Sunday, December 11, 2011

Do We Need A SETI For the Human Mind?

The Swedish author Henning Mankell has written a reflection on the nearly forgotten art of listening, which is published in today's New York Times. His piece comes only a couple of days after Maureen Dowd's column Silence is Golden, which discusses Michel Hazanavicius' new movie The Artist, and laments "'the loss of silence,' once as natural as the sky and air." Mankell suggests that African storytelling is less linear than the European, and stands ready

"to burst onto the world scene — much as South American literature did some years ago when Gabriel García Márquez and others led a tumultuous and highly emotional revolt against ingrained truth. Soon an African literary outpouring will offer a new perspective on the human condition. The Mozambican author Mia Couto has, for example, created an African magic realism that mixes written language with the great oral traditions of Africa." 
Mankell contrasts that with our mostly linear Western literature.
"That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example."   
This reminds me of a review I read in 1986 of Timothy Mo's novel An Insular Possession, where the reviewer claimed that Chinese literature was like a lake, while Western literature was like a river. It was a beautiful allegory, but I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that I never read the book. Like so many other books I have bought over the years, it just stands there squeezed in between strangers on a shelf, sometimes making me feel guilty, often reminding me of how short life is.

But back to listening. Maybe we need a SETI for the human mind in this age of mostly mindless chatter and widespread sharing of the inconsequential and mundane.

Sometimes, when something big and sad happens, we gather for a moment of silence. But there is no silence. You can always hear the (lack of) silence. The noise is always there and technology has made us humans capable to produce more noise than ever. If the superstring theory is right - and the world consists of vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings - then it might end (somehow) not with a bang, but with an overload of microwave emissions that causes the music of existence to stop.

Hans Sandberg


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Computers and the Near Future of Education

New York Times published an impressive special issue of Science Times today, dedicated to The Future of Computing. One of the columns discusses the role of technology in improving U.S. education. Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education is written by Daphne Koller, a professor at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She highlights the Khan Academy, and Stanford's recent experiment with placing three computer science courses online, which attracted 300,000 non-credit students.

Lee Fang, an investigative reporter and blogger, presents a radically different and much more skeptical perspective on online education in a very interesting essay for The Nation magazine. How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools

NYT Columnist Gail Collins also discussed online education in her recent column Virtually Educated.

Add to that the fact that the information divide in the U.S. (see Susan Crawford's essay in the NYT Sunday Review) is starting to look like a virtual Grand Canyon, and the whole discussion about online education becomes deeply troubling.

What to do?

"We can hardly stop the adoption of mobile Internet and mobile devices, and they will revolutionize all aspects of education and learning, but what we can do is to help frame the development and create access ramps for those socially and economically disadvantaged. As the delivery of education becomes more and more fragmented, the need for standards and a reasonable amount of fair and independent evaluation becomes critical.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On the Rim of the Information Chasm

The New Digital Divide

Ayn Rand and her followers would dance on the rim of the Grand (information) Canyon, celebrating their privileged status, claiming it was all due to their cleverness and uninhibited drive for individual success. They wouldn't even bother looking down into the chasm. Behind the mores of today's conservatives is fear of falling, not fear of flying.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dithering On the Brink Of Disaster

The tepid stimulus package got us out of the hole that Bush-Cheney dug, but we have since been dithering on the bring of disaster thanks to protracted Republican intransigency and Presidential naïveté.

The Bush-Obama unemployment story so far

Friday, November 25, 2011

Taxation Is A Good Thing Says Sweden's Conservative Finance Minister

Sweden's house of finance is in order, despite the recession and economic troubles in Europe and the world. Anders Borg, the conservative Minister of Finance, said in an interview for Swedish TV that Sweden needs the taxes it levies on the population ant that it is a good thing.
"It is my belief that it is basically a good thing that we collect tax revenues in Sweden. It is a good thing that we have our welfare system, social security, foreign aid, education and healthcare. In order to have that, we need taxes," Borg told SVT.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Worst Thing Since the New Coke - Flat-Packed Swedish Food at IKEA

I picked up Lisa at Newark Airport, and then we headed over to Ikea for a romantic dinner with a gorgeous view of the Turnpike (well, it was dark so all we could see through the panorama windows was the lights of cars, streetlights and incoming airplanes). We had stopped at Ikea in Elizabeth to pick up some Swedish food in the mini market, but we came away pretty disappointed. Ikea is doing the "New Coke" thing, phasing-out the good old Swedish brands and replacing them with Ikea-branded food. Flat-packed chocolate doesn't look as appetizing as the Marabou's we used to buy, and they had signs warning us that we better buy the Siljans knäckebröd now, because soon you will have to make do with Ikea branded bread. For ex-patriots like myself, a visit to Ikea is a visit to the old country, and it is nice to be able to buy Kalles kaviar, Västerbottensost and Lingonsaft, but that will soon be history.
Not only that. Ikea is now selling half-size packages of soft tunnbröd for the same price as the full sized bread I used to buy, and the substitute for the "Hönökaka" is not only square, but nouveau in size, or approximately one third of what it used to be.
I left Ikea sad and disappointed. Is it good business? Well, everytime I visit Ikea to pick up Swedish food, I usually spend a couple of hundred dollars in the store. Without the food, I won't bother to drive to Ikea anytime soon.

Krugman Honored With Prize and a Cool Video

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) honored Princeton's Nobel Laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman with a new prize for a distinguished economist and a video on its 25th anniversary.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Crazy Idea That Makes Sense: Let the Uneducated Educate

I happened upon a TED video this morning. The email arrived; I browsed, clicked and couldn’t stop watching until it was over. Here was this Indian gentleman telling the story of how he left his elite school to found a university among the poorest of the poor. It’s a school where no one with a title or a Ph.D. is allowed to teach, and where no exam is given. And yet, it works. And the movement has spread to Afghanistan, Africa and other places, where poor grandmothers are now building schools and installing solar panels. It is a revolution of sorts.
Bunker Roy - the founder of the movement - realized that uneducated people sit on vast knowledge resources, an idea that Jared Diamond touched upon in the beginning of his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (1997). There is knowledge and there is knowledge. I’m not convinced that barefoot universities would work in modern, middle class societies, but I do believe that we have a lot to learn from them. One of the main problems with modern education is that we separate and isolate learning from doing. Another is that we focus on a narrow band of knowledge. The British Studio School movement has taken on these issues, seemingly successful among children that the current school system has failed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Listening to the Republican Debate

Listening to the Republican debate... what a bunch of losers - all thinking they are winners. Rick Perry is a bad joke. So is Bachmann. Herman Cain is a shrewd salesman - a male Sarah Palin of sorts - but his business is not power, but selling books and promoting his consulting business. Mitt Romney has that Mormon look and hedgefund mindset that gives his ego the necessary boost, but is not going to win enough evangelical votes to enter the White House. Ron Paul is a cranky old man with even older ideas, kind of like Ross Perot without the charts. The rest of the gang are not even worth mentioning. (Jon Huntsman - the only zane Republican candidate - decoded to not participate in this debate. Who can blame him?)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just Finished Listeing to Sapolsky On Stress...

Robert Sapolsky is the author of the bestseller "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers". He is an excellent lecturer, and he has a magic story to tell.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How a Plan for Two States Led to Just One: Israel

Two articles - one in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and one in Haaretz - provides new insight into the process that led to the creation of only one state instead of two in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. The articles show how the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which was intended to be non-partisan and led by a Swede, Emil Sandström, was boycotted by the Palestinians and cleverly manipulated by the Jewish Agency and the intelligence network Haganah. The full story behind UNSCOP's recommendation to the create a Jewish state will soon be available in a new book by Elad Ben-Dror, a historian at Bar-Ilan University.

Ben-Dror has had access to recently declassified documents. He writes that UNSCOP were planning to create and train two militias - one Palestinian and one Jewish, but this didn't happen. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes from the book:

"The plan to establish a militia was the most surprising material I found at the UN," Ben-Dror says. "As part of the Partition Plan, both states were to create militias - a military force under government control and charged mainly with domestic policing duties."
But because the Palestinian leadership viewed Resolution 181 as a pro-Zionist plan and did everything possible to foil it, the UN focused only on establishing the Jewish militia.
"From quite an early stage, due to a lack of cooperation, the UN dropped half of the Partition Plan - the idea of establishing an Arab state," Ben-Dror explained.
"The idea was to implement at least part of the plan - that is, the Jews would create the Jewish state, on the assumption that eventually the UN Security Council would implement the creation of the Arab state," Ben-Dror continued. "As soon as the Partition Plan was adopted, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie and senior UN officials became identified with the idea of the Jewish state. The Arab assault was interpreted as an assault on the UN resolutions, and the UN trusted that the Jews would carry out the partition and not do anything beyond that."
A State is Born in Palestine (New York Times)
UN archives reveal plan to arm Jewish militia (Haaretz)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Democracy, Dictatorship and Economic Growth

It's a popular notion that dictatorships are more efficient than democracies, and that it is China's political system that explains it's fast growth since 1978. Professor Yasheng Huang from MIT Sloan School of Management challenges that notion, by a series of very interesting comparisons.

Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth?

If you found Yasheng's speech interesting, you may want to listen to Joseph Nye's speech, which places China's economic and political power in a soft power perspective.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Tea Party As a Proto-Fascist Movement

I'm finally reading Hannah Arendt's fascinating book The Origins of Totalitarianism, which feels surprisingly fresh despite its age. Her treatment of the pan-slavic and pan-germanic movements makes you think of the Tea Party, and her discussion of the treatment of the stateless and their internment makes you cold inside. But if the similarities are that obvious, somebody must have written about it. I googled Hannah Arendt and the Tea Party and did get a few thousand hits.
Here is an example: Richard Cohen: Green with Tea Party envy (Washington Post)

And here is an excerpt from Arendt's book:

It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been "spoiled" by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one's own or somebody else's party. On the contrary, the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country. Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually, they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions.

It has frequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them. This is not just devilish cleverness on the part of the leaders or childish stupidity on the part of the masses. Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law; yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy . . . (The Origin of Totalitarianism)

Also, see Wikipedia's article about Hannah Arendt's book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Missing a Teachable Moment Have Consequences

One would hope that a crisis would be a teachable moment, but too often in history, it is just a moment. The Great Depression gave us fascism, intensified terror in Stalin's Soviet, Japan's invasion of China, a bloody civil war in Spain, the rise of Hitler and World War II. So much for teachable moments....

The currents crisis is a crisis for globalization due to unregulated markets, political corruption and extreme inequalities. It is also a crisis for the idea of democracy, democratic capitalism and world economic and political cooperation. If we leave it to Wall Street to defend capitalism, it is doomed.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mr. Scrooge: Are there no prisons?

New York Times reports from London:

"LONDON — The rioting and looting that convulsed poorer sections of London over the weekend spread Monday to at least six new parts of the metropolitan area and broke out for the first time in another big city, in what appeared to be the worst outbreak of social unrest in Britain in 25 years.       

Prime Minister David Cameron, apparently caught off guard while on vacation at a $10,000-a-week Tuscany villa, made plans to quickly return home...."


SCROOGE: Are there no prisons?
2ND MISSIONARY: Plenty of prisons, sir.
SCROOGE: And the workhouses? Are they still in operation?
3RD MISSIONARY: I wish we could say that they are not.
SCROOGE: The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?
1ST MISSIONARY: Both are very busy, sir.
SCROOGE: Oh! I was afraid from what you said at first that something had stopped
them in their useful course. I am very glad to hear they are still operating.
2ND MISSIONARY: (Not looking up.) A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to
buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth because at this time the want is
more keenly felt.
3RD MISSIONARY: What shall I put you down for?
SCROOGE: Nothing.
And there we are in 2011. The more things change, the more they are the same.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Krugman: It's Time To Get Serius

Paul Krugman at Princeton on the day that it was
announced that he would receive the Noble Prize
in Economics. Photo: Hans Sandberg
Paul Krugman writes in today's column for The New York Times:
"In case you had any doubts, Thursday’s more than 500-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average and the drop in interest rates to near-record lows confirmed it: The economy isn’t recovering, and Washington has been worrying about the wrong things.       

It’s not just that the threat of a double-dip recession has become very real. It’s now impossible to deny the obvious, which is that we are not now and have never been on the road to recovery. (...)

And why should we be surprised at this catastrophe? Where was growth supposed to come from? Consumers, still burdened by the debt that they ran up during the housing bubble, aren’t ready to spend. Businesses see no reason to expand given the lack of consumer demand. And thanks to that deficit obsession, government, which could and should be supporting the economy in its time of need, has been pulling back."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Verdict On the Tea Party Solution Is In

“If this economy were a bicycle, it would be about to topple over,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and formerly the top economic advisor to Vice President Biden. “We need to put pressure on those pedals, but the political system is pushing us in the other direction. The economy is crying out for help and the political system is deaf to those cries.”
(Washington Post, August 4)

Stocks Down Over 4% in Global Sell-Off

Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive of the bond giant Pimco, said investors were selling risky assets like stocks “globally prompted by concerns about the weakening economic outlook, spreading contagion in Europe and insufficient policy responses.”
(New York Times, August 4)

Economic growth could have gone a long way toward shrinking the deficit, while helping put people to work. The spending cuts will shrink growth and raise the likelihood of pushing the country back into recession.

Inflicting more pain on their countrymen doesn’t much bother the Tea Party Republicans, as they’ve repeatedly proved. What is astonishing is that both the president and House speaker are claiming that the deal will help the economy. Do they really expect us to buy that? We’ve all heard what happened in 1937 when Franklin Roosevelt, believing the Depression was over, tried to rein in federal spending. Cutting spending spiraled the country right back into the Great Depression, where it stayed until the arrival of the stimulus package known as World War II. That’s the path we’re now on. Our enemies could not have designed a better plan to weaken the American economy than this debt-ceiling deal.
(Joe Nocera, New York Times)

Right now we’re looking at not one but two looming crises, either of which could produce a global disaster. In the United States, right-wing fanatics in Congress may block a necessary rise in the debt ceiling, potentially wreaking havoc in world financial markets. Meanwhile, if the plan just agreed to by European heads of state fails to calm markets, we could see falling dominoes all across southern Europe — which would also wreak havoc in world financial markets. We can only hope that the politicians huddled in Washington and Brussels succeed in averting these threats. But here’s the thing: Even if we manage to avoid immediate catastrophe, the deals being struck on both sides of the Atlantic are almost guaranteed to make the broader economic slump worse. (...)

For those who know their 1930s history, this is all too familiar. If either of the current debt negotiations fails, we could be about to replay 1931, the global banking collapse that made the Great Depression great. But, if the negotiations succeed, we will be set to replay the great mistake of 1937: the premature turn to fiscal contraction that derailed economic recovery and ensured that the Depression would last until World War II finally provided the boost the economy needed.

Did I mention that the European Central Bank — although not, thankfully, the Federal Reserve — seems determined to make things even worse by raising interest rates?
(Paul Krugman, New York Times, July 21)

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record.

Indeed, slashing spending while the economy is depressed won’t even help the budget situation much, and might well make it worse. On one side, interest rates on federal borrowing are currently very low, so spending cuts now will do little to reduce future interest costs. On the other side, making the economy weaker now will also hurt its long-run prospects, which will in turn reduce future revenue. So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.
(Paul Krugman, New York Times, July 31)

If Obama does not reject the failed fantasies of the past and start promoting a jobs agenda that is based on federal government investment in infrastructure, education and the stabilizing of state and local governments so that they can continue to deliver needed services, the Tea Partisans will continue to control the discourse.

Obama must take the lead—with an absolute rejection of the extreme right's extremely wrong agenda—if he hopes to rally the popular support that is needed to define the debate and, ultimately, to start winning the fights that will determine the future of the US economy.

Obama has to climb into the bully pulpit and take charge. If he does not, the circumstance will just get worse.

Compromises do not build confidence.

Cuts do not inspire.

Tax breaks for the rich do not does not jumpstart a stalled economy.

Austerity does not create jobs.

And if Barack Obama continues to surrender to the peddlers of the austerity fantasy, if he continues to refuse to use the full strength of the federal government to advance a job-creation agenda, he will have a lot more to worry about than whether John Boehner will still go golfing with him.
(John Nichols, The Nation, August 4)

It was never a debt crisis. The debt crisis was manufactured. It’s been a jobs, wages, and growth crisis all along. And that reality has finally caught up with us.

Now that we’re slouching toward a double-dip recession, the only hope is voters will tell their members of Congress – who are now on recess back home – to stop obsessing about future budget deficits and get to work on the real crisis of unemployment, falling wages, and no growth.

We need a bold jobs bill to restart the economy. Eliminate payroll taxes on the first $20,000 of income for two years. Recreate the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The federal government should lend money to cash-strapped states and local governments. Give employers tax credits for net new jobs. Amend the bankruptcy laws to allow distressed homeowners to declare bankruptcy on their primary residence. Extend unemployment insurance. Provide partial unemployment benefits to people who have lost part-time jobs. Start an infrastructure bank.

And more.

The jobs bill should be number one on the nation’s agenda. It should have been all along.
(Robert Reich on his blog. August 4) 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Alex Sings an Italian Love Song and "Stars" from Les Miserables

My son Alex took part in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Summer Vocal Institute over the past two weeks. Today was recital, and Alex sang two songs, Giovanni Battista Bononcini's Per la Gloria d'adoravi och Schonberg's Stars from Les Miserables.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Who Do You Call When You Have a Squirrel Trapped in Your Fireplace?

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 1.
It is Sunday afternoon and you hear something from the living room. Ignore it!

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 2.
It is now past dinner time and you are discussing Paris restaurants with your oldest son. Then you hear that sound from the living room again. Erik heard it too, so now you can't ignore it. He suggest that I call animal control, but animal control is no more in West Windsor, NJ. Budget cuts!

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 4.
We realize that if we open the glass doors, the squirrel may disappear in the house, and we will have a lot of work chasing him or her. I start to look for something to catch the squirrel with in case...

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 5.
I google "How do you get a squirrel out of your chimney" and before I have finished the line google has delivered 2.8 million answers. Wow! I'm not alone. The google answers are interesting, but I don't want to climb the roof and lower a rope down the chimney so that the squirrel can escape.

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 6.
By the way... how did it get in? We have a mesh that the chimney guy put in to prevent birds from getting stuck. Those clever rodents.

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 7.
I went into the garage to look for something to catch a squirrel with, but the only thing I could come up with was one of the large garbage cans. The lid was however to clumsy to operate so he/she might escape, so I went to the basement and picked up a poster board, which covered the top of the can nicely.

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 8.
My home-made squirrel trap.
Back at the fireplace it was eerily quit. I took a flashlight to see if he/she was hiding in a corner, but all I could see was pieces of insulation that he/she had ripped into. No squirrel. Did it escape? Well, I moved on and set up my home-made squirrel trap, which you can see on the photo. Note the poster board to the right behind the garbage can.

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 9.
The trap was now set, but no squirrel in sight, so I went back into the kitchen, returning to a project I was working on. Fifteen minutes later, I here noise from the living room. YES! He is in the can, and I carefully slide the poster board in-between the fireplace opening and the can. I shake the can slightly to check if the squirrel is in it. It is!

How to get a squirrel out of your fireplace... Part 10.
Erik and I carry the can out and flip it over away from us and boy, was that squirrel happy, bouncing off like on a squirrel date. 

End of story!

Hans Sandberg

A Huge Problem with an Obvious Solution

Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables

A great expose by Mark Bittman. It is a life and death issue, and addressing it could lower the deficit.
Subsidized. Photo: Hans Sandberg
Not subsidized.
"WHAT will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits? The need is indisputable, since heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all in large part caused by the Standard American Diet. (Yes, it’s SAD.)....changing it /our diet/ could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives..... and... save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods.... Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.
Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available."
It's so obvious and makes so much sense and would save so much money that one wonders if it ever could be done. It's almost like if we were to get people to stop smoking.... oh, we actually did that, and it worked. And we do regulate and tax tobacco. Why isn't the Tea Party huffing and puffing about that?
Hans Sandberg

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where Are They Now, Those Rebels Against Big Brother?

Remember those daring revolutionaries who took on Big Brother in a famous 1984 ad. Well, as Rebecca MacKinnon explains in this sharp TED presentation, they are now busy censoring iPad and iPhone apps on behalf of Big Money, Big Power or simply to block the naughty bits.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Party Is Almost Over For the Republican Party

The clean-up is going to be very expensive, and they will as usually leave the bill on the table for the rest of us to pick up.
“Our problem is, we made a big deal about this for three months,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina told the New York Times.
“How many Republicans have been on TV saying, ‘I am not going to raise the debt limit,’ ” said Mr. Graham, including himself in the mix of those who did so. “We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

Hans Sandberg

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Let the Kids Pay Our Debts - We Can't Do Without Our Private Jets

It seems that the deficit wasn't that big of a problem after all, at least not big enough for the zillionairs to have to pay tax on their private jets. What happened to all the talk about not putting a crushing debt burden on our children? Well there are limits, I guess. After all, what would the world look like if Gordon Gecko and his men had to fly First Class and not take their Corporate Jet to Aspen next time?

Hans Sandberg

Monday, May 30, 2011

Betraying the Reader - New York Times' Incredibly Annoying Floater Ads

I am annoyed and disappointed that the New York Times is using floating overlay ads, also called floaters. They are as bad as pop-ups, or maybe even more annoying, because they float over the text you are trying to read. You can't stop them by clicking "Close" or "X" and the Internet Explorer pop-up blocker doesn't block them, but Firefox with Adblock does, so from now on I will read the Times through Firefox.

New York Times is of course not alone in doing this, but being the New York Times you would think that it knew better than hurting the relationship with its most loyal readers.

Hans Sandberg

Here is a screen shot of a floater ad for Delta Airlines.

Friday, May 20, 2011

V.S. Ramachandran Talks About Qualia and the Self

This is a brilliant discussion of consciousness, qualia, and self by Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at University of California in San Diego. You could connect this to the old debate about computers and the human mind (John R. Searl's critique of Strong AI). It's comforting to think that HAL will never be one of us...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friedrich Hayek Revisited In the Age of the Tea Party

Francis Fukyama writes a brilliant review of Friedrich Hayek's "The Constitution of Liberty" (1960) in New York Times Book Review. Hayek's insights about the limits of aggregated knowledge reveals the impossibility of perfect central planning, but - contrary to himself and his followers - not the impossibility of pragmatic and limited central planning.

Fukuyama writes:

Hayek’s skepticism about the effects of “big government” are rooted in an epistemological observation summarized in a 1945 article called “The Uses of Knowledge in Society.” There he argued that most of the knowledge in a modern economy was local in nature, and hence unavailable to central planners.
“The Constitution of Liberty” builds on this view of the limits of human cognition to make the case that no government can know enough about a society to plan effectively. The government’s true role is more modest: to create laws that are general and equally applied; these laws constitute the matrix in which the spontaneous interactions of individuals can occur. (It may, however, surprise some of Hayek’s new followers to learn that “The Constitution of Liberty” argues that the government may need to provide health insurance and even make it ­compulsory.)
Hayek was certainly right about the local nature of much of the knowledge humans need to make economic decisions, a fact that drove central planners crazy in Soviet Union and China and ultimately led to the economic and political reforms. But this does not mean that all planning is impossible or must lead to tyranny. Modern society would not be possible without local, regional and central planning. The modern large corporations are bureaucratic giants excelling in central planning, and governments use it to protect its citizens from food-borne illness, nature's whims and corporate abuse of market power. Power corrupts for sure, and human beings tend to think they know more than they actually do know, but that is an argument for protecting competition, a basic equality and democracy - not an argument against government, taxation and planning.

Hans Sandberg

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hollow Arguments For Immoral Acts

From the New York Times' editorial today:

The Torture Apologists
The killing of Osama bin Laden provoked a host of reactions from Americans: celebration, triumph, relief, closure and renewed grief. One reaction, however, was both cynical and disturbing: crowing by the apologists and practitioners of torture that Bin Laden’s death vindicated their immoral and illegal behavior after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify Mr. Bush’s decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard.
This was not the “ticking time bomb” scenario that Bush-era officials often invoked to rationalize abusive interrogations. If, as Representative Peter King, the Long Island Republican, said, information from abused prisoners “directly led” to the redoubt, why didn’t the Bush administration follow that trail years ago?
The battered intelligence community should now be basking in the glory of a successful operation. It should not be dragged back into the muck and murk by political figures whose sole agenda seems to be to rationalize actions that cost this country dearly — in our inability to hold credible trials for very bad men and in the continued damage to our reputation.       
I couldn't agree more.

Hans Sandberg

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Even If It Turned Out That Torture Worked - Does That Make It Right?

The right-wing was stunned by the fact that the guy who they don't even believe is a legitimate President succeded where his bumbling, fumbling predecessor failed. It didn't take long though before they found a way back in the debate:

Among them was John Yoo, a former Justice Department official who wrote secret legal memorandums justifying brutal interrogations. “President Obama can take credit, rightfully, for the success today,” Mr. Yoo wrote Monday in National Review, “but he owes it to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration.”
Yeah, right... Bush and Cheney were really good at making tough decisions...

But even if it was water-boarding or some other form of torture that led to bin Laden, does that make torture right? How come conservative "moralists" who usually purport to be good pro-life Christians are so eager to embrace torture?

Besides, the euphoria over the killing of bin Laden reflects a simplistic Hollywood-perspective of world politics. If only Rambo is unleashed on the bad guys, we will get our revenge, which equals a happy ending.

The truth is that bin-Laden had already been "buried" politically by the popular and secular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries.

No Rambo was needed for that victory.

Hans Sandberg

Friday, April 15, 2011

When Hoodlums Ran Amok in Stockholm

In a clip from March, 8, 1948, a very serious reporter describes the growing "youth problem" in Sweden. 15-18 year olds have "crossed the boundaries of decent behaviour and created problems for the local police." Fights, car thefts and disturbances have made the Stockholm police pay attention. See how the crowd disperses when Constaple Sven approaches. This being Sweden, there is a of course a solution: The youths have organized a club that rents a nightclub on Mondays where the young and restless (50 percent are children of divorce we are informed. On the night of the reporters' visit, a Jitterbug contest is taking place.. well what could you expect the reporter shrugs and informs us about the 80% drop in car thefts since the club opened.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The President's Speech: Did Barack Obama Draw A Line In the Sand?

Obama's speech about the long-term budget crisis was strong and effective. He came out as the national leader setting the agenda, and wiping off the irresponsible and immoral proposal Paul Ryan presented a couple of weeks ago.

The Republicans threw a hissy fit, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan faked outrage and Rush Limbaugh emerged from the relative obscurity where he has been found himself due to the oversupply of nutty conservatives.

Now, lets hope that hos words will be match with deeds, and not backtracking ahead of the battle.

Hans Sandberg

PS. Here is New York Times comment on the speech:

President Obama, Reinvigorated

Monday, April 11, 2011

Progressives Are Loosing the Patience with President Obama

Paul Krugman is one of the most influential progressive economists in the U.S. He initially supported Hillary Clinton in the campaign, but later switch to a cautious support of President Barack Obama. He has been nudging the president to be firm, and warned repeatedly that the Obama stimulus package was too small to have the desired effect, something we know only to well now that it was true.
In his latest NYT column, Krugman scolds President Obama for wimpering out instead of leading the fight against the Republicans and Tea Party zelots:

"What have they done with President Obama? What happened to the inspirational figure his supporters thought they elected? Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular?"
The President Is Missing

Hans Sandberg

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Excellent Frontline Show About the Deficit

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Is It Better to Invest in Facebook Than in Our Infrastructure?

The rationality of capitalism is based on the assumption that the market is the superior mechanism for guiding investments to where they are most needed. When it works, it works wonders, but it doesn't always work, as we've seen over the past few years. Instead of the invisible hand directing the economy to fulfill societies needs, we've seen a corrupt system where the rich and powerful plays the system to their advantage, until the giant casino collapsed.
The paradox of investments is that while markets are efficient at allocating funds between alternative projects over the short-term, they often fail to lead financial decision-makers to invest in long-term projects of great public value. Repairing a bridge at risk of collapsing is an obvious social need, but few investors would take it on. Infrastructure is considered boring, and most private investors would rather chase elusive and hyped up targets such as real-estate (before the crash) and Facebook (not crashed yet). Google, and Facebook are providing great value to the modern global society, but it is a systemic failure that capitalism under-invests in providing a safe and sustainable sturcture for human life, nationally and globally. Hence, capitalism must be balanced by the political system. This is not socialism, just common sense. For more about this dilemma, read this article from Truthout:

Infrastructure Cuts Would Make the Unthinkable Unsurvivable
Infrastructure Cuts Would Make the Unthinkable Unsurvivable
Infrastructure Cuts Would Make the Unthinkable Unsurvivable
Infrastructure Cuts Would Make the Unthinkable Unsurvivable
Hans Sandberg

Sunday, April 3, 2011

New York Times Dubs Dr. Hans Rosling Information Guru

The Swedish health expert Hans Rosling has attracted millions of fans since he gave his first performance at TED in 2007. Now he is a full blown web celebrity and - according to the New York Times - a "guru" in information design.

In an uncharted world of boundless data, information designers are our new navigators.       
They are computer scientists, statisticians, graphic designers, producers and cartographers who map entire oceans of data and turn them into innovative visual displays, like rich graphs and charts, that help both companies and consumers cut through the clutter. These gurus of visual analytics are making interactive data synonymous with attractive data.       
“Statistics,” says Dr. Hans Rosling, a professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, “is now the sexiest subject around.”       
Dr. Rosling is a founder of Gapminder, a nonprofit group based in Stockholm that works to educate the public about disparities in health and wealth around the world — by offering animated interactive statistics online that help visitors spot trends on their own," Natasha Singer writes in i artikeln When the Data Struts Its Stuff.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hans Rosling Explains the World Through the Lens of a Washing Machine

The master explainer takes on the washing machine. As always, thought provoking and truly global. Besides, he shows that statistics can be fun!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hidden Inflation is Here Again

I've notis for the past couple of years how packages are shrinking, while prices stay the same. It's cheating, it's hidden price increases.
And it's about time that somebody reports about it, which New York Times did today.
Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Tinier Bags

Sara Kay Seduces With Words and Smiles

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why Not an "Earthquake Building Standards Freedom of Choice Act"?

Michelle Bachmann of Tea Party fame keeps fighting the Big Bad Government's oppression of Americans. She recently re-introduced the "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act" to stop the planned phase-out of old-fashioned and environmentally dangerous light-bulbs (The Congress voted on the issue in 2007 and George W. Bush signed it into law that year. Bachmann launched her first demand for a repeal in 2008.)
What's next?
Why not do away with oppressive building standards like those who protect us against earthquakes? Why shouldn't builders have the freedom to build cheap and fast instead of having to follow all these regulations and building codes?
I'm sure the congresswoman from Minnesota would much rather enjoy the freedom from regulations in a place like Haiti compared to liberal-socialist places like California and Japan. 

Hans Sandberg

PS. New York Times ran a story about the light-bulb fight on March 12.
Give Up Familiar Light Bulb? Not Without Fight, Some Say

PPS. And here is a story about Japan's building codes.
Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dr. Doom Likes Sweden

Brian Milner writes about Sweden's economy in the The Globe and Mail (Canada):
How Sweden emerged as Europe's big winner
The Swedish economy grew at a 7.3-per-cent annual clip in the fourth quarter according to Statistics Sweden (SCB). "That’s the fastest growth ever recorded by the stats gatherers, who only began tabulating quarterly numbers in 1970. Expansion for the full year totalled more than 5.5 per cent. And it was broadly based, with increased consumer spending and business investment added to booming exports," Milner writes. He quotes Nouriel Roubini, also known as Dr. Doom:

“Sweden’s growth prospects look strong, compared with those for many other advanced economies, but growth is nevertheless expected to slow down,” Roubini Global Economics said in a note to clients.That slowdown will be a modest one, RGE says, largely stemming from the end of the inventory rebuilding effect that always follows recessions."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's the Government, Stupid, And It's Good!

There wouldn't be any computers or any Internet if it wasn't for the government. And what would the cars drive on if it wasn't for the federal and local funding of highways and roads. Kenneth Flamm showed this in his two volumes about the computer industry (Targeting the Computer, 1987 and Creating the Computer, 1988). Fred Block, a professor at the University of California, brings the discussion up to today in his new book State of Innovation: The US Government’s Role in Technology Development.

Watch an interview with Block from the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET):

Here is a quote from INET's site:

"Block, a professor at the University of California, Davis, lays out a strong case that in the modern era government has provided essential support at the crucial early stages of all fundamentally new technologies – despite the rhetoric of those extolling the wonders of the free market. In Reagan’s era, government played a central role in the development of information technologies and, of course, the Internet.
But even today the central role of government in technology development is the norm. Fortune 500 companies have outsourced most core technology innovation, and almost all businesses rely on the government and nonprofit universities for supporting fundamental research, and taking on the initial risks of getting new technologies working. Even storied VC firms frequently point entrepreneurs to government funds to get their embryonic ideas to the point where the private sector can invest.
Government – both in the US and around the world - is also critical in getting many technologies from the commercialization phase to the more difficult mass production phase. This is particularly true now in clean energy technologies that require large economies of scale for large-scale adoption.
Looking forward, Block makes the case that even more sustained government investment and intervention is needed in this global era of climate change. For example, he talks about the idea of creating a national innovation fund that would spread the costs of core technology innovation across many businesses, but also have the public share in the upside that eventually comes."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Low-Hanging Fruit Is Picked and the Young Generation Is Spoiled - Really?

The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks discusses Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation in The Experience Economy. Cowen writes that the growth stopped in 1974 - the year before the Vietnam War ended. He attributes this to the fact that the United States by then had picked the "low-hanging fruit," resulting in "slower growth, slower increases in median income, slower job creation, slower productivity gains, slower life-expectancy improvements and slower rates of technological change." (Brooks) 

What happens when the music stops? Well, at first it looks like David Brooks is going to adress the really interesting discussion of what we are doing with our wealth and technological prowes, but his conservative superego quickly pulls him by the ear and leads him down the isle of repentance:
"It could be that in an industrial economy people develop a materialist mind-set and believe that improving their income is the same thing as improving their quality of life. But in an affluent information-driven world, people embrace the postmaterialist mind-set. They realize they can improve their quality of life without actually producing more wealth."
He then introduces us to Sam and Jared, a fictional grandfather and his grandson. Sam was born in 1900 and was a hard working manufacturer, while young Jared, born in 1978, "organizes conferences... brings together fascinating speakers for lifelong learning" when not writing his "blog on modern art and takes his family on vacations that are more daring and exciting than any Sam experienced."

Here we have the crux of problem: Young Jared doesn't want to do the heavy lifting his grandfather did. Oh, those lazy young people.... David Brooks tweaks the story in a predictably conservative fashion, rather than pointing out that it was thanks to big government, sponsoring big science, big production, big highways, big social programs and big space programs that helped us achieve all that post-world war economic growth. Unfortunately, we also had the big Vietnam War and the big unproductive military spending that went with it, undermining America's long-term economic potential. But why mention all these complications when it so easy to point to the moral softening of the young generation.

Hans Sandberg

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oprah, Olbermann and Orson Wells

Is there a connection between Oprah Winfrey launching "OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network" and Keith Olbermann's sudden departure from MSNBC? Well, maybe! And maybe even back to Citizen Kane...

The Wrap writes:

"With two years left on his $7 million-a-year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner." 
Did Keith Olbermann Bolt MSNBC to Create Media Empire?
Does that mean that it wasn't the big bad Comcast engulfing NBC that caused the radical TV-commentator to jump ship. Was it greed? Or narcissism!

What does it mean when media stars starts their own networks? Is this a good thing for democracy? What happens to editorial integrity when the media channel is so tightly linked to one person?

Makes me think of Citizen Kane.
"Kane's career in the publishing world is born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolves into a ruthless pursuit of power." (from Wikipedia)  
Hans Sandberg

Monday, January 10, 2011

Political Discourse in Tucson's Shadow: To Share the Blame, or Place It Where It Belongs?

The Wrath of Fools: An Open Letter to the Far Right
This is a hard-hitting letter by William Rivers Pitt, a young democratic activist and writer, who in 2004 was press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich. I'm sure it will be written off as fiery left-wing rhetoric by the same folks in media that never found an absurd and outrageous claim they didn't feel obliged to milk for ratings. Pundits, like the obnoxious Republican-turned-anchor, Joe Scarborough (MSNBC's "Morning Joe") are now preaching moderation, but such sudden even-handedness sounds fake to say the least. It's more damage control than serious rethinking.

Pitt doesn't mince his words. At first I felt that maybe he should tone it down a notch, but when you read the quotes at the end of the article, you can't really criticize him. The far right has pretty much had a monopoly on vitriol over the past decade or two, and they have gotten away with it. The left on the other hand has been feeble and defensive, ever afraid being called "liberal" or "socialist".

Hans Sandberg