Tuesday 30 December 2014

Johann Strauss: "The Blue Danube" … in Space.

Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Even if you hate sci-fi, chances are you'll have something good to say about Stanley Kubrick's 1968 “2001: A Space Odyssey”, based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel.

I was too young to watch it the year it was released, but I didn't have to wait much. Sometime in the early 1970s I watched it. It was the years of the Apollo Program and the future seemed like a great adventure.

It didn't last long. By 1982 with Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner”, and Michael Radford's “1984”, the future started to look somewhat bleaker. I was growing up, I guess. And over time, my impressions just got worse. (Shortly after Jan 1, 2001, I remember telling a workmate something like: “Gee, the future looks surprisingly like the past, only crappier”. Don't ask me today.)

If you haven't seen it: it's a great movie. There's little dialogue. Keir Dullea, as Commander Dave Bowman, is terrific.

But the soundtrack is, well, just superb. Given that I'm far from being Nietzsche's greatest fan, you'll be surprised to read that one of the highlights is Richard Strauss' “Also sprach Zarathustra”; but the compositions by Aram Khachaturian ("Gayane") and György Ligeti are not far behind.

Anyway (and this is the by far the absolute high water mark of the movie for me, thanks to that other Strauss, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, and directed by Herbert von Karajan) this is how the future looked like to me back in the early 1970s:

Well, I'll wish readers a happy 2015. Hopefully, the next year will look more like “2001” than “1984”.

PS: The interruption in the video means a lot to me, even if it's only accidental.

Monday 29 December 2014

Derek Ide: Chomsky vs. Foucault.

Commenting on the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Post-Modern philosopher Michel Foucault, Derek Ide notices that:
"() Foucault asks [Chomsky] poignantly: 'When, in the United States, you commit an illegal act [of political activism], do you justify it in terms of justice or of a superior legality, or do you justify it by the necessity of the class struggle, which is at the present time essential for the proletariat in their struggle against the ruling class?' After a brief period he quickly reiterates the question again: 'Are you committing this act in virtue of an ideal justice, or because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary?' " (See here)
Chomsky apparently tries to dodge Foucault's first question; finally, when he replies to the second, he does so rather weakly.

Smelling blood in the water, Foucault swiftly goes for the jugular:
"I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this … the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power … And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice."
To which Chomsky basically has no reply, other than to reiterate his belief on "some sort of an absolute basis -- if you press me too hard I'll be in trouble, because I can't sketch it out --ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a 'real' notion of justice is grounded."

A lefty observer, suggests Ide, would probably give a point to Foucault: his answer would seem to be in harmony with views widely held in the left, particularly the Marxist one. After all, "it is deeply rooted in the recognition of class-based power, hegemony, and contestation."

However, Ide writes:
"Yet, Foucault's position seems at odds with the stance that Patricia O'Brien attributes to him when she explains that, for Foucault, 'culture is studied through technologies of power -- not class, not progress, not the indomitability of the human spirit. Power cannot be apprehended through the study of conflict, struggle, and resistance … Power is not characteristic of a class (the bourgeoisie) or a ruling elite, nor is it attributable to one … Power does not originate in either the economy or politics, and it is not grounded there'."

I can offer a solution to Ide's puzzle: Foucault can assume contradictory stances on the same issue, because foundational questions are not important for Post-Modernists. A and Not(A) are only debating, rhetorical tools to be employed at the debater's discretion against different opponents, according to tactical considerations.

The point is not to argue a deeply felt position, but to win the debate, by hook or by crook.

Far from me to side with him on anything (God forbid!), but Richard Dawkins, the bête noire of some in the "academic" "left", alludes to something similar in the preface to "The Blind Watchmaker":
"I remember being shocked when visiting a university debating society to debate with creationists. At dinner after the debate, I was placed next to a young woman who had made a relatively powerful speech in favour of creationism. She clearly couldn't be a creationist, so I asked her to tell me honestly why she had done it. She freely admitted that she was simply practising her debating skills, and found it more challenging to advocate a position in which she did not believe. Apparently it is common practice in university debating societies for speakers simply to be told on which side they are to speak. Their own beliefs don't come into it. I had come a long way to perform the disagreeable task of public speaking, because I believed in the truth of the motion that I had been asked to propose. When I discovered that members of the society were using the motion as a vehicle for playing arguing games, I resolved to decline future invitations from debating societies that encourage insincere advocacy on issues where scientific truth is at stake." {op. cit. p. xv}
This is what the debate between petit bourgeois intellectuals has come to: word games. And why one sees really surprising bouts of admiration towards apparently mortal foes.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Mecano: "La (Otra) Fuerza del Destino".

Economist, teacher, writer, musician, TSSIer, blogger and nice guy extraordinaire, Peter Cooper reminded me of pop songs from the 1980s.

Well, Pete, here's a 1988 song I always remember, by Spanish band Mecano. Ana Torroja sings "La Fuerza del Destino".

Yes, you guessed it, the pretty and mischievous face belongs to Penélope Cruz.

Ojalá la vida fuera como las canciones; pero a veces no hay final feliz.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Bits and Pieces (III).

George Ellis (professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town), and Joe Silk (professor of physics at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) are worried about cosmology and theoretical physics. They are Popperians and string theory and multiverse ideas -- unlike dark matter/energy -- don't make the scientific cut for them. (h/t MNE)

Writing for Nature, Ellis and Silk complain that multiple universes are unobservable (how could their existence be verified?); the energies required to empirically test string theory are beyond actual (and foreseeable) human capabilities. According to Popper, this means those theories are not falsifiable: they are, therefore, at best "metaphysical research programmes".

Ellis and Silk are not alone in adopting Popper's ideas. After all, in economics, Friedrich Hayek (recently promoted to PoKe icon) was also a Popperian (and so was Joan Robinson, by the way, but we'll leave that for the near future).


Sean M. Carroll (senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology) picks up the gauntlet: for him, Popper's falsifiability is overrated.

"It's a well-meaning idea, but far from the complete story. Popper was concerned with theories such as Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist economics, which he considered non-scientific. No matter what actually happens to people or societies, Popper claimed, theories like these will always be able to tell a story in which the data are compatible with the theoretical framework. He contrasted this with Einstein's relativity, which made specific quantitative predictions ahead of time. (One prediction of general relativity was that the universe should be expanding or contracting, leading Einstein to modify the theory because he thought the universe was actually static. So even in this example the falsifiability criterion is not as unambiguous as it seems.)".

I may be mistaken, but this is how I read that: Popper's falsifiability was a "well-meaning" hatchet job "against theories such as Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist economics, which he considered non-scientific".

You have a conclusion and devise a clever-sounding argument to support it. Neat, uh?


But the fun doesn't stop there. If Carroll is a crypto commie, then he hides it well:
"This [two criteria Carroll proposes to replace falsifiability] is what distinguishes these theories [multiverses and strings] from the approaches Popper was trying to classify as non-scientific [Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist economics]. (Popper himself understood that theories should be falsifiable 'in principle,' but that modifier is often forgotten in contemporary discussions.)".
So, the idea is not to abandon falsifiability, even if it sucks big time. Intentionally or not, what Carroll proposes is to apply the full falsifiability criterion to the theories people don't like, but relax it when dealing with the theories he likes.

You've gotta love the philosophy of science.

Friday 19 December 2014

Sá e Guarabyra: "Sobradinho".

“And he gathered them [i.e. 'the kings of the earth and of the whole world'] together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon”. Revelation 16:16 (KJV)

The prophesied war of the end of the world refers -- naturally -- to future events, yes?

Well, maybe. But, just for the sake of the argument, what if the war had already been fought? And, what if the good guys had actually lost?

If you ever read a Spanish language novel (even in an English translation), you could do much worse than picking Mario Vargas Llosa's 1981 "La Guerra del Fin del Mundo" ("The War of the End of the World" is its English title), based on true historical events (the War of Canudos, in Brazil).

Sobradinho (o sertão vai virar mar -- i.e. the desert will turn into a sea), by Sá e Guarabyra (Portuguese lyrics, my adaptation from this version)

O homem chega e já desfaz a natureza
Tira gente, põe represa, diz que tudo vai mudar
O São Francisco, lá pra cima da Bahia
Diz que dia, menos dia, vai subir bem devagar
E passo a passo, vai cumprindo a profecia
Do beato que dizia que o sertão ia alagar

O sertão vai virar mar, dá no coração
O medo que algum dia o mar também vire sertão
Vai virar mar, dá no coração
O medo que algum dia o mar também vire sertão

Adeus Remanso, Casa Nova, Santa Sé
Adeus Pilão Arcado, vem o rio te engolir
Debaixo d'água, lá se vai a vida inteira
Por cima da cachoeira, o Gaiola vai subir
Vai ter barragem no salto do Sobradinho
E o povo vai se embora com medo de se afogar

O sertão vai virar mar, dá no coração
O medo que algum dia o mar também vire sertão
Vai virar mar, dá no coração
O medo que algum dia o mar também vire sertão

Remanso, Casa Nova, Santa Sé, Pilão Arcado
Sobradinho, adeus, adeus, adeus


It happened, somehow.

Canudos, circa 1895. [A]
Canudos survivors surrounded by the Brazilian Army, 1897. [B]
Antonio Conselheiro, by Flávio de Barros. [C]
"After 17 years [i.e. in 2013], Canudos re-emerges with drought". (source)


"Colonel Macedo nods. 'Did you see him die?'
"The little old woman shakes her head and clacks her tongue, as though sucking on something.
" 'He got away, then?'
"The little old woman shakes her head again, encircled by the eyes of the women prisoners.
" 'Archangels took him up to heaven,' she says, clacking her tongue. 'I saw them.' "
There is redemption, even for us, the rabble.


And the desert did turn into a sea (o sertão alagou mesmo, né?), as the saint Counselor (o beato Conselheiro) said.

Image Credits:
[A] Canudos. Image in the public domain. Source: Wikipedia.
[B] Survivors. Image in the public domain. Source: Wikipedia.
[C] The only photograph of Antonio Conselheiro, the mystic rebel and spiritual leader of the War of Canudos (1896-1897). Author: Flávio de Barros. Image in the public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Your ABC: The Hunger Games.

"Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life", Oscar Wilde.

Maybe the best way to break the news is paraphrasing the IMDb:
In the dystopian present, the totalitarian nation of Australia is divided between big miners, bankers, “conservative, right-of-centre, libertarian” propagandists think-tankers and other Ubermenschen, ruled by PM Coriolanus Snow, and the rabble. This year 100 staff from ABC were selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal retribution for their journalism, the ABC will not televise the games throughout Australia.
The short version: last week ABC managing director Mark Scott announced 100 out of 300 ABC staff were selected for potential redundancy. The process was something like this: if in NSW, for instance, there are 25 senior reporters band 6-8, then 6 had to be sacked. So, if you are in the list (say, you are one of the 6) and don't want to become an actual redundancy, you better convince your boss why you are needed, while any of your colleagues left out of the list (the other 19) is not; otherwise, you must convince a Katniss Evergreen to take voluntary redundancy in your place (see here)

The list of 100 potentially redundant staff was released yesterday (after covering the Lindt hostage-taking incident, obviously, and the masterly touch in timing: before Christmas). Fairfax Media and other news outlets have been covering the news since last week, including the list release. Curiously, I haven't found any reference to this ongoing story by ABC News (12:20 PM AEDT, Thursday, 17/12/2-014): which suggests that the Minister for Communications, Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman, is conducting the show his audience wanted to (not) see.


You have to give these people the credit they deserve: that is not merely sadism, it's creative sadism.


So, Merry Xmas everybody and keep voting for them! Capitalism is great!

Sunday 14 December 2014

Brazil: The Lord Took it Away.

"The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord". Job 1:21

A few years ago, the BRICS were all the rage. Brazil, in particular, seemed quite successful:

Source: Google

Riding on the back of the resources boom, the Brazilian balance of trade was positive during the first decade of this century, reaching a record surplus in 2006 of nearly USD 6 billion (source). Together with a moderately expansive fiscal policy (2.4% of GDP on average, with a 4.3% peak in 2003, and two highs in 2005 and 2009, both around 3.5-3.6%, source), the Da Silva and Rousseff administrations (from the pseudo-left Workers' Party) appeared to have found the magic formula to keep business people and the rest of us happy. The Lord gave it.

According to James Petras (the Bartle Professor, Emeritus, of Sociology at Binghamton University), things may have changed for the worse since Rousseff's appointment of Joaquim Levy as Finance Minister (h/t MNE). Levy, a “Chicago Boy”, is linked to Bradesco, a Brazilian financial giant.

Petras qualifies Levy's policies as “shock therapy” and believes that, “contrary to the expectations of President Rousseff, cuts in credit, salaries and public investment will depress the economy – and send it from stagnation into recession”. The Lord took it away.

Frankly, I haven't followed the situation in Brazil, but I'm happy to accept Petras' opinion. He also believes that:

  • First and foremost, inequalities will increase because whatever income gains ensue will be concentrated at the top. Government deregulation and fiscal and exchange rate policies will deepen the imbalances in the economy, favoring creditors over debtors, foreign finance over local manufacturers, owners of capital over wage workers, the private sector over the public.
  • Levy’s shock therapy will heighten class tension and inevitably result in the break-down of the social pact between the so-called Workers Party regime and the trade unions, the landless rural workers and the urban social movements.


However, I do find Petras' analysis wanting in two matters. First of all: there is no point in singling Levy out as responsible for this: “It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business”, in the immortal words of Michael Corleone. If Bradesco has too much power, the solution is pretty simple: nationalise it.

Another thing that escaped Petras' attention is that, whenever these pseudo-left parties have to choose between the people's interests and business interests, they will inevitably, invariably choose the latter. It's in their nature, as the scorpion said to the dying frog in the Frog and Scorpion fable.

To predicate fiscal stimulus on technical grounds, as MMTers and Keynesians are wont to do in these circumstances, is not the solution: political will, not brains, is what is lacking.

Again, it doesn't take a genius to figure the solution: real socialism, not pseudo-left, not bullshit social democracy, not third way.

The good news? We don't need to wait for the Lord.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Sumi Jo/W. Kilar: "Vocalise".

Not a single word is said (none is needed, either). Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" closing titles, based loosely on Arturo Pérez-Reverte's "El Club Dumás".

Wojciech Kilar (composer) and Sumi Jo (soprano); the City of Prague Philharmonic and Chorus, directed by Stepan Konicer.

The DVD subtitles are crap, as in really, really crap (Traductor, aunque Ud. no lo crea, en España se habla español, no italiano.).

PS. Ask yourself, whose point of view is that and what is it you are hearing and seeing?

I Did it Again: reply to GWMason.

Oops! Judging by GWMason's comment to my previous post, it seems I -- like Britney -- did it again:
"You refuse to contribute to Wikipedia because there is one article that cites a non-fmaous person alongside a famous person? Jesus. Grow the fuck up."
Come on, GWMason, what was it, really, that pissed you off:

  1. The "Keynes true-believer" thing?
  2. The reference to The Prophet?
  3. The comparison to Ayn Rand?
  4. The possibility that private space exploration fails?
  5. All of the above?

Do tell me, please, so that I can take that into account for the future, :-).


On second thoughts, maybe the answer is "none of the above". Perhaps you are mad because the character Tilda Swinton played was also named "Mason"?

If that's the case, chill, man. I'm sure that was a mere coincidence: such a worldly, rational, educated person as your good self cannot possibly have anything in common with that arrogant, doctrinaire, fictional character … :-).


Seriously now, GWMason: you are being deliberately obtuse and I'm too old to play your game much longer.

I'll be generous with you and give you the benefit of the doubt: you know, as well as I do, that mediocrity, fanaticism, and charlatanism are not synonymous with "non-famous"; you pretend not to know it and instead take sides with pseudo-intellectual shit out of your misplaced Keynesian tribalism (what you call "political context").

Neither is my donation the issue: as an economist that you are, you know my donation, modest at best, is not really that important; you also know that under capitalism, as a consumer, I can only vote with my money, which is my private property. That's the only real freedom I and the other Snowpiercer tail car passengers have. It's the only freedom capitalists, and decent, hard-working, petit bourgeois people like you have left us. Or are you now, suddenly, against private property?

So, we both also know my donation (or lack thereof) wasn't behind your outburst. Would a learned person like yourself make a fuss over $20?


"Grow the fuck up".
At my age, my friend, I'm afraid I can hardly grow in any other direction than horizontally. You, at the other hand, sound awfully young …

Sunday 7 December 2014

Bits and Pieces (II)

Peter Radford has "been on quite a kick lately [here, here, here, and here] criticizing mainstream economics as being fundamentally anti-democratic".

I agree with him on everything, but then he writes:
"Economists don't want an 'expert led democracy' at all. They want a society led by Platonic philosopher kings, with economists being those very folk. Economists, those on the right anyway, don't have time for democracy".
The philosopher king delusion and the anti-democratic feeling may be quite prevalent among mainstream, free-market, economists, as Radford correctly says, but they are also powerful leitmotifs behind "progressive liberals":
"The attitude attributed to Keynes is antidemocratic only if one asserts that (…) democracy requires extensive popular participation". [*]
"Bah!" says the Keynes true-believer. "The author of that quote must be some ultra-free-market person."

Well, no. That was Conrad P. Waligorski (professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and author of "Liberal Economics and Democracy" and "The Political Theory of Conservative Economists"), defending Keynes against the charges free-marketeer economists ("such as James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, William Hutt and Richard Wagner") made against him being anti-democratic.

Mind you, Waligorski's not the only one.


So, this is the time of the year when Wikipedia asks for donations.

Normally I would feel a moral duty; this year, however, I will most definitely not contribute. Why not? Because of this.

As a non-profit organization, Wikipedia depends on the good-will it establishes among its users. But you cannot publish shit content, refusing to correct it after you were made aware of it and cultivate good-will, all at the same time.

I would, however, suggest Wikipedia to revise their complaints policy. You know, there's always a next year.


And speaking of next year, The Guardian has a really cool pictorial article on what 2015 has in store in space exploration.

This caught my eye:
"Getting to the Moon on a shoestring might seem ambitious, but with the Google Lunar XPrize deadline fixed for December next year, the precedent could very soon be set."
After Virgin Galactic's tragic SpaceShipTwo loss, this may well make or break private sector space exploration.


A 2014 movie release which totally escaped my attention, "Snowpiercer", directed by Bong Joon-ho, and starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris was an excellent surprise on DVD: never the slow-motion train crash simile was better applied to capitalism.

The character Mason (an Ayn Rand lookalike, with English accent), played by Swinton, was particularly memorable.

Mason explains her views on society in the video clip below. Those views go a long way into explaining why democracy is not popular among pundits, taking us full-circle back to Peter Radford's comment:

That's how these people see themselves and how they see you; the place they occupy in the pecking order and the place you occupy. Must I say more?

[*] 1994, "Keynes and democracy", Social Science Journal, vol. 31, no. 1, p. 79.

Friday 5 December 2014

Yo-Yo Ma/Tan Dun: "Eternal Vow".

This may be just me, but I find that film directors often leave the most remarkable of the musical score for the last scene and ending credits.

Ang Lee's 2000 "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a case in point. Starring Chow Yun-fat, the magnificent Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi, its superb music score was composed by Tan Dun.

This is the final scene and credits and the cello solo performed by Yo-Yo Ma ("Eternal Vow"):

Update (13/12/2014):
Another version (in some ways, better; but you won't see a beautiful fallen angel flying into eternity):