Sunday, June 29, 2014

The perennial philosophy in philosophy

Aldous Huxley wrote about The Perennial Philosophy that runs through all theologies. It's made me think recently, about the commonalities that run through many philosophies.

Recently, I've posted about Buddhism as a philosophy. More recently still, I've been reading about Epicureans and Stoics, and have been struck by the similarities they share with each other, and with Buddhist philosophy.

I'm not the only one who has noticed:

Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism
[...] Stoics aimed not at getting rid of emotions (despite the popular caricature of Stoics as Spock-like figures), but rather to channel them in a more productive direction. This was achieved through a combination of logic, concentration and reflection, and eventually evolved into various contemporary forms of cognitive behavioral therapy. (In this sense, both Buddhism — with its various meditative techniques — and Stoicism have entered the realm of modern practices, which can be pursued essentially independently of the philosophies that gave origin to them.) The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia, or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana (again, with due consideration given to the significant differences in the background conditions and specific articulation of the three philosophies). And of course Stoics too had a ready-made recipe for their philosophy, in the form of a short list of virtues to practice (nothing compared to the above mentioned panoply of Buddhist lists though!). These were: courage, justice, temperance and wisdom.

I am sure one could continue with this conceptual cross-mapping for a while, and of course scholars within each of the three traditions would object to or modify my suggestions. What I am interested in here, however, is pursuing the further questions of what the common limitations of the philosophies of Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism are, as well as what positive contributions they have made to humanity's thinking about (and dealing with!) the universe.

I am inclined to reject both Buddhism’s and Stoicism’s metaphysics, being significantly more happy with the Epicurean view of the world. I don’t think there is any reason to think that concepts like logos or karma have any philosophical substance, nor do they do any work in actually explaining why things are the way they are. The Epicurean embracing of a materialist metaphysics, instead, is in synch with the development of natural philosophy and eventually of modern science. [...]
Read the whole thing, for a thoughtful comparison of the three philosophies. And for the embedded links, and some interesting comments afterward.

While reading about the Stoics, I came across this informative timeline on the Stoics' wikipedia page:

Since I don't have a lot of leisure time to study philosophy, I decided to cut to the chase and read Marcus Aurelius, who seems to be the culmination of the stoic philosophers. I had read a little bit of his writing in the past, and was favorably impressed, so I've ordered a book of his meditations.

Even though Marcus was a Stoic, he had studied Epicurus. I wondered if one could mix Marcus Aurelius and Epicurianism as practical wisdom for a good life? It seems I am not the first one to ask that question:

Can one mix Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius to create a great recipe for a good life?
It is time to present two of my all-time favorites among humanistic thinkers of the past. Number one on my list is early Greek philosopher Epicurus. He did create a comprehensive and wholly rational recipe on how to attain a maximal state of peace of mind.
My second choice is the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. He did teach how to use self-restraint for achieving tranquility of mind.

These two great men had much in common. Marcus Aurelius was well aware of the teachings of the much earlier Epicurus, even if he belonged to a competing school of philosophy. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic and Stoicism did compete for followers with Epicureanism in the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Stoics did, in fact, at times pour scorn over Epicurus. However, the fact remains that their philosophy contains very many elements that were taken quite straight out of Epicureanism. Many ideas that were presented by Marcus Aurelius could have as well been uttered by Epicurus or his followers as well. [...]

Marcus Aurelius

I think we are blessed to have so many great minds from the past that we can still learn from. Wisdom we can build on.  I'm very much enjoying all this!

Also see:

"Never let the future disturb you" or Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus on foundations for a good life


People who say they "Don't care about money"

A recent example is the Clinton's daughter:

Chelsea Clinton: I tried to care about money but couldn't
The daughter of former President Bill Clinton and ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton explained in a recent interview why she left lucrative professions and opted for working with her family’s philanthropic foundation. ‘I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t,’ she said.


Comparing her experience to the average millennial, the 34-year-old former first daughter defended jumping around to different careers — from consulting to a hedge fund to academia to journalism — before finding her true calling working with her parents.

“It is frustrating, because who wants to grow up and follow their parents? I’ve tried really hard to care about things that were very different from my parents … it’s a funny thing to realize I feel called to this work, both as a daughter and also as someone who believes I have contributions to make,” she continued about her reluctant status as a boomerang kid.

The Clinton name likely opened doors for the political heiress, including an eye-popping $600,000 annual salary for an irregular stint as an NBC special correspondent, but Chelsea insists her work speaks for itself.

“I will just always work harder (than anybody else) and hopefully perform better,” said Clinton, who along with former banker husband Marc Mezvinsky, purchased a $10.5-million Gramercy Park apartment in 2013. [...]
Didn't her parents spend $3,000,000 on her wedding? I wouldn't be surprised if she has a trust fund, too. I doubt she ever has to worry about becoming homeless.

Given that she has more than enough to live comfortably, perhaps what she means is, she doesn't wish to work hard trying to earn more, because she already has enough? That she doesn't care about striving for more cash?

That would be understandable. But it's not quite the same as not caring about money. It's not like she's giving it all away, and becoming a renunciant with a begging bowl or anything. In fact, I find that people in her income class usually do care, and take steps to hang on to their money. Her parents have:

Wealthy Clintons use trusts to avoid full estate tax they back
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have long supported an estate tax to prevent the United States from being dominated by inherited wealth. That doesn't mean they want to pay it.

To reduce the tax pinch, the Clintons are using financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. These moves, common among multimillionaires, will help shield some of their estate from the tax that now tops out at 40 percent of assets upon death.

The Clintons created residence trusts in 2010 and shifted ownership of their New York house into them in 2011, according to federal financial disclosures and property records.

Among the tax advantages of such trusts is that any appreciation in the house's value can happen outside their taxable estate. The move could save the Clintons hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes, said David Scott Sloan, a partner at Holland & Knight L.L.P. in Boston.

"The goal is really be thoughtful and try to build up the nontaxable estate, and that's really what this is," Sloan said. "You're creating things that are going to be on the nontaxable side of the balance sheet when they die." [...]
All this posturing about not caring about money is easy when you have more than you could ever need, but IMO it rings hollow to someone whose annual income is only $11,000 a year. At that level, you HAVE TO CARE, and you know it, if you are reasonably smart and don't wish to be living in the streets.

I'm not envious of people for having wealth; who doesn't want to be better off than they are? That is perfectly natural, and I'm glad for people who manage to do it, because I want to be better off too. But it does grate when those who have so much more talk about being "broke" when they never were, like Hillary does, or not caring about money, like her daughter. Couldn't they be more honest? And shouldn't we insist that they are? Especially if they involve themselves in making laws about what is to be done with OUR money?


Friday, June 20, 2014

Buddhism: a philosophy for the 21st century?

NOT a religion, but a philosophy. I've recently finished reading this book:

Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World
Lama Surya Das, the most highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition, presents the definitive book on Western Buddhism for the modern-day spiritual seeker.

The radical and compelling message of Buddhism tells us that each of us has the wisdom, awareness, love, and power of the Buddha within; yet most of us are too often like sleeping Buddhas. In Awakening the Buddha Within, Surya Das shows how we can awaken to who we really are in order to lead a more compassionate, enlightened, and balanced life. It illuminates the guidelines and key principles embodied in the noble Eight-Fold Path and the traditional Three Enlightenment Trainings common to all schools of Buddhism:

Wisdom Training: Developing clear vision, insight, and inner understanding -- seeing reality and ourselves as we really are.

Ethics Training: Cultivating virtue, self-discipline, and compassion in what we say and do.

Meditation Training: Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and awareness of the present moment.

With lively stories, meditations, and spiritual practices, Awakening the Buddha Within is an invaluable text for the novice and experienced student of Buddhism alike.
I actually struggled with this book quite a bit. There were several times, where I almost quit reading it.

There was much I simply could not agree with. In fact, it very much reminded me of why I never pursued Buddhism, even though I like a lot of the things the Buddha is said to have taught. Every time I've tried to learn more about Buddhism, there would be something irrational that would put me off.

I felt that many times while reading this book, but it was a mixture of things, it wasn't all off-putting. I persevered with it, and by the end I was glad I did. I bought the book in the first place because I was hoping that it would:

A.) Teach me about Tibetan Buddhism.

B.) Be an interesting story of the life Surya Das (formerly known as Jeffrey Miller from Long Island) chose for himself, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist Lama.

C.) Teach me some things I could integrate into my own life.

In the end, I have to say it did all of those things. Surya Das has lead a life I would not have liked to have had, but thankfully he did it and I got to read about it and get the benefit of his insights from that, without having to do it myself. Sometimes you can learn a lot from a book, even if you don't agree with much of what it says. It challenges your ideas and makes you think. This was one of those books.

While reading the book, I found myself looking up a lot of things he was referring to on the internet. It was on-line that I found this essay by Sam Harris. I found myself agreeing with much of it:

Killing the Buddha
“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.


For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.


Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.

Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.


What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

It is as yet undetermined what it means to be human, because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight. We do not know what we will be a thousand years from now—or indeed that we will be, given the lethal absurdity of many of our beliefs—but whatever changes await us, one thing seems unlikely to change: as long as experience endures, the difference between happiness and suffering will remain our paramount concern. We will therefore want to understand those processes—biochemical, behavioral, ethical, political, economic, and spiritual—that account for this difference. [...]

Read the whole essay for embedded links and more. Harris expounds further on some of the ideas mentioned in the above excerpts, as he makes his case, and it's a good read. But back to the "Awakening the Buddha Within" book:

At the end of that book, even Jeffrey - oops, excuse me, "Surya Das" - said there were many types of Buddhism, and that one didn't have to embrace or believe in many of the beliefs held by Buddhists, or even believe in God. In the end, he said you could take from it what you wanted or needed.

I appreciated the lack of insistence on following dogma, but also found it a little ironic that he seemed to be indirectly supporting at least a portion of Sam Harris's essay; that Buddhist teachings don't have to be mixed up with religion.

I would not go so far as to say the two authors agree, but they seem close to agreement on some points. I think perhaps that Das is saying the teachings don't have to be mixed with religion, whereas Harris is more forcefully arguing that they should not be. That's not agreement, but pretty darn close.

Also see:

On criticizing fellow Buddhists
The tyranny of "Consensus Buddhism"!


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Proverbs from around the world

Cultural proverbs:

Ten proverbs and sayings to help you around the world
It’s taken me a long time as a language learner to come to terms with proverbs. I always resisted them for various reasons. They’re a pain to learn, they can sound silly and unnatural, and it’s often hard to imagine a scenario in which you’d actually use them. However, they’re actually a really important part of every language, and as an English speaker I find I’m often unaware of just how many I use every day.

Knowing these sayings, and being able to produce them spontaneously at the right moment, is an important component of fluency. They’re the colour and spirit of a language, and help you to get deeper into the mentality of it. Here is a list of ten great proverbs in different languages, that perhaps one day will come in handy for you! [...]
You may well find a few chuckles here - I did!

One Priest's perspective

I thought this was a very thoughtful and well-considered piece:

What our parish does about gay relationships
Pope Francis has asked our bishops to report to Rome on what is actually happening in the parishes in regard to marriage and family life. Among the many topics to be discussed are "same-sex unions between persons who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children."

I think that our parish is a fairly typical middle-class, mostly white, English-speaking, American parish. I also think it would be fair to say that our approach to same-sex couples, including marriage and adoption, is evolving. One might characterize our approach as public silence and private acceptance.

In public, we are silent about the fact that some of our fellow parishioners are gay, even though some people are aware of their relationships.

In private, we are accepting their relationships so long as we don't have to acknowledge them.

Such a modus vivendi is not really an ethical resolution to the question. In fact, it is merely a strategy for avoidance.

There seem to be two great divides in my parish over issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. One divide is generational. The other divide is personal.

The generational divide is the most obvious and clear-cut, but not absolute. Older people are less accepting of LGBT relationships. Younger people see no problem. In fact, younger people often think the church should move beyond mere acceptance to affirmation. The dividing line seems to be about age 50.

This generational divide is radical and serious. For some young people, it determines whether or not they will remain Catholics. One young man left our church over the issue. As the older Catholics die off, the church will find very little acceptance of its current negative position on gay relationships. We will find ourselves culturally marginalized in countries like the United States.

The personal divide is more subtle and harder to quantify. People who know someone in their family or circle of friends who is publicly gay are much more accepting of LGBT people than people who claim they don't know anyone who is gay. Of course, the fact is, everyone actually does know someone who is gay. They just know that their friend or family member is gay but does not admit it.

Personal experience is important. More and more people are coming out as gay. More and more people will have to accept their relationships. Our younger people nearly always know someone who is out as gay and find it very easy to accept. This is a sea change from a generation ago.

More and more gay relationships are being discussed, even in a conservative community like ours. In the past few years, at least a dozen parents have come to me to tell me that their children are gay. They are supportive of their children. They want to know how I will respond. I always encourage them to accept and love their child.

Two of my friends who go to other parishes left the Catholic church when their children came out. They simply could not accept a church that judged their children to be "intrinsically disordered." If someone is put in the position of choosing between his or her child and the church, they will obviously and quite rightly choose their child.

The hyperbolic and harsh language of the church will have to change. It is not accurate, and it is not charitable. [...]
It's worth reading the whole thing. He chooses his words carefully, and explains his reasoning well. The story he told at the end left me a bit teary.

I thought it was a great response to what the Pope was asking about. But judging by some of the comments left after the article, it would seem that there are still plenty of people who don't want the "hyperbolic and harsh language" to change at all, and they are willing to give away free samples too.


Low Vitamin D levels kill?

One study says yes:

Low vitamin D tied to premature death, Study
People with lower levels of vitamin D are twice as likely to die prematurely than those who have higher levels in their blood, said Univ. of Calif.-San Diego researchers.

Lead study author Cedric Garland said 30 nanograms per milliliter of vitamin D was associated with the lower death rate, and that two-thirds of the U.S. have estimated blood levels below 30 ng/ml. Humans can increase their natural production of vitamin D through exposure to sunlight.

“Three years ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that having a too-low blood level of vitamin D was hazardous,” said Cedric Garland, professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at University of California – San Diego and lead author of the study.

“This study supports that conclusion, but goes one step further. The 20 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml) blood level cutoff assumed from the IOM report was based solely on the association of low vitamin D with risk of bone disease.

“This new finding is based on the association of low vitamin D with risk of premature death from all causes, not just bone diseases,” Garland said. [...]


Where Keynes got it wrong, and why

And what we might glean from the "why":

Paul Mason: what would Keynes do?
The revolution in IT and how it is transforming our world in ways that even economists are struggling to understand.
In 1930, while the world was still reeling from the impact of the Wall Street crash, John Maynard Keynes published a remarkable essay: in “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” he imagined a world where, as he put it, mankind’s “economic problem” has been solved. By 2030, barring unforeseen wars and given the population did not rise too fast, a combination of technological advance and rising wealth could leave enough for everybody.

This would be quite a big change, he pointed out, because the entire history of humanity has been determined by there not being enough for everyone.

“For the first time since his creation,” Keynes wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”


Keynes imagined and fought for a society based on liberalism and aesthetics. The market would eventually provide for all and create a confident, socially adventurous leisure class, whose purpose was to understand and create beauty – and to work as little as possible. That view had been dented by the First World War and would now be shattered by the Depression. So the “grandchildren” essay stands as almost the last utterance of Keynes’s pre-Depression world-view.


So, as with all insights into the future, Keynes’s essay is full of misunderstandings about the present. (In 1930 the great wave of bank insolvencies that triggered the Depression lay 12 months ahead. Herbert Hoover was in the White House, no developed country had yet left the gold standard, Ramsay MacDonald was still in Downing Street and the Nazis held just 12 of the 491 seats in the Reichstag.) Its underlying tone is: don’t worry, these are growing pains; the market will – with the help of governments – create the solution. And that was wrong.

Yet there is something breathtakingly far-sighted about the “grandchildren” essay. At its heart is the proposition that one day:

• capitalism will grow into something else;

• if that happens the cause will probably be technology;

• we will have a major psychological problem adjusting our lifestyles to a situation where money is not important;

• the love of money will come to be seen as a disease;

• economics will become as mundane as dentistry.

Keynes looks into the future using three yardsticks: the rate of technical innovation, the growth of population and the growth of capital through compound interest. He estimated that productivity would safely grow at least 1 per cent per year, and that capital would grow by 2 per cent per year. If so, it was safe to assume that by 2030 the standard of living in advanced countries could be four to eight times what it was in 1930 – and if technology improved faster, eight times could be an underestimate.


The idea was that technological progress would create fresh demand, so that even as the price of today’s goods got cheaper (because of productivity) there would always be new, more complex human needs created that require higher-valued things and a higher-skilled workforce to create them. That has been capitalism’s get-out-of-jail card for 200 years, confounding Malthus, Ricardo and Marx, each of whom in his own way believed there were limits to capital.

It happened spectacularly in the Progressive Era, the second industrial revolution, when Victorian-era cities were suddenly populated with Arts and Crafts-style pubs, cinemas, libraries, automobiles, electric lighting . . . prompting Virginia Woolf to declare that “on or about December 1910, human character changed”. And sure enough human character is changing again, under the impact of technology. This third industrial revolution is having a different effect, however: certainly there are more complex needs being created, but it’s not obvious how they will be commercialised.

“Information wants to be free,” said the hippie-ideologue Stewart Brand – to which the open-source movement added: “free as in freedom”. If physical goods are getting cheaper the drivers of demand are of course energy (which has to get dearer) or services. But services, too, can be automated. And so what we may be left with is the nightmare the French writer AndrĂ© Gorz envisaged: that just as it tried to privatise water in the 1980s, capitalism is forced to privatise and commodify simple human interaction. That just as we have sex work now, we might have affection work, sympathy work, anti-loneliness work in the future.


The present situation breeds not only a widening inequality of wealth but an inequality of power not seen in Keynes’s time except in Fascist Italy or Stalin’s Russia. I think it may all end in tears again – with unchecked oligarchic governments such as those of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan repressing their population with tear gas and arbitrary detention, while the democratic-world elite stands by, once again convinced that its economic interest lies in supporting dictators against their own people, and increasingly prepared to use repression, surveillance and arbitrary power against their own populations.

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

Keynes’s critique of Marxism was that by basing itself on the working class it asked too much of the intelligentsia. He wrote in 1925: “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above bourgeois and the intelligentsia, who, with whatever faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human achievement?”

Well, now (thanks to education and technology), we have a mass intelligentsia: yes, for sure, spoon-fed tick-box learning on degree courses whose intellectual level Keynes would have scorned. But they have shown themselves willing to stand somewhere between the mud and the fish, and able to create science and art and ideas that make this a thrilling time to be alive. It was they who launched the Arab spring, the Quebec spring, Occupy, Taksim Square and the Russian democracy movement.

When I look at the picture of the miner’s relative and the man kicking him, I find it hard to prefer the fish to the mud. I suspect that Keynes, placed for one hour in a Rolex store, or in any of the yachting ports where British politicians frequent the vessels of Russian oligarchs, might also begin to find this whole “fish v mud” thing not so useful. But we have gone beyond the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We have an educated demos alongside an underclass, and we are all toiling in a social factory where every act of production, consumption and leisure sucks us into a system of value creation based on debt, finance, monopoly.

By 2030, according to the Oxford Martin School, 47 per cent of all US jobs, mainly in retail and services, will be automated. Automation used to mean the replacement of physical labour by machines; now it means the replacement of mental labour by software – and software is just a machine that never wears out and costs nothing to reproduce. Unless whole new industries based on whole new sources of economic demand grow up, the purchasing power of the majority will fall; and ultimately there is only so much money you can print, and only so many asset bubbles you can stimulate, until it comes to a full stop.

Keynes imagined a future where rising wealth led to falling inequality. Instead, economic wealth has grown more slowly than he imagined but physical and information wealth has grown faster and begun to detach itself from the value system. The moment is coming where we have to recognise this and redesign society as boldly as Keynes’s generation did in the mid-1940s.

I think a modern-day Keynes would be obsessed with how to decouple work from income, production from price, organisation from ownership. We know what he achieved in practice: a workable system that revived global capitalism. But he also dreamed of something better than a system based on the pursuit of money. [...]
Yeah, dreamed is exactly the right word. And what is this: "That just as we have sex work now, we might have affection work, sympathy work, anti-loneliness work in the future." WTF?

This article does have some interesting parts, and parts of it seem to be backed up with some pretty good arguments and observations. But it's got it's weak spots too.

The author says "Even as we grapple with the aftermath of our own Wall Street crash, we are facing a new problem: the rise of information goods whose abundance is probably the indirect cause of – and solution to – our current state of low growth, high inequality and growing social unrest." And tries to explain why. Some of his arguments are convincing. But others, not so much. And I have to say, I'd like to hear more about how the abundance of information goods is "the solution to".

He does an excellent job of explaining the failures of Keynes predictions, but then seems to go on praising Keynes's vision as some how achievable anyway, due to some vague "post-capitalist" society that we need to become.

I don't object to the discussion of this. But I've heard plenty of people fantasize about a "post-capitalist society", yet they never show you the beef; it just sounds life a fantasy. And since Keynes HAS been proven wrong about so many things, you have to wonder if it isn't a mistake to keep holding on to the future-fantasies he envisioned as well?

This article identifies a lot of problems, but it seems unfirm and vague about solutions. I can't get excited or enthusiastic about vague references to a "post-capitalist" society, without it being explained how such a society would actually work. It's been tried before, with dismal, even deadly, results. So any talk about a "post-capitalist" society should, IMO, provide the details and prove itself to be something other than another deadly experiment in social engineering.


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The UK's most multi-lingual student

He talks about how he did it. In several languages:

How do you become fluent in 11 languages?
[...] Twenty-year-old Alex Rawlings has won a national competition to find the UK's most multi-lingual student.

The Oxford University undergraduate can currently speak 11 languages - English, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Hebrew, Catalan and Italian.

Entrants in the competition run by the publishers Collins had to be aged between 16 and 22 and conversant in multiple languages.

Alex drew on all his skills to tell BBC News about his passion for learning languages and how he came to speak so many. [...]


Added benefit to being multi-lingual

Speaking two languages keeps brain's aging at bay
NEW YORK: If you speak more languages than one, it is good not only for your social image but also for the health of your brain, a research said.

Bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition later in life.

Individuals, who speak two or more languages, even those who acquired the second language in adulthood, may slow down cognitive decline from aging, the research found.

"Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence," said lead author Thomas Bak from University of Edinburgh.

Bilingualism is thought to improve cognition and delay dementia in older adults. [...]
They wanted to eliminate the possibility that bilingual people had better cognition, that led them to be bilingual in the first place. Read the whole thing for the details of the study.

I love to study languages, I'm studying Spanish presently. Nice to know there can be long-term cognitive benefits too.