Sunday, January 31, 2010


On Seeing Like A Cat

Cats and dogs are the most familiar among the animal archetypes inhabiting the human imagination. They are to popular modern culture what the fox and the hedgehog are to high culture, and what farm animals like cows and sheep were to agrarian cultures. They also differ from foxes, hedgehogs, sheep and cows in an important way: nearly all of us have directly interacted with real cats and dogs.

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

I am a cat person, not in the sense of liking cats more (though I do), but actually being more catlike than doglike. Humans are more complex than either species; we are the products of the tension between our dog-like and cat-like instincts. We do both sociability and individualism in more complicated ways than our two friends; call it hyper-dogginess plus hyper-cattiness. That is why reductively mapping yourself exclusively to one or the other is such a useful exercise. You develop a more focused self-awareness about who you really are.

Our language is full of dog and cat references. Dogs populate our understanding of social dynamics: conflict, competition, dominance, slavery, mastery, belonging and otherness:

Finance is a dog-eat-dog world
He’s the alpha-dog/underdog around here
He’s a pit bull
Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka (trans: “the washerman’s dog belongs neither at the riverbank, nor at the house;” i.e. a social misfit everywhere)
He follows her around like a dog
He looks at his boss with dog-like devotion

Cat references speak to individualism, play, opportunism, risk, comfort, mystery, luck and curiosity

A cat may look at a king
She curled up like a cat
A cat has nine lives
Managing this team is like herding cats
Look what the cat dragged in
It’s a cat-and-mouse game
Curiosity killed the cat

There is a dark side to each: viciousness and deliberate cruelty (dogs), coldness and lack of empathy (cats). We also like to use the idealized cat-dog polarity to illuminate our understanding of deep conflicts: they are going at it like cats and dogs. Curiously, though the domestic cat is a far less threatening animal than the domestic dog (wolf vs. tiger is a different story), we are able to develop contempt for certain dog-archetypes, but not for cat-archetypes. You can’t really insult someone in any culture by calling him/her a cat (to my knowledge). But there is fear associated with cats (witches, black cats for bad luck) in every culture. Much of this fear, I believe, arises from the cat’s clear indifference to our assumptions about our own species-superiority and intra-species status.

That point is clearly illustrated in the pair of opposites he looks at his boss with dog-like devotion/a cat may look at a king. The latter is my favorite cat-proverb. It gets to the heart of what is special about the cat as an archetype: being not oblivious, but indifferent to ascriptive authority and social status. You can wear fancy robes and a crown and be declared King by all the dogs, but a cat will still look quizzically at you, trying to assess whether the intrinsic you, as opposed to the socially situated, extrinsic you, is interesting. Like the child, the cat sees through the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

Our ability to impress and intimidate is mostly inherited from ascriptive social status rather than actual competence or power. Cats call our bluff, and scare us psychologically. Dogs validate what cats ignore. But it is this very act of validating the unreal that actually creates an economy of dog-power, expressed outside the dog society as the power of collective, coordinated action. Dogs create society by believing it exists.

In the Canine-Feline Mirror

We map ourselves to these two species by picking out, exaggerating and idealizing certain real cat and dog behaviors. In the process, we reveal more about ourselves than either cats or dogs. Cats are loyal to places, dogs to people is an observation that is more true of people than either dogs or cats. Just substitute interest in the limited human sphere (the globalized world of gossipy, politicky, watercoolerized, historicized and CNNized human society; feebly ennobled as “humanism”) versus the entire universe (physical reality, quarks, ketchup, ideas, garbage, container ships, art, history, humans-drawn-to-scale). There are plenty of such dichotomous observations. A particularly perceptive one is this: dog-people think dogs are smarter than cats because they learn to obey commands and do tricks; cat-people think cats are smarter for the exact same reason. Substitute interest in degrees, medals, awards, brands and titles versus interest in snowflakes and Saturn’s rings. I don’t mean to be derisive here: medals and titles are only unreal to cats. Remember, dogs make them real by believing they are real. They lend substance to the ephemeral through belief.

Cat-people, incidentally, can develop a pragmatic understanding of the value of dog-society things even if deep down they are puzzled by them. You can get that degree and title while being ironic about it. Of course, if you never break out and go cat-like at some point, you will be a de facto dog (check out the hilarious Onion piece a commenter on this blog pointed out a while back: Why can’t anyone tell I am wearing this suit ironically?).

But let’s get to the most interesting thing about cats, an observation that led to the title of this article. My copy of the The Encyclopedia of the Cat says:

It is not entirely frivolous to suggest that whereas pet dogs tend to regard themselves as humans and part of the human pack, the owner being the pack leader, cats regard the humans in the household as other cats. In many ways they behave towards people as they would towards other kittens in the nest, ‘grooming’ them, snuggling up with them, and communicating with them in the ways that they would use with other cats.

There is in fact an evolutionary theory that while humans deliberately domesticated wild dogs, cats self-domesticated by figuring out that hanging around humans led to safety and plenty.

I want to point out one implication of these two observations: cats aren’t unsociable. They just use lazy mental models for the species-society they find themselves in: projecting themselves onto every other being they relate to, rather than obsessing over distinctions. They only devote as much brain power to social thinking as is necessary to get what they want. The rest of their attention is free to look, with characteristic curiosity, at the rest of the universe.

To summarize, dog identities are largely socially constructed, in-species (actual or adopted, which is why the reverse-pet “raised by wolves” sort of story makes sense). Cat identities are universe-constructed. Which brings us to a quote from Kant (I think).

Personal History, Identity and Perception

It was Kant, I believe, who said, we see not what is, but who we are. We don’t start out this way, but as our world-views form by accretion, each new layer is constructed out of new perceptions filtered and distorted by existing layers. As we mature, we get to the state Kant describes, where identity overwhelms perception altogether, and everything we see reinforces the inertia of who we are, sometimes leading to complete philosophical blindness. Neither cats, nor dogs can resist this inevitability, this brain-entropy, but our personalities drive us to seek different kinds of perceptions to fuel our identity-construction.

Dogs, and dog-like people end up with socially-constructed, largely extrinsic identities because that’s what they pay attention to as they mature: other individuals. People to be like, people to avoid being like. It is at once a homogenizing and stratifying kind of focus; it creates out of self-fulfilling beliefs an identity mountain capped by Ken and Barbie dolls, with foothills populated by hopeless, upward-gazing peripheral Others, who must either continue the climb or mutiny.

Cats and cat-like people though, simply aren’t autocentric/species-centeric (anthropomorphic, canino-morphic and felino-morphic). Wherever they are on the identity mountain believed into existence by dogs, they are looking outwards, not at the mountain itself. They are driven to look at everything from quarks to black holes. In this broad engagement of reality, there isn’t a whole lot of room for detailed mental models of just one species. In fact, the ideal cat uses exactly one space-saving mental (and, to dogs, “wrong”) model: everyone is basically kinda like me. Appropriate, considering we are one species on one insignificant speck of dust circling an average star in a humdrum galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, remember, has a two-word entry for Earth: Mostly Harmless. This indiscriminate, non-autocentric curiosity is dangerous though: curiosity does kill the cat. Often, it is dogs that do the killing. We may be mostly harmless to Vogons and Zaphod Beeblebrox, but not to ourselves.

Paradoxically, this leads cat-people, through the Kantian dynamic, to develop identities with vastly more diversity than dog-people. It is quite logical though: random-sampling a broader universe of available perceptions must inevitably lead to path-dependent divergence, while imitative-selective-sampling of a subset of the universe must lead to some convergence. By looking inward at species-level interpersonal differences, dog-people become more alike. By caricaturing themselves and everybody else to indistinguishable stick-figure levels, cats become more individualized and unique. The more self-aware among the cats realize that who I am and what I see are two aspects of the same reality: the sum total of their experiences. Their identities are at once intrinsic and universal.

That’s why the title of the article is Seeing Like a Cat. We see not what is, but who we are. Cats become unique by feeding on a unique history of perceptions. And that makes their perspectives unique. To see the world like a cat is to see it from a unique angle. Equally, it is the inability to see it from the collective perspective of dogs.

If you are a lucky cat, your unique cat perspective has value in dog society. That brings us to Darwin.

Dogs, Cats and Darwin

To intellectualize something as colloquial as the cat-dog discourse might seem like a pointless exercise to some. And yes, as the hilariously mischievous parody of solemn analysis, Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics demonstrates, it is easy to get carried away.

Yet I think there is something here as fundamental as the fox/hedgehog argument. As I said when I started, we have both cat-like and dog-like tendencies within us, and the two are not compatible. Both sorts of personalities are necessary for the world to function, but you can really only be like one or the other, and the course is set in childhood, long before we are mature enough to consciously choose.

Where does this dichotomy come from though? Darwin, I think.

When we think in Darwinist terms, we usually pay the most attention to the natural selection and survival of the fittest bits, which dog-belief societies replicate as artificial selection and social competition. But there’s the other side of Darwin: variation. It is variation and natural selection. Variation is the effect of being influenced by randomness. Without it, there is no selection.

Cats create the variation, and mostly die for their efforts. The successful (mostly by accident) cats spawn dog societies. That’s why, at the very top of the identity pyramids constructed by dog-beliefs, even above the prototypical Barbie/Ken abstractions, you will find cats. Cats who didn’t climb the mountain, but under whom the mountain grew. Those unsociable messed-up-perspective neurotics who are as puzzled by their position as the dogs who actually want it.

Source - Ribbonfarm

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Medical Ethics - Johnson & Johnson

Drug maker Johnson & Johnson paid tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks to nursing home pharmacies in order to boost the sale of its drugs, says a Justice Department lawsuit.

The payments were often disguised as grants or "educational funding," says the lawsuit, and they were directed to Omnicare, a prominent nursing home pharmacy company.

The elaborate kickback scheme caused sales of Johnson & Johnson drugs to skyrocket. Sales of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, for example, helped J&J drug purchases from Omnicare nearly triple from $100 million to $280 million a year.

An email released by the Justice Department shows an Omnicare executive writing:


Omnicare is already steeped in other accusations of fraud. The company agreed to pay the U.S. government $98 million in a settlement reached a few months ago (while admitting no guilt, of course).

Drugging the seniors

Today's nursing home patients are often treated much like prisoners, mentally shackled with chemical restraints known as pharmaceuticals. The mass-drugging of senior citizens in nursing homes has now reached criminal proportions. Rather than actually treating patients in ways that make them healthy, nursing home staff in some facilities have discovered it's much easier to just drug patients into a zombie-like state where they don't ask questions or cause trouble.

Johnson & Johnson medications are used as part of this "chemical restraint" recipe, which is actually a form of chemical abuse of senior citizens. J&J and Omnicare, of course, are far more concerned with selling medications than actually improving the quality of life for nursing home patients, so the more drugs are sold and consumed, the more "success" these companies think they have.

But what's the cost in human lives? What is the real human impact of drugging our senior citizens to the point where they're barely human?

Companies like Johnson & Johnson only seem to care about their own profits. They appear to have no compassion whatsoever for the lives of the people impacted by their patented chemical pharmaceuticals. They also appear to have no respect for the law: Bribing Omnicare with kickbacks, if proven by the Justice Department, is a felony crime.

But as usually happens in these cases, Johnson & Johnson will probably get off with a slap on the wrist: An affordable fine and a bit of bad press. Then, like most other pharmaceutical companies, they'll likely go right back to violating the law in order to sell more high-profit medications. Why? Because it works.

Pharmaceutical companies rarely face any real consequences for their crimes, even when they're caught red-handed. It's a curious thing, really. In any other industry, companies engaged in such blatant fraud would be shut down, their CEOs arrested and prosecuted in federal court. But when it comes to Big Pharma, all they have to do is pay a small fine, after which they're free to continue committing crimes.

It's nice to see the Justice Department finally going after these corporate crooks. Just last year, Pfizer was hit with a record $1 billion settlement with the Justice Department for engaging in fraudulent drug advertising.

It was a rare victory, however. Most of the time, drug companies get away with their crimes and face no real consequences for bribery, corruption, marketing fraud, scientific fraud, intimidation of scientists or elaborate financial kickback schemes that put extra dollars into the hands of doctors or pharmacies that push their drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry, in case you haven't noticed, is a criminal world where those who commit the boldest and most egregious crimes generate the highest profits. The risk of getting caught is so low -- and the financial rewards for committing crimes are so great -- that drug companies fully realize it pays to break the law.

That's why they'll keep breaking the law until something changes. As I've said before, I think it's time the Justice Department marched into the offices of these drug companies with pistols drawn and arrested the top CEOs for their crimes against humanity. Only by showing these drug companies that their executives are going to be prosecuted for their crimes can we hope to put an end to the criminal activities that have now become routine across the pharmaceutical industry.

Source - Natural News

Saturday, January 09, 2010


China ~ Enron

James S. Chanos built one of the largest fortunes on Wall Street by foreseeing the collapse of Enron and other highflying companies whose stories were too good to be true.

Now Mr. Chanos, a wealthy hedge fund investor, is working to bust the myth of the biggest conglomerate of all: China Inc.

As most of the world bets on China to help lift the global economy out of recession, Mr. Chanos is warning that China’s hyperstimulated economy is headed for a crash, rather than the sustained boom that most economists predict. Its surging real estate sector, buoyed by a flood of speculative capital, looks like “Dubai times 1,000 — or worse,” he frets. He even suspects that Beijing is cooking its books, faking, among other things, its eye-popping growth rates of more than 8 percent.

“Bubbles are best identified by credit excesses, not valuation excesses,” he said in a recent appearance on CNBC. “And there’s no bigger credit excess than in China.” He is planning a speech later this month at the University of Oxford to drive home his point.

As America’s pre-eminent short-seller — he bets big money that companies’ strategies will fail — Mr. Chanos’s narrative runs counter to the prevailing wisdom on China. Most economists and governments expect Chinese growth momentum to continue this year, buoyed by what remains of a $586 billion government stimulus program that began last year, meant to lift exports and consumption among Chinese consumers.

Still, betting against China will not be easy. Because foreigners are restricted from investing in stocks listed inside China, Mr. Chanos has said he is searching for other ways to make his bets, including focusing on construction- and infrastructure-related companies that sell cement, coal, steel and iron ore.

Mr. Chanos, 51, whose hedge fund, Kynikos Associates, based in New York, has $6 billion under management, is hardly the only skeptic on China. But he is certainly the most prominent and vocal.

For all his record of prescience — in addition to predicting Enron’s demise, he also spotted the looming problems of Tyco International, the Boston Market restaurant chain and, more recently, home builders and some of the world’s biggest banks — his detractors say that he knows little or nothing about China or its economy and that his bearish calls should be ignored.

“I find it interesting that people who couldn’t spell China 10 years ago are now experts on China,” said Jim Rogers, who co-founded the Quantum Fund with George Soros and now lives in Singapore. “China is not in a bubble.”

Colleagues acknowledge that Mr. Chanos began studying China’s economy in earnest only last summer and sent out e-mail messages seeking expert opinion.

But he is tagging along with the bears, who see mounting evidence that China’s stimulus package and aggressive bank lending are creating artificial demand, raising the risk of a wave of nonperforming loans.

“In China, he seems to see the excesses, to the third and fourth power, that he’s been tilting against all these decades,” said Jim Grant, a longtime friend and the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, who is also bearish on China. “He homes in on the excesses of the markets and profits from them. That’s been his stock and trade.”

Mr. Chanos declined to be interviewed, citing his continuing research on China. But he has already been spreading the view that the China miracle is blinding investors to the risk that the country is producing far too much.

“The Chinese,” he warned in an interview in November with, “are in danger of producing huge quantities of goods and products that they will be unable to sell.”

In December, he appeared on CNBC to discuss how he had already begun taking short positions, hoping to profit from a China collapse.

In recent months, a growing number of analysts, and some Chinese officials, have also warned that asset bubbles might emerge in China.

The nation’s huge stimulus program and record bank lending, estimated to have doubled last year from 2008, pumped billions of dollars into the economy, reigniting growth.

But many analysts now say that money, along with huge foreign inflows of “speculative capital,” has been funneled into the stock and real estate markets.

A result, they say, has been soaring prices and a resumption of the building boom that was under way in early 2008 — one that Mr. Chanos and others have called wasteful and overdone.

“It’s going to be a bust,” said Gordon G. Chang, whose book, “The Coming Collapse of China” (Random House), warned in 2001 of such a crash.

Friends and colleagues say Mr. Chanos is comfortable betting against the crowd — even if that crowd includes the likes of Warren E. Buffett and Wilbur L. Ross Jr., two other towering figures of the investment world.

A contrarian by nature, Mr. Chanos researches companies, pores over public filings to sift out clues to fraud and deceptive accounting, and then decides whether a stock is overvalued and ready for a fall. He has a staff of 26 in the firm’s offices in New York and London, searching for other China-related information.

“His record is impressive,” said Byron R. Wien, vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Services. “He’s no fly-by-night charlatan. And I’m bullish on China.”

Mr. Chanos grew up in Milwaukee, one of three sons born to the owners of a chain of dry cleaners. At Yale, he was a pre-med student before switching to economics because of what he described as a passionate interest in the way markets operate.

His guiding philosophy was discovered in a book called “The Contrarian Investor,” according to an account of his life in “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” a book that chronicled Enron’s rise and downfall.

After college, he went to Wall Street, where he worked at a series of brokerage houses before starting his own firm in 1985, out of what he later said was frustration with the way Wall Street brokers promoted stocks.

At Kynikos Associates, he created a firm focused on betting on falling stock prices. His theories are summed up in testimony he gave to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in 2002, after the Enron debacle. His firm, he said, looks for companies that appear to have overstated earnings, like Enron; were victims of a flawed business plan, like many Internet firms; or have been engaged in “outright fraud.”

That short-sellers are held in low regard by some on Wall Street, as well as Main Street, has long troubled him.

Short-sellers were blamed for intensifying market sell-offs in the fall 2008, before the practice was temporarily banned. Regulators are now trying to decide whether to restrict the practice.

Mr. Chanos often responds to critics of short-selling by pointing to the critical role they played in identifying problems at Enron, Boston Market and other “financial disasters” over the years.

“They are often the ones wearing the white hats when it comes to looking for and identifying the bad guys,” he has said.

Source - New York Times