Archive for August 2009


Character and Circumstance

I think we all listen to our friends, relatives, and colleagues complain about their predicament, and then silently think, “Well what do they expect?  Their predicament perfectly reflects their character.”  If they are a lazy spendthrift, then they will go through life thinking that adverse circumstances are always denying them the money they need.  If they are envious, then their colleagues will be unfairly promoted ahead of them.  Etc, etc.

But when we think about ourselves, well then things are very different.  If only we could get out from under burden X, our life would be so much easier.  At least that’s the way I look at things, and I am pretty sure that others share this same sort of bias.  Indeed I recall reading about some psychological study that showed this bias is fairly common.  While reading the Portuguese writer Pessoa, I recently came across this quotation:

Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me.

 %$@#& that inscrutable web of creation. 

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The ABCs of European supremacy

A recent book by Louise Levathes showed that in the early 15th century China was ahead of Europe in the art of exploration.  It’s fleet sailed throughout Southeast Asia and all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa.  I don’t have the book with me in China, but I recall that for some reason the Emperor of China simply decided there was nothing out there of interest, and the government basically banned any further exploration.  I think the ships might have even been destroyed.  BTW, the book shows the Santa Maria next to the Chinese flagship, and Columbus’ boat looks like a little dingy by comparison.

I’m about to give you my pet theory for European supremacy after 1500.  Keep in mind that whenever I think I have a clever idea, it either later turns out to be wrong, or else unbeknownst to me someone else got there first.

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The autistic macroeconomist

When I decided to read Tyler Cowen’s new book on the airplane to China, I pretty much knew I was going to arrive in Beijing convinced that I was autistic.  Here are some reasons:

1.  Any time I read some psychology I think they’re talking about me.

2.  I recently heard an autistic guy on NPR who was a wizard with numbers.  His description of the autistic personality reminded me a bit of myself.

3.  I had heard Tyler talk about his book, and knew that he had a favorable view of what he called “the autistic cognitive profile.” 

4.  Autistic people like to make lists of things.

I’m not going to try to explain Tyler’s view of autism, as I would get it all mangled up.  But for those not familiar with his perspective I should at least mention that he is not talking about autism as a mental illness, but rather a certain way of thinking, which may be partly genetic.

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A window into China’s economy

3:00 AM— jet lag.  3:30am, now I’m trying to compose three posts in my head.  4:00am, I get up and start in on The Book of Disquiet, full of short essays, observations, maxims.  I can’t help thinking Pessoa would have been a great blogger, if he hadn’t died in 1935.   I’ve got to stop thinking about blogging.

Several commenters asked for my impressions of China.  I need to be careful because there is both an English language and a Chinese language version of my blog.  I’ve found that Westerners like to hear about what is different about a country, especially the “old ways.”  Like the swarms of bicycles and even the occasional donkey cart you used to see on Beijing streets.  Chinese prefer to emphasize the modern aspects of their country, associating the old ways with poverty and backwardness.  So I’ll try to appeal to both audiences by discussing housing, which was pretty primitive when I first visited in 1994, but is improving very rapidly.  I’ll focus on windows.

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A Tale of Two Provinces

This may be my last post for a while, as I leave for China tomorrow and I’m not sure how effective my internet access will be.  Even if it is effective, I will obviously slow down for a while.  I want to enjoy my trip to what is one of my favorite countries.  When I return I will resume blogging, even if the recession is “over” by then, whatever “over” means.  (BTW, in my view the end of the recession should be dated at the peak of the unemployment rate.)  So today I’ll start with a few random observations about China, and then a brief discussion of some research that I recently conducted.

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