Archive for April, 2008

Moving

I just completed my eighth move in nine years, which is why the blog has been neglected. We still have lots of book boxes to unpack, so it may take me a few days to become dependable again.

When possible, I prefer to move much of the stuff myself, to have time to put things in the right place rather than have everything dumped by a moving company. Also, moving fragile items myself is a lot easier, as they don’t have to be packed nearly as securely when I’m the only one who will be carrying the boxes. I was able to do that for this move, as we were moving cross-town after completing a major renovation on our house.

For me this approach to moving, and the numbers of times I’ve done it, makes it an interesting personal case study in the aging process. I’m 44 now. My lifestyle is fairly sedentary, but I do bike to work and I do weights and cardio in the gym three times a week (in my twenties I scoffed at people who worked out in the gym, but that’s just what time does to you). I was in better general shape when I practiced Tae Kwon Do regularly, but I think I’m still as strong now as I ever was, in the sense of what I am able to lift and carry.

The change I really notice in myself is physical recovery time. When I was younger a day spent lifting and carrying meant some muscle soreness in the evening. The next couple of days I would notice it but it wouldn’t affect me. Now a day of moving leaves my whole body stiff, such that it takes a physical effort to stand up straight. This is a strange phenomenon that never happened when I was younger. The stiffness persists for days—I still feel it—quite apart from the soreness which is fairly similar to what I remember.

Injuries also take much longer to heal. Over three weeks ago I somehow strained a muscle in my left forearm, the one used to tighten the fist. This is still troubling me, and making it difficult to pick up heavy objects with my left hand–it’s painful to get a firm grip. I strained plenty of muscles in my youth, but recover never took more than a few days. Muscle pain lasting several weeks is a new experience for me.

We do not merely inhabit our bodies; despite the dichotomy of the language, we are our bodies, and our bodies are us. Aging is just evolution’s way of clearing the deck for the next generation, and animals that I’ve known seem to take it in stride. It’s only our human habits of foreknowledge and recollection that make it strange. And yet to be living it myself is, inevitably, strange.

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Mercenaries

In schoolbook accounts of the fall of Rome, one thing that was always mentioned was that the empire started hiring mercenaries to defend its borders, rather than the volunteer army. Those mercenaries were professional soldiers with no strong allegiance to the empire, and they often became a force in the struggles over who would be the next emperor.

The U.S. is now hiring large numbers of mercenaries in Iraq, although they are given the euphemistic name of military contractors. I’ve seem some statements that the U.S. has more contractors in Iraq than it does soldiers, although I believe that includes all contractors, not just mercenaries. Many of the mercenaries are in fact former members of the U.S. military, who change jobs in order to get the much higher pay available in the private sector.

This doesn’t have to be a problem. Mercenaries are still a fraction of the overall size of the U.S. military. The U.S. will leave Iraq, hopefully sooner rather than later, and demands for military manpower will drop significantly. In a few years it seems likely that the number of mercenaries will be much smaller.

Still, it’s a worrying trend. Regardless of your feelings about privatization, privatizing your military forces is an extremely bad idea. Ultimately the power of the state relies on its control of military force. Regular soldiers, especially volunteers as is true of the U.S. military services, support the state, and that inclination is strengthened by military training and indoctrination. Mercenaries are in it for the money, and it’s much easier to shift their allegiance. The more mercenaries the state hires, the closer it comes to losing its monopoly on military force. Fortunately, the U.S. isn’t close to that, and it still has plenty of time to pull back.

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Cellphone Money

I read about an interesting technique for people to transfer money in less developed countries. Let’s say that you live in the big city, a hundred miles away from your parents. You want to send them some money but there is no bank where they live. Recently, though, somebody in your parent’s village got a phone. What you do is buy a phone card for $10. Then you call the person with the phone and read them the numbers from the card. They give your parents $9.75, and use the numbers from the phone card to pay for their calls. The person with the phone is leasing it out to all the villagers for their calls, so he or she needs a lot of minutes.

Obviously this requires a level of trust which is only available in a relatively small society. If you cheat on the phone card by using it yourself, or if the person with the phone cheats by not paying your parents, then everybody in your parent’s village eventually finds out one way or another. This is a sufficient deterrent that I expect that few people cheat.

Money transfer is an essential part of entering the modern economy. It’s been around in the west for hundreds of years in the form of letters of credits, and probably even longer in the Islamic world. Using cell phones to bring it to the less developed world is an interesting feature of a new technology. No doubt it will be replaced fairly soon by some more formal infrastructure, probably still somehow built on top of the cell phone.

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Capitalism => Consumerism?

The basic idea behind capitalism as an underpinning of society is that if you give people the freedom to earn a lot of money however they please, society will tend to get better. They will get better because the best way to earn a lot of money is to sell something which lots of people want, and to sell it cheaper and/or better than everybody else. That means that people get what they want, and they get it cheaper, and so society will get better.

However, this is sort of indirect, and as we all know there are lots of other ways to make a lot of money. The one I’ve been thinking of recently is that one good way to earn a lot of money is to first convince people that they need something, and then sell it to them. This is different from the usual cheaper/better approach, which is to sell people something that they already know that they need. The idea here is to convince them that they need it, and then sell it to them.

The most obvious example is fashion. If you have a warehouse full of ostrich feathers that you want to sell, your best bet is to convince people that they will look better if they wear an ostrich feather hat. If you do that, you will become wealthy. Note that fashion is not useless, and people do gain something by buying something that makes them fashionable. The interesting trick is making the thing that you happen to have become the thing which is fashionable.

A subtler example is the notion of stuff in general. If you convince people that they need a lot of stuff, you can then make money selling it to them. This seems to the driving force behind a store like Target, for example. They have a lot of stuff, you want a lot of stuff, they will sign you up for a store credit card on the spot, life is good. Except that a lot of energy is being spent making stuff, shipping it around the planet, and eventually storing it in a landfill.

Is it possible for people to be happy with less stuff? I don’t really know. I personally am not a big buyer of stuff, other than books. I kind of enjoy walking around Target with my daughter; it’s like going to a museum of consumer goods. Of course I’m careful to tell her before we go in that we aren’t going to buy anything. But I expect I’m a bit of an outlier. It seems that many, perhaps most, people do kind of like stuff–within reason, of course.

What I wonder about is how much people like stuff inherently, and how much they like stuff because somebody has convinced them to like it. That is, is this an example of capitalism making something better, or is it an example of capitalism creating a need in order to fill it?

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California Weather

I grew up in Massachusetts, where the weather is unpredictable and changes regularly. I recall one March several years ago where one day I was walking around in shorts and two days later we had a huge snowfall. I’ve been conditioned to expect that sort of weather.

Now I live in California, where the weather is almost always the same from day to day. It does change across the seasons: it is somewhat rainy in the winter, and it never rains in the summer. But on average each day is just like the next one.

This puts me increasingly on edge all summer long. I keep subconsciously waiting for something to change. When nothing does, I feel like my brain is flattening out, like listening to muzak all the time.

I don’t know why more people don’t mention this as a drawback of California.

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