Category Archives: What Would Spinoza Do?

That’s quite embarrassing

No idea who this smart alec is. In fact I am not sure I like him, he sounds like he will be insufferable at dinner parties for the next 20 years or so (“you know, I predicted the Great Unwind of 2008-2010″). But this video indicates 2 things to me:

1) stating very definite opinions about outcomes which will be determined by the market is not always good. State assumptions. Hedge. No matter how convinced you may that you are right, there’s at least a very small chance you may be completely wrong

2) because of this, even if you vehemently disagree with someone you are sitting next to in public, especially on TV, it is always good to be polite. Do not engage in exaggerated passive-aggressive sighing and gasping.

Spinoza was always scrupulously polite.

(HT Andrew Sullivan)

Hitch vs the Godly, again

Yo Bento, check it. You love this stuff, believing as you do that the division between the religious and atheist is the great divide of our time. Hitch has a “there is no god/oh yes there is” debate with some old rabbi, and were I to momentarily forget I am an agnostic and were I to pretend I had an open mind, I would probably not be able to tell who won. Actually I am not sure whether I am an agnostic or not — ha ha geddit? Seriously, is there a word for someone who actually doesn’t care whether there is a god or not? Perhaps I am a dontgiveafucktheist.

Maybe not even that is right; it’s more like I am fairly sure there isn’t a conventional kind of god, one who likes beards, thinks about answering our little prayers and enjoys tambourines, listening to hymns and renditions of kum by yah. No, the thought is ridiculous, but there is literally no proof I can come up with to persuade the godly to abandon their silly ideas. As Taleb would put it, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Epistemologically, it is impossible to prove the lack of existence of god. Or “g-d”, as I would write if I was a complete numbnut. On this reading, I would be a ohwhocarestheist.

Similarly, I think that in the Ethics Spinoza was trying to free his generation from all the same crap: to try and find some sort of synthesis on the great argument on god’s existence or not, an argument constantly raging below the surface, belying the sometimes lukewarm declarations of piety of the time. To come up with some statement about god everyone could agree on so we could go off and discover and debate useful things instead; optics perhaps. Not have another fucking circular, endless rehearsal of the same tired rhetorical formulations. None of his friends would have to go to prison any more; finally the religious and irreligious would be able to march hand in hand into the broad sunlit uplands of the 18thC.

I get the impression from this transcript that even Hitch is bored, just going through the motions. On the verge of the end of the era of Rove, the supposedly imminent elevation of Obama (and I share the suspicion with the republican base that he is a secret agnostic), are we sure that we really care, Bento?

“Dutch Nobel Prizes” only for the Dutch

Baruch! I almost choked on my oatmeal porridge just now when I discovered that there is such a thing as the Spinoza Prize in the Netherlands — for literature, microbiology, physics and medicine — and that the organizers, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), are keen to call them the “Dutch Nobel Prizes”. Must be a big deal, you’d think?

Not really. First, you can forget about winning the prize if you’re not Dutch. (That’s not very Nobel of them, now is it?) Second, check out what they’re winning it for. The winner for the microbiology prize?

His research has led to the development of lactic acid bacteria that can improve the taste and shelf life of cheese.

Yes indeed, in Holland you get a $1.5 million euro prize for inventing longer-lasting cheese. In our name, Baruch!

Spinozism now an officially recognized religion in Egypt

Baruch! I struck a minor coup for our cause this morning. Let me explain.

It was high time that I renewed my visa for Egypt. Until now I’ve always done so at an Egyptian embassy abroad. This time, through circumstances beyond my control, I found myself in Cairo with a visa that was about to expire and with no immediate plans to travel.

The only solution: A visit to the dreaded Mugamma. The Mugamma is a unique Egyptian institution, a massive squat gray building in the center of Cairo that acts like a sort of super-ministry of paperwork, licenses and permits. The insides are a warren of curving hallways, desks, numbered booths, waiting rooms, security checks and placards with instruction. Every imaginable activity in Egypt requires a permission slip from somebody in this building. The trick is finding that person. The task has driven people insane.

Among the Cairo expat community, Mugamma horror stories are great social currency. We all have friends of friends who spent days, dazed, trying to complete the intricate steps for whatever permit they needed; and there are rumors of people actually living in some of the further reaches of the place.

Forewarned, I came forearmed with the required passport photocopies and passport photo. After some aimless walking around, I found a window that sounded appealing — Temporary Tourist Residence Permits. I thought I might get me one of those, say for six months — much more interesting than a visa extension, no?

Remarkably, there was no wait. I was given a form, told to fill it in, buy some stamps (worth all of 2 USD) and come back.

So I filled in the form. All was well, until I hit a roadblock:

RELIGION: _____________

Well. How dare they ask. I should not have been surprised, however. Egypt’s religious composition is a matter of great importance to the powers that be, because the percentage of (Coptic) Christians in Egypt determines all manner of job quotas and budget matters. (Copts say they make up to 15% of Egypt’s population. The official figure is much lower.)

Religious identification has also been a rallying cry for Egyptian Islamists. As in the rest of the Muslim world, the concept of religious freedom is a decidedly one-way affair. Are you Christian and want to marry a Muslim girl? Easy. Just convert to Islam and the girl is yours. The state will gladly give you a new ID card with your new religious persuasion. But try to convert from Islam, and you face public disgrace, threats of vigilante killing and jail. After all that Mohammed’s done for you, you certainly don’t deserve a new ID card, you ungrateful bastard.

There has long been an additional problem for people who are not one of the three officially recognized religions — Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Egyptian Baha’is have had to wage a protracted campaign — only just recently successful — to allow them to leave blank their religious persuasion on their ID card, instead of being forced to lie by choosing one of the three obligatory options.

I knew all this as I pondered what to put down on the form as my religion. I certainly could not put down the truth — atheist — as me and my ilk tend to get deported or thrown in jail for such a public display of disaffection, just like that other great threat to Egypt’s public morality, the homosexuals.

But I didn’t want to put down what al the other expats put — Christian — because if anything I am anti-Christian. Christianity’s mythology is just as ludicrous as that of the Mormons or Scientologists, only older. I probably couldn’t get away by putting down “Muslim”, though that would be an acceptable ironic answer in my book, while putting down “Jewish” would only invite trouble. Leave it blank? I didn’t feel that was an option on this form, where the absence of an answer would leave a gaping hole, inviting scrutiny or a delay.

Then I had my stroke of genius. Before I could regret my impulsiveness, I put down “Spinozist” as my religion and handed in my bundle.

I was told to come back in two hours. That in itself was a shock — I have never heard of same-day service in the Mugamma for visas. And yet, 90 minutes later, there was my new temporary tourist residence permit, without a hint of trouble for my idiosyncratic “religion”. As far as I know, I am now the only certified Spinozist in Egypt.

One finds one is Ethical after all

As you know, I agonise sometimes, Bento, and worry that Technology as a sector really isn’t as “ethical” as one would think. Most tech gadgets are made in China these days, by dormitoried employees in conditions an early Victorian industrialist wouldn’t find unfamiliar. Interestingly one of the worst culprits here is the Hon Hai/Foxconn Group, who do all the assembly for, you guessed it, Apple. Coltan, the black stuff in the capacitors found in circuit boards, is mined in the Congo, in large part by slave labour, and is tremendously lucrative, so much so that control of it is one of the underlying reasons behind the war there over the past few years.

So this article cheered me up no end, reminding me that technology has a huge role to play in development. Forget what you and I think of iPhones and N95s Bento, it’s nothing compared how life-changing the simplest cellphone is in dirt poor countries. It’s a combination of the cheap labour of China, Moore’s law and the incredible scale of the big phone makers like Nokia, which makes it so that unprecedented numbers of people can afford one. Continue reading

I Cahn’t (turn Motorola around)

Motorola investors, Bento: I worry they are not too bright. Today Carl Icahn scored a major “victory” in his proxy battle against Motorola, effectively winning the war he started last year. Now he gets to stuff the board with his creatures and restructure the company. The stock is up modestly today, and this is almost certainly a mistake.

 

I blogged the story here almost exactly a year ago. Addressing Moto shareholders, I wrote

For god’s sake vote for Icahn; he probably knows nothing about handsets, and won’t be able to do anything to turn the company around for the next 6-9 months. But it will be the first step on the road to some degree of recovery for what has been, in the past, a great company, which employs thousands of people. Otherwise this nose-dive is only set to continue.

 As for me, unless something changes, I’m not buying Moto until it hits $11-12. It’s at $17 and change right now.

They didn’t of course, possibly because very few of them read Ultimi Barbarorum, and have no interest in Spinoza. Well, now MOT is at $9.80, and I still don’t own it. In fact, I’ve felt for some time that the decline has probably become terminal. Now I’m almost certain that Moto knows it too. How do I know this? Because they just handed Icahn the keys. Continue reading

Apfel hat Logistikproblem! (probably)

Yo Bento. Explain this, you Apple fanboy. You know I am not a great fan of Apple, nor the iPhone as a business proposition. I think this handset venture will prove an expensive white elephant; I think it blow up Apple stock eventually. I vastly prefer Research in Motion and, until recently, Nokia, as investment ideas.

Everyone is telling me that you can’t get iPhones for love or money in Apple shops in the US, and that indeed, there’s a 5-7 day waitlist. But not to worry, there’s no component issue or supply cock-up, they are just destocking because of the imminent launch of the 3G iPhone. In the words of one inveterate Apple shill:

Folks, we’re in April. May is just around the corner. Same with June [sic]. Apple’s worldwide developer conference is on June 9 in San Francisco. It stands to reason that if a new 3G iPhone is on the way, then why in the world would Apple continue to manufacture and then stock older versions that would just collect dust on store shelves?

 So then today, basking in the warm glow of an absolutely killer RIMM quarter, calculating my vast profits, rubbing my hands and cackling, I see this: in Germany not only can you get an iPhone, absolutely no problem, but now it comes at a special price for you mein Freund. T-Mobile cut the price to 99 Euros with the top rate monthly contract of EUR89/month, and the handset goes up in price by EUR50 for every tariff plan below that.  

The article (which I won’t translate for you) says “there are only 2 possible explanations”, mentions the imminent 3G iPhone launch as one, and then points out what I have been saying all along: the demand has just not been there in Europe. So let’s get this straight: in the biggest, most loyal market for iPhones, in the most profitable channel where you don’t have any payaway and have no rivals in stock, Apple has organised it so there’s no actual stock. In the most sceptical market where demand is lowest, they have so many they need to discount. Hmm. Maybe Steve Jobs just wants Euros, like Jay-Z. Or maybe this handset business isn’t quite as easy as Apple thought. 

There are a few other issues: Continue reading