Archive for January, 2010

Is our turn coming?

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Initial reports are almost always wrong. And in the case of disasters, they are almost always wrong in a way that makes you think that things are worse than they are.

I have to think that some of this is going on with the reports coming out of Haiti. I mean, I am sure that Haiti is really short on safe drinking water right now. But how many people had safe drinking water before the earthquake? How many of them had decent shelter before the earthquake? I mean, this is a country where eating mud pies so that they could feel full even before the earthquake hit.

Having said all that, it seems very likely that lots and lots of people are going to die because of this quake. And it is hard to imagine that anything can be done to stop it. It the reports area at all accurate, it is almost impossible to get relief into the country right now. And now is the most important time to get the relief into the country if you want to save lives.

When all is said in done, it is a really depressing situation. But being the selfish sort, I look over the news reports and think “wonder how long it will be before something like that happens here?” And by here, I don’t just mean this country, I mean local to me.

Katrina already proved that this country can look and act like a third world hell hole over night. And I don’t think that will be the last time that point will be proved.

Bad Terminology

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I think the term “mentally ill” is one of the worst terms people ever came up with. It really fails to do insanity justice.

The problem is that when you think of illness, you think of something that makes you weak. You think of something that is unambiguously bad. But the things that we collectively call “mental illness” are not like that. Almost all “mental illness” that I can think of are closely correlated with extraordinary mental gifts.

The ironic thing is that there are true mental illnesses. Dementia would be a good example of a true mental illness. But we almost never use the term “mentally ill” for people with dementia. We certainly don’t put them in mental hospitals. And dementia has no upside whatsoever.

A mental illness, on the other hand, often comes with some pretty amazing benefits. For example, if you could have the high of a bipolar person without experiencing the crash that comes afterward, you would be the most productive and creative person on the face of the earth. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

One could recount example after example of “mental illness” giving people abilities and strengths that seem almost superhuman. Even people who come to have their “mental illness” dishonestly (i.e., through drug use) often seem to have odd benefits amongst all the sufferings.

I am not arguing that “mental illness” is a desirable thing to have. I would rather have a real illness than a “mental illness.” But I do think that the “benefits” of mental illness are one of the things that makes insanity so interesting to think about.

Things Not Understood

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Few things in this life fascinate me as much as insanity does. So as you can imagine, I read a recent article in the New York Times called “The Americanization of Mental Illness” with interest. The main thrust of the article is the observation that people express their “mental illness” in different ways in different cultures. Even more intriguingly, different expressions of mental illness can suddenly pop up just because people have heard about them.

Not too long after I read the New York Times article I came across this article about a little girl who suffers from schizophrenia. That lead me to an earlier article about her. They both make for very depressing reading.

But the most depressing part is not all the trials and tribulations of the poor kid. Rather, it makes you sick to read about the clueless nature of the adults trying to take care of her.

I mean, you have a genius-level smart little girl who wants to kill herself and various other people. So what in the world would possess you to try to control her with the promise of bribes for good behavior? I mean it is stupid to try to control any kid that way. But it is really stupid to try to control a smart kid that way. And it is really, really, stupid to try to control a suicidal kid that way.

She does not care if she lives or dies and they think they are going to control her with a happy meal prize?

I don’t really mean to pick on the parents. They are dealing with a very difficult situation the best way that they know how. It just so happens that their world view does not allow them to deal with the situation with any kind of understanding.

And that lack of understanding is not limited to them. The New York Times piece alone makes that plain. But I have seen and heard enough with my own ears to know that things described in those articles are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Year Of The Defaults?

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

One has to wonder what this year will bring in the way of news stories.

It seems reasonable to bet that one of the big stories will be the first sovereign default of a country that’s in the EU.

I am thinking of Spain, Greece, Hungary, and any of the Baltic states. It’s possible that will not happen this year due to the heroics that many think the EU should take in bailing out the various member states. But on the other hand, it is questionable just how much bailing out the richer EU nations can afford to do. Or how much bailing out they can do without facing a voter backlash so strong as to take them out of office.

Another thing we might see is defaults by the various states. Again, Obama is going to come under strong pressure to bail out the various states that are in trouble. But it remains to be seen how much help the Federal government can truly supply to the states.

One of the biggest problems that Obama will face if he tries to bail out the troubled states is the “me too” effect. For example, if he bails out California, how can he not give lots of money to Pennsylvania? You can argue all you want that California is in worse shape than Pennsylvania. But politically speaking, if Obama does not give Pennsylvania lots of money at the same time he bails out California, his is not going to win a second term as president. He needs Pennsylvania to stay in his camp.

Of course, he needs lots of other states as well. And that is the whole problem with bailing out the states from a political perspective. For every state that is desperate, there are five more that are in bad shape that will be furious if they don’t get everything that the desperate ones do.

And although it may not seem like it now, the Federal Government does have limits on how much help it can give.

Random Whining

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

The plague seems to be sweeping the land. For some reason, I had this naive hope that we were over that. However, four guys all called in sick within a short period of time, and most of them are not the type to call in sick unless they are dying.

Or at least, sick enough to feel like they are dying.

That means I will probably come down with it as well. So far, though, I have not felt much sign of being sick.
Although I have been very tired all week. If I am fighting something off, then I wish that I would hurry up and lose (it is too much to hope that I would win). This being tired all the time is quite the drag.

It is, of course, possible that I am tired for other reasons. And there are any number of reasons why I could be tired. But they are in play most of the time, so I don’t understand why they should be dragging me down now, of all times.

Assuming I am going to be sick, I hope it waits till after the weekend to strike. I have lots and lots of sick time. But it never seems like I get enough weekends.

Interesting Times

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

It’s funny how things change.

If you will remember, I was worried about a friend of mine.

Now he is being groomed to be a supervisor.

It’s funny how some things never change. I am still worried about him.

It’s tough enough supervising a group of people for the first time. It is even tougher doing it for the first time when nobody who is supposed to work for you likes you. But what makes it really tough is when your direct supervisor does not like you. Combine all that with a personality that is not the most diplomatic in the world and you have a recipe for disaster.

On the plus side, he has the support of the big boss himself. And the big boss is under no illusions about the problems my friend is facing. So that is nice.

On the other hand, I wonder if the big boss realizes what he has got himself into. He has managed to turn himself into the target of all the people who were on the warpath against my friend. Very noble of him, to be sure, but it means that this thing will have consequences beyond the career of my friend.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the big boss made the right call (and I may have even had something to do with it). Moreover, he was going to have to face this particular battle sooner or later. If it was not in the context of my friend, it would have been over something else.

But the problem with battles that you have to fight is that they are invariably battles that you can lose. It remains to be seen how this is all going to turn out.

A question considered

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

I was asked….

How accurate do you consider this statement about the gold standard and the Great Depression (from wikipedia):

Economic studies have indicated that just as the downturn was spread worldwide by the rigidities of the Gold Standard, it was suspending gold convertibility (or devaluing the currency in gold terms) that did most to make recovery possible.[40][41] What policies countries followed after casting off the gold standard, and what results followed varied widely.

Every major currency left the gold standard during the Great Depression. Great Britain was the first to do so. Facing speculative attacks on the pound and depleting gold reserves, in September 1931 the Bank of England ceased exchanging pound notes for gold and the pound was floated on foreign exchange markets.

Great Britain, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries left the gold standard in 1931. Other countries, such as Italy and the United States, remained on the gold standard into 1932 or 1933, while a few countries in the so-called “gold bloc”, led by France and including Poland, Belgium and Switzerland, stayed on the standard until 1935–1936.

According to later analysis, the earliness with which a country left the gold standard reliably predicted its economic recovery. For example, Great Britain and Scandinavia, which left the gold standard in 1931, recovered much earlier than France and Belgium, which remained on gold much longer. Countries such as China, which had a silver standard, almost avoided the depression entirely. The connection between leaving the gold standard as a strong predictor of that country’s severity of its depression and the length of time of its recovery has been shown to be consistent for dozens of countries, including developing countries. This partly explains why the experience and length of the depression differed between national economies.[43]

Keep in mind that I am tired and I have not looked up any facts to refresh my memory. Having said all of that, the above Wikipedia quote seems accurate enough. But it is also a prime example of how something can be true and also be irrelevant.

So, yes, the length of time spent on the gold standard is a strong predictor (looking backwards) of which countries suffered the most from the Great Depression. But would they have suffered any less if they had left the Gold standard earlier? That is a question that can still be argued.

The question to consider is this…

Why were some countries slower to leave the Gold standard then others?

Were they just stupider then the other countries? Or did they have reasons?

And if they had reasons, might it not be possible that they were good reasons?

If they had good reasons, might it not be possible that countries who stayed on the gold standard longer might have fared worse then other countries no matter what action they took regarding their currency?

Like I said, I am tired and don’t have a lot of time. But let me give you an example of what I am trying to get at.

Let us say that you are the US. Let us say that you lent a lot (and I mean a lot) of dollars to Germany after World War I. And let us say that you are faced with pressure from your manufacturing base to devalue, but your banks really don’t want you to devalue because that will mean that they will not recover the full value of their loans from the Germans.

Which course of action do you choose?

Either way, you are going to take a hit.

There is more to this story then just that, of course. You also need to consider what would happen if everyone devalued at once. You also need to understand where the cost of the benefits of devaluation are coming from and who the beneficiaries are.

But hopefully I have made my basic point. And that is that sometimes something can be true, but also tell you next to nothing at the same time.

The Real Villains

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I think that most people really have no idea of how evil people can really be.

Or maybe I am just naive. Maybe people really do know and I just underestimate the people around me.

But I really think that most people have no idea. I just don’t think that people have the kind of originality needed to think up some of the really horrible forms of torture that man has inflicted on man.

I think that people’s general lack of originality is one of the the things that supports the idea that people are basically good. People hear of some truly horrible thing and they think “most people would never think of doing such a thing.” And they would be right.

So what does that prove? Nothing. All it proves is that some people are more talented than others. But that is something we can see in any field.

The real test of people’s goodness (or lack thereof) is what people will do to stop really horrible things from happening. And history has demonstrated time and time again that people will do next to nothing to help their fellow human beings.

Oh, they might help you get your car out of the ditch. But if you are being mutilated in ways that you never dreamed of, chances are, nobody is going to help you. It’s happening to millions of people around the world every year and nobody is helping them.

Just ask the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army who number in the millions. And they’re just a drop in the bucket.

We demonize the Nazis because it relieves us of guilt. But the real lesson of the Nazis is how little mankind cares when a few of them decide to get innovative.

Pondering A Problem

Friday, January 1st, 2010

There are two things that I think make for great writing. The first is honesty and the second is simplicity.

Both of these things are far harder to pull off then at first it might appear. We are not by nature honest creatures. When we talk with others we put on masks and we filter what we say. Even when we are dealing only with ourselves there is often things we don’t want to see in cold hard print even when we know they are true.

As far as simplicity, we all know that we should make things as simple as possible and still have them serve their intended function. And this is hard because it requires us to perfectly understand what the intended function is. This is hard even when the thing is our own creation.

But I find that it is really difficult to combine simplicity with honesty. When ever I strive for the one, I find myself sacrificing the latter.

I wonder why this is.

One would think that striving for honesty would also help make things as simple as possible. Surly the truth is the epitome of what is as simple as possible.

Perhaps it is just because I have a very imperfect understanding of what is necessary for true honesty. Thus, I try too many things to achieve the effect of being honest.

Or maybe it is just a reflection of my poor abilities as a wordsmith. I find that when I want to be honest I most often have to use metaphors and similes. Perhaps if I was better with language I would find a way to say what I mean in a more straightforward manner.

But perhaps the problem is simple as the fact that I am a coward and when part of me seeks to speak the truth the other part of me wants to cover it up.