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Supermarkets, Free Markets and why the Evolution Analogy fails

Freitag, 2. Dezember 2011 23:31

The Guardian has a very informative article on how supermarkets have taken over the country (in this case of course the UK), virtually wiping out small shops and changing communities for the worse. Some of the numbers:


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Avoiding Bad Love — Reality, Respect and Misunderstood Romance

Montag, 14. November 2011 20:30

A combination of personal experiences, conversations with friends and reading feminist blogs (more serious thoughts on the Nice Guy™ concept I encountered there coming soon) have tempted me into writing a little guide to avoiding bad love, in basically two sections: Reality and Respect, with Misunderstood Romance as an overarching theme holding them together.


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Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism — Empiricism meets Constructivism

Montag, 7. November 2011 0:31

Following some of the feminist blogosphere since some time now, I frequently come across criticisms of „Evolutionary Psychology“. Discussing some of that with a friend who works in the field revealed that there is a lot of discontent and a feeling of being misunderstood among scholars there. A reply from an evolutionary psychologist that he referred me to disappointed me (I want to respond in detail to that later), as well as a recent journal publication with a very promising title (David M. Buss & David P. Schmitt (2011). Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism [pdf]. Sex Roles. doi:10.1007/s11199-011‑9987-3). Both show that they are at least as ignorant of what the critique is all about as their critics are of Evolutionary Psychology. I’m going to try to fill in some of these gaps in both directions, and explain why I mostly side with „the feminists“ at the end. This is at the same time part of a thought process of mine concerning epistemology („what and how can we know about the world“) and the role of science in a much more general sense. I didn’t really feel ready to write about that yet, but I might not anytime soon, and this kind of discussion arises so often that I decided to share my preliminary thoughts. I’m aware there will be holes and inconsistencies and look forward to criticism.


Thema: English | Kommentare (9) | Autor:

Microcredit and Development — a Critique

Donnerstag, 2. Juni 2011 14:05

Following my economic observations and reflections on Development Aid here in Tanzania, I did some reading on microcredit, which seemed to me now maybe one of the most sensible things to do to stimulate development. My first-hand impression of some other obvious choices has not been very good so far — I am quite doubtful of the real-life benefit of the secondary education the students get in the school I am teaching in, for instance.

The articles I found convinced me that I wasn’t wrong entirely thinking microcredit could help. But there’s a big BUT, or a number of them actually. An article in the New Yorker from 2008 titled What Microloans Miss provides a very readable introduction, but my primary source is an article called Microfinance Misses Its Mark from Aneel Karnani, published in the 2007 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It says that, first of all, microcredits help the not-so-poor better than the poorest:


Thema: English, Weltreise 2011 | Kommentare (2) | Autor:

Tanzania 6 — Economic Reflections

Samstag, 21. Mai 2011 19:03

One thing that living in a poor, rural part of Africa certainly does change is my perspective on economy. While I feel confident to say that the huge majority of things on sale in Germany, the US, or most of Europe don’t do much to improve people’s well-being or happiness (and many probably make it worse, at least if you take into account the work done to pay for them, and their effect on the environment) things are very obviously different here.


Thema: English, Weltreise 2011 | Kommentare (2) | Autor:

Meditation and the Paradoxical Nature of Aspiration

Freitag, 25. Februar 2011 12:30

I’m aware that I’ve chosen a quite big title for a small experience and thought I want to share, but it is one I keep coming back to, and which has right now been stimulated again by reading a book by Krishnamurti called Commentaries on Living (First Series). He writes about Humility, and virtues in general:


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Economists on Ebenezer Scrooge — Compassion, Coercion and Frugality

Samstag, 25. Dezember 2010 21:55

Greg Mankiw points to four economists‘ interpretations of the old Christmas story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The first one, by Paul Krugman, does not really talk much about Scrooge at all, but is an interesting read for it’s coverage of systematic media manipulation by the Political Right in the US (demonstrated on the issue of an allegedly expanding government workforce under President Obama).

The second, by David Henderson, stays closer to the story, and tries to make an interesting point. The claim is that increasing government welfare is actually the „scroogeish“ thing to do, contrary to what many would think at first, and that it is individual charitable giving that follows the true spirit of Christmas. These two approaches are polarized as coercion vs. compassion. I’m blogging about it because I think it is a recurrent theme in discussions, and maybe one issue where political „left“ and „right“ are truly separated by contradicting perspectives.


Thema: English | Kommentare deaktiviert | Autor:

Linguistic Relativity — different language, different thoughts?

Samstag, 4. September 2010 11:49

A NYTimes book review of „Through the Language Glass“ by Guy Deutscher touches on the interesting topic of how languages shape our thoughts (the book itself might or might not be worth reading, according to the review the anecdotes are more convincing then the theory the author wants to prove with them).

Here is an interesting example of how that could happen:

[…] the Amazonian language Matses, whose arsenal of verb forms obliges you not only to explicitly indicate the kind of evidence — personal experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay — on which every statement you make is based, but also to distinguish recent inferences from older ones and say whether the interval between inference and event was long or short. If you choose the wrong verb form, you are treated as a liar. But the distinctions that must be expressed by verbal inflections in Matses, Deutscher argues, can all be easily understood by English speakers and easily expressed in English by means of circumlocutions.

Now, the information is indeed very fascinating to me, and I also don’t quite follow his conclusion. First, to make the point that languages shape our thoughts, you don’t have to prove that certain things cannot be expressed in some languages — it is enough to show that speakers of different languages habitually use certain concepts more than others. And here you can say that the degree of evidence backing a statement seems to have much more everyday importance to Matses speakers than to us. Second, if you assume there is something that cannot be expressed in English — how do you think you could talk (and think) about that in an English book, review, or even mind? Almost by definition, this part of reality would get lost in translation…

Which brings us to another example: colors.

Although the strange sequence in which color terms appear in the world’s languages over time — first black and white, then red, then either green or yellow, with blue appearing only after the first five are in place — still has no full explanation, Deutscher’s suggestion that the development of dyes and other forms of artificial coloring may be involved is as convincing as any other, making color terms the likeliest candidate for a culture-induced linguistic phenomenon.

Other explanations are also possible, of course, and have been made, like here by the British statesman and Greek scholar William Gladstone, who

noting among other things the surprising absence of any term for “blue” in classical Greek texts, theorized that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans when those texts were composed?

Along with psychological experiments, this backs up one of the basic constructivist claims (as put forth, for instance, by Maturana and Varela), that there is hardly any connection between physical spectra of light and the colors we see.

I think if you don’t view languages as static objects, but as systems of thought and expression that keep evolving, and provide an enormous space for creativity and new thoughts, you won’t be too interested in what can and cannot be said (and consequently thought). And from my experience, there are many areas where different languages focus on different aspects of life, and make you more inclined to view reality in a different way. Like, for instance, I’m amazed by how the elaborate linguistic system that has evolved around „dating“ in English in my opinion makes you more likely to view the whole thing as some sort of game, with certain rules, and more importantly, with certain conflicting goals for the participants. And I would argue that while the relative lack of established expressions for this in German makes it harder to communicate with outsiders about what is going on, it leaves more freedom to the individuals involved.

Thema: English | Kommentare (1) | Autor:

Happiness research beyond income

Freitag, 27. August 2010 0:31

The NYTimes reports on a new development in both scientific and everyday thinking about happiness. Partly accelerated by the recent depression, there seems to be a movement of people discovering that earning money did not actually make them happy, but that „downsizing“ their material life did, sometimes even though it was forced by loss of income.

Websites like RowdyKittens are popping up, sharing advice on simple living (I personally like The Only Guide to Happiness You’ll Ever Need that it links to a lot, I think my next important step is slowing down …). And Roko Belic made a Documentary called „Happy“ that I can’t wait to see, the trailer looks amazing. His bottom line seems to be:

The one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.

On the other hand, science has taken on the task of happiness again. The mission can be summed up by the introductory paragraph from a paper titled „If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right“ (supposedly forthcoming in The Journal of Consumer Psychology):

Scientists have studied the relationship between money and happiness for decades and their conclusion is clear: Money buys happiness, but it buys less than most people think (Aknin, Norton, & Dunn, 2009; Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002; Frey & Stutzer, 2000). The correlation between income and happiness is positive but modest, and this fact should puzzle us more than it does. After all, money allows people to do what they please, so shouldn’t they be pleased when they spend it? Why doesn’t a whole lot more money make us a whole lot more happy? One answer to this question is that the things that bring happiness simply aren’t for sale. This sentiment is lovely, popular, and almost certainly wrong. Money allows people to live longer and healthier lives, to buffer themselves against worry and harm, to have leisure time to spend with friends and family, and to control the nature of their daily activities—all of which are sources of happiness (Smith, Langa, Kabeto, & Ubel, 2005). Wealthy people don’t just have better toys; they have better nutrition and better medical care, more free time and more meaningful labor—more of just about every ingredient in the recipe for a happy life. And yet, they aren’t that much happier than those who have less. If money can buy happiness, then why doesn’t it?

Because people don’t spend it right.

And while they provide some reasonable and non-trivial advice („Principle 3: Buy Many Small Pleasures Instead of Few Big Ones“, e.g., or „Principle 5: Pay Now and Consume Later“ [!]), there’s something about that approach that worries me. I think two of the other recommendations illustrate that: „Principle 1: Buy Experiences Instead of Things“ and „Principle 2: Help Others Instead of Yourself“.

I follow the notion that experiencing something ultimately contributes more to our life than having something, and that a central part of our happiness is relatedness. I just doubt that money is the right frame to discuss these issues in. There are much simpler ways of both experiencing something and connecting with other people than spending money on either. And they both are prone to leading right into the next consumption wave, this time not about big TV sets, but amazing massage spas and, ahm, massage vouchers for our partners and friends?! Why not give that massage yourself?

On top of that, the „spend your money wisely“-approach keeps people working long hours, which for most people will tend to decrease happiness.

So the new talk about happiness seems to go right over the divide between a materialistic and spiritualistic view of life, and I’m quite excited to see how it will evolve.

Thema: English | Kommentare (3) | Autor:

Klimawandel — die Macht des Zweifels

Mittwoch, 3. März 2010 19:03

Ein NYTimes-Artikel über das angeschlagene Image der Klimaforscher ist eine schöne Gelegenheit, einen wiederkehrenden Gedanken der letzten Zeit festzuhalten: über die spannende Rolle des Zweifels im modernen Diskurs.

Traditionell ist man geneigt, das Zweifeln als eine Tugend anzusehen, es ist in der Vorstellung fest mit der Aufklärung verbunden. Und nun tritt — meiner Meinung nach — der Zweifel immer öfter als reaktionäres Element in Erscheinung, was mich zunächst verstört hat. Ich denke, das liegt an den Folgen, die wir für unser Handeln ziehen, wenn eine Sache in Zweifel gezogen wird. Das aufklärerische Ideal ist ein wissenschaftliches Hinschauen, kritische Reflexion auf der Basis von empirischen Erfahrungen, und eine fundierte neue Entscheidung.

Was in der übermäßig komplexen modernen Welt dagegen oft passiert ist ein resigniertes Wegschauen, „ich kann es ja eh nicht wissen“, und — das ist der Knackpunkt — ein Handeln im Sinne des geringsten Widerstands. Am Beispiel Klimawandel sieht das so aus:


Thema: Deutsch | Kommentare (1) | Autor: