Sunday, December 12, 2004

Basketball -- A Different Pace

An observation I read on the ESPN sports page struck me as somehow connected to more than just basketball.

The observation was that all of the truly great basketball players -- Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson -- have something in common, and it's not a particular move or a specific physical trait. The weird trait they have in common is that they all move on the basketball court at a different speed than everyone else on the court. Everyone else moves and flows with each other, but the greats always seem to move at their own personal pace, and by virtue of their presence force the game to move with them. The odd thing is that this pace is not necessarily faster than everyone else -- often times, it's slower. The commonality is that through any game there is a calm poise that each player holds, so that regardless of the situation they continue to play their game at their pace, and let the game come to them.

This tidbit tied into a conversation I had at a weekend brunch where this guy told me about how when he was a kid his parents discouraged him from crying after little things like scraping a knee or not getting candy he wanted. His parents told him to keep a "stiff upper lip" and taught him that even when things don't go his way, it's important to keep a hold of himself. He was taught to be tough at an early age, and to not sweat the small stuff. He told me that nowadays he's a stock trader, which is a very high-pressure job, and that his early childhood was the best preparation he had for that because when he's at his job and people are yelling and screaming, it doesn't get to him because he was taught early on that it's not a big deal when things don't do your way, you just get up, brush yourself off and move on.

I'm not exactly sure how these two items tie together, but they struck me as intimately related. Perhaps it is the notion that in basketball and life, the great ones out there don't let the small things change them. They don't panic or sweat the small things, but continue to have confidence and faith in themselves, and let the game come to them.

Friday, November 12, 2004


I've been reading a book entitled "Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient" by Norman Cousins. The big idea in this book is that a critical component in the prevention and healing of disease is the patient's will to live -- his ability to mobilize his own body's defenses through a positive attitude and a proactive approach towards his own health. This idea was a breakthrough when it was written in the 1970s, but at this point it's a generally accepted principle. The effectiveness of somewhat dubious holistic medicine as well as the placebo effect can be explained by pointing to the psychological effects these things have on the mind, which in turn helps the body heal itself in a real and positive way. The book also stresses the need for emphasis in preventative medicine and nutrition, a stance that in modern times is generally accepted and even commonplace.

Lepers were given as an example of why pain, which is still approached as a bad thing to be eliminated with painkillers, is a positive and necessary component to biofeedback. Leprosy, and its corresponding loss of appendages, was for a long time seen as a degenerative disease that caused limbs to fall off. A doctor by the name of Paul Brand discovered, through his studies at a leper colony, dispelled that misconception. He realized that the main thing leprosy does is deaden the nerve receptors in the body, making the person unable to experience pain or even sensations of pressure. With the absence of feedback, a leper will accidentally severely damage or even break off his limbs, and when sleeping on the street rats would bite off parts of them without them being able to notice. The moral of the story is that in his lifetime Dr. Brand worked to restore the gift of pain, because pain is what tells us both that something is wrong and that something must be done. What must be done is not necessarily taking painkillers, but getting to the root of the problem, which may be injury, disease, or even psychological causes like stress.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity

This entry will explain as best as possible Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity and how it came about, as told by Gary Zukav's "Wu Li Masters."

In the year 1905, the same year Albert Einstein had published his paper proving that light exhibits particle-like properties, he also presented a paper solving the problem of the constant speed of light. It was well-known at the time that light of any kind always travels at 186,000 miles per second. The Michelson-Morely experiment displayed a curious thing, though -- light was ALWAYS measured to be travelling at 186,000 miles per second, even when the observer was quickly moving towards or away from the light source. This was confusing because one expects the speed something appears to travel to take the motion of the observer into account. For instance, if you are driving in a car at 75 miles per hour and a car is coming towards you at 75 miles per hour, it would look like the car was approaching you at 150 miles per hour. So it was considered a great puzzle that light somehow appeared to move the same speed no matter what speed you were moving towards or away from it. Physicists were asking how it was that light could change its speed relative to each observer like that.

Einstein solved the problem by assuming what was being questioned: that light really did travel at 186,000 miles per second, and that it would always appear to travel at that speed regardless of the observer's motion. In this way, the puzzle of the constant speed of light became the Principle of the Constant Speed of Light. Those two things being assumed true, and assuming that observers were taking the measurements in the exact same way, there was nothing left that could vary but time itself. So Einstein decided that time, mass, and distance itself changes with velocity. This way, light would appear to be going the same speed as it always does regardless of the observer's motion, because the length of the ruler and the rate of time changes in proportion with the change in velocity. By assuming to be true what was being questioned, and completely throwing out what was assumed to be true, Einstein made his breakthrough. Light speed was made constant, and mass, length, and time were made relative to the motion of the observer. This assertion leads to fairly exotic results, like the fact that as an object approaches light speed its mass approaches infinity and time slows to a stop.

This however is impossible to do because as it nears the speed of light, and increasingly immense amount of energy is required to increase speed because it is also increasing mass, which requires more kinetic energy to move. The most popular equation related to this breakthrough is E=MC2. This relates to Einstein's assertion that mass and energy are not merely related, they are the same thing and can be converted back and forth. This is why mass increases as speed goes up: the kinetic energy of motion makes the moving material essentially gain mass because it is gaining energy, because mass and energy are one and the same. In this equation, E=energy, M=mass, and C2 is the speed of light squared, which is a very big number -- the point being that each bit of matter is composed of an enormous amount of energy. This discovery led scientists to figure out how to blow atoms up to convert mass into energy, hence leading to the invention of the fission and fusion atom bombs.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Peter Singer: The Horns of Bush's Dilemma

I am posting this LJ Entry from November 18, 2003 because of the following things of note:
A. The post yielded quite a lengthy and interesting discussion on stem cell research.
B. It raises an underlying issue regarding the importance or irrelevance of axiomatic consistency in ethics.
C. It spurred my personal interest in the controversial modern philosopher Peter Singer.


Last night at New York University I attended a lecture by Peter Singer, a contemporary Utilitarian philosopher who is attaining both fame and noteriety for his hard-line ethical stances on animal rights and infanticide. This evening was not about his own personal theories however...for this lecture he had one goal in mind, and that was to point out the inconsistency in the moral and ethical doctrines set out by George W. Bush.

Mr. Singer hardly looks the type of man you would expect to be crusading for the lives of chickens, let alone taking on our President with a sharpness that rivals Howard Dean. He is a thin man with a calm but pronounced voice, with wispy clouds of hair hovering around a receding scalp, wearing a wrinkled white dress shirt with collar unbuttoned and an equally creased brown sport coat. He never appeared angry when he spoke, but there was a certain energy to him when he put forth his argument point by point, which through the course of the lecture became almost overwhelming in its power -- it was the sort of argument that is so simple that it seems inevitable. Mr. Singer unloaded one bullet in his philosophical gun, but he only needed one.

Indeed it seemed to me that Mr. Singer was fulfilling a role philosophers should play in politics -- point out logical inconsistencies within our ethical, moral and political structures. Audience members later asked the philosopher whether he thought Bush was "psychologically troubled" to which he replied that he was not an expert on foreign policy or psychology or politics -- he was an expert in reason, and it was in this function that he would contribute.

The crux of his argument lay in the inconsistency between Bush's stances on stem-cell research and war. Stem-cell research uses stem cells taken from discarded embryos, often taken from artificial insemination procedures -- when a couple wants to have a child they fertilize up to a dozen eggs in hopes that 1-3 will fertilize, then implant the eggs in the potential mother's uterus, and sometimes more than 3 eggs fertilize in which case the extra embryos are either frozen, thrown away or used for this research. Stem-cell research is being used to try to find cures for diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimers, and has the potential for saving millions of lives. Bush has banned such practices because he is strictly pro-life -- Bush's argument runs that regardless of the potential benefit the research can have, it is at the cost of these human embryos, which have the same human right to live as we do. The embryos are not killed intentionally, as in the case of abortion, but are simply the means to an end, researching cures for diseases. So in the case of stem-cell research Mr. Bush says that the ends do not justify the means, that the loss of human life cannot be justified by its potential benefits to humanity.

On to War. In the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, on multiple occassions the military chose to bomb residential areas in hopes of killing hiding Iraqi leaders, including Chemical Ali and Saddam Hussein. This was done after Baghdad had already been taken over and the first chapter of the war, so to speak, had been completed. When asked about the decision to perform military bombings that would inevitably kill innocent civilians, Mr. Bush said that while the killing of women and children was not their intention it is a foreseen consequence, but it was justified by the necessity of killing Hussein and his evil allies. He argued that the U.S. was doing its best to minimize civilian casualties, but that some killing of innocents was necessary and justified by the potential benefit, that is, the overthrowing of the evil governments of the Taliban and Iraq, the bringing of democracy to the Middle East, and the weakening of terrorism in order to save future American lives. In other words, Mr. Singer says, Mr. Bush thinks the ends do justify the means in war, and the loss of human life can be justified by its potential benefits to humanity.

At this point I knew what was coming, but the weight of it still hit me hard. Mr. Singer puts forth the Horns of a Dilemma -- though seemingly unrelated, Mr. Bush's stances on stem-cell research and war in Iraq and Afghanistan are philosophically inconsistent. He cannot say in the case of stem-cell research that any loss of human embryonic life is unacceptable regardless of potential benefit, and then turn around and bomb residential areas and justify it with their potential benefit. If Mr. Bush wants to have people take his ethical and moral stances seriously, Mr. Singer argues, they must have an internal consistency. Either Mr. Bush must lift the ban on stem-cell research to be in line with his views on war, or he must admit to war crimes for the killing of innocent lives in Iraq to be in line with his stance on stem-cell research. If Bush, on the other hand, only applies his axiomatic ethical principles in certain cases and not others, he undermines the weight and necessity of his own arguments. That is the dilemma.

And that was it. No big condemning rant at the end about Mr. Bush's hypocrisy. That was not Mr. Singer's role -- he was merely putting forth a dilemma, and put it up to Mr. Bush, and the audience, to decide what to do with it. As Singer put it, "I think it's important to create a discussion about these things." It was a refreshing experience -- and indeed I think that Mr. Singer's got a good point, not just about Mr. Bush, but in general on the role philosophy should play in the modern world. Philosophers are experts in the examination of rational belief systems, and as such they have a role to play in modern policy because they are able to see inconsistencies within our ethical stances -- philosophy is not a toy or irrelevant artifact, it is a powerful practice with practical uses in the discussion of today's issues. Mr. Singer, as an ethicist in particular, feels that he and other philosophers have a civic duty not to merely write obscure works and get tenure, but to use their abilities to help the public understand the logic (or lack of it) in our own views and actions. I think he might be on to something.

Epicurus, from an old LJ entry

The paragraph below was an entry into a LJ entry on October 13, 2003. I wrote it while reading books and other internet materials on Epicurus, a Greek philosopher I particularly like who had a philosophy based on a hedonism so moderate that the lifestyle it recommended ends up looking a lot like that of a buddhist monastic. This is in no small part because he favored long-term hedonistic good over short-term pleasures, and pleasures of the mind over that of the body. He had other ideas as well, about the Gods and of Physics, which the following paragraph describes.

"It never ceases to amaze me how early modern concepts started. It turns out Epicurus was one of the first to originate neo-Darwinian thought, because he sought to explain the efficient design of human beings by a process of natural selection, rather than by the design of Gods, which he felt existed but were not involved with the daily workings of men's lives. This apathetic-pantheon was also his solution to the Problem of Evil, saying that evil existed in this world despite the existence of gods because those gods were too busy hanging out with each other to be concerned with mortals. The Gods, exercising the high hedonistic ideal, are role models for than influences in everyday life. Epicurus also was a big proponent of mind-body identity, saying that mind and body are closely interdependent, though he felt that the mind rested in our chest rather than the head, because whenever we feel anxiety or happiness we feel it in our chest. (He was ahead of his time in most things, running parallel with much modern thought, so I'll give him some slack on this one.) Same goes for his postulation that we see images of things because those objects give off waves of atom-thin sheets that hit our eye and show us their pattern. Even in his time he should have struck that one down just by the fact that torch and candle-light illuminates objects -- if objects gave off atomic sheets of their own image on their own, than darkness or light would not matter to vision. But at least he got the waves thing right, and correctly guessed that we were not directly perceiving objects, but taking in with our senses images made up of actual physical material that is being given off by those objects."

Weird Ideas on the Infinite Microcosm

This is an entry I found in my old LJ archives. It's not knowledge, per se, or even well-founded ideas. It's more like out-there notions I've had about the universe that I put into words on September 22nd of 2003. I thought I'd place it here as well, because as weird as they are, these ideas have a place in a Journal of Knowledge.


The Infinite Micro/Macrocosm

It is a pet theory of mine that the universe extends infinitely outward and inward - it lends a certain fractal elegance to the world, because no matter how far outward or inward you go, there would be endlessly recursive pattern and order. Having infinite levels of smallness and bigness also places one (and everything) squarely in the middle of it all - one is both infinitely small and infinitely large depending on your perspective. It also opens up free-your-mind hippie conceptual possiblities, like saying that universes are contained in our fingernails, and our whole universe might be in a much larger being's fingernail and so on. When I look up at the sky I feel like a speck in a sea of nothing, but it's strangely comforting to think that I, too, might be also a vast sea of nothing where infinitely countless specks live and feel small in. Atomic theory already tells us that we're mostly empty space anyway, so all we need is tiny people on tiny planets living there within the quantums of quantums in every atom, looking out as far as their little telescopes can reach, the boundaries of their universes set by the outer limits of the electron clouds. Extravagant sorts of wild hypothesizing to be having while eating pepperoni pizza on my lunchbreak.

Shaking It Up

Then it occurred to me that these universes might be problematic, and indeed my own universe might be too in this view. Say I clip my fingernail universe off, or shave my chin stubble universe off, or any number of sudden movements. Or even the slowest, most gentle changes in momentum I can possibly do... those little microcosms are being rocketed back and forth at seemingly infinite speeds in any direction every time I turn, or twitch, or do anything at all. Wouldn't all of these universes be thrown apart, utterly shattered, continuously, like little snow globes of people, planets and pulsars? Likewise, our own universe could not possibly exist, they too would be thrown apart every time the uberbeing we are contained in wants to eat a donut - and his universe similarly, all the way up and down the chain none could survive the slightest movement on any scale of being. This pet theory of mine has serious problems. Until I had another idea.

Time Unbound

The idea is that perhaps there are not only infinite scales of space, but also time. What if as things get smaller, they also get faster? Or slower, to look at it another way -- a second of our time might be millennia of millenia to the universe inside my fingernail. As relative time slows down, those movements on the macro scale will also slow, relative to the time frame of the inhabitants of that universe. Entire lives, civilizations, universes would be passing by every moment, and these would be moving so fast that even the most sudden movements on our scale would be so miniscule on their time-frame that they would be unnoticed. Similarly, our universe goes on a certain timescale that makes our entire history, from Big Bang to utter collapse and annhialation, a blink of an eye or less to that macroscale being we are a part of. And so on, up and down the scale. I'm not certain, having only thought about this for half an hour, but I think that would solve that particular problem. And there's a certain elegance to postulating infinite scales of time following infinite scales of space. It follows the defining feature of my personal paradigm -- that the world makes sense, and simply so, because it is the result of infinitely simple rules repeated over and over to form the complexity we see.

Speed of Light

A thought that occurred from this infinite scale of time and space was this: perhaps this is the reason for the speed of light. When one approaches the speed of light, relative time supposedly slows down in relation to the observer. A person on a approaching-light-speed ship would feel that things were going about normally, but everything around him was slowing down. Mass also increases, to the point where reaching light speed the mass becomes infinite and time stops -- hence the speed of light becomes an uncrossable limit in this universe, something that we cannot break. But the speed of light pokes another possible hole in my theory of infinite scale -- these microuniverses would have the same limit, would they not, and so their world could not move fast enough to keep the pace required in their scaled-down time frame. Universes can't explode and collapse in a fraction of a heartbeat if they are limited to the same speeds as we are. I'd rather not throw out my pet theory, but I'll have to if it comes to this, or Einstein's theory, which is much more well-thought-out than mine. But I don't have to.

See, the speed of light in our universe is enforced by mass. It's not actually an absolute speed limit, it's a relative speed limit that is set by the ratio between mass and change in space vs. change in time. In our universe, it works out to a certain mile per hour based on distances and times that are relevant to us. But in this grain-of-sand universe, the time frame is geometically smaller, at first seemingly requiring faster-than-light speeds to operate, but the distances and mass involves is geometrically smaller too. So that same Einstein constant can be used on the microcosmic scale and everything would be fine. They would run into that exact same barrier, but due to everything being on a equivalently shorter scale, their universe would function in the same way as ours. On the opposite end, beings living on the macro scale would discover that same time-space barrier -- their mass would be geometrically higher, seemingly making the speed of light lower -- but relative to us their time is geometrically slower, so from their perspective the speed of light may be covering the same relative distances. And so on, up and down the scale. As scale increases so does mass, and perceived time slows so that motion never surpasses the space-time constant, but on each level the speed limit for that scale universe also remains constant. Kind of a neat idea. But this brought up a new question in my mind -- all of this talks about the relationship between absolute time and space, and the relative time and space of the observer on each scale of size. What about consciousness itself -- the subjective perception of space and time. Are there scales of being as well?

The speed of thought

Let's say that your mind is sped up by some hyper-drug that causes your whole thought process to move faster. You're now able to do things twice as fast, anything from do math problems to shop for groceries to react and dodge things you normally could. When you do this, does your own consciousness speed up? Or does it slow down for you -- or to put it another way, do things around you seem to be moving slower relative to you, while you do your thoughts and actions at the same perceived pace as before? OR, does everything seem to be at the same pace, so that things around you seem to be moving just as fast as before, only you are more able to keep up the fast pace? There are extreme cases in comic books, like where a character called The Flash keeps an entire city safe by running down every street and stopping crime wherever it occurs, continuously every minute. Think about how long it would take for us to jog through every street of a large city. To The Flash, would it seem like that much time, or would it seem like a blink of an eye to him too, only his mind and body are working so fast that he can keep up with it. Yes, it's a comic book, but beings living in the tiny universes inside my fingernail or in grains of sand etc. are all The Flash. Their lives and their universes would pass in the blink of an eye, but would it seem like a blink of an eye to them, or a lifetime? In other words, is there an absolute constant of consciousness, or is that also relative to the observer?

If the speed of consciousness is constant, microuniverse beings with infantesimally small lifespans would be aware that their lives were ridiculously short. The whole thing would whirl by in their minds at a seemingly infinite clip and would be over, but in that time they will have been born, grown up, dated, gotten married, had kids, grown old, and passed away. Similarly, beings on the macrolevel would be aware of how slow things were happening - their lives would feel like it was moving at a snail's pace, though they would be possibly unbothered by it. This idea at first feels wrong to me -- because I think that the slowness or quickness of time is entirely related to the pace of the subjective experience. I postulate that consciousness moves at a pace relative to the observer, and internally it seems absolute it takes in different amounts of information based on the scale of the universe it inhabits. But there are personal experiences that confuse me on this. Having taken a certain prohibited drug that disables the time/space sensing part of the brain that regulates perception of time, I have found that during that time of use I found time to be extremely slow. I at first assumed that since it seemed to be moving slowly that I was moving slowly -- but I found out that I could actually speak and act at a normal pace without major concern. But I was moving and acting at my normal pace, not any faster or slower, but to me it seemed like everything was slower or I was quicker. Now, my previously held view that consciousness relates to the real-time perception of changes in time and space runs into some serious issues when I realize that there is a specific physical part of the brain that tells us how our actions and observations relate to the perceived flow of time, and drugs can alter its input or disable it completely. What does this say about consciousness? Is our perception of the flow of time not linked to the scale of our universe, nor to the nature of consciousness itself, but to a particular mechnism of the brain that, if altered, can give us an entirely different experience of that timeflow? This third problem with the universes of scale idea is possibly the most devastating problem. And it might raise problems in this universe as well. Could there not be people in this world that, despite living perfectly normal lives, experience life as moving much, much more quickly than we do, thanks to an inborn variation in whatever brainpart regulates perception of time? Or people whose relatively short lives feel to them like millenia? It's hard for me to wrap my mind around this one, but right off the bat I can say that I have experienced life moving faster and slower and felt, under influence, times where I was unable to tell. I see no reason why people could not live at either extreme. This would mean that for possible infinitely big and infinitely small universes, the relative internal speeds and laws are functions on the scale of their mass and size in the absolute, but the experience of living in those universes, like the experience of living in our own, could be following any scale at all...

My father on Taking Chances

Recently I decided to take a new job, despite being more than a little uncertain about whether it was a good job for me and whether taking it would be leading me in a good direction. He quoted a line that I like from Theodore Roethke's "The Waking":

"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go."

I'm not sure I entirely understand the quote. But one possible interpretation is that one should be willing to take chances and venture into the unknown, because those unknown places and things and people are only known by approaching them. Speculation is easily trumped by first-hand experience.

Gary Zukav's "Wu Li Masters": Scientific progress

Gary Zukav's book "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" explains quantum mechanics in non-mathematical terms so that liberal arts majors like me can understand it. Since this book is a summary of everything we've learned in physics since the dawn of time, it is both incomplete, and also so packed full of ideas that I'm not going to reduce it to one entry. All I want to talk about in this entry is the question of what science is.

In school, I remember being taught that science is basically fact. The laws of Newton is how things move, the Atom looks like so, Evolution happens this way, etc. But what is not discussed much, and what certainly wasn't taught to me when I was very young, is that even the most firmly established theories are just that: theories. Science is a philosophy of total skepticism, where every theory however long-standing can be disproved with a single counterexample. Further, it doesn't claim to know what's actually happening in the world -- it's simply creating a predictive model that most simply and effectively predicts our observations of the world. It says nothing about why things are there either -- it only speaks of what we can observe and predict.

One of Einstein's way of explaining science was to say that science was like guessing at the contents of an unopenable watch. We can guess at the inner contents of the watch, and make elaborate theories about what's inside the watch, but in the end the best we can hope for is a theoretical model that exactly matches the outside appearances of the watch. The "ideal limit of knowledge", then, is to find a theory that is internally consistent and explains all observable phenomena.

The problem, though, is that in everyday life it is easy to forget the tenuousness of scientific "achievements." It is easy for centuries-old laws to be treated as fact and for one to even posit that science has shown us *why* things happen. For instance, why do things fall towards Earth? Gravity, of course. But what causes Gravity? Why, it's a Scientific Law. But we don't know why gravity happens, nor can we ever. Gravity's just an imaginary force we made up to explain and predict the behavior of bodies of mass. And we don't actually know Gravity always works. This seems ridiculous to say considering how consistent it's been, but one could say the same thing about Newtonian Physics. And one of the main tasks of the book is to explain Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Mechanics exists only because Newtonian Physics was shown decisively in the past century NOT TO WORK IN THE REALM OF THE VERY SMALL. All it takes is one counterexample.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Asimov's Foundation Series: Psychohistory

I have recently finished the Issac Asimov science fiction series "Foundation." I will explain the major "big idea" that drives the series: Psychohistory.

In a way, the idea of psychohistory is inaptly named, because it has more to do with sociology than psychology. Perhaps Asimov should have called it sociohistory, but no matter. Psychohistory doesn't exist yet, but conceptually it is a field that could exist. The idea is as follows: groups of people behave in certain predictable ways. In sociology we already have certain predictive principles, though not reliable. Asimov bets that in the far future, our own social studies will become more accurate until we are able to find probable predictions for group behavior. One of the reasonings behind this is that though individuals can make an impact on a small scale, as population goes up the group dynamic falls under more and more predictive power in the same way that individual particles fall under laws of gas dynamics when they increase to a certain number. The population of an entire universe would be sufficient to start finding predictable patterns in overall behavior and to start generalizing group dynamics into mathematical probablities. This could be highly accurate, but it would never be an exact science: it would be more like predicting the weather, where as time continues the ability to predict events becomes increasingly difficult.

This was Asimov's starting point, and the 5-novel series is both a melodrama following the progression of a society engineered by Hari Seldon to eventually establish a Galactic Empire, and a discussion on whether it is indeed possible to predict and control the path of a culture. Asimov's ultimate view is that extraordinary individuals will always be able to make large impacts on group behavior, so that free will can still override circumstance. This is not to say that we won't be able to predict or manipulate with increasing accuracy the behavior of human society: simply that it is impossible to completely control because, like the weather, there'll always be things that people can't anticipate.

Economic Basis of Free Trade

My friend Martin explained to me the basic economic principle behind the idea of Free Trade Agreements. I'm not especially strong on the concept yet, but I'll try to explain. The reason the principle is important is because for any discussion on the pros and cons of free trade between nations or even regions, if one doesn't understand the principle driving the idea than one is missing the basis of discussion. There are many advantages and disadvantages to Free Trade, but the following principle is what drives it at the core.

Say you have two states, Florida and Washington. In this example, each state only produces two products: apples and oranges. Now, each state has different proportions in which they can produce goods: say Florida can use its resources to produce 10 oranges and 0 apples, or 6 apples and 0 oranges, or some ratio in between like 5 oranges and 3 apples. Now, say Washington has the opposite situation, where it's better at producing apples so it could produce 10 apples, or 6 oranges, or some balance in between like 5 apples and 3 oranges. Now, if they were to set up free trade between the two states, each could optimize their own production keeping in mind that they could barter for other items. So Washington could make 10 apples, Florida would make 10 oranges, and they could swap so both end up with 5 apples and 5 oranges. The best they could get in isolation would be 8 fruits in mixed variety or 10 of only one fruit, whereas in free trade they could get 10 fruit with variety. So the result of free trade is that both sides get a greater abundance of everything.

What is interesting is that this principle, in a completely free market, will work to the benefit of both sides regardless of the proportions. If Florida could produce 100 times the volume of Washington, both sides would still benefit by trading. This is because in a pure free trade barter, the sides will only trade if it is beneficial to both sides to do so. If they decide not to trade at all then the situation will be no worse than if they were in complete trade isolation, and at best there will be an increased abundance for both parties. So theoretically, Free Trade is always good.

In reality this is not necessarily the case. There are tons of ways in which this ideal model breaks down in favor of one country over another. But it is still important to understand the thinking behind free trade before jumping to the criticisms of it. In understanding the basic principle, both its flaws and benefits in a real world situation will make more contextual sense.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Basic Singing Technique

I picked these tips up from my girlfriend and my father who have had singing lessons, as well as my mother who has taught singing to her students.

In vocal technique there are certain basic principles that, more or less, apply to all singers regardless of singing style or genre. Two core principles are this: the force of the voice must be supported from the diaphragm muscle, and that the sound should resonate upwards and outwards through the mouth and nasal cavity. The first principle can be accomplished by using the push of the belly muscles, rather than the direct contraction of the rib cage, to push air through the throat. The second principle is harder to explain, but it involves learning vocal control which allows one to shape the mouth and throat so that sound from the vocal cords resonates well in the front of the head.

This is hard to do without feedback, though. One way to get feedback is by getting voice lessons. You can also listen to yourself carefully, but this is sometimes misleading because when your sound is actually resonating correctly, sometimes it will actually sound quieter to your own ears. You can record yourself to hear what your voice sounds like to others: your voice will sound brighter and clearer when it is being projected upwards and outwards correctly. Another test is to touch the bridge of your nose to feel whether the vibrations from your singing are resonating through your nasal passage. If you are correctly using the head itself as a resonating box for your own voice, you will feel some vibration on the ridge of your nose.

A final tip I have been given is that in increasing the volume of your voice, do not try to force the sound through your upper register. This is not as effective and may damage your voice and over time cause nodes. Instead, make yourself support your sound using your diaphragm, and over time that muscle will get stronger which will increase your volume.

Buddhism, Taoism and Conquering Uncertainty

I write this after remembering a conversation I had a few nights ago when I attempted to explain the parallels between Taoism, originated by Lao Tsu from China, and Buddhism, originated by Siddhartha Gautama of India. I may not end up stating things 100% correctly because this is my own interpretation of Taoism and Buddhism based on memory, but here goes.

Because of the interaction of these two religious philosophies in the early years of their establishment, some would say that Taoism and Buddhism grew to be more or less the same thing. It is true that there are subtle differences, but it is also common for people to practice both without conflict. One of the major parallels is the assertion that much of human misery is caused by people's discomfort with uncertainty and change.

Buddhism asserts that the nature of the world is to be transient, meaning things are always changing and everything is temporary. It is an illusion to think that anything lasts in its current state, including oneself and other human beings. Change is also unpredictable, so uncertainty is another unavoidable quality. Because of this, one can only be certain that he or she will eventually die, but even then one can't be sure of when that will happen. Buddhism asserts that one key to conquering human misery is to take this issue on headlong, and become completely comfortable with the transience and uncertainty of the world instead of dodging the issue like most people do, which is to live in an illusion that can and does break down continually.

Taoism approaches the same thing from a different angle. Taoism asks what the best way is to live an optimal life. The world is perpetually in a state of flux and transience, and as such any method of living that resists change would be continually difficult and frustrating. It would be like swimming upriver, Lao Tsu writes, it is going against the current of the world so that each stroke is met with harsh resistance. The best way to live is to go with the flow, then: in embracing the world's flux and learning to adapt quickly and easily to change. The way to do this is to reach a taoist state of relaxed but alert awareness, similar to the Buddhist zen state, which allows one to continually adjust to the changes life throws at you. By being aware of change and acting in accordance with it instead of against it, one ends up accomplishing much more and it will seem relatively effortless: this is often said to be "doing without doing". To live optimally is to, again, become completely comfortable with the transience and uncertainty of the world.

The Tastes: How Many?

It used to be said that there were four basic tastes that the human tongue could detect: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. All tastes were simply mixes of these four tastes, along with aromas picked up by the nose.

Nowadays many specialists posit a fifth taste called umami. Umami can be described as the taste of meaty or savory or delicious. It is a sensation that the food is somehow "full" -- it is undecided whether this taste really exists or not, though monosodium glutamate (MSG) seems to stimulate it.

According to ayurvedic food practices, the tongue can detect 6 tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungeant, and astringent. In this theory of eating, all meals should include all 6 of these tastes to be fulfilling.

"No Logo" by Naomi Klein: branding corporations

The ideas presented here are mostly from the quintessential subversive book of the decade, "No Logo" by Naomi Klein that I read almost a year ago. The reason I'm writing about it now is because I am inserting my own interpretation of what she presented based on my learnings about basic game theory and strategy.

Naomi Klein writes that there's been a fundamental shift in the way that corporations are increasingly structured. There are two big differences. First, companies are multinational, meaning that one country alone cannot enforce regulation on them. When a company is in one country regulations and consumer demands from that country's population can readily apply pressure towards change of various kinds. But as a company becomes increasingly multinational and decentralized, it loosens its grip from any one country or its population applying pressure, and can in some cases put pressure on whole countries to conform by threatening to shift its jobs or even its center overseas. This decentralization of a company is advantageous to a company because it makes it adaptable and less prone to the ups and downs of a specific market.

The second big difference is corporations become pure marketing machines that don't actually produce anything. The branding model severs a company from its own production, outsourcing literally everything to third-party companies that produce the goods, distribute them, do human resources and office management for them, and possibly even create and market their brand for them. The result is that many corporations are, in essence, only a boardroom of stockholders with almost all elements of a traditional company outsourced. This new structure is advantageous in the same way that becoming multinational is advantageous -- a company becomes more adaptable to change and can scale up and down and shift readily by simply changing outsourced contracts.

Both of these big changes relate to the decentralization of corporate structure on an external and internal level. The negative results that Naomi Klein points to with a whole book full of examples are all due to the increased inability of governments, individuals, or groups of individuals to enforce any sort of ethical restraint on these companies. The companies are, in fact, modeled strategically and specifically to avoid being susceptible to market or governmental pressure, but these same structures cut it loose from outside accountability. And it is a piece of common knowledge that corporations don't inherently have a code of ethics. Their structure is bent towards maximizing the profit of their shareholders, not promoting a common good. Ethical pressures always come from without, and that is why decentralization of corporate structure is dangerous -- it loosens the hold of accountability between a corporation and its consumers. It also makes it increasingly difficult for a corporation to control its own ethics, because much of its activity is outsourced and ethics becomes relative to the country. In any case, problems regarding intrusive branding, sweatshops, shifting jobs overseas, pollution are a direct result of decreased ethical accountability due to the decentralization of corporate structure.

Naomi Klein argues that any structure of corporation, by nature that it is selling something, will be susceptible to market pressure if that pressure comes on a large enough scale. Ultimately, companies will only behave ethically if people factor a company's ethical behavior into their purchasing choices and this happens on a global level. If nothing else, the concept of ethical consumerism is what she wants her readers to take away from her book.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

"Thinking Strategically" by Dixit and Nalebuff

The book "Thinking Strategically" is far too extensive to simplify into a basic entry, but I do want to record an element of it that I think is important to remember.

The essence of Game Theory is that a game is being played when the players have to make their decisions anticipating their opponents' moves, while being aware that their opponents are doing the same thing. This is the basis for all strategy games, but what makes game theory unique is that it posits that one can systematically evaluate winning strategies, turning it from an art to a science. The book goes through many different games that are played in economic, political, and social situations.

The main two games that people play are simultaneous and turn-based games. In simultaneous games the players are acting at the same time with no way of knowing what the other will do. Thinking about these games involve picking the best strategy for the probable choices the other side can make. A problem with this game is the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is a situation where two prisoners can get lighter sentences if they rat on the other person. Both end up ratting on each other to get a lighter sentence, with the ironic result that both go to jail instead of both going free, which they might have done if both kept their mouth shut. The problem is that the temptation to cheat is so great that both sides will end up cheating to avoid the risk of being tattled on while keeping his mouth shut. But the best situation for both sides is to both keep a closed mouth, and in the many situations the Prisoner's dilemma applies to, the question is how to enforce an optimal strategy and keep people from cheating.

The other type of game is turn-based: the book calls it Sequential. In these games, players take turns, so in each move you know what the other player has done, but not what they will do on the next turn. The way you play this game is to look ahead and reason back -- you think about what your opponent would do in response to you, and you to them, in the alternating rounds until you get back to where you are now. But this may lead to an undesirable consequence, so there are ways to Commit To A Strategy, which allows you to turn a Sequential game into a simultaneous one where the other side knows your action. And knowing your action can sometimes be desirable for you because you then have the ability to control and predict what the other side will do accordingly in their own best interest.

There are many other strategies that can be applied to everyday games -- like mixing strategies to keep yourself from being wholly predictable, and brinkmanship as a way to threaten another side without committing to a mutually destructive path. Other strategy games simply explain why things are as they are, like the Prisoner's Dilemma when used to explain why it's hard to get any one person to do volunteer work or give to charity even if the outcome is desirable to all. This book needs to be re-read at a later time because there are far too many useful thoughts on strategy to remember continuously from just one reading.

Tom's Theory of Conversation

In an earlier conversation with my friend and roommate Tom, I learned part of his personally-tested theories on the art of conversation with strangers.

The key to conversation is to talk about things that people are really interested in. But for strangers, you do not yet know what they're interested in so you have to make educated guesses as well as focus on topics that most people care about in general. And in any typical conversation, there are four basic topics that people are really interested in: sex, music, politics, and religion. Many people avoid these topics because they can cause controversy, but in fact they are the best things to talk about because they tap into things that people deeply care about, meaning that the conversation that ensues can be meaningful and hence create a real bond.

Though starting a conversation is more an art than a method, there are certain basic strategies. Observe what the person is wearing, because people wear things, most of the time intentionally, that display their basic values and interests. Then, on your approach make a comment indirectly related to that topic which you think that person is likely to have a strong opinion about. In this way, you can open up the possiblity of talking about something meaningful to that person, which will engage that person with you and make for a good conversation. After a conversation is started it will go where it will, but starting it by segueing into a major topic right off the bat will open the possibility of a substantive interaction, and hence a possible social bond between you and the stranger you have approached.

Daniel Quinn's Theory of Leavers and Takers

I have recently finished two of Daniel Quinn's Novels, titled "Ishmael" and "The Story of B". In both novels he exposed me to his theory of how everything came to be. I will do my best to explain his theory succinctly:

Man in his current form (homo sapiens sapiens) first came to be 3 million years ago. For 3 million years man lived on the earth in an environmentally friendly way, and evolved social systems that worked well and continue working well up into the present day. Some were hunter-gatherers, and some were agriculturalists, but all of them participated in cultures that minimized destruction of other species and limited their own population growth. About 10,000 years ago, in various parts of the world a group of man participated in a new culture whose basis was totalitarian agriculture, which is the agriculture we use today. This process makes a piece of land exclusively to the benefit of man, and as a result greatly increases food production. Increase in food production leads to increase in population, which then requires an increase in land appropriation for increased food production etc. This process started 10,000 years ago has led to our current situation, with a skyrocketing human population in the world and all of the environmental and social impacts that a high population yields.

It is Daniel Quinn's opinion that almost all the negative aspects of today's modern society is due to the abandonment of time-tested tribal culture and the embracing of agricultural overproduction which has led to overpopulation. These problems such as war, famine, plague, and even modern apathy and depression are due to people living in an environment they were not evolved in or for. His solution is hazy, but it involves the limiting of population growth through the gradual limiting of food production, as well as a mental paradigm shift away from the current cultural attitudes.