Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

28 September, 2011

Thursday Videos, All of a Theme

By Aaron
28 September, 2011

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've recently been under a time crunch on several projects and have thus had scant time for blog-related shenanigans. Instead of getting into any new topics, then, I'll do you a kindness and post some videos that I've had in the "to-be-blogged" file for some time now. As chance would have it, they're all of a theme (call it "fringe religions" or "religious outsiders") and all from the BBC.

The first video, hosted by one of my favorite documentarians, Louis Theroux, is a follow-up to a profile of the Westboro Baptist Church (aka "The Most Hated Family in America) that Theroux did some years back and which I posted here. This latest installment finds the church beset by lawsuits, defections and, as ever, their own lunacy. Here's Part One of the film, and subsequent parts should automatically follow:

Next in our video queue is a BBC documentary entitled "Trouble in Amish Paradise," which chronicles two families' excommunication and slow drift away from the only community they've ever known. Given the Amish people's reluctance to be filmed, this video offers a fascinating peek inside what, for me at least, was a largely unknown culture. I particularly enjoyed the segment in which the main character, Efram, devises a way around the Amish ban on having telephones inside the home. Here's Part One:

Finally, we have the sequel to the previous film on the Amish. This one checks in on the families several years later and finds them separated from the church and trying to make their way in a more modern world, one which even includes rides on airplanes and trips to the ocean. Here's Part One:


21 September, 2011

Penn Jillette on Atheism, Libertarianism, Clown College, Etc.

By Aaron
21 September, 2011

Owing to a staff shortage, the blogpost assembly line has been out-of-order around here this week, and the conveyor belt may run a bit slowly for the next week or two as the month dwindles down to its inevitable end.

For today, however, you ought to do yourself a favor and enjoy the video above (also here), an interview of Penn Jillette by Reason's Nick Gillespie. Jillette, a graduate of clown college and a magician by trade, is one of the most eloquent defenders of individual liberty and atheism alive today. Whether you agree or disagree with him on both, one, or neither of those topics, it's hard not to like the fellow: he's always the happy warrior and seems to befriend even his intellectual adversaries - which, come to think of it, reminds me of this post on being 'evil' vs. being 'wrong.'

Anyway, sit still for 15 minutes and watch the video. And then, if you still want more Jillette on this site, have a look here.

16 September, 2011

One More Note on Greed and Self-Interest

By Aaron
16 September, 2011

In a recent post, I discussed the difference between "greed" and "self-interest," and explained that though they may at times overlap, they are not necessarily the same thing. Thus, while one person may become a banker in the hope of amassing a great fortune, another person might choose to work for a local non-profit that provides education to poor kids. We might at first be tempted to say that the first person is guided by greed, while the second has more noble intentions, but as I wrote previously, we'd do better to simply identify them both as self-interested actors who seek to maximize whatever it is they desire. For the banker, this is money; for the non-profiteer, it may be something more nebulous, such as a feeling that he has tried to help a young child. Either way, each person is guided by self-interest.

In pondering this matter this week, I was reminded of a 2007 60 Minutes piece on Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT professor who founded One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit company whose goal is to provide low-cost laptops to children in poor countries. Not long after OLPC 's launch, however, other companies - for-profit outfits like Intel, HP and Asus - hopped into the same ring and pestered Negroponte with competition. Dr. Negroponte was, to say the least, miffed:

If Negroponte's program is purely humanitarian and only to benefit children, why would for-profit companies pursue the same goal?

"Because the numbers are so large," Negroponte says. "They look at those numbers and they say, 'if we're not in those, we're toast'."


For Nicholas Negroponte it's not just business - it's personal. It's about his dream, his baby.

"Has Intel hurt you and the mission?" Stahl asks.

"Yes, Intel has hurt the mission enormously," Negroponte says.

He thought he'd have millions of orders by now, but countries that had once promised to buy in bulk, haven't. And so, Negroponte spends almost all his time now lobbying government officials to buy the laptops.

As the host, Lesley Stahl, points out, more competition means lower prices, which will lead to more children getting computers - which was precisely Negroponte's goal in the first place. So why the outrage?

This, I believe, takes us back to "greed" vs. "self-interest." Negroponte may not be out to make a profit in this venture, but be assured that he's seeking to maximize something, most likely a sense of self-satisfaction that comes from being The Man Who Did the Good Thing (and who didn't do it for filthy lucre). Intel, in their "shameless" quest for profits (to use Negroponte's word) has deprived him of this opportunity to satisfy his Messiah Complex.

Is Intel "greedy?" Perhaps, but then, so is Negroponte. They're simply interested in different objectives.

14 September, 2011

Midweek Video Goodness

By Aaron
14 September, 2011

Jennifer (of the Jennipal blog), along with her husband, Sung Hyun, recently posted the following video to her blog. According to said site, they met and married in South Korea and moved back to the frozen tundra of Canada sometime last year. In the video, they take reader questions and discuss the ups-and-downs of that move and more.

I recommend the video to anyone who is married to a person from a different country/culture, or who may be thinking of relocating with that spouse to another country, or...well, to just about anyone, actually. They make a fun (and funny) pair and I found myself smiling throughout most of the video, so have a look and check out Jennifer's site.

13 September, 2011

Your Job is to Be Useful

By Aaron
13 September, 2011

Because anytime is the perfect time to listen to Merle Haggard.

A surefire way to nudge the political left into high dudgeon is to suggest that labor markets ought to be flexible – that is, that employers ought to have the right to hire and fire as they see fit. For example, when Korean shipbuilder Hanjin Heavy Industries recently laid off 400 assembly-line workers, local leftist politicians and labor unions were quick to equate the cuts with murder when two of the pink-slipped workers committed suicide. Apparently, once a company has hired a worker, the relationship must continue ad infinitum, regardless how the world or those two parties may change.

A job, however, is a relationship based on the mutual consent of two (or more) parties, not unlike a marriage. When one side wishes to end the relationship, what right does the other have to force him/her to continue as before? Thus does the term “job security” – and the calls for it – hide a deeper moral problem. Writes Tibor Machan:

No one can give another person job security, not unless someone else is placed into involuntary servitude. That is, to secure a demand for some productive activity in the market place, others must make the free choice to purchase its result. This means that there is no way to guarantee any job for anyone if potential customers are treated as sovereign, free agents. If, however, job security is promised to us, those who make such a promise must give up on treating customers as sovereign, free persons. They have to be treated as slaves to the products that have to be purchased in order to secure the jobs in question.

Given the dynamism of the modern marketplace, I would suggest that young people now entering the job market get comfortable with two important slices of reality. First, you are not entitled to a job, even if you already have that job (see above). Second, as Phil Bowermaster writes, don’t expect to just “find” a job waiting for you:

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

That sounds difficult, maybe even a little dangerous. We’re all comfortable with the idea of “finding” a job. We search for them; we hunt them; we land them. All of these images assume the job already exists.

But to create something new…what does that even mean? Do we all become entrepreneurs? (I think the answer to that question is yes, although many of us will have to learn to be entrepreneurs within existing organizations.) Ultimately, it means we have to find something useful to do, something so useful that others are willing to pay for it.

So, as Seth’s (of Our Dinner Table fame) grandparents used to tell him, “go out and make yourself useful to somebody.” But don’t except that person to keep you around and continue to float you a paycheck after you’ve stopped being useful.

You, Me, Englebert Humperdinck, Everyone...

By Aaron

Something to consider, from Matt Ridley's The Red Queen:

Every human being has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on: A mere thirty generations back—in, roughly, A.D.  1066—you had more than a billion direct ancestors in the same generation (2  to the power of 30):  Since there were fewer than a billion people alive at that time in the whole world, many of them were your ancestors two or three times over. If, like me, you are of British descent, the chances are that almost all of the few million Britons alive in 1066, including King Harold, William the Conqueror, a random serving wench, and the meanest vassal (but excluding all well-behaved monks and nuns), are your direct ancestors: This makes you a distant cousin many times over of every other Briton alive today except the children of recent immigrants: All Britons are descended from the same set of people a mere thirty generations ago. No wonder there is a certain uniformity about the human (and every other sexual) species.

Reading Chang Ha-Joon (Ch. 5)

By Aaron

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

So wrote Adam Smith in perhaps the most famous lines in all of economics, the obvious point of which is that, in your quest for beer, brats and buns for dinner, you can’t expect these business owners to treat you as they would their own son and simply hand over the foodstuffs. As I said, obvious. Yet these lines are, to my thinking, among the most misunderstood in the world of economics.

For instance, in “Thing Five” of his 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Chang Ha-Joon writes, “Free-market economics starts from the assumption that all economic agents are selfish, as summed up in Adam Smith’s assessment of the butcher, the brewer and the baker.” This assumption, according to Chang, is not only wrong but as the title of his chapter suggests ("Assume the Worst About People...") it is the worst possible thing you could assume about another human being.

But note that Smith used not the word “selfishness” (by which Chang seems to mean simply the crass pursuit of money) when discussing one’s commercial interactions, but rather “interest.” Smith, a thinker of wild subtlety, understood that humans are not mere money-maximizing cretins who think only of the bottom line. True, in commerce, humans are typically looking to better their bank accounts, but in his writings, Smith left ample room for other motivations such as pride, charity, cooperation, and any other human impulse. The point of Smith’s lines is simply that every human has some interest, some motivation, and if I wish to interact with him, I must figure out how to address this interest. As Sam Fleischacker has written, this is one of the most elegant aspects of a society based on voluntary relationships and exchange:

The point of these famous lines is not that my butcher and baker are self-interested but that I know how to "address" that self-interest, that I know how to "shew them that it is for their own advantage" to do something that will help me. But my ability to address their interests takes me beyond myself, whatever it does to them; I must go beyond my own self-love in order to enlist theirs in my aid. And it is that ability to restrain our own self-love, and understand and further the interests of others, Smith says, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. So participation in the market fosters human character, helps us develop a trait crucial to our ability to be courageous, kind, or in any other way virtuous.

I will further submit that this appeal to the interests of our fellow humans extends far beyond the commercial realm. Consider, as an example, the girl whom you would like to ask on a date. It’s unlikely that she’ll agree to an evening with you simply out of the goodness of her heart, so your task is to convince her that she’ll have a good time and, perhaps, that you’ll make good long-term relationship material (as determined, in part at least, by millennia of human evolution). Unless she’s a prostitute, no money exchanges hands in this situation, but be assured that she has interests which she seeks to maximize and so, in seeking a date with her, it’s up to you to address those interests. Does this make her selfish, or greedy? No, it makes her self-interested, that is, human.

Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with good old-fashioned greed, by which I mean the desire to make the cash register ring. What, after all, prompts the artichoke farmer in Watsonville, California to haul his ass out of bed at 0’dark thirty every morning to supply his produce to people he’s never met – and about whom he cares personally not a lick – around the world? Or how about this: next time you want your toilet fixed on a Sunday, just try to get the plumber to come to your house, free of charge, simply because you’re such a good person.

“You want me to do what?” the plumber will ask over the phone.

“Well, Chang Ha-Joon said I shouldn’t assume the worst about you.”

“Ask this Chang character to come fix your toilet, then. I get $150 an hour on weekends.” Click.

Chang’s misinterpretation of “self-interest” and of “greed” unfortunately leads him, first, to equate both with simply financial concerns, and second, to suggest that the pursuit of one’s self-interest will lead to all manner of antisocial behavior: “given their selfish nature, shopkeepers will try to over-charge you, workers will try their best to goof off from work, and professional managers will try to maximize their own salaries and prestige rather than profits, which go to the shareholders rather than themselves.”

The assumption that humans are self-interested, or even greedy, however, does not mean that they are forever teetering on the verge of criminality. In my experience, the majority of companies start from the belief that their employees seek an honest day’s pay, and only alter that belief as the situation warrants (such as when cash starts disappearing from the till). That is, the company assumes that the employees are at the workplace for the same reason the firm exists: to make an honest profit. So, whatever other assumptions a company might make, the safest one is that every worker wants to keep his job and take home that paycheck. Humans may be a complex mix of motivations, but in the commercial sphere, the need to pay one's bills (as I said, honestly) typically rules the day.

But if Chang happens to know of a better way to build a business - other than by appealing to his employees' self-interest - I encourage him to get busy and show us how it's done.

(For my notes on earlier chapters of 23 Things, see here.)

11 September, 2011

Video: Christopher Hitchens on Cancer, Life, and More

By Aaron
11 September, 2011

The following video of Brian Lamb's C-SPAN interview with Christopher Hitchens is, by now, a bit outdated. Hell, by the standards of the internet it is positively ancient, appearing as it did all the way back in the primordial darkness of January, 2011. Still, it's never too late for a good thing.

Hitchens is one of those rare fellows who, like George Will, speaks almost as beautifully as he writes, which makes this video - in which he discusses his fight with stage-four esophageal cancer - especially touching.

Scattered Notes from Seoul Comic World

By Aaron

Native wildlife at Seoul Comic World (28 August, 2011)

Belatedly, but nevertheless:

A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself at the latest Seoul Comic World expo, at which my good friend, Ed, was peddling some of his own works of high art (see more than a few examples here). Had it not been for Ed's presence, I would never have ventured into such a place, as I am, first, a kid who grew up collecting sports cards rather than comics and, second, about twice the age of the average attendee at this sort of event. Moreover, take one look at the pictures above and you'll get a sense of how square I felt in my mere polo shirt and jeans. 
Wandering the cavernous halls of the SETEC convention center, however, I was also reminded of Deirdre McCloskey's defense of capitalism and a free society in her recent masterpiece The Bourgeois Virtues:

I claim that actually existing capitalism, not the collectivisms of the left or of the right, has reached beyond mere consumption, producing the best art and the best people. People have purposes. A capitalist economy gives them scope to try them out. Go to an American Kennel Club show, or an antique show, or a square-dancing convention, or to a gathering of the many millions of American birdwatchers, and you’ll find people of no social pretensions passionately engaged. Yes, some people watch more than four hours of TV a day. Yes, some people engage in corrupting purchases. But they are no worse than their ancestors, and on average better.

Sure, there were commercial transactions aplenty at Comic World, but for these kids, the primary joy of the event came in sharing their passionate engagement with other like-minded people. Too often, those of us who defend capitalism do so with a cold emphasis on the efficient allocation of resources, when in fact, capitalism is simply what happens when you leave people alone to arrange their lives as they choose. Many of these choices will be of a commercial nature, but no small number will simply – but gloriously – involve individuals joining together in voluntary associations for the enjoyment of shared interests. Think local bowling leagues, antique car shows, swinger parties, and yes, comic book conventions.

Of course, that aforementioned allocative efficiency ain’t nothing, as it makes possible the wealth that allows these kids to dress up as their favorite manga characters. Such a get-together as Comic World would have been unthinkable in Korea just a few decades ago, when there was scarcely even a middle class. And believe me, poor rice-farming parents would not have taken kindly to their children asking to be excused from the harvest to attend a comic book expo. That these kids even have the time and money to fritter away at this sort of clambake, then, is a testament to the wonders of economic growth.

10 September, 2011

Reading Chang Ha-Joon (Ch. 4)

By Aaron
10 September, 2011

 Note: my notes on earlier chapters of this book can be found here.

 In "Thing Four," Chang Ha-Joon writes:
Recent progress in telecommunications technologies is not as revolutionary as what happened in the late nineteenth century – wired telegraphy – in relative terms. Moreover, in terms of the consequent economic and social changes, the internet revolution has (at least as yet) not been as important as the washing machine and other household appliances, which, by vastly reducing the amount of work needed for household chores, allowed women to enter the labour market and virtually abolished professions like domestic service.

Mark this date down on the calendar, because for once, I’m actually inclined to agree with Chang. Of course, the washing machine has been a common feature of domestic life (in rich countries, anyway) for about 70 years now, whereas the internet has only been with us for about 15 years, thus giving the washing machine a bit of a head start.

In making this comparison, Chang wishes to challenge those who believe that the recent advances in information technology have eliminated distance and rendered the world borderless. In other words, he basically wants to debate Thomas “The World is Flat” Friedman, hardly a serious economic thinker. Furthermore, Chang worries that “this belief in ‘post-industrial society’ has led [the US and Britain] to unduly neglect their manufacturing sector.”

I wish Chang would have elaborated on his use of the word “neglect.” After all, based on the data for manufacturing output per worker, this “neglect” seems to have paid great dividends in the United States, as seen in this chart from Mark Perry

Perhaps the US government should “neglect” a few other sectors of the nation's economy (education, anyone? How about health care?).

So, yes, just as in agriculture, a rise in productivity has meant that fewer people are needed to staff assembly lines. Does Chang believe that the US government should have done more to increase employment in this sector, even at the expense of productivity, such as by erecting tariff barriers or subsidizing inefficient practices? Alas, he never elaborates on what he means or what policies he would like to see.

Ultimately, the fact that the internet’s greatest impacts have yet to come says nothing about what percentage of a nation’s citizens ought to work in the manufacturing sector. Moreover, countries do not decide where to specialize; individuals do.  Unfortunately, public policy can distort the incentives which make one economic sector (say, finance) appear more profitable than another (manufacturing, for instance, or other services). But let’s say we remove these distortions – will this automatically boost employment or output in manufacturing? Not necessarily. As Jagdish Bhagwati pointed out in a debate with Chang earlier this summer, "even if you wished to reduce the size of the financial sector, you would not have to go into manufacturing."

For more from Chang on this topic, I encourage readers to check out the full text of that debate, which was hosted by The Economist and in which Chang does better at presenting his case on this topic (thanks to Steven Bammel of Korea Business Central for bringing the debate to my attention). Speaking of KBC, they've got an interview with Dr. Chang running on their site right now, accompanied by a ever-expanding discussion among readers (including yours truly).

05 September, 2011

Piano Roll Production at QRS (Video)

By Aaron
05 September, 2011

I've mentioned before my experience as a young man working in my grandparents' piano shop, where they specialized in the restoration of player pianos. Even after growing up around these machines, however, I recently realized that I had no more than the vaguest notion about how the piano rolls they play are actually made.

Enter the following video (also below), then, which provides a fascinating look into how the rolls are produced - or, at least, how they were produced in the late 1980s. In these days of iPads and cloud computing, it's all too easy to overlook the incredible human creativity and ingenuity that was required to come up with a machine like the player piano and the roll-producing machine, to say nothing of the artistry of fellows like Rudy Martin who produced so many of the great piano roll arrangements (call him the Phil Spector of antique music).  From the technology to the music, this is a beautiful video on many levels.


02 September, 2011

One More Instance of Cozy State-Business Relations

By Aaron
02 September, 2011

Bailouts, subsidies, tariffs, eminent domain...

As if we needed another reason to be wary of cooperation between businesses and government, here's one of the most chilling of them all, as told this week by Lester Tenney - a former American POW in Japan - in the Wall Street Journal:

My slavery in Japan officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese and American representatives signed the formal surrender documents for the Pacific War. For nearly three years I was an American prisoner of war slave laborer for Mitsui Mining. I had survived the Bataan Death March on the Philippines and a "hell ship" to Japan only to be sold by Japan's military to the Mitsui conglomerate. Since liberation I have struggled to regain the dignity that both Imperial Japan and Mitsui stripped from me.

The Japanese government had been responsible for the supply and control of the POWs, but Japan's companies maintained the POW facilities and assigned our work. Now my fellow POWs and I wait for corporate Japan's apologies. Over 60 Japanese companies, nearly all still in existence—such as Mitsui, Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Hitachi—used POW slave labor to maintain war production. My letters to Mitsui and to Japan's chief business organization, Keidanren, have gone unanswered.