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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Beware of "Geniuses"

There are no true geniuses, only acts of genius.  What do I mean by that?

The fact of the matter is that most people -- even very smart people -- do not always get it right.  I'll concede that all other things being equal, smart people are more likely to "get it right" than dumb people.  But the problem arises when we decide that what smart people say is "right" simply because they are smart.  When this starts to happen, the smart people start to think that they and their intelligence are infallible.  And if we've put them in positions of power, then that's going to be a problem for the rest of us.

Take Alan Greenspan.  If you met him, you'd probably think he was one of the most intelligent people you ever met.  No doubt he's smart.  But at some point, he started believing that he was some kind of permanent genius.  Maybe it was when Bob Woodward wrote "The Maestro" about him (nice job, Bob!).  With hindsight, it's now easy to show that Greenspan was spectacularly wrong about a whole lot of very important things.  (Read Matt Taibbi's "Griftopia" or any other book about the financial crisis.)  And that had a lot to do with where the economy is today.  And now it's obvious to everyone that Greenspan isn't all that smart.  In fact, the slowness with which he has come to realize how wrong he was comes across as something like stupidity.

And take Einstein.  Yes, the theory of relativity was a work of genius.  But his addition of a cosmological constant to make the universe stationary was, according to him, a blunder. (As it turns out, there may be a cosmological constant after all -- to account for cosmic acceleration -- but that's not what Einstein was thinking.  But at least Einstein was quick to abandon the constant in the face of Hubble's evidence.)

In other words, while there may be really smart people among us, we can't assume that everything they do is "genius."  Better to focus on their individual accomplishments, in isolation.  If someone has done a lot of "genius" things, that's great.  Call those accomplishments acts of genius -- but please don't call him a "genius."  It may go to his head, and will only encourage him to stop checking his work.

Was Napoleon a "genius"?  He might have been smart, but he got a lot of people killed, and lost everything in the end, perhaps because of his own belief that he was a genius.

How about Newton?  In some respects unquestionably.  But in others, not so much.

Were any of the 100 authors identified by Harold Bloom in his "Genius" true geniuses in the sense that they were always right about everything?  I doubt it.  They were just talented writers and thinkers who now and then managed to produce a work of genius.

And then there's Larry Summers.  When he first started out (in the 1980's), he questioned the ability of financial markets to regulate themselves (referring to it all as a shell game), and proposed a tax on purchases of corporate securities.  (I have this from John Cassidy's book about market failure).  But then he changed his mind, had some prominent government positions, made tons of money, and kept right on supporting Greenspan's policies up until the moment everything blew up.  So that's a really smart person who thought carefully about both sides of the issue, and picked the wrong side.  Could he have made that kind of money if he had stuck with his original view?  Probably not.  But I'm sure he thought that it was logic, not money, driving his thinking.

And how about the managers of LTCM (Long Term Capital Management)?  Their "genius" was validated by Nobel prizes and academic accolades.  And yet, they put the world economy at risk for the sake of a few nickels.  Here's a quote from wikipedia:

"LTCM's strategies were compared (a contrast with the market efficiency aphorism that there are no $100 bills lying on the street, as someone else has already picked them up) to 'picking up nickels in front of a bulldozer'[29] – a likely small gain balanced against a small chance of a large loss, like the payouts from selling an out-of-the-money option."

Of course, since they're so smart, they may well have realized that even if everything blew up (which it did), they personally wouldn't suffer all that much (which they didn't).  See Roger Lowenstein's "When Genius Fails."  But the lesson for the rest of us should have been STOP TRUSTING THE SMARTIES!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party

Very strange to hear Republican/Fox News commentators giving their "take" on the Occupy Wall Street movement.  They seem to feel a need to characterize it, and to characterize it as "loony"  (I think I heard Bill O'Reilly say they were a bunch of loons).  Or they need to compare the movement with hippies, communists, etc.  I heard one of them -- maybe it was Hannity -- talking about how dignified the Tea Party was, as opposed to this crowd.  And of course they quote whatever extreme "planks" of the OWS platform they can get hold of, e.g. "immediately cause all debt to be forgiven."

But it seems to me that Occupy Wall Street is more like than unlike the Tea Party.  Both movements appeal to people who think that the government isn't working.  And on that, both are right.  The Tea Party seems to think that the solution is to reduce the size of government, and that that will solve all our problems.  The Occupy Wall Street movement seems agnostic on the size of government; they just want to remove corporate influence. 

So how do I pick?  Well, I just don't know what the result will be if the Tea Party realizes its goal.  Obviously, a smaller government should result in less government waste, which is a good thing.  But it doesn't solve the problem of corporate influence on government.  And if you're talking about reducing the resources of the parts of government that regulate the "bad" things corporations want to do -- like pollution and financial shenanigans -- then reducing the size of govenment may well do more harm than good.  In fact, the smaller it is, the easier it will be for the corporations to control.  Some of what the Tea Party wants -- e.g. abolition of the EPA -- is straight out of the corporate influence playbook.  And that's almost certainly not going to be good for the common people.  Remember, corporations would love to pollute our water and air again; it has only been regulation that has kept that in check.

So it seems to me that the OWS movement has the better focus.  Let's focus on where corporations are screwing things up.  I'll hasten to add that there are a lot of places where corporations are just what America needs -- we need the jobs, we need the research, we need the technology, etc.  So it's fine to have a corporation-friendly, capitalistic society.  But that's very different from having a society that is governed by the corporations themselves, which is where some people think we are heading -- or where we may already be. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Celeste Pizza for One Size

My pizza looked smaller than usual today.  The package was Celeste cheese, 5.08 oz. 

It appears that some stores (including WalMart and Amazon) sell Celeste "original" cheese, which is 5.58 ounces.  Obviously if you are getting cheese in the first place, you are not necessarily getting the most bang for your buck (since pepperoni and supreme weigh more but cost the same), but it's a bit annoying to find that there are two different "cheeses" at the same price.

But here's something else -- I just googled Celeste four cheese, and find that they are selling versions that are 5.22 oz and versions that are 5.74 oz.  And some of each are labeled "original."  Looks like you can get the "zesty" version in both 5.22 and 5.74 oz sizes as well. 

While I'm the first to admit that smaller pizza is probably better for me, this does seem a bit deceptive.  Maybe in some markets "one" (as in pizza for "one") is just a larger and hungrier individual.  Or just maybe Celeste has found a way to save a bit of money on ingredients . . . .

Caveat emptor!



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Santitas scam, continued

Ok, Santitas is unacceptable, as is any Frito Lay product, at this point.  Turns out Trader Joes sells a 2 pound bag of tortilla chips for $2.99.  So that's $1.50 a pound, cheaper than Santitas ever was, even when they were being honest.  The Trader Joe chips probably not quite as good as "name brand chips", but then again, under melted shredded cheddar cheese, is rather hard to tell.

Half and half scam

Of course it's always impossible to tell (based on simple consumer experience)  if something is overpriced at some stores or if other stores are using it as a loss leader.  But the bottom line is that half and half costs significantly less at some stores than others.  Here in the DC area, a pint is typically $1.49 (sometimes "on sale" for $1.39) at Shoppers Food Warehouse, Giant, and Safeway, and a quart is typically $2.49. 

But I've recently noticed that Target(!) and Trader Joe's sell the quart for $1.99 regular price (which, up until now, was a price only available at Sam's Club or Costco price. And at Trader Joe's, the regular price for a pint seems to be $1.29.

Of course, the problem with Trader Joe's is that they also sell soy milk creamer (for $1.49 a pint), which this wanna-be vegan was unable to resist.