

I then read "God's War", by Kameron Hurley. Not sure where this came from, maybe a tweet by one of the sci fi authors I follow recommending it. On a desert world, with most of the wildlife bugs, and magicians who can control them. Various warring "Islamic" states (she gives the religion a different name), including one where the men all are drafted and sent to the front such that the women completely run that country, at all levels. Also a state where the men and women are segregated with the men in control. Almost like she's trying to explore every combination of sexual politics.

It's pretty bloody. It's got a nice noir/cheap detective feel -- the protagonist is a "bel dame" -- church/government sanctioned hunter of draft dodgers -- who gets drummed out and becomes a bounty hunter. It's the 1st book of the "Bel Dame Apocrypha". I liked it well enough I'll prolly read the others -- they are out already. 3 stars.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Turn That Damn Guitar Down!

Well, from 3 jams to play at a week, I'm down to 1. First the Sunday 4-8 jam at Paulie's Toasted Barrel got shut down for football season. That was a nice room, great big stage, nice house PA system and a house keyboard. There were usually more musicians than customers.

Then, I decided to make Tuesday Night Rock n Roll Party @ Henry Clay's Public House #21 the last one. Again, usually more musicians than customers. And the band (me, another guitarist, bass player and drummer) was getting paid 10% of the bar. We did best our 1st night, $40 ($10/each). Several nights we made $12 ($3 each), ha ha. It was fun, but some of the house band members got tired of playing for so little. I did get to play with some different musicians. I particularly enjoyed Logan Lay on bass, Keith Halladay on drums, and Jeff Adams on guitar and slide. Also got to do some different, non-bluesy songs: "Bobby in Phoenix" by Gorillaz was fun, as was "Where Are We Now" off of the latest David Bowie album.

So I am back to just the Wednesday Night Blues Jam. But there is also an Open Mic at SEC sports bar, which is out Harrodsburg Rd. near me, on Tuesday night. I may give that a try.

On new music in, I seem to be having more and more trouble keeping up. But I like so much of the new stuff I've found over the last 10 years, it seems like I should keep up my acquisition habits. Holy crap, haven't done this since June! Here we go:

  • "Fevers & Mirrors", by Bright Eyes (2000). Recommended by my son-in-law Ian. Angsty alternative rock. A couple of tracks are bogus -- a kid reading a book and a radio interview. Nice tunes, 3 stars.
  • "Veneer", by Jose Gonzalez (2003). Also from Ian. Very nice classical sounding guitar with vocals. 4 stars.
  • "Inner Speaker" (2011) and "Lonerism" (2012), by Tame Impala. Also from Ian. They are a modern psychedelic band whose melodies recall the Beatles or ELO. All reverb, all the time, and more flanger, phaser, and chorus effect pedals than you can shake a stick at. 4 stars for both albums.
  • "Trouble Will Find Me", by The National. Their 1st album was in the CD player of my car for months, I got to know that album pretty well and like it. This one is more of the same. 3 stars.
  • "Half of Where You Live", by Gold Panda. I think I saw online where my daughter Erica was listening to this. Electronica/Dance without vocals. I like it surprisingly much. 3 stars.
  • "Kveikur", by Sigur Ros. This didn't do much for me. A bit punkish in places. Lyrics in Icelandic. 3 stars
  • "Time Out", by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959). Amazon had a special on this, and it also came with 8 bonus live tracks. My older brother Steve listened to jazz in high school and college in the mid 60s, so I absorbed a lot of this then. The album is well known for "Take Five", in 5/4 time, and "Blue Rondo A La Turk", in 7/4. 3 stars.
  • "Circus Money", by Walter Becker (2008). As much as I loved Becker's 1st solo album "11 Tracks of Whack", I don't know how this one, his 2nd solo album, slipped by me. I don't think the tunes are as tight and nasty as the 1st album, but still, new Walter Becker tunes! 4 stars.
  • Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, eponymous. I've seen these guys on Letterman a couple of times somehow. I kind of like their crazy hippy cult troupe approach, and the male & female lead vocalists. Good tunes, 3 stars.
  • "Fondo" (2009) and "Mon Pays", by Vieux Farka Touré. Gifted by my daughter Erica after she saw him (in Brooklyn of course). He's from Mali, so this is African/World music. Very easy to listen to. He does some pulls on the guitar that I have not heard before. I may try and steal them. 3 stars.
  • "Made Up Mind", by The Tedeschi Trucks Band. If this isn't the best blues/rock band in the world, I don't know who is. I particularly like the last track, "The Storm". 4 stars.
  • "Paradise Valley", by John Mayer. Kind of a weak effort. Tunes are OK I guess. A cover of J.J. Cale's "They Call Me The Breeze". Since Cale's death last month, I've done his tunes "Crazy Mama", "After Midnight", and "Cocaine" at the jams several times. 3 stars.
  • "EP", by Lucius. 4 tracks. Actually pointed at them by economist Paul Krugman's blog. He has a music link every Friday, this is the first one I've liked. I love the vocals in the first track "Go Home". Odd tho on the downloaded version there doesn't seem to be the 3rd vocal part added by one of the men in the band that there is in the video. Another Brooklyn band, definitely hipsters. 4 stars.
That brings us up to August 23. 9 albums acquired since then still unrated. Still seems like too many.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It All Fits Together!

I happened across this post in an economics blog recently. So there is such a thing as "behavioral economics", which attempts to get real with the view of participants in an economy as "rational agents". In particular, it looks at cognitive illusions, which have been discussed in this blog here, and here, among other places. Hmmm, both these posts reference the book "Inevitable Illusions", by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, but apparently I read it before I started blogging, I can't find a summary/review. It is a very good book on the subject of cognitive illusions, and an easy read.

So maybe there is some hope for economics after all! Here is a behavioral economics reading list.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Evidence for Kardashev Type III Civilizations!

Ha ha, just kidding. This is just for fun, and to post nice picures of unusual galaxies.

I have been saving astronomical pictures I like from APOD, HEASARC, ESA/Hubble, and Bad Astronomy for about 6 years now. The number is now ~1800 pictures. Most of the ~600 pictures in the Extragalactic folder are galaxies or clusters of galaxies. I was looking through these the other day, and, with an extremely overactive imagination, discovered several examples of Kardashev Type III civilizations!

Shields On!

This galaxy (NGC 4651) looks like it is sending a jet out the front that is then creating a shield around the galaxy! For offense or defense?

This galaxy is around 26 Mpc (megaparsec, around 3 million light years) away, on the outskirts of the Virgo Cluster. There does not appear to be any other nearby galaxy that could have caused the jet as a tidal effect.

When One Shield Is Not Enough!

OK, there is a galaxy nearby (NGC 470) to cause gravitational tidal effects, but, what, 5 concentric rings and 2 sets of extended shields??? Too much for tidal, must be a very paranoid civilization!

This galaxy is NGC 474, around 30 Mpc away, and is called a shell galaxy. There are not many of these, but I think that more sensitive telescopes will find more. The two galaxies together form Arp 227.

Nearby is another galaxy (NGC 467) also with faint shells. Here's a pic of all 3 galaxies:

This was featured in APOD here.

What Is This???

It actually has a name: Hoag's Object. But it doesn't have an NGC number or appear in any other catalogue of galaxies -- because IT IS SO WEIRD!

So maybe a bar instability cleaned out the space? Hard to believe that has only happened once -- no other galaxy looks like this one. Normal ring galaxies are formed when one galaxy punches through the center of another, like these two examples:

Notice how messy they are. And note that the entire ring shows lots of bright blue new star formation regions, created by the gravitational shock wave that the collision sent through the target galaxy's disk. Hoag's Object, on the other hand, has only what looks like a faint spiral arm running through the ring. Additionally, redshift data shows that the ring and the core are at the same distance and not moving relative to each other.

APOD has featured Hoag's Object 4 times, most recently here.

It just ain't right! Must be an advanced alien civilization! But, what are they building???

A Project Gone Bad

Yes Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) produce duel lobed radio emission (magenta) from jets perpendicular to the rotation of the massive central black hole. But the filaments? And the spirally stuff? And the dark clouds? Must be evidence of an extremely aggressive Kardashev Type III project gone horribly wrong.

This is actually one of my favorite galaxies of all time. NGC 1275 is the largest galaxy in the Perseus Cluster (Abell 426). It is around 73 Mpc away. Even at that distance, the Perseus Cluster is the brightest extragalactic X-ray source in the sky. There have been several great pictures of NGC 1275 since Hubble went up, and I still can't figure what the hell is going on. Here's more pix, the latter 2 with overlays taken in non-optical wavelengths:

Here is the central part of the Perseus Cluster with NGC 1275 on the left:

So, will our galaxy someday support a Kardashev Type III civilization? I guess I hope so. Just get human civilization through the next 30-40 years and we'll be ready to get right on it!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Good News! Good News!

On Monday I finished Steven Pinker's latest book: "The Better Angels of Our Nature", subtitled "Why Violence Has Declined", 829 pages. It took about 3 weeks to read. It is amazing to me that, even retired, there were 1-3 day stretches when I did not read any of the book. So much other interesting stuff to read online, yay economics!

In the first chapter of the book, he lays out what he's going to do:

  1. He's going to convince us that all types of violence have been declining precipitously, with curves looking like reverse hockey sticks.
  2. He's going to explore explanations for this fact.
So chapters 2-7 have chart after chart after chart of statistics showing that all forms of violence -- interstate wars, civil wars, genocides, and inter-individual violence such as murder -- have been going down, down, down, particularly since the end of World War 2. There is of course also an encyclopedia of all the forms of violence that humans have invented -- very chilling to say the least.

One interesting point, someone might object, but what about the genocides we still have going on? The word "genocide" did not even exist until the war crime trials after WW2. Throughout most of history, genocide was basically "OK". Now, we still have them in decreasing numbers, but we recognize them as bad.

We forget how, prior to say the US Bill of Rights, cruel and unusual punishments were the norm rather than the exception. There are some chilling descriptions of instruments and techniques of torture. And, while we may have stepped backwards somewhat in now justifying torture, at least it is now generally considered to be bad. We forget that public executions used to be festive events to which you took your children. And that dueling, bear-baiting and other blood sports were also very popular.

The thing that Pinker finds to best correlate with the declines is the invention of the printing press, and the Enlightenment that followed. He also speculates that part of the reason for the Middle Eastern Islamic countries' backwardness is that they banned Arabic printing presses well into the 18th century for a variety of reasons.

Also during this time, the Rule of Law, implemented by strong central governments (named Leviathan by Hobbes) became stronger and stronger as true national governments were created. And "gentle commerce" also had a civilizing effect.

The final chapter of this section, chapter 7, looks at the Rights Revolutions: from Civil Rights for blacks, to Women's Rights, to Gay Rights, and to Child and Animal Rights. Each one learned strategy and tactics from the earlier ones. I've been so pleasantly surprised at how the whole Gay Rights thing has just kind of passed a tipping point and now seems to be pretty much a done deal -- except of course for red state foot-dragging, which I am sure will continue indefinitely.

Ha ha, he defines a scale of societies that goes from Western European to blue states to red states to 3rd world dictatorships.

Other interesting FFTKAT:

  • Most of the "icemen" found preserved from 10s of 1000s of years ago have some kind of injury likely inflicted by another human.
  • The notion that medieval knights were anything vaguely resembling chivalrous is totally disabused.
  • Prior to World War 1, there was much writing and sentiment on the nobility of war and martial virtues. A lot of these writers were Romanticists. The senseless carnage of WW1 put an end to that.
  • The 60s did represent a step backward in decreasing violence as many societal strictures were loosened. But things started moving in the right direction again in the 90s. The Romantic movement of the late 19th century was also a step backward.
  • Pinker disagrees with the "Freakonomics" theory that violence started downwards 18 years after Roe vs Wade because there were far fewer unwanted (male) children born to enter their violent years at age 18. Several other statistics show that the math doesn't work.
  • Pinker feels that the protection of children may have gone too far. He seems to have enjoyed dodgeball as a kid, and is sorry that is now mostly being banned :-(
  • Surprising to me, since the 90s people have mostly quit spanking children.
Chapter 8, "Inner Demons" looks at the causes of violence behavior in the human mind. Firstly, there is the Moralization Gap. We all have horribly myopic vision in conflicts: both sides completely overestimate their offense and hurt and completely underestimate their culpability in the situation. This is why Leviathan and the Rule of Law are so important. They introduce a 3rd party, i.e., The Law, to view things impartially.

Getting into actual brain structure, we are shown:

  • the Rage circuit;
  • the Seeking system -- I think this would formerly have been the Pleasure system;
  • the Fear circuit;
  • the Intermale Aggression or Dominance system. These 4 systems are in all mammals.
  • the frontal cortex, which receives input from the components of all 4 systems above, and also has some control over these systems.
Next, a fine list of roots or types of violence, which engage these systems in varying ways:
  1. Predation. Violence as a means to an end.
  2. Dominance. Not confined to just males.
  3. Revenge. Lots of discussion of The Prisoner's Dilemma here. Also a discussion of practical steps to end long running real world conflicts.
  4. Sadism. Apparently an acquired taste??? Torturer's initially want nothing to do with it, but grow a taste for it???
  5. Ideology. This is the one that really drives the body counts through the roof. The Nazis, the Communists in Russia and China both killed millions or 10s of millions.
Finally this chapter dismisses the notion of Pure Evil. The atrocities that occur can be explained without invoking any such concept.

Chapter 9, "Better Angels", looks at the parts of our mind and culture that control and mitigate the sources of violence in the previous chapter. These are:

  1. Empathy. Pinker says that the recently discovered mirror neurons don't really play that big a part here. FFTKAT, "empathy" the word has only been around since 1904, and didn't really start meaning "sympathy" and "compassion" until the 1940s
  2. The expanding circle of sympathy: from kin to babies, fuzzy animals, to the needy.
  3. Self-control. It's actually a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And it can become tired from its being used. Self-control and deferred gratification are strongly correlated with every measure of individual success.
  4. Oxytocin -- the "cuddle hormone".
  5. Moral sense; this is one of the more interesting discussions, see below.
On moral sense, the modern Western view sees as the most important moral issues fairness, justice, the protection of individuals, and the prevention of harm. The older, religious approach had lots of other issues as well: loyalty, respect, obedience, asceticism, and regulation of bodily functions like eating, sex and menstruation.

Three different organizations of moral concerns are presented. The first by Schweder:

  1. Autonomy -- the rights of individuals;
  2. Community -- the responsibilities of the individual to tribes, clans, families, etc.
  3. Divinity -- the world has a divine essence, so we must protect bodies from degradation and contamination.
The second organization by Haidt splits #1 and #2 above into 2 categories and renames #3, for a total of 5:
  1. Fairness/Reciprocity;
  2. Harm/Care;
  3. In-group Loyalty;
  4. Authority/Respect;
  5. Purity/Sanctity.
Pinker likes best the 4 relational models of anthropologist Allen Fiske -- note, order different than 1st 2 systems, with each model being more advanced than its predecessor:
  1. Communal Sharing or Communality; resources, ceremony, myths shared; oxytocin based.
  2. Authority Ranking; your basic hierarchy/pecking order; testosterone based.
  3. Equality Matching; tit-for-tat and the silver and golden rules; based on many high order brain functions.
  4. Market Pricing/Rational-Legal; civilization and the Rule of Law.
Fiske attributes the increasing civilizing of the world on the older, hormone-based models being increasing replaced by the the newer, higher order function models.

So regardless of the grouping, morality consists of following the rules and conventions of that domain. Weird is the case where you apply one relational model to a resource ordinarily governed by another. Rather than being perceived as wrong, it would be perceived as shocking or disingenuous -- "like a diner thanking a restaurateur for an enjoyable experience and offering to have him over for dinner at some point in the future (treating a Market Pricing interaction as if it were governed by Communal Sharing)." Taboos come from resources that are considered sacred, which may not be traded for anything -- like someone offering to buy your child. Three kinds of tradeoffs:

  1. Routine -- occurring within a single relational model;
  2. Taboo -- pitting a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another;
  3. Tragic -- pitting 2 sacred values against each other, i.e., Sophie's Choice.
Politics is reframing Taboo tradeoffs as Tragic tradeoffs. And political ideologies are defined by which relations are emphasized. Liberals only care about Fairness/Reciprocity and Harm/Care; conservatives care about everything.

Pinker discounts any recent biological evolution in the decline in violence. The Warrior Gene hypothesis -- that a low activity version of a gene that controls MAO-A (which breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain) makes people more violent -- is shown to be pretty weak.

The Flynn Effect -- that IQs have been increasing by 3 points a decade for as long that they have been measured -- is identified as a helpful influence. Studies of it have shown that the increase is mostly in abstract reasoning. 100 years ago, people would refuse to think abstractly -- they were too grounded in the real things around them, in their farms or villages. Plus, the average person now understands and uses dozens or 100s of abstract concepts that used to be confined to academia. Pinker wonders, could there be a moral Flynn Effect?

Ha ha, a study is cited that shows that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives. Well, of course!

Finally, chapter 10 (phew!). Factors that have not contributed to decreasing violence, or that could have increased violence but did not are discussed. Then there is a big discussion with the Prisoner's Dilemma transformed into the Pacifist's Dilemma. At face value, preemptively attacking your neighbors wins, game theory-wise. The factors opposing this: Leviathan; gentle commerce; feminization (women in more positions of power); the expanding circle of sympathy (books really help this, and surprisingly fiction more than non-fiction); and the increasing use of reason.

He finishes up refusing to make any predictions for the future, but the outlook is definitely one of optimism. So, as in the title, good news! I highly recommend this book. Despite its length, it really is a very easy read.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We Now Return To Our Regularly Scheduled Program

Almost 2 months without a blog post, what a slacker I've been. Well, we've been having a beautiful mild summer, highs mostly in the high 70s to mid 80s. So I've had lots of nice walks and bike rides. In addition to the 61 mile ride on July 4 in Raleigh, I did a 70 mile ride with my friends Tim and Ed on the Little Miami Bike Trail a few Sundays ago.

This past Sunday I did a 50 mile ride (49.8). It was longer than I expected, I made a wrong turn east of Georgetown. I was on Crumbaugh Road, which I had not planned on, and I'd stopped in the shade at the top of a hill to try to check the map on my phone -- which I have trouble using when biking because of the outdoor light and no reading glasses. I heard 2 male voices talking and thought, "I'll ask them for directions". They were in a small apple orchard and seemed surprised to see someone walking a bicycle towards them. They gave me directions (left at the end onto 460 to the Georgetown bypass), but the funny thing was, one of them was Graham Rowles, who coached my son Adam's U-14 soccer team and was active in LYSA for the years I was (and beyond). First soccer run-in I'd had in a while, I used to get them all the time.

Just after turning off of Newtown Pike onto Johnson Mill Rd, saw this interesting dam. I'd never seen one constructed like this.

But, there are really two reasons that the blog is late:
  1. I had been anticipating the new Charles Stross novel so much, and then didn't really like it that much. What to do?
  2. I read my 1st evolutionary psychology book in quite a while: Stephen Pinker's latest, and it was 829 pages. Generally an easy and very informative read, but still, 829 pages is a fair amount. But, finished yesterday, yay!
So, first, the new Stross novel is "Neptune's Brood". It is set in the same universe as his earlier "Saturn's Children", but 2500 years later. Like the earlier one, it has no (biological homo sapiens) humans in it, just our android children.

One of the reasons I was psyched for this book was the fact that most of its plot centers on economics, which, along with music, has been my avocation since I retired. And there is some interesting stuff there. First, 3 kinds of money:

  • fast money, aka cash;
  • medium money, aka stocks, mutual funds, etc;
  • slow money, which is what is used to fund expansion to new star systems. It takes years to cash, as it must be validated by both the issuer and a certifying agency, both in different star systems, with no FTL communication.
There's also the realization that slow money represents a form of Ponzi scheme. I think I've mentioned that at some level, all investments are Ponzi schemes. If nobody wants to buy your investment, it's worthless. So you have to keep bringing new money into the system.

The heroine of the book is a nun/accountant/historian. She's an expert on financial scams, particularly those involving the development of FTL travel, which does not exist. She's looking for a "sister" of hers who has gone missing, possibly with a legendary financial instrument. The search takes her to interesting places and includes a run-in with pirates/insurance agents/branch bankers. It is the normal inspired zaniness you expect from Charles Stross.

So I think the 1st thing that kind of disappointed me was the heroine. She is definitely a "hero with feet of clay", who soldiers on and won't give up her quest -- but still, just somehow too timid in outlook.

And the 2nd disappointing thing was the ending. I think everything got wrapped up, but, still it seemed to end too abruptly. I reread the last 20 pages and still felt that way. But, I have found this to not be uncommon in Science Fiction.

So of course, I highly recommend the book. I probably need to get a little less information on future content I'm interested in to avoid getting myself over-anticipating a release.

I think I'll cover the Pinker in another post.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Music Input / Music Output

Wow, stuff going all the way back to April!
  • Overhover, "Time Capsules II", 2012. Another Brooklyn band -- that playlist is getting long. Fairly nice tunes, not particularly memorable. 3 stars.
  • Iron & Wine, "Ghost On Ghost". Really singable, enjoyable songs. 4 stars. Need to check out more of his material.
  • Flaming Lips, "The Terror". These guys have gotten so conceptual. This sounds like a soundtrack. Lots of noises. There is also a track "The Terror (Full Album), 54:58 long -- hmmm, the other tracks total 46:46, so not just them all played together. 3 stars.
  • Phoenix, "Bankrupt!". Seems a bit more ethereal in the arrangements than earlier work. No really memorable songs. 3 stars.
  • Fitz & The Tantrums, "More Than Just A Dream". Motown lives. Really catchy, danceable tunes, great arrangements, really like the vocal duo. 4 stars.
  • Little Dragon, eponymous (2007) and "Machine Dreams" (2009). So I went back and harvested the 1st 2 albums by the swedish/african american techno R&B group. The more I listen to these the more I like them. The grooves are so sparse but compelling. 4 stars for both. I shuffle play my 4 star and up playlist fairly often. And both of these, I thought, I will be happy when any of these songs come up.
  • Vampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City". Nothing jumped out at me from this, except for finding the vocal synthesizer used on "Ya Hey" to be somewhat annoying. But, the more I'm listening to it, the more I like it. So, 4 stars.
That brings us up to the middle of May, time to go to Europe!

On the output side, For the last 2 months I have been one of the hosts of the Tuesday Night Rock n Roll Party @ Henry Clay's Public House, on Upper across from the old courthouse. Here's the FaceBook group if you want to join and get invitations every week. Joining me in hosting are Brent Carter on guitar and vocals, Logan Lay on bass, and Evan Strippelhoff on drums. David Ponder, a most excellent vocalist and guitarist, filled in for me when I was Europe and for Brent once -- nice to have him in the mix.

Maybe trying to play a little less blues. A couple of decent turnouts, one really slow night. Some good new people who I'd never played with have been out. Need to get some of those back.

So with this every Tuesday, Blues Jam at Cheapside Wednesday and Jammin' at Paulie's on Sunday, getting a lot of playing in. Sometimes I play real well, other times not so much so. I'd feel that with this much practice, the trend is hopefully upward.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Classical Economics Reminds Me Of Creationism

My study of Economics proceeds. I would by and large say I am pretty discouraged by what I am finding.

Last week I finished reading "Keynes The Return Of The Master" by Robert Skidelsky. (Note: many edits/revisions to this post, it still misses much of what it could have communicated, but it's getting old and needs to ship.) Skidelsky is considered one of the greatest living Keynes scholars, having written a 3 volume autobiography. He is also a coauthor of "How Much Is Enough: Money And The Good Life" which I greatly enjoyed and harvested much wisdom from and posted about here.

So this book reviews (New) Keynesian vs (New) Classical economic theory, and then explores how Keynesian ideas could have helped prevent the Great Recession, and could help get us out of the Great Recession.

Classical economic theory is pretty scary. It still adheres to the 18th century principles of Adam Smith: that free unregulated markets will always be the best economic system. So we should all trust "the invisible hand" to make everything work out in the long run.

It reminds me of Creationism because it is not a science that gathers data, creates and tests hypotheses, and graduates the successful ones to theories. Just as Creationism starts with the answer -- god created everything -- and then seeks to filter and warp data to get to that answer, classical economics also starts with the answer -- free, unregulated markets are the best -- and works backwards from there.

The framework this creates is, well, bizarre. Or to quote Skidelsky, "To the non-economist they will seem mad". Economics is basically about equilibriums, particularly between supply and demand. To that we add:

  • the rational expectations hypothesis (REH). This says that all the agents in a market -- buyers, sellers, workers -- will always act rationally to further their own best interests. This implies things such as, workers will immediately be willing to work for less as soon as they see that the demand for their labor is dimished. Yeah, right. It also implies that all the agents have perfect knowledge of everything. It has as a cousin the "wisdom of the crowd" thinking we now see re the Internet.
  • real business cycle theory (RBC). Originally Classical economics denied that there should ever be boom or busts. It added the idea of business cycles where something changes, like oil prices, regulations, or weather, or a new invention comes out, creating a shock to the system, with a boom or a bust until the system regains equilibrium.
  • the efficient market theory (EMT). This says that "shares are always fairly priced" -- again ignoring partial information and time lags. Risk management models are based on this, and are modeled with Gaussian bell curves -- which ignore the possibility of "Black Swans" -- events 10 or 20 sigma (standard deviations) off of the bell curve mean.
  • Say's Law which says that "the supply creates its own demand". I guess this implies "marketing is king".
  • the Arrow Debreu model assumes "that all trade takes at one unique point. ... Time only featured in the form of 'futures markets'". This seems like a very elegant simplification to make the math easier, but, saying that at each instant in the history of an economy, its entire future is predefined seems nonsensical.
  • Open, efficient markets will create full employment.
  • The latest New Classical thinkers use Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE models) as their workhorse. Gots to figure out how to code me up some of those ...
According to Shidelsky, New Keynesian economics uses a lot of the same concepts, but then tacks on Keynesian concepts. So let's move on to Keynesian economics.

  • All markets have uncertainties that cannot be predicted by equilibrium models.
  • Agents will hold rather than invest or spend money when high levels of uncertainty make them afraid. This goes into models as LM: Liquidity/Money.
  • Risk is measurable, uncertainty is not.
  • Following the crowd is a strategy that diminishes uncertainty.
  • Government regulation can help manage uncertainty.
  • While Classical economists believe that slumps should be combatted solely by the central banks increasing the money supply, Keynesians also believe that direct government stimulus (spending) may be necessary. This assures that the money doesn't just get created, but also get spent. Re what is going on now: the Fed has increased the money supply by a factor of 3, but mostly the money is just being hoarded.
  • Say's Law is repudiated. The current Great Recession is attributed to a lack of demand, which Say's Law says should not exist. Demand problems, which can be acerbated by agents' uncertainty making them save rather than spend, are the root of busts, rather than supply problems.
Shidelsky sayes New Keynesians attribute market failures -- booms or busts -- to "asymmetric information". For example, in the 2008 meltdown, the traders, ratings agencies, and other insiders knew that the CDOs (Consolidated Debt Offerings) were crap, the people they were selling them to absolutely didn't.

Ahhh! I had forgotten about this. The stick figure cartoon that completely explains the subprime crisis! Subprime => sublime!

Another thing that is completely ignored by classical theories is that in our globalized era, capital moves around much easier than labor. Labor does move, as view immigrants in lower (or higher) paid jobs worldwide, but it's a lot harder to physically move your person, and possibly your family, than it is to do an international funds transfer. So the labor market must adapt to changing conditions much more slowly than the capital market. Which makes (New) Classical models === shit.

The next section of the book talks about Keynes. I guess I'll have to read a bio at some point (it would join Albert Einstein and Harpo Marx on the list of biographies I've read -- I've never been much on them). He didn't like math. He believed in economist intuition, pretty scary. He got his experience with economics as an investor. He fairly successfully managed his own, his friends, and some institutional funds. He was political and a persuader, like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz are today. He died young, age 62 (says the 62 YO man), in 1946.

So now, let's look at history according to, which school of economics was winning.

  1. From the 18th century until the Great Depression, Classical economics ruled.
  2. Keynes formulated his ideas and published them during the Great Depression. Keynesian principles, in the form of the Bretton Woods agreements, were used to build The World Order after World War 2. But in the 70s, the Keynesians pushed too hard for government control and regulation. Additionally the stagflation (high unemployment and inflation both, which is not supposed to be possible) of the late 70's gave more ammunition to the conservatives.
  3. The New Classical domination begins in the 80s, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deregulating everything, busting unions, and otherwise trying to regain the classical ideal of completely free, unregulated markets. Milton Friedman ("the gnome of Chicago???") was the intellectual leader of the New Classical economists. An additional factor that is mentioned: the fall of the USSR and the general failure of Communism took the pressure off of Capitalism to appeal to the working classes. So the capitalists basically then put the pedal to the metal.
  4. The Great Recession now has New Keynesians on the upsurge. Particularly since the predictions of the New Classical economists -- notably hyperinflation from the 3x money expansion that the Fed has done -- have been completely wrong, while the predictions of the New Keynesians -- notably that austerity measures in face of a weak recovery would throw countries back into recession -- have been mostly right.
Skidelsky then compares the periods 2 and 3 above. In general, he finds that the economy did much better during period 2. Interesting that there were no recessions (GDP annual growth less then 3%) in period 2, while there were 5 recessions during period 3. Period 2 had average GDP growth of 4.8% versus 3.2% in period 3 -- 50% greater growth rate before "greed is good" became ascendant. Unemployment was also lower, 4.8% versus 6.1% Meanwhile, income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed in period 3, with the 1% now holding 40% of wealth, while the bottom 40% of Americans have less than 1% of the wealth.

Keynes was actually as much of a philosopher as he was an economist. He thought that economy, wealth, and money were only means to the end of achieving "the good life". Instead we have:

Today, wealth increase is the only goal that Western society has to offer.
Jesus Christ said, "It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." -- one of his teachings that has been universally ignored since the advent of Protestantism.
OMG, the number of times I have thought about all those Escalades lined up, waiting their turn to try to drive through the eye of a needle! So sad that irony is completely lost on modern evangelical christians :-(

Keynes thought that capitalism would be phased out once its work was done; that there'd be plenty for everyone; and that we'd all have 15 hour work weeks. People of his time simply could not imagine the greed and the selfishness that would become sanctified from the 80s onward.

Part of this is in the nature of money. I can look at my possessions, and make a judgement, "I have enough of those". With money, it's harder. It's hard to know that you have enough money to last to the end of your life, given that you are (rightfully) afraid to rely on Social Security to take care of you in your retirement.

Ha ha, Keynes preference was for

arranging our affairs in such a way as to appeal to the money-motive as little as possible, rather than as much as possible.
Keynes also rejected economic Darwinism. Interesting too, he predicted that our modern system of huge corporations and mega-banks would be much more liable to shocks than the older individual investor model, which does seem to be the case.

Similarly, the New Classical economists have stated that the new forms of derivatives, of which CDOs are one example, help to create a "perfect market", where every type of trade imaginable can be made. And they further claimed that this "perfect market", with every form of asset interconnected with every other, would provide greater stability against shocks and bubbles bursting. Instead, it did the opposite: one component went bad and brought the other components under stress as well.

Which reminds of a thought I've had re the massive failure of the ratings agencies (S&P, Moody's and Fitch). They had no math, but you would think that, when creating an investment vehicle from multiple components, the rating cannot be greater than that of the lowest rated component. Instead, I think they basically did the opposite: use the rating of the highest rated component. These guys are getting sued and fined pretty heavily, but as with everything about 2008, there will be no criminal charges. Here is an in-depth article on the failure of the ratings agencies by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone.

An interesting point: Canada pretty much sailed through the 2008 crisis. No banks had to be propped up. Why? Because banking in Canada is not such big business as it is in the US and UK, such that Canadian banks did not have the political clout to get themselves deregulated. So they could not partake in the type of risky behavior that caused US and UK banks to fail.

So going forward?

  1. Break up the big banks. Now that the mega-banks know that their failures will be covered by the federal government (i.e. our tax dollars), they are back to the same risky behavior and wealth-extraction-quick schemes that led to the 2008 collapse.
  2. Put back in place some version of Glass-Steagal, which separated commercial and investment banks and insurance companies.
  3. Require banks to have more reserves and less leverage.
  4. Help with the growing inequality by more heavily taxing "unearned" wealth, particularly via estate taxes.
  5. Wealth in the US has to quit going so much into the pockets of the 1% and into investment in new businesses, products, and infrastructure. Everyone is uncertain and sitting on their money (keeping it liquid) instead of buying and investing.
There is a weird note towards the end of the book. Skidelsky proposes changing how undergraduate economics is taught, to make it much broader, and he proposes splitting microeconomics from macroeconomics for postgraduate study. Seems to me like that will take a long time to make a difference with current problems. But, as I said at the start, Economics as a science or discipline certainly does not impress me as it is now.

Seems like I've tried to cover a lot of the topics of this book, but I have just scratched the surface, and have, I am sure, incorrectly summarized some of the points. But surprisingly, this is not a long book and is a fairly quick read. It was the best overview of economics that I have read so far. So I do recommend it highly.

To summarize:

  • Classical economics => free markets good, government bad. And, as this is a conservative formulation, of course feel free to ignore any and all data to the contrary. Government attempts to affect booms and busts always just make things worst. The Great Depression and the Great Recession were both caused mostly by there being too much money and credit in circulation, which created bubbles that popped.
  • Keynesian economics => uncertainty exists, free markets are imperfect and will go through booms and busts, government money policy and stimulus spending can help with these.
So what is it that discourages me? The (New) Classical models, with their end-of-time predictability, seem completely bogus. It's funny, my hero, Paul Krugman, I think in the prefix to "Fix This Depression Now", since it's the only book of his I've read, says somewhat, "I wanted to study psychohistory, like Hari Seldon of the Isaac Asimov Foundation novels -- and economics is as close as I could get."

So what is really lacking to me is sociobiological concepts. As I see it, bubbles are driven by herd behavior. Something starts trending up, and everyone rushes to get onboard. And then, when bubbles pop, herd psychology pushes everyone to sell, sell, sell, even if they're losing money.

But, Consumer Confidence numbers are published. Are Business Confidence numbers also published? I'll have to research that. Those could easily fit into models to try and measure uncertainty.

But instead of realistic sociobiology in economics, we have explicit anti-science -- how can we prove no matter what, that free and unregulated markets are the best, regardless what of all available data says?

OK, back to the books, study continues ...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A 4 Dimensional Picture

The reviews said that "The Shining Girls", by Lauren Beukes was a scary, creepy, great read. I commented on her 1st novel here and on her 2nd novel here. This one is quite a bit different from those. I bought it in hardcover at Joseph-Beth because it sounds like a good vacation book to share.

The book is indeed as good as the reviews suggested. It's about a serial killer in a time traveling haunted house who kills young women from the 1930s to the 1990s. For each victim, we get a little bit of their life story in their unique decade before the gruesome and disturbing murder scene. The heroine -- the one who got away, but who is now kind of a freak because of the horrible scars he left her with -- is believable and sympathetic in her pain, and the supporting characters are good too.

A lot of the details of the time travel go unexplained. The chronology of the story jumps around across 7 decades. At the end, you are left with a 4 dimensional picture that to me was elegantly complete and better with the lack of details.

I left the book in Florida, to scare one of my daughters or daughter-in-law when they visit. Definitely recommended, 4 stars.

Addendum: I just finished "Salvage And Demolition", by Tim Powers. This is a novella in clapbook form I picked up from the library. It also was a nice, simple time travel tale that bites its tail and vanishes like the Beukes story does. A nice quick read.

I also recently liked the movie "Looper". I think it's maybe the best time travel movie I've seen, not sure why. But again, it is a pretty 4-d picture.