Sunday, June 20th, 2010

on scapegoating

There is something odd, I feel, about the outrage over BP’s role in the current monstrosity unfolding in the gulf, and it’s this: in a situation where enormous profits were to be made by retrieving a natural resource and selling it back to the public who rightfully ought to own it, and where there is no real oversight or control of the way this business is conducted and risks are handled, what in the world did we expect this company to do? It’s all good and well to get irate about these people, for being disgustingly disconnected rich fools, but to punish them because they cut corners and neglected enormous risks, is a bit like leaving a little kid alone in a candy store and then punishing him for taking candy and breaking the jar. Yes, it’s wrong, but how could they possibly not have done it? And who in his right mind leaves a kid alone in a candy store?

The basic capitalist assumption, that providing monetary incentives will make companies do what’s best for everybody, is probably fundamentally flawed, but it very clearly is in areas where companies can reap profits while deferring risks and costs to the general public, or where there is an intrinsic conflict of interest. Take the pharmaceutical industry, which is selling products meant to cure people, and who has a clear interest in both new treatable conditions being invented, and ambiguous ones being solidified (cholesterol, anyone? Or do you have too much ADHD to focus on it?) and existing ones not being eradicated or improved. They are reaping astronomical profits on this flawed process through a monopoly enforced by our own governments, claiming that they need such protection in order to be able to operate and innovate in the public good. This from one of the most profitable industries on the planet. It completely baffles me that this is allowed to continue basically unchallenged. But I digress.

This disaster is at it’s heart not a failure of BP, for all the ways BP has failed, as much as it is a failure of a system of letting third parties with particular interests be responsible for the general and public good. Add the inability of humans to properly assess and weigh risks and to handle large numbers, especially under personal incentives, and you get an explosive mix, where corporation executives are asked to do two opposing and very disparate things – maximizing profit and minimizing a detrimental impact that is very difficult to properly assess, with asymmetrical payouts. Like in the banking industry, being successful nets you vast personal gains, but failure gets spread over the whole of society and only affects you personally if it is so humongous as to be inconceivable. And even then, you might be fine, as we are seeing in the recent banking debacle’s profit and bonus fallout. Do we truly expect somebody given the chance of vast personal enrichment under a widely distributed risk to not take that chance? Are we, then, the very idiots we must think that person to be?

Yes, we can rail against factory farmers polluting entire watersheds with runoff urine, and BP destroying entire marine ecosystems, for their unconscionable behavior, and there definitely should be punishment fitting the crime. But more importantly, I feel, we should think about the changes necessary to prevent massively powerful and dangerous industries from shitting golden bricks all over the public good, and figure out how to not allow corporations to sell the welfare of others to their own profit.

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

oodles of puns

Accretion is the better part of vapor.

Wie man sich betet, so lügt man.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

finite complaint

I am reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and I need to complain. If you haven’t read it, and plan to, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. If you hate nitpicking, on the other hand, maybe do worry a bit, because I will pick nits. Three of them.

Overall, the book is fabulous so far (page 100), and I love the combination of low brow comments with language so erudite it often borders on the pretentious. This is a great stylistic game to play, and it is enhanced by esoteric factoids, partly made up, partly accurate. But for it to work it needs to stay on the light side of the pretentiousness boundary, and the author needs to be in control of the pieces of knowledge he’s throwing around. Now lets pick some nits.

Nit the first. In a discussion of the philosophical aspects of tennis, Hal’s father is cited, obliquely, as telling people about how a tennis move affords n responses, and how there then are 2^n responses to that move, soon spiraling into “a Cantorian continuum of infinities”. Now, firstly, the correct formula for this is n^2. Wallace might have done this on purpose – somewhat suggestive is the fact that the date of Cantor’s diagonal argument is given in the endnote as 1905 (Einstein’s two seminal papers came out that year) instead of the actual 1891. This is probably a purposeful mixup put into the mouth of the fictitious narrator to highlight the distant past-ness of it all – but if so, I fail to see the point of giving the wrong formula. On top of that, however, talking about a continuum of infinities is not quite accurate. The number of replies approaches the number of elements in the continuum only for games with countably infinite many moves, and any transfinity beyond that (the actual family of infinities Cantor discovered and Wallace alludes to) is unreachable by any tennis match. Overall, the passage sounds like a bit of finitely hot air to me, unlikely to come out of the mouth of an MIT educated polymath with an actual interest in Cantor.

Nit the second. When we first meet the assassin Marathe on the mountainside, he watches his shadow wander out in the setting sun toward the city of Tucson and, as the sun gets low enough, eventually reach it across the plains. This can not happen. A circular object of 20 cm diameter (a human head, say), has the same angular size as the sun (about half a degree) at a distance of roughly 22 meters (or yards). At distances greater than that, the object can no longer fully block the sun and casts no total shadow, or umbra. Moreover, the darkest point of the penumbra actually cast rapidly loses contrast and definition. At 44 meters, the darkest point will have 75% of the luminance of the surround, at 88 it’s up to close to 94%. A shadow of a human or anything smaller, cast by the sun and reaching out visibly for kilometers, is a physical impossibility.

Nit the third. Again concerning shadows, in that same scene: when the sun finally sets, Marathe sees his shadow return to him up the incline. This would happen with a rising sun, not a setting, and of course he’d have to face west, not east. If the sun were a point, the shadow cast out by a sunset would retain definition across large distances and grow longer and longer until it hits the advancing terminator and fuses with it. It would not shorten back toward the object casting it.

Is it sloppy writing and editing? Or a deliberate ruse to tick off obsessive compulsive physicists like me? It doesn’t really matter, because the book is still great, and these are tiny complaints.

Later Addition: The term Bröckengespenst Wallace uses for his fictional shadow is a) inappropriate, since a Brockengespenst is actually a shadow cast into fog or clouds, and b) has false diacritical marks on the o. This German spelling SNÄFÜ is in tune however with his german character later on calling his students “mein kinder”, which sports the wrong numerus of the possessive. “Meine Kinder” would have been correct. I’m leaning toward the sloppy writing hypothesis.

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009


Man is the only animal continuously on the lookout for some way in which he is different from the other animals. His need to be special is quite unique.

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Deep Blue Question

If you cross blue-green algae and yellow-green algae, do you get green-green algae?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

wis mod

If all you have is salad, every snail looks like a problem.

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Water, water everywhere

Etwas steif steige ich vom Rad. Nicht, weil die eisige Kälte mir die Kniegelenke blockiert, sondern um Kontakt zwischen Hose und Bein zu vermeiden. Das Eiswasser soll nicht noch mehr von meiner Körperwärme haben dürfen. Es tropft mir von der tief hängenden Kapuze auf die Nase, als ich die Tür aufschliesse und das Rad in den Hausflur wuchte. Wie immer passt der erste Schlüssel nicht ins erste Schloss, und wie immer denke ich: da müsste ich auch mal Markierungen dran machen an die Schlüssel. Mehr Tropfen fallen auf meine Nase, der Schlüssel passt ins andere Schloss, der andere ins erste, die Tür geht auf. Aus dem Augenwinkel sehe ich einen kleinen See, ich gehe in die Wohnung.

Und komme sofort wieder raus. See? Augenwinkel? Hausflur? Von der Brüstung im ersten Stock fällt ein lustiger Vorhang aus Wassertropfen, an der Decke wölbt sich die Latexfarbe. Ich gucke ein bisschen ratlos und gehe dann in den zweiten Stock, wo es noch schlimmer aussieht. Dritter Stock: es strömt von der Decke. Vierter Stock: erst sehe ich nichts, dann vier dünne Rinnsale an der Wand, die munter unter einer Zierleiste an der Decke hervorsprudeln. Sieht harmlos aus, aber als ich einen Finger dranhalte, wird er von der starken Strömung davongespült. Ich finde ihn später im Keller wieder.

Noch einen Stock höher wohnt das Dach und auf diesem Dach, direkt vor der Dachtür, wohnt neuerdings ein See. Zehn Zentimeter tief, sechs Meter breit, eiskalt, vier Meter lang, macht 2400 Liter eiskaltes Wasser. Zweieinhalb Tonnen. Das ist natürlich zu hoch geschätzt, weil der See an zwei Seiten flach ausläuft, aber eine Tonne Wasser ist auch schon ganz schön viel Holz. Die von uns mittlerweile im Hausflur verteilten Müll- sind mit Tonnen von Wasser jedenfalls überfordert. Für den Keller wär das ein Klacks, aber da muss das Wasser dann ja erstmal hinfinden und wenn es sich verläuft landet es bei uns im Bücherregal. Wasser, verläuft, haha.

Bis der mehrfach angerufene Vermieter einsieht, dass es diesmal nicht nur ein bisschen aus dem Oberlicht tropft, sondern eine echte, richtige Katastrophe droht, gehen fünf Telefonate ins Land. Unterdessen anderswo: es tropft in unseren Kleiderschrank, die Wand in unserem Büro wölbt sich unter Wasserdruck nach aussen, im Badezimmer rinnt rostfarbene Modersuppe aus Deckenblasen, eine davon immerhin und ganz praktisch direkt über der Kloschüssel, und es tropft aus der Deckenlampe. Das mit der Deckenlampe ist nicht so schön. Wir machen sie vorsichtshalber mal aus.

Als der Vermieter kommt, ein zierlicher ergrauter Ungar, ist er den Tränen nahe. Oder halt nassgeregnet. Er leiht sich eine Stirnlampe von uns, und watet in den eisigen Dachsee, zieht heroisch einen Tennisball aus dem Ablauf, und rettet uns alle vor dem Ertrinken. Der See läuft weg, und schon eine Stunde später hört es dann auch bei uns im Erdgeschoss zu tropfen auf.

Später in der Nacht fallen mit lautem Klatschen noch ein paar Deckenplatten runter, in der Wohnung über uns und im Flur. Das wär aber eigentlich schon gar nicht mehr nötig gewesen.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008


Die Liebe ist ein seltsamer Snack. Manchem schwimmt sie ungefragt ins Maul, er kaut ein bisschen drauf rum und spuckt sie dann wieder aus. Mehr Salz, verlangt er vielleicht, oder mehr Maggi oder Sojasauce, dann hätte man das schlucken können. Aber so pur, nein danke. Andere wiederum hungern jahrzehntelang vor sich hin, essen nur Salat, und fallen dann ohne Vorwarnung über ein harmloses, blutiges Steak her wie ein Liger über eine Herde Maulesel. Das nur zur Illustration und zur Verwirrung des Lesers.

Während ich in Deutschland war, buk die feuchte Jerseyglut in einer kleinen Plastiktrommel Flocken und Krümel zu einem Flocken- und Krümelkuchen zusammen, der Kuchen passte nicht mehr durch die Trommelöffnung des Futterautomaten, und die Fische litten Hunger. Wenn man Fisch ist, hat man keine Moral, und also fehlen nach der Rückkehr im Becken verschiedene Fische. Aufgegessen von anderen Fischen, wie ich nach ein paar Tagen erkennen muss, als noch ein Fisch fehlt und stattdessen ein Fischhintern mit rausguckender Wirbelsäule zwischen den Pflanzen liegt.

Als Ersatz schwimmen mir sechs Neon-Tetras in Haus, winzigklein, und ein Prachtbarschweibchen, weil das vorhandene Paar ganz offensichtlich keinerlei Interesse füreinander aufbringt, vielleicht fehlt Salz. Jetzt fehlt jedenfalls keins mehr, denn nur Sekunden nachdem das nur halb so grosse neue Weibchen im Becken ist, läuft das Mannstier untenrum puterrot an, stellt den Goldkamm in die Höhe und macht sich wichtig. Die Frau, ebenso rot erglüht, biegt sich und zeigt den Bauch her. Auch der betrachtende Mensch errötet ein wenig.

Warum es mit dem neuen Paar sofort klappte, mit dem alten aber wochenlang nicht, wer kann es erraten. Unüberbrückbare Differenzen, möglicherweise. Man kann in so einen Fisch ja nicht reingucken. Ausser natürlich er ist tot und halb aufgegessen. Dann schon.

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma (1)

150_OmnivoresDilemma_med.jpg This book was a magnificent ride. Starting out with a depressing description of the industrial food system, and the great river of corn flowing across the American continent, he proceeds to look at what he calls the industrial organic food system, the coopting of sustainability values by unsustainable big agriculture, and finally homes in on local growing and foraging. The section on Polyface farm in Virginia, with its insight into the biology of grazing, is truly inspiring, especially when contrasted with the nightmarish images of factory farming and CAFOs. The section on foraging and hunting touched me, too, but probably more for it’s Northern California flavor than for its content. As Pollan himself points out, foraging and hunting aren’t viable strategies for feeding a population any more, but reading about mushrooms in Berkeley, pig hunts in Sonoma and morels in the Sierra made me profoundly homesick.

0716740044_cs.jpg To the reader interested in love, sex and animal and human happiness, though rare a beast such a reader might be, this book holds a treasure trove of observations, deliberations and insights. Always keeping in mind the obvious question – how does all this relate to us? – the authors lead us on a walk through animal species, to look for evolutionary reasons and pressure for or against monogamy, and revealing it to be quite uncommon even among species long thought to be faithful mates for life. As it turns out, the fact that affairs need to be concealed from the adulterer’s mate implies automatic and almost perfect concealment from the researcher ape hiding in a camouflaged tent, who after all is much less adept that the animals involved in detecting suspicious behaviour.

The second half of the book then is devoted to the human animal, with the evidence seeming to indicate that our natural instincts would have us being a mildly polygynic, socially monogamous, but sexually adventurous bunch of chimps. As the authors point out in a final chapter aptly captioned “So what?”, no moral law follows directly from any of these observations. Natural impulses do not necessarily have to be acted upon – indeed the core of the idea of civilization might be perceived to be the reining in of such impulses -, yet their denial, and the forcedly naive insistence that monogamy is the mature way of channeling sexual and romantic desires that so much of the western christian tradition hold in fairly low esteem to begin with, seems unnecessarily dire and uninspired a reaction to the question that could well be said to be at the heart of human happiness and fulfillment. For, to change Dorothy Parker’s delightful punchline around on her, what earthly good does not, in fact, come from the sweet tensions of love, courtship and attraction?

General Review of the Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman’s moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?