Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is frivilous spending good for the economy?

Basically it comes down to how you define that vague concept of a 'good economy', if you define it as sheer material/monetary throughput in a particular day or month, then it is hard to argue that indiscriminate consumption isn't good for the "economy". But I tend to define a "good economy" as in terms of the health, happiness, and longevity of the people within that economy. And I think that politicians, advertisers, and economists (perhaps not economists), and the people who pay attention to them and are influenced by them, implicitly hold a definition of a "good economy" that is similar to my definition. When politicians (or whoever) promise to "stimulate" the economy, what they mean (or at least what I think most people take them to mean) is that they will cause people to produce more stuff and exchange more money and therefore quality of life will increase. If they only meant the first part without the second part, that is: "production will increase but quality of life will stay the same or decrease", then there would be no reason to elect them to office, follow their advice, or pay any attention to them because what they would essentially be saying is "I promise you will work harder but not be any happier." And there would be nothing "good" about that kind of an economy. So when people talk about "stimulating" the economy, I'm sure they do mean "causing people to produce more stuff and exchange more money," but there is a widespread assumption (a kind of cultural myth) that more production/consumption/money_exchange (regardless of what exactly is being produced and consumed) leads to a higher quality of life. But on examination, that assumption is revealed to be totally false, in fact it matters a great deal what is being produced/consumed, and how much time is being spent to produce it. In a truly "good" economy, we'd all work very few hours, enough to produce whatever food and technology we need to be happy and healthy, and spend the rest of our time doing whatever we enjoy, which I think for many people would not include making things or handing money around (there is a counter argument that could be made here, contending that excess leisure time would mean wasted potential, i.e. that people could be spending their time improving medical technology etc. instead of just taking it easy, but that argument would still have to agree with the main point I'm making here, which is that producing and consuming "frivolous" consumer goods is bad for everyone). To determine whether a particular product or service is frivolous, you only have to ask yourself one question "would I be any less happy/healthy/long-lived if I had just given that person my money in exchange for nothing rather than in exchange for whatever they had to spend time producing?" In light of the above discussion, it can be seen that the other person would be better off had they not had to waste their time producing stuff for you, so if you would be not be proportionately worse off without the item, then you have just spent frivolously and not helped anyone at all (notably, nearly all government military spending falls into this category, but that's another discussion entirely...), not even the economy.

(as is probably obvious from the style here, this was written for the purpose of arguing with someone on Facebook, not as an essay for a class like the previous four posts)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Smaller is Better: Iceland and the American Dream

           Iceland is a small and ancient nation, first colonized near the year 870 A.D. (1), that has preserved its culture and language for more than a millennium and, despite the recent turmoil, today enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world.  The United States by contrast is a huge nation, the third largest population in the world (2).  Despite their differences, the U.S. and Iceland have many parallels in terms of why they were founded and the goals of the people who subsequently moved there: the Icelandic Dream of the Viking immigrant is similar to the American Dream of the pilgrim, the poor European, the Chinese laborer, and all the other immigrants to America.  Both nations were founded by independent minded people seeking new lands for farming, opportunities for upward social mobility, and an alternative to the oppressive monarchical societies of their countries of origin (3, 4 p. 89).  Both established representative government at times when such governments were rare in the world.  Iceland’s low population has been both an asset and a detriment to its ability to facilitate the Icelandic Dream.  The U.S. is in the fortunate position of having an overarching federal government with subordinate Iceland-sized municipal and state governments.  By taking into account the ways in which small government has been a boon for Iceland as well as the ways in which it has been a challenge, the U.S. can more optimally divide power among its different levels of government.

Iceland: The Problem of Sustainability in an International Economy

In a world of rapidly increasing numbers of people and rapidly decreasing amounts of natural resources, sustainable resource management is one of the most important problems currently facing humanity.  The country of Iceland is a small country that, throughout its history, has been forced to come to terms with the limitations of its own resources (1).  In some ways, Iceland can be viewed as a microcosm for the world, except, for the time being, on a more extreme level.  While in much of the developed world the problem of unsustainability is not yet a pressing issue in people’s everyday lives, in Iceland the entire national economy hinges on the continued health of its fragile fisheries, so stewardship of marine resources is a top priority for all Icelanders.  Another way Iceland is a smaller, more extreme model for the world is in the recent economic crash, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Some Icelandic strategies for sustainability may be applicable on a more global scale, but in the long term they will prove insufficient for both Iceland and for the world.

Joan of Arc and Martin Luther

            Their births separated by 71 years and about 400 miles, Joan of Arc and Martin Luther may seem an unlikely pair to compare.  Joan was an illiterate who was executed at the age of 19; Luther was an academic who knew at least four languages and at 19 had no idea he was destined to become a monk, let alone a monk who would change the world.  Despite their differences, Luther and Joan were similar in their unshakable faith in God and their dogged determination to follow God’s will rather than the will of earthly authorities.

Was Machiavelli a Christian?

Machiavelli was certainly a humanist (in the Renaissance sense) and possibly a Christian, but probably not a Roman Catholic.  Machiavelli wrote as though he were a Christian and respected the spiritual authority of the papacy.  His short work An Exhortation to Penitence, in which he espouses humility, charity, and obedience to God, at first glance seems to be a clear endorsement of Christianity.  But for Machiavelli, endorsement does not imply adherence.  Machiavelli wanted desperately to see Italy unite and return to the glories of the Roman republic.  Encouraging religious unity was one way he could contribute towards that goal.

College Essays

I was an undergraduate once and had to take some non-science related courses.  In the seven such courses I took, I wrote a lot of essays, some of which I think would make good reading material.  I'll start editing and posting some of the ones I think are the best (or excerpts from them).  If you're here for computational biology, please excuse the interruption.

Also, I'll preface these by saying I don't necessarily agree with all the opinions in these essays.  Opinions can be such capricious little devils.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A python port of the nonlinear optimization method of Hooke and Jeeves

I ported the Hooke and Jeeves algorithm to Python from C.  I ported it because I've been writing a Python toolkit for kinetic modeling of biochemical systems.  There are certain modeling methods I want to use that are difficult or impossible to do with COPASI (I'll try to write more about this in a later post), so I'm making a library specific to my needs.  I found the Hooke and Jeeves parameter fitting routine from COPASI to be the most useful for fitting parameters to my current system of interest (Nelder-Mead, and Levenberg-Marquardt also seemed to work pretty well, the other ones not nearly as much).