Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rational Emotion

This is my response to Jenn's post Dismissing Emotion.

There are two kinds of mental process, conscious and subconscious. We can report the logic of the conscious mind, but we can't observe or give an accounting of the logic of the subconscious. However, many people learn the skill of explaining their subconscious processing after the fact, "rationalizing" the conclusions they came to subconsciously. Doing this completes a feedback loop in which the rules the subconscious uses in its processing can be updated. Basically, the conscious mind can be used to discard the false premises the subconscious may have been relying on.The movie Memento illustrates the inverse of how this is supposed to work. Instead of reliably updating old information with new, our hero deliberately deceives himself.

What is emotion? It is the motive impulse, the thing that drives us to act. It is the expression of mental processing, the result of our thinking, where thinking includes conscious and subconscious mental processes.

The conventional wisdom is that it is a mistake to act on impulse/emotion. However, this is something of a misdiagnosis. It isn't that emotion is unreliable, it's that in new situations our thinking is not well-developed and can be mistaken in its conclusions. The conventional wisdom is correct that it's best to pause and take stock and to seek to understand the situation in new light so as to avoid mistakes. But emotion versus reason is a false dichotomy. Emotion flows from reason.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Turbine Cars

Capstone Turbine is planning limited production of a plug-in hybrid, the CMT-380 that uses a small turbine engine to extend range. The car looks great, as it should because it's a basically just a Factory Five GTM with batteries, an electric motor, and a turbine powered generator to keep the batteries topped up on long trips.

My guess is that the weight of the batteries hurts handling and acceleration somewhat.However, I'm still really excited by this car because I'm persuaded that putting turbines in cars is a good thing.

Turbines have several advantages over piston-engines:

  1. They are smaller and lighter-weight for a given horsepower.
  2. They are much more efficient - more of the energy of the fuel can be turned into usable power.
  3. They are much cleaner burning, producing less NOx because they can run a leaner (more oxygen rich) burn.
  4. They are naturally flex-fuel. Though turbines are usually optimized for one particular fuel they are generally much less fuel sensitive than piston-engines, making flex-fuel designs easy to implement.
  5. They are much more reliable than piston-engines.
For essentially these reasons, turbines are used to power some special purpose ground vehicles, like the M1 Abrams.

Here's another turbine diagram:

So if turbines are so great, why aren't they already being used in cars? They have two serious limitations that have made them impractical until now. The first is that turbines are not good at changing speed. They lose much of their efficiency advantage over piston engines if they are forced frequently change RPM. Also, they don't change speed very rapidly - after all they have a lot of rotating mass that doesn't want to slow down or speed up. The second limitation is that they are high cost.

The brilliant thing about using a turbine in a plug-in hybrid is that it solves the problem of changing RPM. The CMT-380 uses the turbine to spin a generator that charges the batteries when they get depleted. That way, the turbine can spin along at the one RPM where it is most efficient, regardless of how fast the car is moving.

The problem of cost can also be overcome but it depends on economies of scale, and possibly the regulatory environment. For example, tighter emissions requirements may give turbines an advantage over piston-engines. It's certainly the case that if turbines were widely adopted for automotive use that their price would come down somewhat.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Business Cycle

Systems with feedback loops can have complicated, difficult to predict behavior. However, there are three basic varieties of simple feedback loop, and understanding these three types can lend insight into the behavior of more complicated loops.

The first type is positive reinforcing. These loops runaway in one direction forever, until something in the system changes and the dynamic is allowed to breakdown. The classic example is the runaway population growth of bacteria in a petri dish.

The second type is balancing. This kind of loop is characterized by equilibrium among opposing forces. It takes effort to push these systems away from their natural equilibrium point, and they tend to fall back again once the effort stops. However, they can be complicated by having multiple points of equilibrium.

The third type of feedback loop is oscillating. This is essentially a special version of the balancing type of feedback loop. As with the balancing type there is a force and an opposing force, but in this case the opposing force has a delayed response. As a result the system swings from one extreme to another, like a pendulum, as the system is dominated first by one force and then by the other. Aviators may refer to this behavior as PIO - Pilot Induced Oscillation. If there is a delay between when the pilot gives an input to the control surfaces and when the aircraft responds then the pilot will tend to give too much input and then over-correct, sending the plane into a potentially fatal oscillation. In a way, the PIO acronym puts too much blame on the pilot as this problem is really a result of the system dynamics.

I think the business cycle is the result of an oscillating feedback loop in the economy. Not much of an insight really, except that it implies that there is something structurally wrong with the economic system. Left to its own devices, the system will keep exhibiting this behavior.

The story I was taught in high school economics was that the Fed had been established to interrupt this oscillating behavior, by anticipating it and correcting for it. I was told that the Fed had been enormously successful in that role. I'm not sure that was true.

Can there be a market solution for bubbles and the Business Cycle?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Community, Identity, Stability"

I am embarking on a beautiful journey.

I have committed to read at least 20 books related to dystopia before August 24th.

Dystopian (or post-apocalyptic, as they're often interchangeable) literature might be my favorite. I devoured and love and still talk about the books that introduced me to these dark and fascinating worlds.

1984. Brave New World. Fahrenheit 451. And, more recently, The Road.

I am delving into some lovely books, short-listed on my other blog here.

Four horsemen and an apocalypse
I am aware of several of you, beloved readers, who reject fiction outright as a waste of time and read nonfiction almost exclusively. Even still, I'll put it out there: if anyone has recommendations in this genre, I would love to hear them. The darker, the better, probably.

My favorite example is Wuthering Heights -- not dystopian, but certainly with darkness and misery to spare. I love that book because it seems to me a very real depiction of what might happen if two people who are in love and meant for one another are parted prematurely by death. What would the surviving person do? He would become a bitter and cruel man, spreading about the torment he feels to others until the day he dies, unhappily and unfulfilled. That makes sense to me. It's exaggerated, perhaps, but on the other hand, maybe not. (It's definitely more honest than that unspeakable series that geared up towards a final conflict only to end with a mild discussion between
parties, leaving all who were preparing for their inevitable deaths living (groan) happily ever after. A fantasy I cannot sink my teeth into.)

Anyone have something to add to my list? Or other related books to read?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dismissing emotion

Falkenblog brings up the argument that emotions are an unnecessary distraction to being human. To his credit, he refutes the argument, but I have to say that I'm getting very frustrated with the condemnation of emotion.

I cringe when I hear adults say that it isn't acceptable to cry. Sometimes, though, there is nothing more appropriate than crying, and if you don't, if you lock that away, you've misunderstood what it means to be human.

We feel deeply, and, at the risk of getting too flowery in my language, it is a magical part of living. When we are children, we felt things acutely, painfully, both joy and disappointment, gratification and longing. Everything was magnified. Who is happier than a child, when the child is content?

Falkenblog says, "little kids cry a lot, adults almost never (curiously, I currently am only tempted to tear up during movies)." At first I was angry. Why don't we cry more, as adults? What stops us?

And then I considered the role of media in bringing up emotions in us.

Robert and I have spent the past few weeks reading a book together aloud. It was a work of fiction. At a certain plot point, during which one of the characters met a sudden demise (and, in a sense, so did the plot, in my estimation), I felt a surge of feeling. I hadn't known how attached I'd grown to that character until that moment. And I loved that a mere work of fiction could cause me to feel something so strongly. For that reason alone I don't regret reading that book, though it was harrowing and ultimately disappointing.

I use fiction, music, and film to some extent as a safe arena for experiencing and dealing with powerful emotions. Part of me, I think, fears that bringing out the pure emotion I felt as a child and which is now tempered by adulthood will make me less functional. A little emotion, seeping through, helps with decision-making, as Falkenblog points out. A lot of it would probably cripple me, as much as a three-year-old throwing a monstrous fit, or distracted by utter fascination at a grasshopper.

But really, the reason for embracing emotion is because it makes living so rich. When we grow up and lose touch, we lose too much.

(Forgive my lack of organization with this, but it seemed fitting to leave a post addressing emotion a little bit irrational.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Got To Save My Nickels and Dimes

There are way too many courses on here that look fascinating... I fantasize about my daughters using content like this for entertainment instead of Barbie and other pop culture.


Egypt / Lebanon Montage from Khalid Mohtaseb on Vimeo.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Social Welfare

I’m puzzled about something, maybe you can help me out.

Economists sometimes talk about a concept that I am going to refer to as the level of social welfare. Basically this is how much utility, or satisfaction, the society is enjoying as a whole. Here’s a simple example: imagine a society that consists of just two people, Bob and Frank. Bob has a banana that he would like to sell to Frank. Bob is willing to sell the banana for any amount greater than $1. Frank is willing to buy the banana for any amount less than $2. Bob is a good negotiator, so they eventually agree on a price of $1.75.

In this example, the sale of the banana increases the wealth of both parties. Bob traded something he valued at $1 for $1.75, so he gained $.75 worth of value.  Frank gave $1.75 for something that he valued at $2.00, so he gained $.25 worth of value. The level of social welfare in Frank and Bob’s society has increased by $1.00, because of the sale of the banana.

So the level of social welfare, as measured by economists, has to do with how much value people place on different items, and on how those items are distributed through the society. Moving goods and services from people who value them less to people who value them more will increase the total level of social welfare in the society. This is basic microeconomics.

The thing that bothers me is this: How much a person is said to value any particular good or service is measured in dollars. That is a relative measure, because it’s really comparing how much the person values the good or service against how much she values dollars.

And how much she values dollars depends on how many dollars she has.

Is this an objective way to measure the level of social welfare in a society? If I am very poor then this measure of social welfare under represents my preferences, needs, desires. Here’s a simple example: two starving men approach a baker who has one loaf of bread left to sell. The baker, having studied microeconomics, knows that the man who values the bread the most will be willing to pay the highest price. One of the starving men has $2 in his pocket, the other has $5. The baker sells the loaf for $5, confident that the man who offered only $2 wasn’t as hungry as the man who offered $5.

Obviously, the prices that the two men are willing to pay do not adequately reflect the value they would receive from the bread.  This is a serious problem. It undermines the legitimacy of calculations of social welfare. It also undermines the legitimacy of the price mechanism as a welfare maximizing means of distributing goods and services.

Is there a legitimate, objective way to separate preferences or utility from ability to pay? Is there some way to put the preferences of the poor on equal footing with the preferences of the wealthy, at least for academic purposes? 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

New Yorker on China and Innovation

My brother recently sent me an email responding to this article in the New Yorker. Here are a couple of his points.

"...government infusion of cash doesn't necessarily equate to technological breakthroughs or economical success in industry. In fact, when the government gets involved, follows "success," and success can only be measured by preconceived norms. A company may be successful at coming up with a better version of a preexisting technology, because norms have been standardized with which to compare progress. But new ideas and innovations can have a harder time succeeding in an environment where business is competing for government dollars when the outcome is unclear or the technology is previously unknown. "Add as many mail coaches as you please, you will never get a railroad" is a great metaphor for the risk-averse Chinese philosophy pointed out in the article."

"Through taxation (and therefore, at some level, economic deprivation) and questionable living conditions (and therefore, at some level, quality of life deprivation), the Chinese citizens bear the brunt of the cash infused in the tech sector, and the gains made thereby. This is a radically different approach when compared to venture capitalism: in the latter, the contributors have the choice to participate.

"And that is basically what to me is at the heart of this article: the assumption that redistribution of wealth (in this case, to advance technologies) is for the greater good, when compared with the freedom to choose to participate, or to refrain from participation, according to the dictates of one's own conscience, of free market capitalism. I argue that the majority of technologies, advances, one could say "creature comforts" (I despise the term) that we enjoy today are the result of the latter."

I want to add that:

1) Government investment displaces private investment. This is for two reasons, the first being that private investors don't like to compete with institutional investors (this is the 'picking winners' problem - I don't want to invest in a company whose competitor is being financed and protected by the government), and the second being that the government dollars had to come from somewhere - specifically they came out of what would have been private spending and investment.

2) Though the author pretends to address the 'picking winners' problem, he actually doesn't. No matter how you slice it, government bureaucrats divvying out dollars is significantly different from the marketplace divvying out dollars. For one thing, the government is more likely to keep throwing good money after bad when an investment has failed to pay off (because the government doesn't risk insolvency by doing so, and because it's difficult to change a policy once it's been accepted and implemented). The market is quick to reallocate investment when it's clear that a risk has gone bad. Another difference is that the market will naturally fund MANY competing ventures, and the best ones will win. The government tends to choose a handful of firms to back, and then tries to ensure that the investment will pay off by using regulation to make sure THOSE firms win. So the survival of the fittest dynamic is lost. Finally, the market crowd sources problems by aggregating the intelligence gathering of MANY individuals, while the government must rely on relatively few experts to try to make decisions. 

Job description

I am a doula. My job is to take care of the emotional aspect of women while they labor and give birth, making sure that they feel safe and attended to and have their nonmedical needs met. Generally speaking, there are too few nurses in the hospital to guarantee personal attention to all childbearing women, and that -- having someone attend to them personally -- is why most women hire me, far more than wanting to get through childbirth without an epidural.

I am knee deep in my first Statistics class. Our first project was to conduct an informal survey on a topic of our choice, mostly to learn about bias and data analysis. I chose childbirth, since that is my field, and asked questions regarding how well-supported women felt during the birth of their first child, whether they had a doula present, and generally how they felt about the experience.

Nearly every person I surveyed responded with some variation of the same criticism: the medical staff was not kind enough, did not pay enough attention to the mother's emotional welfare, either by saying something inconsiderate or inappropriate or overlooking something that would have been nice (in one case, a nurse forgot to bring a sandwich to the mom, and she described it as the worst part of her unmedicated experience!).

It is understood, or at least should be, that when we enter a medical environment such as a hospital, our emotional health takes a backseat to our physical health. What matters the most is that we are alive and healthy, and secondarily (or even sometimes less) how we feel. Doctors and nurses are not required to be nice people or to get along swimmingly with their patients.

And yet we feel a great amount of betrayal when we are treated with less than sterling service. As if hospitals were akin to upscale shoe departments.

Now, I'm not saying that we should expect to be treated rudely. I wish it never happened, but it does, in every environment.

What I am wondering, though, is why so many feel free to hold nurses and doctors to this standard, and whether that means that it SHOULD be included in the service we receive when we seek medical care. No nurses have in their job description to treat their patients with impeccable emotional attention. But I think many of us expect it, get hurt or angry when we don't receive it, and still feel that it was their job to provide it, even though it isn't.

It seems apparent that emotional wellbeing is wrapped up with physical wellness, whether we rationalize it away or not. My question is, well, should it be included in the definition of health care? Should psychological care be a recognized aspect of medical care in every practice? Are we losing anything by continuing to go forward with this hit-but-mostly-miss way of treating patients, or is this a crucial element of health care that needs to be addressed differently?