Friday, May 28, 2010

WHAT is the dictionary ?

A few words of summary as I continue on structural linguistics.
First off, I am going to ask my readers to suspend their PRESUMPTIONS about just what structural linguistics IS. On this blog, I am presenting MY vision of linguistics, which is based on empirical observation of the structure of our language. I am NOT trying to write a Wiki article, nor am I presenting or summarizing what other people have written on the subject, unless precisely noted.
And in true Rousseauean, and humanist fashion, I try to start with anecdotal observation, and see where it leads (me). And I invite ALL who read this blog to chip in with THEIR observations, when they may be different, for example, or challenge mine.
The ONLY legitimacy, and authority I can claim here stems from the fact that I am totally bilingual, and stumble around in several other European languages too. And that language is a passion for me, and I have been observing IT, and ME through it for over 40 years now. I ask my readers to ACCEPT my authority and legitimacy on this basis, WHILE comparing it with their own observations.
End of methodological considerations, which I will not repeat.
......
My nine year old daughter came home from school one day with a mistake in her schoolwork, and we looked over it together. The French language is structured in such a way that even an educated, cultivated person HAS TO spend three to four times longer REREADING what he/she has written in order to correct mistakes. There are picky little things in French that don't exist in English. Aligning past participles on genders (masculin and feminine) in certain cases. Gender is NOT sex : the moon in French is LA lune, it is a feminine noun, the sun is masculine, for example. Making sure that all those markers go together takes time.
So, my daughter had made a mistake with the word "lorsque", roughly translated as "when".
She wrote it : "lors que".
When I corrected her, she told me, with the closed, scowling face that most of us put on when we are corrected : "but my teacher spelled it that way".
To which I answered.. "um... no, I don't think your teacher spelled it that way." Her teacher was an over 50 year old lady who had an EXCELLENT command of the French language. (As it turns out, in the course of my children's school careers, I NEVER took it for granted that their teachers were always right about such matters... My 11 year old son came back one day from school with a correction that was WRONG in his homework, and we took the time to look it up to make sure... of course we told him that there were some cases where being right can be hasardous to your health... Like blithely driving into an intersection when the light is green as a Mac truck barrels through at a ninety degree angle... What profiteth it a man to be right when he loses his material body (or soul) in consequence ??)
So, in good adult, PEDAGOGIC fashion, I said... "Well, let's get the dictionary out, and see what IT says about the word, shall we ?".
Sure enough, when we looked for the word, it was spelled as I said it was, and as her teacher had corrected.
End of the matter, right ?
Na...
My nine year old looked at me and said... "The dictionary is wrong".
......
I LOVE this story now. It gives me a belly laugh.
But what is really interesting is how I felt, what I thought, and how I reacted when it happened...
Her reaction was an earthquake for me.
It HAD NEVER occurred to me that the dictionary could be.. wrong before.
I was INCAPABLE of thinking this.
So, let's START examining the terrain that her remark opens up. We won't finish today, because it's really somewhat complicated.
CAN the dictionary be wrong ?
What does it mean to hold that the dictionary is RIGHT about a word ?
Geez... what IS the dictionary, anyway ?
Is it a kind of.. Bible, for example ?
Observation number 1 : We have at home several dictionaries of the French language. One dictionary that is over 20 years old. And we just recently bought a dictionary published 2 years ago.
You guessed it. There are words in the dictionary published 2 years ago that are NOT in the dictionary published 20 years ago...
Like there are words in the dictionary 20 years ago that are not in the most recent one.
When I write poetry using the idiom of 16th century English, that I know, and like a lot... am I WRONG, because the words I'm using are not in the most recent English dictionaries ?
If you compare TWO dictionaries from two time periods you will be able to see several things : 1) looking at the SAME word, you will see that its meaning evolves OVER TIME. Words change MEANING, while THEY remain the same. Think for a minute about a word like... "science", or a word like.. "money"... This PERSPECTIVE for looking at language, and culture, we call the DIACHRONIC perspective, because it looks at a stable element over time. The historical perspective opens up with diachrony.
Remember what I said about COMPARING, and its role in determining meaning ?
Here it is again, this method of comparing to extract meaning, like.. comparing the phonemes in oral language to DIFFERENTIATE words.
2) You will see, as stated above, that words enter and leave the lexic. They... go out of style, for example. When our society changes, words that "refer to" tools, processes that are abandoned in favor of "newer" modus operandi are abandoned, lie fallow. This happens over a longer period of time, AS THE GENERATIONS disappear.

You will not be able to SEE this perspective with only one dictionary. ONE and ONLY one dictionary gives you... the STATE of the lexic (the treasury of words, if you like) at any given point in time. In 1654. In 2008, for example. This phenomenon is called.. SYNCHRONY. Synchrony is anhistoric. It brings together the words spoken AT THAT TIME. In relation to EACH OTHER, within the language.

SOMEBODY has to "write", or compile the dictionary.
That somebody (or those somebodies..) is human.
The dictionary is based on the writer's observation of the state of the language at a given point in time.
Do the American RECOGNIZED dictionaries include... the words that the people in certain ethnic enclaves are using in THEIR daily lives (when they are speaking English, that is...) ?
Their slang ?
Why ? Why not ?
Um... conclusion... ideology, ideas (and prejudice) are behind EVERYTHING we do.
Even something as apparently innocuous as the dictionary...
I'll come back to the dictionary.
The lexic is the MOLECULAR level of our language.
And it is the area that interests me the most.
By the way... I just made up a "new" word (I think...).
The word.. "illude".
On the root of "illusion". Because I don't like.. delusion which has NEGATIVE connotations...
(Another post on connotations, boy, I could spend the rest of my life doing this...)
Help !!! Gotta come up for air !!! ;-)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Multiplication of the... (debt, loaves, fishes, words, coins, you fill in...)

I spent this weekend at a family reunion. My husband's family.
Lucky us, Monday was Pentecost Monday, another one of those wonderful holidays that STILL exist in France, a country that has managed to add on the Republican holidays to the already existing religious holidays, in a particularly... CATHOLIC spirit, which holds that... hard work will not replace grace in that almost full time occupation of SAVING YOUR SOUL, that our generation has now translated into "being happy". (That was a long sentence, I will try to do better, promise...)
Remember, somebody way back there when said "man does not live by bread alone". Nor does he live by "hard work", nor... retirement pensions, nor gambling in the stock market, nor by zipping all over the planet in package tours. All that may be "fun" (what a trite word...), but "it" will not get you up in the morning day after day. 'Specially not when you get older, and your body starts falling apart in bits and pieces.
My husband's family, like most French so called "liberals" has been almost rabidly anti clerical for many years, if not generations. A year ago, I deeply upset my father in law's wife by defending the Catholic faith, and holding that vacuous proclamations of "equality for women, children, cats, dogs, you name it" being the SOVEREIGN good had some... serious disadvantages that we are beginning to reap as a society these days. And that... a LEGALIST society is just NOT the utopia that our republican (no, not Rush Limbaugh and company, I'm talking about those who are busy defending OUR French republic) fathers imagined way back when, when they decided in a fit of rabid fury to overturn the Catholic Church's privileges, battering, and destroying its buildings and images at the same time. (They had some pretty legitimate gripes, too, but few of us really know much about this, because so much... propaganda inevitably fills our history manuals to justify our own social choices that we blithely trot out our ignorance at every chance we get.)
So... imagine my amazement this weekend to hear... religion as a subject of discussion in one form or another at almost every meal.
Questions from one generation to the previous about what such and such meant... Where it came from. Why it existed.
(By the way, in France the priest drinks white wine at Communion, not red. Nobody in MY crowd knows why..)
I tell them that growing up a Presbyterian Protestant in the U.S. meant drinking... GRAPE JUICE at Communion. (Protestantism in France has always been, and will probably remain a MARGINAL sect. It's not for nothing that France at one time earned the nickname, "the elder daughter of the (Catholic) Church. (Marginal) Protestantism in France doesn't look very much like (mainstream) Protestantism in the U.S.)
Better than nothing, maybe (because I'm not sure that the Catholics get a shot at the wine anyway...) but... rather Disneyland next to the real McCoy.
For the time being, this talking is being done in a rather disparaging and sarcastic manner, but GUESS WHAT ???
When you are REALLY indifferent about something YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT IT AT ALL..
Words are like money.
They multiply and disseminate. THEY are behind monetary speculation, making and breaking economies. They sow, and perpetuate ideas. You know... ideas that people are sometimes ready to die for, AND to kill for. Because we are not Caspar Milquetoast animals at all. Never have been, either.
Talking about something IN WHATEVER MANNER helps keep it alive.
Thus ensuring... THAT THE NEXT GENERATION WILL BE ABLE TO LATCH ON TO IT when the time comes, for example.
The next generation which will INVARIABLY be defining itself at least partially IN OPPOSITION to the previous (remember my last exposé ?...).
I used to get all worked up when people made disparaging remarks about the Church, Jesus, etc.
Now I sit back and listen. I bide my time...
To my friends who confidently (but out of a form of mysterious naiveté that is so common in people cynical in this domain) proclaim that organized religion is dead, I say :
We'll see, won't we ??
(And guess what ? I found out while working as a shrink that..INTENTIONALLY NOT TALKING about something (i.e. keeping secrets) sometimes was an incredible GUARANTEE that IT would be transmitted. Really, it's a clear case of damned if you do (talk about it) AND damned if you don't... LOL. This comment goes right back to what I wrote here about "what you receive from your fathers, inherit it in order to possess it", OTHERWISE IT WILL POSSESS YOU.)
In the meantime, I dream of a Communion ceremony where we could ALL drink FREE millésimé Bordeaux wine (for example) and sink our teeth into good, crusty bread.
Tear away at it.
For our bodies. AND for our souls.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Opening the door on Structural Linguistics

While a short time ago I wrote a post on this subject in a different universe, I am going to do a short intro on this subject here, for Toby...
Some preliminary remarks.
Linguistics is a relatively new domain. It is a ...door in our collective Western consciousness that our fathers opened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The constitution of linguistics as an area of study and investigation represents a... revolution in our way of thinking. The consequences of this revolution ON OUR CONSCIOUSNESS have largely escaped us.
How do we constitute an OBJECT of investigation ?
We do so by... extracting or expulsing that "object" from what was previously considered as... SUBJECT. Logical, right ? What is not object is subject. What is not subject is.. object.
This is pretty technical, I'll admit, and not easy going. Not poetical at all. Strictly philosophy.
But I'm going to illustrate it now, so that WE understand it better (I hope...)
About twenty years ago my brother told the following story about his experience as an English teacher in Japan.
He had an American friend who traveled through Japan, and passed through a small, secluded mountain village where he got to talking with an old Japanese man.... in Japanese...
At one point in the conversation, the old man told the young American "you know, it's really remarkable, here I am living in this little secluded village, never having gone to school and... I never would have guessed that I knew how to speak English until I met you."...
End of story...
Are you impressed ? WE are light years away from that little old man now, MOST OF US in our Western culture, living in the cities... (Who knows, maybe there are people living in some secluded little villages in Switzerland who are still capable of saying this...)
I am NOT making fun of the.. NAIVETE of this old man.
For him, language is NO OBJECT, and linguistics, as metalanguage, or TALKING ABOUT the object, language, does not exist (even if it looks like he is capable of talking about English, he doesn't know what "English" means...). Like for our ancestors. For them... a cow was a cow was a cow, and that was IT. Period.
Think for a minute...
Here I am talking about... language WITH words. Language.
Is that like.. taking interest on lending money, maybe ? Maybe. I haven't thought it through enough yet. And my illustration with the old man may be off. I'll wait for your comments.
Extracting OBJECT from what was previously subject is not an innocent occupation.
(Think about all the hype about "objectivity" for a minute.)
It is an occupation that has the advantage of at least THEORETICALLY getting something out and in front of your eyes where it can be seen...
But there is a price to be paid for getting that "something" under your eyes...
In a subtle way, it is no longer YOU, or part of you, as subject.
One way to think of this is what happened.. in the Garden.
End of preliminary.
Structural linguistics is based on the idea that our language, and EVERYTHING that our language organizes, and transmits, is an elaborate, and organized system. (Careful, a system is not necessarily a MECHANIC system. We could and DO say that our language is living. How can something live without..breathing ? I don't know, but we say that languages, like life, are born, live, change, and die. Like societies.)
The atoms : phonemes, sounds (oral language).
Look :
bat
bit
hit
lit
lid
led
Understanding language means differentiating discrete elements against a backdrop of continuity. We do this by comparing. In the first two words, we immediately pick out the difference in the middle vowel sound. We see the difference because I have held constant the context, the initial and final consonant. In order to give meaning, we are constantly comparing our world for difference AND similarity, continuity.
All of the sounds cannot be found in all of the contexts. There is a code.
You differentiate the sounds by comparing what you hear in the PRESENT to the ABSENT elements of the code that are possible in that context, given that not all elements are possible in all contexts. Those present and absent elements are in dialectical (I think...) tension.
You know the code (for your mother tongue). You know the code without ever having opened a book to learn it.
You knew the code by the time you were...2 years old. Smart you...
You knew the code at this very elemental, atomic level. You knew it at the molecular level, which is that of words, what we call the lexic. (More later...)
More importantly... at two years old you knew HOW language works. (My two year old son when he understood HOW language works excitedly pointed at a horse on the TV screen, ran to find a picture of a horse in a board book, and ran to the direction of the window to point to the field where there was a.. horse he was in the habit of feeding carrots to on his daily walk. While saying HIS equivalent of the word "horse" which was part of a nursery rhyme where the word "horse" appeared...
All of this without ever having anyone TELL you anything ABOUT language or crack a book on the subject.
The fact that you know all of this without... knowing just exactly WHAT you know, or how you know it should indicate to you just how UNCONSCIOUS and automatic this knowledge is for you. Which basically means that... re one of my previous posts "what you receive", this knowledge that you don't know you know determines a lot of your behavior... without your knowing it, right ?
The BAD thing about not knowing ABOUT what you know is that it determines your behavior, in such a way as you are less free.
The.. GOOD thing is.. that you are less SELF conscious, right ?...
Those... doors..




Monday, May 17, 2010

Materialism

I must admit to being rather confused these days...
A lot to be confused about, too.
"We" are constantly hitting ourselves around the head in our societies. Collectively getting down on our own cases. (As a shrink, I discovered that hitting ourselves around the head as individuals was a way of... not dealing with what we REALLY ARE responsible for. It is a subtle way of wiggling out of responsibility by taxing yourself with the responsibility for EVERYTHING. "It's all my fault. I'm a BAD PERSON." etc etc. When you think about it, taxing yourself with being responsible for EVERYTHING is a mirror image of taxing yourself with being responsible for... NOTHING. It allows you to not break the situation down into details and really SEE where YOU are in it. It keeps things... global, and untouchable. Out of.. THINKING range.)
We hear lots of stuff about being a.. consumer society. A MATERIALISTIC consumer society.
And if you take a stroll in my town's "zone industriel", a depressed French version of a shopping mall which doesn't even have the.. GRACE to look pretty ; it looks like a... camp.. you will see parking lots full of cars on Saturday morning and afternoon, even when the weather is nice. People hanging out in the stores to buy.. STUFF.
That's pretty... materialistic, isn't it ? Buying all that STUFF ?
....
Let's look at it from a different perspective, and a little more closely.
WHAT are the people buying ?
Flat screen TV's. Computers. Hard disk drives.
THE PEOPLE (!!!!) are buying mass produced techno stuff... (In all fairness, they are NOT JUST buying this mass produced techno stuff in France, either.)
Well, we aren't going to dictate to them how to spend their money, are we ?
We're in a democracy, aren't we ?
...
I received from my parents quite a few really beautiful OBJECTS. (Not a bunch of stuff...)
Made at a time when the mass produced techno stuff had NOT YET taken over. (I feel obliged to point out in fairness that the industrial revolution is NOT TOTALLY responsible for the mass produced mentality. It has been with us for a long time, as a short visit to Avignon's art museum showed me, when I got a look at hundreds of cheap, shoddy imitations of Botticelli Madonnas made for middle class people OF THAT TIME to feel like THEY TOO had the real McCoy. Keeping up with the Joneses in the 16th century.)
Those objects my parents gave me look a lot different than the stuff people are buying right now.
They are... beautiful. They are... made with care. (a little bit like violins, cellos, are made).
I know that when I go to my friends' homes I will not see objects like these.
While they are not UNIQUE, they are a lot closer to unique than my Mac computer.

Second point. We are not really interested in the OBJECT when we buy the techno stuff.
Not at all. We are interested in.. THE IDEA behind the object. The object really has little or no value to us in and of itself. It gives us access to... the world of ideas behind.
So, you see where I am going.
Our culture is really light years away from materialism at this time.
It is DRUGGED on transcendance. (At least, the culture that we are getting hit around the head with...)
Yep, you heard me.
Transcendance is THE WORLD OF IDEAS that our culture, in true Platonic fashion, has stuck BEHIND the material world, which I am going to define as the world we can TOUCH with our HANDS.
A rather restrictive definition of material, I will grant you, but.. i am writing this, and I will assume that restriction. All the senses do NOT connect with THINGS you can hold in your hand or touch. Not at all. Especially VISION.
I will come back to the problem of transcendance, in later posts (I hope..)
MOST people tend to confuse the problem of transcendance with the question about the existence of God.
That's reductionist.
While we may triumphantly crow that we don't believe in God, and that that is our choice, we definitely DO NOT and CAN NOT triumphantly crow that.. we don't believe in language.
No way.
Not possible.
And the question of transcendance is inseparable from the question of language, and meaning.
And... just WHAT is more immaterial (at first glance at least..) than.. LANGUAGE ?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday

Sunday. Shabbat. The Lord's day...
Sunday is my absolute favorite day in the week.
Even though I am trying to live as much as possible within the economy of grace (NO status, no personal identity, no work, minimal consumption of material things, almost no.. obligations, constraints, routine...) I can still feel how special Sunday is in the week.
In the biblical creation story, God... worked at the creation for six days, and on the seventh he... rested. In French, the word we use is "chômer". It is the same word which has given us... "chômage", unemployment...
You can't believe how ironic this is.
Because Shabbat is like a jewel in the week.
I like to think of the week as a beautiful ring.
There is the precious stone and... the stone's setting.
If you look at the stone WITHOUT its setting, well it just isn't all that pretty.
And if you look at the setting without the stone, well, IT isn't pretty at all.
So.. i shall say that... Shabbat is the STONE, and the "work" week is the setting.
They really can't get along WITHOUT one another. No meaning without one another...
The IDEA behind Shabbat is that it is a day to be... FREE.
Because in the tradition that YOU received from your fathers, as i received it, probably the ultimate value is personal FREEDOM.
Shabbat is a day for US to remember grace.
To remember that work and money are NOT EVERYTHING in our lives, and that we have other needs to be fulfilled, other... GIFTS to bring to this world.
It is a day for us to STOP doing, and BE. Be free. From alienation of all kinds.
A day for us to glory in the creation, in the physical world around us.
A day for us to get back to the garden if we can.
To smell the flowers. To touch, to feel, to taste with our physical bodies.
It is an important BREAK in our weekly routine.
We don't HAVE to go to church, for example, or go to the synagogue (Saturday, for the Jews...), or even the Mosque.
But we DO have to make a break in our routine (when we have one...) in some way.
No thinking without the break. No meaning.
How are YOU making YOUR break ?


Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Final (?) Look at Modern Money

H. L. Mencken: “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, elegant and wrong.”


We must always be wary of sellers of snake oil, regardless of what form the snake oil takes. Similarly, we must always remember that theories are theories, and that the scientific method is a process of constantly testing falsifiable theories to be sure of their validity. I have been leaping in and out of MMT waters of late, but, unable to set up a nation of my own to run on MMT principles, my testing of its ideas can only be rational and logical, thought-probings to seek out potential weak spots.

At first I felt the “net to zero” pronouncement of private sector credit-based money creation was fallacious, then I looked again and thought it an accurate statement, and now – oh vacillating me! – I think it false again. My efforts to look at money in an economy as a component of a system has led to a new way of seeing debt and wealth (wealth here meaning ‘real’ money).

This post represents somewhat of a negation of my sketches of various, crude monetary systems. The problem of interest those drawings were supposed to address is not accurately presented. The reason is that my starting points were too unrealistic, the systems too crude. Sometimes it helps to simplify, sometimes you lose too much information and your conclusions turn out wrong. However, recognising mistakes is part of learning, so I try to be happy to admit my own.

There has never been an economy that began utterly without money or trade, which was then kicked deliberately into economic life by a government creating fiat money. Likewise, there has never been a situation of zero wealth being turned into wealth by the creating of money. There has always been something there to monetize, some exchange or barter system to simplify. Money emerges in its various forms in stages, from barter to fiat. There is always an economy of some sort in operation, though they do change over time, as governments change, as money changes.

On to my new take. Loans do not net to zero, because they are not paid back symmetrically. In amongst the messy forward momentum of banking and money creation, economic growth and technological developments, loans are made in various forms by various entities to various entities, all in different states of economic health. In that melee some do well and others do not. So, a more realistic scenario than the one I presented a few days ago would be this:

10 banks each issue loans of $100 to ten businesses. Each business owes back $110 to each bank. Of that total $1,000 loan pool the ten businesses compete for as large a share as possible. Maybe four businesses fail, three do badly, two just about OK, and one very well indeed. Perhaps the most successful business accrues from the pool $500, of which it pays pack $110. That business is now the proud owner of $390 that it owes to nobody. That money was initially created as loans, but is now real, owned money. And where is it kept? In one of those banks as a deposit. That deposit gives the lucky bank more leverage to loan new money to the not quite failing businesses. Thus is money created from ‘nothing’, and despite interest owed, and banks having to compete with one another, there is a kind of Baron von Münchhausen ‘pulling oneself up by one’s own hair’ happening here, that ‘netting to zero’ fails to explain. We start with ‘nothing’, create $1,000 in loans, and have, in this crude example, $390 left over, not zero. Banks and businesses may die in the process, but that’s life.

Curiously, what we have is ‘wealth’ creation as a direct consequence of money pooling unevenly throughout the economy. Were this uneven pooling not to happen, there would be no wealth creation. Should, for example, but one business fail in the scrabble to survive, and the nine others do equally well, each of the nine could pay back its owed $110 and have nothing left. There would be $10 unaccounted for, which maybe the issuing bank received as a monthly payment from the failed business. That would be netting to zero, as all debts bar one would be neatly expunged/repaid. An even flow of money has, therefore, the ‘detrimental’ effect of creating no new ‘wealth.’ But this is highly unlikely to happen. Real life is messy and unpredictable. Also note that failure is a precondition for success elsewhere – in this model, if all do equally well, none do well.

But, because money is sticky and coagulates (“being rich is better than being poor” is a logical consequence of scarce money), this ‘successful’ money-creation has long term costs, such as entrenched social divisions. Even longer term it becomes a ponzi-like situation, as more and more non-monetary wealth is monetized into debt in the endless pursuit of eternal growth, and banks, as Corporations in pursuit of profit, seek new customers to fuel the growing debt-pyramid. The amount of debt we are weighed down by today is likely a direct consequence of the scarcity of money (a scarcity which interest/usury necessarily creates), and, more abstractly, of the deeper presumption of scarcity itself, which leads to flawed notions of surplus, deficit, credit and debt which dissonate with what we see occurring in the wider ecosystem.

This unevenness, though, seems to be a vital part of creativity. Smooth-and-featureless is without character, without challenge. It is mistakes, bumps and oddities that call for adaptation, and ‘successfully’ adapting to the unexpected calls for creativity. Furthermore, all problems ‘solved’ generate new problems to be ‘solved.’ That process is probably what progress is, and will make demands of us humans for as long as we are around. Nevertheless, monetary ‘unevenness’ does, in time, lead to gross imbalances, as witnessed in the widening wealth gap. And systems are leaky too, not closed. As we creatively deal with the challenges we face, we set up new challenges down the road. The two key challenges we face today are establishing a sustainable relationship with the planet we live on (part of which is transitioning from fossil fuels), and finding a new way of doing economics, since automation and technological unemployment are going to interfere increasingly disruptively with our current methods of circulating money.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"What you receive..."

Here is the full quote :
"What you receive from your fathers, inherit it in order to be able to possess it."
Please don't just read it on the screen. Take the time to say it out loud.
I first came across this phrase while reading Freud, a long time ago.
It... blew me away. It has a kind of... SHOCK AND AWE ring to it that bowls me over.
And of course, I respected Freud tremendously for coming up with something so impressive. I knew (I STILL know...) that Freud was a genius, and this was great proof.
ONCE, in my ten year career as a psychoanalyst, I was able to SAY this phrase to a patient, in situ, and it was EVEN MORE incredible. And, of course, when an analyst says a phrase like this, he can't help hearing it FOR/TO HIMSELF while he is saying it TO his patient. A bridge between himself and his patient. He is enouncing a... COMMANDMENT for himself too. A SHARED commandment.
Commandment...
Freud borrowed that phrase. He borrowed it from... Deuteronomy.
The kernel of Jewish law. Its raison d'être. The foundation of the "words to live (by)".
The ten.. "words to live" that we know as the ten commandments are designed to make possible the above phrase. In Jewish culture. In OUR culture too...
So, I'm going to tear it apart with gusto for us.
Here we go :
Three verbs that EACH have to do with the economy :
Receive. Inherit. Possess.
Receiving goes along with the circulation part that Toby just developed in his last post.
For the structure : the verb "inherit" is in the middle, between two other verbs. It is the active verb. The phrase suggests that you passively receive something from your ? parents ? your... culture ? your teachers ? your mentors ? and that after a transformation, you POSSESS it. ONLY AFTER that transformation in which you are active.
That means that... just getting something is NOT enough to possess it.
Cut to my previous post on "reality check" and how you are reading....
Are you reading to... possess what your fathers gave you ?
Or are you content to just... receive what your fathers gave you ?
Freud and Deuteronomy DON'T tell you what I'm going to say now.
As a patient AND as a psychoanalyst I discovered (along the lines of inheriting...) that..
What you DON'T inherit in order to be able to possess...
POSSESSES YOU.
No choice there. You either actively INHERIT your culture, what you received from your fathers, or you WILL be possessed by it.
The obvious result of being possessed by something is that YOU WILL NOT BE FREE.
Being free is complicated. Much MORE complicated than lots of people think.
Take Jesus, for instance.
Right up there on the cross, between the two thieves, when he said "Father forgive them for they know not what they do", he was, in my opinion, as free as he could have been in THAT PARTICULAR SITUATION.
A paradox right ?
Life is full of surprises, and paradoxes.
You can CHOOSE to be free. You CAN be free.
Even in the middle of a concentration camp, you CAN BE FREE.
Amazing huh ?
IF... you inherit and possess from your fathers....
I have changed this phrase (the way you are NOT SUPPOSED TO DO... but I almost never follow the rules, and this gets me into a lot of trouble...).
To read :" what you have received from your fathers, inherit it in order to be able to transmit it."
That short cuts possession, which I am not really keen on.
But... maybe I'm making a mistake here.. We'll see.

The Market, The State and Money Flow

This is a direct continuation of my previous entry, and precedes subsequent, directly related ponderings, now in the mental pipeline.

Money circulation is what keeps an economy functioning. That money tends to collect at certain nodes, and once it has collected there is unlikely to leave, is a block in the smooth flow of economic activity. The problem is nicely characterised as hoarding, which occurs simply because being rich is better than being poor. (That there will always be ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is accepted, the only question, as we take this forward, is: rich and poor in what?) So the challenge is to keep the flow going, despite the pressure scarce money systemically creates to be richer than the next guy, and keep it that way.

In our current dominant myth The Market circulates money well, whereas The State does not. This is, if one peers under the bonnet, something of a circular (no pun intended) argument, in which: “black = bad (because it does)”, “white = good (because is does)” where “Market is white” and “State is black.” “Good” is the flow of money from place to place, from person to person. Trade is good. Strangely, as a ‘happy’ – though unintended – spin-off of this, some succeed to riches, while others fail to poverty, where many will be poor and few will be rich. I say this is strange, because these quite fixed and stubborn outcomes are logically contrary to The Market's primary function of promoting smooth money-flow. Poor people neither have nor can circulate money, rich people have but don’t want to circulate all their money. They want to possess more money. This is a systemic issue with money, though not the only one.

Again, smooth money flow is necessary to keep an economy functioning well. And yet as money flows around it ends up unevenly distributed. This uneven distribution inhibits maximum money flow, which means it inhibits maximum economic activity. What to do?

To answer this, I believe an analysis of The Market and The State is vital. An impartial, unbiased analysis. My efforts are those of an amateur of course, and yet I see very little work being done out there to look at this issue dispassionately. Ideology rules almost every roost.

The myth we all know so well relates that markets are efficient distributors of goods and services, and thereby serve society well. Economists call this myth the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH). Markets are blind mechanisms powered by self-interest yet guided by an Invisible Hand, which, over time, ensures maximum possible societal good. Leave them be, let them alone to work their strange magic, and all will be well. Interfere, tinker, regulate, and The Market doesn’t work as it should. It is a force of nature, and best respected as such. Hence the correlation of ‘free’ markets with ‘freedom’. ‘Freedom’ is a social good ensured by ‘free’ markets. Also, selfishness is the inbuilt and unshakable human trait which, counter-intuitively, ensures maximum societal freedom and health.

To find out how we have come to ‘know’ that ‘free’ markets work this way, we must look to economics, and in particular the long journey economic thought took from Adam Smith, through Keynes, and into the neoclassical school. Economics is a strange discipline shot through with bizarre and impossible assumptions, and is seemingly incapable of making accurate or reliable predictions. It has been torn to shreds repeatedly by mighty thinkers, and yet soldiers resolutely on, convinced the nirvana of perfectly free markets it seeks is out there somewhere. Amazingly, despite its perpetual swagger (and I urge the reader to buy and read “Debunking Economics” and “Econned” for further information) orthodox economics has not proved anything, and most of all, has not proved there ever was, nor that there ever can be, a perfect (or ‘free’) market. They have likewise failed to prove that as-close-as-possible-to-free delivers social good.

To refresh, the conditions for a perfectly free market are:

1. forever rational market participants
2. perfectly informed market participants (knowledge of all prices of all goods and services for all time)
3. ease of entry and exit
4. total transparency

These conditions are of course impossible to meet. And yet only these conditions can prevent cartels/monopolies from forming. Cartels and monopolies do not serve the public good, distorting the market’s functioning. Some even become Too Big To Fail. Because the market cannot be perfectly free, it cannot, with or without the Invisible Hand, prevent these distortions from arising. Indeed, its necessary imperfection guarantees that settled imbalances occur.

Enter The State. How we hate The State. It is corrupt, nannying, bullying, dissembling, greedy, and to cap it all off, takes our money and wastes it on useless projects that no one wants. And yet, how could there be a market without a state? Can the infrastructure that enables markets to exist, such as roads and other transportation components, trade laws, criminal laws, courts, police, education etc., be established and maintained without The State? Can even one of these necessary components be run well by market processes? I believe not. If it were possible it would already be so.

The problem with maintaining societal infrastructure is money flow, how to effect it without ruffling too many feathers. We do not charge for education, and yet schools must be built and run, teachers and other staff paid. Money goes into the process, but does not generate money-profit. This is true of establishing laws; running courts; paying the police, armies, navies; road building and maintenance, and so on. Money flows out from The State into the state sector, but not arrive back as private spending from the private sector. In terms of The State making a profit, it has but one revenue stream; taxes. Or, in fantasy land, it plays the markets and charges citizens for all its services at point of use, thereby becoming a business. This cannot be. So, because The State relies on taxes to draw existing money to it, making a 'profit' would mean taxing back more than it spent. Is such a thing possible? Can such a business demand on The State make sense in any circumstances? (Absolutely, it's called interest and paying off the bill, should you choose to create government money that way.)

Remember, we are talking about money as a created tool. Isn’t it unrealistic to expect the same monetary performance/behaviour of an entity whose function is to spend money, as that of another entity whose function is to circulate money (while profiting from that circulation where possible)? As discussed in my previous post, for some to save or make profits, others have to spend or make losses. For this to be otherwise, there would have to be an abundance of money, and everyone would have to be rich. This is of course logically impossible. Money works as an incentive precisely because it is scarce. Money exists to deal with scarcity, and has to stay scarce in order to ensure competition and productivity.

In my view we have, therefore, a false dichotomy. Comparing The Market with The State is worse than comparing apples and oranges. It is in fact like comparing the right hand with the left. You may be right handed, but that doesn’t mean you’d be more efficient, or benefit, if you chopped your left arm off! The entire debate around this false dichotomy is a manifestation of a power struggle to control money, because money is the best tool humans have for controlling and shaping society. People in positions of power are there because they like it. Control is what they enjoy. The Market/State battle is in some ways a smokescreen, a pantomime in which the actors and actresses are sincerely convinced the right wing/left wing battle lines are helpful and genuine. Ideology rules the roost.

But there are systemic reasons why it must stay this way (for a while yet). Experimenting with entire societies is not easy, so what is done, what is determined to be the ‘best’ way, is the result of battle, propaganda, consensus, and contrived argumentation, not by scientific methods. This means that arguments such as those laid out here are almost bread and circuses for the masses. I can make any claim I want, show any assumption I find to be false, show the entire socioeconomic apparatus to be flawed and doomed, and it makes no difference whatsoever. The show must go on.

Except, except, except... I am part of the process of understanding ‘Life, the Universe and everything’, just as everyone else is. As our understanding changes, so, in time, will our societies also change. Change is the only constant. Sadly, Great Big Global Change is likely to be very bumpy indeed.

More on this in due course.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Brief Story of Money

I want to tale another look, in story form, at money and profit as we currently have them, and the long term systemic consequences of both. There is still much demystifying to be done.

Money does not grow like organic matter does, by taking in other organic matter and transforming it into growth. Likewise, money is not engendered organically by value creation throughout the economy, such that someone working hard discovers fresh, new money in his pockets at the end of a long day. Money creation occurs before anything 'valuable' can take place in the economy. Money is not biologically, organically or otherwise linked to work or other forms of effort in the economic sphere. It is an invention created by humanity to assist/enable economic activity, not the consequence of such activity. The truth is that money is created by banks and 'grows' via a mathematical trick called interest. Someone has to create it, and establish the correct amount and the best rules.

First no-brainer question: if there were only savings, with no one or thing in debt anywhere, would that be good? Answer: Not possible. All banks would be in debt to their customers, unable to pay the interest owed. People's ability to save depends on other people being in debt. 'Thrift' on one side requires 'profligacy' on the other.

Second no-brainer question: if there were more money-as-savings than lent-as-credit, would banks be happy? Answer: No. For the money guys, profits are eveything. Banks need to lend more than they borrow, which means, crudely speaking, money systems need more people in debt than in the black.

When banks create money by lending it, they do so as a business, so must earn a profit. They must be earning more from repayments on loans than they are paying out to savers. They will otherwise go bust. Governments create money by issuing treasuries, bonds and guilts, each a form of borrowing ... borrowing, that is, at interest, from private individuals and institutions.

So let's take this a step further and assume, initially, a fixed-size pool of money out there in the world, created by God for us to use. As economic activity takes place, amounts of money move around from person to person, from entity to entity. From the point of view of worker A, money is earned by doing something another person is prepared to pay her for. From her point of view there is an expansion in wealth when she gets paid. A successful business sees money coming in too, sees money-growth. Conversely, people going into debt experience a contraction in the amount of money they have. So, at this level of perception, there appears to be money growth and contraction. But, seen from the point of view of the total money pool, there are only movements of funds from one place to another. Growth and contraction are narrow perceptions of money movement, from us or to us.

In this basic model, what are profits? Net movement of money to some person or business. And what is loss? Net money movement away from some person or business. There is no money growth or contraction, only movements, or eddyings, in the money pool.

Let's play with the pool. It is now made up of loans, and no longer a divine creation. It is therefore owed back to the various lenders, plus interest of course. The pool is $10bn, the amount owed $10.5bn (readers have been here before with me). The only thing that can happen in this difficult situation, is that one or more people competing to pay back what they owe have to fail. The maximum possible amount that can find its way back to the lenders is $10bn, since this is the amount that was created in loans to the population. An amount to cover the interest was not created.

Of course, no respectable controller of money wants the game to end after round one, which would happen were the loans to be paid back (minus defaulters of course). That would be counter-productive. What happens in the world as people compete for their share of the too small money-pool, is that they are 'pressured' to become creative by money scarcity. They invent stuff and produce stuff, which they buy and sell. Those who succeed are demonstrating themselves as 'money earners', while those who fail and default show themselves to be unfit to play the game. So the winners are loaned more money — since they have proven their ability to pay it back — to keep the circulation going. Some are net winners, that is, they suceed in accruing more money than they owe (which means the lenders don't get it back), whereas others fall off the treadmill. The money pool therefore contorts as a consequence of this bumpy balancing out, this sorting of the wheat from the chaff, pooling here and trickling away from there, just as before. Soon though, fresh injections (as loans) are necessary to keep the game going, because, for one thing, the lenders will not see their entire $10bn again, only a part of it, and ambition to expand businesses, as well as desire for houses, cars and other large items, arrive at the lenders' doors as demand for more money. Scarcity set the game in motion, and must be maintained to keep it going. No free lunches here!

Indeed, money lenders themselves also have to be successful against other money lenders (their competitors), as they compete for their share of the now growing amount of money in the economy (though thanks to interest always too little). The pool is expanded to, say, $15bn. Thus the game can continue, thus, via interest, is scarcity maintained despite an expanding money supply. It is even imagined it can go on and on indefinitely. The money pool grows and grows as time goes on. People fail and succeed (including money lenders), and the battle to stay in the game makes humans creative and inventive. So far so good. We have ourselves an Invisible Hand running a beautiful perpetual-motion machine.

Essential ingredients are: sufficient time to win and lose; lots of people playing; a playing field (planet Earth in our case) with sufficient raw materials and healthy enough living conditions to support game play; a growing population, ready, willing and able to play along, and a perpetually scarce money supply.

What must not happen is a stop in the circulation of money. The debts must never, ever be paid back in total. All money would disappear if this were to happen, and the game would stop. Because of this systemic rule, the size of the money pool therefore has to grow and grow and grow, in perpetuity, because of interest's role as a necessary part of the money creation process. Note this 'growth' is a function of the rules of the game, not a function of economic activity per se. Indeed, increasing economic activity is a function of the rules of the game, a consequence of interest. Interest is the whip, economic activity the beast whipped. It was not always this way, nor is money the only incentive, but money-technologies, that is, incremental changes in the way humanity deals with money, have made it so in our model. That we tend to think of the whole thing arse-backwards doesn't alter the fact of how the money system works today.

The amount of money owed back necessarily increases as the money-pool increases. Population growth supports the game as more people come to the table. Production and consumption increase inexorably, driven on by incessant whipping from the money system. The technological developments inspired by the fight over perpetually scarce amounts of money enable, pretty much as a side-effect, more and more people to live on the planet for longer and longer. And, because humans are not about money alone — other things interest them too (in fact everything does, one way or another) — while the money game is being played, other things happen alongside it. Developments and discoveries happen in farming, medicine, media, computing, automation and so on, and even in how deeply we understand reality.

But everything is interconnected, so things change within the game too, slowly at first, but increasingly quickly as yesterday's developments accelerate today's. As a part of the struggle to own as much of the money-pool as possible, automation plays an increasing role in the production process. On top of employment fluctuations as one consequence of contractions in the money pool (as central banks fiddle to get a good economic balance), and of money-distribution problems generally, over time those jobs humans can do are automated more and more, leading to a migration of human labour from agriculture, into factories, and finally into services. As services themselves slowly become automated, so humans find paid labour harder and harder to come by. We become increasingly unnecessary in the production of goods and services. It slowly becomes apparent that only our spending power is needed to keep the game going. But humans want to be more than mere consumers. Dreams of escape, of 'something else' emerge in the culture and spread, the speed of their spread assisted by ever improving communication technologies.

Additionally, humanity's successes worldwide result in a population perhaps as large as the planet can happily host, or close to it. For the game to go on, the planet has to be able to play along. The problem is that we are blinded by the brilliance of our perpetual-motion machine, forgetting the underlying factors that make the whole thing possible. On top of this we have a calcified social hierarchy, in which a small elite runs the show, while a far larger number of punters mans the treadmills. Change though, ever-present, slowly rouses the punters from their repetitive labours, as new technologies spread information faster than the elite can police and massage it. The system must be defended at all costs. Without it there is chaos, and the elite would not be the elite any more. Information and disinformation infect each other, trust evaporates, life becomes somehow bland and colourless, while at the same time strangely dangerous, despite the brilliance of what we have achieved.

In the inevitably tiny winners' lounge, the control centre for the now incomprehensibly complex system, a window looks out over the powerful machine as it hisses, steams, and pumps away. For the first time the thought occurs that the machine is in control, not the proud elite, that its inbuilt hunger for more and more is threatening its own functioning. The thought is quickly repressed. Alarming groans are fixed only to erupt from some other part. The machine is cancerous hunger that cannot be transformed into anything else.

And here we all are, components of a process centuries in the making, unwitting contributors swept up in currents whose great motions lie outside our abilities to see directly. Only stories and analogies can help bring some focus to what is historic in scope, cultural in breadth, and psychological in depth. We are the story which is changing, but we have to see it from the outside if we want the coming waves of change to take us higher, not crush us down. Money and money-profit are merely themes of a particular chapter, the products of our inventiveness. They are not divine acts we must accept as commandments for ever more.

And I didn't once mention fraud!

We must seek:

Money-as-lubricant, not money-as-wealth
Wealth as an outgrowth of health
A system which can deliberately promote profit in measures such as literacy, societal cohesion, low crime rates, trust and so on
A worldwide rethink on value as it relates to paid labour, alongisde a recognition of what humanity can do to automate boring and unstimulating work
A recognition that all systems are emergent and subject to constant change
True sustainability
Lasting transition from fossil fuels

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Grace...

This is a BIG word for us. All of us in our Western culture. Protestants and Catholics, scientists, and unbelievers even cannot escape the effects of this word.
A few introductory words : I am not... Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, Christian, atheist... I do not fit into any of those labels, so what you are going to hear here is not proselytizing in any classical meaning of the word.
This word TIES IN DIRECTLY to Econosophy, even if the link may escape you at first.
ANY economy, in order for it to work FOR US, and not AGAINST us, MUST come to terms with this word. Because, grace, for our ancestors, for centuries was really... the SUPREME VALUE of life.
So, let's get going. Obviously I'm not going to finish what I start here. At the end there will still be lots to say about this subject, which I will come back to regularly...
_________________________________________________________________
During my last spiritual crisis I finally realized that I desperately needed something to get out of bed in the morning for. Something that would enable me to go through the repetitive, unexciting daily routine, fixing meals twice a day, doing housework, all that stuff that NOBODY ever gets a medal for, or even recognition, but that STILL has to be done... (and you don't get paid for THAT, do you, now ?)
I needed something to believe in.
(Look at that word... and now look at the word... FIAT (money)... Do you see any resemblance ?) (Fiat means trust, faith...)
I discovered that only IF and WHEN I could believe in something that I could devote myself to COMPLETELY (hmm... think a minute now about that young American of Pakistani origin who planted the bomb at JFK airport. Think about what his act said about HIS need to believe.), I would be able to FREELY get out of bed every morning and go through the routine.
The ability to engage our belief liberates GRACE for us. Grace and faith are NOT the same thing, but they are related. I'm not sure exactly how, yet, I am still discovering this.
Some people call it the grace of God. i call it the grace of God, for many extremely complicated reasons that would encumber this post right now, and that can be set aside temporarily.
Grace is the lubricant that gets the ball rolling. It is the grease in the economy that works... a hell of a lot better than oil, you know, whose disastrous effects are evident in the Gulf of Mexico right now.
Grace is the lubricant that makes investment work, and it is responsible for producing the exponential effects involved. (I will come back to this in later posts.)
Oil is NOT grace, even if it translates into ENERGY that has kept us carburating, as we say in France. It has kept us.. RUNNING, this oil, for too long now.
But... it really is NO substitute for grace. And these days, as it RUNS OUT (as all material energy MUST, in the long run), it has got us scrambling for another substitute.
Next very important question... WHO is grace for, and how do you get it ?
Our Catholic ancestors believed that you could... BUY grace. Not really with money, of course. But by DOING good works. By being a good, Christian person. By spending good.. CHRISTIAN money too. Like a... transaction. It works like this.. "you DO this, and... you GET grace.. IN EXCHANGE".
Our Protestant ancestors said... no way. Grace couldn't be BOUGHT. It isn't FOR SALE (for money or anything else..).
But then they went on to say that GOD had decided WHO got grace and who didn't. He decided it once and for all. Grace was predestined. You either had it or you didn't, and more importantly, the only PROOF that existed as to the existence of grace was material success, wealth, status, etc. All extremely WORLDLY things, you will grant me.
Whence the expression... "there but for the grace of God go I", in my book a really disgusting formulation that is designed to make SOME people feel really good about themselves AT THE EXPENSE (!!!!) of others. This belief is still with us ; it is all around us, in fact, even though most of us are woefully ignorant about where it came from.
But.. the really good news is that... grace is free.
Now.... it's not free like the samples that you get at the supermarket. Even though... the samples you get at the supermarket are, deep down, a rather DESPERATE ATTEMPT to get reconnected with grace, and what it means. They are a PERVERTED attempt. Perversion means, to turn upside down. That's right. All the "free" junk/stuff you get right now is a way of clutching at grace like a straw.
Grace is SOMETHING that you can't BUY, you can't SELL, you can't EARN, you can't WIN. (And for obvious reasons, you can't STEAL it either...)
What could it be ?
It is something that you RECEIVE.
It is given to you without your having to DO or BE anything or anyone.
And... it is for EVERYONE. (It is truly... democratic.)
The poor. The rich. The fine upstanding citizens. The junkies. The prostitutes. The... torturers. The... pedophiles.
You heard me. Grace is for... EVERYONE.
Everyone who... wants it, or asks for it, sincerely.
And when YOU ask for it, the ball gets rolling.
There is NOTHING YOU CAN DO OR BE to get it.
But it is there for you.
Can you see how this issue is really important for our understanding the economy ?
If grace gets the ball rolling, then WITHOUT it... the ball DOES NOT ROLL.
And that is where we are right now.
We are trying desperately to push the ball around through our own INDIVIDUAL efforts.
Logically. Rationally. Methodically.
And... it's NOT WORKING.
It will NOT work this way. (And moreover, we are despairing in our recognition that it WILL NOT work this way...)
Time to.. go back in time and take a look at where we took a wrong turn.
We CAN find the meaning of grace again.
But... we gotta start looking.
I, for one, am lucky. I got curious, and went looking in my Christian heritage to discover how our ancestors have framed this problem.. And.. I have asked for grace. It's hard to put oneself on the receiving end in our culture, but it CAN be done.
I think I will conclude this way : money can ONLY mean something to us when there is SOMETHING out there that can't be bought with it.
Something like.. GRACE, you know ?
Grace is truly... PRICELESS...




Thursday, May 6, 2010

"Reality" Check Time.... : HOW are you reading ?

About a month ago, I was killing some time on the Internet, on amazon.com (no, that's not an ad for amazon...) and looked up a book that I still have downstairs, a book that I hauled over to the Old World on purpose many years ago, to see what people are saying about it NOW.
The book ? Adler and ?'s "How to Read a Book", which dates from the 1940's.
I am NOT going to waste your time and mine by reviewing this book here, you can check out amazon for the reviews if you like.
In the course of trawling the reviews, I came upon a "help" message floating in interstellar computer space, a young man asking for suggestions for how to read ever faster, and dig out all that content in two seconds flat, in between the rings on his cell phone.
And I answered him, and it's my answer that I want to share with you here (among other musings....)

Um... what GIVES with this constant obsession to race through books (and life...) ?
WHY do we feel we need to run everywhere ?
Haven't all of us figured out by now that when you're in the train, with your nose pressed to the glass, and it's going FAST, EVERYTHING OUTSIDE rushes past in an enormous BLUR ?
It's one thing TO HAVE YOUR EMPLOYER shouting at you all the time to pick up the pace.
BUT... to come home, and then shout at yourself to pick up the pace in all of your, uh, extracurricular activities, why be your own EXECUTIONER, chez vous, moreover ? (Actually, I didn't go into as much detail with HIM as I am with you.) Why willingly participate in your own alienation ?
For me, speed reading is an enormous joke, and as biblical as the Adler and ? book remains as a reference, I am not reading at the four levels that it preaches any more either...
Here is my breakdown of the different levels you CAN read at (this means comprehension, obviously) :
1) you are able to repeat what the author says, in his words.
2) you are able to repeat what the author says, in YOUR words.
3) you are able to pick out points in which you agree and disagree with the author, and justify your arguments.
4) you are able to do all the above AND relate what you have read to several other books, and historical points of view.
5)... you are able to do ALL the above, and you can tie what you have read into the experience of your daily life, integrating it with your past experience too, and SEEING where the book's ideas play out around you in your world.

....
Now, obviously you are not always going to take the time to do that.
Because you have figured out by the list above that there is NO WAY IN HELL that you are going to go through all those five levels by speed reading.
And you SHOULD have concluded by now that speed reading is ONLY going to give you an extremely superficial view of any book.

Which brings me to the next point. How long have books been available to the general public ?
Let me see... They started coming around at about the time of the Reformation. So that, in our culture alone, reams, and reams of paper have been printed with lots of interesting thoughts on them.
No way in your and my limited, finite life are we going to find the time to wade through everything that's been printed. We're going to have to... gracefully renounce that hubristic project.
Which means... that you gotta learn how to pick and choose what's worth reading all through those five stages of reading, and that's not necessarily an easy task.
But... you CAN learn to do a LOT of thinking, and learn a lot by only reading a handful of really good books WELL.

Now... this is exactly what our culture has decided to... NOT DO, these days.
And I assure you, it is bringing us down, and dumbing us down considerably.
That's too bad. Because I think that we need all the neurons, and all the intelligence we can muster at this stage of the game.

The Internet sound byte game has encouraged us to read superficially, and continues to shorten our attention spans, and capacity for critical thought. And we are not even particularly.. ashamed at our woeful ignorance and lack of general culture these days, either. We USED to be ashamed. No longer...

For info, I am currently reading Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life", 900 or so pages.
I am crossing my fingers that I will manage to finish it, because.. I too feel the dumbing down pressure working on ME. Inexorably...
While I do not agree with Jacques everywhere, we are having a marvelous... conversation, as I scribble comments to him in the margin as I read.
I love talking to authors, even when they are not there to answer me... Some of my best friends STILL are people who died long before I took my first breath. That never stopped me from loving them, (almost) as much as my flesh and blood kin. (WHAT AM I SAYING ?? MORE in certain cases..)
And Jacques is a great read. A breathtakingly educated, 113 year old French expatriate living in the U.S. (the opposite of me, as a matter of fact, except that no, I'm not 113. Whew. Thank God.). A historian of ideas.
Check it out. His writing style is impeccable. As good as an excellent bottle of vintage Bordeaux wine. For connaisseurs and lovers of books. Enjoy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Evolutionary Musings

Good thing that Toby has "musings" in the title of this blog, cause that is what I am going to proceed to do : muse...
One of my psychological/sociological maxims is : IT all hangs together.
By that, I mean that our society is constructed like our languages, and you can be sure that THEY hang together in a sophisticated manner, each tiny part hooking into another tiny part that combines to make larger and larger components, as our language itself CONSTRUCTS our social order, which in turn inflects our language.
Very complex.
So, my hypothesis, if you like, is that you can really see our ideas, our social IDEOLOGY at work in our daily lives, in the smallest details, IF you are looking for it, and have an idea how/where to find it.
Is this search governed by the scientific method ? Depends on what you call the scientific method. What I'm doing is based on personal observation. So, my advice to YOU, reader, is... don't take ME for granted. See if what I say works for YOU, on the basis of YOUR personal experience... But... take the time to observe, ask questions and THINK before making up your mind, please...
Observation number 1 : More than ten years ago my small daughter informed us that she wanted to become a string instrument maker... During the time she was growing up she (and I) regularly invested HANDICRAFT activities, beading, knitting, for example. Two weeks ago, I was chatting with a Mommy friend whom I have known since my children were little who told me that a short while ago she had become dissatisfied with her extremely intellectual, abstract scientific research job, and wanted to change to a new profession, kinesiology, which involves... massaging people, and modifying their corporal/spiritual energy WITH HER HANDS. And to get back to me, now I spend between one and three hours a day practicing my still new piano.
I'm going to make a big generalization here, so... be patient with me.
I HAVE THIS THEORY... that as a species, particularly in our Western culture, we have collectively moved farther and farther away from activities that demand intricate hand/eye coordination, and that this... EVOLUTION is NOT GOOD for us as a species.
We should remember that our enormous frontal cortex evolved in great part as a result OF this coordination, and that our HANDS represent our IMPRINT on the physical world around us. Or should we say, particularly, they represent the imprint of our thinking, WILLING minds.
They translate what we think and desire into action. And they materialize our intelligence, which i consider to be our capacity to inflect our physical world, to ACT UPON it.
I'm going to skip the part about the fact that an enormous surface of our hands is represented on the surface of our frontal cortex, and if I'm wrong, I call upon a reader to correct me.
Observation number 2 : our ancestors, when they knew how to write, took time to do it ; their handwriting was DISTINCTIVE and INDIVIDUAL, and books were written to teach people how to write BEAUTIFULLY... Calligraphy is high art with writing words. High art which demands great concentration, skill, and fine hand/eye coordination.
And... MAYBE you can do it with a machine, BUT... if you do it with a machine, YOUR PHYSICAL HAND WILL NOT BE TRACING THE MOVEMENT WHICH WILL NOT BE IMPRINTED ON YOUR BRAIN... And the individual differences (present in YOU, the individual) which enrich our world will disappear too.
Just how much of a loss is this ?
A great one, in my book.
While it may save us time, I conclude that... it WILL sap our intelligence IN THE LONG RUN.
Because... just WHO or WHAT ARE WE OUTSIDE OF OUR BODIES ?? WITHOUT OUR HANDS ?
Some people may say that.... typing on the keyboard of a computer is putting our hands to use.
I say.. NIET. Compare typing on that keyboard for a minute with handwriting. Every time you press a key, you are performing THE SAME GESTURE.
Just how.. enriching is it to your mind to be performing... THE SAME GESTURE ?
Hell, I think that doing my housework COULD represent more variety in its monotony and drudgery than pressing down the keys of a computer.
So... how much STIMULATION are you getting from typing ? Not much.
Certainly not lots next to using your hands for handwriting.
Observation number 3 : three years ago now, I traversed a major melancholic episode, a spiritual crisis, as I like to say, for personal and professional reasons. In my scramble to make myself better, (and since I'm an old hand at melancholic episodes, and now have some ideas about taking care of myself in them...), I started volunteer work in a small library with NO COMPUTER card system. In other words, I had to manually fill out paper cards with the name of the borrower, the author of the book, the book title.
You may be surprised but.... the simple activity of manually filling out those cards WAS A GREAT FACTOR in improving my intellectual capacities, which were reduced to zero at the time. Tracing the letters and words on those cards RECONSTRUCTED my mind (not JUST filling out those cards, of course...).
Conclusion : we NEED to be WORKING in a way that develops our hand/eye coordination.
We need to be working in ways that INDIVIDUALIZE our movements, our gestures, in order for us to develop and maintain our intelligence, our capacity to solve problems.
So.... the next big question is... WHY has THIS society developed TO SUCH A HIGH DEGREE, situations and activities that DESTROY meaningful work ?
WHY are we doing this to ourselves ?
Even... the plutocrats and the intelligentsia suffer from the destruction of work in the way I'm talking about it, (cf the scientist above) so it is NOT a class war...
The computer keyboard represents a massive attempt at... uniformization.
It represents a.. gain of time, a "value" that we have idolized in our current society.
If you look around you, you will see evidence of our attempts at uniformization EVERYWHERE around you.
A dangerous activity, uniformization.
In the long run, I think that its disadvantages will CERTAINLY outweigh its immediately apparent advantages...
The good news is that WE are dimly aware of this, many of us. And we are making confused attempts to remedy this situation, many of us. My daughter, for instance, in her noble choice of work...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

New Energy and the Profit Problem

This has been an aspect of transitioning away from fossil fuels that has interested me for some time. The problem is a civilization's worth of infrastructure, both cultural and physical -- that is socioeconomic and technical -- that have been built on fossil fuels, and oil in particular. For a variety of reasons (which I prefer to sum up with the dictum "change is the only constant") we are progressing away from oil, but the existing infrastructure is having a hard time coping with this. And because we have a global oil-based infrastructure, we have a global resistance.

The first quote is from an old (2005) Washington Post article, in which Jeffrey Immelt and Jonathan Lash analyse the challenge:

"Fundamental change will require three things: the brainpower to develop new technology, a market that makes clean technologies profitable and a strong dose of American will. Right now we have two out of three."


What pops out at me of course is the second condition. The alternative to fossil fuel has to return a decent profit. So if there are viable alternatives that don't, should we let civilization perish? Is monetary profit and protecting the existing vested interests really that important? Apparently. Perhaps the authors' jobs highlight a possible reason why Immelt and Lash might hold this view:


"Jeffrey Immelt is chairman and chief executive of General Electric Co. Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute."


More recently noises are emerging that wind powered energy might be too cheap, and is therefore the reason for resistance from those energy utility companies who stand to lose out as it becomes more prevalent and effective. From The Oil Drum:

"The key thing here is that we are beginning to unveil what I've labelled the dirty secret of wind: utilities don't like wind not because it's not competitive, but because it brings prices down for their existing assets, thus lowering their revenues and their profits. Thus the permanent propaganda campaign against wind. But now that this "secret" is out in the open, it's hopefully going to make one of the traditional arguments against wind (the one about its supposed need subsidies) much more difficult to use..."


Meanwhile other alternatives to fossil fuels are popping up like daisies. Some will wither, some will bloom, and of them this from Bloom Energy seems particularly exciting:

"the company boasts that their systems could literally replace the electricity grid with dispersed, clean, and easy to maintain fuel cell boxes running on a variety of fuels, water, and oxygen, with no combustion at all."


There are many others of course, new ways of harnessing wind, space-based solar energy collectors, nets of tiny-beads to hang in windows or coat buildings also for collecting solar energy, and others besides. What we are seeing is a combined and multi-fronted attack on an existing order, and the existing order doesn't like it. How could they? What it all adds up to is a paradigm-altering challenge on the way humanity has done business these last few centuries, including the nature of money, and the nature of waged-labour too. Almost everything is back on the table. Because the implications are global, this change is painful and is being met with huge resistance, which is only natural.

Interesting times folks. And we're living in them.