Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy, losses, and GDP

From a story in the New York Times, 31 October 2012:
Even as businesses struggled on Monday to gauge and contain the damage from Hurricane Sandy’s slow move up the East Coast, economists played down the likely long-term effects. The recovery after the storm, they said, could actually pump up growth temporarily in a few sectors, like construction and retail sales, when cleanup begins in earnest in a few days.”

The last sentence of the story:
It’s a problematic aspect of how we account for economic output,” said Mr. Carroll. “Of course, it’s terrible when something is destroyed. That doesn’t show up in the calculation of gross domestic product. However, the rebuilt house does.

The above illustrates the craziness of economic “theory” these days. There’s no reason that the loss of the house should not be included in the GDP calculation: just include the cost of rebuilding it as a debit. This would show the loss of the house as net decrease in GDP, which it surely is. That is if we want to think of GDP as a measure of wealth-creation, as most people seem to do.

In fact, as shown by the above comments, GDP is the aggregate value of money transactions. It tells us nothing about the net increase in wealth. The $20 billion or more in storm damage will be shown as a $20 billion increase in GDP, but I don’t think wealth will increase by 20 billion dollars. Most people I think would see those losses as exactly what they are: a reduction wealth. We can reasonably expect to replace those losses. If we are cunning, politically savvy, and lucky, we may be able to replace those losses with more wealth at the same or even less cost: technology does offer that possibility.

Some transactions obviously increase wealth, such as building a house or educating a child. Others just as obviously decrease wealth, such as tearing down a block of derelict buildings, or shutting down a research project. If the buildings are replaced, there may be a net increase in wealth, but that doesn’t always happen. Some transactions are iffy: does a loan to a business build wealth, or not? Depends on how well the business does, I suppose. Some do both: a fighter plane is a waste of resources, thus a reduction in wealth; but the people who build it spend their wages on wealth that other people produce. There may or may not be a net increase in wealth.
In short, many transactions that the GDP calculation shows as increasing the GDP ought to show as debits. In general, it’s obvious what the debits are. When it’s not obvious, more careful analysis is needed, beginning with a clear definition of wealth. Too many people think of money as wealth. It’s not. What you get in exchange for money is wealth. But not everything you can buy is wealth: cigarettes destroy your health, so they are a debit.

All that being said, there’s a lot more to wealth-creation and sharing than is captured by GDP. Last night, one of the CBC reporters in Atlantic City told how they had helped rescue a few people, because their SUV had high enough ground clearance to get through the flood at that time. This will not show in the costs of the storm. But that CBC crew may have saved those people’s lives. Great wealth, given in exchange for nothing at all

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Miss Pym Disposes (Book review)

     Josephine Tey Miss Pym Disposes (1947) Miss Lucy Pym, suddenly famous for her book on psychology, has been invited to her friend Henrietta’s  Leys Physical Training College as a Friday lecturer. Despite herself, she agrees to stay on, initially to help  out as a substitute teacher. When Henrietta chooses Rouse, the least popular student (and exam cheat), for a post at a prestigious girls’s prep school, the whole College is seriously annoyed, and Lucy too. Rouse is  hurt when a boom falls on her when she starts an early morning solo practice; she later dies. Lucy Pym has a crucial clue, which points towards Innes, the girl who should have had the post, and is awarded it in place of Rouse. Instead of giving the clue to the police, Lucy confronts Innes, who promises to atone for the crime by burying herself in the West Country, which she had worked all her life to escape. But on the second last page of the book we find out that another student is the culprit.
     On this bare bones of a plot, Tey has constructed an astonishingly engaging book. Wikipedia informs us that Tey loved gymnastics, and trained at Anstey Physical Training College near Birmingham (more here). This experience no doubt informs the portrait of the college and its students. I have no doubt that the characters are based on Tey’s recollections of her fellow students and the Staff. I thoroughly enjoyed these portraits, and the reminders of what communal life in a boarding school is like. I think the plot is merely an excuse for Tey to write a semi-fictitious reminiscence of her school days. It’s also an opportunity to examine the ethical issues surrounding the death penalty.
     The style is somewhat breathless, with italics scattered here and there. We experience the whole story from Lucy Pym’s point of view. She thinks of herself as a very ordinary person, at least in comparison to the intellectuals whom she has criticised in her book (a rebuttal of current Psychology as understood from reading 37 books on the subject). But that very ordinariness makes her extraordinary. She is an essentially and instinctively good person. She has an acute sense of other people’s personality and character, even though she cannot always put her intuitions into words. But the dialogue, the little asides, the girls’ comments on each other, Lucy’s sensitivity to mood and atmosphere, all combine to give us a lively sense of being present in her world. One cannot ask more than that from any story teller.
     I’ve read Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a much more carefully plotted tale of detection, in which  Inspector Grant, convalescing, reads up on Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, and solves that mystery, at least to my satisfaction. It’s a very, very good detective yarn. But Miss Pym Disposes is the better work of art. ****

Friday, October 26, 2012

Julia Potts (Link)

Courtesy of one my RSS feeds, I came across Julia Potts. Here's a link to her Vimeo site. Check out the other videos. They're charmingly oddball.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tough Politicians (1)

“In These Tough Economic Times,” politicians claim, “We Have to Make Tough Decisions.”

Funny how tough it is to reduce unemployment benefits, assistance for poor families, disability pensions, housing subsidies, programs for homeless, and so on. Tough to cut staff for parks, environmental monitoring, basic research, community recreation programs, food inspection, drug testing, and so on.

I guess it must really hurt those politicians to make these tough decisions. I mean, the pain of having to say no to people who need help. The ghastliness of having to deny essential services. Doesn’t bear thinking about. The poor devils must be lining up for treatment for PTSD - Post Tough-decision Stress Disorder. We really should be feel more kindly towards these politicians.

After all, they do our dirty work.

The really tough decision would be to raise taxes, of course. Especially at the top end of the income pyramid.

Monday, October 15, 2012

If Ever I Return, Peggy-O (Book Review)

Sharyn McCrumb If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (1990) I bought this for 25 cents as a time-filler. It’s a bit better than that. McCrumb interleaves several stories, all of which at least illuminate the main plot: an ex-hippie folk singer trying to rebuild her career buys a house in Hamelin. She receives a postcard with a veiled threat, then her dog is killed and mutilated. A high school girl who looks like her younger self disappears and turns up murdered like the dog. Eventually she confronts the murderer, and shoots him.
     McCrumb is good at relationships and the reach of personal history. The story is set in the post-Vietnam era, and the effects of Vietnam on the soldiers sent to fight (and die) there figure in the plot. A high-school reunion feels like a bass-line under the main melody: these people grew up during ‘Nam, and many were drafted. McCrumb is also good at mood and ambiance, and social satire. The whole thing is more than the sum of its parts. The leisurely pace of story telling hints at The Andy Griffiths Show (alluded to a couple of times), but it has darker shadows than that sunny world. A better than average read. **-½

Outliers (Book review)

Malcolm Gladwell Outliers (2008) This is an important book. It demonstrates that individual success depends on many factors beyond the individual’s control. They all come down to the same thing: you have to be in the right place at the right time, with the right personal and material resources. If you can then exploit the opportunity presented to you, you will be successful.
     One example of a factor that you can’t control is your birth date. The selection rules for players in amateur hockey leagues specify birth dates. If you are born near the beginning of the range of dates valid for you, you will be about one year older than your team mates born near the end of that range. That makes a lot of difference for young players: for 8-year-olds it’s a difference of about 12% in physical maturity, and sometimes more, given different rates of maturation. On average, the boys born in January will be taller, heavier, stronger, and more agile than those born in December. They will outshine their younger team mates, and will be more likely to advance to the next level of play.
     The same consideration applies to children’s school experience. It applies to whole generations: the people who were born in the 1940s grew to working age just as the baby boom got under way, and a huge demand for work ensued. I belong to that generation. It was easy for us to find work because there was huge and expanding demand for it.
     I’ve recently come across a snide remark about Gladwell’s method of framing a thesis, telling an illustrative story, then drawing wide-ranging conclusions. This is certainly a danger in inherent in Gladwell’s method. However, this book includes a lot of data, too, data that support Gladwell’s conclusions.
     In any case, anyone who insists that his or her success is entirely due their own efforts has a rather limited experience of life. There are undoubtedly many other people with the same talents and skills, and the same willingness to work hard, who did not succeed, simply because at some crucial point on their career path the opportunity they needed was not available. This is not to downplay the importance of hard work: there also people of similar skill and talent who did not take advantage of similar opportunities. But all of us have had success in large part because of things we could not have foreseen, people who offered us chances simply because we were there, and factors over which we had no control whatsoever.
     A book worth reading, especially since it prompts questions about how to adjust systemic factors which penalise so many talented people. ***

Irreligion (Book review)

     John Allen Paulos Irreligion (2008) Paulos examines the usual arguments for the existence of  a god, and demonstrates all the ways in which they fail. It’s worth reading for that alone, especially if you are one of those who has an itch to prove that a god exists. Paulos, unlike some of the more strident arguers against a god’s existence, accepts that spirituality is a human trait. I don’t know if psychopaths lack it; if they do, it would suggest why so many people tie good and evil to a god. Paulos admits that he has never had religious feelings, hence he doesn’t want to discuss spirituality more extensively. But his demolishing of the proofs of any god’s existence should comfort those who believe, as I do, that “God exists” is not a theorem but an axiom. What matters is what you derive from that and related axioms. The record of religionists is not good; their attempt to prove the existence of their god(s) doesn't help.
     There is of course a question that Paulos doesn’t deal with: What would be the (theo)logical consequences of a valid proof of a god’s existence? I think it would make that god contingent. The general form of the proof would be, “If this Premise is true, then 'God exists' is true.” But that would make that god’s existence logically dependent on the truth of the premise. Ontologically, that makes that god's existence contingent on the existence of whatever the premise asserts. That should give the God-provers pause.
     I think that we tell stories because that is the primary human mode of making sense of the world. Cause and effect are abstractions based on narrative structure or plot. Stories are models of what happened or what could happen. We demand that they have the ring of truth. Just as the smith knows the quality of the steel by the sound it makes on the anvil, so we know the quality of the story by how it feels when it collides with our experience, our sense of how the world works.
     Science is a communal story, created by the method of hypothesis testing. At any given time, the hypotheses we are capable of proposing are suggested and constrained by what we already know, ie, by what we understand of previous hypotheses tested and found robust enough to pass that test of truth. Our knowledge of how the world works is thus always limited. I believe it will always be limited.
     Myth is also a communally created story. It arises out of our sense that knowing how the world works is not enough. We want a satisfying answer to why.  Myth too must have the ring of truth. It must satisfy our sense of what it feels like to live in the world. We want to feel at home. We want to feel our lives have meaning and purpose. At any given time, our apprehension of a myth’s meaning is conditioned and constrained by our sense of the pattern of our life. This apprehension of meaning is limited. I believe it will always be limited.
     Read Paulos’s book if you want to free yourself from the trap of literalism and simplistic logic. ***

Friday, October 12, 2012

Malala Yousafzai

So the Taliban shot a 14-year-old girl to prove how tough they are. After all, they are fighting against the satanic evils of the world, right? That takes a Real Man, with a Real Man's courage, right? Only a Real Man can withstand those fearful forces of secularism arrayed against him, right?

The Taliban, like fundamentalists of all religious persuasions, are terrified. They are fearful of losing control, unable to face uncertainty, panicked by different beliefs. They make their religion a defence against reality. But religion used this way is mere superstition. It cannot protect from the fearful suspicion that the universe does not align itself with your desires.

In short, the Taliban have no faith. Faith is the confidence to accept people with different beliefs than one's own. Faith is the self-assurance to ground honour in oneself. Faith is the ability to tolerate doubt. Those who lack faith fear that other people think differently, are frantic that other people's behaviour will destroy their reputation, are spooked by the uncertainties of life and panic-stricken that they cannot control the world around them.

So they shoot a 14 year-old girl that wants to learn, to think for herself, to think differently. Who has faith that whatever she learns will deepen her understanding of her world and the people who live in it, and will enable her to do what is best for her and her community. Who wants education for everyone, including girls and women. She has the faith they lack. That's why they shot her.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Two links: Judy Martin and Steven Poole

Judy Martin is a textile artists  whome we admire. We have one of her peices. Her blog is here: Judy Martin

I became aware of Steven Poole when he was interviewed about his annoyance with self-help books that quote and wildly misinterpret neurological studies. Worth reading IMO. Find him here: Poole's web site

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nouvelle Vague (Art Review)

Nouvelle Vague: The New French Domestic Landscape (Art Review) At the Harbourfront Centre, September 29-December 23 2012. Admission free. A collection of furniture from France, where it appears that a generation of new designers has accomplished the kind of critical mass that leads to radical innovation. The pieces are elegant, beautifully crafted or manufactured, and certainly display new thinking and imagining. But, as always, my first question about useful objects no matter how beautiful, is, Do they work? The answer here is, some do, and some don’t.
     Item: a group of what appear to be intended as low chunky stools would I think be unstable, as the lower third forms a cone.
     Item: a couple of billowy, vaguely cloud-like organic shapes of Tyvek over a wire frame mounted on short legs, lit from within, would work well in a large room with minimal furniture. They are lovely, and shed sufficient light to live by.
     Item: a small desk whose legs at one end extend above the writing surface, with a horizontal lamp mounted at the top. This would work very well even in a small apartment. The matching chair uses the same materials and engineering. Unassuming in style, the ensemble would look good anywhere. About the only thing missing is a shallow drawer in which to store a few writing materials. And stamps. The desk begs to be used for written correspondence.
     Item: a coffee table that looks like a melding of two stools of different heights. My first reaction was, Neat idea for a plant stand. I didn’t know it was a coffee table until I read the show brochure.
     Item: a resin chair with cutouts in the back making it look like a skull. Cute idea. Would I buy one? No.
     In general, most of the lamps were successful, the other pieces not so much. I’m sure we’ll see many of the concepts adapted to more functional forms. Overall, worth seeing. **-½

Sunday, October 07, 2012

War Horse (review)

War Horse (review) The Toronto version of the play first mounted by the National Theatre in London in 2010. It's based on a children's story by Michael Morpurgo. Arthur's father acquires a horse at a very high price because he wants to defeat his brother. Arthur names him Joey. In order to keep the horse, Arthur must train it pull a plow. He does so. Later, Arthur’s father sells Joey to the army for 100 pounds. Arthur joins up so as to find Joey. He does, eventually, just as Joey is about to be put down because of a foreleg injured on the barbed wire. Arthur rides Joey home. The End.
     But between the beginning and the end we see a play made to look and feel like a movie. Music and special effects, short scenes, split stage, all work to create an impression that sticks with you. One could also call it an opera without arias. There were a couple of singers who sang a ballad-like comment on and narrative of Joey's story, but I found I didn't need to get all the words; the songs were part of the ambiance of the production.
      Everybody must know by now that the horses (and some other animals) are represented by life-size puppets worked by puppeteers that we see at all times. The puppets are semi-abstract, but their movements are lifelike. The effect is amusing, amazing, but above all moving.
     The war scenes are the most terrifying I've ever seen in a theatre. I don't like war movies, and this play was at times hard to take. I remember enough of the sounds of bombs that the simulations of shell fire made me shake. In many ways the play was depressing, despite the happy ending. Most of the audience around me did not react as I did: they weren't old enough to have had any direct experience of war. They were quite jolly. But a few found the prospect of Joey's life on the battlefield difficult to imagine.
      Do I recommend this play? Yes. Purely as stage craft it's impressive. It reminds me of Les Miserables, another attempt to create a multimedia effect on stage. But War Horse succeeds. It's an anti-war play, with the innocent horses standing in for all the innocent victims of war, including the soldiers, who are after all ordinary men used for terrible purposes by the wagers of war. ****

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Clock (Review)

     Chris Marclay The Clock (2010). At the Power Plant, Toronto, until November 25, 2012. Free admission in celebration of the Power Plant's 25th year.
      Marclay spliced together thousands of movie clips, timing them to create a 24-hour movie showing clocks synchronised to running time. You start watching it at 3:15pm, that's the time you'll see on wall clocks, wristwatches, spoken, etc. Clearly the result of obsessive persistence, but worth no more than an hour of one's time, if that. [Update 2012-10-08: Marclay hired a slew of researchers to view and scavenge the movie clips. One is a Paul Smith from Toronto (Canadian Art, Fall 2012, p.192). So a good deal of the credit for the grunge work of making this movie goes to other people.]
      The Power Plant's blurb says that the work ”ruptur[es] any sense of narrative sequence”. Nonsense. As far back as I can remember, movies have used multiple narrative sequences, switching from one to another, most often to create suspense. Will the hero arrive in time to save the heroine as water rises inexorably towards drowning depth? Of course he will. More complex movies show us multiple stories unfolding at the same time, converging, intersecting, diverging again. We are so used to reading movies this way that we automatically read Marclay's movie this way, too. Well, I do. How about you?
     The fact is that narrative sequence is built into our brains, we can't avoid it. So this movie also creates narrative sequences. Marclay can't prevent this effect. In fact his method encourages it, because he has to use clips that themselves are parts of narrative sequences, simply to provide us with the images of clock faces showing us the current time frame. The stories are incomplete, is all, because Marclay wants us to note times, not plots. But time and plot are inextricably linked. Cause and effect may be an illusion, so the philosophers and quantum physicists tell us, but we can't avoid creating the illusion when we watch multiple series of movie clips.
      I don't know what Marclay wanted this work to demonstrate or show. It's a concept work, one presumably designed to present a thesis of some sort. The artist statements I've read in the past usually endeavour to assert that the work will disrupt our normal ways of seeing the world around us. Trouble is, most such attempts have failed: artists are no better than the rest of us in framing a disruptive thesis. In my experience, it takes a heap of scholarship and a weird imagination to see new patterns in the data. There aren't many people who have both a deep knowledge of some aspect of the world and the ability to change their points of view.
      Trouble is, the medium Marclay chose doesn't disrupt our normal way of decoding a movie: it emphasises it. That's probably why I was bored very quickly. I was able to maintain some interest in the clips themselves, playing a game of recognising movies, actors, and genres. As you might expect, action movies predominate.
      Marclay has an impressive c.v. He has been nothing if not busy. Despite the plethora of exhibitions, shows, and prizes won, this is the first time I've heard of him or seen his work. There are just too many artists out there, I guess. And I stopped following artistic fashion a long time ago. Is this show worth seeing? At the price, yes. It's interesting. It may engage you beyond mere interest. It did not do so for me. *

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Opening Night (Book review)

     Ngaio Marsh Opening Night (1951) The old Unicorn theatre has been reborn as the Vulcan. We’re back in familiar territory: the great actor-manager, the leading lady, a number of skilled actors doing a professional job of the secondary characters, assorted theatre staff and stage crew, and the look, sound, and smell of a working theatre. The twist: a New Zealander, remote cousin of the actor-manager, ends up at the theatre after failing to get any work anywhere else. She starts as the star’s dresser, then becomes the understudy of the crucial second lead, played by the niece of the star’s husband, who plays the hero’s antagonist, and is the victim of a murder dressed up as suicide. There are assorted other relationships, past, present, and developing, that interfere with the investigation of the crime, but Alleyn and Fox and the rest of the team solve the riddle in a night of hard work. This book feels painted by the numbers: the puzzle takes center stage, in part because it echoes the earlier murder. Marsh is too good a writer to give us merely 2D characters, but most of this lot are only 2½D. **