Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Straw Dogs, by John Gray

Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs

The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs

--Verse 5, Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

[As Derek Lin translates, straw dogs are ceremonial figurines used by ancient Chinese and then cast away after the ritual. At once precious only to be discarded later. As Lin states, “this is a vivid imagery that compares life itself to the ancient ritual. The progression of life is like the ritual being conducted in proscribed sequence. While this is happening we are like straw dogs at the center of it all, experiencing this interesting ritual called life. Eventually, life comes to an end just as the ritual must come to an end. Our bodies can no longer contain life and are discarded.”]

This is my review of John Gray’s Straw Dogs, a book that had been recommended to me a while back and I just now read for the first time. Gray (not to be confused with the Mars/Venus guy) is  known as a Thatcher conservative in Britain who has aimed his intellect away from politics and economics and towards philosophy in recent decades.  

For some reason I had assumed this was a novel, but rather it is a short non-fiction work that gives a very cursory overview and critique of philosophy dating from the ancient Greeks to Christianity to the Enlightenment and the modern nihilists and everything in between. Gray, often called the skeptic’s skeptic, sometimes has a scolding tone directed at believers and non-believers alike, even calling atheism a belief system and an off-shoot of Christianity (referring to it as “post-Christian”).

Gray does not view humans as anything special, sees god merely as a human invention, has no place for salvation, and calls morality a disease-- so far so good-- but then he declares that evolution does not progress (who ever said it did?) and has a chapter entitled "Non-progress" which is a dissatisfying finale that fails to define "progress" and seems to miss the entire point of evolutionary science, namely, that it has no direction or purpose.

One potential value of the book is Gray's whirlwind summary of famous thinkers such as Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Descartes, Aquinas, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, among others. I’ll concede that my knowledge of these gentlemen (no women are mentioned) is limited but he seems to be fairly well-versed and the review is interesting, like a Cliff notes version of philosophical history-- and it’s not surprising that Gray  presents these views only to disregard them as incomplete and useless because they put humanity at the center of philosophy.  The nihilist’s nihilist...which makes me wonder why he bothered to write the book in the first place except to display his intellectual muscle (something a true nihilist wouldn’t bother doing.)

One issue I have regards Gray’s treatment of science and evolution and E. O. Wilson specifically.  At one point he remarks on E. O. Wilson’s quote about humans having acquired the ability to consciously alter evolution in the modern age: using reproductive technologies, choosing numbers of offspring and genders and, in the future, myriad other genetic traits. Wilson states that evolution has become ‘volitional.’ Gray has a problem with this concept and implies that Wilson has made some grand proclamation about humans controlling evolution. My understanding of Wilson’s work is that nobody is more humble about humans’ ability to control nature than he is and he eschews the anthropocentric view of creation.

Gray has a point about much of science being co-opted to benefit humanity at the expense of the rest of nature. We have torn up the planet for fossil fuels, plowed over habitat for farmland, polluted great bodies of water, melted the polar ice-caps (arguably) by liberating CO2 into the atmosphere. We have put all living things at risk of nuclear holocaust. As the number of humans grows past 9 billion the petri dish known as earth becomes more strained with the greatest species extinction since the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Ironically, this dire Neo-Malthusian scenario was proffered by E. O. Wilson himself in Consilience long before Gray’s treatise, but while Gray’s point about Wilson’s use of the word “control” is valid it is taken out of context of Wilson's body of work and thought.

Gray sometimes seems to confuse science with the uses of science.  Pure science has no dog in the fight between nature and humanity. Real scientists are merely observing nature and describing its characteristics: fossils, DNA, antibodies, antigens, nuclear reactions, disease, electromagnetism, etc... Yes, much of science has been co-opted for the immediate perceived benefit of humanity, but that is not so much a testament on science as on the technologies that have resulted from scientific discovery and the human consumers who buy such technologies. Pfizer may call chemists who formulate drugs to lower our cholesterol “scientists” but they are really derivative technicians using the scientific observations made by purists.

I can point to scientist after scientist who slave away at discovering the chemical reactions that began life or how sea creatures become luminescent or studying the flora of a desolate island with no intention of marketing a product to humans or improving our stake at survival. Pure science has no humanist goal, although certainly a (relatively small) percentage of the vast number of scientific advances have been co-opted for human use and proponents of scientific funding often misuse human benefit as an excuse for social funding.

Gray also says that science has not benefited humanity with anything significant, stating that pre-scientific hunter-gatherers had a better quality of life, even if their lives were not as long. I suppose it depends on how one would define  “benefit” or “improve” and if someone can argue that sewers, clean water, antibiotics, vaccines and modern anesthesia have not benefited humanity, then I have nothing more to say.  Gray’s argument is that science has not conquered mortality-- we still die eventually-- and so all the advances of modern science have left us with nothing substantive. Fair enough, but that is not to say there have been no benefits or improvements at all as we generally define “benefit” and “improve.”

There are other problems, too: Gray contends that Darwinism and Einsteinian relativity are not falsifiable and therefore not “science” according to Karl Popper’s definition. Huh? Methinks Gray does not really understand science. These theories have withstood the test of falsification via untold numbers of trials and observations.  If any single observations has ever been inconsistent with, say, speciation by natural selection then all of Darwin's opus would be tossed in the trash heap. Nothing of the sort has ever happened. Test after test, observation after observation, in fields as disparate as chemistry, ecology, ethology and genetics have proven over and over that Darwin was spot on.

In general, Gray’s demeanor is condescending, chiding straw-man scientists for not being scientific, scolding humanists for ignoring the consequences of their actions as if he has calculated all the  permutations of outcomes and discerned that humanism is misguided. Gray sounds like an asshole, and while I can appreciate his pessimism, Gray comes across as a pedantic holier-than-thou dick. (Maybe I do too, but this isn't about me.)

Here’s my take: Years ago I read a book by Derrick Jensen called A Language Older than Words which I remember as an emotional paean to nature and a lamentation regarding humanity’s destruction of the planet.  Jensen compared humanity’s treatment of earth with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father.  We are conveniently blind to or quickly forget the anguish we cause for various reasons related to preservation of self or species.  If we were to feel the requisite sorrow we cause other humans or animals or the planet in general the pain would be too much to bear.  I cannot do justice to Jensen’s heartfelt book-length disgorgement in this paragraph, but suffice to say that he does a better job than Gray does at portraying humans as cosmically inconsequential and on-balance harmful to the rest of planetary life.  

John Gray’s Straw Dogs is a hyper-intellectual castigation of the human species.  He is judgemental. Derrick Jensen, likewise, is judgemental towards humanity. I guess I don’t get why these writers are so hard on Homo sapiens, after all we are just playing out our evolutionary-determined hand, preserving our species in the immediate future, prolonging our lives, adding offspring to the subsequent generation. That’s what our DNA is programmed to do.  Sure, maybe we are making the planet uninhabitable for our and other species in the distant (40 years? 1000 years?) future, but who really knows? Evolution has not programmed us to worry about what will happen beyond the next generation, has it?

E. O. Wilson famously backtracked on the  pessimism in Consilience to consider that humans may eventually use their powerful collective intellect to figure out how to save the planet from destruction and prolong the Homo sapiens existence. Cynics and fellow scientists disregarded this later work as a bone thrown to the readers, a sell-out to optimists in order to move more books and remain popular. So be it, the world needs booksellers too.

Regardless how thoughtful and responsible we are,  Homo sapiens will be gone someday and we may take most of the currently known species with us. But the earth will be populated with other species evolved to the changed humanless habitat, that is what evolution dictates. Even the worst human-caused potential scenarios-- global climate change run amok or nuclear holocaust-- would most likely bring about changes in the habitat that would benefit some other species: maybe an organism that thrives in a low level radioactive environment.  Or maybe the earth will be just a hulking lifeless rock. Oh well, the universe needs hulking lifeless rocks too. With 7 billion other galaxies I’m reasonably sure the legacy of life will continue somewhere.

Acolytes of Al Gore can call for some dramatic change in human understanding about the use of fossil fuels, but don’t expect anyone anywhere to voluntarily reduce their standard of living for a perceived threat to the planet in the distant (40 years? 1000 years?) future. The Atlantic Ocean could be lapping at the 10 th floor of the Empire State building but Iowans will still want to drive tractors, eat hamburgers and make more babies that do the same.

Gray, with all his nihilistic intellectualization, is a show-off. And being a show-off is a form of what Buddhists call attachment, which leads to suffering, yada yada yada. (Hey, I’m not above it; all beings suffer,  as writing-- and certainly reading-- this review is sure to prove.)  A good friend (House) serendipitously recommended reading the Tao Te Ching with interpretation by Derek Lin about the time I was finishing Gray’s Straw Dogs, and it dovetails quite nicely with the thesis.  

I may write a longer review of Lin’s outstanding work later, but pertinence to the current discussion has to do with what the Tao means. Usually translated as “The Way”, Lin points out that, more accurately, it means “The Way Things Are”, i.e., the essence. My interpretation is that when Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching it was a premonition of Walter Cronkite’s catchphrase: "And that's the way it is", just a humble attempt to present reality in an understandable form. No judgment, no remorse.

While the Buddha later incorporated the grim recognition about suffering, Lao Tzu’s treatise is really a more uplifting statement about what little control (free will) humans have and we are best served by relaxing into the palm of the universe.

We can intellectualize all we want, we can try to predict and ruminate about what it all means and find blame and cast aspersions, but at the end of the day we have no idea what it all means.  I’m re-reading Jensen’s Language Older Than Words and I’m also halfway through Lin’s Tao Te Ching. My gut tells me that they will be more satisfying than John Gray’s book, and I intend to give some updates.

I’ll finish with a further quote from Lin’s interpretation of Verse 5 regarding straw dogs:

“The Tao does not play favorites. The rain waters the weeds and orchids equally; the sun shines on everyone with the same brightness and warmth despite variations in individual merits. The sage, emulating the Tao, also regards everyone in the same egalitarian light-- none higher and none lower.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's not the water, Mr. Rubio

Ducking from reality?

As entertaining as it was seeing the "saviour" of the Republican party ducking for hydration under the hot lights and scrutiny of the national stage, it wasn't the water grab that made Rubio's response to the SOTU so abysmal, it was the substance of his talk.

Rubio's remarks on the housing meltdown shows that he really has no understanding of what brought on the seminal economic event of his generation, the Great Recession:

This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

Paul Krugman points out that this is one of the most thoroughly researched issues of the last 4 years and the evidence is overwhelming that The GSE's (Fannie and Freddie) and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) had no negative effect on lending .  In fact, not only was every single bad loan, no-doc loan, robo-signed loan initiated in the private sector, the same private sector had lobbied hard to mitigate the regulatory effects of the CRA.

Michael Konczal gives a more exhaustive and referenced summary (his copious references are worthwhile). Here are the Cliff's Notes:

1. The first thing to point out is that the both the subprime mortgage boom and the subsequent crash are very much concentrated in the private market, especially the private label securitization channel (PLS) market.  The GSEs were not behind them....
2.The CRA wasn’t big enough to remotely cause these problems.
3. Did Fannie and Freddie buy high-risk mortgage-backed securities? Yes. But they did not buy enough of them to be blamed for the mortgage crisis. 
4. For fun, we should mention that the conservative think tanks spent the 2000s saying the exact opposite of what they are saying now...[T]hey argued that the CRA and the GSEs were getting in the way of getting risky subprime mortgages to risky subprime borrowers.
5.  Private label securitization is responsible for 42% of all delinquencies despite accounting for only 13% of all outstanding loans as compared to the GSEs being responsible for 22% of all delinquencies despite accounting for 57% of all outstanding loans.
6.  The three Republicans on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) panel rejected the “Blame the GSEs/Congress” approach in their minority report.  Indeed, they, and most conservatives who know this is a dead-end...
7.  The GSEs had a serious corruption problem and were flawed in design...but they were not the culprits of the bubble.

OK, so Rubio Jindalled himself as "saviours" are wont to do, but forget the water gaffe. The real reason Rubio is unqualified to take a leadership role in government is because he lacks the requisite critical thinking and fails to grasp the lessons of the financial crisis.

One word of advice to the Republican party: stop looking for a "saviour" and start familiarizing yourselves with empiric evidence of reality around you. GOP candidates seem to have a frail grasp on everything from abortion being reduced by contraception and sex ed, gun deaths being directly proportional to gun ownership, immigration and voting demographics, entitlement programs' cost versus defense spending, etc. 

Facts matter.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Church of England Finally Apologized to Darwin

In honor of Darwin's birthday, let's remember how religion is always wrong (except when they are occasionally accidentally correct) and sometimes they are magnanimous enough to apologize later.

When Darwin's work on the theory of evolution came out, the church attacked him vociferously. Now, 126 years after his death, The Church of England has apologized to Darwin:
Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well. (Source)

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Most Important Chart...

This chart depicts the result of class warfare, a war that only one side is fighting. 


Shortly after 2000, the lines diverged. The economy hummed along, but many Americans, the ones politicians typically refer to as the middle class, stopped feeling the benefits. There are many reasons for the change, and some of them are open to economic debate... Part of the shift can be attributed to increased income inequality owing to globalization and new technology — the wealthy becoming much wealthier, while the rest stayed the same. Part of it can be attributed to increased corporate profits, as new markets opened overseas and new technology lowered costs. Some of it has to do with how the figures are calculated. But the most important political takeaway of the chart is that at the turn of a new century, much of the U.S. stopped feeling the benefits of a growing national economy.

We have record corporate profits, record executive salaries, continued rise in per capita GDP and employee productivity. US companies are making more money than ever before, yet inflation-adjusted incomes have stagnated.

If you are reading this, chances are you have lost the class war.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

"They do not like you, Barack Obama"

Like me, like me, like me !!!! Ple-e-e-e-ase!

The politician's disease: the need for constant universal affirmation.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Guns as an investment

Last night Piers Morgan interviewed the owner of a gun range and fired various weapons ostensibly as journalistic research. One comment caught my attention near the end of the segment when Morgan asked the  range owner, a seemingly intelligent tuned-in individual, who would need a Browning M2 military machine gun. The guy honestly demured any practical value and said that he bought it as an investment for $12,000 and they are now selling for $25,000 to $45,000, presumably because they have not been available for primary purchase since 1986.

The gun range owner gave all the standard reasons for gun ownership: personal protection from intruders, in the event of a natural or human-induced catastrophe, and of course, for safety from the impending Stalinist regime. This guy owns a gun range so he's cashing in on the fear, but he is doubling down and investing in guns as a speculative commodity as well.

Ain't that America? Little pink houses and big brown weapons....

Like gold coins, this Browning M2 has no practical value (he said that it was too expensive to shoot) and really just sits around 99.9% of the time until a TV celebrity comes by to shoot it. My take is that if the jack-booted thugs of the US government decided to off someone I doubt the Browning would help against unmanned drones and how long would it take to run out of ammo before an Abrams tank or F-35 vaporized your house? And what practical value is such a weapon against an intruder, armed or otherwise? For hunting? Nope.

Beyond practicality, is the Browning a good speculative investment? Depending on when his guy bought it, I would say not really; there have been several easier ways to capitalize on the existential fear that seems to have gripped our populace. Since Obama was first elected in 2008, gun maker stocks Smith & Wesson (SWHC) and Sturm-Ruger (RGR) have been up 280% and 700% respectively. Cabela's (CAB), the sporting goods store that sells guns, is up 450%. So, the 100-200% appreciation of the Browning M2 does not seem spectacular, especially when you factor in the relatively illiquid market and the risk and expense of having the gun laying around. (Is it insured against theft and damage?)

Gold has lost its shine. It occurs to me that some of the same individuals who might be buying gold as a fear hedge are also likely in the market to purchase guns. Guns and gold coins have some similar characteristics from an investment standpoint: they do not provide dividends, they have little if any practical value, they need to be guarded against theft, and the market has variable liquidity. Guns have the added problem of potential damage to your investment and the liability problem of injury to self or others.

On the other hand, gun maker companies have real earnings since real people are buying real guns. For example, Smith & Wesson (SWHC) had earnings last year of half a billion dollars and trades at a relative low forward PE of 9. While I have no position at the moment, I would think that this would be an easier way to play the gun market.

One more comment: the irony is that the US population has $billions of extraneous capital to piss away on guns, ammo and gold which serves as a testament to the lack of any real basis for the existential fear that has brought on this investment opportunity in the first place. We live in a culture where the majority of people are employed in pointless jobs or are unemployed altogether, most of us spend an inordinate amount of our days in diversionary activities, and after all our necessities have been provided we have still have enough wealth to buy consumer products like huge TV's, superfluous SUV's, guns and useless gold coins.

But in the defense of goldbugs, at least a gold coin never went off accidentally and killed a kid.