Year: 2007

Is there an accountant in the building?

Posted by – December 20, 2007

HS reports of a double-bass player who suddenly collapsed during a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony by the Helsinki City Orchestra. On the stage performing with him were two doctors (choir singers) who rushed to his aid before the music had even stopped, and from the audience three more appeared, so a total of five doctors were looking after him while the ambulance was on its way. Moral of the story: high culture is good for you.

In even funnier news: Barclays Bank, the world’s 4th largest bank by operating capital, is suing Bear Stearns, the world’s 7th largest securities firm, because Bear Stearns was sufficiently stupid/devious/fraudulent to sell Barclays positions in fluff hedge funds (this is the credit crunch I’ve been talking about coming home to roost). Of course it’s more significant here that Barclays was stupid enough to buy them, but I guess they can’t sue themselves. Anyway, I present to you the new Masters of the Universe: a bunch of grabby crybabies who sue each other when things don’t go their way. Last year Barclays only netted £4.5 billion, so it’s understandable that this £200 million oopsie has made them vewwy vewwy sad. I wonder why it’s only private citizens who are expected to “understand the nature of the free market”?

She’d like to be married with yeti / he grooving such cooky spaghetti

Posted by – December 19, 2007

Now, this is almost too sad but I’m going to tell you about it anyway. There’s a rather silly Beatles song called You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) which was originally only released as the B-side of a single (Let It Be, amusingly enough). That 4:19 release was edited by Lennon from an already edited but unreleased version that clocked in at 6:08. That in turn was edited from 20+ minutes of master tapes which contained a kind of surreal comedy jam. It’s all a bit Goon Show, silly silly stuff. Anyway, I’ve never heard the 6:08 version, but I do have a version that was on the Anthology Volume 2 (disc 2) which is 5:43 in length. It mostly has the same bits as the 4:19 one and a bit more, but not exactly – some bits are actually longer in the 4:19 version. This has always annoyed me (I even wish I could get the original unedited stuff), so now I tried splicing the tracks together to get all the bits I have in one version. It kind of worked, but kind of not – I wasn’t able to make the cuts imperceptible without spending a ton of time on it. Maybe one day I’ll get a definitive version together. Maybe someone already has!

Yup, not much left to do before Christmas. One physics lab on Friday and then there’s just the Christmas eve death march (still haven’t decided on the best combination of suffering and getting people to hate me vis-à-vis where I’m going to be).

He’s got feet down below his knees this season

Posted by – December 19, 2007

Here’s a word I only recently realised is most frequently used to mean the opposite of what it actually means: trend. A trend is really a tendency or the direction of a long-term change, but you most often hear it meaning “fashion”, ie. a temporary, arbitrary, passing fluctuation. I don’t know are there any actual trends in the way people dress, probably not. In general there are very few trends in the appreciation of the most basic things; contrary to popular belief, men have pretty much always wanted women to look the same.

But people are always more interested in the pointless and temporary. Example: why on earth do they quote recent stock prices in the tv news? They only have time for a couple of pieces of information, and anyone who actually cares can get more detailed and current information for free on the net. For most people it’s just random noise (and even people who do follow stock prices on a daily basis shouldn’t). [political] Way to reassure your cattle with perpetually mutating and illusory props, capitalism! [/political]

Here’s a real trend for you: artificiality. The world has been getting less and less natural for humans since written history began, and I’m loving it. Why does the word “natural” have such positive connotations when everything that’s natural sucks compared to the wonderful artificial things that now surround us?

Let me get this straight

Posted by – December 18, 2007

Espoolaismies saa syytteen kiihottamisesta kansanryhmää vastaan internetissä. Miehen ylläpitämillä internetsivuilla kuvattiin Afrikasta ja Aasiasta tulevia maahanmuuttajia ja pakolaisia vaarallisiksi, väkivaltaisiksi ja muiden kustannuksella eläviksi loisiksi.

(translation: An Espoo man is facing charges of inciting against an ethnic group (basically hate speech) on the Internet. His website described immigrants arriving from Africa and Asia as dangerous and violent drains on society.)

Dear readers: which of the following things do you think it should be illegal to say? And which would be disgusting to say?

1) I wish we didn’t get much immigration.
2) Let’s cause there not to be much immigration.
3) People in group X are on average more intelligent than other people on average.
4) People in group X are on average less intelligent than other people on average.
5) Most members of group X are generally unpleasant/undesirable.
6) I hate members of group X.
7) I wish someone would start killing members of group X.
8) I will pay you money if you kill a member of group X.

If you can be bothered, think of different kind of groups of people. Specifically a group like black people, a group like Australian people and a group like people who play bridge.

Communication substitute

Posted by – December 16, 2007

I promised to send someone links to two Internet items, but the pressure of writing an email is so unbearable that I’m doing it this way instead. One contains the best picture of Jack Nicholson ever, and the other a rather novel take on yo momma -jokes.

A note about those links: the latter one is a generally wonderful cartoon called The Pain – When Will It End? It has a gimmick of using the artist and his friends as throwaway characters. I think it works very well and recommend the cartoon (read the archives). The first one, roissy’s blog, is not recommended for anyone. If you consider yourself well-adjusted, humane, sensitive and hopeful, stay well away from it. It’ll only make you sad. If you’re more like me, hardened, Internet-worn, detached, you might find it interesting in a disgusting sort of way.

When a red hot man meets a white hot lady

Posted by – December 14, 2007

The recently publicized research indicating that human evolution has been extremely rapid over the past couple of tens of thousands of years seems kind of obvious now that I know about it. That is especially interesting considering that I used to think than human evolution has probably slowed down to a standstill (although I haven’t thought that for years now).

What’s really obvious here? Certainly this New York Times article citing research that attributes some of the rapid change to increased sexual selectivity seems a bit duh-worthy, although the people who actually know about this stuff are still pretty cautious in their comments. When I thought humans aren’t evolving any more I thought it was because it’s so easy for humans to stay alive, but that’s obviously not relevant. Ever since humans have been intelligent and living close to each other, the main engines of change have been resistance to disease and sexual selection – what else is there for super-animals like us? Now the disease-resistance part only really applies to maybe the poorest 3/4 of the world and sexual selection is really starting to dominate elsewhere.

What is mating preference going to select for? This is the next thing I started getting wrong after I realised human evolution probably hasn’t stopped. I thought that since in rich countries the poor and the stupid now out-procreate the wealthy and intelligent, people there would be getting more stupid – and whatever other characteristics correlate with being poor. I would guess that in poor countries this effect could be reversed, or maybe just more or less neutral. But have the western intelligents completely stopped having children? No. They do have some children, with each other. The wealthy, powerful and (more or less) intelligent mate with each other – and the women usually have to be good-looking as well.

So on one hand there really is a Idiocracy-type development, but the highly exclusive selection of intelligent, successful people for each other is a considerably faster process. Humans are intelligent and have built societies that simultaneously allow constant sexual gratification and strong procreational selectivity. This means that what’s going on isn’t just accelerated natural selection – it’s selective breeding. And as humans know from experience, selective breeding produces results very rapidly. It seems that the accelerated-evolution-over-previous-millennia thing is basically this process, although it’s been getting faster all the time, and now has several directions. Perhaps we’ll have new kinds of “race issues” in the future.

On idiot philosophers, OLD SKOOL

Posted by – December 13, 2007

A friend of mine recently remarked on how overrated he considers Aristotle to be. The impudent fool! I’m the Aristotle-overrated-considerer around these here parts. He’d obviously heard me talking about it, forgotten where he’d heard it and said it back to me. Anyway, I felt the need to re-establish my Aristotle-hatin’ credentials, and now I want to do the same here.

Now, all the ancient Greek philosophers seem rather backwards now, but that’s to be expected – they were pretty much working with nothing. The ones who didn’t write on the natural sciences are half-interesting today, the ones who did aren’t. But not only was Aristotle “groping in the dark” – he was actually pretty thick much of the time, and is now given an absurd amount of credit for founding something like all of science.

What was Aristotle’s method? The only scientific method that was known at the time, ie. making stuff up. Incidentally, this technique was not original to him. A bunch of people made their way into history by saying things like “the world is made of earth and fire” (or water and earth, or fire and air, or all of these, or nothing, or cheese). Occasionally some of them even randomly said something that was half-true, like Democritus who guessed that the world is made out of small bits. Some bits have spikes so they taste bitter, some are round so they taste oily. This is pretty much the best they came up with.

Aristotle is given extra credit for “systematising” science. This means that not only did he write a shitload of books, but a lot of them didn’t get destroyed, he wrote about a different thing each time and numbered things a lot. Therefore he is considered to have covered “everything”. How did he cover everything? By waking up in the morning, wondering about something, making up an explanation and writing it down without making any attempt to verify it in any way. Thus we have such revelations as “things fall towards the ground because such is their nature” (you might want to try explaining some things yourself this way, it’s actually not that difficult), “basilisks can kill by sight because venomous vapours issue from their eyes, as happens with women on their period” (this genius of biology was even able to write about animals that don’t exist) and “the world is made of fire, earth, water, air and aether” (a shoutout to his homies).

“But”, I hear someone object, “there was no way to make scientific experiments back then! You’re just cheaply making fun of Aristotle, whose work in philosophy in general is still extremely valuable!” Look, you disgusting little weed, just because something isn’t about science doesn’t mean it isn’t made up (see what I’m doing here? It’s dialogue, which proves that I’m rigorously testing my arguments). But here’s a scientific experiment Aristotle could have made: walk into a cave. You see, Aristotle explained vision with sight-rays that issue from the eyes. You don’t need much to hit on the connection between light and seeing: just shutter the windows, or walk into a cave, or anything. It’s like Aristotle just closed his eyes and said, “Bingo! Eye-beams!” Founder of science, my ass.

Nu skall vi dansa efter min pipa

Posted by – December 13, 2007

I have just finished what is presumably the last Swedish exam of my life (unless I flunked it), so I’m going to celebrate by boring you with chess.

Some time ago I heard that an (Internet) chess acquaintance of mine had fallen badly ill and was possibly dying (he didn’t die and is all right now (update years later: he did die, of the same illness)). I tried to think of something nice to send him and came up with selecting four chess positions I considered beautiful for whatever reason, made a little poster of them and mailed it along with a brief letter. I don’t know how that was supposed to help, but the positions are still nice.

The culmination of a remarkable game. Kavalek has been sacrificing material throughout the game for one thing: the continued advance of his massive pawn roller. Gufeld has defended with vigor, but now it comes to this: Kavalek has sacrificed his last piece, is left with just king and pawns, and Gufeld has a rook left. Yet Kavalek is easily winning: 33. Rxf2 e3+ 34. Ke1 exf2 35. Kxf2 and black has a trivially won pawn endgame. Otherwise nothing can stop the pawns from rolling on and getting promoted. But perhaps the most shocking aspect of this position is that on move 32, black still has all eight pawns whereas his opponent has three. Talk about pawn-grabbing!

Probably the most famous position of the selection. This is the final position of the “immortal zugzwang game”. Zugzwang is a situation in which every move a player can make only makes his position worse; he would like to make no move at all, but that is not allowed. This is a slightly impure case because black would be winning even without the zugzwang, but it’s extremely rare for this situation to happen in the middlegame like this, so it became a celebrated example of Nimzowitsch’s maneuvering prowess.

The point of black’s last move, 25… h6, is that it quietly points out to white that he now has no move that won’t lose him material. There are a couple of pawns he can still push, but once black blocks those with his own pawns, white will have to move a piece and lose material (or get mated) and thus lose the game.

This is from the second Karpov-Kasparov World Championship match. The previous one was supposed to be played until one of the players won six games, but Kasparov, down 2-5, just refused to lose any more and in fact started to look unstoppable in the last couple of games. FIDE (the international chess federation) controversially aborted the match which had overlasted all previous ones (48 games, 41 of them drawn) and exhausted everyone, and declared a new one to be played the next year.

In that match it became obvious that Kasparov had grown considerably as a player, and won convincingly. This game was probably his finest effort. Kasparov was considered to be a mercurial, tactical player compared to the clear, cool and positional Karpov, but in this game he puts Karpov into an impossible bind quite early on. There are a number of positions I could have chosen from that game, but this one shows Kasparov’s dominance nicely: the black “octopus” knight on d6 rules the back rank and has the white rooks utterly stuck, the white queen has no safe moves, and in general white just has no play whatsoever. On move 22. And Karpov is playing white. This was inconceivable at the time, and legendary to this day.

This is the first realisation of the Babson task, a very famous chess problem theme. Any number of people dedicated themselves to finding a Babson problem, but none did, and the theme had even fallen out of fashion because it came to be considered impossible. Then in the eighties a Soviet soccer coach named Leonid Yarosh found one – and soon after that, he found another one. Some others have discovered alternate constructions inspired by this, but the Yarosh ones remain the most famous. If you don’t want to be (partially) spoiled regarding the solution, don’t read the next paragraph. Unless you already knew what the Babson task is and I already spoiled it for you.

The Babson task is this: construct a mate problem (white to mate in a fixed number of moves against any defence) such that if black defends by promoting to a queen, white can only make the required mate by promoting to a queen; if black promotes to a rook, white has to promote to a rook also – and the same with bishop and knight. If you have any experience of chess, you’ll know that this sounds impossibly difficult. I won’t spoil the whole solution of this problem, but it’s quite findable on the net.

Pants top this feeling

Posted by – December 12, 2007

I have become helplessly addicted to wearing comfortable trousers. Sometimes when I’m waiting for a bus or something, bored, I’ll spontaneously think “man, when I get home I’m so putting on my comfortable pants.” I start thinking about how that’s the first thing I’m going to do, maybe not even take my coat off, just fling my regular trousers onto a chair and put those comfortable motherfuckers on. Sometimes when I’m at home I start to wonder why I don’t feel quite right, what’s missing from total domestic relaxation and normalcy. Then I realize I have regular trousers on! With a belt! Jesus, no wonder I was feeling terrible. At this point I don’t even want to take them off to go to bed. It’s too bad I haven’t yet attained a level of disregard for the expectations of others that would allow me to wear them outside the home.

I should probably get another pair; I’m completely lost when they have to go in the wash. Query: has anyone ever tried making comfortable trousers that are disguised as uncomfortable trousers to make them more socially acceptable?

The big country

Posted by – December 11, 2007

I have received feedback that my entry about the state of finance in the US was a bit inaccessible. I thought at the time that there’s a lot there to write about but that nobody would want to read it – but what the hell. It’s my blog, right? Don’t like it, go to Russia.

1) US financial sector profits as a percentage of total corporate profits in 1947: about 10%. In 2007: about 50%.

The financial sector is supposed to provide two things: distribution of opportunity and distribution of risk. Where there’s an opportunity for financial activity, capital is needed to exploit it. Banks distribute the opportunity to a number of people who have money to lend for the venture (ie. people who make deposits). Interest and dividends earned represent the fruit of this distributed opportunity. And because economic activity (and life) always involves risks of catastrophic failure, it’s sensible to have insurance companies to distribute the risk among risk-takers.

So the statistic I quoted says that these activities, essentially peripheral to creating actual value, generated 10% of all profit sixty years ago in America. To me that actually sounds like rather a lot. But due to the fractional reserve system and other clever tricks (I’ll write about that some other time), modern banking is essentially a money-making machine. So people who own the banks get a cut from lubricating the wheels of the economy, ok. But over 60 years their slice of the profit pie has quintupled. To me this represents an increasing artificiality that happens to any developed economy; properties become super-valued and huge numbers of people get rich by moving property around. The financial sector “leech” has become very much larger.

2) Debt intensity of US GDP growth in 1965-1975: under 2. In 2006: over 4.

This certainly could have used more explaining. What is debt intensity of GDP growth? It’s the ratio of increased debt to increased economic activity per year. This takes into account both public and private debt without reference to holders of the debt, so it’s a pretty rough number. Essentially, it answers the question “How many dollars does the US economy need to borrow to produce one dollar of value?” It is normal for this number to be over one (creating more debt than value), but it’s less normal that this number has more than doubled in 40 years.

Why has it doubled? Well, as economies become increasingly developed their markets become increasingly competitive and easy opportunities get exhausted, so new economic activity becomes more and more capital intensive. That explains a part of it. But an arguably larger and certainly more worrying part of it is that Americans as private citizens have been living beyond their means for a while now (this becomes really noticeable around 1984-1985, the time of my birth), the government has been living far beyond its means since Bush took over and everyone’s been caught up in an property bubble for the last five years or so. What is the property bubble? It’s what Alan Greenspan said would keep the economy going when the dotcom bubble was bursting. Keep interest rates low, encourage people to remortgage, buy or build new houses and spend spend spend. A ludicrous number of people decided that borrowing money to buy houses and watch their value go up was a reasonable way to make a living.

What does this mean? I think it means that a big chunk of the growth the US economy has experienced over the last five years is a fiction. I think the US is in for a shock when private consumption finally drops off (the cheap money party is over for the lower classes) and everyone’s stuck with falling property prices and mountains of debt. I think this ties in with the finance sector, that ever-growing leech at America’s neck. A lot of people have become fabulously rich by slicing, dicing and re-packaging bogus loans and a lot of people are going to feel the pain.

3) After-tax corporate profits as a percentage of GDP (in the US) just before GWB took office: about 5%. Now: about 10%.

This was the political commentary part. Quite simply I think it’s a good index of the way the Bush administration’s response to all this has been to ramp up the plundering. In an economy where genuine productivity becomes harder and harder to achieve and financial perils abound, the government squeezes the patient to pump blood into the leech. That, and spends about 5e12 dollars (and counting) dollars on warfare in Iraq. The great American public is being had, and we’re all going to be sorry.