Saturday, October 8, 2016

Role-playing games and the Republic of Georgia

I embarked on a mission today to find a t-shirt shop I'd heard rumor of recently. I couldn't find its exact location from the web so I figured I'd wander around until I stumbled onto it. A friend compared this approach to the gameplay in an RPG, where you can operate pretty aimlessly, prompting locals for information that can help you in your quest. It's an apt comparison, and it's become an increasingly rare mode of experiencing a place, but that's how I've typically travelled.

A trip that stands out along those lines was the one I took to the Caucasus with my friend Anjali. We were living in Ukraine at the time and were both well-traveled and opted for no preparation other than our roundtrip tickets to Tbilisi. We mostly memorized the Georgian alphabet on the flight, dozed off some, and arrived in the early morning. We had no map and nowhere to stay so we made our way downtown and to the train station, thinking we'd be able to find an affordable hotel or a babushka offering a room for rent. The hotels turned out to be too expensive - a couple hundred dollars a night if I recall correctly, or about as much money as I had to my name at the time. The clerk assured us the rooms were "very nice." The train station was notedly absent of nice old ladies offering shelter, in contrast to our experiences in other formerly Soviet republics. The city at this time was host to a disruptive anti-NATO protest, so that may have had something to do with it.

By this point it had started raining, and Anjali had placed a scarf over her head. Our search for shelter was taking on a certain Mary and Joseph quality, as we asked a woman sweeping her doorstep if she knew of a nearby internet cafe. She gave us directions as she placed a hand on Anjali and offered a sympathetic smile. Now, the internet proved to be an information desert for basic housing in Tbilisi, except for one forum post that contained the building number of a couple who offered rooms to travelers. We set out for it, though we didn't have an apartment number, so I resolved to just start knocking on doors. A woman answered the first door I tried. I apologized for bothering her and explained what we'd read, and it turned out it was her and her husband who were running this hostel of sorts. They invited us into their apartment, which I remember as open and bright, with Judaica, and explained they were already housing a group of Swedes who'd come to the area for mountain climbing. They were, however, able to ask their neighbors to house us. Fortunately those neighbors - a family of artists and musicians - were able to take us in.

It turned out to be a great experience. The walls were covered with paintings - many of family members. The mother worked restoring art at the local museum, and in our downtime we'd hear the father listening to opera or the daughter practicing violin. The grandmother told us about the city and where to find what. She also recounted to us that before Georgia's civil war in the 90s different ethnicities and faiths had gotten on harmoniously. It was a particularly poignant observation since at the time Russian forces were passing through parts of the country, as part of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's effort to break away from Georgia.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hank Paulson, the financial crisis, and remaining fault lines

I just finished watching the documentary Hank: 5 Years from the Brink and got motivated to flesh out my understanding of the 2008 financial crisis again. The film was largely focused on the response to the crisis, but I thought it interesting that the makers didn't highlight the increase in the interest rate undertaken by the Fed not long before the economy started crumbling. In keeping with typical operations of the Fed, that sort of rate hike would have been in response to a sense that the economy was overheating - in or entering a bubble - and needed to be reeled in before it got too carried away. At that point the rate had been low for years - an enduring response to the bursting of the Dotcom bubble - which fueled the housing boom.

In retrospect we can easily say that it would have been more appropriate had the Fed raised rates much sooner. That gets us into considerations of ego and other interests in Fed operations. Fed chairmen want to reign over a flourishing economy, as do other officials who have influence on them, not least the President. Even the desire to see one's own investments perform well constitutes a conflict of interest. I've actually never seen anyone speak to that, as though Washington decision-makers should be rich enough that their own financial livelihoods wouldn't enter into play in open market operations. It's this fallible discipline and at least potential conflict of interest that lends support to arguments for abolishing the Fed. At the same time, the cause of the crisis was multifactorial. A big issue in responding appropriately to any situation is information, and the way in which subprime mortgages were securitized made it difficult to divine the actual circumstances we faced.

The multifactorial nature of the crisis is covered well in Fault Lines, a book by Raghuram G. Rajan, a former IMF economist. He goes into the distortions in the financial industry, where banks are (still) too big to fail, and the incentives lopsided. Failure goes unpunished, not just at the level of the market, where institutions have been propped up, but within those institutions as well. However, success is, particularly at the higher levels, exorbitantly rewarded. At the same time, Rajan goes into other aspects of the financial system that predispose it to crisis. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, complicit in the crisis, are a response to a society with a weak social safety net where that's been compensated for in one of the only political viable ways: promotion of often unsustainable private home ownership. He also points to global aspects, notably the high savings right in China that translated to global capital looking for a place to nest with good returns, such as subprime mortgage-backed investments.

By the end of the documentary, former treasury secretary Hank Paulson asserts that eventually we'll have another financial crisis - this is the nature of markets - but that we now have better mechanisms in place to mitigate the effects. He points to higher capital requirements and Dodd-Frank. The former no doubt cushions the system from calamity but the latter has been described by The Economist as a convoluted piece of legislation -- over a thousand pages long. In keeping with that observation my impression is that it's introduced complexity and hasn't actually made the work of regulators easier or more empowered. That, the historically low interest rates we've had for approaching a decade, and the fact that the banks that were too big to fail are now only bigger fill me with concern. I wouldn't be surprised if the next turn of the market exhibits the same severity of effects as the last crisis. In examining the historical frequency and severity of financial crises, Elizabeth Warren has made a strong argument that the now expired Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking, played a critical role in staving off disaster. Reinstating that sort of legislation is one of the only options I see available for minimizing the risk of cataclysmic crises in the future.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Consciousness as I know it

Two books I've read that deal more directly with the nature of the mind have stuck with me over the years. I wish I could say that a great deal of their content has stuck with me too, but in actuality just a few ideas.

The first - and one of my all-time favorite books - is Gödel, Escher, Bach. This was the first exposure I had to concepts like isomorphism and recursion. As it relates to the human mind however, what made the strongest impression on me was the idea that an essentially programmatic system could become so complex it could eventually refer to itself and even program itself. In that way, from the smallest biological building blocks we could eventually end up with consciousness and ostensibly free will.

The second was Consciousness Explained. What I retained from that one was the "multiple drafts" model of thinking. As I understand, it purports that at any given moment we have a shifting, incomplete impression of the world and ourselves. This is in keeping with the brain as a distributed network and in contrast to the outdated idea of dualism and the ghost in the machine. There is no central point where the experience of say, a color, is complete. Rather, we are more or less conscious of stimuli as their effects cascade across the brain.

This view of the mind rooted in materialism - that the brain is the mind - has me recalling the tendency to speak of the mind as though it exists independently of biology or the physical world. Just the other night a friend and I were discussing what someone would experience if they'd never been exposed to external stimuli. Biological considerations weren't the first thing to come to mind. It's as though we're wired to think we can transcend the material world. In a way, that's true. Neuroplasticity shows us thought can lead to physical change. While our minds may ultimately have a physical basis, we can overcome thoughts and behaviors and the particular physical states they represent.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I forgot the job market.

It took me a long time to understand any significant part of the labor market, particularly the nature of its demand. When I was graduating college, I didn't really have a sense of what employers were looking for, and that complicated my career path.

I had thought that for someone with my qualifications - a strong academic and extracurricular background and some work experience - there would be at least a couple straightforward paths. This was pre-crisis 2007, so in theory I should have been golden. When I began diving into job posts, however, I saw that employers were looking for skills I didn't have, hadn't considered, or hadn't even heard of: knowledge of Oracle, financial products, a programming language. I hadn't tailored my education to what actually had currency in the market. I had naively assumed my economics program would prepare me for a career . . . in economics.

To be fair, I think Ohio State's economics program did a good job of preparing me to pursue a higher degree, but I wasn't planning on that. It also endowed me with some knowledge and skills that would eventually prove very useful, but only after I'd gotten my foot in the door by combining that base with other qualifications that I'd accrued along a less cohesive and more incremental career path.

My advice for young people as they undertake decisions around their career and education is to look at job openings - particularly the requirements - throughout, not because you're looking for a job in that moment, but for the sake of understanding what you can do when you are, and how to line yourself up for it.

If I were to do it again, I would take some formal classes in the more applied stuff I've picked from work and on my own: courses in business, computer science, or engineering. And in keeping with my own advice, browsing job posts on Craigslist would help me keep in touch with movements in the market.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Connection between Helter Skelter and ISIS

I had dinner with my neighbors a few days ago, and we somehow got to talking about this. One of them had grown up in the '60s and recalled that the scariest public event for her then was JFK's assassination. But things reached a new level of horror with the cult events that occupied the public eye of the '70s: Jonestown, the Manson Family, etc.

Jonestown was the largest single loss of American civilian lives until 9/11. Nine hundred and thirteen individuals lost their lives in a mass suicide/murder, the origin of the saying "drink the Kool-Aid," referring to the unquestioning acceptance of group norms. It's not difficult to imagine that this, along with the aftermath of the Manson murders, had a traumatizing effect on the public's psyche.

Some 40 years later, and I find myself wondering what's behind a phenomenon like ISIS. I'm sure there's a great body of sociological research that could shed some light on the question, but in our armchair capacity, my neighbor and I speculate that the instability of the '60s was the impetus for many of the curiosities that point forward. And the destabilizing effects of rapid globalization, not least of all the War in Iraq and other conflicts, have similarly given rise to the likes of ISIS.

The Civil Rights Movement and the response to the Vietnam War broke the status quo. That translated to a lot of progress, but there's also another side to it. The questioning required to make progress also left a lot of otherwise healthy individuals lost as myriad unexplored avenues and lifestyles were opening up. More nefarious actors were able to take advantage of individuals in that state.

If not war-torn Syria or Iraq, ISIS recruits comprise marginalized or disillusioned individuals from other parts of the world. They're in search of meaning and structure in their lives, and in a similar fashion, are finding it among homicidal radicals.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ecology & Geology: The world is my lab, the world is my oyster

I've been taking a closer look at different scientific fields recently. I'm trying to develop a better sense of how they differ from each other. I think the layman often thinks of scientific research in a generic sense, not really appreciating how techniques and lifestyle vary across fields. This was (and probably still is) me. But I think even professional researchers are often so involved in their own work that they don't develop a sense of how things differ in other contexts.

Today I was delving into the world of practicing ecologists. It doesn't exactly come as a surprise that they appear to place particular value on freedom, mobility and working outside. This impression comes primarily from the ecology subreddit. Among the commenters we have:

  • An environmental consultant who works on wetland delineations, threatened and endangered species surveys, habitat assessments, etc.
  • A postdoc who's following up two weeks of field work with two years of computer work and who values the outdoor lifestyle, creativity and mobility afforded to those with an MS in biology or ecology
  • An arborist who spends a lot of time climbing trees and describes it as the "best job ever"

This probably has something to do with natural environments serving as the ecologist's "lab". That stands in contrast to fields like biology, chemistry and physics, where more happens in a controlled environment. In that regard ecology reminds me of geology, which may be even more extreme when it comes to travel and working outdoors. It doesn't seem uncommon for geologists to spend a lot of time in the field searching for natural experiments and observing them. Geologists also appear to conduct some pretty sophisticated operations with heavy duty equipment, such as collecting cores and the like, which would make extensive field research that much more imperative.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gaza and Israel, Russia and Ukraine: Illustrations of Risk-Eliminating Psychology

I often encounter blanket attitudes toward whole groups of people. Yesterday I was struck by a couple examples from an NPR article covering shifting attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians toward each other:

  • An Israeli to a Palestinian: "Go away you trash. I would bury you in Gaza."
  • A Palestinian: "Israeli Jews are bad human beings. They kill every day."

How could it be all members of an ethnicity are bad human beings, or deserve to be buried? People will argue the accuracy of their gross generalizations. Underneath their arguments, however, there's something actually worth considering: the psychology of group politics.

A number of studies have touched on the connection between neurology and political convictions. I've seen them best summarized here, but these ideas have popped up across popular media over the past couple years. Some notable conclusions are:

  • Reliance on quick, efficient, and "low effort" thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.
  • Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to interpret faces as threatening and expressing dominant emotions, while Democrats show greater emotional distress and lower life satisfaction.
  • Conservatism is focused on preventing negative outcomes, while liberalism is focused on advancing positive outcomes.
  • Conservatives tend to have a stronger reaction to threatening noises and images than liberals.

The overarching theme is that the attitudes we associate with conservatism tend to arise more from fear than liberal attitudes do. Or, to invert the chicken and egg, fear lends itself to conservative thinking. That holds true in the literal sense of the word "conservative." Fear drives us to conserve our positions, to seek to eliminate risk.

This risk aversion is what's behind the overgeneralizing rhetoric around Gaza and Israel, Russia and Ukraine, and anytime and anywhere large scale conflict occurs. When someone says, "All these people are bad," I believe their brain has actually decided, "Some of these people might not be bad, but I associate enough risk with their group identity that I will act as though they all pose a threat to me."

If people were capable of expressing themselves in those terms, that latter sort of statement would allow for an honest conversation. It would allow for discussing whether that sort of risk-minimizing behavior is practical and ethical, instead of arguing over which ethnicities are good and which are evil.