Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

An optimistic view of the future

In Posts on May 31, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Humanity in the 20th century withstood repeated global war, the aggressive expansion of two persuasive but ultimately horrific political systems, unprecedented strain on Earth’s resources, and the rapid diffusion of the first technology ever to threaten our survival as a species. And yet, eleven years into the next century, the unmistakable trend among most human populations is toward longer lives, concern for human rights, and a shared access to both the truths of science and the accumulated wisdom of world culture. Since optimism is so rarely practiced in persuasive writing, it might be interesting to describe what we can hope for in the coming century if humanity continues to meet its challenges so well.

We will see the end of predatory, autocratic government, as improving social and economic infrastructure facilitates the continued expansion of human dignity. China, which we presently use to keep ourselves up at night, will continue to modernize until its growing middle class forces a convulsive liberalization; it and other emerging powers will compete primarily economically in a generally benign multipolar world of liberal powers bound by economic ties, resulting in a steadily improving world quality of life. Resource and climate pressures—a major concern—will prove manageable, as necessity sparks the innovativeness and political will to mitigate them. World population will stabilize with general affluence; a more balanced international economic system will make conspicuous consumption and ecological excess (as practiced particularly in the US) more costly and less tenable than at present; and values will continue to shift toward postmaterialism—all leading to a permanently sustainable human relationship with the environment. As with fascism, communism, and slavery in the recent past, humanity will continue to transcend unproductive political and social movements, including religious fundamentalism, oppression of women, racism, and even hardheaded nationalism if it means unnecessary callousness toward foreigners.

Also, one slightly more specific prediction: Western psychology is still shockingly crude, and is due for a massive breakthrough (which I suspect will come partly from understanding and replicating the psychological and neurochemical effects of meditation). Future psychology could make contemporary mental illnesses and their present treatment seem like medieval horrors, and might even help us directly address the fundamental dissatisfactions and insecurities that cause most other human misery. That’s the hope, anyway—comments and jaded lectures on the badness of things welcome.

Why politicians lie

In Posts on May 13, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I recently saw The Adjustment Bureau, which marks at least the third movie I’ve seen (along with Bulworth and Man of the Year) where a political candidate has a crisis of conscience and starts giving folksy, straight-from-the-gut speeches: no spin, no doublespeak, just real talk. The “plain-talking politician” trope is an itch we can’t stop scratching.

Thomas Sowell wrote, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” This is a good statement of the problem facing politicians, but not a complete one. Politicians must grapple not only with economic scarcity, but with all the cold facts of human life: our ignorance, our vulnerability, and above all our mortality. The nature of life itself implies awful suffering, and it’s darkly comic to imagine politicians addressing this suffering in plain language: “Your opposition to abortion is based on religious beliefs that are no longer convincing enough to base policy on.” “Your children’s death was a statistical accident; additional safety legislation to prevent it would cost too much to implement.” “Your people are being unjustly treated by the international system, but acknowledging this would upset a status quo that presently favors our people.” If politicians don’t speak the truth, it’s partly because the truth is sometimes unspeakable.

Like many things in American culture, the straight-talking movie politician is a plausible, alluring impossibility, a wistful imagining of a world without our world’s constraints. Our politicians do sometimes delude us out of selfishness or crookedness; but often, they simply assist us in our self-delusion, our denial of life’s inherent coldness. Honesty starts at home: if we wish for an honest politics, we can start by making sure that our expectations are in line with the nature of the world.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

In Posts on May 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Diminishing marginal utility is the declining power of a good to satisfy us as we consume more of it. It is what drives us to make tradeoffs between goods; as such, it’s one of the most basic principles in classical economics, without which the notion of demand, as we’re used to thinking of it, would make little sense. It’s also, I think, one of the discipline’s most intuitive ideas: I’ve actually felt diminishing marginal utility in the course of a single helping of macaroni and cheese. (It seems to be most pronounced with heavy, cream-based foods eaten too quickly.)

Unless I’m mistaken, diminishing marginal utility also seems to automatically indict high levels of personal wealth as an inefficient allocation of resources, at least in a society that also has impoverished people. Shouldn’t economists be tearing their hair out when they hear that a wealthy woman owns 50 pairs of shoes? Utility is subjective, sure, but it’s hard to argue that anyone enjoys her hundredth flat as much as someone else might enjoy the ability to be properly clothed in the first place. Mainstream economists have rarely been shy about demanding efficiency over other niceties, such as minimum wages, social programs, or famine-ending fertilizer subsidies. Shouldn’t the logic of efficiency drive them to the extremes of Marxist egalitarianism?

To be clear, I think rich people are vitally important to society. For example, many of the philosophical and scientific innovations that made the modern world possible were developed by rich Europeans, or by people with rich European patrons. If Europe had chosen to sacrifice the privilege and leisure of its rich for a slightly less immiserated general population, we might still be in the late Middle Ages. I also don’t believe that massive wealth redistribution programs work, at least not when practiced with the zeal that some sort of reverse World Bank would probably bring to the job. Rather, I mention this example to suggest that the direction taken by mainstream economics might often reflect the shared biases and bourgeois aspirations of its creators—and that the maths underlying the field might be made to match almost any worldview.

How to be slightly better at using Microsoft Word

In Posts on May 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm

I just got done writing three long final papers. Because I had to work quickly, I found myself appreciating some tricks I’ve learned over the years in Microsoft Word. I figured I’d share them:

  • Basic find-replace. Most people will probably know this one. Ctrl+F (holding the “Control” button, and pressing “F”) is the hotkey to do a search for a string of letters anywhere in the document. Ctrl+H is the find-replace hotkey: use it to search for something, and replace it with something else. If you’ve been calling something “organizations” but you meant to call them “institutions,” do a find-replace for “organization” and replace it with “institution.” Don’t search for “organizations,” because you’ll miss anywhere in the document where you wrote “organization” without the plural.
  • Find-replace using bits of words. If you’re looking for a particular phrase you remember writing—say, “the first interdisciplinary approach”—you have some options for how to find it. “the” and “first” are probably all over the document, and “the first” probably is as well; and “interdisciplinary,” “approach,” and “interdisciplinary approach” may appear several times if you’re writing about a few of them. You could search for “the first interdisciplinary approach,” but that takes a long time to type. I recommend doing your search using bits of two-word phrases: letters off the end of one word and the beginning of another. Search for “rst interd”: there probably won’t be any phrases that contain that exact string of letters (and a space) where the words involved aren’t “first interdisciplinary.” As another example, if you think you might have spelled someone’s name inconsistently, search for the few letters you’re sure of. If you use this trick over many decades, you can probably earn back the time you just spent learning it.
  • Text markers and find-replace. If you need to fix something elsewhere in a document, but intend to come back to the section you’re on, leave a text marker where you are. If you leave, for example, {}{} anywhere you intend to come back to, you can later do a Ctrl+F search through the document for all the markers you’ve left. Choose something unlikely for your markers: {}{} almost never crops up in formal academic writing, except maybe as a drawing of two tiny kegs.
  • Scrubbing formatting using Notepad. If you paste in material from other sources, Word will often keep the original formatting, which can take forever to remove. (This is worst for pasting in web addresses from a browser: Word will helpfully convert them to default font and font size, color them blue, underline them, and add a hyperlink.) If you have a Windows machine, you can “scrub” all this formatting by first pasting into Notepad (located in “Programs > Accessories”), then cutting from Notepad and pasting into Word. Careful—it’ll also scrub italics and other kinds of formatting. There may be a similar program in Apple, but I’m not sure because I’m not a hipster.
  • Important hotkeys. Most people probably know most of these, but: Ctrl+F is “find”; Ctrl+H is “find/replace”; Ctrl+Z is “undo”; Ctrl+Y is “redo”; Ctrl+X is “cut”; Ctrl+C is “copy”; Ctrl+V is “paste”; Ctrl+I is “italics”; Ctrl+B is “bold”; Ctrl+U is “underline”; Ctrl+S is “save” (you should probably get in the habit of saving every minute or so—every time you complete a thought. It’ll eventually be automatic); Ctrl+N creates a new document; Ctrl+O is “open.” Holding down Shift and using the arrow keys will let you select blocks of text. Holding Ctrl+Shift will let you select one word of text at a time. Using a mouse to do any of these things is usually a lot slower.

Well, hope that’s helpful. If you know any other stuff like this, I’d be glad to hear it.

Disclaimer: This knowledge will probably not help you find a mate.