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Make your charty blog posts chartier

The Hannibal Blog is not really a charty blog. It’s more mappy and wordy and facey. But I know some of you guys do have charty blogs. And for you there is something new and potentially cool: the Data Collective.

It’s a nonprofit, currently in “alpha” (ie, not yet fully released), that wants to improve public discourse by making it less truthy and more fact-based. The idea, as one of the creators, David Joerg, explained it to me, is

  1. that you make interactive, rather than static, charts on your blog,
  2. that readers can click on the underlying data and play around with it,
  3. that anybody can share the chart, as you might share a YouTube video, so that it can go viral.

As David emailed me,

The linkage to underlying data is especially nice because it allows curious readers to play with the data in new ways — making their own charts, verifying a chart’s correctness, pointing out alternative / better data sources, and so on.

And David has an offer:

We are in a private alpha at this point, which means that if you or a friend would like some charts, we’ll happily take your data or your research requests and make a bespoke chart. Later on, we’ll make a website where you can make your own charts.

The brain: sources

For over a year now, I’ve been studying the brain. Why? Because neuroscience might be the single most exciting area of science — nay, of knowledge in general — today. Just the other day, I found myself in a conversation with an 18-year-old cousin and heard myself saying that, if I were to enter university again today, I would choose any discipline that might lead me to neuroscience. (One feels old when spouting such counterfactuals to the young.)

So, given that my own brain is now teeming with newly-acquired insights into the brain and — much more importantly — with newly acquired insights into what is not yet known about the brain, I might amuse myself with a few posts here on the subject.

Just to be clear: This has nothing whatsoever to do with my forthcoming book, nor with my day job at The Economist (where I cover very different things). It’s just one of my little intellectual hobbies.

In this post, I’d simply like to tell you about some of my main sources. The two big ones are:

Robert Sapolsky

1) Robert Sapolsky: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

This is a great course in 24 lectures by a very entertaining character, whom you’ve already met on this blog here and here.

Sam Wang

2) Sam Wang: Neuroscience of Everyday Life

Another good course, in 36 lectures, organized totally differently from Sapolsky’s (as you can easily see by glancing at the lecture titles). The two are very complementary.

I also seem to be reading about specific aspects of neuroscience everywhere these days. The articles are too numerous to link to.

Here is one, by David Eagleman in The Atlantic, on how understanding the brain might or might not affect our notions about criminal justice.

Here is another, by John Tierney in the New York Times, on “decision fatigue”. Like Eagleman’s, it looks at one of many, many topics covered in the lectures by Sapolsky and Wang.

That should give you enough infrastructure to hold me to account as I pen my indubitably outrageous and provocative posts on the brain. Bye for now.

Murphy’s Law of radioactivity measurement

If you’re like me, you’ve been following with great concern the latest radioactivity measurements in various places, from Japan to the US West Coast. What an utterly hopeless task:

  • sieverts
  • grays
  • rads
  • rems
  • Roentgens
  • becquerels

Is this a joke? How are you supposed to understand anything at all from this gibberish?

Well, yes it is a joke, of course, in the same way the entire universe is a joke (and a rather sick one!), as the apocryphal sage Murphy first observed:

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I once saw a booklet of addenda to Murphy’s Law. This week, I suddenly remembered one that seems germane:

Measurements will always be given in the least useful unit: Thus speed will be given as furlongs per fortnight.

Fortunately we have Mr Crotchety, who sent me this chart which, if correct, puts it all in some perspective.

Quoth the Happiness Engineer

What sort of company has a “happiness engineer”?

Automattic does. (That’s the company that gives us WordPress, and thus this blog.)

His name is Hew, as I just discovered.

To wit: Those of you who have signed up to receive my posts by email did not, for some strange reason, receive the previous two posts. And, naturally, I had no way of even telling you.

(You didn’t miss much. At most this.)

So I asked WordPress Support. After a few days of radio silence, Hew replied:

We had a glitch in our email system for a couple of days around your posts that interfered with sending out emails. We fixed it on 9/30, so you should be good to go on your next post. :)

For good measure (Automattic seems to be a company that takes our happiness seriously), I also received a second, separate, reply from somebody else:

Thank you for reporting this issue. We found a small bug in our configuration that prevented the emails from going out correctly around the time you published your last post. It did not affect all blog subscriptions, but your post could have been affected. Unfortunately, those emails cannot be resent. Going forward–the problem has been fully resolved. Your posts should flow again as expected.

So there you are. As soon as I push “publish” I will find out whether this post reaches you. And then we’ll move on with regular blogging.

And those of you who have your own WordPress blogs, beware: Your posts last week might not have reached your subscribers either.

To: Subscribers by email

It appears that those of you who are getting my posts by email did not get the last one.

(That means, of course, that you might not be getting this one either — in which case, you won’t even be able to read this post to know about it. Hmm. How postmodern.)

I asked WordPress Support about this, but they have no answer. Anyway, just letting you know. Perhaps it was a one-off.

America seen through non-obvious places

Courtesy CLUI.org

This picture says a lot about the American character.

Or does it?

The question, rather than the answer, may be the point. That, at least, seems to be the premise of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which allowed me to use this and the other pictures in this post.

The Center is one of the strangest entities I know of. You might ask, what is it?

Let’s start with what it is not, despite the general sound of its name. It is

  • not a government agency,
  • not a think tank, and
  • not a lobby.

Well, then, what? After struggling to answer this question (which is what this post is about), I will venture these two options:

  • a deliberate mystery designed to make Americans aware of their peripheral vision, and possibly
  • an inside job, which is to say an incredibly cunning and subversive satire of America.

But that’s for you to judge. Let’s start with the facts:

The Center is located at 9331 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Outwardly, this is a nondescript block on a slightly depressing thoroughfare of the sort that the city is infamous for. Inside, however, it may be the strangest block in America. For the Center shares a building with the Museum of Jurassic Technology (of which, more in a moment) which is at 9341 Venice Boulevard, just one door down.

The contents of the Center include a vast database of pictures, descriptions, videos, maps and other information about American places. Furthermore, the Center occasionally organizes bus tours to some of those places. This can look as follows:

Courtesy CLUI.org

But that still tells you nothing. Why should this be interesting?

Well, trustworthy sources had brought it to my attention, so I went there for a visit.

Anthropogeomorphology

I chatted with Matthew Coolidge, the Center’s founder, while gazing at a multimedia exhibit (ie, a video) of a stretch of California highway that I’ve driven on many times. It was slightly surreal and yet hypnotic.

“You seem to be drawn to drab, banal or ugly places,” I said to Matthew.

“What is ugly?,” he probed. Calling something ugly is judging, and judging distracts from observation.

My source had prepared me to expect subtle irony, so this was perhaps it. If so, Matthew played his role perfectly. He spoke dispassionately, like a scientist — “anthropogeomorphologist”, is the delightful word he used.

He said, more or less, that the Center’s mission is to make people aware of surroundings they usually try to ignore because they seem un-noteworthy. Office parks. Garbage dumps. Deserts. Highways.

“It’s like negative tourism,” as a friend of mine had put it. In other words, the places of interest are not the obvious ones (Disneyland, The Golden Gate Bridge, et cetera) but all the others. That leaves a lot of places.

For example, America’s vast empty places.

Americans do strange things in them.

Sometimes, for example, (as at the Nevis Range in Nevada) they bomb or nuke them for practice:

Courtesy CLUI.org

Strangely beautiful, isn’t it? Almost like art.

Other times, the places are eerie. Towns like St. Thomas, Nevada, for example. It is usually invisible, having been submerged under Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, when the Hoover Dam was built. But St. Thomas re-appears during droughts, emerging like a ghost town or haunted museum from the waters:

Savoring contradictions

As my source put it, most people who go on the Center’s tours or sojourn in its database soon find that the “juxtapositions accumulate force.” Whatever they might have thought about America before, they are tempted to re-examine it.

But what might the conclusion be? This is what kept bothering me.

Both Matthew and his Center are militant about not having an explicit point of view.

As Ralph Rugoff, an art curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery, puts it, this “flagrant nonpartisanship” is “slightly suspicious”.

If you are at all like me, it is also unsatisfying.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Matthew must have sensed my dissatisfaction when we stood together, for he suddenly asked me: “Have you been next door yet?”

Next door is of course the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

“Not yet,” I answered. “What is it about?”

“The less you know the better,” Matthew answered.

“Are they connected to you?”, I asked.

Matthew seemed to suppress a smirk: “No.”

Suddenly, a female voice wafted to my ears from behind us. “Connected only in spirit,” she said.

I turned, and beheld Matthew’s partner. I had never noticed her entering the room, but there she sat. She was patting a black cat.

Patting a black cat.

I went next door.

A few meters and seconds later, I entered the Museum. I was about to make my voluntary contribution into the money jar when somebody said: “Are you the journalist?”

“I am a journalist,” I answered.

“They said you should go in free,” came the reply.

How did “they” beat me, I wondered. Clearly, there had to be an internal door. I entered.

The museum is — how to put it — disconcerting.

It was dark and clammy. There were — or seemed to be, I can no longer tell — disquieting noises. One exhibit is a model of American trailer parks. Another, about “mouse cures”, consists of two dead mice on toast, with the explanation that this sort of thing was once said to have cured bed wetting and stammering in children. Another exhibit featured “salted teeth.” So it went.

The Museum baffled me even more than the Center next door.

Finally, I pieced together a narrative for myself:

The Museum seemed to be a meta-museum: a museum that mocks museums. It communicates bemusement at the human tendency to put things behind glass and stare at them, and at our underlying ignorance combined with confident superstition.

How, then, was it “connected in spirit” to the Center, as the lady with the black cat had said?

It had to be that the Center comments on America as the Museum comments on humanity, and that both, realizing that they are inside jokes, know that they must never explain the punch line.

Somewhat disconcerted, I left and began contemplating whether and how I might turn this into a story for The Economist, as I had intended. What that led to will be the subject of the next post.

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Man v nature: Simplicity misunderstood

Here’s an important nuance in our evolving debate about complexity/simplicity: We have to distinguish between organic or natural complexity and manmade complexity.

Manmade complexity is usually bad. There is nothing good to be said about a convoluted and incomprehensible system of health-care administration, tax collection, customer support, software navigation, and so forth.

By contrast, organic complexity seems to be not only inevitable but good.

Here is how natural complexity seems to work: As Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching 2,500 years ago:

The Tao gives birth to One.

One gives birth to Two.

Two gives birth to Three.

Three gives birth to all things.

He was describing what we now call the Big Bang: how energy split into two (yin & yang, electron & positron, matter & antimatter), thence into three and then into the whole bewildering world we see around us.

So the physical (Physis = Greek for nature) world is inexorably becoming more complex, as stars cook up new elements and explode to form new solar systems.

Then, as nature becomes biological (natura = Latin for birth), the pace at which it becomes more complex even seems to accelerate.

Evolution means a) that living organisms constantly reproduce with variations, b) that some of those variations will be more adapted to their environment than others and therefore reproduce more, leading c) to new species, which in turn split into yet more species, until d) entire ecosystems come about, constantly in flux and consisting of uncountably many organisms, all feeding off one another.

We could call this complexity but usually we call it diversity. And we consider this diversity good in the sense not only of colorful but also stable.

We do not say, for example, that a given ecosystem has too many “points of failure”, as a computer system might. The opposite is the case: If any link among the ecosystem’s uncountable permutations fails, another connection replaces it. There are redundancies. The ecosystem is self-correcting.

From the point of view of an individual in this ecosystem — an ant, say — the ecosystem might look Hobbesian in that life is probably poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short. Well, not solitary, perhaps. (But the ecosystem did not evolve for the ant anyway. It didn’t evolve for anything. It evolved because it could not not evolve.)

Man, to the extent that he arrogates to himself a special place in such an ecosystem, tends to cause trouble. Like the ant, he would like to put himself first. Unlike the ant, he can. So he …. simplifies what should remain complex. For example, he goes from ….

…. horticulture to ….

… to agriculture, to ….

… to monoculture:

We’ve had good reason for this progressive simplification: Simplicity, after all, is more efficient.

But there are costs to organic oversimplification: Monocultures, for example, are the opposite of human societies, in that simplicity can lead to collapse.

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How the French view my media habits

You might remember that I wrote a post last fall about my own, personal media habits and how they have been changing.

Based on observing only myself, I concluded that, contrary to what you might have read or heard in the media, there is no media crisis for citizens and consumers, who can inform themselves better than ever — and indeed that we may be at the beginning of a second Renaissance.

La Francophonie écoute

Well, somewhat to my surprise, that little post has had quite a career in the French-speaking world. It probably began when Francis Pisani, a respected French blogger in America, picked it up in Le Monde.

A while later, a French-Canadian newspaper, Le Devoir, ran a cover story (picture above) on it. 8O

And now Owni, a cutting-edge website, has not only translated my post but invited two experts to rebut my thesis. (As you know, intelligent rebuttals delight me, because they make me learn and refine my views, which is sort of the point of life, isn’t it?)

Divina Frau-Meigs

The first expert is Divina Frau-Meigs, a media sociologist and professor at the Sorbonne. In her rebuttal, she

  • concedes that access to news and information has become more “democratic” for those who are “intellectually and technologically equipped”, whom she calls the “info-riches”;
  • laments that this does not resolve the economic, social and cultural “divides” — in other words, she worries that people whom she calls “info-précaires” lose out;
  • dismisses the idea (which she believes I espouse) that we can just get rid of journalists, since most citizens don’t have the time to do the hard work of investigating and reporting on the world’s problems;
  • appeals for a wholesale reform of media education, both for the young and for poor adults;
  • sets out principles she believes should guide that reform.

Bruno Devauchelle

The second expert is Bruno Devauchelle, a researcher at a think tank in Lyon. In his rebuttal, he

  • redefines the crisis as one of overinformation;
  • argues that blogger-journalists like me feel good only because we have all the necessary skills to deal with this, whereas most young people today lack those skills;
  • also appeals for better education;
  • calls in particular for teachers to be trained in internet technology and internet culture;
  • calls for new pedagogic techniques.

De quoi s’agit-il?

I will respond to these rebuttals in a separate post. But first, I want to make sure that I do justice to Divina and Bruno. My own French went from passable (circa 1992) to laughable, so the translation was hard work for me. But among you, there may be more proficient speakers of French.

If you’re so inclined, read their rebuttals and put their main points, to the extent that I have not captured them above, in the comments.

And, of course, go ahead and give your own opinion.

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The best tax for America

It is Tax Day again in America and some people left their returns to the last minute (as you can see on this photo, which I took in Los Angeles yesterday.) So I’ll take this occasion to muse about the relationship between America’s tax system and freedom.

One year ago today, I offered some “tax day thoughts on complexity in American life.” The gist of that post was that the complexity of America’s tax system, not the rate of taxation, is what harms freedom in this country. Contrary to what you might think if you go to Tea Party rallies, we are not overtaxed, we are badly taxed.

But I did not offer a better — meaning simpler — alternative system. In this post, which I expect to be controversial, I want to do that. (As always, keep in mind that the views expressed on The Hannibal Blog are mine alone, not necessarily those of The Economist.)

There are many proposals out there for a simpler and more efficient tax system: A flat tax, value-added tax, et cetera. I won’t review them all, but instead pick the proposal that I consider simplest, cleanest and boldest.

The Idea

It is the so-called FairTax Plan.

Part of its strength (ie, simplicity) is that I can describe the entirety of America’s proposed tax code in a few short lines:

  • America’s existing income and other taxes would be abolished. (Not cut, but eliminated!)
  • The IRS and America’s other organs of proto-authoritarian oppression would also be abolished.
  • Instead, all Americans would pay a national sales tax, as most Americans already pay state or local sales taxes.
  • In addition, all Americans would get a prebate — ie, at the beginning of each year, everybody gets a check.

And that’s it!

The drafters of the proposal think that the rate of this new national sales tax needs to be about 23% to provide the same revenues that we now get from the income tax. It might be 28% or 19%. I’m not the least bit interested in that.

The idea is that we raise as much money as we would otherwise raise through an income tax. As it happens, we would need to collect quite a bit less than we currently do, because we would no longer incur the enormous costs of the IRS bureaucracy, auditors and accountants!

Now for the discussion of the advantages and alleged disadvantages of this new tax system:

Advantages

I think the advantages are self-explanatory:

  • You would keep your whole pay check. Ie, your take-home pay would spike right away.
  • You would not have to file a tax return.
  • No more record-keeping! You no longer maintain mountains of paper for wages, the cost basis of your investments, mortgage deductions, childcare and nannies, et cetera et cetera.
  • IRAs, 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, Keoghs…..: You can throw them all into the trash, because all your investments are by definition untaxed.
  • Thanks to your annual prebate (which gives you a certain amount of subsequent sales tax “back”), a portion of your consumption is untaxed, too.
  • But beyond that, all your consumption is taxed, thus making you think twice about frivolous and unnecessary consumption, which reduces your carbon footprint and clutter.
  • Whenever you do consume (either goods or services), you can see the tax you pay on the receipt, in the clearest and simplest manner possible.
  • All this amounts to: transparency (replacing opacity) and freedom (replacing anxiety and bureaucracy).

Criticism

There is only one major criticism of this sales tax, but it is a big one, so I want to concentrate on it.

The disadvantage is that this sales tax, like any consumption tax, at first glance appears to be regressive.

In the current system, rich people pay not only absolutely but relatively more of their income than poor people. (There is a reason why I italicized that phrase. Keep reading.) In the new system, poor people (who might need to spend, rather than save, all their income) would seem to pay relatively more of their income than rich people.

And this seems unfair.

Rebuttal

I’ve pondered this for some time. As you may remember, I am a liberal, correctly defined (ie, libertarian but not loony). And I do worry about inequality, which is inevitable in a free society to some extent but in excess (ie, in America) harms freedom.

Part I

My first response to the above criticism is that our current income tax (ie, that which the FairTax proposes to replace) is not fair either!

Warren Buffett has famously explained how he, as a mega-rich investor who does no “tax planning”, pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, who lives off her meager pay check.

Fairness, it turns out, is not about progressive tax brackets. If you have progressive brackets but exceptions to everything (= “complexity”) you get not fair but unpredictable and arbitrary taxation.

So if you do care about fairness, first join me in stipulating that our current system must go.

Part II

My second response is to ask you to re-examine, as Socrates might, what wealth is.

Is it:

  1. to have vast stores of potential spending power (ie, paper statements of bank balances that produce income)?
  2. or to consume vast amounts of resources, human and natural, with your own or others’ (borrowed) wealth?

Our current conventional wisdom says 1. So if income is the definition of wealth, then a consumption tax is regressive.

I propose that the correct definition is 2. So if consumption is the definition of wealth (as it used to be for almost all of human history), then a consumption tax is fair.

Example: Croesus and Diogenes

Let me illustrate that point playfully by reviving two characters who have previously featured on The Hannibal Blog:

  • Croesus, the ancient king of Lydia who gave us the phrase “rich as Croesus”, and
  • Diogenes, the Greek cynic who chose to live in a barrel (and who is a hero of mine).

Let us assume that Croesus and Diogenes are equally rich in our Number 1) definition: Both get huge amounts of income from assets (Croesus from tribute, Diogenes from the equivalent of a trust fund set up by his benefactor, a wealthy Athenian).

Now let’s think about how the FairTax would treat these two rich guys:

Both Croesus and Diogenes would start every year by getting their prebate check. Their basic cost of living, their subsistence, is thereby pre-paid.

Diogenes can buy the few things he needs (dog food, loin cloth, etc) and his prebate covers the sales tax on these items. He pays no net tax at all, in other words.

(Meanwhile, he has millions in his bank account, sitting idle for him, but being lent out to other Athenians to grow the economy.)

Croesus is different. He sneers at his prebate check, which barely covers the sales tax on a single slave, and spends it in a day. Then he keeps spending: Gold, silver, jewels, women, palaces, feasts, galleys, ….

He consumes immoderately and to the detriment of his planet. But he is free to do so (freedom is one of our goals), and nobody even looks askance at him. However, each time he spends, he pays tax, and he knows exactly how much (transparency and simplicity are our other goals).

The years go by, and Diogenes donates his potential (= hypothetical) wealth to an anonymous Athenian. His wealth has been helping the economy all these years, because it was being lent to entrepreneurs. But now the Athenian recipient spends the wealth. And as he does so, he pays tax.

The taxes on Diogenes’ money were therefore only delayed, until such time as his wealth turned from potential into actual consumption. The taxes on Croesus’ money were immediate, because he chose to spend.

Every single dollar in the economy is therefore taxed, but only when it becomes consumption.

At a very fundamental level, this is how it ought to be. We should not calculate equality based on income but on consumption. If I have more than you but live more modestly than you, I should not pay more than you. This is the mental switch I ask you to attempt.

I believe it is fair that Croesus pays lots of taxes all along, but that Diogenes, who never consumes much, does not.

Effect on politics

A final thought about what the FairTax would do to our political discourse and climate.

Our current tax system is as complex as it is because it is the tote bag for our politicians: Any weird political give-away — to owners of gold mines or race horese, homeowners or Prius drivers…. — gets dressed up in Congress as a “tax break” and stuffed into the code. Each time that happens, society as a whole loses, but nobody notices because, well, the tote bag is too messy to see any individual item in it.

Complexity, in short, is the tool politicians and lobbies use to hide things from our attention.

If we switch to the FairTax, the tote bag is dumped and replaced by two and only two numbers:

  1. rate of sales tax, and
  2. the amount of the prebate check

Every American could understand this system and therefore participate in our debates about government, funding and fairness.

Should more people be exempt from all taxation? Fine, raise the prebate amount.

Is government too big? Fine, cut the sales-tax rate.

But what what if we still want to help particular groups of people? Earthquake victims or people whose homes are being foreclosed, for example.

Today, we would stuff more gibberish into our tote bag and nobody would notice the cost.

Under the FairTax, we could still help these people, but we would no longer do it through the tax code. We would pay these groups actual cash.

This, of course, would be transparent and easy to measure. Once again, we could all debate whether home owners in foreclosure actually deserve this cash (perhaps not) or whether earthquake victims do (probably).

We would understand what’s going on in our country as well as in our own finances, and understanding is the beginning of freedom.

A shocking thought, isn’t it?

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Me against Gray Davis

Well, this should be fun.

An amicable, edifying and ultimately futile debate (the sort The Hannibal Blog loves) in January, between, on one side:

  • Kevin Starr, the preeminent historian of California (and a preferred source of mine), and (see Update below).
  • Sharon Waxman, distinguished journalist and author,
  • Bobby Shriver, Renaissance man and Kennedy/Schwarzenegger clan member, and
  • me

and, on the other side,

  • Gray Davis, the former governor of California, and
  • Van Jones, Obama’s former “green czar”, and
  • Lawrence O’Donnell, cable-TV analyst and, more importantly, father of The West Wing, the most intelligent TV series ever.

My team will argue that, yes,

California is the first failed state.

The other guys will argue the opposite.

Then the audience will annoint the winners.

Feel free to suggest debate strategies/arguments (for either side!) in the comments.

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