Monthly Archives: April 2016

We can’t save the economy unless we fix our debt addiction


Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy, Author: Michael Hudson.

By Michael Hudson – As an economic process, financialization makes money through debt leverage — taking on debt to pay for things that will increase income or the value of assets: for instance, taking out a loan for education or a mortgage on a property to open a store.

But instead of using credit to finance tangible industrial investment that expands production, banks have been lending to those who want to buy property already in place — mainly real estate, stocks and bonds already issued — and to corporate raiders — those who buy companies with high-interest bonds.

The dynamic is more extractive than productive. Corporate financial managers, for example, can raise their company’s stock price simply by buying back shares from investors — financing the move by borrowing money. But in addition to raising debt-to-equity ratios, these short-term tactics “bleed” companies, forcing them to cut back on research, development and projects that require long lead times to complete. more>

If the universe cares about us, it has a funny way of showing it


Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Author: Thomas Nagel.
Origin of Species, Author: Charles Darwin.
Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Author: Norbert Wiener.
After Virtue, Author: Alasdair MacIntyre.
The End of History and the Last Man, Author: Francis Fukuyama.
The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen, Authors: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw.
Darwin, Author: Tim Lewens.
The Goldilocks Enigma, Author: Paul Davies.

By Steven Poole – Nagel says that the appearance of conscious beings such as us can be described as the universe waking up. In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel’s suggested teleology does not involve a creator; it is merely a law-like tendency in the universe that somehow loads the dice in favor of the appearance of consciousness.

As Nagel puts it, it might be that the universe exhibits ‘a bias toward the marvelous’. If so, it would not be surprising that consciousness had appeared, because we live in a universe whose very purpose, aim, or telos, is the production of consciousness.

Nagel has a cosmic horror of the fluke, because it is so unconsoling.

But what if the appearance of life and consciousness just were sheer flukes?

What if they probably wouldn’t happen again if you ran the universe from the same initial conditions?

What if there are a great many different universes, and life just happened to arise in ours but not in most of the others? more>

Are There Barbarians at the Gates of Science?


The Barbarians, Author: Alessandro Baricco.

By Robbert Dijkgraaf – Science becomes less visible to the general public—metaphorically, but also literally, since much present-day research is done behind the closed doors of laboratories and universities and published in specialist journals behind paywalls.

The latest scientific research can literally be found in our bloodstream and in our pockets, in the form of the latest drug or smartphone. If 50 years ago the genetic information stored in our DNA was mainly a grand concept guiding basic biological research, nowadays it is used every day in diagnoses and treatments.

Similarly, in the pioneering days of computing, some thought that a few of these massive machines would be enough for the world’s demands. Now, almost every appliance has some computing and communication power.

What does the evolving frontier of knowledge mean for society’s relationship with science?

The distance and depths to which science can go depends crucially on the fears and imagination of not just scientists, but also the public. more>


Why Spinoza still matters


Ethics, Author: Bento de Spinoza.
Theological-Political Treatise, Author: Bento de Spinoza.
The Tempest, Author: William Shakespeare.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Author: Mark Twain.
Hard Times, Author: Charles Dickens.
Spinoza: A Life, Author: Steven Nadler.
A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, Author: Steven Nadler.

By Steven Nadler – In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza [2, 3, 4] was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds.’

At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defense of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely.

In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment [2, 3, 4, 5] values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests. more>

Why Is America So Bad at Promoting Democracy in Other Countries?

By Stephen M. Walt – At the risk of stating the obvious, we do know what doesn’t work, and we have a pretty good idea why. What doesn’t work is military intervention (aka “foreign-imposed regime change”).

The idea that the United States could march in, depose the despot-in-chief and his henchmen, write a new constitution, hold a few elections, and produce a stable democracy — presto! — was always delusional, but an awful lot of smart people bought this idea despite the abundant evidence against it.

Using military force to spread democracy fails for several obvious reasons.

First, successful liberal orders depend on a lot more than a written constitution or elections:

They usually require an effective legal system, a broad commitment to pluralism, a decent level of income and education, and widespread confidence that political groups which lose out in a particular election have a decent chance of doing better in the future and thus an incentive to keep working within the system.

Because a lot of social elements need to line up properly for this arrangement to work and endure, creating reasonably effective democracies took centuries in the West, and it was often a highly contentious — even violent — process.

To believe the U.S. military could export democracy quickly and cheaply required a degree of hubris that is still breathtaking to recall. more>

How Information Graphics Reveal Your Brain’s Blind Spots

By Lena Groeger – Chances are, you probably think your mind works pretty well. It might lead you astray now and then, but usually it helps you make good decisions and remember things reliably. At the very least, you’re probably confident that it doesn’t change depending on the time of day or what you had to eat.

But you’d be wrong. Our brains fool us all the time. And we typically have no idea that it’s happening.

Mental tendencies like loss aversion (we regret losses twice as much as we enjoy the equivalent gains) lead us to pull money out of the market when we shouldn’t. Our own minds sabotage our best intentions.

In addition to memory, our own tastebuds can be altered by seemingly trivial details of our environment. Did you know that eating soup out of a blue bowl makes it taste saltier? I didn’t either. more>

In proof we trust

By Dominic Frisby – The impact of record-keeping on the course of history cannot be overstated.

William the Conqueror’s [2, 3, 4, 5] Domesday Book [2, 3], compiled in 1086, was still being used to settle land disputes as late as the 1960s.

Today there is a new system of digital record-keeping. Its impact could be equally large. It is called the blockchain.

Imagine an enormous digital record. Anyone with internet access can look at the information within: it is open for all to see. Nobody is in charge of this record. It is not maintained by a person, a company or a government department, but by 8,000-9,000 computers at different locations around the world in a distributed network. Participation is quite voluntary. The computers’ owners choose to add their machines to the network because, in exchange for their computer’s services, they sometimes receive payment. You can add your computer to the network, if you so wish.

All the information in the record is permanent – it cannot be changed – and each of the computers keeps a copy of the record to ensure this.

It is the breakthrough tech behind the digital cash system, Bitcoin [2, 3, 4], but its impact will soon be far wider than just alternative money. more>

Can Math Capture Markets?


Chance and the Sovereignty of God, Author: Vern Poythress.
The Scandal of Money, Author: George Gilder.

By Jerry Bowyer – For Poythress one of the implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem [2, 3] is that human beings have the ability to transcend lower systems of thought by writing higher sets of logical rules which incorporate the lower ones.

No model can capture everything, because humans can take any model, and then create a ‘higher’ model which incorporates the lower one. Even if one could create a mathematical model which fully captures all market activity, it would become obsolete the moment that it came into existence.

Think of it this way: the moment someone creates the perfect stock price prediction algorithm, people would start to use it and they would change the dynamics so that the model no longer worked. Then they would start to analyze when it works and when it doesn’t and why it does and why it doesn’t, and at that point they’re creating larger models which incorporate the formerly perfect model.

As long as people can keep thinking, they can keep innovating, and that means they keep transcending the prior math. more>

Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance


The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Author: Robert Gordon.
The Rise of the Creative Class, Author: Richard Florida.
The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business, Author: Clayton M Christensen.
Shock of the Old, Author: David Edgerton.
More Work for Mother, Author: Ruth Schwartz Cowan.
Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks, and Regulations, Author: Lee Vinsel.
Open Standards and the Digital Age, Author: Andrew Russell.
Ada’s Legacy: Cultures of Computing from the Victorian to the Digital Age, Authors: Robin Hammerman, Andrew L. Russell.

By Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell – Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era, embraced in America by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the Washington DC political elite.

As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation.

What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labor that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting too much from them in the way of moral and social improvement.

The ambition to disrupt in pursuit of innovation transcended politics, enlisting liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative politicians could gut government and cut taxes in the name of spurring entrepreneurship, while liberals could create new programs aimed at fostering research.

The idea was vague enough to do nearly anything in its name without feeling the slightest conflict, just as long as you repeated the mantra: INNOVATION!! ENTREPRENEURSHIP!! more>

Not All Practice Makes Perfect

By Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool – We live in a world full of people with extraordinary abilities—abilities that from the vantage point of almost any other time in human history would have been deemed impossible.

But while the abilities are extraordinary, there is no mystery at all about how these people developed them. They practiced.

No matter what field you study, music or sports or chess or something else, the most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles.

But there is one very important thing to understand here: Once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance—your driving, your tennis playing, your baking of pies—you have stopped improving.

Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.

Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal. more>