Less mindless drift, more flavor

True elegance is often found in deducing striking and sound conclusions from very simple observations - observations that are accessible to all. Michael J Sandel’s "What Money Can’t Buy - The moral limits of markets” seems to me a case in point. Sandel starts off with a couple of simple premisses and takes it from there, going roughly along the following lines: 1) The pre-2008 era of market triumphalism has come to an end. The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risks efficiently, it also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals - and that something needs to be done. 2) While some argue that (an increase in) greed is the cause, the most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed, but the expansion of markets and market values into spheres of life where they do not belong. 3) Inveighing against greed would therefore be a symptomatic treatment at best, we need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society. We need to think through the moral limits of markets, to ask whether there are things that money should not buy, because 4) the more money can buy, the more affluence or the lack thereof matters. 5) This can be expressed in terms of inequality, as experienced by lower and middle class families over the past decades, but also in terms of corruption. Markets are not inert as economists often assume, markets leave their mark. They can crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about. 6) Some of the good things in life can and have been corrupted or degraded into commodities. 7) The discussion of where the market belongs and where it does not has not taken place during the era of market triumphalism, as a result we have drifted from having a market economy to a being market society without realising it or deciding to do so.

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Q&A: the difference between elitism & anti-intellectualism - and the ethics of switching off your mother

A conversational Q&A session between Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins made for an entertaining listen, yet in my opinion had less information value than a one-on-one discussion between these two gentlemen would have had. Richard Dawkins was clearly in entertainment mode: his focus was more on funny anecdotes and making tongue-in-cheek comments towards the audience than conveying information. I applaud Sam for his devotion to serious conversation. Still many topics contained food for thought, what follows now is my pick of quotes, a lot of paraphrasing and some of my own opinion.

On science and religion:

Richard (RD): “This is a unidirectional conquest of territory. You never see a point about which science was once the authority, but now the best answer is religious. But you always see the reverse of that."

BB: This does not justify extrapolation ad infinitum though, so one would have to come up with a different line of arguments if the goal was to convince someone that a theistic world view is not the most probable explanation of our universe. 

On AI

Q: Does mere scaling of intelligence and information processing get you consciousness?
Why do we need to be conscious?

SH: The conscious part of you is generally the last to find out about what your mind just did.

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It's not you, it's me

To the list of podcasts worth checking up on regularly, I wholeheartedly add The Waking Up podcast by Sam Harris. Many of you probably know him from one of his books on morality and/or free will. He is sometimes referred to as one of the four horsemen, the others being Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The horsemen, in turn, refer to the biblical four horsemen that bring on the apocalypse, as these men are considered the most veracious defenders of secular thought. But all apocalyptic matters aside, his podcasts occupy a much wider universe. It might have been emblematic for the period in my life in which I read his books, but I recall finding Sam coming across as overly pedantic, often too alarmist, and always looking for a fight, in particular when it comes to defending and promoting secularism. Maybe that just makes me a lazy secular, but whatever it may be, Sam’s provocative language was one of the reasons why I left his podcast untouched for a long while. Until now that is.

My first ‘free shot’ of Sam Harris came in the form of his podcast on AI; his conversation with AI scientist Stuart Russell (separate post coming up) - purely as a result of my personal fascination with this topic (give me anything on this topic and I will devour it). After that I was hooked. I discovered that my interpretation of his words had been too negative, and realize that I might have been misjudging him entirely. For what I was hearing here - and in further shows more controversial topics - was, firstly, a man who possesses the bravery to take on exceedingly complex and often taboo issues. Not only does he thereby knowingly sign up for receiving death threats, his tone is everything but that of an egotistic know-it-all: on many occasions I get the impression he would rather hope to be proven wrong. 

He is in fact far humbler than I had anticipated. Sure, on many topics I feel my opinion diverges from his (e.g. his recent conversation with David Deutsch I tend to agree more with Deutsch that thinking about happiness in relative terms and the slope of the derivative than in absolute ‘downloadable’ states of being, or his conversation with Shadi Hamid on Jihadism: I again think he might be too absolutist by adding too much weight the fact that terrorism is occurring (yet clearly points out - like in his conversation with James Kirchick - that current liberal relativism is a factor that played huge roles in giving us the Trump-Brexit world we live in today(!)), yet the reason I tune in to this particular podcast is to be challenged to think about complex issues - not to only hear things I agree with. In fact, disagreeing with people is exactly what Sam does - for reasons that have to do with learning and progressing more than anything else. In short, Sam addresses issues many more of us should be addressing. I admire him as an active shaper of our intellectual universe, and like him, we should realize that discussion is the only way forward.

Tempus fugit

A bit of random thought, but it just occurred to me that both - wildly different - songs, of which the most crucial lines are stated below, strike exactly the same emotional chord with me. I find this - one's realization of having lost the opportunities of youth permanently - one of the saddest personal modern human tragedies that exist. Perhaps because I feel that at some point in my life this could have happened to me as well, even though now it might seem quaint.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
------------------------
When she was 22 the future looked bright
But she's nearly 30 now and she's out every night
I see that look in her face, she's got that look in her eye
She's thinking how did I get here and wondering why

It's sad but it's true how society says her life is already over
There's nothing to do and there's nothing to say

You probably had no problem recognizing at least one, but here you go.

Campus billboards anyone?

From the twittersphere of Sam Harris, astute and visually pleasing.

The artwork was done by Paul Lachine, who did a fantastic job at Sam's TED Talk on AI. Combined with Sam's Waking Up Podcast on the topic, this deserves a post of its own, stay tuned.

An ode to the podcast

The main perk of having a fairly long daily bike commute - though true in The Netherlands, especially more so in the California sun - is the fact that I can spend around 100 minutes of each day listening to people who have something interesting to say. Whether it is hearing spectacular accounts of historical events (e.g. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History), versatile, insightful documentaries on people from all walks of life (e.g. This American Life), or in depth conversations with interesting people (e.g. the Tim Ferriss show): podcasts make it possible to do this all at times when you would otherwise be forced to stare into the distance.*

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Yes, maybe, no

So in Germany no actually means no? This leaves British politicians utterly confused. BBC Radio 4 reports.

Shark-infested waters

Upon finishing Tony Hseih’s book that had ‘feel good’ written all over it (perhaps even a bit too much sometimes), I started reading Luyendijk’s immersion into the world of London City bankers; ’Swimming with Sharks'. Boy, the contrast with Tony’s book could not have been starker. But like with Luyendijk's former books on journalism in the Middle East, this book was an absolute page turner. And like he did for the making of his former books, Luyendijk submerses himself into the world of his subjects and manages to paint a picture that is human, balanced, and - perhaps what gives the account a lasting impression - very non-judgemental. 

He describes his initial struggle to find bankers willing to share their version of City life, shows that ‘the banker’ does not exist and that - unsurprisingly - how the world of finance entails a vast collection and wide variety of jobs. The people occupying these professions come in as wide a variety of character traits as any other profession, and though the classic stereotype ‘Master of the Universe’ loudmouth alpha does indeed exist, Luyendijk also identifies ’teeth grinders’, ‘blinkers’, and a bunch of other types of character traits that constitute this world. In short, Luyendijk shows that the people in this profession are as human as any one of us.

This leads the reader to a conclusion that is much darker and more worrisome than the picture of ‘a handful of rotten apples that ruin it for all’ would have painted though. Luyendijk points out how the whole incentive structure in banking is set up to favour short-term gains over sustainable growth and prosperity, how incentives push one to ‘eat or be eaten’, and urge every entity - the banks, the employees, the politicians, etc. - to care for nothing else but the self. In many ways the world of (investment) banking is a world of 'grab all you can grab, because tomorrow the party might be over'.

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In pursuit of happiness

When recommended to me a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Tony Hseih. However, while I had hardly heard of Zappos, I had on many more accounts heard of and read about some company who offered new employees the choice to quit with a $2k bonus anytime during their 4 week introduction period. I had heard of some online retail store with an incredible customer service that did much more than was asked for. Tony turns out to be the man behind this all, and he tells his personal story in a real, open, down to earth and humorous way.

His story starts how he as a young boy wants to become rich by growing a worm farm, and takes you through his youth, college, founding LinkExchange and selling it off, and his almost religious experience at a rave. Eventually a turn of events leads him to take all of his experiences, acquired wealth, and efforts to bet it all on growing a small online shoe store in the way he thought it should be done. That is, growing it such that not only revenues or profitability would grow as fast as possible, but grow the shoe store such that everyone connected to the business in one way or another - employees, vendors, customers, investors, partners, local communities - could grow and prosper - prosper in the broadest sense of the word - with this company known as Zappos.

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As the sun sets over South Holland

A Great New Adventure Out West starts. More on that later, but for now a small visual tribute to two places very dear to me: a place that taught me how to be a scientist, and a place that stole my heart.

The view from a place I loved to watch the sun go down, perhaps a place known for its touch of champagne socialism, but boy what a fantastic spot. And what about this one, though perhaps not Oxford's 'Bridge of Sighs' this was taken from, the view is a more majestic one if you ask me:

There I so many things that I could, maybe should, or probably wish I had written about the city of Rotterdam, the city which I had come to call my home during the final stretch of my PhD (and, what turned out to be my final time in The Netherlands, that is). I wanted to have written how I truly love the fact that in many ways this place was the proud antipode to Amsterdam, an unpolished diamond, a harbor city and a place with rough edges, yet culturally rich and beautiful at its core not unlike the beloved city of my teenage years, Antwerp; how this place cuts strait through a lot of the BS so adorned in the capital, a place of doing instead of talking about doing; how it is the only city in the country that has a true metropolitan feel; how, unlike other Dutch cities, this place did not give me the sense of being a mere spectator in my own country, and so on and so forth. In short, how by a historic and gruesome twist of fate this city had become the non-conformist rebel of the Low Countries, and how this place finally made me feel truly at home in my country of birth for the first time in my life. But as with so many things floating around in one's head, only minute fractions end up in writing. Perhaps for the better, as I was probably too busy enjoying life. Anyway, enough rambling, let's let the pics do some of the talking:

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