Plant Trees SF Events 2008 Archive: 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023


1.   BERT Hill for BART board, a correction
2.   Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature, conversations and readings by local authors in Berkeley TONIGHT
3.   A Taste of the Old Southwest:  Arizona and New Mexico at Ted Kipping's potluck TONIGHT
4.   Information about San Francisco's Prop B
5.   Historic Barbary Coast Trail Walk October 31, 9 am
6.   San Bruno Mountain natural history field trip October 30
7.   Mike Sullivan's special tree walk in Forest Hills neighborhood October 31
8.   Salmon Protection and Watershed Network restoration events for next two weekends
9.   NPC series of Park Town Halls, inviting City and park officials to come listen
10. Newest survey shows green cleaning product prices equivalent to conventional products
11. SciAm:  genetic modification could boost plants' carbon-capture?  (I'm nervous)
12. Dancing at the movies video
13. The 2000 U.S. presidential election should have been decided by a coin flip.  Proofness:  The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception/Fibbing with Numbers
14. Insects could be the key to meeting food needs of growing population
15. Environmentalists inconsistent on battery-operated vehicles?
16. SFPUC continues its discounted rain barrels and cistern program
17. Is Lake Mead drying up?  Reservoir at historic low
18.  Some troubling looks at California's population
19.  Bad way of making the money go round:  23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
20. Benoit Mandelbrot, father of fractal geometry, dies at 85/some Mandelbrot thoughts on financial meltdown

“I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and as yet he must still, for security, look long at some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.”   Gavin Maxwell

1.  Tom Radulovich:
> Thanks for the plug for Bert Hill. BART has for too long abetted sprawl by coupling its extensions to freeway expansion into the greenbelt, and surrounding our stations with huge parking lots. I need colleagues like Bert Hill and Robert Raburn to turn this around, so that BART can foster a compact, sustainable region, rather than a sprawly, auto-oriented one.

Mary Linnea Swanson:
> Hi Jake,  Love your newsletter, every week.  This one has a MISTAKE... It should read BERT Hill (not Bill). He's a great guy, and a bicycle educator.

Which, about a dozen (and counting) people have brought to my attention.  Thank you.

Perhaps it's a fortunate mistake--it gives me an excuse to talk about BERT Hill again.  The current BART board seems locked in to the world as it used to be.  Look at the establishment politicians backing Hill's opponent.  Just like the Central Subway, the plans to extend BART eastward (via transferring to a diesel train) to the ever-burgeoning Central Valley is wrong, wrong, wrong, and has more to do with politics than transportation or budgetary concerns.  The days of housing tracts spreading over the landscape ever outward like a bacterial slime is over.  New realities are dawning, Mss Pelosi, Feinstein, and Mr Newsom.  OVER.  Money will never again be as plentiful as it has been; we need to husband it carefully.


2.  Stories to Carry Us Through

You are invited to come to a special fundraising event for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. This will also be the book launch for Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature. Please join us for an informative, inspiring and uplifting evening of conversation and readings by local authors and activists: Osprey Orielle Lake, Joanna Macy, and Belvie Rooks.  The evening includes a reception, book signing and silent auction. Seating for the event is very limited so purchase your tickets today!

Tuesday, October 26th, 6:00 to 9:30 PM
David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley
Cost: $15.00 per ticket

For more information and to purchase tickets go to

3.  Ted Kipping pot luck/slide shows
4th Tuesday of the month at 7 pm at the San Francisco County Fair Bldg, 9th Av & Lincoln Way in Golden Gate Park
Served by Muni bus lines #6, 43, 44, 66, 71, and the N-Judah Metro

*Please bring a dish and beverage to serve 8 people



4.  Information about San Francisco's Proposition B:
I have spent more time mulling over San Francisco's Prop B than any other ballot issue, and have been intending to vote Yes.  Further research--including reading in the Voter's Handbook till my eyes are bleary, as well as conversations with others--may persuade me to vote No.  

I am a retired City employee (the provisions of B will not affect me), and while working I sometimes pissed off my fellow workers by voting against some ballot measures that would put more money in my pocket, because I thought the measures not needed or unsound and not good policy.  I think that gives me some credentials for speaking, always with the proviso that it is a complicated measure whose ramifications I don't fully comprehend--but that itself may be reason for voting No.  

Obviously there is a problem that needs correcting.  But it should be done in a more comprehensive way to include all relevant City employees, including police and fire.  B singles out those least able to protect themselves, and it was written by some very well-to-do, without input from others, including the affected.  If we reject B the pressure for remedial measures is till there, and there will be an opportunity to address in a sound manner, without leaving a legacy of bitterness and unfairness.  JS


5.  Historic Barbary Coast Trail Walk
Presented by SF Maritime National Park Association + SF Museum and Historical Society
Sunday October 31, 9am

The first-time ever 3.5 mile walk crosses the city from the Old Mint at 5th and Mission to Aquatic Park, following handsome bronze plaques on the sidewalks linking 16 historic San Francisco landmarks.

Register now 

The walk benefits the the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association.
Watch the video featuring former Mayor Willie Brown. 
Support two organizations that you love. Learn more and register.


6.  California Native Plant Society field trip

Trips are held rain or shine, but heavy rain cancels. Nonmembers are encouraged to attend these FREE walks. 
OCTOBER 30, Saturday, 10 am to 1 pm
San Bruno Mountain Natural History “Potluck” Tour
Leader: Doug Allshouse
San Bruno Mountain is a local landmark of political and natural historical significance. In his book The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson calls the mountain “one of 18 ecosystem hotspots in the world.” It also has been Doug’s backyard since 1978 and he walks the trails almost daily, so he has had plenty of time to learn about his environment. Blooms of wildflowers are scarce in October, but some do exist, and in any case there is much more to this place than the flora. The fauna are just as fascinating and are crucial to the many ecosystems present. As home to 3 endangered butterflies and 14 rare or endangered plants, the mountain has motivated many volunteers to undertake restoration projects to remove invasive plants and enhance our native plant communities. Doug has volunteered with Friends of San Bruno Mountain since 1996, in the field and in the nursery. What with these activities and 32 years of peregrinations, he tends to know where things are and, in some instances, how they got there. He will scout out and share the most interesting botanical and other phenomena of the season. Bring binoculars if you wish. Given the marine influence the weather is a box of chocolates so please bring layers. Enter the park off Guadalupe Canyon Parkway and meet in the main parking lot just past the rangers’ kiosk. There is a self-registered $5 admission fee paid at the iron ranger at the kiosk. For directions or more information contact Doug at for directions and details!

Friday 11 / 5 / 2010 - Native Plant Nursery Workdays in Lagunitas
Join us from 10am - 1pm for Volunteer Workdays in SPAWN's native plant nursery, where we grow valuable native plants for restoration! Visit for details!


9.  Neighborhood Parks Council has heard your desire to have more access to park decision-makers outside of formal City-run meetings and that you would like to discuss park issues in advance of decisions. In response, we are hosting a series of Park Town Halls and inviting City and park officials to come listen.
Northwest: Saturday, October 30 at the County Fair Building (10am)
Northeast: January 2011 at SoMA Gene Friend Recreation Center (10am)
Southwest: March 2011 at Minnie & Lovie Ward Recreation Center (10am)
Southeast: May 2011 at Upper Noe Recreation Center (10am)
Now is the time to hear your views about managing our parks, get your creative solutions to challenges, and identify concerns BEFORE park decisions are made by officials. Now is the time to plan for our park system’s future. More information related to our Park Town Halls can be found on our website at


10.  SFApproved List News
    • San Francisco Department of the Environment • October 22, 2010 

Newest Survey Shows Green Cleaning Product Prices are Equivalent to Conventional Products

It doesn't necessarily take more 'green' to go 'green.' The San Francisco Department of the Environment completed a survey last month showing that - for cleaning products at least - the prices are about the same. Add on the long-term benefits of green cleaning, such as worker health and water savings, and you've got a winning program. You can view the full study here.

The SFE study aimed to gather more objective information on the topic by surveying the prices of 373 cleaning products from 26 manufacturers across 8 product categories.  Previous surveys have shown that custodial supervisors believe green cleaning costs a little more than conventional. Our results showed that green product prices were not significantly different from those of equivalent conventional products, with the exception of floor strippers, where conventional products were more expensive.  In fact, most green products (except glass cleaners) averaged somewhat cheaper than conventional, which was not at all what we expected to find. 

While the prices were adjusted for different concentrations, it is important to note that price variability was high. Also, the survey could not account for differences in product effectiveness, although many third-party green certified products are required to pass a scrub test.

As expected, products sold as aerosols or as ready-to-use (RTU) products were significantly more expensive than the equivalent concentrates; RTU products averaged 15 times more expensive and aerosols averaged 27 times more expensive.  So here is an easy win for small businesses who currently use consumer-grade cleaning products: Switch to institutional grade, third-party certified, green products instead!  You will save money while you improve your environmental profile.


11.  Scientific American:
NEWS: Flower Power: Genetic Modification Could Amply Boost Plants' Carbon-Capture and Bioenergy Capacity
A new review sums up options for increasing global carbon sequestration by flora and speculates that genetically engineering crops and trees could enhance the process, trapping gigatons of the greenhouse gas as well as increasing bioenergy production

(Jesus Christ!  Hear we go again:  anything to avoid changing our ways.  Control uber alles.  JS)

60-SECOND MIND: Generosity Might Keep Us Healthy
Psychologist Liz Dunn spoke with us from the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, about the link between greed and long-term health


12.  Dancing at the Movies - Music Video


13.  "If you want to get people to believe something really, really stupid, just stick a number on it."
Author Charles Seife in his new book, Proofness:  The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

The 2000 U.S. presidential election should have been decided by a coin flip.

Or so argues Charles Seife, a mathematician-turned-journalist who tackles some of society’s biggest math problems in his new book. The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was, mathematically speaking, too close to call. So, Seife suggests, instead of counting chads, the contested state of Florida should have relied on an age-old procedure for breaking a tie: drawing lots.

Seife is somewhat obsessed with the flaws in the country’s electoral system, but he makes an eloquent case that all citizens should be so concerned. What he dubs “proofiness” — the manipulation of mathematics for untrue ends — permeates modern culture.

He gives plenty of examples. One flawed study suggests that women who have had an abortion have a 30 percent increased risk of breast cancer. Another argues that tobacco is a gateway to harder drug use. Statisticians can spend all day eviscerating the math behind these studies, but proofiness nonetheless trickles deep into social policy.

Even mathphobes will appreciate Seife’s clear explanations of why polls are so flawed and how risks are routinely exaggerated to justify a particular decision. Seife is trying to do the admirable and the impossible — educate the public so people can understand when they are being manipulated by bogus numbers. If only those doing the manipulation would believe that the public is too smart to be duped.

Review in Science News 09.10.10

"A few other recent books have explored how easily we can be deceived — or deceive ourselves — with numbers. But “Proofiness” reveals the truly corrosive effects on a society awash in numerical mendacity. This is more than a math book; it’s an eye-opening civics lesson."  Steven Strogatz (see next item.) ___________________________

Fibbing With Numbers, New York Times book review by STEVEN STROGATZ

Charles Seife is steaming mad about all the ways that numbers are being twisted to erode our democracy. We’re used to being lied to with words (“I am not a crook”; “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But numbers? They’re supposed to be cold, hard and objective. Numbers don’t lie, and they brook no argument. They’re the best kind of facts we have.

Illustration by Leonardo Sonnoli

PROOFINESS:  The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, By Charles Seife

And that’s precisely why they can be so powerfully, persuasively misleading, as Seife argues in his passionate new book, “Proofiness.” Seife, a veteran science writer who teaches journalism at New York University examines the many ways that people fudge with numbers, sometimes just to sell more moisturizer but also to ruin our economy, rig our elections, convict the innocent and undercount the needy. Many of his stories would be darkly funny if they weren’t so infuriating.

Although Seife never says so explicitly, the book’s title alludes to “truthiness” — the Word of the Year in 2005, according to the American Dialect Society, which defined it as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” The term was popularized by Stephen Colbert in the first episode of “The Colbert Report.” The numerical cousin of truthiness is proofiness: “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.”

Seife emphasizes that numbers impress us. They carry authority. Joe McCarthy, for example, didn’t simply allege that the government was infested with Communists; he held up a sheaf of papers and claimed it contained the names of 205 members of the Communist Party working in the State Department. The specificity of the accusation made it seem more believable. So what if the number soon went up to 207, then shrank to 57 a day later when McCarthy wrote to President Truman? What mattered is that the numbers intimidated McCarthy’s critics. As it turned out, he never had any list and couldn’t identify a single Communist working in the State Department. None of that stopped him from rising to national prominence on the back of his numerical lies.

Falsifying numbers is the crudest form of proofiness. Seife lays out a rogues’ gallery of more subtle deceptions. “Potemkin numbers” are phony statistics based on erroneous or nonexistent calculations. Justice Antonin Scalia's assertion that only 0.027 percent of convicted felons are wrongly imprisoned was a Potemkin number derived from a prosecutor’s back-of-the-envelope estimate; more careful studies suggest the rate might be between 3 and 5 percent.

“Disestimation” involves ascribing too much meaning to a measurement, relative to the uncertainties and errors inherent in it. In the most provocative and detailed part of the book, Seife analyzes the recounting process in the astonishingly close 2008 Minnesota Senate race between Norman Coleman and Al Franken.  The winner, he claims, should have been decided by a coin flip; anything else is disestimation, considering that the observed errors in counting the votes were always much larger than the number of votes (roughly 200 to 300) separating the two candidates.

(JS:  I can't wait to the end of this article to complain loudly about "disestimation".  Who coins these effing things?  Why not just say they're wrong, or lies, or whatever they are?  If someone tells me what I heard is a disestimation I find myself vague and fuzzy about what it means.  That might serve the purpose of those who want to keep you vague and confused.)

“Comparing apples and oranges” is another perennial favorite. The conservative Blue Dog Democrats indulged in it when they accused the Bush administration of borrowing more money from foreign governments in four years than had all the previous administrations in our nation’s history, combined. True enough, but only if one conveniently forgets to correct for inflation.

Seife is evenhanded about exposing the proofiness on both sides of the political aisle, though we all know who’s responsible for a vast majority of it: the other side.

He calls Al Gore to task for “cherry-picking” data about global warming.  Although Seife doesn’t dispute that the warming is real and that human activities are to blame for a sizable portion of it, he chastises Gore for showing terrifying simulations of what would happen to Florida and Louisiana if sea levels were to rise by 20 feet, as could occur if the ice sheets in Greenland or West Antarctica were to melt almost completely. That possibility, while not out of the question, is generally considered an unlikely “very-worst-case” scenario, Seife writes.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration committed a more insidious form of proofiness when it crowed, in 2004, that its tax cuts would save the average family $1,586. This is technically correct, but deliberately misleading — a trick that Seife calls “apple polishing.” (Again with the fruit!) The average is the wrong measure to use when a set of numbers contains extreme outliers — in this case, the whopping refunds received by a very few, very wealthy families. In such situations, the average is far from typical. That’s why, paradoxical as it might seem, most families received less than $650.

In one of the book’s lighter moments, Seife even looks askance at the wholesome folks at Quaker Oats, who in addition to selling a “bland and relatively unappetizing product” once presented a graph that gave the visual impression that their “barely digestible oat fiber” was a “medicinal vacuum cleaner” that would reduce your cholesterol far more than it actually does. For the most part, though, he is deadly serious. A few other recent books have explored how easily we can be deceived — or deceive ourselves — with numbers. But “Proofiness” reveals the truly corrosive effects on a society awash in numerical mendacity. This is more than a math book; it’s an eye-opening civics lesson.


14.  Insects could be the key to meeting food needs of growing global population
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is taking seriously the farming of creepy-crawlies as nutritious food
Sunday 1 August 2010 in Observer

Saving the planet one plateful at a time does not mean cutting back on meat, according to new research: the trick may be to switch our diet to insects and other creepy-crawlies.
The raising of livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep occupies two-thirds of the world's farmland and generates 20% of all the greenhouse gases driving global warming. As a result, the United Nations and senior figures want to reduce the amount of meat we eat, and the search is on for alternatives.
A policy paper on the eating of insects is being formally considered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The FAO held a meeting on the theme in Thailand in 2008 and there are plans for a world congress in 2013.
Professor Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the author of the UN paper, says eating insects has advantages.
"There is a meat crisis," he said. "The world population will grow from six billion now to nine billion by 2050 and we know people are consuming more meat. Twenty years ago the average was 20kg, it is now 50kg, and will be 80kg in 20 years. If we continue like this we will need another Earth."
Van Huis is an enthusiast for eating insects but given his role as a consultant to the FAO, he can't be dismissed as a crank. "Most of the world already eats insects," he points out. "It is only in the western world that we don't. Psychologically we have a problem with it. I don't know why, as we eat shrimps, which are very comparable."
The advantages of this diet include insects' high levels of protein, vitamin and mineral content. Van Huis's latest research, conducted with colleague Dennis Oonincx, shows that farming insects produces far less greenhouse gas than livestock. Breeding commonly eaten insects such as locusts, crickets and meal worms, emits 10 times less methane than livestock. The insects also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, also a warming gas, and much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming.
Being cold-blooded, insects convert plant matter into protein extremely efficiently, Van Huis says. In addition, he argues, the health risks are lower. He acknowledges that in the west eating insects is a hard sell: "It is very important how you prepare them, you have to do it very nicely, to overcome the yuk factor."
More than 1,000 insects are known to be eaten by choice around the world, in 80% of nations. They are most popular in the tropics, where they grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest.
The FAO's field officer Patrick Durst, based in Bangkok, Thailand, ran the 2008 conference.
Durst helped set up an insect farming project FAO project in Laos which began in April. This involves transferring the skills of the 15,000 household locust farmers in Thailand across the border. "There were some proponents of a bigger dairy industry in Laos to improve a calcium deficiency," says Durst, whose favourite is fried wasp - "very crispy and a nice light snack". "But this is crazy when most Asians are lactose intolerant." Locusts and crickets are calcium-rich and 90% of people in Laos have eaten insects at some point, he says.Durst says the FAO's priority will be to boost the eating of insects where this is already accepted but has been in decline due to western cultural influence.
He also thinks such a boost can provide livelihoods and protect forests where many wild insects are collected. "I can see a step-by-step process to wider implementation."
First, insects could be used to feed farmed animals such as chicken and fish which eat them naturally. Then, they could be used as ingredients.
Van Huis adds: "We're looking at ways of grinding the meat into some sort of patty, which would be more recognisable to western palates."
One of the few suppliers of insects for human consumption in the UK is Paul Cook, whose business Osgrow is based in Bristol. However, no matter how they are marketed or presented, Cook is not convinced they will ever become more than a novelty. "They are in the fun element ... But I can't see it ever catching on in the UK in a big way."


15.  LTE, The Economist
SIR:  Your article left out an irony.  Environmentalists generally object to battery-powered devices and for good reason:  batteries require mined minerals, employ manufacturing processes that leak toxins into local ecosystems and leave behind an even-worse trail of side-effects upon disposal.  Though when it comes to the largest mass-produced battery-powered gadget ever created--the electric car--environmentalists cannot jump from their seats fast enough to applaud it.
Ozzie Zehner, San Francisco



While supplies last, San Francisco residents, businesses and schools can purchase 60-gallon rain barrels and larger volume cisterns at steep discounts, compliments of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Purchase your first barrel for $85 and each additional barrel for only $45 – that’s more than 50% off the regular retail price of $105! Cistern discounts range from $160 to $640 depending upon volume.

The discounted rain barrels and cisterns are available at:

The Urban Farmer Store
(San Francisco location only)
2833 Vicente Street, at 40th Avenue
Phone orders are welcome:  415-661-2204 (ext. 1)

For more information on this discount program, or on San Francisco’s rainwater harvesting program, please visit:


17.  From Planning & Conservation League newsletter


Last Sunday Lake Mead, created by the construction of Hoover Dam, dropped to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled 75 years ago. The water level is only 8 feet shy of reaching “critical water shortage status,” which will trigger a temporary distribution plan that will reduce water deliveries from the lake to Arizona and Nevada.

The lake’s low levels are a product of two factors: rapidly increasing demand, and decreasing flows in the Colorado River. The population of Las Vegas, which relies largely on the lake for its water supply, has grown from 5,165 to 2 million people since 1930. At the same time, the Southwest is experiencing a decade-long drought that scientists are acknowledging is a "recurrent and integral feature of the region's climate” – and one that will be exacerbated by climate change. Since drought took hold on the Colorado and its tributaries in 1999, the surface of the lake has plunged almost 130 feet.

If the water level drops 33 feet from its current level, it will make it impossible to run the Hoover Dam’s massive hydroelectric turbines which provide power to the region. According to Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, “if the flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble.” In 2009, 61 percent of San Diego’s water supply came from Lake Mead. However, unlike Arizona and Nevada, California will not hit with mandatory rationing due to its higher senior water rights. If the water level in Lake Mead falls 60 feet, California’s right to the reservoir’s water will be renegotiated.

(But I thought Arizona and Nevada were the places where most houses were "underwater".  [Is joke.])


What happens when a seemingly unstoppable force hurtles headlong into a truly immovable object? As their already enormous populations continue to grow recklessly, heedless of any and all looming limits, 39 million Californians and 310 million Americans are about to learn the answer to this ancient riddle. more>>

The good news is that American citizenship continues to be valued worldwide. The bad news is that millions of foreign women have traveled to the U.S. over the last 30 years with the express purpose of gaming the system to give birth to an “American” baby. more>>

Los Angeles will produce so much trash due to projected population increases in the next 10 years that the county won’t be able to handle it. This comes from the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) report released in June. more>>

Earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Turkey have brought death and wreaked havoc in the first few months of this year, leading some to wonder if seismic activity is increasing. It's not, seismologists say. more>>


19.  Bad way of making the money go round
23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang
Review by John Gray in Observer

The world is awash with books that claim to explain the global financial meltdown.  Not many are written by economists.  Ignorant of history, including that of economics itself, most economists not only failed to forecast the crash but, mesmerised by the spurious harmonies of their mathematical models, were blind to the mounting instability of the financial system and failed to grasp that an upheaval of the kind that is currently under way was even possible.  After an intellectual failure on this scale, what could economists have to say today that would be of any interest to anyone?

Anxiously defending their turf, many have objected that they never claimed to predict the future.  But as Ha-Joon Chang writes:  "Economists are not some innocent technicians who did a decent job within the narrow confines of their expertise until they were collectively wrong-footed by a once-in-a-century disaster that no one could have predicted."  Far from being an inward-looking, hermetic discipline, economics has been a hugely powerful - and profitable - enterprise, shaping the policies of governments and companies throughout much of the world.  The results have been little short of disastrous.  As Chang puts it:  "Economics, as it has been practised in the last three decades, has been positively harmful for most people."

In his 2008 book, Bad Samaritans:  The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, Chang - an economist himself, a specialist in the political economy of development - mocked one of the orthodoxies of his profession  the belief that global free trade raises living standards everywhere.  23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism assaults economic orthodoxy on a much larger front.  Dip into this witty, iconoclastic and uncommonly commonsensical guide to the follies of economics, and among many other things, you will learn that free market policies rarely make poor countries richer; global companies without national roots belong in the realm of myth; the US does not have the highest living standards in the world; the washing machine changed the world more than the internet; more education does not of itself make countries richer; financial markets need to become less, not more efficient; and - perhaps most shocking to Chang's colleagues - good economic policy does not require good economists.  Each of Chang's 23 propositions may seem counterintuitive, even contrarian.  But every one of them has a basis in fact and logic, and taken together they present a new view of capitalism.

Chang may be our best critic of capitalism, but h is far from being an anti-capitalist.  He recognises the failings of centrally planned economies, and rightly describes capitalism as "the worst economic system except for all the others".  At the same time he is confident that capitalism can be reformed to prevent crises such as the one we have just experienced recurring.  Making markets more transparent is not enough.  "If we are really serious about preventing another crisis like the 2008 meltdown," Chang writes, "we should simply ban complex financial instruments, unless they can be unambiguously shown to benefit society in the long run."  He is aware that he risks sounding extreme, but argues that the ban he proposes is no different from those that have been enforced on other dangerous products.  "This is what we do all the time with other products - drugs, cars, electrical products and many others."

It is at this point that Chang's analysis, otherwise refreshingly down to earth, seems to me to become unrealistic.  Banning opaque financial products might be a step towards a safer world.  Unfortunately it is also politically impossible.  In the US, Obama's economic policies are being shaped by the same people who dismantled Roosevelt's curbs on the banking system during the Clinton era.

Again, Chang urges that we ban financial derivatives, but who are "we"?  As he himself recognises, capitalism is not one economic system but many.  "There are different ways to organise capitalism.  Free-market capitalism is only one of them - and not a very good one at that.  There is no one ideal model."  This is clearly right, but the types of capitalism that exist today are not just different.  They are also competitors.  Chinese capitalism, Russian capitalism, Indian capitalism and American capitalism are geopolitical rivals as much as they are different ways of organising the marketplace, and they threaten one another in a number of contexts - not least when they are struggling to secure control of scarce natural resources.

Capitalism is not only about creating wealth, it is also about power - and western power is waning.  Economic energy is shifting to the emerging countries, while in the west economies stagnate and politicians continue to worship at the altar of the free market.  Rather than reforming itself, free-market capitalism looks set simply to decline.  But if Chang's reforms are unrealistic, his account of where we find ourselves today is arrestingly accurate.  For anyone who wants to understand capitalism not as economists or politicians have pictured it but as it actually operates, this book will be invaluable.


20.  Benoît Mandelbrot, father of fractal geometry, died on October 14th, aged 85 - The Economist Oct 21st 2010

MATHEMATICS is a curious subject. Though often classed as one, it is not really a science. That scientists use it to describe their interpretation of reality is not quite the same thing. Nor, though, is it an art—not, at any rate, in the modern meaning of that word. The aesthetics of the subject, which any mathematician will tell you are the driving force behind his passion, are not obvious to the senses in the way that those of a painting, a symphony or a play are. Yet Benoît Mandelbrot’s celebrity beyond the academy is largely due to art in its modern, sensuous, sense. For the “set” to which he gave his name, when computed, drawn on a complex plane and suitably tinted, appealed greatly to the senses—as a million posters, greetings cards and T-shirts, bought by people who had not the faintest idea what it was, attest.

(I excise several paragraphs here about rarefied mathematics; it is much too abstruse for me.  JS)

The invention of complex numbers was a watershed in mathematics. It also marked the moment when maths began to slip away from being part of the armamentarium of any educated person and towards the dizzyingly abstruse field it has become today. But a fractal is something a ten-year-old child might hit on.

What is the length of a country’s coastline? Any encyclopedia will give you a figure. Yet stand by the sea and watch the irregularity of its edge, and you begin to doubt. It is not just a matter of tide and waves. Even measuring the boundary of a static body of water is no mean feat. The closer you look, the more irregular the line. That, at bottom, is what describes a fractal. When you magnify it, it rushes away from you and becomes a simulacrum of its larger self, eventually infinitely long.

Dr Mandelbrot asked himself the coastline question, and answered it in 1967, in an essay called “How long is the coast of Britain?”. In 1975 he invented the word fractal to describe his discoveries. Extending fractals into the plane of complex numbers followed in 1979. But the breakthrough that made them famous was the ability of computers to plot them in a way that is easy on the eye. Thus were launched the posters, the cards and the T-shirts.

Before all this Dr Mandelbrot worked in the obscurity that modern mathematicians have resigned themselves to. He had followed, albeit belatedly, a path familiar to Jewish intellectuals driven from eastern Europe by the rise of the Nazis. His family fled Poland for France before the second world war and, though they stayed there for the duration, the young Benoît afterwards oscillated between France and the United States before settling for America in 1958. Once there, he worked for IBM. Among other things, he modelled electrical noise. Which, it turns out, is fractal. That it was the transmogrification of his formula by computers which brought him fame is thus appropriate.

Game, set and match?

For a time, fractals seemed the answer to everything: the shape of clouds, the growth of organisms, even why the night sky is dark. Then the world lost interest.

Perhaps it should not have. For among Dr Mandelbrot’s beliefs was a conviction that financial-market movements, too, have fractal forms, rather than the familiar bell shapes of “normal” distribution that Gauss also described. If Dr Mandelbrot’s belief was correct, trading models based on Gauss’s distribution are wrong.

That markets are not Gaussian has now been accepted. Dr Mandelbrot’s interpretation, however, has not. Even if it had been, the bankers might not have noticed. They preferred algorithms to geometry.


I dug the following from my computer files.  At around the same time, I listened to an interview with Mandelbrot after the 2008 meltdown, and it was frightening.  He didn't predict doom but made it clear that the financial markets are subject to chaos, meaning that they are deterministic, but uncontrollable.  That 'butterfly effect' means that a small change in initial conditions can have enormous, but unpredictable, effects down the road, and some of those potential effects made a severe chill run down my spine.  Here are some writings from my files:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb:  “The deepest and most realistic finance book ever published.”
Fractals and Scaling In Finance by Benoit B. Mandelbrot
From the inventor of fractal geometry, a revolutionary new theory that overturns our understanding of how markets work.
Benoit B. Mandelbrot, one of the century's most influential mathematicians, is world-famous for making mathematical sense of a fact everybody knows but that geometers from Euclid on down had never assimilated: Clouds are not round, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not smooth. To these classic lines we can now add another example: Markets are not the safe bet your broker may claim. In his first book for a general audience, Mandelbrot, with co-author Richard L. Hudson, shows how the dominant way of thinking about the behavior of markets--a set of mathematical assumptions a century old and still learned by every MBA and financier in the world--simply does not work.
As he did for the physical world in his classic The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Mandelbrot here uses fractal geometry to propose a new, more accurate way of describing market behavior. The complex gyrations of IBM's stock price and the dollar-euro exchange rate can now be reduced to straightforward formulae that yield a far better model of how risky they are. With his fractal tools, Mandelbrot has gotten to the bottom of how financial markets really work, and in doing so, he describes the volatile, dangerous (and strangely beautiful) properties that financial experts have never before accounted for. The result is no less than the foundation for a new science of finance.
Books by Taleb:
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
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