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28 February 15. Potok and Judt

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Here are notes on two history books: Wanderings, by Chaim Potok; and Thinking the 21st Century, by Judt and Snyder (Potok, 1983; Judt and Snyder, 2013). The first is explicitly a history of the Jews, published in the 1970s but tapering off by the early 1900s; and the second is a book by a Jewish historian on the 1900s, and being a personal story, inevitably has Jewish elements. My goal in reading these books was to string together the two to form a full history of European Jewry.

You can think of this as a pair of book reviews. Like many book reviews, it will substitute for actually reading the book for most review readers (what percent of people read a review and run out and get the book?), and is a subjective account of what transpired over these 800 pages, focusing on a few themes, like the effects of the centralization of power.

The early years

After all, a history of the Jews is a good framework for a general political history of the Mediterranean and Europe, and we get to see a lot of examples of how governments manage to maintain power in Wanderings. In each case, the Jews remain a largely cohesive but small block, so we also get to see how a range of governments deal with diversity.

Chaim Potok was a friend of a friend, and Chaim is a fabulous name (think “L'Chaim!”), so that's what I'm going to call him. I think Chaim's primary goal was to trace the history of Jewish traditions and customs, which have distinct eras and saw innovations sprout from certain places. The Judaism of Abraham is very different from the Judaism of David, which is different from the centralized second temple era (From a discussion of the Talmud: “On one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, then, the holiest site in the Jewish universe was an enormous slaughterhouse”), and so on up to today.

But he still spends a lot of time on the politics of who is in power and who is at war with whom. Where and when customs cause coalitions to cohere might be the most interesting part.

Egypt was the first of many examples of well-maintained control over a large region, about 1000km--more than Boston to DC. There's a lot about the use of religion to maintain allegiance, but it's not nearly as simple as it is for the Christians millennia later. Every locality had its own religion, so worship was more fragmenting than unifying. Akhnaten's early attempt at a unified religion failed. Nonetheless, the central government was evidently able to keep the central god's priority over the lesser local gods and thus keep the taxes flowing. Their organizational technology was only so good: there were rocky parts in the timeline, and the empire never extended past the Nile.

During this period, Israel is founded, by a series of factional fights that eventually led to the unification of Israel and Judea by moving the southern capitol to a podunk town (Jerusalem) that happened to have defensible walls and a location between the two countries, and eventually mandating that all animal sacrifices are to be done there (see above re: slaughterhouse). So Israel also centralized, but the country never managed to push out and colonize, perhaps because the cultural focus on a single central temple where physical acts transpired doesn't travel very well.

Without the technology of good decentralized control, the rest of this part of the history is a somewhat confusing story of factional politics. Egypt tolerates the Jews because they're a buffer against the Assyrians, but the Jewish state needs support against the Phonecians, and so on.

My impression is that the primary cultural contribution of the Roman empire (which Chaim dislikes) is the centralized bureaucracy. The Jews in this part of the epic are just another inept local government. Christianity spreads so quickly because the Jewish religious management of the time made too many mistakes, and a few people worked out that Judaism could be popularized with a few tweaks (eat whatever you want, don't bother with circumcision), and that it was amenable to combining with centralized bureaucracy on a scale larger than the Jewish bureaucracy, by eliminating reliance on a central temple.

After Rome falls apart, we're back to coalitional politics.

The years with no centralized power

The Jewish presence in Jerusalem is at this point (maybe 400CE) too small to maintain Chaim's interest. In the Middle East, he is more interested in Babylonian Jewry, who do more to advance Torah study. I actually appreciate that he doesn't trace the control of Jerusalem, mentioning only one hand-off in passing when discussing the Crusades. I appreciate it because the question of who came first to various parts of Israel/Palestine is (1) heavily politicized, (2) completely irresolvable, and thus (3) stupendously dull. Do we want to trace it back to 1000BCE, when what Judt refers to in scare-quotes/scare-endquotes as “Samaria” and “Judea” are unified? Maybe centuries before then when now-unrecognizable tribes lived there? To the Ottoman empire just before the British take over? Jerusalem's history is that of a city that got taken over by different parties every few centuries, and I'm glad that Chaim didn't bore us with the blow-by-blow.

Instead, Chaim primarily focuses on the small pockets of Jewry through Spain and Europe (ignoring North Africa, for the most part). In these places, the Jews are a coalition solid enough to work as a team, but too small to be any kind of threat.

That status as a small group of outsiders, nonthreatening to the dominant powers, basically determines the Jewish presence through this long period when no single power is able to maintain a hold throughout a region.

Jews in middle-ages Europe would typically work for the major power to do things that are unpopular, like collecting taxes, with arms-length support by the dominant government (one more such example below). Then the peasantry hate the Jewish coalition for being tax collectors. It makes sense to have Jewish traders, because the general citizenry of one fiefdom may not trust the general citizenry of the next fiefdom down, but the Jews of both areas have more in common.

The Muslims in Spain seem to go back and forth between recognizing the Jewish population as a valuable asset and periods of purges of non-Muslims, and similarly for the Italians. This includes a period of Spanish history which is generally recognized as a golden era of culture and research, and the period where Judaism picked up a lot of its musical and poetic forms. A lot of authors refer to this period in Italy as `The Renaissance'.

So you don't need a strong centralized bureaucracy to have enough peace to build culture.

Jumping a head a few hundred years, the Holocaust was initiated by The Third Reich, which named itself to be the successor to the centralized Roman bureaucracy and the centralized Holy Roman bureaucracy. The story where the Jewish coalition supports the central government makes no sense for a centralized bureaucracy that can collect its own taxes, and we see the tolerance of minorities entirely disappear. For the Egyptian Pharaoh, the logistic problems of governance limited Egypt to a thin empire along the Nile; the Romans needed local governments to do the logistics; the Middle Ages fiefdoms hired Jews to be tax farmers; the German government could just hire IBM and be done with it. For my money, btw, the book to read on the bureaucracy of the Holocaust is not the banal Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt, 1963), but IBM and the Holocaust (Black, 2001), which details how IBM kept the trains running on time.

The history of thought

There's certainly a great deal of subjectivity in Chaim's history, if only in what locales and topics are selected. There's a sense that the important part of Judaism moves from place to place: in Babylon in 600 BCE, to the Western Mediterranean in 1000 CE, to Poland by 1600. This seems to be partly because of headcounts, and partly to chase after where new parts of modern Jewish thought and custom were being written.

I had two problems with the history of thought portion of the program. First, it's hard to work out the extent to which the history of ideas plays in to the history of coalitions. Are Jews banding together because they truly want to preserve a certain way of life, or would any way of life be sufficient for signaling that we're a distinct group and that our strategy is to retain some separation? Did the typical Christian peasant in the typical middle-ages story above hate Jews because of the thing about the Jewish government of about 35CE judging Jesus (which Chaim notes is historically inaccurate anyway), or is that just a convenient talking point when the real story is a more quotidian conflict over resources by distinct coalitions. This question is also central to everything covered by Dr Judt, and just as hard to work out. E.g., on pp 246-8, he discusses how the rhetoric of free market capitalism took an ethical turn, but there is no way to determine the causal ordering of the desire for unfettered markets and the turn to referring to government restrictions on markets with ethically loaded terms like `unfettered'.

Second, it's hard to work out what the ethos of a time was really like. Chaim is writing a 4,000-year epic, so he doesn't have to sweat the local details. He could write the story of how Spinoza wrote about a certain approach to religion, he was probably influenced by a short list of names, and hundreds of years later his ideas are common among certain subgroups, and be accurate without any need for greater precision.

But at a less epic scale, it's hard to define, let alone track, how many people believe a certain idea. Judt's book is framed in biographical context, which is good because at the mciro scale anecdote is all you've got. If a person talks about how he perceived a lot of people espousing a certain belief, that is objective truth, but the rate of espousal is not objectively measurable at all. I expected that the conversational talking book format would be dumb when I read about it in the intro, but it worked very well, partly as a clear reminder that this the historical conversation is one person's perspective. [Around p 180 I stopped reading the bios and italicized parts, though.]

Another approach would be to trace famous authors, which Judt does here and there, and as a tenured history prof is very good at.

I appreciate that there's an epistemology chapter, which maybe should have come sooner. Judt lays out the formula for being a public intellectual: start by knowing the facts well, then become an authority on some specific subfield, then branch out from that. But these are still hard jumps to do. For example, his chapter on Hayek and the rise of capitalism as a nearly ethical theory was useful as a reminder that present-day capitalism was a thing that emerged in the 60s and later, not as something that was conceivable before then. [Fun fact: the Census Bureau is in Suitland, MD because its prime downtown building was needed for the U.S. Office of Price Administration.] But then it diverged into commentary on modern America that isn't far removed from the sort of discussion you and I would have over a beer.

Some parts address a milieu recent enough that you or I can evaluate it, and are a good reminder that the book's discussion of earlier events are equally fallible. Page 317, expressing annoyance at PC relativists: “But we are not always quite clear how we should state our opposition to, e.g., female clitorectomies in East Africa--for fear of giving cultural offense.” Srsly? Have you ever met anybody who makes some kind of multicultural argument saying that clitorectomy is OK? Or it could be literally true that we would debate the exact phrasing of “how we should state our opposition” (e.g., `female' is redundant). Or it could be that this is a professor speaking, who has dealt with a lot of undergrads who are just starting off in their intellectual life.

The history of Holocaust historians

Or take the chapter about how everybody talks about the defense of Israel's existence in terms of the Holocaust. Dr Judt is clearly tired of talking about the Holocaust. P 273ff is especially clear about how it is overtaught. But it's not just that it's overtaught; it has detrimentally distorted our understanding of history. On p 237, his interlocutor says that “if there is any strand of philosophy which has been poisoned in its reception by the Holocaust, it's precisely phenomenology.” and Dr Judt replies “Holocaust awareness ... meant ... reducing Central European and particularly German-speaking thought to those aspects of its history which were related, dysfunctionally, to the possibility of the Holocaust.”

This is somewhat understandable. The postcard version of 20th century European history is that Fascism and Communism were in competition for a while, Fascism got the upper hand and quickly discredited itself, then Communism had another forty years or so to slowly discredit itself. Our author is clearly more interested in the Communist side of the narrative than the Fascist side. He dismisses the F-team as philosophically incoherent or bankrupt, just as Chaim took the First Reich to be largely a bureaucracy with no cultural value. Meanwhile, the Communists were at least thinking about interesting problems. So ┬┐why are historians so hung up on the Fascist side of the story?, Judt seems to lament.

The big thing I got from his commentaries, in fact, was just how much variety there was in the thinking of the people who read Marx, how much diversity came from it. While the Fascists were purely interested in centralizing and bureaucratizing, the Communists were eagerly debating whether/how to build diverse coalitions versus whether/how to centralize and bureaucratize. The Communists who won out were clearly the central-bureaucratic ones, but the other thread morphed, distanced itself, and kept on rolling. Judt's direct experience with Communism, for example, is on the kibbutz, which at the time was a sort of agrarian, pastoral Communism. It annoys him, because he recognizes it as something of a pretention, and recognizes that subsuming oneself to the needs of the collective is a bum rap for somebody with a good future.

From that point on, the narrative he presents about Israel has a clear negative tinge. In the essay that seems to have made him famous (Judt, 2003), he is annoyed that Israel is such a racist country. I am somebody whose entire immediate family was born in Israel and whose family has lived there since the early 1900s, and I reply to Judt: fuck, you would not believe how racist Israeli society is. I think of it like the USA in the 1950s and 60s, where the law was still not quite on the side of equality, and the people promoting egalitarian treatment of people regardless of skin color and parentage were not clearly the majority.

My metaphor here is optimistic, in that a generation or two later, the people in the USA promoting egalitarianism actually are the clear majority. People still suck, and as the song goes, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist, but it's gotten a lot better, and I think it can get better for Israel, possibly on the same generational time scale. But Judt doesn't follow that optimistic thread in that essay or in this book. Perhaps that's what happens when you've spent so much time reading about the millennia of tribal wars between Jews and Philistines, Germans and French, Poles and Cossacks.

Here's a general rule I learned a long time ago, which I've empirically verified since: if somebody talks about how Israel's founding as a state is due to the Holocaust, then that person will question the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Judt, obsessed with Holocaust obsession, focuses on the premise of my if/then in this book, and so naturally comes to the conclusion. He feels that the Big H is used to justify all sorts of sins by the Israeli government, and it is the motive for the USA supporting Israel despite it being against the USA's overall interests. In the above essay he even manages an underhanded comparison to Romania of the early 1900s (which my grandmother left for Israel in the 1930s).

  • Here in the part of the world that is not a history department, I don't know anybody who talks like this about Israel. I even asked a few friends whether they run into people who defend Israel by reference to the Shoah, and they don't know anybody who does either. Chaim's 400-page history of the Jews makes three or four oblique allusions foreshadowing the event, and then covers the event itself in a single paragraph--and not even a unique one: it is a cut/paste of a paragraph from the chapter on Egypt. American Jewish sites that I read mention the Holocaust now and then, but as a small percentage of their total discussion, because most American Jews in 2015 don't have much of a connection to it.

  • In the NY Review of Books, he acknowledges that Israel's establishment as a state mirrors the establishment of lots of other countries, because there his intent is to talk about racism and nationalism. In this book, his interest seems to have shifted to questioning why the country exists at all. Now he has to show that Israel's founding is uniquely different from the founding of an unquestionably legitimate country like Romania, and so he focuses on the Holocaust as the driving force.

  • I'm increasingly convinced, partly thanks to Wanderings, that Israel's real motivating event was the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, there's always more than one cause, and the Shoah and a lot of support from Communist Russia had to be there too. Judt is clearly aware of all of these things and is explicit about how each was important, but then places selective focus on the one cause that leads to the above if/then.

  • I have trouble believing the thing about the Department of State and the US Congress supporting Israel via diplomatic support and billions of dollars in military aid because they feel squishy feelings about historical mistreatment of Jews, or even because a small voting bloc could demand billions out of the federal budget in exchange for some campaign contributions. It seems more likely that Israel is a useful coalition member: an order of magnitude below the US's power, but capable of doing the central power's dirty work. Israel survives by being the US's agent in the Middle East; people who hate Israel do so partly because it survives by doing the US's bidding.

German Fascism and the founding of Israel aside, this book on 20th Century history may be notable for not saying much about Jews. After Chaim's millennia of stories about ethnic factions conspiring and sparring with neighboring ethnic actions, the lack of that here is notable. It gives me the impression that, like Judt himself, the Jewish community in a lot of Europe was decreasingly in ghettoes and increasingly assimilated. If this were another book, maybe Anderson (1998), we'd be taking the silence of the Jews to be a sign of the rise of the nation-state and the transition from people identifying primarily by their ethnicity to identifying primarily by their citizenship.

Please note: full references are given in the PDF version

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10 February 15. The Future

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This two-part essay on the future of artificial intelligence has inspired me again to write some things, albeit not in a good way.

The short version of the essay:

  • In the future, we'll be still better at fabricating things. Currently, you want to generate milk, you have a mammal do it; in the future, you get a synthesizer to place atoms in chains until you have all the necessary chemicals.

  • In the future, our software will be able to teach itself.

  • In the future, our software will be able to teach itself how to teach itself.

  • In the future, the software built into our hardware will be be able to teach itself to produce increasingly mind-blowing things:

    • that replicator from Star Trek: no problem
    • copies of the machine itself, with ever-improving software: no problem
    • a new body for yourself, so that you can never die: no problem
    • copies of the machine itself so it can pursue its program at larger and larger scale until it eventually destroys the world: no problem.

Our modern futurists (who bear no discernible relation to futurism) draw out those last points in an appropriately futuristic style: we'll be immortals, served by machines that fulfill our every wish--until they become so good at fulfilling our wishes that they destroy the Earth, and possibly us.

There are a number of responses to this Silicon Valley futurism, which have the collective name the social sciences. The physical sciences are the study of things that progress every generation; the social sciences are largely a study of things that never change.

What we now call the industrial revolution was a period when we started building machines that go above and beyond what normal people can do. The steam engine versus John Henry was the edge of human versus machine, and after that the machine could do what people without machines simply could not do. They can work on a smaller scale, on a larger scale, in environments humans can't, with greater precision. What's worse, we can build machines to build new machines. Pretty soon, the human is just a servant to a mechanical overlord.

We live in the end-game of it, where humanity has entirely adapted to the situation. People have jobs. People find a fulfilling life. People have babies, because they think the future is a place worth being in. The first manner in which we've adapted is that we've shifted our labor to whatever the computers don't do very well, or whatever it isn't worth programming a computer to do.

The second adaptation has been to increasingly value the hand-made. Trader Joe and his contractors make better Indian food than I do. And yet, if somebody actually cooks me a dinner from relatively raw materials, I value that dinner more, even if it isn't as taste-optimizes as the stuff in the silver pouch.

In Econ 101, this is called the water-diamond paradox. Why is water (essential to life) all but free in most of the world, while diamonds (kinda neat looking but useless) are so expensive? The one-word answer: scarcity. We value that which is scarce, and devalue that which is abundant, no matter how splendid it is.

What's abundant in the present day? Do you want to eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a few snacks between meals? This is entirely doable, and we all know you'll be sick of chocolate by the end of day one anyway. If you're living a reasonably middle-class life, you're over the hump, and having a giant TV and good food and a comfortable living space and maybe an occasional trip to India are all not scarce anymore. I don't know how much cash you have saved up, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's enough to move to a small Caribbean island and remain housed, well-fed, and slightly inebriated for the rest of your life. You have that option.

But instead, we value that which is scarce. Our attention is scarce, so we have to make constant decisions about what part of the entirety of human literature, music, film, and 2-D art we will pull up on our computer screens today. More importantly, the attention of others is scarce, and a huge amount of human endeavor is the fight for more of the attention of others. On a personal scale, we might pick one or two people and decide their attention is especially important. We eat at restaurants, where we can have a person bring us our food and put the dishes in the dishwasher for us.

When we have robots that are better at everything than we are, the scarcity of attention and the desire to focus on things that are somehow interesting or challenging won't go away, and we know this because we already live in a world where robots do most of what we do, only better, and where we already have our comforts entirely catered to. We still have strivings and emotions and a reason to get out of bed. Something, especially human attention and capacities, will be scarce, even if we can live forever and have super-augmented brains and bodies. As augmented superpeople, we'll be challenging ourselves by running triple marathons instead of the single marathons people run now.

Academia has already seen an explosion, with more papers being written more quickly, citing more previous papers. Grab a journal article from the 1950s; I'll bet you a dollar it cites fewer than a dozen previous works. Grab a journal article from today; if it has fewer than a dozen citations, I'll bet you it's a working paper, because that's far sub-standard in the journals. Infinite access just upped the expectations and productivity. Infinite time won't be any easier either.

We'll probably squander a lot of our attention on schlock anyway, just like we do now.

I'm trying to think of any books that describe immortality as a good thing. The happy-go-lucky vampire is just not a character people write. There are enough people who can't sit through the entirety of a Tortoise album, let alone know what to do with their hands for thousands of years.

In a world where time is not scarce, something else will become the most scarce thing, the binding constraint, and what it is will determine which dystopia the author writes about. Other mortal life? The inputs that keep the system running? Interest?

Org theory
As Max Planck explained, science advances one funeral at a time. Adaptation happens slowly via people learning new things every day and adapting their beliefs accordingly, and it happens quickly by new people being born and replacing the older. Perhaps the most disconcerting possibility about a world of immortal people who are served by hyperintelligent robots is that the robots will continue to learn and the people, not at all pressed for time, will ossify.

To summarize the situation so far, most of the advances are much like the advances we've seen in the past, wherein human abilities are augmented and surpassed by the machines we build, and much of the hype is much like the hype we've seen in the past. The thing about immortality is difficult to work through, but it's not obvious that it's so desirable.

On to malicious robots. Or, more morally benign but potentially more sinister, robots so focused on their goals that they will maim their owners to achieve them. What if we command a computer to teach itself to do some mundane task optimally, and it builds replicas of itself to deplete the planet to achieve that task, and eventually realizes that, in the style of the HAL 2000, any humans who could potentially shut it down need to be eliminated if the optimum is to be achieved?

There's a tendency to exalt what humans are capable of in all cultures. We people are the pinnacle of ability and creation, always. But, to be realistic, there has to be something better than us out there somewhere; what could that be? In so many cultures, the answer is that it must be a god with infinite power. Because the only thing beyond us on the number line are our children (augmented by superior technology) and infinity.

Because anything we don't understand is a god, it must do everything flawlessly. There's no such thing as a superintelligence that needs to take time to learn, whose plans go wrong, who can be outsmarted or dodged. But to step it back a notch, humans are a superintelligent and antagonistic race relative to mosquitoes, and yet the mosquitoes manage to keep biting.

OK, computing isn't a social science, but our extrapolations from it are. At the present, we are writing code that gets better and better at learning. It is reasonable to extrapolate that this will continue. Also, computers will be better at optimization problems. I believe that they'll be able to easily solve currently difficult problems involving several variables without great difficulty.

But then there's the curse of dimensionality: things get exponentially more difficult when searching a space of more dimensions. If you have an optimization over fifty variables, you may get lucky and be able to break it down into ten optimizations over five variables; doing so requires insight that is often not available but which I believe robots will be better at in the future. If you can't reduce the problem to suboptimizations like that, you're up a creek: the search may involve an atoms-in-the-universe number of steps. Only if our computers are gods can they solve such complex problems.

Stepping back to five-dimensional problems, I entirely expect that our computers are going to be better at finding optima in unexpected ways. Part of how this will happen is via much more complex optimizers. How a neural network works is already something that is hard to debug the way a more mechanical optimization is. The rule where you always get the same output given the same input won't be useful with a computer that is sensing everything around it and learning accordingly, because every run with the same input is on a computer in a new state. You think your copy of Word has unexplainable whims now...

Though, even the most complex optimizers of today can't change the goal of what is being optimized.

Reading old sci fi is amusing for seeing the technology that didn't change. In sci fi from the 1950s people are at the spaceport, buying a holographic newspaper and smoking a cigarette.

The premise of the story about the robot that is so focused on optimization that it destroys the Earth in pursuit of its goal requires that the computers of the future also can't change the problem they are optimizing. Since the beginning of time, gods have had whims, but the gods we construct won't. To think otherwise would be what the social scientists call anthropomorphizing, and we know a lot of social science and wouldn't want to fall into that trap.

In the present day, we have all experienced the runaway machine that just kept doing whatever it was doing until something broke. It is an experience that we can readily extrapolate to bigger and more volatile machines, but doing so assumes no adaptation, no innovation in the design of supremely malleable objects that would cause them to not be so destructive.

More recent history
My understanding of U.S. culture from 1945 to about 1990 is that it was obsessed with The Bomb. Finally, humans have achieved the sort of technology that creates an existential threat. With the push of a single button, one person could decide to destroy all of humanity.

So it's 2015. Do you stay up at night worrying about The Bomb? Is Global Zero your number one priority, because nuclear bombs are still capable of destroying all of life on Earth? Do you still listen to pop songs about nuclear destruction? Nope, we're over it. Somehow, by reading enough game theory textbooks and putting enough safeguards in place, the true, still-present risk is controlled. The last fifty years of politics was, along one major thread, the process of putting those protections in place.

This keeps happening: we develop a technology enough that it become dangerous, a lot of people get killed, and then we react to that and develop safeguards. Every day, you pass by half-ton vehicles moving with enough speed to kill any person in its path, and probably don't really think about it. You could be in your laundry room mixing bleach and ammonia right now, yet you aren't.

To put it in bullet points, for the apocalypse to happen, we need:

  • Robots that are like gods in their optimization and plan execution abilities.
  • Robots that are like infants, incapable of changing their objectives to more Asimov-like goals.
  • People that, unlike mosquitoes, are incapable of responding to threats and developing protections.

For robots to fundamentally change how people live, we need people that, unlike every person who has ever lived before, fixate upon existing desires, rather than shifting their attention to whatever is scarce given current conditions.

Technology continues to promise big changes ahead, and they will come. Meanwhile, people won't change at all.

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14 December 14. Things that bring me joy VII: the razor

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I admit it: I stopped shaving with a straight razor. You need to maintain consistent pressure and a consistent angle against the contours of your face. I just didn't have the manual dexterity to do it right.

A 1950s razor and a razor blade.
Figure One: Occam might actually use this.

So I switched to a safety razor, as per Figure One. It uses disposable double-edge (DE) razor blades. They're ten cents a razor, versus a dollar or three for a cartridge blade. Astra blades even have numbers 1 and 2 marking the blades on one side and 3 and 4 on the other, reminding you that you can flip over the blade and get another shave or two after the first side is showing age. Quadruple-edge.

These things are called safety razors, and I can see why. I do indeed need much less manual dexterity than with the straight razor. The pressure is easier to control, and I feel like I get the angle right more often.

By the way, Ms BCH of Baltimore, MD uses a DE razor, and assures me that she is female.

Of course, you'll need to buy the razor itself (i.e., the holder for the blades). You can check eBay for “DE razor” and get a razor from the 1950s for ten bucks. Or if you think using a used razor is gross, buy one new for $30 from the usual retailers. So there's your fixed investment, which you can recoup in forty years by selling your vintage 2014 razor on whatever eBay morphs into in 2064.

But how's it shave, you ask? Especially with a decent blade (i.e., one with a brand name like Astra or Feather, that you didn't buy at the drugstore), it is no surprise that it will readily cut off all your hairs. I think we all recognize as pure fiction the thing about how a triple-bladed cartridge (herein 3C) does one thing with the first blade, then another thing with the second, then works some other magic with the third blade. All that is just a chance for entry-level computer graphics designers to show their animation skills. A single blade worked in the 1900s to depilate; it works now.

The obvious comparison
It's easy to find DE enthusiasts who try shaving with a disposable razor and hate it, but you know how the story would end before it began, with the author exhorting WAKE UP SHEEPLE: YOU'RE SPENDING 30 TIMES TOO MUCH ON RAZORS. So I did my own test on a 3C, to see if it really gives a 30x better shave.

The shaving definitely feels different. With the DE, especially when using shaving cream, the blade glides along the easy parts and is clearly cutting into hairs in the more difficult regions. The 3C felt a little like rubbing my face against a carpet all the way along, because it feels like a surface of friction, not just a line, and I suppose pressure is distributed across the blades. With the DE, I've gotten into the habit of shaving with the grain, then against the grain in the goatee area; with the 3C this seemed unnecessary and I could just go straight against the grain. The 3C did work, leaving just a patina of stubble, which I immediately recognized because I've seen it on hundreds of men. It also worked quickly, and indeed required less technique. I expect that I could easily shave with a 3C while inebriated, and it has an easy stopping rule: when it doesn't feel like rubbing against a carpet, stop. The DE is relatively smooth even on the first pass, so I don't have a haptic guarantee that I've hit every hair.

There's a common refrain in some engineering circles that 90% of the work is done with 10% of the effort. I feel that it fits here: The 3C is absurdly overengineered relative to the DE, and thus affords a 10% better shave.

Oh, except the Hitler region. I still don't know how one fits a giant plastic cartridge right under the nose. Some cartridges have a blade on the back for dealing with this, which seems like...a hack.

Oh, and except for blemishes. I'm not sure how you'd work that big carpet sample around a spot. All that overengineering and it does a worse job around spots than a straight razor or DE.

You could retort this further down the line: the DE is massively overengineered relative to a straight razor. But the shave (in my hands at least) is noticeably better, not just an incremental improvement--and not a step back around spots.

So there's benefit and I'm not in WAKE UP SHEEPLE territory, but that's as far as I'm going: the fact that millions of people, many of whom have trouble making ends meet, pay $3 per cartridge all their adult lives is a victory of advertising. Change your 3C out every other week, and you're spending $78/year, which is more than a fortnight's groceries for me. In a decade you've spent enough for a trip to Aruba. But it's such a slow trickle: who is sitting around optimizing a six-bucks-a-month expense?

At the drugstore, the perception is that the choice is between the $3 cartridge and the $2 cartridge--the ten cent DE blade is barely visible on its little hanger (and is typically way overpriced at the drugstore anyway). If a ten-cent blade isn't an option that you know about or take seriously, you can go to CostCo and pay $2 for the $3 cartridge and feel like a blissful shopping genius.

The original DE razor was also popularized by Mr King Gillette, and I do appreciate the design effort, which certainly made shaving easier, even if at the price of involving a disposable piece of metal. It's a nice example of how a lot of engineering by some focused experts could make daily life easier for millions of non-expert users. The disposable DE blade was designed circa 1900, and here I am more than a century later, addressing all my shaving needs by dropping a ten cent blade of nearly identical design into a razor made in the 1950s.

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28 November 14. Things that bring me joy VI: the spray bottle

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They charge, I dunno, $7 on a plane for what everybody calls an airplane bottle.

Let's do some math here: a shot is typically 1.5 ounces, or 1 ounce at the stingy bars. This is more useful translated to metric: 45mL, or 30 if stingy. Now we're getting somewhere, because there are 750mL in a typical bottle, and the long division is now easy to do: about 16 shots in a bottle. So if you divide the price of a bottle by 16 (i.e., cut in half four times) then you've got the price per shot. A $45 bottle is $2.80 per shot; that probably counts as the good stuff at the bar so they'll charge you ten for it. A $25 bottle of the mid-shelf stuff is $1.50 per shot, and more likely to be what you're getting on the plane for $7.

A spray bottle, with some whiskey in it.
Figure One: A drugstore spray bottle, with enough whiskey for a few days' whiskeying.

So, Figure One shows a spray bottle from Target. It is 100mL, and therefore legal to carry onto the plane. As per the prices above, it pays for itself after the first shot.

The actual rule, developed in conjunction with the UK, is 100mL (3.3 fl oz), not 3 ounces. The TSA refers to it as the 3 ounce rule due to some sort of US nationalism.

They hand out mixers for free on most flights, so you can fix yourself a rum & coke, a gin & juice, a screwdriver, a coffee & amaretto without much fuss.

That was my original intent with the spray bottles, and I do this on flights, and it certainly makes the flights more pleasant.

These spray bottles are what I found when when I went looking for travel-sized bottles, but at the time I paid no mind to the fact that they have the spray feature. I just wanted 100mL capacity.

Then, in idle curiosity, I discovered just how good whiskey is as a spray. The bottle in Figure One has a 12-year old Benromach scotch. It has strong peat and oak overtones, which are only clearer when sprayed on the tongue. My appreciation of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon has grown immensely since discovering the spray bottle.

Back to being cheap: that bottle of scotch was pretty pricey, but consuming it via a spray bottle, it'll last me another twelve years.

The spray bottle just brings out the rubbing alcohol flavor in vodka, so you probably don't want to enjoy a good vodka this way. But then one day I felt a cold coming on.

Whenever I felt a scratch in the back of my throat, I'd spray it with vodka, and feel that sting of sterilization. I know who gave me the bug, and she suffered through it pretty hard. For my part, after spraying a sterilizing mist in the back of my throat maybe every ten minutes all day, I basically coasted through it with just an uptick in my nose-blowing rate. It can take a full day of spraying to get through a shot, so this isn't exactly boozing your way through a cold.

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5 October 14. Best of SXSW `14

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Here it is, after deleting all the neo-glam and all the songs whose lyrics primarily consist of the singer describing the singer's personal ambitions.

There was some weirdness about shifting to Soundcloud instead of just providing frickin' mp3s, so this may not happen in the future, btw.

Andrew Belle, Pieces: I'm guessing he listened to nothing but Bon Iver for a few weeks, and then wrote a pop song. This year's boyfriend music selection.

Black Lillies, The Fall: Why are love songs always major chords in a major key?

Chocolate Tiger, What to do?: I asked a pal who could understand Taiwanese Chinese; she says the first line is “I want to see you cry” and it goes from there.

Deraj, No fear: It was just catchy, and I can relate because I too never wait an hour after eating before swimming.

Dott, Leave Tonight: In one of the videos, the band is doing a house show in an apartment in Ireland, and the guy has on a Beach Boys t-shirt. AwoooOOOOoooo.

Eptos Unos, Don't play: Just an overwhelming number of songs about money and bitches. Here is one.

FiRES WERE SHOT, When Friday Won: You can tell by the typography that they're post-rock, so this is going to be an ambient wash. I've always been disappointed by how post-rock quickly converged to all kinda sounding the same (wash of noise gradually builds to a crescendo, then fades); this at least doesn't follow the pattern. I'd love to hear a string quartet cover it.

Highasakite, Since last Wednesday: I loved this article on why Sweden has such pop dominance and keeps producing great musicians like these, half-Swedish Ingrid Michaelson (below), and José Gonzales.

Hot 8 Brass Band, Ghost Town: Did you see Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke? This is the band that got broken up by Hurricane Katrina.

Jambinai, Time of Extinction: Metal with a fiddler. What's not to love.

Jamestown Revival , California : There were many songs about California in the list this year, but this was the only one that tried to evoke something outside of a 20km radius around LAX. I tested this track on the way to Mount Soledad in California (in a convertible, with a banjo player) and it worked.

K-Rino and the south park coalition, IM NOT : This was such a fucking breath of fresh air. Listening to people brag about their consumption habits is so unbelievably dull; I do not understand how it passes off as entertainment. "My album went wood."

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Drone Operator: So glad these guys came to SXSW, because I've been playing this track on repeat ever since it showed up on the Chicago Mixtape, which had a slightly longer version. I tested this track by seeing them play at a bar in an industrial-zoned area in Chicago, and it worked. Anyway, the protest song is a fast-dwindling genre, but this is an exemplar.

Ingrid Michaelson, Girls Chase Boys : This is the sort of plastic pop that comes out of Silverlake (remember Fol Chen?), but no, the Wikipedia page says she's from Staten Island, home of the Wu Tang Clan. She has a nice voice, and the rest of her repertoire seems to be girlfriend music. I am told that this track plays on the radio.

Gary Numan, I Am Dust: He did "Cars", which you know from its radio play, but as is the usual story, the track that played on the radio was much liter than most of his work. He had one album named "Replicants", and some with a backing band named The Tubeway Army. Even his stage name points to dystopian sci-fi, and this is the guy who created the sound for dystopian sci-fi from the 80s on. Go put on some eyeliner, find your Matrix trenchcoat, and have Google patch your telephone through to Pure.

MT Warning, Forward Miles: Mt Warning is the first point in Australia to see the dawn, and these are evidently the first people in that town to work out that their location makes a great band name. Here's a breakup song.

Saor Patrol, Duncarron: I had to verify that the bagpipe isn't synthetic before adding this to the list. Here's the band photo, with five guys standing in random-looking positions looking badass.

Danny Schmidt, Beggars & mules: A nice country song about Nashville.

Son of Stan , Corsica : It's going for some sort of 80s thing, but in a very different way from how a lot of other bands were going.

Spandau Ballet, True: Yup, this was in there, and it is definitely one of the finer tracks of the decade from which it came out. I wonder what my reaction would be if the first time I heard it was in a giant stack of files like this. Would I make it to the 3:53 mark?

Stepdad, Running (Does that mean you care?): Stepdad showed up last year, with My leather, my fur, my nails. I don't understand it, but they're one of the few outright pop bands that I really like.

Relevant previous entries:
Best of SXSW `12 Best of SXSW `10 Best of SXSW `09 Best of SXSW `08 Best of SXSW `07

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on Sunday, October 5th, The Shadow said

i really appreciate the notes in your RSS feed. they feel like easter eggs.

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22 October 13. Things that bring me joy V: the tea strainer

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I'll start you off with THE SECRET TO MAKING GOOD TEA:

Don't oversteep.

The good flavors come out of the tea or whatever other pleasantly-scented plant that people chose for its pleasant flavors relatively quickly. Once those are extracted to the water, you're just dissolving a plant into your water, which tastes like mulch. When the back of the box says `steep for three minutes', trust it.

A proper tea setup, if you'd like to focus on the tea, involves pouring hot (but not boiling) water into a tea kettle, then waiting a few minutes, then pouring the tea into the Ocean of Tea (a holding vessel so that you're no longer steeping the tea), then pouring the tea from the Ocean into the sniffer cup, then pouring the tea from the sniffer cup into the drinking cup. The user then sniffs from the sniffer cup (really, my favorite part of the process) and drinks the tea. When the Ocean is dry, you can usually get a second and sometimes third infusion from a set of leaves.

But that is clearly a lot of effort, enjoyable as a ritual merging of self, plants, and water, but difficult to do when you just want a warm beverage.

So let's talk about those little tea bags. They are indeed pretty small, typically having about 2.5 grams of leaf in them. The opaque bags hide many sins, and if you tear one open, you will often find something closer to leaf dust than actual leaves.

A Chinese tea cup with some minced tea leaves.
Figure One: These used to be leaves.

In Figure One, we see what happens when we tear open a tea bag. This is a Tazo bag, which is the expensive stuff, and it's still a shredded mess that's hard to identify as leaves.

At the non-super-market of your choosing, you will find loose tea, which looks more expensive until you realize that you are getting a hundred grams or more, which is equivalent to about forty tea bags if you were to mete out tea the way the people who make those bags do. At the Indian market, I buy about a half-kilo of Arabic-label Lipton for $8. Asian-themed shops have a wider selection, including the ubiquitous jasmine tea in a tin (which I kinda like, though I'm sure the tea snobs make fun of it) and lots of options from Ten Ren, the Lipton of Taiwan.

I had been using a tea ball since forever, until one day when I couldn't find the darn thing and saw a strainer in the junk drawer, which showed me how much simpler it could be. Unloading the tea ball and getting the gunk out was annoying, but cleaning the strainer is simply a question of whacking it against the side of the trash can our compost bin is full right now.

I think I also had the habit of leaving the tea ball in the tea, which, as above, is the recipe for tea of gradually decreasing quality. With a strainer full of tea at the top of the cup, oversteeping is a much more difficult proposition. You can watch the leaves float at the top of the cup until the time is right.

A tea strainer perched on a mug.
Figure Two: Not a strain at all--jajajja.

Figure Two displays the strainer I'm using now, with a handle that makes it easier to whack it against the side of the trash can. It's nice to have the pot made from Yixing clay, the Ocean of Tea, the sniffer and sipping cups, but the strainer is really all you need to make tea wonderful. I got mine for $2 at a supermarket.

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