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Archive for December, 2006

The concept of balance has been on my mind lately, in many different forms. The most recent of them was the fictional (is it?) concept of touka koukan (“Equivalent Exchange”) from the Japanese anime series ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’. The series is, predictably, about alchemy, but as a strict, practical science accompanied by laws and limitations, much like physics or chemistry. Touka koukan is one of these laws, explained at the beginning of every episode with this prologue: “Man cannot gain anything without first sacrificing something else. To obtain anything, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s Law of Equivalent Exchange.” (This, according to the show, is why the idea of a Philosopher’s Stone is so crucial to alchemy; it would allow the alchemist to bypass touka koukan.)

Outside of fictional worlds, we have the spiritual concepts of karma and the taijitu (yin and yang) and the scientific ones of equilibrium and Newton’s Third Law, all revolving around this general concept of balance. They’re all different interpretations of how it works and where it’s applied, but each reflects the same basic idea: that by nature, something is always equal to something else.

Correct me if I’m excluding anything important here, but it seems to me like these interpretations of balance–spiritual and scientific–can be divided into three types: cause-and-effect balance (touka koukan, Newton’s Third Law, karma), existing balance (yin and yang), and natural balancing (equilibrium). Not the best titles for each type, I know, but I hope the general idea gets across. The first type asserts that every action has an equal reaction, and it refers to action; there must be an initial action to spark the reaction. The second type is the idea that balance already exists, and will always exist; no action is needed, because the balance just is. The third type describes two unequal amounts of something balancing together (eg, the ideas behind carbon-14 dating and economic price theory), and is a sort of blend of the former two (action and pre-existing balance). All three are simply different views on balance.

Interpretations and applications of the balance concept are prevalent in many (if not all) cultures spanning the entire globe and thousands of years of human history. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead describes a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart, in which the heart (believed to contain the soul) of the deceased was weighed against the feather of truth before they could be admitted to the afterlife. A strange example of balance, but an ancient and applicable one nonetheless. Better known is the Chinese idea of yin and yang, probably dating back even earlier than the Book of the Dead and developed independently thousands of miles east. The idea of religious sacrifice, present in early European and South/Central American religions (among others), is similar to touka koukan, because it stems from the belief that whatever is sacrificed will give them a blessing of similar value (hence the sacrificing of the more valuable things–best of the crops, best of the herds, sometimes children–was assumed to yield a better result).

So why is humankind so interested in the idea of balance? Why is it so widely spread out over so many cultures and time periods? “Because it’s true” is a very weak answer, because it’s hard to substantiate that (outside of equilibrium) without religious or philosophical claims. Why do some babies not survive to toddlerhood? They surely can’t have done something equivalently wrong already. It’s impossible to answer that without blaming a past life or claiming that the baby was ‘destined’ to die because his parents did something wrong. Why do bad things happen to good people, and why are murderers running free? Those kinds of questions can’t be answered with touka koukan or yin/yang or whatever form of balance we might think exists.

I haven’t reflected on the concept as much as I’d like (when do I ever?), or assessed my own personal beliefs on the matter, but I have a feeling that a belief in something like touka koukan might come from the urge to control. For most, I think, there’s a comfort associated with the knowledge that every result is deserved. It’s like a blending (balance?) of fate and control. We can’t control the balance itself, but we can control how we use it. If karma were true, whatever terrible thing that happens to us is our own fault. It’s controllable, yet not completely, and that’s what makes it such an appealing idea.

However, until the question of why bad things happen to good people can be actually answered, whether or not the prevalent concept of real balance actually exists can’t be determined. Speculation might or might not help; who knows?

Thoughts?

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You.

TIME Magazine’s infamous final issue of 2006, “Person of the Year: YOU,” really deserves all the hype it’s been generating in the news lately. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you pick up a copy before the first of January. It’s well worth the five bucks and the twenty minutes.

Christmas is next Monday and 2006 ends in just under two weeks?? It can’t be true!

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I’ve been engaging in a lot of criticism lately, I know. I should be more focused on developing my own ideas rather than deconstructing others’, but when this article regarding suggestions for the American public education system made by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce appeared on TIME.com, I couldn’t help myself. The impression I got from the proposed changes was less than stellar.

The first warning bell went off in my mind when content–you know, that stuff that should really matter?–was not even vaguely referenced. Not once. No mention of teaching students more problem-solving skills, no encouraging of lifelong learning. And, to my utter dismay, no integration of the technology that will be a part of nearly every career that will be available by the time the generation of students these suggestions are supposed to help will graduate.

I’d like to discuss the first, most controversial point of the study: that students should graduate at sixteen after passing a grueling standardized exam. I think I should point out my bias here… in favor of the idea. Anyone who knows me personally knows I would give an arm and a leg without a second thought to graduate early. So know that if I’m biased at all, it should be in favor of the suggestion. (Shouldn’t it?)

When I read this suggestion, my mind immediately pulled up an article in the New York Times that I had glanced over a while back about university complaints that high schools were sending them students that were ill-prepared for college-level work and generally immature in their studies. Remembering that, I thought, the most vocal critics of this graduate-at-sixteen proposal will be institutes of higher education. If colleges and universities complain about the eighteen-year-olds coming in now, with an entire freshman year of sixteen-year-olds on the way in the future, I expect that colleges would freak out.

The only means by which the suggestion could be considered even remotely plausible would be a total revamp of public schools–exactly what’s needed, of course, but I see this going in the wrong direction. You can’t graduate students two years earlier without radically changing everything else: eliminating unnecessary courses, squeezing information into a shorter timeframe, lengthening academic semesters, etc. This would all be fine… if we had the slightest idea of how to go about it. If the board generating these suggestions considered any of this, we haven’t heard about it. Do we have detailed reports saying what would be changed, and how? An action plan, or even a vague direction? Looking over the board’s website, it seems like the answer is no. (However, it is worth noting that the executive summary (PDF) of the book Tough Choices or Tough Times released by the board does go into more detail–but hardly enough to satisfy. )

In my opinion–and it is just in my opinion, because the board may researching or on the verge of releasing a report on how this could be accomplished–this idea could work. Could. But the idea is so vague and the lacking mention of content disturbs me, so it’s not plausible right now, and until we have a better glimpse at the proposed system, it’s hard to decide strongly one way or the other. On one hand, perhaps this is exactly the kind of change we need, and the new system will be beneficial all around. But, on the other, this could be a hasty attempt to get students into the colleges and the workforce earlier. It’s been mentioned by both Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) and this board itself that crucial changes need to be made in public education, and even if implemented right away, will take nearly twenty years to come into effect. By that time, India or China could be dangerously close to–or already passing by–the US. Knowing this, and knowing that the board knows this, I can’t help but be a little wary of their intent to graduate students earlier. Is it innovation or desperation? I wish I knew. If it is desperation, we can expect a hastily implemented, hastily designed new system that might throw us even further behind.

But that’s just one girl’s speculation. Their intents may be purely honorable. I’d just like to see more evidence of that.

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Once of the criticisms I often find in reviews of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics–and believe me, most of them do mention this–is that it’s too ‘conservative’, and not in a blatantly obvious way. The reviews seemed to note that the pro-right views were more… subtle. Nevertheless, in my reading this morning, I came across this statement, clearly in support of the right/capitalist view:

“The amount of such highly localized information [regarding gas sales in the area], known to thousands of individual filling station owners scattered across the United States, is too enormous to be transmitted to some central point and then be digested in time to lead to government allocations of fuel with the same efficiency as a price-coordinated market can acheive.” (Sowell, Basic Economics. 2000.)

Clearly, a blow aimed at socialism. However wrong it may seem for myself, a fifteen-year-old dabbler, to argue the claims of a seventy-something economics professor, I have to object. Two things: 1) There is a way to transmit that enormous amount of information: it’s called the Internet. With live-updating and more system compatibility in today’s network, thousands of localized computers could be almost seamlessly channeled into the computers of a company headquarters for data-filtering. 2) The idea of democratic socialism accommodates for that large amount of information received (after filtering). One of the big ideas pushed forth by socialism is that the government needs to be much larger to provide more services and act more democratically. True, the government cannot deal with this sort of a system as it exists, but the larger government proposed by socialists possibly could.

I may not be right in saying that, of course, because I suffer from that idealistic “if the world changed completely to suit this new system, it would be perfect” view that seems to plague philosophers (especially the politically-minded ones). I just wanted to point out that it may have been inconvenient to relay information to government branches in the past, but the internet and live connectivity have completely changed that. If someone can tell you how to unbug your Microsoft Word from India at virtually no cost, certainly a socialist government is now plausible–at least more than it used to be.

This leads me to an interesting question: as the world becomes more seamlessly integrated via live internet connectivity, does socialism really become more plausible, and if it does, is this the way the world might eventually start to shift? That’s what the dystopian authors from the 50’s seemed to predict, but they weren’t living in the world of constant connection that we do now. Books like The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman) seem to reassure that capitalism will ultimately prevail, but I have to wonder: if socialism becomes more plausible, will it become more attractive?

Not to say that I’m fully in favor of socialism (slightly inclined that way, maybe, but not in really in support of it), but the idea of its plausibility possibly correlating with its attractiveness is worth thinking about. Socialism is one of those ideas I’m a bit iffy about, because I love the idea politically, but it’s not as economically or socially sustainable as would make me comfortable. That, and 99% of dystopian literature uses a form of hyper-socialism as the evil government. Name me a single piece of dystopian literature that uses a form of hyper-capitalism as the big, bad institution and I’ll put everything aside to read it. Where would socialism ultimately lead us? Not a clue; and that’s the problem.

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Recently, in Vancouver, we’ve had quite a bit of trouble with our water supply: the three reservoirs serving the region were all heavily contaminated after a week-long storm. Thankfully, the reservoir serving my suburban neighbourhood was cleared within a day, but the main city was under a “boiled or bottled” advisory for two weeks (Vancouver’s tap water during this period was brown). Due to government and company caps, the price of bottled water was not allowed to increase according to its new supply and demand during this period. It was the perfect opportunity to study economic price theory in in action. As author Thomas Sowell puts it in my current reading material, Basic Economics: “Nothing shows the role of price fluctuations… like the absence of such price fluctuations.”

The situation in Vancouver sounded like an example right out of the book itself. The local reservoirs had been contaminated with dangerous levels of clay, residents were told to drink boiled or bottled water, and no one knew exactly how long the warning would last. This last part was key. The night the advisory was announced, shoppers began lining up at about two in the morning outside Costco for its ten o’clock opening. The pandemonium that followed the store’s opening was so tremendous it got a mention on the front page of The Vancouver Sun. In less than five minutes, Costco’s entire stock of bottled water was gone, and there were fights breaking out everywhere.

I didn’t think to save the article, so this isn’t confirmed, but I seem to recall that the major problem at the time was that whoever reached the bottled water first grabbed as much as they could carry, since they were so cheap and no one knew how long the advisory would be in effect. This is where price theory comes in. According to basic economic principles, the price of bottled water at Costco should have skyrocketed due to the sudden demand–but it didn’t, due to company restrictions (acting in reasonable social interests–if water was suddenly $10 a bottle, people would freak out), and therein lies the problem.

Consider this: what if the price of bottled water at Costco had skyrocketed to some wild price, like $10 a bottle? Would people have gone and grabbed three dozen bottles then? The official advisory, put out by the radio and newspapers, urged residents to drink their water “boiled or bottled.” If the price had skyrocketed, it’s likely that more people would have opted to boil their tap water instead of buy the obscenely-priced bottled water. Even if they had chosen to buy, they wouldn’t have done it in as large quantities as they would have at the cheaper prices. Whereas an individual may have bought three dozen bottles at $.50 or $1 each, they may only buy one dozen at $5 or $10 each, leaving more water for other people to claim. Escalating prices in a crisis aren’t intended to rob people blind; whether the customers realize it or not, the rising prices force them to share resources when there isn’t enough to go around. It keeps the balance, so no one leaves the store with three dozen bottles while someone else leaves with nothing.

By the way, as noted by Sowell, the high prices of hotel rooms after a crisis like a hurricane or earthquake are also an example of this forced generosity. By raising the prices of a hotel room to meet the sudden demand, the hotel forces many people to find roommates and families to rent single rooms to save money–effectively distributing their resource, shelter, among people who might have taken an entire room to themselves at normal prices. Privacy and space are sacrificed, but more people have a roof over their heads because of the higher cost of the rooms.

Anyone reading this with a background in economics would roll their eyes at these most basic ideas, I’m sure, but as a newbie to the field, I find it exciting to see the theories I read about in a book come to life in the “real world.” Of course, this is economics, so every principle acts in the real world, but seeing a theory I’ve been reading about take action around me is still very cool.

Price theory: forcing generosity, whenever you want it, and then some.

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A few weeks back, I got into a heated dispute with a friend of mine about political terminology that nearly had the both of us kicked out of class. Admittedly, I started it by claiming that the radical left and fundamentalist right of politics were both equally bigoted and closed-minded; not the sort of idea this particular friend would just let by. We fought (loudly and disruptively) for a time, and neither of us was able to understand the other–it was like we were on entirely different pages–until we realized that the problem was our political terminology. When I said “radical left,” I meant socialism; when he said “radical left,” he meant anarchy.

Despite my friend’s insistence that I shouldn’t focus on political labels, this had me thinking about the political spectrum and how unfairly exclusive it is. The traditional Left-Right political spectrum does not really allow for items like libertarianism, anarchism, and totalitarianism. Where do they fall? Not on this scale. All three of those fit on a different scale entirely, which I have defined–though I am not the first to do so–as a ‘control spectrum’. This is what I mean.

The U.S.-style Left-Right political spectrum (not classical French Revolution-style, I’m afraid; it’s not entirely applicable anymore) can be represented like this:
U.S. Left-Right Political Spectrum
Notice that here, the furthest left view is socialism, not communism. (Due to horrible planning on my part, I forgot to leave space at either end–who knows what radical ideals will be exposed in the future?) This is my interpretation, and it’s very general. I don’t know a lot about political science, but this was my working grasp of modern-style left and right politics. If it’s inaccurate… it was just a thought.

The control spectrum, which I have been pondering lately, looks more like this:
Political Control Spectrum
Anarchy, a state without control, is on one side; Totalitarianism, a state with total control, is on the other. For convenience, the points of a few other political ideas have been set on the spectrum–and note that this is a very rough sketch, not at all set in stone. Notice that communism is on this scale–on the side of greater control–and that socialism is not.

This gives us two entirely different scales, because things like totalitarianism, libertarianism, communism, and anarchy cannot be plotted on the Left-Right spectrum. Feudalism, Monarchy, and other various “-archies” do not plot well either on the Left-Right. And just try to plot democracy; optimistically, the entire Left-Right just describes different forms of it.

My conclusion? We need a better political scale, if it remains a scale at all (it likely won’t). Left-Right works only within systems like the U.S. where (mostly) only those two ideas are seriously debating. But there are other political ideals; communism has existed, feudalism has existed, and monarchies still exist today. There should be an effective way to define them all in relation to each other without having to create dozens of spectrums. I’m not sure how this could be accomplished. Possibly through a political compass like this one. For all I know, to do this would require throwing out all our current terminology and starting anew. What I do know is that, as the world changes to suit globalization, our politics will have to change as well to accommodate other systems. Nationally? Globally? It’s hard to say. But it will happen.

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Various propaganda

This post is a bit hard to write, since I’m typing it on my cousin’s horribly configured laptop. The built-in mouse buttons like to click whenever they feel like it and touching the little mousepad (you know what I mean–that square thing on most new laptops you use to move the mouse on the screen) while the page is loading moves me back several pages in my browsing history. Laptops today, I swear… my IBM ThinkPad is several years old, runs perfectly, and isn’t a piece of plastic crap. (Well… no.)

Anyhow, this post is not about how much I hate recent laptop models. It’s about–to completely change the tone–propaganda, exposee, and citizen journalism.

Whilst my soon-to-be-thirty cousin and second-cousin played cards and drank margaritas, I, in a sad attempt to keep myself amused, went on a massive Digg binge (for the proof, see my poor del.icio.us account, stacked with massive amounts of new articles). One of the things that struck me was the number of exposees and anti-propaganda articles/videos. A recent one that was pretty big among digg users was the video on YouTube of a student at UCLA being tasered by campus police in the library for (apparently) not having his student ID. This video documentary comparing the Abu Ghraib scandal to prisons in the US is one I’m watching now that I’m sure would never be aired on US television (it’s BBC).

It seems like the natural thing to do now when you witness an injustice is to capture it and go directly to the web. Cases in point–South Korea’s “dog poop girl,” who refused to clean up after her dog on a subway and whose photo (taken with a cellphone camera) was posted on the internet and spread around until her identity was known and she was subject to hundreds of personal attacks, and Dan Hoyt, photographed by the same method masturbating on a New York subway and was prosecuted. In the past week alone, there have been more than half a dozen cases of someone videotaping police viciously beating a suspect with a cellphone and posting it on YouTube.

Now, it seems to me like the internet is turning into a sort of police in itself. If you have evidence, video or otherwise, of some injustice, the smart thing to do nowadays is take it to the internet and let that collective entity be the judge. It’s been proven that the internet can actually ruin someone’s life–Korea’s dog poop girl quit university because she was being constantly mocked on- and offline–but most of the time it simply calls for justice. When thousands of people around the world see a wrong and demand to have it corrected, it’s hard to say no. The internet is, in a sense, pure democracy; it’s a rule by the people.

The only downside to this is that this makes us all prone to a concept that Stephen Colbert coined ‘Wikiality': fact by consensus. Hence all the articles on the ‘net about vandalism on Wikipedia that went undiscovered until someone tried to verify the facts and found out that they were all wrong. In fact, in the episode of the Colbert Report that Colbert coined the term ‘Wikiality’, he urged viewers to edit the Wikipedia entry on elephants to say that the population of African elephants had tripled in the last six years to prove his point–leading to that Wikipedia article being sealed off by Wiki staff because of excessive vandalism.

I’d like to wrap this all up in a neat conclusion, but it’s 1am and my cousins have been giving me non-virgin margaritas all evening. My mind = dead. I’m not even sure this post has a point, or is just a bunch of scattered thoughts on the same thing… but I’ll revise it tomorrow when I’m awake and using a laptop that doesn’t suck.

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