Monday, January 16, 2017

Conquering the conquerors

I've noticed a pattern in history of the conquered becoming the conqueror. I can think of several manifestations. The first is Rome and the Germanic tribes that harried its frontier. In time these tribes would take Rome's place but carry its torch. This is what happened with the Franks in France, retaining the language and many of the institutions of Rome, as well as what would happen in the general area of modern day Germany, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire.

The two other outstanding cases that occur to me carry us across Eurasia. During the Islamic conquests, it was Arab power structures that subsumed and converted Persians. In time, however, Persians came to dominate the power structure, in the administration of the Abbasid Caliphate. In turn, those ethnicities then on the periphery - nomadic Turks and Mongols - would go from populations encroached on or pushed back to the new rulers of extensive, urbanized domains. This brings us to China, where the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty, ruling over their former suzerain for a hundred years.

Could there be something fundamental to these three examples? It only makes sense that in time the wealth accumulated in a society would become the prize of a new contingent of people. It might not be a meaningful abstraction that I've presented at all. For instance, wealth and power were changing hands among groups within Rome. Is that really any different from it passing into the hands of, say, the Lombards? At the same time, there are many distinct groups that have never "conquered their conquerors."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Some thoughts and language on thought and language

I don't think in English. Sometimes I think in Russian. Sometimes I think in images or something like a scene from a movie where many non-verbal aspects of a situation develop and play out. My thoughts used to be more closely coupled to their representation in spoken English, particularly early on in college, where my main mode of digesting information and expressing myself had become the word. This was in contrast to how I'd spent much of my free time in high school -- drawing for hours. And later in college I would focus more heavily on a different symbolic system - mathematical notation - as I undertook more coursework in statistics and econometrics. The cumulative effect of these experiences has left me with thoughts that aren't dominated by any particular medium. Sometimes I'm rehearsing a conversation in my head. At other times, I'm thinking in a sort of raw mode of concepts themselves, without their being tied to their corresponding word in English or Russian, or I might be visualizing shapes interacting with each other in a kind of space, such as when working with a matrix of data for work.

Now I don't overestimate how unique this is. It's often a matter of degree. That said, I have encountered multiple instances where others describe their cognition in contrast to mine. A parallel can be drawn in the different ways people read. Many people subvocalize when they read, registering minute movements of the physical pronunciation of words as their eyes pass over them, perhaps hearing the words in their heads. An alternative mode of reading doesn't involve subvocalization, and can become a largely visual experience. This likely typifies the reading experience for those who've learned only the written form of a language. Think scholars who've learned enough of a language only to use written sources in their work, or who are working with a dead language, the spoken form of which is no longer known.

A number of these concepts are explored in The Arrival, a movie that left a strong impression on me: the mapping of spoken to visually-represented language, how the mode of thinking dictates what is even possible to think. We benefit from a long history of packaging up concepts into a shorthand representation. There was a time when we didn't have the means to represent or conceive of numbers. Imagine how greatly extended our ability to manipulate our worlds - internal and external - has become. If I'm recalling a documentary I once saw accurately, and if it was accurate itself, Einstein expressed that one of the greatest challenges in his work as a physicist was finding the means to capture what he'd already conceptualized. This leads me to believe that for all its expressive capacity, dealing solely with language as we've inherited it can keep us from expanding the realms of personal - or more generally, human - insight. I wonder what future developments in language will afford us.

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.