Saturday, June 29, 2013

Myth & music

The languages we love.

Claude Levi Strauss wrote an exceedingly brief book, "Myth and Meaning", one chapter of which is titled "Myth and Music". He offers the hypothesis that, compared to the basic core of human spoken language, music and myth each lack an element, forming a sort of coding triangle:

"Now you can compare mythology both to music and to language, but there is this difference: in mythology there are no phonemes; the lowest elements are words. So if we take language as a paradigm, the paradigm is constituted by, first, phonemes; second, words; third, sentences. In music you have the equivalent to phonemes and the equivalent to sentences, but you don't have the equivalent to words. In myth you have an equivalent to words, an equivalent to sentences, but you have no equivalent to phonemes. So there is, in both cases, one level missing. 
If we try to understand the relationship between language, myth, and music, we can only do so by using language as the point of departure, and then it can be shown that music on the one hand and mythology on the other both stem from languages but grow apart in different directions, that music emphasizes the sound aspect already embedded in language, while mythology emphasizes the sense aspect, the meaning aspect, which is also embedded in language."

I can't say I think much of this setup, (indeed his book is but a weak rendition of Jungian concepts), but it does get one thinking about the relations between these languages. I would offer that music is absolutely primary. Its evolutionary roots are extremely deep, expressing and sharing emotions among birds and insects, not to mention all mammals.

The next level up from music is practical language, used for parenting, household organization, hunting parties, and the like. The musical aspects of our phonemes and sentences are weakened in the interests of more finely coded communication, as words take the place of purely musical expressions. Still, poetry (and various onomatopoeias) harkens back to a time when all sentences were more or less musical, more emotionally meaningful, less coded.

From there, languages develop increasing coding capacity, which can be used for many things. Here is where myths come in, as one of perhaps two thematic branches of language use. One branch is the didactic, analytic language, which eventually develops toward Witgenstein and mathematics, where, if the content is not poetic, nothing else about the language betrays any musicality whatsoever.

The language of myth goes in quite a different direction and expresses quite different things- our dreams and emotions. One telltale is that myth is happy to be embedded in a culturally integrated way with strong connections to music, image, and other arts, as a unity of performance. Myths are no more logical than our dreams are; they express an emotional and human logic that is essential to our being, nurturing a sense of self, community, history, hope, and imagination. Why do all our movies & novels have happy endings? Why are the cop show criminals always caught? These myths carry out the elementary function of keeping our spiritual sense of order and hope alive.

This is all to say that one shouldn't confuse the nature or purposes of didactic versus mythical languages. They are fundamentally different, and the weird necessity that modern religions often have of insisting that their myths cover both bases, are perfectly correct, contain all knowledge, and must never be doubted is another case of emotional language being used- some relatively ugly emotions, to be truthful.

  • Economic quote of the week:
Alas, in their self-appointed role as purchasing agents in health care, American employers have arguably become the sloppiest purchasers of health care anywhere in the world. The chaotic price system for health care is one manifestation of that sloppiness.
Another result has been that ... a decade of health care cost growth under employment-based health insurance has wiped out the real income gains for an average family with employment-based health insurance.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Lucid dreaming

Of dreams, fairy tales, and religion.

Our brains are always going. Awake or asleep, something is always bubbling, until death do us in. Emptying the mind is a hopeless task, as meditators learn to their chagrin, though one can focus on smaller and smaller objects, and increase one's discipline of focus.

Most activity is fully unconscious, wheels turning to support our breathing, blood pressure, vision, etc. But the conscious parts are likewise going virtually all the time, apart from the deepest levels of sleep, and send up a constant stream of drama in the form of dreams, images, plans, regrets, and desires- waking and sleeping.

When we are not making up our own, we like nothing more than to experience in those of others- watching movies, gossipping, reading books. Why is that? Computers do some of the computation we do, (more or less!), but without all this drama. They are not motivated agents. That is the divide between our world and the one where robots take over- as of now, they don't have any motivation ... a drama motor running all the time, putting out dream images, desires, and ambition.

I've been reading fairy tales, and watching the illustrated dreaming of Henry Darger. Tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella are by turns cautionary morality plays and hopeful live-happily-ever-after dreamscapes. Pared down and packed with every archetype, kings come riding over every hill, stepmothers thwart every princess, and big things happen in threes. Fairy tales seem like lucid dreams, with no preamble, context. or excuses- just pure drama dredged right up from our emotional core.

While we all dream, some people are far more gifted (or cursed!) with the ability to experience and express dreams in the waking state. Of the brother Grimm's sources, none was as prolific or precise as Dorothea Viehmann, who contributed many of their stories. But her stories came from other folk sources. She had an extraordinary memory to collect and transmit them.

Henry Darger, on the other hand, was a reclusive product of early 20th century Illinois orphages and asylums who generated an enormous fantasy world, which he spent a lifetime recording in ream after ream of typescript and hundreds of paintings and collage. Probably, we all experience easily this much imagery and drama, in dreams. But very few experience it so clearly in waking, or are so compelled to tell the story, listener or no. Carl Jung was another example.

Art for art's sake, by Henry Darger.

Our cultural life, however, depends on people so gifted, who bind us together in shared fantasies, of movies, novels, ceremonies, and the like. Our humanity is expressed in intense desire and the drama of fulfilling it in world where it often runs directly athwart the desires of others. Thus the epic Glandelinian war of Darger's opus, with its heroes the Vivian girls. Or the latest Superman, Spiderman, Hobbit, Potter, etc.

Which brings, us, as usual, to the topic of religion, which falls squarely into this category of art: enacted fantasy with a head-spinning brew of every conceivable archetype, cosmic-level drama, and the can't-top-this promise of living-happily-ever-after. It is a story. One that has come so naturally to us through the ages in countless guises, rising from the same basic psychological truth and origin. One that has been refined into the crack-i-est of narrative crack cocaine. One that tops it all by not saying "once upon a time", but by claiming truth and demanding belief from its mystified and yearning votaries.

Is it really so hard to tell story from reality? Reality is, to our awareness, just another story, and sometimes a mightily depressing one that pierces our narcissim. One of the great accomplishments of the enlightenment was to begin a definitive separation between nonfiction and fiction across the culture, using immense intellectual discipline, in combination with intellectual accelerants such as printing. The development of science was only one facet of a deeper process. It is a long, long road- indeed never ending, since human nature itself remains unmoved.

  • Get the lead out of all ammunition. Not just for birds, but for hunters as well, of course.
  • Citigroup now writing our banking laws.
  • The Fed starts to realize that it isn't tracking the right numbers; money isn't all it's cracked up to be.
  • Krugman comments on rent: "Since profits are high while borrowing costs are low, why aren’t we seeing a boom in business investment? ... Well, there’s no puzzle here if rising profits reflect rents, not returns on investment."
  • Solar viability still in question- needs carbon tax to stabilize.
  • Shale oil and gas supplies look essentially unlimited. So we can't wait for supply constraints to save the climate.
  • How can some workers in the US be paid ¢22 an hour?
  • Dennett on closeted clergy.
  • A tempest in the atheist teapot- only for the intrepid!
  • Green tip: telecommute!
  • Economics quotes of the week (NYT editorial): "If a business really needed workers, it would pay up. That is not happening, which calls into question the existence of a skills gap as well as the urgency on the part of employers to fill their openings."
  • And, Simon Johnson on too big to fail: "Hank Paulson, then Secretary of the Treasury and former head of Goldman, felt strongly that the continued existence of his firm was essential to the well-functioning of the world economy."
  • And, market fundamentalists still at work (Bill Mitchell): "Mankiw’s example assumes at the outset that 'people earn the value of their marginal product'."
  • And, at the nexus of government, economics, and Afghanistan: 
More than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment have been shredded, cut, and crushed into scrap metal as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 (Post).  Because complicated rules govern equipment donations to other countries, and few would even be able to retrieve it from Afghanistan, military planners have destroyed equipment worth more than $7 billion, turning it into scrap metal the Afghans use in construction projects or as spare parts. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Where have all the fishes gone?

Can we ever get our ecological act together?

Picking up on last week's theme of fighting against the declining baselines of what humans perceive as "normal" ecology, as they exploit their way down the food chain and wreak various other types of havoc on our world, a prime example is fishing. We have known forever that any body of water has only so many fish, and in lakes it is quite possible to "fish out" a species. But the ocean? Yes, we've known for at least a century or two that ocean fisheries can be fished out too.

An outstanding podcast from the CBC interviewed the author of a new book about this history, who makes the point that fishery depletion was a public and contentious issue in the 19th century, and fishermen where very resistent to the ├╝ber-exploitative methods like bottom-trawling that, several decades later, left much of the eastern seaboard such an ecological shambles. Time after time, our collective apparatus- the state- proved toothless and cowardly in the face of technological "advancement", private interests, and races to the bottom which wound up as tragedies of the commons.

But I'll turn to something more contemporary- an article about current fisheries management that has similarly depressing messages about the appalling lack regulation, even now, decades, indeed centuries, after all the issues have been crystal clear. If we can not manage our relations to fish in the face of short-term greed, how will we ever deal with CO2?

The paper is a global analysis of overfished stocks, and asks what the optimal policy would be, and how far we (or the relevant governing bodies) are from that policy and why. As is customary with contemporary fisheries "science", they take the most blinkered and mercenary attitude, asking not for ecological health in general, or restoration of fantastic yields seen in distant history, but only for the "Bmsy", or the maximum sustainable yield of fish biomass. The idea that other fisheries might depend in turn on the studied fishery, or that wild animals might rely on it, or that such fish populations might not have as their only end the servicing of human appetites ... that doesn't seem to enter their heads. Nor does the true historical scope of possible fish populations and yields.

At any rate, even on strictly Bmsy terms, which is to say the simplest dollar and cents approach, the fisheries they look at are grievously mismanaged. Species that could be restored in ten years are on trajectories to be restored in 100, if that. (Note that the halibut fishery is completely closed due to virtually none being left, which leads to the coincidence of the business as usual and other curves below.)

Projected recovery times for various collapsed fisheries of the northwestern Atlantic, under business as usual,  no fishing at all, and moderate fishing at the Bmsy (see text) levels.

The Bmsy is typically taken to be 0.3 times the current population of the fish, assuming a typical rate of reproduction, which largely goes into the maw of the fishing fleet. This is why the difference between no fishing and Bmsy fishing in the graph above is so small- that taking merely one third of the population each year is not such a big bite out of a rapidly reproducing species. For a slowly reproducing species, like sharks, the factor is going to be much smaller, but that is not discussed in the paper.

So it is apparent that under the current regulatory regimes, the hunters of these emblematic species and many others are not controlled, and can not control themselves from vacuuming up absurdly large proportions of the already depleted populations of these fish, directly in opposition to their own economic interests, in the long term.
"Regardless of their depletion level, at current fishing mortality rates, recovery to Bmsy remains a distant target for the majority of stocks that are now depleted (n=62 stocks in our analysis)."
The authors go on to make the additional point, which hardly needs making, that the length of time a species has been in a highly depleted state itself affects the time it will take (if ever) to recover. Whether this arises from permanent habitat destruction, (like from bottom trawling), or from ecological reconfiguration of their relation to other species, or gross genetic alterations like reductions in size in response to fishing pressure, or from loss of genetic diversity, or for other reasons, such species have a hard, hard road.

Fish are almost as invisible as CO2- out of sight, out of mind. And this problem also reflects the degradation of our public institutions and quality of public thinking, part of a long tradition of kow-towing to private business and individual "freedom", which authored such epic catastrophes as the dust bowl. We can do better.

  • The Fed talks about our conditions- the credit markets are still in bad shape. The Fed's money creation has little effect, as long as banks and other participants are not lending.
  • CO2 emissions at all-time high.
  • Nicaragua intends to build a canal, with Chinese and Russian help. How serious is it? Hard to tell.
  • Some economic history- breakup of the Ruble currency area.
  • B of A lied as a matter of course ... shocking! Disclosures about foreclosures.
  • Supply side theory ... oops!
  • Green tip- foam filler is a great way to weatherize, seal cracks, and insulate.
  • Economic image of the week- returns to capital vs labor. The talk turns out to be about inequality, looking into the void of our current public policy, in a TED-style way.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The beauty of the carbon tax

We need that carbon tax, immediately.

Soylent Green was perhaps one of the first true global warming films- a gritty, low-budget Charlton Heston vision of our future where warming has destroyed the natural world, and corporations (combined with overpopulation) have degraded humanity to a soy-based triscuit-eating ragged mob. Images of green and wild nature are so precious and exotic that they are played once and only once to the people of this time- at the moment of their death.

It is set in 2022, so it is safe to say that this specific future is not going to happen on time. Our descent into unrecoverable biosphere loss is happening more slowly. And it is worth saying that humanity should be able to get along decently well. Water will be short, fossil fuels more expensive, productive land in short supply, and inequality sharper. We will face serious issues, but the greater problem is that the riches of the natural world will gradually become a faded memory, an Eden slowly forgotten as the generations march on, each dealing with their particular stresses and shortages.

Farley Mowat's "sea of slaughter" graphically portrayed this process, where the unimaginable riches of the pre-Columbian New World, in sea life, bird life, and forest life, were not just cut down, burned up, and eaten. They were also forgotten, and the (somewhat) impoverished country with ravaged seas and oyster beds, extinct birds and mammals became the new normal- America the Beautiful.

Under our noses, the summer arctic ice is disappearing, with the species that depend on it. Corals are dying and eventually are likely to surrender entirely to a combination of sea level rise, warming, and acidification. Pollinators are dying, frogs are dying, and the list goes on inexorably.

What to do? The most important thing to know is that we have the technical tools we need. For all the hand-wringing about green power, about intermittency, poor storage technologies, and slow progress on solar conversion efficiencies, etc., there is plenty of renewable power and technology out there. It is just a bit more expensive than the fossil fuels we are getting for the price of extraction. This difference is being made worse by the fracking boom, tar sands steaming, and other novel extraction technologies, which rip open new layers of fossil carbon.

But at what cost? At unimaginable long-term cost. And the crying shame is that by just flipping one small switch, we could put ourselves on an entirely different trajectory. That switch is the carbon tax.

Estimates from the US EIA, of the effect of various carbon taxes.

With a modest carbon tax of about $25 per ton carbon emitted, which is about what comes from burning 112 gallons of gasoline, coal-burning power plants would be headed for permanent extinction, since they are the most flatulent of fuels. The breakeven for sustainable energy viability is roughly around $100 per barrel of oil, which we are close to in the current markets. Unfortunately, breakeven is not quite enough to prompt a fundamental switch in the energy infrastructure. Additionally, various market forces, such as the vast capacity of the OPEC countries, tends to keep oil prices just below the point where they would cause a fundamental shift in the West's attitude to its addiction.

This carbon tax, which amounts to about $100 billion per year, or about $1,000 per household, would be substantial, but quite manageable. Compare this scale to the roughly $50 billion of annual subsidies the fossil fuel industry gets from the government, quite apart from the various harms it does indirectly, in the short and long terms. The tax is not meant to fund the government or slow the economy, but rather to change the incentive structure of our energy system from pro-fossil to pro-sustainable. It could all be sent right back to households on a per capita, or even more progressive basis, becoming a simple and far-reaching efficiency incentive.

(Parenthetically, one might ask whether emissions trading regimes are better or worse than carbon taxes/fees. They are more specifically directed, with top-down control of the allowable cap of emissions. They are also a less blunt instrument, since we know that consumer use of fossil fuels like gasoline is relatively insensitive to price, over the short term, at least. But the directed-ness of cap-and-trade systems is also a weakness, since the imposed cap may not be ambitious enough compared with what is technically feasible. In any case, either system would be better than doing nothing, which is our current, shameful, and short-sighted policy.)

Once sustainable energy becomes economically and consistently viable on the large scale, via this textbook use of the economic tool of taxing a clear public danger, then the incentives for future development and innovation will turn significantly. Right now, it is the oil and gas industry that makes the greatest revenue of any industry, and has the resources to fund absurdly complex oil rigs in the middle of nowhere, (i.e. the oceans and the arctic), amazing oil drilling methods into the jaws of hell, and pump-it-up schemes to loosen "tight" gas. Imagine what sustainable technologies could develop with that kind of money. The rampant burning of fossil fuels would eventually become a dimly remembered image, but an ugly one.

"Why should professional economists working for the IMF, the EC and the ECB be above the professional standards and accountability that apply throughout the professional world?"
  • Green tip: LED replacements are available for MR16 50W track lights, but look carefully at lumens, temperature, and dimmability with your particular dimmer.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Science always wins

Review of Michael Ruse: Can a Darwinist be a Christian?

A correspondent suggested this book as a sophisticated statement of how Christianity and science are not really at loggerheads, and so the new atheists should just shut up. Michael Ruse is well known in the creationism debate, and this book dates from its heated heyday, a decade ago. To his title (and more importantly its inverse), his answer, needless to say, is a definite "yes"- Christianity, despite a few problems here and there, and naturally depending how fundamentalist one is, can, with a bit of jiggering and sawing, be brought into reasonable alignment with Darwinism in its current state. Take that, Mister Dawkins!
As the blurb at Amazon says: "Adopting a balanced perspective on the subject, Michael Ruse argues that, although it is at times difficult for a Darwinian to embrace Christian belief, it is not inconceivable."

Ruse tries to give equal time to both sides, but the book really seems more oriented to wading through Christian dogmas and trying to find some way to shoehorn them into agreement with Darwinism, than the reverse. Indeed, despite the rhetorical and formal symmetry, the key to my reading of the book is his rather blunt statement here and elsewhere that Darwinism is true:
"We are not asking the question, Is Darwinism true? Rather, having assumed the truth of (some version of) Darwinism, we are asking, Can a Darwinian be a Christian?"

Elsewhere he is even more definitive about the truth of Darwinism, since, as he has testified in court, it really is true. But never does he apply the same judgement to Christianity. He is thorough (if brief) in laying out the major beliefs Christians have, and the degrees to which various Christians have them, but never once says that one or another of them is actually true. Which is of course because he can say no such thing.

Not one of the key dogmas has the character of fact, in the modern sense of being well-attested in rigorous fashion through empirical and/or logical means. The holy ghost is not a fact. The resurrection of Jesus is not a fact. The transubstantiation of bread and wine is not a fact. The efficacy of prayer is not  fact. Life after death is not a fact. The second coming is not a fact (though grievously overdue). And on and on. The factuality of Jesus himself hangs by a thread, with no direct evidence, but such a volume of hearsay and secondary effects that historians class it as a historical fact, not without a good deal of controversy and hand-wringing.
"I doubt that evolutionism has much to say about the Trinity, for example."

So, tucked within this even-handed argument is the worm of decisive asymmetry, in that one doctrine is a well-attested field of empirical research with inescapable logic and evidence, while the other, to put it in technical terms, is a bunch of fairy tales. Often very nice and uplifting, but stories & myths none the less.

Ruse therefore couches his ultimate arguments in a rather telling way, which is to tell the religious reader that she or he had better get with the program:
"In fact, most Darwinians- and here I speak of all shades, from ultras like Dawkins through qualifiers like Gould- would argue that the evidence for evolution and for some significant role for selection is sufficiently strong that Christians ought to be Darwinians. Our powers of sense and of reason are given to us by God- they are crucially involved in what it means to say that humans are made in God's image- and to turn on back on such firmly established science is theologically unacceptable.
Indeed, it is worrisome to think that- because of a literal reading of the Bible- we could have the live option of rejecting such established science as Darwinism."

Ruse then goes on to lambaste Alvin Plantinga for doing just this in philosophically vacuous ways, and repeats several times through the book (in more polite terms) that insofar as Christian god grants human reason, please do not be idiots.

Thus the reconciliation that Ruse dredges out of his comparison of these systems is rather one-sided. Darwinism is true, so in any point of fact, science wins and religion really has to suck it up and retreat from its fairy tales by whatever means necessary. The typical method is to re-read the scriptures "metaphorically" to the necessary extent.

This leads naturally to the question of whether everything about religion is metaphorical- salvation, life after death, god- the whole ball of wax. The obvious answer is yes, after which we can all come to a true reconciliation, where we exist on the same planet, in the same universe, reading a diversity of narratives and myths as such, and can attend to more important problems than whether god is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good, three-in-one, present in the wafer, and has his cell phone turned on.

The two systems are doing complementary things, in a way. The Darwinists / naturalists have a truthful account of reality, and struggle to make of it a humanistic meaningful narrative. Many have had a crack at that project, from the existentialists to E. O. Wilson (even Shakespeare, I dare say). It is a difficult project and stretches modern thought to its utmost.

Conversely, religionists (of the more traditional sort, at least) start with a powerfully meaningful, or at least psychologically effective, narrative of the world's origins, workings, and humanity's place in it, and struggle to rationalize that story into concordance with reality, via exercises in theology, deflection, bare assertion, leaps of faith, authority, fancy costumes, and the like. While the former task is difficult, the latter is, as far as I can see, impossible. For all of Ruse's valiant efforts, if science always wins, then there is no solidity to the religious world view, in any traditional sense. Even the barest deism exists in fear that advances in cosmology and physics may someday find that everything comes from nothing, or some other such properly mystical, (yet true!), solution to the ultimate problem of origin.

The meanings that religion provides always depend on a contra-scientific view of reality, since that reality must be imbued with some mechanism of caring about us in order to provide hope and comfort. And it must have some consciousness in order to properly care about us such that our efforts in return provide some meaning within the pleasing-the-parent psychological template. And that just isn't the case.

  • Religion as bare emotion.
  • True reality, false reality, and denial.
  • Some out atheists.
  • The psychology of time.
  • Frontline on the 401K: a disaster from all angles, except if you are a corporation providing a minimal match, or a rich person who doesn't need it.
  • US society grows less fair, less just, more poor.
  • Joblessness kills.
  • Yes, we can afford it.. the median wage should be >90K.
  • Cut that cable ...